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Sewing Tips: Practicing your Sewing Stitches (including the back-stitch)

Ooooh, okay, so many more of you told me that you received a new sewing machine for Christmas.

Or a serger.  Or some new sewing supplies.

Yay!!  Now, it’s time to practice.

Many of you are very new to this crazy sewing thing so let me give you a really quick pep talk.

Okay.  You are not going to be super good at this your first time.  (Well, maybe you will be.  And if so, you should sign up for Project Runway!!)  So, sew your little heart out and try a few things.  Be happy with what you make and give yourself some credit for that first project.  Sewing does take practice but it also doesn’t take years and years of sewing to get good at it.  Also, don’t feel tied down to rules.  If something works for you, go for it.  Especially if you figure out a shortcut…..go for it!  And if someone tells you that everyone’s first project should be a pillowcase and you hate the idea of making a boring ‘ol pillow case, don’t make one.  Make a case for your iPad or make a pillow for your couch.  Do something fun!  Oh, and if someone tells you what a good job you’re doing, say “thank you”.  Not, “but, did you see my crooked lines or the bunchy bobbin threads on the back?!”.  Nope, none of that hoopla.  Only positive talk, got it?  :)

One more thing, if you think something is too hard to try, then yep, it’ll always be too hard to try.  But why not just give it a try?  Use some cheap fabric and just give it a go.  I cannot tell you how many times I sit at my sewing machine and grin from ear to ear as I look at something that actually worked.  I always hop up from  my seat and go show somebody (usually that dear husband of mine) and say, “look, can you believe this actually worked out?”. 

It surprises me.  Every. Time.

Okay, enough pep-talking.  Now for a few sewing practice tips.

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I know this first tip is so lame and you already know it……but practice.

You may not be perfect your first time revving up your machine……but you will get better, I promise.  And if you don’t want to practice on an actual project, grab some scrap fabric and start using your machine.

Okay, first real lesson: the Back-Stitch

A back-stitch is how you secure the beginning and end of your stitch.  (Or, you can tie both ends of your thread into a square knot with your hands…..but a back-stitch on your sewing machine is MUCH easier.)  To begin, put your needle down in to your fabric where you want to being your line of stitches.  (Generally, there is a wheel on the right side of your machine.  Turn it towards you until the needle goes down into your machine.)  Then put your presser foot down (that flat metal thing that pushes down on the fabric).

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Now, sew a few stitches forward, stop, push your back-stitch button (it will be some sort of knob/button/lever) and hold it down and then start sewing again.  The needle should start sewing backwards now.  Stop when you get back to the beginning of your line of stitches.  (I lifted up my presser foot just to take the picture but it should be down while sewing.)


Now, continue sewing right over that row of stitches and continue on the path that you were wanting to sew.  When you reach the end of your row of stitching, push your back-stitch button/lever/knob and sew backwards a few stitches, resume to forward stitching and return to the end of the row of stitches that you made.


Why Back-Stitch????  Well, this will knot your threads in place.  There’s no need to tie anything in knots now and your seams will not unravel.  Yay.

Next up?  Sewing STRAIGHT Lines.

Sometimes you may find that you are a bit unsteady and your lines aren’t straight enough.  Well, it’s time to practice.  I think the best way is to try and sew on top of some lines while still a beginner.  So, draw some lines with a pencil and ruler and then just sew right on top of the lines.  Try to keep right on top of the lines and keep your lines really steady.  Then practice speeding up and slowing down and see if you can stay on your lines.

sew a straight line

And since you know how to back-stitch now, practice using your back-stitch at the beginning and end of each seam.

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And if you don’t want to draw lines and you have some striped fabric, use the stripes as a guide to sew your straight lines.

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straight stitches

Sewing Around Curves and Corners

After you get nice and comfortable with those straight lines, sew around random shapes on your fabric, or draw some on your fabric.  WIth curves, you can’t sew as fast……so ease up on that foot pedal.  And as you sew, you may have to lift up your presser foot, readjust your fabric, and then continue on.  When I sewed that cloud looking shape, I only sewed 2-3 stitches and then readjusted my fabric and then sewed 2-3 more………all around those curves.  So, take your time!

sewing shapes

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And let’s have one more quick pep-talk…….it’s okay if your lines are squiggly and you can’t quite keep your needle right on the line.  You’re just practicing.  And you’ll get better.  Promise.  (And even after you’re done practicing and you sew your first project, and it looks squiggly, promise me you’ll cherish those imperfect lines and just be so pleased with yourself for making your first sewn item.  And email me, I’ll congratulate you!!!!!)

crooked lines

The Zig-Zag Stitch

Now, take a look at your machine and see what other things it can do. Most likely, you will find a zig-zag stitch.  It’ll probably show an image of just that, a zig-zag line.  I talk a little bit more about the zig-zag stitch and how adjusting the stitch width and the stitch length will change the look of your zig-zag, here.  So check that out too!

