If a sewing machine could dance it would definitely be dancing the salsa. That’s because back stitching can be like salsa dancing. Take a couple steps forward then a couple steps back and then forward again! Back stitching does feel a bit like a dance when you first try it out especially if you’re uncoordinated like me. You're holding your fabric with one hand, trying to keep it lined up with your seam guide as you push on your foot pedal all while using your other hand to push your back stitch button! That’s a lot to do all at once! Let’s break it down step by step and make it easy.
What is a back stitch?
When back stitching, you use the reverse sewing direction on your machine to go back over your previous stitches. It’s used at the beginning and the end of every seam. You’ll stitch a few stitches, count it with me like we’re dancing:
A 1,2,3, and pause.
Then hold down your back stitch button for a few stitches, a 4,5,6.
And then sew on to the end of your seam where you’ll repeat!
This is what my back stitch button looks like. It’s the one in the middle with the u-turn symbol.
Yours might be a button in the middle of your stitch dial or a lever that you push down. Whichever one you have, just hold it down the entire time you want to stitch backwards and then let it go to start sewing forwards again. One thing I used to do as a beginner was forget to back stitch a little late so I would end up back stitching for about ten stitches! Too much of a good thing is a bad thing when it comes to back stitching. Try to stick to no more than four stitches when back stitching otherwise it could start messing with how pretty your seams look.
Why back stitching is important
Back stitching essentially locks your stitches into place. Locking your stitches is important otherwise your garment would likely start to literally fall apart at the seams. You wouldn’t want your seams to start splitting while you’re rolling around in the grass with your kids, or while you’re on a special date with your dress tightly hugging your curves. Having your seams split in either of these situations would not be good. Plus, you likely spent hours making your garment and you’ll want that hard work to last through many many washes. So don’t skip your back stitching!
When to back stitch
Back stitching is not just for at the beginning and end of each seam. You may also want to use a back stitch in the middle of a seam. If you have to rip out an area of stitches with your seam ripper to fix a mistake you’ll now want to back stitch over the previous stitching to prevent these stitches from coming out. Sometimes I get a pucker of fabric while sewing a curve and instead of taking out the entire seam and sewing it all over again, I take out just enough stitches to fix the pucker and I resew just that area again.
I like to start about a half an inch before where I ripped out my stitches and also go past about a half an inch. I try to get my new stitches to match up perfectly over the previous stitches to really hold them down.
Another time that I like to back stitch is when I‘m wanting to reinforce an area. Say maybe you have a strap for a bag that’ll be carrying a lot of weight. I like to back stitch over the entire width of that strap. Now I have three rows of stitches and that strap won’t be going anywhere.
When to lockstitch instead
Sometimes back stitching is not the ideal way to go. Believe it or not those three rows of stitching create some bulk. This isn’t a problem when working with weightier fabric. But when you have a really fine or lightweight fabric, that extra bulk can make the ends of your seams warp and look bumpy. To fix this you can lock stitch instead.
To lock stitch you’ll want to shorten your stitch length to 1mm or 18-20 stitches per inch. You’ll start by stitching these super small stitches for about a half inch at the beginning and end of each seam and switch back to your normal stitch length in between. I had to adjust my stitch length to a 1.4 in order to get 18-20 stitches in an inch. I normally use a 2.5 stitch length. Learn when you might want to increase your stitch length in our article about basting stitches.
To determine how short you need to make your stitches on your machine you can make a guide. Mark a 1″ section on a scrap piece of fabric. I folded my fabric in half so that my stitches would be going through two layers of fabric just like for my seams. And then just count your stitches within that inch to find your stitch length.
Another time you won’t want to back stitch is when gathering fabric. Discover why and learn how to gather fabric like a boss.
There’s one more thing you can do that’ll ensure that your stitches stay put and that’s pressing them. Pressing your seams is not the same as ironing. When you iron you move your iron around the fabric. Pressing is simply pressing down on your fabric in one place. Pressing your stitches actually sets them into the fabric and makes it less likely that they’ll come apart.
Just like it takes a few times to learn a new dance step, back stitching can take a little practice. Go slow at first and before you know it you’ll be doing it without even thinking!
-- Originally written by Jessamin Jensen. Archived by Holly Hetzner.