If there's one thing quilter's love, it's our sewing machines. But more often than not, we only use a couple of the stitches our machines have to offer. That's why today, we are thrilled to bring you a tutorial about adding decorative stitching to clothes!
This tutorial shows you everything you need to know to spruce up your wardrobe by adding stitched embellishments using your sewing machine. Whether you have a dozen stitches on your machine or one hundred, you'll learn tips for using those stitches to their full potential.
This week's guest contributor is Peyton, a knitter and sewist who currently works as a jack of all trades at Finch Knitting + Sewing Studio, a cozy space for modern makers right in the heart of her hometown.
Peyton lives outside of Washington, DC in Virginia, surrounded by houseplants and too many WIPs to count. When she’s not behind her machine, you can find her roaming a nature trail, traversing Virginia’s wine country, or assembling Ikea furniture and actually enjoying it.
Keep reading for Peyton's tips and tricks for adding decorative stitching to clothes!
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Hands down, the best piece of fashion advice I’ve ever received was, “if you find a piece you love, buy two, and if you can, buy it in more than one color.” As someone who spills just about as much coffee as she drinks, those words of wisdom have served me well over the years!
While this style of shopping has given me a closet full of clothes that fit me just the way I like, at times my collection can feel a bit bland. That is never more true than in the summer months when everything feels a bit brighter, a bit more colorful, and all around more fun! After all, dinner and drinks al fresco do seem to call for a bit more pizazz than a plain old tee.
As quilters, we have these incredible sewing machines with dozens or even hundreds of stitches, and we probably only use... two. Believe it or not, your sewing is ready and begging to give you the sparkly summer wardrobe of your dreams.
This tutorial will give you the know-how to embellish your own one of a kind garments by adding decorative stitching to clothes. Get ready to start using your machine to its full potential!
Supplies for Adding Decorative Stitching to Clothes
- Prewashed, woven garment
- Various threads with coordinating bobbins
- Wash-away stabilizer
- Temporary spray adhesive
- Ruler or straight edge
- Heat-erase marking pens
- Scrap solid, mid-weight cotton fabrics (at least around 4”x6”)
- Scrap fusible woven interfacing (such as SF101)
- Fabric scissors
- Thread snips
- Size 75/11 embroidery needles (or the smallest size needle appropriate for your garment)
- Zig zag stitch plate
- Your sewing machine’s manual
Step 1: Prep Your Machine for Adding Decorative Stitches to Clothes
Set up your machine with a size 75/11 embroidery needle (or the smallest size your fabric can accommodate), and your zig-zag stitch plate.
Choose a foot that will allow for the maximum stitch width, and has several visual cues you can line up with. For me, that’s foot JK (an embroidery foot) or foot DA (clear zigzag foot). Consult your sewing machine manual or an expert at your local quilt shop if you have questions about sewing machine feet.
Set your needle to stop in the down position if possible. If your machine is able, set it to secure the thread both at the start of sewing and when cutting.
Quilters, take a deep breath for this one—take off your extension table, or raise your machine up if it’s flush to your desk. We’re taking advantage of your machine’s free arm today!
Step 2: Assess Your Garment
Take a minute to assess your garment, noting its shape and construction. This will help guide the style of your stitching. There are three main ways to add stitches to your garment:
- Along hemlines, like the white flutter-sleeve tee.
- Within structural elements of the garment (think collars, yokes, or cuffs), like the chambray button-down.
- The creation of a visual element (such as a stripe down the center), like the dusty rose linen dress.
Which type of decorative stitching will best suit your garment? Make a plan for where you’ll add decorating stitching before you begin.
Step 3: Test Your Stitches and Try New Stitch Features
Now that you know where you’ll be adding your decorative stitching to clothes, it’s time to decide what stitches you’ll use. This is a great opportunity to dive into your machine’s capabilities, testing out all those fun stitches that you don’t always have a reason to use on quilts.
There are also a few fun features your machine might have that would be perfect for this project. Consult your sewing machine manual to see if your machine has the following functions:
- Stitch mirroring flips a stitch either horizontally or vertically.
- Stitch combination allows you to combine multiple different stitch patterns into one (think spelling a word with letter stitches, or a repeating pattern of shapes).
- Stitch designer will turn your own hand-drawn shapes into a stitch pattern.
- Pattern Repeat controls the specific number of times a stitch pattern stitches out.
Stabilize your scraps according to the manufacturer's directions. These don’t need to be perfect—raw edges and patchy stabilizer are just fine! The goal is just to get an idea of what all these fun stitches look like, and a stabilized, single layer fabric will move through your machine with pucker-free ease.
With your straight edge ruler and marking pen, draw some straight lines on your fabric, about ⅜ - ½ inch apart. These visual guides will help you sew straight. Thread your machine and bobbin with a high contrast color.
Now, it’s time to sew! Push yourself by trying several new stitches, even if they don’t speak to you right away. You’ll be surprised how different some will look from their picture. Play with different combinations, vary your spacing, and manipulate stitch widths and lengths.
As you go, think about how you want your garment to look. In general “heavier” (dense, sometimes wide) stitches work better along the grounding element (the hem, seam, or center of a new scheme) than “lighter” (more open and airy, sometimes narrow) stitches.
Using a lighter stitch near the end of your stitching (towards the body of the garment) will give a softer, more organic finished look, while ending with a straight or firm edge will give more of a stripe effect.
If your machine doesn’t have a huge array of decorative stitches, or if your max stitch width is fairly narrow, there’s still a lot you can do to add decorative stitching to clothes! Practical stitches can be combined to make a fun new design.