But here, I just changed the stitch width………see how different each row of zig-zags look?  Practice them.  And change your settings a bit.  You’ll see how cool it is to make nice and uniform little zig-zag stitches.

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And there are many uses for the zig-zag stitch but one of the most common is zig-zagging a raw edge (so that it won’t unravel).  Generally, I will either zig-zag right on the edge (shown on the left) and the fabric will automatically just fold up under the stitching………or I will zig-zag a little bit away from the edge and then trim off that extra fabric right up next to the zig-zags.

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Now practice sewing zig-zags along your edge of fabric.

Extra Stitches on Your Machine

Okay, now every machine is different and has different bells and whistles.  The machine I have has hundreds of different fancy stitches.  I have to plug in the number that I want it to do and then it sews that stitch over and over while the foot pedal is down.  Pretty cool.  (But honestly, I don’t use random stitches very often so don’t worry if your machine doesn’t have fancy stitches.)  So even if you have a really simple machine, take a look and see what it does have.  And then practice them.  And then adjust the stitch length and the stitch width.  And then sew it along a curve, etc.

other stitches

Now, one last thing: Sewing 2 Pieces of Fabric Together.

Grab two little scraps and line up two edges that you want to sew together.  (Most often when sewing, you place 2 pieces together with the “right” sides of the fabric together.  This is because when you open it up, the raw edges are on the back.)  Start at one end and put your needle down in the fabric.

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Then line up the right edges up with one of the markers on your machine.  This is called your “seam allowance”.  The line that I’m following on the right (where the arrow is pointing, is 5/8 of an inch from the needle.  So when a pattern tells me to use a 5/8″ seam allowance, I make sure my edges stay right along that line as I sew.

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Take your time and use your hands as a guide.  Your machine will pull your fabric on its own so you don’t want to tug.  Just use your hands as a guide to keep the fabric straight, following the line over to the right if needs be.

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Then, if you open those two pieces up that you just sewed together, you will see a nice clean line where the two pieces of fabric were joined.

sew fabric

And that’s enough for today.  Hopefully that will help you brand new sewists who are trying to get used to your machine.  (Or those of you who just need a bit more practice.)

Now, rev up that machine and sew your little heart out.  And then feel happy with what you’ve done.

And then challenge yourself and make something that you never thought you would even attempt.

Good luck!

Thanks for checking out my Sewing Tips: Practicing your Sewing Stitches (including the back-stitch) post. Check out my full collection of DIY Sewing articles. Find even more sewing projects, patterns, and tips for beginners and advanced sewists by Liz Call, Mariah Leeson, Randi Dukes and Tauni Everett.


  1. Kendra L says:

    Thanks!! I got a sewing machine for Christmas and I’m STOKED to use it! I was pleasantly surprised to read this post and already know everything you wrote….so that makes me feel pretty confident that I’m not AS “beginner” as i thought! :)

  2. Anna says:

    I still have my ancient Singer machine with just the basics, but it does the job. The only thing I wish I knew how to do is to sew on quilt binding on the machine. I tried it recently on my first quilt and it looked so bad I had to tear it all up and redo it by hand…which was definitely not fun. I know there has to be a trick or something to make it easier, but I’ve yet to figure it out.

  3. Megan says:

    Great tutorial! I received a fancy machine for Christmas, which seemed a bit much for my novice experience and first sewing machine. I’m really enjoying it, now that I’ve conquered getting thread on the bobbin and straight lines without bird nesting the bobbin. I’m learning from my mistakes and have a better understanding of how my machine works because of those mistakes. Staying positive really is the key to success! Thanks for the words of encouragement!

  4. Jenn says:

    This is too perfect! My mom gave me her 4H book, and I can’t help but laugh at some of the stuff they say is important, like making sure your nails are always clipped and rounded. It also says to practice on paper and gives the same sorts of lines to practice with as you did above. Thanks again… can’t wait to get started on that bad boy!

