Shifting fabric causes several problems during the sewing process. When you get to the end of a seam, you may find that the top layer of two identically-sized pieces is no longer even–the top layer has somehow become longer than the bottom. Or the bottom fabric may develop a puckered look.
You might be fighting to keep the edges together at all, with the top or bottom layer continuously threatening to slide out from under the sewing area.
In a worst-case scenario, as you struggle to keep the fabric flowing on an even keel, unintended stress may cause needle breakage, or thread may tangle under the material.
What causes these issues, and how can you prevent them?
How To Keep Fabric From Shifting While Sewing
The type of fabric must always be considered. Slippery or stretchy fabric requires an extra measure of control to keep it from slipping or bunching. But some heavy-weight materials may also not feed through evenly without some adjustments.
Incorrect machine settings can be a significant contributor to the problem. Another major problem is the friction caused between the top layer of fabric and the presser foot.
Don’t be discouraged. There are ways to minimize shifting for a quality outcome. You might be surprised at some of the simple hacks that can make all the difference.
Machine Settings and Attachments
The first–and often the easiest–place to look for help is your sewing machine setting and accessories.
Stitch style: Check that you’ve chosen the correct stitch for the fabric. This is especially true when sewing stretchy fabric.
Stitch length: Adjust to a longer or shorter stitch length as is appropriate for the material. Use a test scrap to find the perfect size. Between 10-15 stitches per inch is the most recommended for slippery or stretchy fabrics.
Presser foot pressure: The actual amount of pressure the foot exerts on the material can be adjusted on most machines. Remember that friction may be an issue, to adding pressure might not be the answer. Use a test piece to experiment with higher and lower pressure settings.
Needle: Using the wrong needle can result in bunching fabric or tangled thread. Remember to choose the appropriate needle for the weight and type of fabric. A ballpoint needle is recommended for stretchy or slippery materials. Non-stretchy fabric may need a sharp to slip more easily through the layers.
Presser foot type: A walking foot is an excellent investment if your machine brand/model has that option. A walking foot feeds the top and bottom layer evenly through the sewing area.
If your machine comes with an Integrated Even Feed System, ensure it is engaged when sewing any material that tends to slip. In fact, keep this handy little extra engaged so long as you’re using a pressure foot that allows it.
You can also decrease friction with a Teflon foot if you’re sewing stretchy fabric.
After making all possible machine adjustments, you may still find some fabrics refuse to cooperate. You’ll probably need to combine machine adjustments with one of the following stabilizing options.
Pre-washing can sometimes remove some surface slickness, depending on the type of fabric. But don’t pre-wash material that is dry-clean only.
Lightweight, delicate fabrics can be basted by hand before running through the machine. Hand basting may seem time-consuming, but it’s also the easiest to remove and the least likely to leave behind a residue or potentially tear the material.
Baste close to but outside the final seam line. Use a running stitch that will pull out easily. A contrasting color will make the basting even easier to see.
Place extra-fine pins vertical to the seam or regular pins placed horizontally along the edge. Pins will need to remain in place as long as possible to minimize shifting.
Tissue paper can be used in two ways: to reduce friction or to adhere to layers together.
To reduce friction, place a layer of tissue paper between the top layer of fabric and the presser foot. Line up the tissue with the edge of the material to see your seam allowance.
To adhere the layers of fabric, apply a temporary spray adhesive to both sides of the tissue and place it between the layers to keep them together. Use test scraps to make sure the adhesive will not leave a stain.
Whichever tissue method you use, the paper should be easy to remove once the fabric is sewn.
A 3 X 5 card
After pinning, hold the fabric in place with a card held along the left side of the presser foot. This method can be used to control any material without getting your fingers too close to the needle. It takes a little practice, but you’re learning a real insider trick.
If your fabric is sturdy enough, you can try applying a temporary spray adhesive directly to the surface to hold the layers together. Again, try this method on test pieces first, with a wash to ensure the bond completely dissolves without a stain.
A strip of narrow, fusible sewing tape can be placed along the edge of the fabric to hold the pieces together while you sew. Fusible tape does require a medium heat to adhere properly, so don’t use it on heat-sensitive material.
Ensure the fusible tape is narrow enough to be completely hidden inside the seam. Using temporary tape will ensure no residue will be seen from the right side of the garment.
Using pattern weights is also a suggestion for stabilizing slippery fabric. However, I have found this to be a very slow and cumbersome solution. Since the weights are not directly attached to the material, it can still slide unless you keep the weights close and sew only an inch or two at a time, then reposition the weights.
Quite frankly, I love my pattern weights, and I know this method will work in a pinch. But you don’t need to buy weights for this use, especially since it doesn’t really have to be pattern weights. You can use a paperweight or any small, smooth, heavy object that will prevent the fabric from slipping back or sideways while still giving you room to guide the material through the machine.
Yes, I mean a cheap, craft glue stick. Use the glue stick on the edges of the fabric to stick them together. If you get too much on, it should be gone with one washing. Try washing a test piece to avoid staining if you’re not sure.
Double-sided craft tape or office tape will also keep your fabric together, but it needs to be entirely hidden by the seam. This type of tape could make the seam stiff, so use it only on heavier fabric. It will not wash out as easily, so I’ll call it another “in a pinch” method.