You don't need a serger to get neat and durable seam finishes. Neatly finishing your seams not only makes your sewing look professional but keeps the edges from fraying so it lasts for years to come. If you are a beginner or don’t have a serger, then never fear! You can get great looking seam finishes with a regular sewing machine. Try some of these popular methods to finish seams without a serger.
What Do Seam Finishes Do?
Seam finishes have one main purpose. That is to stop the edges of your seam from fraying. If a seam frayed right up to the stitching line, it would result in holes in the seam and all that hard work you did sewing would be wasted.
Before you start finishing a seam you need to have sewn your main seam. Seam finishes are done at the end after a seam has been sewn. You may do this at the end of the garment or on each seam as it is sewn.
Further Reading: How to Sew a Seam
There are 2 ways to sew seam finishes.
- With a Serger
- Without a Serger
Seam Finishes with a Serger
If you have a serger then you are all set to go. Sergers (also called overlockers in some countries) cut and sew a strong edge finish on woven and knit fabrics.
A serger does not replace your regular sewing machine but rather complements it by finishing the seams.
If you are purely finishing a seam, a 3 or 4 thread serger stitch can be used. Serger seams can be finished together or separately and pressed open.
A serger will trim the edge as it sews, so just make sure your seam allowance is wide enough for this small sacrifice. You will normally trim about ⅛ inch (3mm) from the edge.
If you look at any store-bought clothing in your cupboard, they will all have serger finished seams with have been finished together rather than separately.
Types of Seam Finishes Without a Serger
While nice to have, a serger is not necessary for beautiful seam finishes.
The 6 best types of seam finish when you don't have a serger are:
- French Seam
- Turned Under Edges
- Overedge Stitch
- Bias Bound Edges
Seam Finishes #1 - Zig-Zag
If you don’t have a serger, zig-zag stitch is a commonly used seam finish, particularly for thick or bulky fabrics. It is best for medium to heavy fabrics.
If my serger is not threaded with the correct color thread I need, I often quickly sew seam finishes with a zig-zag. Although it doesn't look quite as pretty as a serged seam it is equally as durable, and it is probably one of the fastest seam finishes without a serger.
- Use a narrow zig-zag to sew about ⅛ inch (3mm) from the stitched seam allowance. I generally use a width of 2.0 and length of 3.0.
- Trim close to the zig-zag stitches. You could use this same method with a 3-step zig-zag.
Sewing on the edge vs away from the edge - Sewing right on the edge usually results in a curled-up edge. This may be fine for thicker fabrics where the outline of the curl will not show through to the right side of the fabric. Sewing away from the edge and then trimming will result in a flatter seam.
In the photo below, I have zig-zagged the seam allowances separately for an open seam. It is also possible to join the seam allowances together and zig-zag the edge as one.
Experiment and see what works best for your fabric.
Seam Finishes #2 - French Seam
Use a French seam on fine or sheer fabrics for a professional-looking finish. A French seam is created by encasing the seam within the seam allowance. There are no visible raw edges to fray.
The advantage of these seam finishes is you have a durable seam which will not fray.
Many pillowcase patterns use a French seam. Since they will be washed repeatedly over their lifetime, it is important to sew a seam that will not fray. If you want to practice a french seam, then try one of my free pillowcase patterns.
Seam Finishes #3 - Turned under edges
This is the method I always remember my mother and grandmother using before we had a serger. If you have an old machine that only does a straight stitch then this is the best seam finish method for you.
- Make sure your seam allowance is at least ½ inch (12mm), and adjust the pattern if necessary.
- Turn under the raw edges by ⅛ -¼ inch (3-6mm) and straight stitch or zig-zag it in place. From the outside, it looks quite clean, but you will have a little fraying still when the item is washed numerous times.
Seam Finishes #4 - Overcast (Overedge)
Did you know most modern sewing machines have an overlocking function built in? This may be called an overedge, overlock, or overcast stitch in your machine manual.
Your machine will have a special foot for this function which guides the fabric and wraps the thread around the edge.
The difference between using a serger and the overlock function on your sewing machine is that no edge is trimmed before sewing. You will need to do that manually before you sew.
The disadvantage of using this seam finish is that you will have to change the foot each time. This is why I prefer a simple zig-zag over this stitch.
Seam Finishes #5 - Pinking
Use your pinking shears to stop the edges of your seams from fraying. This works best in fabrics that have a tight weave and won’t be washed too often. To provide extra strength and stop unraveling, you can stitch a straight row of stitches just before the pinked edge.
Pinking sears work by cutting your fabric on the bias (diagonal) where the threads do not fray as much. Pinking shears can be a little hard on your hands if you are using them a large amount, so use them for smaller seams and areas.
