Single thread chain stitch is the original knitted stitch, so it’s perfect for sewing knitwear and jersey. In the world of knitting machines, chain stitchers are known as linkers.
Back in the world of sewing machines, there is now a new addition to the domestic range: a specialised coverstitch machine that does a 3-needle coverstitch or a 2-thread chain stitch, fantastic! Next time I win the lottery, I’m definitely getting one (£700). (Drooling alert!)
There are two makes so far, Juki MCS-1500, a.k.a. Bernina L220, and Gemsy/Consew/Dragonfly 858 by a Chinese maker with an identity chrisis, these machines are also marketed by Necchi as Millepunti 858. I know which one I would choose (I’m only saying: do your research before buying).
Back to Earth
But until I win that lottery, what other choices are there? Well, there is the little Essex:
These small machines are fully functional real sewing machines and not children’s toys. I’ve got a motorised one and it is quite useful with its simple 1-thread chain stitch. This design is basically a copy of Willcox & Gibbs’ Silent Runner, which was originally meant to work with a treadle, i.e., the sewing machine motor of the time.
Here is Essex next to the overlocker, which is also a small machine!
However, the Essex and similar machines don’t have presser bar control which limits the types of fabrics they can handle as foot pressure remains the same*. And of course their harp space is tiny (that’s the space under the arm), so they can only comfortably sew more or less close to the edge.
*Various modern domestic machines don’t have presser bar control either. It is supposedly adjusted “automatically”, as long as all you wanted to sew was cotton poplin. Anything else is superfluous extravagance, anyway.
So what we would really want, is for our regular sewing machines, with all their lovely pressure and tension controls, to be able to chain stitch.
Chain stitch on a lockstitch sewing machine
The solution comes in the form of a chain stitch adaptor. There’s the Singer one that works on slant needle horizontal hook machines of the 400, 600 and 700 series, it’s a special needle plate with a looper on the underside. And then there’s an insert for the vertical hook found on some Kenmore and Frister+Rossmann machines.
The two solutions are very different, but both work for the oscillating as well as the rotary hook. Singer 400 series is oscillating, while 600 and 700 series are rotary, using different chain stitch plates. Kenmore 158.17xx series is oscillating, while 158.18xx and 158.19xx are rotary, using the same adaptor.
I have a Kenmore 158.1756 and a Frister+Rossmann 804, both vertical forward-facing oscillators that came with the same chain stitching sets. There is nothing special about their oscillating hook mechanisms, which got me thinking that I might be able to teach other oscillators to chain stitch too. Wouldn’t that be exciting!
The Kenmore/Frister+Rossmann solution
A Kenmore/Frister+Rossmann chain stitching sets comprises a hook, an adaptor and a needle plate, or in this case a needle plate insert.
Looking closely at the hook and comparing it to a standard hook, two features are different: one of the hook tips is elongated and there is a little positioning hole for the adaptor.
Neither of these features interfere with the regular lockstitch function of the hook, this is pure extra functionality. The chain stitch adaptor clips into the hook in lieu of a bobbin case, and is locked in place with a little pin going into the positioning hole.
The needle plate is also very important. Compared to a straight stitch plate, the little round hole is extended towards the back coming close to the central feed dog hole.
This extension is necessary to pull up the stitches at normal tension. If you try chain stitching with a regular needle plate, you’ll just get a giant thread nest on the underside of your fabric. Increasing tension to impossibly high, allows the stitches to form, but of course this gathers the fabric and breaks the thread.
The main needle plate has a recessed bar separating the needle hole from the feed dogs hole. This lowered threshold is what allows to pull up the stitches at normal tension.
So, to teach any forward-facing vertical oscillator to chain stitch with this hook and adaptor, we only need to make a special needle plate. This is in fact a fairly simple modification of a straight stitch needle plate, and I’ve done it! 😀
Using chain stitch for sewing jersey
If you’ve ever sewn jersey on a lockstitch machine, you’ll know that dreaded sound of stitches snapping under tension when your jersey stretches. This happens because lockstitch machines do not make a flexible stitch. Solutions to this problem include using zig-zag instead of straight stitch or using stretch, or back-and-forth stitch, also called ZZ or flexi-stitch. It makes two stitches forward and one backwards, but it is too dense for most jersey and stretches it out, and sometimes even makes holes in the material.
A better solution is to use a real stretchy stitch – the chain stitch (refer to the drooly section!).
For lightweight to medium weight jersey I usually use the Essex. It’s right there next to the overlocker, quick and convenient to use. On new makes, I first do the overlocker stitch, and then the chain stitch next to it. On alterations (taking in) I first do the chain stitch, try the garment on a few times until I’m happy with the fit, then do the overlocking and cut off the excess material at the same time.
Chain stitch will unravel if the thread is broken, so it’s important to make a good stitch. However, in the real world mishaps will happen, so I always like to do a second go on my final chain stitch. I turn over the work and stitch over the loops, so in the end I get loops on both sides. This makes a durable flexible stitch that stretches with the jersey but does not stretch it out.
Here is what it looks like when finished.
This is the kind of stitch used in industry (a chain stitch next to an overlock stitch). Some domestic coverstitch machines can make it (prices at £2,500+).
Using chain stitch on knitted jumpers
Today I was taking in a woolly jumper that I knitted a few years ago. You know how it is – you follow the pattern but it still comes out too wide, especially around the waist, and so it hangs like a sack in spite of all that hard work you put into it… Well, mine also stretched a bit, so was now really wide around the waist.
Ok, I’m taking it in! But I shall have to cut off good two inches of knitting on each side (I told you it was too wide!), so I’ll need to secure the edges so it would not unravel. Like with thinner jersey, I use a chain stitch and an overlock.
Two layers of woolly knitting is however too thick for the Essex, so I’m using Freya’s chain stitching (Freya is a Frister+Rossmann 804).
At first I was having a lot of trouble. The machine kept skipping stitches which interrupted the chain and made it unravel. I was using some cheap polyester thread, and obviously it was behaving badly. Changed the thread to Coats – no more troubles.
Other things to remember are to increase foot pressure and reduce stitch length if stitches get skipped. And of course to use your pole and hat contraption to ensure even feed of thread.
But if you don’t have a pole and a hat thing, you can also opt for a spool stand instead.
When you finish a seam, if the loop is still hanging on the hook in the machine, it’s the best time to take it out. Pull the work away gently so that you can see the loop.
Cut that side of the loop that comes directly from the needle.
This will release your work and leave a nice long tail fixing the chain.
If however you accidetally cut the wrong thread, or if the loop comes off the hook by itself, be sure to catch it and pull it through to secure the chain.
The final result looks like this:
I did not bother unpicking preliminary chain stitching as I was progressively taking in more and more, and trying on the jumper as I went. I double-stitched the final one and finished off with the overlock, cutting away the extra inches.
I then pulled back the corners and stitched them back and forth a few times on a lockstitch machine, just to get them to lie flat and point upwards and not stick out on the bottom.
So you see my problem. I can produce a perfectly good seam on jersey and knitwear using existing machines. Of course it takes a bit longer to do, but I still cannot justify a £700 machine just because it could save me about 10 minutes per project…