How to Pin Fabric for Sewing – a Beginner Tutorial

March 17, 2020

Your success in sewing is really dependent on several factors coming together at the right time. Fabric needs to be held in the right place, the right stitches need to be used, stitches need to be in the right place, the thread needs to be the right kind, and so on… So let’s talk about how to pin fabric for sewing – for the beginner sewer. After pinning, your project needs to be sewn. That pinning will determine where the fabric ends up in the final project. So put some thought and careful consideration into what you are doing, it really does matter!

This post is for the absolute beginner who wants to learn how to pin fabric for sewing. This is also for anyone wanting to troubleshoot seams/hems and learn how to improve their sewing skills. This is a image heavy post and includes two videos.

‘Pin/pinning’ in this post means to use straight pins to hold fabric together so it can be sewn. The weight of the fabric, the construction of the fabric and the feel (smooth vs rough) of the fabric all come into play. After learning the right way to pin your project, it will be second nature and you will not give it much thought ever again.

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The Right Pins are Straight Pins

No matter what kind of pins you use, you want to use pins that are not bent. Just chuck them, no questions asked.

Smooth and Steady

Pins should glide nicely into your fabric with no hesitation or resistence at all. Thin fabrics will work better with thinner pins and thicker fabrics need thicker, stronger pins.

Pins of All Sorts

Pins typically have either a metal, glass or plastic head. That’s the part that you use to insert it into the fabric and keeps it from slipping through the fabric. Each has their own pros and cons.

Metal head pins have the smallest heads. They do not get caught on other areas of the project as easily so they don’t accidentally get pulled out as often. However, small heads make it harder to place and pull them out as you are sewing. They can get lost if you are using a fabric with a very open weave or in lace that has lots of little holes.

Metal Head Straight Pins
Different types of metal straight pins
As shown in the previous photo, two different brands of straight pins. Super thick and old, but stong on the left. Super thin yet strong on the right.

Plastic head pins come in different sizes and styles of head. Some are flat flowers, round balls and even some have cute little critters made for the littlest sewers. Some are made to resist melting when ironed (a good thing), some are not (not a good thing). I use these for most of my sewing, I like the ones with the big flat flower heads. Plus, my mom gave them to me ♥

Plastic Head Straight Pins

Glass head pins do not melt when ironed. They tend to have very small heads, you really don’t want that big a hunk of glass waiting to break while sewing. With a smaller head, it is not as easy to pull out as you’re are sewing. They are probably the best all around, universal type to get if you only get one variety.

Glass Head Pins

In addition to having different styles of heads, pins can come in different thicknesses. Really thin pins are essential for very sheer or lightweight fabrics. Very thick pins are good for heavier weight fabrics. Makes sense.

I have a ton of different sizes and styles, that’s what happens when you are trying to find the absolute best and when people know you sew and give you them as gifts. Here are some of them and some other sewing must haves. There are also straight pins that are much shorter, they are used for other techniques like applique, I am talking about the ones used for pinning fabric for sewing a seam in this post.

Where to Pin the Fabric

If you are creating a garment to wear, you’ll want to pin in the seam allowances. Pinning in the seam allowance is critical when the fabric used is going to show the pin holes. Thicker fabrics it is not as critical. The Seam Allowance is the smallish amount of space between the sewn line and the edge of the fabric at the edge of where the fabric pieces meet. The is the ridge of fabric you see and feel on the inside of a shirt. You can’t sew a straight stitch on the absolute edge of the fabric and still expect the pieces to stay together. Straight Stitch is just a line of stitches, they don’t go side to side or backwards at any point while making the stitch.

How to Pin Fabric for Sewing

★ This is VERY IMPORTANT ★

Start by making sure your fabric and pin style are a good match. The pins glide easily into the fabric, they don’t disappear in the fabric and they can withstand heat if the project requires ironing before being sewn.

