When I first started sewing garments it didn’t occur to me that I needed to do anything to the inside of my seams to keep them from fraying or to finish them nicely and neatly. As long as it fitted (more or less) and it was tidy enough on the outside I was thrilled, proud of my clever sewing and a more than a bit chuffed with myself.
The more I sewed, the more my skills developed, and my standards changed. Now I find myself to be quite a fussy sewer and I would never dream of leaving my seams unfinished.
Well, practically never. If the seams are enclosed within a lining and will never be exposed it isn’t always necessary to finish them (unless it’s to keep a very fray-prone fabric from unraveling out of sight and eventually undoing your seams.)
There are a few things I would urge a new sewer to pay special care to, and finishing your seams properly is definitely one of them. It will make your work look neat and professional both inside and out, and will, depending on the method you choose, reinforce and strengthen your seams.
The 5 seam finishes that I believe every new sewer should be aware of are set out below. With the exception of the Overlocked Seam which requires an overlocker, they are easy techniques which will immediately lift your sewing and make your finished garments look so much more impressive.
- Zigzag stitch
- Pinked Seam
- Bias Binding
- French Seams
- Overlocked Seams
Press Your Seams!
Before applying any of these techniques though, please, please, please PRESS YOUR SEAMS first. By properly pressing your seams you will set the stitches in place, the heat and steam from the iron will shrink the thread a tiny bit, tightening the seam, and you will have a much crisper and neater finish. To properly press a seam, first press the seam allowances to one direction, then to the other, then, depending on the pattern instructions, pres the seam open or to the specified side.
This was the first method I ever used, taught to me by my mother when I was sewing my very first A-line skirt. It isn’t really the sexiest of finishes, but it will keep your seam allowance from fraying and it’s quick, easy and works well on both curved and straight seams.
Simply stitch a zigzag close to the edge of your seam allowance, and you’re done. The zigzag stitching will keep the edge from fraying and finish your seam. It can look a little puckered if you get too far over the edge, but that’s only a problem if it bothers you.
- No special equipment is needed (apart from a sewing machine)
- Works on both straight and curved seams
- Fast and easy
- Not always the most attractive of finishes.
This finish requires a specialist piece of equipment, the pinking shears. Zigzag scissors for paper crafting will absolutely not work, they will just chew up your fabric, create a horrible mess and ruin your work. Don’t ask me how I know.
Instead, you will need to invest in a good pair of pinking shears for an effortless cut. Personally I prefer heavier shears – the growl the make as they grind through the fabric is glorious, but obviously you should choose the best tool for you. (Heavy scissors are not good for everybody).
You see this method used a lot in vintage clothing. The shears cut a 45° zigzag along the edge which cuts the fabric on its bias and keeps fray to a minimum.
It’s an easy principle to master, although cutting close to the edge and lining up the zigzags (if you’re fussy) can be a bit fiddly.
You can also get pinking blades for rotary cutters. I’ve never tried them but they look brilliant. If you have experience of them I’d love to hear what you think.
- Fast and easy
- Low tech
- Relatively cheap equipment (about £20 for a pair of shears which will last you forever)
- Works on straight and curved seams
- Can be a bit fiddly
- Doesn’t look as finished as some of the other methods
- Looks terrible where there are multiple or gathered layers, such as joining a gathered skirt to a waistband, or setting in sleeves.
This is hands-down my favourite finish. Yes, it’s definitely more time consuming but it looks just so, so beautiful and impressive. It really protects your seam allowance from fraying and gives you a garment that’s as beautiful inside as it is out. Especially if you use some of the lovely patterned bindings available, or make your own in a fabric to match or contrast with the garment.
One of the lovely things about a bias binding is that is follows a curve so effortlessly. Another is that you can buy (or make) it in different widths, which is useful if you have a chunky seam to bind, and it’s just so amazingly pretty.
But it does take time. If you’re binding an open seam you will sew 5 lines of stitching per seam – that will definitely slow you down. You can get binding feet for domestic sewing machines, I have one very close to the top of my wishlist – when I get one I will review it so you can see whether it’s something you would like for yourself.
