How to Adjust Stitch Type, Length & Width

Hey, you!

By now you know a lot…

And with this wealth of knowledge, you are well on your way to being the boss of your machine.

However, we still have to learn about stitch type, stitch length and stitch width if we are to sew pretty stitches.

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…

NOTE: If you’re ready to begin this journey and would like to buy my recommended tools and supplies, please click HERE!

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 they 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

the three essential stitches: straight, reverse, and zigzag

My amazing Janome DC2014 comes with 50 stitches. This is nothing compared to some sewing machines. In fact, there are sewing machines out there that have 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 (the first stitching line in the image above)
  2. Zigzag (the third stitching line in the image above)
  3. Backstitch (the middle portion of the second stitching line in the image above)

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

The Attributes of a Stitch

stitch type, length, and width selector on a computerized sewing machine

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, electronic, or computerized.

Generally, on mechanical sewing machines, you select the stitch type by turning a dial to the desired stitch you want to sew.

And on electronic or computerized sewing machines, there will be an LCD screen and you will either press a button or even type in a stitch number to select the desired stitch type.

In the image above of my Janome DC2014, the # sign is how I select the desired stitch type.

Stitch Width

zigzag stitch sampler

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

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

And on my Janome DC2014, it is the symbol that looks like mountain peaks.

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 top to bottom, we have a stitch width of 0.5, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0mm.

Needle Position

And one last thing about stitch width…

When sewing a straight stitch, it is the stitch width that determines the needle position.

What I mean is that stitch width determines whether a needle is centered, off to the right, or off to the left.

Okay, I have a pop quiz for you…

If the stitch width is set to zero (0), can you guess which stitch your machine will sew?

Did you guess a straight stitch?!

If so, you’re smarter than I was!

Stitch Length

straight stitch sampler

Stitch length informs the feed dogs of how much fabric to feed through with each stitch. Let’s think of it another way, it is the distance between each needle entry in your fabric.

And on my Janome DC2014, it is the symbol of dashes of various lengths.

In the image above, from top to bottom, we have 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0mm.

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

Stitch length can vary from 0 to 7mm or higher on home sewing machines.

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 type of fabric 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 2.5 to 3.0mm for mid-weight fabrics.

My Janome DC2014 uses an average stitch length of 2.2mm. But, honestly, I think it is prettier at around 2.5mm.

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.

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.

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 to 1.0mm for about a ½ inch or so.

Because these stitches are so teensy-weensy, they are less likely to unravel. That is, a shorter stitch is a stronger stitch.

Can you think of another time when you might want to shorten your stitch length?!


Well, crotch seams spring to mind. And underarm seams too. In these instances, you would reduce your stitch length to 2.0mm. (Although, many machines today come with a triple straight stitch for these instances.)

But what if you just want to temporarily hold two layers together, to gather a section of your garment, or to topstitch?!

For these times, increase the stitch length to 4.0 to 5.0mm. This will make a stitching line that can be removed with no fuss or muss or that can be easily gathered.

two rows of basting stitches gathered

Sew easy tip #1: My Janome DC2014 can produce a 7.0mm basting stitch. But I usually stick to 4.0mm, especially for fittings.  Because I’ve found anything higher than that comes undone faster than you can say, “Bye, Bye!”

Sew easy tip #2: Shorter stitch lengths are a total grizzly bear to rip out! So do remember to increase the stitch length back to the regular stitch length for the remainder of your stitching line. Plus, anything less than 2.0mm is just plain fugly!

RELATED: Want to see how a stitch is made, then click HERE!

RELATED: Make it easy on yourself and get a good fabric reference guide and keep it near your sewing machine.

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 below is the universal symbol for reverse on sewing machines:

reverse button on a sewing machine

Did you find yours?


Now, let’s troubleshoot…

Troubleshooting Stitch Quality

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

  • Is your bobbin area clean?
  • 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?

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!

RELATED: Click HERE to learn all the essential sewing tools you need to begin sewing insanely pretty dresses!

RELATED: Click HERE to learn everything you need to know about your sewing machine!

RELATED: Click HERE if you’re ready to begin this journey and would like to buy my recommended tools and supplies!

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