  5. vicki says:

    Just got a sewing machine a couple days ago!! I’ve had one in the past ( like 13 yrs ago!!!) but this is great for getting re started. I hated my last machine because it was sooo hard to thread so hopefully this one is much simplier. I’m going to bookmark this because I will probably need all your help!!

  6. DMC says:

    I love these back to basic tutorials. Could you (or have you) do one on needles? How to pick the right one? Types for different fabrics? Also a basics about thread? Maybe it’s not as complex as it seems, but these basics seem to be missing from a lot of places, and your instructions are so understandable.

  7. Michele N says:

    Thank you Ashley for reminding us that our lines don’t have to be perfectly straight. I’ve had a sewing machine of one sort or another for the last 16 years, all were handed down or bought used until almost 2 years ago when we broke down & I got a brand new sewing/embroidery machine. I must say I love it, I still don’t sew the straightest lines, one of things I like is that I don’t have to use the foot pedal, I have a button that will start & stop sewing the stitches. 3 years ago I got my grandmothers 1942 Singer which I still have never used because I don’t know how to. The shop that I had service it & that I bought my other machine from will show me how to use it, I just haven’t had the time. This summer we bought my 11 year old daughter an older dressmaker machine, the thing is heavy & appears to be indestructible. A friend of mine tried to help teach her to sew a couple of weeks ago. She made a Barbie pillow & was so excited. Especially with that machine I think practicing on the lines will be a great help to her. As people mentioned it, I now remember sewing on the paper in high school too. We might try that also. She now wants to make herself a tote bag. I don’t think she’s ready for that yet. Keep the hints & simple tutorials coming!

  8. Jennifer says:

    I have been sewing for a year now, but this is a great refresher! I never even thought about trying those fancy stitches on my machine! I am going to go try it now. hehe :0)

  9. kelly says:

    my daughter just got her 1st machine-what a perfect place to start!!!

  10. Amy K. says:

    What a great pep talk!!! I am a fairly experienced sewist (sounds pretentious, but better than sewer!), but this post reminded me of that great feeling the first time something turns out how you pictured it, and also made me giddy for all the new sewists out there! =)

  11. Andrea says:

    Thank you! I got a sewing machine for Christmas but know nothing about sewing. This gives me a few tips on how to start out.

  12. Katie says:

    Thank you SO much for this post! I took Home Ec in jr. high but promptly forgot everything I learned in that class. My husband told me I could get a sewing machine if I wanted, but I’ve been too intimidated because every time I sit down at my mom’s machine to try something (not many) I get frustrated and give up. I’m so glad I found your blog through Pinterest, I’ll be coming back when I get my machine for sure!

  13. Office Girl says:

    I just found your blog from She’s Crafty blog. I have been contemplating learning to sew but have been a little reluctant. This pep talk was just what I needed to gather my courage and just have fun and do it! I can’t wait!

  14. Ms Kate says:

    Oh I’ve been sewing for a while now, but hadn’t thought of just zigzagging the ends like that! I normally fold over, and then sew, but I might try that next time!

  15. Catrina says:

    On your next tutorial, would you mind talking about how to properly cut fabric? I’ve made several little projects, but I never get my fabric cut straight and then the seam allowance doesn’t quite work if the fabric is crooked to begin with!! The whole bias, selvage, etc. thing doesn’t make sense to me, either! Thanks!! Your tutorials are fabulous, by the way!!

    1. Michele N says:

      Check the archives. Ashley had a great post in the past few months about selvage, bias etc that made it really easy!

    2. Catrina says:

      I will! Thank you!

  16. kristin @ petal and thorn says:

    thanks so much for this! you totally read my mind- i’m way insecure about my wiggly lines and threads hanging out all over the place. but you’re right, the sense of accomplishment i got from sewing that wonky stocking was intense :)

  17. KathyH says:

    Excellent! I got a new machine, too, and this will be very handy! Thanks so much!

