Learn to Sew Series Lesson #2: ZigZag Stitch

Welcome to week 2 of the Learn to Sew series! If you survived Week 1 you are going to breeze right through Week 2 because it’s not too much different. You’ll still be sewing a straight line, but with a zigzag stitch instead of a straight stitch this time.

Now, let’s talk about how to sew a zigzag stitch.

Zigzag stitch in sewing

How to Sew A ZigZag Stitch:

First of all let’s talk about what a zigzag stitch is and why you would use it. A zigzag stitch is just that-a stitch that zigzags. It looks like this:

What is a zigzag?

Pretty basic right? But why would you use a zigzag? There are a couple of reasons:

1. A zigzag is a more sturdy stitch, so if you need something held extra tight, a zigzag is the stitch to use. That’s what I use when attaching the hood on my hooded towels because I know it will hold nice and tight.

2. A zigzag can be used to prevent fraying. If you are sewing clothing or something that you want to have be really nice and you don’t want any raw edges to fray, you can zigzag them first. (That is if you don’t have a serger.)

3. Zigzags are used in applique and button holes. We are going to learn about those more in Lesson 7.


So, let’s get started sewing.

To sew a zigzag stitch you are going to start out just the same as you did with your straight stitch from Lesson #1. Thread your bobbin and your machine. Somewhere on your machine is going to be a way to change from a straight stitch to a zigzag. Up above you can see a picture of how mine does it (mine is computerized). It may be a picture of a zigzag or it may be a number or letter that indicates what stitch you are doing. Check your manual for help on this. (See also the Meet Your Machine post.)

Set your machine to zigzag. The basic zigzag stitch is going to be of average length and average width:

What is a zigzag?

But you will be able to change the stitch width and the stitch length as needed. Here are some examples:

On this one I have adjusted the WIDTH of the stitch to be larger. See how the zigzag is very big and wide?

But on this one I adjusted the LENGTH of the stitch-making the stitches long and farther apart:

Here they are closer together, meaning I adjusted the LENGTH again and in this case I also adjusted the WIDTH and made it a little smaller:

And on this one I adjusted the LENGTH almost as low as it could go:

When you have a really tight zigzag where the stitches are right up next to each other, that’s called a Satin Stitch.

Are you getting a sense of how you can adjust your stitches? Find where you do this on your machine and play around with it a little.

Now, typically when using a zigzag you can just keep your stitch width and length at a nice average setting. But it’s good to know how to change it as needed.

To sew a zigzag, LOWER your presser foot and your needle into the fabric. Make sure your machine is set on zigzag and sew an inch forward. Just like with the straight stitch, now push the reverse button and sew an inch backwards (back-stitching) and then go forward again. You have now knotted your thread and can continue sewing. Again, you can still use the edge of the presser foot or the seam guides to help you sew straightly.

One more thing to note. You’ll notice that sometimes that zigzag will make the fabric kind of gather in a tunnel underneath it. This can happen on lightweight fabric. There is a way around this. On your machine, the setting next to zigzag will look like a zigzag but dotted. This will do a zigzag but with three stitches per zig to help prevent the tunnel effect.

And that’s it. Not too hard is it? Do you have questions?

This week’s project to practice this skill is a basic hooded towel. These projects that I assign each week are of course optional, but are a good way to practice your skill. If you don’t want a hooded towel, that’s ok, find another project that you can practice on. But here’s the hooded towel tutorial for you:

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Hey there! I'm Amber, mom of 4 crazy boys, wife of 1 and non-stop, always busy, crazy project doer. (There's a reason why we call it *Crazy* Little Projects.) I love chocolate, reading, sewing and being with people!
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  1. Makenzie says

    These are so cute! The only issue I had when I made mine today was getting the machine to cooperate on the thick parts? I broke a needle! Is there a way around this that I haven’t learned yet?

  2. Jeanette says

    A hooded towel was one of my first projects when I started sewing again and I think your method may be even better. Excited to try again because a little toddler wrapped up in a hood must be one of the cutest things!

