Crêpe, satin and peach · Feet · Overcasting · Straight stitch · Zig-zag stitch

Sewing crêpe, satin and peach fabrics, or You vs. the Pucker Demon

Crêpe, satin and peach fabrics come in several types and fibres, but they always remain difficult fabrics to sew. In particular, most machines have trouble sewing a straight seam along the length of the material – it puckers.

Yes, it means the tension is too high, but no, it is not actually too high, and it’s impossible to balance at a lower tension. The thread curls on both surfaces, yet the seam still puckers. There is usually no problem sewing in any other direction, this has something to do with the weave of the material.

The same problem occurs with some other modern weaves, and also notoriously with foiled fabrics because the material moves under the needle and distorts the stitch. It either is pushed by the needle into the needle hole a little, or it moves between the feed dogs and the foot, or flexes and slides. So the machine must have an “appropriate transport” (whatever that means) and a sharp needle action to minimise slippage.

Coats has a wonderful guide on the causes and solutions to seam puckering here. They include some advanced stuff like using lubricated thread or changing timing of the transport mechanism, but also radically simple things like don’t sew along the grain of the fabric… So, I’m not the only person to battle the Pucker Demon!

The needle

It is often helpful to use a Microtex needle size 60. It improves things but doesn’t solve the problem.

On the other hand, a jersey needle makes things a lot worse. If unsure, use a regular needle size 70 or 80, nice and sharp (that is, brand new and not the one that’s been sitting in your used needles box for the last couple of years).

Straight seams

Seams done with narrow zig-zag instead of straight stitch lie fairly flat, especially if you use straight stitch foot and needle plate. 😮 Yes, it is against the rules and dangerous, but we haven’t got a foot and a needle plate especially made for narrow zig-zag, and the holes in the standard zig-zag foot and needle plate are too large. You can usually fit zig-zag of 1.5mm width into the hole of a straight stitch foot, but check your needle plate carefully. Older machines had two different straight stitch needle plates with them – one with a small hole and one with a large hole. You need the one with the large hole. Newer machines vary in what they supply, so verify.

Coats recommend that the size of the needle hole for straight stitch should be double the size of the needle, that is leaving a space of half the needle diametre around the needle. That is a very tight fit, and for straight stitch translates into using the needle plate with the small hole. For narrow zig-zag it means take a straight stitch needle plate with a large hole and set your zig-zag width such that the needle comes close to the edges. Stitch carefully and don’t pull on the fabric or you’ll be breaking needles.

Another thing that Coats recommend is chain stitch – yes, it’s not bad! Keep the thread tension low, so that you get nice and rounded stitches. Whatever you do though, lockstitch or chain stitch, use long stitches rather than short ones.

Overcasting

Crêpe and satin often unravel easily, even if they are not particularly loosely woven. If you overcast raw edges as they are, the stitches tend to just slip off the edge, leaving you with a fraying fringe. It is better to fold the edges before overcasting, for example, with a felling foot.

On heavily curved seams or on slightly gathered seams this doesn’t work, so you have to do it the hard way – manually. It is still worth while though.

For overcasting of folded seam allowances, stitched zig-zag is often better than plain zig-zag – it is less bulky and lies flat.

If the material does not unravel too easily, 2-needle overlock can be used for overcasting too, without folding. It is a lot bulkier than zig-zag though, and might be too bulky for many fabrics, since crêpe and satin are usually quite light fabrics by nature.

If at all possible, stitching with zig-zag or overlock should be done first, and straight stitch second. This very much reduces puckering of the straight stitch seam. However, this technique does not help if an open seam is required. For this reason I prefer to use other seam types with crêpe and satin.

Seam types

Hemmed seam

  1. Stagger seam allowances, flip the bottom one over the top using a felling foot. Stitch with plain or stitched zig-zag.
  2. Switch to a straight stitch foot and straight stitch or narrow zig-zag. Sew the straight seam keeping the overcast bit as seam allowance.

This photo actually shows the steps done in reverse order, but you get the idea. 😊

False French seam

  1. Stagger seam allowances, flip the bottom one over the top using a felling foot. Stitch with plain or stitched zig-zag.
  2. Keep the felling foot, switch to straight stitch or narrow zig-zag set left. Flip stitched seam allowance and sew the straight seam. If using narrow zig-zag, make sure that the left point is off the folded seam but the right point is going through it, securing the seam in place.
False French seam done with straight stitch
False French seam done with narrow zig-zag

Flat seam

  1. Stagger seam allowances, flip the bottom one over the top using a felling foot. Stitch with plain or stitched zig-zag.
  2. Switch to a straight stitch foot and sew the straight seam keeping the overcast bit as seam allowance.
  3. Open the seam with the seam allowance up, flip it to hide folded over material and stitch along the edge making a flat seam.

Regular open seam

  1. Make a straight seam leaving 1.5cm seam allowances.
  2. Fold and overcast single seam allowances with a felling foot with plain or stitched zig-zag.
  3. Press the seam open.

Before you begin

So, why is this section not at the beginning of the post, then? Because it’s a bit off-topic. It is not about crêpe and satin, specifically, this applies to any sewing project, so actually you already know all this and do all this every time anyway, right? But just in case you skip it sometimes, this is a reminder that you cannot skip it now, or else! 😯 Or else you’ll have more trouble than you should have had.

  1. Clean and oil the machine. You need it on its best behaviour now.
  2. Change the needle and use a brand new one. Really.
  3. Sew a sample, and make sure it’s along the grain of the fabric (along the selvage), so you won’t be surprised with poor performance on the real thing. Use a decently sized piece of material, not a postage stamp!
  4. Adjust thread tensions and foot pressure until you’re happy with the sample. Then take a fresh piece of cloth and sew another sample. Swear and repeat. You can also just cut off previous stitching – you must sew fresh, as you will do on the real thing. This is because the stitching comes out different when you do a second or third stitch.
  5. Don’t kick or punch the machine, it doesn’t help and you can seriously hurt yourself.
  6. If all else fails, try thin embroidery thread (for high speed machine embroidery). It is fine and slippery and helps to reduce puckering.
  7. Alternatively, hand-sew with a fine needle with running stitch or chain stitch (yes, it can be done by hand, too).

The mantra is still the same: if your machine cannot deliver quality stitching, do it by hand. With a bit of practice, you can always do it better. 😁

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