How To Finish Seams With A Sewing Machine

by Destri on September 2, 2011

{image can be purchased from Emmalynne!}

When I was putting together the Sewing Tips Directory, I was looking for one article in particular when it came to seams – how to finish them with a regular sewing machine.  Or in other words, how those of us without a serger can easily achieve clean and professional seams.  I used to feel self conscious about my seams, especially in garments, because most will tell you that to get a “handmade not homemade” look, you should use a serger.  They’re right, clean seams that are finished to protect the fabric from fraying does give the seam a professional look.  But you don’t need a serger to accomplish a finished clean seam.

Now I am by no means trying to talk you out of a serger, I would love one!  I just don’t have the space, and I can think of some other things I would rather ask for Christmas.  So I found I can make do with what I have, and still end up with a great looking handmade item.  I did find one article that mentioned seams finished with a sewing machine on Sew Mama Sew.  The author explains how high end clothing (made by fashion designers) normally has seams finished with a sewing machine rather than a serger…so see, you don’t need to feel bad about not having a serger.

I have all the details and a bunch of pictures after the jump…

Finishing Seams With A Zigzag Stitch On A Sewing Machine

Finishing a seam with a sewing machine is no different from finishing a seam with a serger as far as following a pattern is concerned. When the pattern says to finish the seam, you finish the seam.  The difference is that a serger cuts while it finishes the seam, creating a clean seam with no fray.  So basically, you need to manually clean that edge up, then zigzag.  Don’t let that scare you!  I have found in most cases I can just cut out the pattern, sew, then zigzag.  It is a rare occasion that I have to actually trim the fabric to finish the seam.

I will give you a couple examples:

Usually when you are sewing and finishing seams, you are working on fabric that has just been cut, with fresh clean edges.  In this case I normally go right to sewing.  But if you have some edges you are sewing that need to be cleaned up, do that first.

So today I am making a long strip that I want to later press in half to gather to make a long ruffle strip.  To do that, I am going to sew two ends together that are not clean.  I first lay them right sides together just as I would sew them.

Then I just trim the edges and take it to the sewing machine.  I trim first so that after I am done sewing I don’t have to get up to trim.

I can just sew my regular stitch as usual and I am left with a clean seam.

After I have sewn a section, I just switch my stitch over to a zigzag (I usually use my G setting)…

And finish the seam by lining up the fabric so that the needle falls just on the outside edge of the fabric like shown in the picture.  Make sure to back stitch, and then just press the seam to one side as instructed in the pattern you are using.

See, you are left with a nice clean seam that washes up great.  I have one little straggler, but I don’t let that bug me :).

Easy, right?!

  1. Start with a clean edge
  2. Sew as usual
  3. Then switch to zigzag and finish it off


The only thing you want to keep in mind is seam allowance.  If you cut first, make sure to compensate when sewing with a smaller seam allowance.  If that scares you, sew first and then trim.  That is basically what happens when you serge a seam.

Now let’s say you are gathering fabric to make a ruffle.  That tends to make a bit of fray, no?  No problem.

After you have gathered the ruffle to where you want it, just lay it out flat on a cutting surface, then lay a cutting ruler over the top to only expose the strings.

Then cut them off with a rotary cutter or shears.  At this point you can go ahead and pin the ruffle to the piece intended for…

Like in this image.

Then sew the ruffle on to the piece per instructions (this is not the zigzag step, you want that on the edge).

Then finish off the seam with a zigzag right along the edge.  I tend to go to a larger zigzag stitch when sewing the ruffles.  You can even gather, sew onto piece, and then trim if you want.  Or even wait till your finished to trim; the idea is to leave a clean seam.  I prefer to trim first and then zigzag to get a “clean stitch”.

Here is the Twirling Skirt I made with a lot of gathering, and this picture is after at least a dozen washes.  All seams are finished with a zigzag, and as you can see, no fray.

Here is the Fat Quarter Pillow Case Dress with multiple seams.  Again you can see it has washed up beautifully.

So you see – you can have great looking seams without a serger, just start with a clean edge.