  18. Vickie says:

    Thanks for the pep talk it has me wanting to pull out the machine and give it another try. I have a small machine a New Home it has nothing fancy on it and is just a plain simple machine. Well I say simple BUT it’s not so simple for me. lol We bought this machine for our daughter 7 or 8 years ago because she just had to have one for her birthday because her friend had gotten one for hers. I didn’t sew and never had so we thought if she was wanting to learn to do this GREAT. That lasted maybe a month! I have tried off and on to teach myself and have made a few different projects but the machine will act up or I will make a huge mistake and the machine gets put up. I have made some rice pads and my most achieved project was a cover for the machine. I couldn’t believe I actually did it. Hmmmm… that was the last thing that turned out right and I got frustrated and put the machine away. If you go here you can see a picture of it. Anyway now that you have given me inspiration I think I will get that machine out and give it another shot. Please keep giving sewing tips every so often.

  19. J says:

    This is soooo helpful. I’m waiting for my new machine to come in the mail. I can’t wait to start practicing, thanks for the motivation.

  20. Cerise says:

    I wish I had, had a tutorial like this when I was first starting. Looks great and super easy!

  21. Kiersten says:

    I know this sounds a little too basic, but don’t forget to lower the presser foot. I was trying to walk my very non-sewer sister through a project and didn’t even think to tell her to lower the presser foot. She didn’t do it and got all flustered and may never see again!

  22. Sharon Thomas says:

    I just sent this link to my 11 year old granddaughter. I gave her a sewing machine last summer. I think your hints and how-to’s will help her immensely.

  23. Maria says:

    Thank you so much for this! My mom found me a $10 sewing machine at a tag sale (circa 1965 or something like that) but old Bessie is doing well…and I’m learning!!

    EVERY tip helps too – so these were great!!

  24. Audrey says:

    Great tips, and I would like to add that like anything new you want to learn, it doesn’t hurt to take a class from your local sewing/quilt shop. And if you bought your machine from a dealer, take the classes they offer. I cannot stress that enough! One thing about classes is they teach you a lot and also motivate you to finish your project. Make sure your machine is in good working order (if you have had it for a while, get it serviced) and put a NEW needle in it!! LOL. Good luck to all the new sewers, you will not regret learning to sew.

  25. MariaC says:

    What a great tutorial, everyone has to start somewhere, I’ve been sewing since I was about 6 yrs old but can still learn a thing or two from your tutorials I get all excited when I see that you have a new blog post :). Today I will be attempting your drawstring bags,my littlies can use some storage containers!! Happy New Year!!

  26. Natalie says:

    Thank you so much for this. I love your site and hope to be up to beginners status soon. I just got my first sewing machine and am not really sure where to start. All the project tutorials I see seem to be for people much more advanced then me.

  27. Sarah K. says:

    I love your pep talk! I’ve been sewing for a few years, but I’m a dabbler, and I’ve only taken on more challenging (to me) projects in the past year or two because of fabulous tutorials like yours that make sewing so much more approachable. I need to practice the special stitches on my machine, and I need to learn to sew a curvy shape (on purpose)!

  28. eliza joy says:

    Thanks so much for this tutorial. I just received a sewing machine for Christmas and it is still sitting on the counter in my craft room because I just didn’t know where to start. As soon as the kiddos are in bed tonight, I’m going to begin!

  29. HW says:

    When I first started sewing as a kid, I sewed without any thread in the machine and sewed on a piece of paper to practice different designs. You can see the holes where the needle to to see if you’re going where you want to or not. I used photocopies out of a sewing book for kids, but you could draw designs on paper or even use a coloring book page. It’s a cheap easy way to practice and if you mess up real bad, just recycle!

  30. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the pep talk! We are always our worst critic…paying too much attention to the little “mistakes” instead of taking in the whole finished product and knowing that you did a good job. If you think something is too hard…break it down piece by piece…my first quilt project was a twin size quilt…started with just doing one block at a time and eventually I had 72. By that point, sewing some sashing and borders didn’t seem so hard either. That was 9 years ago, and it’s still on my son’s bed.

  31. Lisa says:

    Thanks! I needed that. I have a little sewing machine that I think only does straight lines. I figured I would start off with a small machine that was inexpensive to see how it goes. I’m going to be working on some pillows for the couch.

  32. Sarah Lou says:

    This is great, i will be forwarding this on to a few newbie sewers i know. One tip that helped me greatly was Not to watch the needle – keep my eyes on guiding the fabric – i was much straighter after that.

