How To Finish Seams With A Sewing Machine

by Destri on September 2, 2011

When I was putting together the Sewing Tips Directory, I was looking for one article in particular when it came to seams – how to finish them with a regular sewing machine.  Or in other words, how those of us without a serger can easily achieve clean and professional seams.  I used to feel self conscious about my seams, especially in garments, because most will tell you that to get a “handmade not homemade” look, you should use a serger.  They’re right, clean seams that are finished to protect the fabric from fraying does give the seam a professional look.  But you don’t need a serger to accomplish a finished clean seam.

Now I am by no means trying to talk you out of a serger, I would love one!  I just don’t have the space, and I can think of some other things I would rather ask for Christmas.  So I found I can make do with what I have, and still end up with a great looking handmade item.  I did find one article that mentioned seams finished with a sewing machine on .  The author explains how high end clothing (made by fashion designers) normally has seams finished with a sewing machine rather than a serger…so see, you don’t need to feel bad about not having a serger.

I have all the details and a bunch of pictures after the jump…

Finishing Seams With A Zigzag Stitch On A Sewing Machine

Finishing a seam with a sewing machine is no different from finishing a seam with a serger as far as following a pattern is concerned. When the pattern says to finish the seam, you finish the seam.  The difference is that a serger cuts while it finishes the seam, creating a clean seam with no fray.  So basically, you need to manually clean that edge up, then zigzag.  Don’t let that scare you!  I have found in most cases I can just cut out the pattern, sew, then zigzag.  It is a rare occasion that I have to actually trim the fabric to finish the seam.

I will give you a couple examples:

Usually when you are sewing and finishing seams, you are working on fabric that has just been cut, with fresh clean edges.  In this case I normally go right to sewing.  But if you have some edges you are sewing that need to be cleaned up, do that first.

So today I am making a long strip that I want to later press in half to gather to make a long ruffle strip.  To do that, I am going to sew two ends together that are not clean.  I first lay them right sides together just as I would sew them.

Then I just trim the edges and take it to the sewing machine.  I trim first so that after I am done sewing I don’t have to get up to trim.

I can just sew my regular stitch as usual and I am left with a clean seam.

After I have sewn a section, I just switch my stitch over to a zigzag (I usually use my G setting)…

And finish the seam by lining up the fabric so that the needle falls just on the outside edge of the fabric like shown in the picture.  Make sure to back stitch, and then just press the seam to one side as instructed in the pattern you are using.

See, you are left with a nice clean seam that washes up great.  I have one little straggler, but I don’t let that bug me :).

Easy, right?!

  1. Start with a clean edge
  2. Sew as usual
  3. Then switch to zigzag and finish it off


The only thing you want to keep in mind is seam allowance.  If you cut first, make sure to compensate when sewing with a smaller seam allowance.  If that scares you, sew first and then trim.  That is basically what happens when you serge a seam.

Now let’s say you are gathering fabric to make a ruffle.  That tends to make a bit of fray, no?  No problem.

After you have gathered the ruffle to where you want it, just lay it out flat on a cutting surface, then lay a cutting ruler over the top to only expose the strings.

Then cut them off with a rotary cutter or shears.  At this point you can go ahead and pin the ruffle to the piece intended for…

Like in this image.

Then sew the ruffle on to the piece per instructions (this is not the zigzag step, you want that on the edge).

Then finish off the seam with a zigzag right along the edge.  I tend to go to a larger zigzag stitch when sewing the ruffles.  You can even gather, sew onto piece, and then trim if you want.  Or even wait till your finished to trim; the idea is to leave a clean seam.  I prefer to trim first and then zigzag to get a “clean stitch”.

Here is the Twirling Skirt I made with a lot of gathering, and this picture is after at least a dozen washes.  All seams are finished with a zigzag, and as you can see, no fray.

Here is the Fat Quarter Pillow Case Dress with multiple seams.  Again you can see it has washed up beautifully.

So you see – you can have great looking seams without a serger, just start with a clean edge.

As for time, I have worked with a serger as well, I have to say it’s about equal for me.  I would think it would depend on what your working on and your set up.  But in the end, it really takes no more time.

A few more tips:

  • If it is type of fabric you are not used to working with, do a test run on scraps.  This will help you determine what size of zigzag to use.
  • If your machine has an overlock stitch, try that in place of the zigzag.  Check your manual to see if your machine has that function.
  • Remember to keep seam allowance in mind if you are cutting first.

So tell me, do you have any tips for finishing seams with a sewing machine?  I hope you share, I would love to hear!



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