Learn all the different ways to neaten edges with the overcast stitch. This stitch, sometimes known as whip stitch or overedge stitch, is really understated and once you get the hang of it, either with hand sewing or by machine, you will realize that it is a very useful stitch. Sewing overcast stitch by machine can almost compete with an overlocker or serger - All that’s missing is the blade to trim.
Overcast Stitch by Hand
Once perfected, this stitch can neaten edges of seams and other parts of a sewing project. If you are sewing fine fabrics, a hand overcast stitch sewn on a doubled fabric edge can be just as neat as a French seam.
Because this stitch will show on the edges, you should use a matching thread for an invisible finish. As always I used a contrasting thread so you could see what I was sewing.
Hand Overcast Stitch for Finishing
Step 1 - Fold Edges
Press the hem over twice to tuck in the raw edges. Smaller hems which are ⅛ inch (3mm) or less may need to be rolled over with your fingers as you go. Thread a needle with a double or single thread depending on the fabric you are using. (Read how to thread a needle)
Step 2 - First Stitch
Bring the needle and thread from the back to the front through the fold. Take the needle and thread over the folded hem and into the hem making a stitch that ‘casts’ over the fold at a slight angle. Pull gently on the thread so the stitch does not pull too tight and pucker the fabric.
Step 3 - Second Stitch
Continue in this way to stitch over the hem and bring the needle out ready for the next overcast stitch about ⅛ to ¼ inch (3-6mm) apart.
The top photo below is a wider overcast stitch hem and the bottom photo is a narrow hem that I hand rolled as I sewed.
Double overcast – A variation or to add extra strength. Stitch a second row of stitches by returning to the beginning and crossing over each stitch along the way. This forms a row of x’s while overcasting at the same time.
Hand Overcast Stitch for Seams
When using the overcast stitch for seams it is often referred to as a whip stitch. Put the needle through the 2 layers at an angle and repeat, wrapping the thread over and over the edge. This creates a strong seam that is perfect for using with fabrics such as felt that do not fray.
Alternative to Hand Overcast Stitch
If you need a stitch that is a little stronger for edges that fray then consider a blanket stitch. It looks a little similar but you will notice that the blanket stitch has a thread along the edge. This is useful for edges that can't be turned under.
Overcast Stitch by Machine
Sewing machines may offer different overcast stitch methods according to the make and model of the machine. Some machines have special foot attachments to assist with these stitches. Look to see what your machine offers.
Overcast Stitch Vs Serger
Compare the overcast stitch (left) to the serger (right) in the photo below. You can see that the overcast stitch is a little simpler looking with fewer threads.
The biggest difference between the 2 is that a serger will trim the fabric as it sews resulting in a very clean looking edge with no fraying at all. The overcast stitch is a great alternative to purchasing a serger and will help you get professional-looking seams without the extra cost.
Overcast Stitch Foot
An overcast stitch foot will have a guide to place on the edge of the fabric. The foot on the left is from my Janome machine and the foot on the right is from a generic kit that I purchased on Amazon. These feet snap on making the change quick and easy.
Overcast Stitch Instructions
Stitch the Seam - Depending on your pattern, you may stitch your seam first and then use the overcast stitch as a seam finish to minimize edges that fray. Some machines have an overcasting stitch that stitches the seam and neatens at the same time.
Neaten - Neatly trim the raw edges before you start with the overcast stitch. Unlike a serger, the overcast stitch will not trim as you sew so it is important to start with a clean, unfrayed edge.
Align - Attach the overcast foot on your machine and place the fabric under the foot aligning the raw edge to the left of the guide.
Settings - Turn your machine to the overcast stitch. Generally, you will need to set a stitch width. My machine recommended a width of 5.0. The length is generally set by the internal stitch settings but you may need to adjust this as well. If you do not have a manual for your machine, see my article on sewing machine manuals for some links to your manufacturer.
Stitch - Before you start stitching, hold the threads taut and to the side so they do not tangle underneath. You can release them after a couple of stitches.
Final Results - Here is what the final overcast stitch looks like. You can see there is still a small amount of fraying. I used a calico which is a fairly open weave. Tightly woven fabrics such as quilting cotton will have much less fraying.
What Not to Do - Below left is an example where I did not cleanly cut the edge first. You can see how much fraying there is. On the bottom of this photo, I sewed through a single layer of fabric resulting in some bunching up at the edge. You can test a scrap loosening the tension to fix this.
Alternatives to Machine Overcast Stitch
The primary purpose of the overcast stitch is to finish a seam when you do not have a serger. Here are some alternative seam finish options you can use with your regular sewing machine.
- Bias Bound Seams - Bias tape can be used to finish thick fabrics and is often used in jackets and coats when they are not lined. The bias can be a matching color to blend in or pretty contrasting colors to add individuality to a jacket.
- Pinking Shears - These serrated scissors cut fabric in a zig-zag design and can lessen fraying in tightly woven fabrics. One advantage of using pinking shears is that the seams will sit very flat. Make sure you use sharp scissors to prevent burred edges.
- Turned Under - Turn the edges of the seam under once and straight stitch along the edges. When my mother made clothing for us as kids this is the method she always used. There was a small amount of fraying in the wash but seams always held together well.
- Zig - Zag Stitch - Most modern machines have a zig zag stitch. Check the tension prior to sewing so the stitches don’t pucker up the fabric. Sewing the fabric double if it is very flimsy helps to keep the fabric firm. Trim away excess fabric to give a neat finish.
- French Seams - These seams are a great way to tuck in all raw edges and are commonly used on straight seams such as those in pillows.
Overcast Stitch - In Conclusion
There are several different overcast stitch options to try out and experiment with depending on your fabric and the item made. There never needs to be an overcast moment if you are wanting an alternative to the overlocker or serger machine. Neatening a seam with an overcast stitch will do a great job of neatening and finishing seams and fraying edges.