Following your patterns directions, line up the pieces of fabric that need to be sewn together, making sure you have them lined up with the correct sides facing together. Right Side of the fabric describes the side you want facing out when you are done with the project. Wrong Side of the fabric describes the side you do not want showing when you are done with the project.

Line up fabric to pin
Lining up the fabric to get get ready to pin. Pay attention to what sides of the fabric face each other. Most patterns call for the right sides facing.

You know the saying: ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ Right? Well, the same goes for pinning. DOUBLE CHECK your work before sewing. I hate ripping out a seam. Ripping Out a Seam is taking the stitches out with some sort of sharp object, usually a seam ripper or razor blade, without damaging the fabric. Don’t actually rip them out like a wrestler tearing off their t-shirt… YIKES!

Pin the fabric pieces together with the straight pin inserted perpendicular to the cut edge. You want to have the pin heads at the outer edge of the fabric with the pin points facing the middle off the project like this:

pinned fabric on sewing machine
The RIGHT WAY to have your pins when using the sewing machine or stitching by hand.
the wrong way to pin fabric for sewing
The WRONG WAY to pin for the sewing machine.

No pointy pins hanging off the edge or you will have blood all over yourself and the fabric. It is extremely hard to pull the pins out while sewing if the heads are in the wrong place, on top of the fabric on the left of the needle. (Usually you will have your seam allowance facing into the arm of the machine – the opening where your right hand holds the fabric on the right side of the moving needle. If you have the bulk of your fabric in there, you will have a more difficult time sewing. Sometimes you can’t help but have a lot of fabric in the and will have to manage anyway.) Try to keep the smallest amount of fabric in the arm of the machine, your sewing life will be that much more enjoyable.

Using the pins perpendicular to the edge will give you the smoothest seam. There are times when I have had to pin something with the pins running parallel to the edge of the fabric. I really don’t like doing it this way but for some reason every once in a while it is the only way that will work. See the difference in outcomes when pinning perpendicularly vs parallel?

pinning fabric parallel to edge
This is another way to pin, but usually not as effective or flexible as perpendicular to the edge.
Parallel pins vs perpendicular straight pins

Placing the pins perpendicularly also allows for more movement when sewing the seam.

The pins are acting like temporary stitches. Use them with that in mind.

just some sewing wisdom passed down from generation to generation

Use them how you would want a stitch/stitches to hold your pattern pieces together when finished.

Different Fabrics Require Different Approaches

Lightweight fabrics like sheer weights, lace and quilting cotton come together very easily with pins. The tricky part comes when one or both of your fabrics is slippery. You may find the need to pin more often to keep the fabric from moving too much.

Medium/heavy weight fabrics such as outdoor fabric, canvas, and denim are also straight forward for pinning straight seams. They may be a require a little stronger pin than the lightweights, but they really don’t cause much trouble.

Heavyweight fabrics like upholstery fabric and fabrics with a nap may require a slightly different approach. (Nap means it has a fiber coming off of it perpendicular to the surface of the fabric. Think velvet, fake fur or terrycloth – more about fabrics with a nap – see below) I find that when pinning super heavy fabrics I need to adjust how the fabric lines up to accomodate the thickness of the fabric. I will be writing a quick post about this topic, stay tuned!

When mixing two types of fabric weights together, you will likely need to experiment to see what works best and hold the fabric where you want it to stay.

More Advanced Projects that Need Great Pinning

Pinning a project using a fabric with a nap requires a little more attention. Most of the time, the naps of the fabric need to all be facing the same direction. For example, when making a pair of velvet pant, you have to follow the pattern closely to see how each piece’s nap lays such that both legs have the velvet nap lying the same way when sewn. (Lay. Lie. I’m not sure which to use here, please forgive any grammatical errors. I’m decent but some things in grammar just don’t work for me. Don’t even get me started on proper tenses or who vs. whom. All you’ll get is me staring like a deer into headlights.)

