How to Adjust Stitch Type, Length & Width

In this article, you will learn the very least you need to know about stitch type, stitch length and stitch width and the three most important stitches on your sewing machine.

With this knowledge you will be well on your way to bossing your sewing machine around!

In this article, you will learn how to adjust your stitch type, stitch length, and stitch width and when to do so.

So, let’s roll…

The Rules

Rule #1: Test your stitch type, stitch length, and stitch width on a fabric scrap from your project!

Rule #2: Before you test, make sure that you have created a sample that mimics the actual area you will be constructing. For example, if you are sewing a seam, then you need to test your stitch type, length, and width using two layers of fabric. Also, if you will be using interfacing or underlining, those need to be included in the test sample.

The Three Basic Stitches

Today, sewing machines can come with as little as ten stitches all the way up to hundreds of stitches!

But the truth is this…

You can sew insanely pretty dresses or anything else your heart desires with just three basic stitches:

  1. Straight
  2. Backstitch
  3. Zigzag

Yep, these three are all you need! Anything more is just a bonus.

The Attributes of a Stitch

A stitch has three attributes…

  1. Type (for example, straight, zigzag, backstitch, decorative)
  2. Width (this is the horizontal space a stitch occupies)
  3. Length (this is the distance between needle entries in the fabric)

Stitch Type

How you select stitch type will depend on whether your sewing machine is mechanical or computerized.

Depending on your machine, you may have a dial, a slider, or an LCD menu to adjust stitch type.

Generally, on mechanical sewing machines, you select the stitch type, width, and length by turning dials or moving sliders. See the featured image at the top of this article.

And on computerized sewing machines, you will make these choices using an LCD screen and a touch panel. Check this out…

Adjust Stitch Type Length Width

Stitch Width

Depending on your machine, you may have a dial, a slider, or an LCD menu to adjust the stitch width.

The universal symbol for stitch width looks like “mountain peaks.”

Adjust Stitch Type Length Width

Stitch width is a key factor with zigzag and decorative stitches.

It is simply the horizontal space (left to right) that a stitch takes up between needle entries in your fabric.

When you sew zigzag or decorative stitches, your machine uses both stitch length and stitch width to make magic!

In the image above, starting from the top, we have a stitch width of 0.5, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0mm.

Stitch Length

Depending on your machine, you may have a dial, a slider, or an LCD menu to adjust the stitch length.

The universal symbol for stitch length is dashes of various lengths. See the featured image at the top of this article.

Stitch length informs the feed dogs of how much fabric to feed through with each stitch.

And it typically ranges from 0 to 7.0mm on most home sewing machines.

Let’s think of it another way, the stitch length is the distance between each needle entry in your fabric. I used cardstock paper in the image below to create a stitch length comparison:

Adjust Stitch Type Length Width

The thing that you have to really understand is this…

The stitch length you choose has a HUGE impact on the quality of your stitching!

And how do you choose the right stitch length?

Well, you need to honor the fabric type and weight that you are sewing with!

Just like we have an all-purpose thread and Universal 80/12 for average medium-weight wovens, such as chambray or sateen. We also have an “all-purpose” or average stitch length, which is about 2.5mm for mid-weight fabrics.

Anyhoo, here’s how stitch length works…

If you’re sewing dreamy tulle or a gorgeous charmeuse, a stitch length of 2.0mm is just right. Why? Because the fabric is delicate.

On the other hand, if you are sewing denim or leather, you will need to increase the stitch length to 3.0mm or 4.0mm, respectively. Why? Because you don’t want the larger holes that a leather sewing needle makes too close together.

Other Times When You May Want to Adjust Stitch Length

Yes, there are other times when knowing how to adjust stitch length will come in handy.

Like when…

  • You want to secure the start and end of a stitching line. Instead of backstitching, just shorten your stitch length. Because these stitches are so teensy-weensy, they are less likely to unravel. That is, a shorter stitch is a stronger stitch.
  • You want to reinforce crotch and underarm seams. In these instances, you would reduce your stitch length to about 1.5mm.
  • You want to temporarily hold two layers of fabric together or to gather a section of your garment. For these times, you will need to increase the stitch length. This will make a stitching line that can be removed with no fuss or muss or that can be easily gathered.
  • You want to stitch pretty topstitching. Increasing the stitch length results in a prettier stitching line.

The Backstitch

Finally, let’s talk about the last of the basic three stitches.

Most machines have a backstitch or reverse button. The white button in the image below is marked with the universal symbol for reverse on sewing machines:

Adjust Stitch Type Length Width

Did you find yours?


If you want to learn how to backstitch and why it is important, click HERE.

Now, let’s troubleshoot stitch quality…

Troubleshooting Stitch Quality

If you are experiencing problems with your stitch quality, it almost always comes back to one of the following:

  • Are you using the right needle type and size?
  • Are you using high-quality thread?
  • Have you rethreaded both the needle or spool thread and your bobbin thread?
  • Is your bobbin area clean?

Making sure that you can answer YES to all of the above should go a long way to making lovely stitches with your sewing machine!

The End

Okay, you!

There are a lot of keys to lovely stitching, such as a clean machine, the appropriate needle, quality thread, and now stitch length.

With the knowledge you now have from this article, you are ready to move on to learning about adjusting sewing machine tension.

Now, if you’ve made it this far, yay! You’ve earned the right to do your first happy seamstress dance!

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!