As for time, I have worked with a serger as well, I have to say it’s about equal for me.  I would think it would depend on what your working on and your set up.  But in the end, it really takes no more time.

A few more tips:

  • If it is type of fabric you are not used to working with, do a test run on scraps.  This will help you determine what size of zigzag to use.
  • If your machine has an overlock stitch, try that in place of the zigzag.  Check your manual to see if your machine has that function.
  • Remember to keep seam allowance in mind if you are cutting first.

So tell me, do you have any tips for finishing seams with a sewing machine?  I hope you share, I would love to hear!



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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris September 2, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Another great tip! I’ve added it to my list of great sewing tips Sewing Tip Round U0


Destri September 3, 2011 at 10:33 am

Thanks Chris! How did I miss this list? I was all over your site looking for articles, sheesh! Off to check it out :)


Fruitful Fusion September 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Excellent post! I’m a complete beginner and this makes it all seem less daunting! Thanks!


Lacey September 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm

A french seam is also great for this – it completely encases your raw seam. Googling it is probably best, but you sew the opposite (wrong sides together), flip it out and then sew another seam that encases the first one. It’s the classiest look ever :)


Destri September 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Yes, I love French seams! And you’re right, very classy.


Trina@Craft Anyway! September 3, 2011 at 6:38 am

Thanks so much for this! I don’t have a Serger and I’m always looking for ways to improve my sewing. This is a great tutorial. I’ve included it on my blog as well!


Destri September 3, 2011 at 8:43 am

Thank you Trina! And you’re welcome :)


Jessica September 3, 2011 at 6:42 am

I use a zigzag on my ruffled/gathered pieces, but I usually wait until I’ve assembled it to the other piece. Saves a little time, but now I know I can trim with the rotary cutter and it will look even prettier!


Destri September 3, 2011 at 8:43 am

Yes, I wait until I have assembled my ruffles to the other pieces as well, like you said, saves time. I don’t always trim before, but if I really have a frayed mess, I give it a quick roll :) Thanks so much Jessica!


Jan M September 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

My serger is basically banished to my sewing room closet. It and I simply do not seem to speak the same language! I normally use French seams for my sewing, and love the finished look they provide. They are more time consuming, and do not lend themselves to all applications or fabrics.
Sometimes when you zigzag an edge, it will tunnel or roll. That is actually what we desire in heirloom garments to achieve the look of french handsewing. But, in other situations, it just makes more bulk. When I zigzag an edge, I use the J foot for my Viking. Most machines have a similar foot. It is sometimes called an edging foot, or overcast foot. It has a small wire that rides along the edge of the fabric, and the zig zags fall to either side. It helps to keep the fabric from tunneling or rolling. I do believe you can achieve very neat seam finishes without a serger! Thank you so much for sharing and encouraging us to do that!


Destri September 3, 2011 at 8:54 am

Jan, is that foot like a 1/4 inch foot? I really need to get to know my feet better :). And yes, I should have mentioned the roll that can sometimes happen. I never thought about the decorative finish it could have though, will have to give that a try. Thanks so much for your tips; I love your tutorials, just found them in your sidebar! Will have to add them to my list.


Jan M September 3, 2011 at 8:58 am

No, at least for my Viking, the 1/4″ foot and the overcast foot are different.


Maysem September 3, 2011 at 9:50 am

Great post and great tips!! I’ve been debating whether to get a serger, but have the problem of space as well…along with so many other things on my wish list:) You have made me feel so much better about putting off buying a serger…for now :D


Terri Sue September 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm

i also usually use a french seam. for those of you who don’t know what that is…… start by putting your wrong side together, so right sides are on the outside. make a 1/4 inch seam. press the seam to one side. now fold the fabric so that the right sides are together. make sure you have a tight fold with the previous seam,and that the seam is the edge of this fold. for a 5/8 inch seam you would now make a 3/8 inch seam. press the seam to the side. now you have a completely enclosed seam and no fabric edges. this is a seam used in heirloom sewing but i use it on almost everything. it can take wear and tear of even the most active child. if you need to make a narrower seam just adjust your seamsto smaller making sure that you eventually sew up the correct seam allowance.


ste September 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Thanks for this post. I am not a great sewer by any means but want to eventually get better when I have more time. I’ve always hated how my edges look and so now I have bookmarked this post and can start doing it myself!