Attaching a binding is pretty simple. If using ready-made binding, open it up and lay one edge along the fabric edge to be bound. Some bindings have one fold wider than the other, if this is the case lay the narrower fold along the edge of the fabric first, this will give you plenty of overlap at the next step. Sew the binding to the seam allowance along that first fold, then press up. Refer to the left side seam allowance in the photo opposite.
Next, bring the binding over to the other side and topstitch in place. Because you stitched the narrower fold down first there will only be one line of stitching visible to either side of the bound fabric edge. See the right hand seam allowance in the photo.
- Works on curved and straight seams.
- Can add a pop of contrast to the inside of a garment.
- Adds a luxe touch to a garment.
- Uses a lot of thread.
Applying French Seams is another fancy-looking way of finishing your seam allowance that is more impressive than it is difficult. It completely encloses the raw edges in a long sleeve so it is neat, secure and robust, perfect for sheer fabrics and for children’s clothes. But useless for curves. French seams are only really any good for straight seams.
You need a wider seam allowance for a French seam than for many other seam finishing techniques. You need at least 5/8″ seam allowance for a French Seam – it is possible with a narrower seam allowance (down to about 1cm) but you might struggle.
For a 5/8″ seam allowance, first place the fabric pieces WRONG SIDES TOGETHER and sew a 1/4″ seam. Press the seam allowance to the left and to the right, then bring the fabric over, RIGHT SIDES TOGETHER with the first seam allowance tucked safely inside. Now sew the seam again with a 3/8″ seam allowance – and look, all the gubbins are neatly enclosed in that pocket. Nifty, right? Don’t forget to press again, and you’re done.
- Super neat, great for sheer fabrics
- Only requires two rows of stitching, so quite quick.
- Strengthens the seam, ideal for kids clothes.
- No good for curves.
The overlocker (serger) is definitely an extravagance. Nobody really needs an overlocker unless you’re really sewing loads, but they’re so cool! You can’t tell me that an overlocker isn’t just as exciting a power tool as a hammer action drill or a chain saw. The sewing blogs are full of them: things to make with your overlocker; tutorials requiring an overlocker; discussions on which overlocker to get… it’s enough to make anybody feel overlocker envy.
If you don’t have one – remember you don’t need one. You can finish a seam beautifully with any of the techniques discussed above. I might even go so far as to suggest that overlocked seams are actually pretty ugly in comparison with most of the above seam finishing techniques. But they are quick and effective and ‘professional looking’, in that they replicate what we see in ready to wear clothes.
An overlocker takes 3, 4 or 5 threads to bind a raw edge and cut away excess fabric, all at once. It’s fast and noisy and a bit scary and brilliant fun. Until the tension goes wonky, then everybody gets cross. In the interest of completing this collection of ‘Seam Finishes Every New Sewer Should Know’, behold the overlocked edge (3 threads), open and closed (The multicoloured threads are because I’d just been trying to sort out the tension in my overlocker after I managed to knock all the tension dials off the front. It’s still not quite right, I’ll fix it later.)
If you have an overlocker, you don’t need me to tell you how to use it, your manual will do that. If you don’t have one, don’t worry about it. You’re not really missing out on anything. You can get one when you’re ready, there’s no need to rush into buying expensive equipment when the other techniques I’ve described will give you beautiful results. And definitely prettier seams than this…
… But if you do ever decide to get an overlocker, YOU – WILL – LOVE – IT! So much fun!
- Looks like Ready To Wear seams
- Cuts away excess seam allowance as you go
- Looks like Ready to Wear seams
- Getting the tension right can be a nightmare
- Cuts away excess seam allowance as you go (as well as other chunks of your project if you aren’t paying attention. Again, don’t ask me how I know.)
So, there you have it. 5 of the most useful and simplest methods of finishing your seams. Now you have no excuses – go and make everything beautiful.