Tips and tricks for sewing bias seams in chiffon & other lightweight fabrics

Let’s face it:  sewing with really lightweight fabrics can be hard, even for the best seamstress.  And it only gets worse with fabrics like chiffon and silk charmeuse, which twist and warp as you work with them.  And it get’s really tricky when you try to sew on the bias of the grain, either with a bias cut garment, or with a skirt cut with multiple A-line panels.

Shell’s dress has multiple A-line panels in the skirt, so I had to be really careful in sewing it.

A 'rippling' bias seam = not good. Fixed with hanging.

Here are some things that I have found that make working with chiffon and lightweight silks easier, and that increase your chances of a good finish.

Cutting:

  • Lay your fabric out on a surface big enough that you won’t have to move it to cut out all your pieces.  Once your fabric is laid out, go away for half an hour so that the fabric completely ‘relaxes’ before you cut it.
  • Lay your fabric piece over tissue paper to cut them, and cut the fabric and the tissue, as one.  This helps keep your fabric from shifting and warping as you cut it, and means you will know exactly what size the piece should be.
  • Use lots and lots of fabric weights to keep the fabric smooth and stable as you cut.
  • Don’t double your fabric: cut each piece individually. For pattern pieces that say to cut on the fold, make a double of that pattern piece and tape it, so that you can cut the piece without folding your fabric.  This helps keep the fabric underneath from warping.
  • If you have them, use serrated scissors or a rotary cutter to cut your fabric.  These make it easier to cut without slipping.
Preparation:
  • Pin!  Use good, fine, new pins, and pin each seam carefully, with pins at frequent intervals.  Make sure you don’t stretch the fabric as you pin.  Or, better yet…
  • Baste.  Yes, it seems time consuming, but so much less than unpicking a bunch of unsatisfactory sewing!
Your machine & equipment:
  • Use a brand new, very fine, ‘sharp’ needle.  A brand new needle ensures that it hasn’t blunted or picked up hooks that could snag on your fabric.
  • Pick your thread carefully.  I find that extra fine threads work best on silk.  I often use a very fine rayon embroidery thread for sewing silk chiffon.
  • Put a piece of masking tape over the hole in your sewing plate where the needle goes down.  This will help keep your fabric from being sucked into the bobbin area.  Raise and lower an old needle to punch through it before putting in your new needle (to keep the new needle from gumming up).
Sewing:
  • Test your stitch length on scraps of your fashion fabric cut at the same angle as the seams you will be doing.  Generally I find that a much smaller stitch than normal works best for me, but I know other seamstresses who swear that a longer stitch is best for keeping the fabric from stretching as you sew.
  • With some fabrics, and especially with fully bias-cut garments, you may find it best to use a very tiny zig-zag stitch to sew your seams.  You can then finish these seams with a double zig-zag stitch.
  • Use directional sewing:  sew from the hem, up to the waist.  If you sew down a seam you sew into the grainline, and stretch it.  If you are using French seams, be sure to use directional sewing for both seams.
  • Carefully guide your fabric through the machine.  Make sure not to stretch it as you sew.
  • I like to use French seams on lightweight silk garments.  Not only does it look pretty, but I find that it stabilizes the seams, and helps keep them from warping.

Pretty French seam with little-bitty stitches

Pressing:
  • If your seams get stretched steam ironing can help the fabric shrink back to its original size.  Just make sure your fabric is steam friendly!
Hanging:
  • I pin bias cut garments & garments with bias seams in onto Isabelle (my dressform) and leave them hanging for 24 hours before finishing them.  I find that seams that initially look warped often fall straight with a little help from gravity.  Sometimes I even put bring Isabelle into the bathroom with me for showers so that the fabric gets steamed.  Hanging is particularly important for hemming:  otherwise your fabric can stretch a little with time, and leave you with an uneven hem.
  • While your fabric is hanging you can gently grasp the fabric on either side of the seam, along the line of the grain (so one hand will be higher than the other), and ‘equalise’ the grain across the seam.  This helps the diagonal grain to ‘continue’ from one side of the seam to the other, so the fabric hangs as if there is no seam.  Attempt this with caution though: it can warp some fabrics!