  3. Nicci says

    I’m having so much fun with this series. Thanks for helping me use my new machine. I can’t wait to make the hooded towel!

  4. Christy S. Lube says

    Heh… I may have to revisit parts of this series when I can afford a new machine, I s’pose… lol. I think I might attempt the hooded towel with a double row of straight stitches or something, they are so cute!

  5. Trasity says

    I found a tutorial to add a ruffle to pant legs and it uses a zig-zag stitch to make the ruffles, so that’s the project I used to practice this stitch. Turned out pretty well. I’m surprised at how non-intimidating this stuff is once you just get in and do it. Lesson #2 is a success!

  6. Melissa Reynolds says

    Thank you for these posts!! I have learned something from both so far. I am a beginner sewer(teaching myself as I go). I found the explanation of the Satin Stitch especially helpful! The only times I have changed the settings on my machine have been to do gathers lol! Is this the stitch we will be using when you go over the applique technique?

  7. Erica says

    Thanks for the tip about the “dotted zigzag”. I have been wondering for a while what that was for! Looking forward to next week!

  8. Aubrey says

    I love all the zig zag stitches! The only trouble I had was it getting to thick during the knotting process. Still need some work on that!

  9. Jennah S says

    Plan on making the dragon hooded towel this week for a baby shower gift.. Thanks for having this series.. I come from a family that is truly gifted in sewing, I of course am lacking this gene, so I appreciate your ability to make sewing less intimidating!

  10. Cristina Ferrer Lopez says

    Since this is for practicing the zig zag stitch I’ll be recycling some towels I was going to cut up into rags for cleaning. It’ll be mismatched in colors but practice is practice. :)

  11. Dominique says

    Thank you for teaching us what the dotted zigzag stitch does! I always wondered but was too intimidated to try it for fear I would ruin something! Thank you for build up my confidence in sewing too!

  12. Sarah white says

    I’ve had mu sewing machine for an entire year and have been intimidated by it. Now I have twin babies, boy & girl, and am determined to learn to use it. Love your blog.

  13. Kim H says

    So this week’s lesson went just ok. Overall, the towel is done in one piece and unless you inspect it carefully, it looks fine, but I did have a few problems. First I had trouble getting the towel moving. At the beginning of all my stitches, the needle would just zigzag in the same place and not feed the towel forward. I had to keep lifting the presser foot, move the towel just a smidgen, and try again to get it going. Once it got going, it would be ok. I broke a needle, but replacing it with a heavy duty one went easily. I had a problem with the hood piece slipping forward as I was sewing it to the bath towel so it’s not quite centered. And all my corners aren’t quite “square”, the hood wouldn’t quite lay straight to attach to the towel corner to corner, so I had to curve it upward as I sewed. So when it’s laying down flat, the hood kind of leans forward/upward to compensate, instead of laying flat too. But I’m learning and hopefully many more will follow with better results. Thanks so much for these tutorials, I learn so much!

    • Amber says

      The towels can be a little tricky because of the thickness but once you get used to moving that thick fabric through your machine they are a breeze. Just takes practice.

  14. Becky says

    I am loving these posts! I learned how to sew when I was younger and am recently picking it up again. These lessons have been super helpful!

  15. Sharon Joyner says

    Thanks so much for this tutorial on the zig zag stitch. I do not use it often but now that I know a little more it seems to be the perfect stitch for some things. Thanks again..

  16. says

    I practiced my zig zag stitches on pajamas for my 6 year old. I haven’t made the towel yet, but I will give it a try soon. I love using zigzag stitches to “serge” clothes.

  17. Jami Cobb says

    Yay! I did it! It’s a little small for my 7 year old, so going to switch a few things up and try another one. This is perfect for my 4 year old nephew tho!

  18. Linda says

    I practiced my zig zag stitches. I like the zig zag best of all so far. Can’t wait to make my hooded towel. I’m making it for my 15 month old grandson. (he’s too little not to appreciate it…lol)

  19. Shannon says

    I currently have a compact sewing machine but I want to buy something that can handle larger projects. Do you have any recommendations on a good starter machine that wouldn’t leave me too confused but could easily handle any one of the projects on your site?