The triple stitch does a great job separating stitches that look good together but not right up against each other. A satin stitch can create a faux wide stitch, like the ladder and squares in the center of the sample linen dress.
Tip: If you don’t plan on repurposing your swatches, consider labeling each stitch for reference when sewing your final project. These labelled swatches would also be handy by your machine or in your manual!
Step 4: Prep Your Garment
Lightly iron your pre-washed garment. No spray starch allowed, quilters! The aim is remove any major wrinkles, flatten hems, and get everything back into place. Your garment should be pressed only to the point where it would look put together if worn, but not stiff.
Flip your garment inside out. Cut enough wash away stabilizer to thoroughly cover the desired stitch area. Spray the area with temporary adhesive and gently pat the stabilizer into place, taking care not to stretch or distort the weave of your fabric.
For most mid-weight fabrics, one layer of stabilizer is all you need. For lightweight fabrics, use two layers to prevent puckering.
Flip right side out. Draw your guide lines as before, parallel to each other, in the direction of your stitching. If you are creating a symmetrical element of your own, find the center and space your guide lines evenly.
Step 5: Time to Add Your Decorative Stitching to Clothes!
Bring your garment to your machine, taking advantage of your free arm for better mobility of the fabric. This will also keep you from accidentally sewing the front and back of your garment together (decorative stitches are even worse to rip out!).
Match your bobbin to your top thread. This gives you a more plump stitch that will look more uniform even after multiple washes.
Work your way from the grounding element to the body of your garment.
If stitching along the hem, start at the hem and work your way into the body of the garment. Start your stitching at the side seam. Your arms and the natural drape of your garment will hide any overlap in your stitch patterns.
If stitching within structural elements of your garment, work from the anchor point out. For my chambray top, that was the edge of my collar and edge of my cuff towards the body, and the base of the back yoke towards the shoulder. I softened the yoke stitch by adding a downward facing scallop on the back body piece.
If stitching a new design element, work from the center out, evenly from side to side.
Step 6: Finishing Your Garment
With your steam off and iron on a low to medium heat, erase your guide lines. Hop over to the sink and dissolve the stabilizer according to manufacturer instructions.
Be sure to thoroughly remove all stabilizer as it becomes harder to remove after it’s dry (and harder still after a run through the dryer!). Congrats - you’ve got a snappy summer piece to show off!
Caring for Your Newly Embellished Clothes
Machine wash cold, gentle cycle. Tumble dry low. For more delicate pieces, remove while damp, and shape into place. If you end up with crinkles in your stitches (beyond summer causal!), use an embroidery press cloth to relax puckering.
Confession time… how many different stitches does your machine have, and how many do you actually use? Do you have a garment ready to embellish? Let us know how you’ll add decorative stitching to clothes in the comments, what you’re stitching on and, where you’re wearing it!
9 thoughts on “How to Add Decorative Stitching to Clothes”
Thank you so much for the inspiration in this article! I’m so excited that I can’t wait to try out the techniques modeled here. I’ve often wanted to embellish my clothing but didn’t have the confidence, fearing the finished product wouldn’t look professional. My machine has dozens of unused stitches but some of them are going to be showing up on some clothing very soon!
Great tips, I like the idea of combining several stitches!
Any special tips on T shirts? They are a knit fabric and can cause problems with stretching when doing the stitching.
Definitely! When it comes to working with knits, I would recommend using a cut away stabilizer instead of a wash away one. The weight of your knit and the density of your stitching will inform your choice on the specific cut away stabilizer. Machine embroidery companies, like OESD, offer useful charts and guides that can help you decide on the perfect one. Be extra generous with your spray adhesive, and gently lay and pat the fabric into place.
You’ll also want to look for a ballpoint embroidery needle. They shift the fibers instead of piecing, which can sometimes give you holes or runs in the fabric.
Thank you for the garment embellishing tips. I have been thinking of trying this for some time. The stabilizing aspect always threw me off. Your tips make it seem very doable. Much appreciated!
Love this idea! I have done some hand embroidery on jeans that ripped. I have checked out that sewing machine you have, the B79. It’s amazing! I’m looking into upgrading my machine for it. Anything you could tell me about it? Pros and cons?!
I absolutely love it! Lots of pros, but I’ll hit the highlights here:
– dual feed (pulls fabric through from top and bottom, and eliminates the need for a walking foot 90% of the time. you can also use it with specialty soles, so you can get cleaner results)
– free hand system (knee bar)
– touch screen for easy stitch/setting changes
– built in creative consultant (tells you how to do techniques on different fabrics, and can make those adjustments for you!)
– large embroidery area, and comes with a few of the toolbox software modules included
A few cons, which all pretty much stem from being spoiled by BERNINAs at work 😉 –
– snap on soles
– top loading bobbin
– long thread tails left after cuts
– grid/template for embroidery design placement
I hope that helps! It’s a great value machine, and there’s lots of room to grow with it.
If you’ll want to explore real magical stitch artistry go check out Carol Ann Waugh , Stupendous Stitching! She is an internationally recognized artist in this technique ( and a super nice lady!), and has books, classes, gallery shows,etc. ( She and I showed together once!) When I first started as a fiber artist, exploring many techniques, I called her and we had a few very nice conversations! She is very generous with her talents! Get the book; you’ll be in happy stitching dream-land! 💃🌠
Great ideas! It wasn’t clear to me how you got the pink dress under the needle to stitch the design down the center. Did it unzip in the back?