Curves! Sewing curves takes a lot of patience and a lot of pins. Someday soon I will tackle that in a post, it is somewhat addictive after you get good at it. I used to make tote bags with lots of curves and it was so much fun!

Straight Pins and the Sewing Machine

Straight pins can be used in both hand sewing and machine sewing. When sewing by hand, just make sure you are not puncturing yourself every time you move your project. I am terribly clumsy and accident prone. I stick myself with pins ALL THE TIME. When sewing by hand, you can keep sewing with the pins in place or remove them as you go. No big deal. (I usually take them out, accident prone me wants pins as far away as possible.)

Keeping pins in while sewing by machine is an on going debate that I am just going to outline with some bullet points. You can decide for yourself.

PROS to keeping pins in while sewing on the machine:

● Fabric pieces will stay together, in place exactly where you pinned them

● Sew longer lines without stopping, making a potentially smoother stitch line

● Sew faster because you don’t have to stop to take out the pins

CONS to keeping pins in while sewing on the machine:

● Sewing machine needle can hit a straight pin, causing damage to needle or machine

● Sewing machine needle can hit a straight pin and go off course, making for a stitch out of line where the pins are placed

● Fabric can sometimes bunch up right before a pin, the pin stays in place but the fabric makes a bump before you sew at the pins entry point

To fix this issue, take the pin out just before getting to it, smooth out the fabric then proceed sewing. This may be a result of poor pinning or fabric that was stretchier than you realized.

PROS to taking out pins before pins are sewn over by the machine:

● No damage to the needle or machine

● No bone chilling sound of the needle hitting the pin and you fearing for your life

CONS to taking out pins before pins are sewn over by the machine:

● Fabric can shift in the time it takes to get from the where the needle is to where the pin was removed

● Much slower progress unless you get good at taking the pins out as you sew

● Putting your fingers anywhere near a moving needle to take out pins while sewing is not a good idea – do as I say, not as I do 😉

● Slower stitching sometimes means having a less smooth line of stitching, think about how moving a marker faster will make a smoother line, the same goes for stitching

Now that you see the advantages and disadvantages, what do you think about machine sewing with pins ? I will admit that sometimes I do sew over them, but only when the fabric is a pain to pin. If I have difficulty pinning something, I really don’t want to take out the pin before I sew it. Remember thinking about the pin as a temporary stitch, here is where that is most relevant.


THE TRICK to Avoid Hitting Pins with the Sewing Machine Needle

Slow down as you approach the next pin and stop your needle about a stitch or two before getting to the pin. Crank the hand wheel (towards you, ALWAYS towards you) by hand until you are about to stitch where the pin is. If the needle is definitely going to hit the pin, move the needle down as far as you can without touching the pin. Take the pin halfway out, meaning that the pointy end of the pin is now under the fabric instead of on top. With one point of contact with the pin, the fabric is less likely to move than it would with the pin out completely. Make your stitch slowly by cranking the hand wheel towards you, it is unlikely the pin will still be in the way. If it is, you are just going to have to make a decision, either pull the pin out or leave it in. Just be ready for the consequences, you know, the usual thing teachers tell their students.

Check out this video to see it in action:

Pin or Not to Pin?

Are there occasions when pins are not needed? If you are an absolute beginner, please use pins all the time. I repeat, ALL THE TIME. As you become more comfortable sewing at the machine or by hand, you will know when you are able to do something without pinning. If I am doing a small hem repair on a tank top, I will pin it because it is a knit, stretchy fabric. If I am doing a small hem repair on a curtain that has a crisp fabric and only a few inches to sew, I probably won’t. This is one of those personal preference type things.

Simple Tool for Great Results

The little straight pin might not look so mighty or seem so important, but it really is an easy way to acheive professional results. Don’t overlook its usefulness, you need that little pin and all its little friends!

Thank you for sticking it out with me, this was a long post. Pun completely intended! Did you learn how to pin fabric for sewing? Do you have any questions? What are you working on that is acting up and a pain to pin?

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