The diagonal grain continues from one side of the seam to the other

Not sure how to sew French seams or double zig-zag seams?  Check out this article: Seam Finishes for Silks

And that’s all I know!  Anyone have any other brilliant tips of their own?

34 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Lauren says:

    VERY helpful! And perfect timing, too. I think chiffonishness scares most of us, and I know I didn’t know any of these tricks, so thank you!!

  2. Chris D says:

    I’d never thought of putting a bit of tape over the hole in the plate! That’s brilliant and I can’t wait to give it a shot. Thanks!

  3. MrsC says:

    Directional sewing is the BIG one here, and pressing too, always from hem to waist. That crepe must have been especially tricksy because I never had buckling troubles with that silk chiffon and charmeuse on Rob’s wedding dress – mind you maybe using the walking foot helped too?

    • I may have exaggerated the buckling problems slightly to illustrate what has happened on other crepes. I had no problems with the chiffon on the White Zombie dress.

      I don’t have a walking foot. I’m interested to see what difference that would make.

      • MrsC says:

        I did wonder because the seams look pretty darn fabbo on Shell’s dress!!! But I’ve had trouble with silk crepe de chine before.
        I think the walking foot helps by minimising any drag and feeding both top and bottom pieces through evenly. Which of course is what it is for (duh moment there!)

  4. Laurie says:

    Thank you for all of these tips. I have a question that you might have covered and I have missed it. Or perhaps all those tips will take care of the problem I usually have. When I sew these fabrics, all the fabric puckers horribly. Is that to be avoided by all of these tips? Or is that another issue? Thanks!
    Laurie

  5. Virginia says:

    Laurie,

    Be certain that you have tested and adjusted the thread tension on some sample fabric pieces before sewing the seam on the garment. On my heavy duty Singer I have to change the thread tension almost to zero before I can get a smoothly stitched seam.

  6. Kimberly says:

    So I’m starting on a new silk painting class with goal this time of making a dress if all goes well! Crepe silk so still light and yes, I’ll have a lining once putting it together. My BIG ? is do I lay down the panels on a diagonal /bias so it will hang right? Single boat neck with drape at top and then straight down with a little curve for hips but not fitting. Back is in two panels. Please help me!!!! I don’t want to start this wrong right from the get go :) help!

  7. Marilyn Stewart says:

    As organza and similar fabrics are so smooth and lightweight, pins tend to fall out. My tip is to use two pins together in place of one, testing on a scrap of fabric first to make sure they do not leave marks. Double-pinning it makes the pins stay in place until you need to remove them.
    Alternatively, if you find pins are leaving marks or holes, use kirby grips to hold your folds in place until you sew them.

    • Dkdolly says:

      My trick is to use small binder clips from the office supply store to hold the pleats, folds, seam edges, etc. Then of course, I remove them before they get anywhere near the needle. I’ve also used plastic paper clips (metal ones snag too much) and they work ok for very fine fabrics.

  8. Mrs D says:

    I have 6 bridesmaid dresses to make for my son and daughter to be. They want Greek style one shoulder in chiffon but with a straight strapless style underneath to show through the chiffon. Any idea what fabric i should use underneath to keep the dress light as the wedding is July 2013 ?

    • Stephie says:

      The last dress I made used a printed chiffon with a lightweight satin underneath. There’s a fair bit of fabric in the dress but it’s still quite light to wear.

  9. Leanne says:

    Great tips,i’m about to start a chiffon dress and am reviewing. I also use tissue paper when sewing, so the shape stays true and reduces puckers. Someone also told me to use a light spraystarch and then wash it out (testing it on a scrap first).