Aubreu September 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I’ve been wondering how to do this. Thank you so much!!!!


Cathy September 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Great tutorial! Very well explained and the photos make it even easier to understand!
I don’t know about you but my old bod is not easy to sew for – big in places that show and small in places that don’t show! There’s something wrong with that!
Anyhoo, I found that, more often than not, I had to adjust not only my patterns but after I had cut out the fabric as well. So for me cutting my seam allowance before I sew would not have been possible. I sometime needed some of that extra width from the 5/8th inch seam allowance.
French seams are great but time consuming and as someone else mentioned they are not useful on a lot of fabrics. Great for sheer and light-weight fabric though!
There is another type of seam that can be done on a machine – called flat-feld (or felt or felled) can’t remember how to spell that. It’s finished look is like the side seams on jeans. Instead of right sides together put wrong sides together and sew a regular 5/8th seam. Press both sides of the seam allowances over to one side. The bottom layer is then trimmed to 3/8th inch. Take the top layer and wrap it around the bottom layer and pin well. Then sew along the edge and you have a finished seam with the edges all tucked away. To make it easy on myself I used to press my upper layer over the 1/4inch that would eventually wrap over and under the bottom layer. What shows on the right side of the garment is two lines of stitching. The only time I used this type of seam was on clothes I would use casually or semi-casually – not on my business or “good” clothes. This type of seam lends itself to almost any type of fabric except sheer and light weight fabrics.
Hope I’ve made some sense in this.


Destri September 26, 2011 at 3:49 am

Cathy I am so glad you talked about this. Oliver + S has a great tutorial on it and that was the first thing I thought of was jeans. I didn’t think it would allow for enough drape in dresses and shirts, love to hear that you liked the technique for such things. I had mentally bookmarked it for kids Christmas pajama pants this year, I think it would be a wonderfully strong seam for them!

Thanks again for taking the time to share!


lynn September 8, 2012 at 10:30 pm

i been looking for pajama patterns could you put the pattern up please


Marla October 5, 2011 at 5:11 am

Thank you! This was very helpful!


Marie May 19, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Does the zig zag stitch stay as well as the serged edge or does it fall apart on stretchy materials like a straight stitch does?


Destri May 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Hi Marie,

It depends on the type of knit (stretchy) fabric you are using. If it has a four way stretch, the threads may break. However if it has only a two way stretch, you can cut the fabric to work with the seams.
Actually, the recommended stitch for most machines on knit fabric is a small angled zig-zag. However, I like to just use a slightly longer straight stitch length and then leave the seams as they are (knit doesn’t fray, so really no need to finish the seams) if I am sewing knit without a serger.

Let me know if this answers your question!


Marie June 4, 2013 at 6:15 am

Yes it does, thank you for answering.


mary lou Vargo July 17, 2013 at 7:25 pm

This is was so helpful for me I have been making doll dresses for the goodfellows
and I see that some of my seems were fraying. I will be o.k. now thanks so much
mary lou vargo


Kristen F August 1, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Hi! I came across your blog via a Google search for finishing hems without a serger. I tried your tips creating a 1/8″ bound edge and it is so beautiful! My edges have never looked this good! Thank you!


Destri August 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Fabulous! Thanks so much for stopping by to let me know, made my night!


Shannon March 22, 2014 at 9:14 am

Ah, you just raised my confidence level re: finishing the edges w/ a zig-zag so much! I’ve read about it before, I’ve done it before, but I was never quite sure if I was doing it right or if it was really the 2nd best option. I’m much more comfortable that this technique is on the same level as using a serger. Different, but not better or worse for most application. Thanks!!!!!


JoAnne May 4, 2014 at 11:05 pm

I love this idea. Im totally self tought and honestly dont know much sewing tho i love to do it. What ive always done is leave a 1/2″ allowence, folded over the cloth and sewn on the inside. Then trim the edge. It was a real pain for sleives. This is much better. Thanks soo much


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