  33. Jess Z says:

    I want to thank you for this post! My husband bought me a sewing machine a few months ago and I have made a few things, but feel so frustrated with my final product because it’s not “perfect”. I self taught myself to use it with the manual and video it came with it. I’ve made a few things here and there over the past few months, but this helped! I knew there was an easier way to secure the beginning of a stitch! :)

  34. Amy says:

    I remember sewing straight lines and curvy lines in home ec on paper the teacher had shapes printed out on. a good way to save on material or if you don’t have scraps. I don’t evern think we used thread! hope all those begginer sewers are having fun! sewing can be so rewarding :)

    1. Edie says:

      I have seen this suggested on a quilting forum as well. A great way for anyone to practice their stitches without using up the thread and fabric. (use an old needle so you don’t dull the good one)

  35. Edie says:

    great post thank you. my challenge to myself is an attic window quilt make from a panel. I am nervous about cutting up the panel, as it is very pretty, but excited about the attic window. I just hope I can do it correctly.
    Do you have any tips or how-tos for attic window quilts?

  36. Laura says:

    I will definitely be using these techniques as I teach my children to sew (and they are great practice for me as well, as I never really mastered curves when I was learning in my youth).

  37. Zerique says:

    great tutorial!!! i got my sewing machine for christmas last year and I absolutely would have loved loved loved this – so those with the new machine this year are probably ecstatic about this post!!! you are awesome!!!

  38. Anonymous says:

    My daughter, who just turned 9, has asked me to teach her to sew. It’s been so long since I learned I didn’t know where to start. I’m going to follow your steps for her. She’ll be sewing in no time. Thanks!

  39. Jennifer says:

    Great post! Even though i got my sewing machine almost 5 years ago, I am only now starting to sew, and got a serger for Christmas.I did some pajama pants for Christmas and the first one kicked my butt! But taking my time and finishing the other two helped me feel so accomplished!

  40. Sarah says:

    Thank you!! I just got a machine for Christmas. Now I’m going to grab some scraps and practice!! I can’t wait to see more tips and projects!

  41. Melissa says:

    Thank you so much – you have no idea how much I needed this today! I got a machine for Christmas and I just began practicing stitches yesterday. My first project is making an t-shirt with applique numbers on back (like a jersey). This tutorial was exactly the pep I needed!

  42. Sarah says:

    I am so excited to bust out my new machine this weekend! My grandmother tried to get me into sewing when I was young, but I got so frustrated, I lost interest quickly. Now that I’m a grown woman with 2 kids, I now see the value in such an art. I think if I’d have had this sort of easy step by step as a kid, I’d have been better off. Thanks so much!

  43. CaroleM says:

    Great pep talk! One thing that has helped me a lot is that I received a lot of free scrap fabric through things like Freecycle in my area. You are less worried about messing up good fabric when you have scrap fabric, you probably would never use otherwise, perfect for practicing on.

  44. Christy says:

    Thank you so much for this. I got a sewing machine last year for Christmas and am currently taking a sewing class to try to learn how to use my machine better and just feel more confident making more projects. Lately, I have felt very discouraged because I don’t understand everything in my class. The way you explain things is so easy and well laid-out it just makes sense to me!! Thank you!! I am excited about sewing and want to learn more. I know you are one busy little lady but I would love if you kept these sewing tutorials up and gave us ideas of beginner projects to try.
    MANY MANY THANKS!! Happy New Year!!

  45. Sheila Laurence says:

    What a nice post! I’m not new to sewing, but this is so timely for those who did get new machines or have a new year’s resolution to learn to sew!

  46. Jennifer says:

    This is so helpful! I get so frustrated with my machine when really it’s my lack of experience that’s the problem. I’ll slow down and work on the basics. Thank you!

  47. Erin says:

    That is a great post. I am happy to say that although I started sewing a little more than a year ago, your blog and its slow, clear tutorials have helped me advance quite a lot. I also think that when you’re practicing your stitches, it helps to do what you did in the photos–thread your machine with a thread that contrasts with the fabric you’re practicing on. That way, you can see how your stitches change and exactly what’s going on. Looking at the back of the fabric after I stitch helps, too. It’s hard not to want to race through your first projects, but I find that just sitting and thinking about the end product and visualizing what the sewing machine is doing helps a lot when I need to troubleshoot. And–reading your manual! I refer to mine all the time…so glad to have it.

  48. Anna@DirectionsNotIncluded says:

    Thank you for this! This is a great tutorial and one I will put to good use!

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