  10. paula glover says:

    Hi, thanks for these great tips…any useful know-how on hemming organza/chiffon, these fabrics seem to have a mind of their own !!
    Thanks

  11. Barb says:

    How do you stabilize an angular seam in knit fabrics so it doesn’t become wavy because it is being stretched when wearing?

    Also how do you stabilize a row of sequins on knit fabric so it doesn’t go wavy too? I’ve had trouble with angled and vertical lines especially as the fabric stretches once on and the rows are no longer straight.

    Thanks.

    • Hi Barb. A thin strip of interfacing should help stabilize angled seams. I don’t have any experience sewing sequins on knits. You might try asking Steph at 3hourspast.com, as she’s much more of a knit seamstress than I. My specialty is couturier and historical sewing – lots of hand stitches and fine fabrics, not a lot of knits.

  12. Heather says:

    I am wondering about tips on finishing a neckline on a gown. The front piece has a scoop neck and is cut on the bias. I am finding a rolled hem to be too wavy, even when done by hand or with a rolled hem foot. Any ideas? Thanks!

  13. lisa says:

    This is one of the best tutorials I’ve seen for working with silks. I especially love the idea of masking tape over the sewing plate – I’ve never seen that idea before and instead people have recommended buying a second “one hold” sewing plate. Brilliant!
    Also the tip about directional sewing was new to me – I would never have thought of that :)
    Thank you for the time you took to save time for us!

  14. Niam says:

    Thanks for the tutorial. I will try it out soon. But I wonder why the fabrics must be “completely ‘relaxes’ before cutting it.

    Again, many many thanks

  15. Brenda K says:

    Loving your site. I put my machine up after many years sewing , lately I have decided I have the “itch” again. A young lady wants me to make her a mermaid costume skirt . She had already purchased the fabric when she come to me. This turns out to be solid rows of chevron sequins on chiffon. Although it’s beautiful, I tried to explain that this isn’t the best choice for the tight fit costume she is looking for. No lining (brrr) How can I make this where the fabric can handle the stress of sitting, dancing etc without virtually pulling apart , warping and not to mention the rows of sequins pulling from the seams before the end of her events? I do tend to be a perfectionist and I think that is causing my brain block …. After all this is just a Halloween costume. H-E-L-P

    • Don’t make the entire skirt out of the sequins – sew strips of very stretchy fabric into the side seams, so that they provide the ‘give’ for the tight fit of the skirt. And back the heck out of the sequined chiffon to give it more strength and support. Not proper lining, but flat lining. I’ve just blogged about how to do it.

      Best, Leimomi

  16. Sherry says:

    I would love to see some of the things pictured here of the items that have been sewn on chiffon etc. by the commenters here. Its hard to picture them in my head as I look for inspiration.

  17. ilovedogs says:

    i wish i knew about using the tape over the throat plate when sewing my bra. One place i read not to use french seams when sewing chiffon because it would show. so, to sew french or not,,,,that is my question.
    thank you, by the way, thank you!!

  18. Rosaerona says:

    This has been such a helpful post- thank you! I am making my wedding dress, and as I like cowl necks and 1930s style, I’ve ended up with a bias cut design and this has made my life much easier and less stressful. It’s daft, I can cope fine with a an 18th century saque back robe, or the most complex of corsetry, but ask me to do bias cut and I start quaking! Hopefully this will break my phobia… Thanks again :-)

    PS I definitely agree with the pins advice! I always use new pins on silk , it’s worth the expense. Pin out your pattern, then add more pins and when you think you’ve got enough add some more just for luck! But always pin in the seam allowance as chiffon/satin can pin mark something awful.

  19. Lorna says:

    Hello! Thank you so much for these tips. I’ve never sewn with chiffon before, but I’ve just found fabric with the most gorgeous pattern, and I had to have it. Yup, it’s chiffon, and I think I’d be lost without your tips. Thanks again! x

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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