    • Amber says

      I have so many people asking this…I am going to put together a post with machine options. How soon do you need my recommendation? :)

  20. Elaine says

    An hour and a half later and viola! Two hooded towels for my pair of goddaughters… can’t wait to see them modeling their gifts! :-)

  21. Colleen says

    It went great! I made a basic hooded towel, and now I think I’m going to utilize my trusty seam ripper and pull the hood apart to turn it into a dinosaur. I’m also going to make a penguin towel for my daughter. And I’m thinking that a set of these will probably be a fun Christmas gift for my parents next year–they have eight grandkids and these towels would be super fun ones for them to use when they visit!

  22. becca says

    I am so excited to finally be able to do this tutorial this weekend! My sister has always made hooded towels as baby gifts, so each of my girls have one…but a few extras would be nice (and some with BIG towels for summer swimming would be fantastic!), so I can’t wait to get sewing this week! Thanks for the tut on zigzag stitch, too, I haven’t had the chance to use it yet, and look forward to it!

  23. Karis says

    Ugh… I don’t think I ever want to try sewing towels again… Maybe with a different needle. I made two, since I have twins. They look cute (and the kiddos think they’re awesome), but they were challenging :)

  24. Joni says

    Thanks so much for the tutorials! :). I haven’t sewn since high school (…a l-o-n-g time ago ;) LOL! ). My hubby got me a Janome for Christmas, and with your help I feel so much more comfortable learning to sew again. Thanks for the Uber-Cute hooded towel tutorial too … You rock! :)

  25. Leslie says

    The zig zag stitch is great, and the practice this week really helped! The hooded towel turned out ok, but it was challenging. I will try to make it again, though, because it is a super cute gift idea!

  26. Lorie M says

    I also found the zigzag stitch to be a challenging one. I took many breaks when completing this project, but did get it finished and think it turned out quite well. I plan to try some of the animal hooded towels soon. Thank you Amber!

  27. sandra says

    My towel is made…but I might have to rip it apart and try again with another towel that is thinner…I broke a needle! I want to make these for my boys for Valentine’s day, they are so cute!

  28. Renee says

    SO EXCITED! I made one for my daughter and for my son, and they love them, and they actually turned out! Thanks so much Amber!!

  29. Deanna says

    Hey there! I love your tutorials and this blog! I am VERY new to sewing but am enjoying learning. Today I was using a zig zag stitch on the edge of my fabric to prevent fraying. However when I turned the fabric right side out after sewing, the thread seemed a little loose. Now I noticed you said that you could do the zig zag stitch “first” when using it to prevent fraying. Should I do another stitch over it to make it tight? Thanks so much!

  30. Edna says

    Hi Amber! Thanks for your much needed tutorial! I have never sewn in my life and decided to make a car seat cover! I taught myself through YouTube and blogs like yours!!! Amazing and so helpful! I have run into a problem that I’m not sure how to figure out…..I’m trying to do a cute decorative top stitch….a zig zag in between straight stitch…and my zig zag looks really good except every once in awhile it wouldn’t pull it tight so instead of a sharp hill (point) it’s more rounded…curved…if I could take a picture of it I would show you cuz I’m not sure if I’m making any sense haha! Do you know why that is? Thanks so much for your help!!

  31. Lin says

    THANK YOU for the zigzag tutorial. I am not new to sewing but have been away for a long time. Now I remember that I ALWAYS had trouble with the little tunnel the zigzag creates on thin materials, and sure enough, this solved it for me! I have a brand new machine (because my 34 year old Kenmore could no longer be repaired!) and that old one didn’t even HAVE that multi stitch zigzag. Now I know what it is for! Cheers, Lin

  32. Meryl says

    Thanks for the easy to follow instructions, it’s much easier when it’s in plain English!
    I am going to teach my 8yr old grand daughter to sew and think she will easily be able to understand your instructions.
    To the people that are having trouble with needles breaking on the thickness, use a small hammer to bang it down, also useful for jeans hems!

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