Further Reading: Cutting Tools in Sewing
Seam Finishes #6 - Bound edges (Bias bound seam or Hong Kong Finish)
Bias tape seam finishes are often used for bulky fabrics or unlined jackets.
- Using a thin double-fold bias tape, slip it over the edge with the wider side on the bottom.
- Stitch the open edge closed.
Using contrast-colored or pretty floral bias tape can make a jacket look as pretty on the inside as the outside. Store-bought bias tape is usually plain and boring, so if you do want to make some bias tape your self then have a read of my article - how to make bias tape.
Still not convinced you can sew seam finishes with a regular machine? Then consider shopping for a serger.
I have both a Singer and Janome serger, and both have been great machines. My Singer is now over 20 years old, so I certainly got great value in that purchase!
Seam Finishes for Knit Fabrics
Knit fabrics rarely fray, so you don't usually need seam finishes for them. This makes sewing knits extra fast and easy. When sewing knits with a serger, the seam allowances are automatically sealed and won't fray.
If your knit does fray, and you don't have a serger, or you just want an extra row of stitches for security against seam slitting, use a zig-zag close to the edge.
I use this technique on leotards where I'm worried that the extra stress on seams will split.
Further Reading: Sewing Spandex and Lycra
Seam Finishes - In Conclusion
Seam finishes can be created with or without a serger to make your sewing projects look beautiful on the inside and to last many washes and wears to come.
Which seam finishes do you use with your regular machine? Please share with us below. My most used of all the seam finishes is the zig-zag stitch.
Sewing for Beginners
- How to Sew a Hem: 5 Easy Ways
- How to Baste a Seam before Sewing
- How to Pin Fabric - 2 ways
- How to Clip Corners and Curves for Beginners
- Fabric Marking - How to Mark Fabric with Chalk
- How to use a sewing machine
PIN THIS IMAGE FOR LATER 🙂
Hi Michelle, it would depend on the thickness of the wool fabric. French seams can be difficult around the curves. Try a serger or zig-zag. Bias tape can be good for thick wool.
What seam finish would you recommend for wool trousers? I’m thinking a French seam, but I’m not sure.
Hi, I teach Fashion an Design at the High School level. I believe the zig-zag should be closer to the edge of the fabric so that the edge won’t start raveling after the first wash. Also the “Straight Finish” is really called a “Clean Finish.” This is the textbook I have been using for 18 years at both the High School and College level. Gives all the basics. Successful Sewing by Mary Westfall.
Hi Bess, these methods aren't as neat as a serger but they are certainly good alternatives. My preference for a pillowcase is the zig-zag. As you said you will get some fraying but it will only be a small amount. It may look a little fluffy on the inside edges but your stitching will hold strong for countless washes which is the important thing. Thanks for reading.
I had to make a folder and turn it in with all these seams when I was in school in 1963. Now teaching 4 girls how to sew has been a challenge. Now I can show them all these stitches. Thanks so much for posting them.
Do they really prevent fraying/unraveling? Even when you do a zigzag or fold d raw edges under, the raw edges are still exposed. So, repeated washing and drying will eventually cause unraveling.
A double gold before stitching would be functionally better as the raw edges are covered but it would be bulky.
How do you finish the edges of a pillow cover (thick fabric) without a serger - especially when you have to cut the corners?
Thank you so much for these wonderful suggestions. I can't wait to try several! As a some-time sewer of clothing, they will help. But as a (more-frequent) quilter I see some great ideas for trying on my quilts! Again, thank you for taking the time to inform all of us!!
Hi Vickie, not it just stays loose. They stitch through on jeans for a certain look, but normally you just stitch through the seam allowance and not the actual garment.
When you do the "turned under edges" seam finish along each side, after you turn under the raw edges, you don't sew it to the garment do you as this would show on the other side? just wanted to clarify, because I have seen jeans with the extra line of stitches showing on the front on each side of the seam.
Hi Cindy, What amazing insight! I can't believe they go back so far - hand stitched of course. Thanks for reading 🙂
Did you know that some of these seam treatments have been used for centuries? I've been studying Viking era clothing (as far back as the 9th century) and some of these finishes are found on their clothing remnants. We can certainly be sure these types of seams will stand the test of time!! Thank you for explaining them so concisely - I'll be pinning them to my sewing board!
I totally agree! Sometimes it is faster to just do a quick zig-zag seam finish instead of threading your serger. Thanks for reading. 🙂
Cheryl A Randall
1, 4 and 5. Professional looking finish. I have a serger, sometimes cumbersome to thread.