How to Chain Piece – It’s Not Just for Quilters
Have you ever been sitting at the sewing machine and become aware that you seem to be lifting and lowering the presser foot and cutting threads more than you are actually sewing?
The exact details about the first time this happened to me are a little fuzzy, but I know it happened when I was working on machine piecing a quilt top.
I remember sewing a lot of pieces together and constantly raising and lowering the presser foot as I fed each pair through the machine. Cutting the thread as I removed one pair before feeding the next pair through the machine.
It’s vague, but I seem to recall getting tired of lifting the presser foot up and down just wanting to be done.
What I do remember is stopping frequently to count how many more pairs I had left to sew.
Chances are it was my mom who saw me doing this, and introduced me to the wonderful technique of chain piecing.
Since learning this technique, I’ve applied it in a variety of sewing projects in addition to quilt tops.
As a result, I find myself using the phrase chain sewing interchangeably with chain piecing.
What is Chain Piecing?
In quilting, piecing is when you’re sewing together fabric pieces to create quilt blocks.
Chain piecing is when you sew multiple sets of fabric (a set is two pieces of fabric sewn together to create a seam) in one sitting and link them together with a continuous line of stitching.
When chain piecing, you don’t cut the thread between sets and you may not need to lift the presser foot. (See the important note below the photo.)
Chain piecing is very efficient.
Think of it as a sewing assembly line.
And it’s not just for quilters.
In the photo below, I’m making pattern weights. In each step of the construction process, I used chain sewing.
It not only saved thread, but also time.
Important Note: Some machines require you to lift the presser foot when feeding the fabric. Check your machine’s manual on whether or not you need to do this.
Why You Should Chain Sew
Chain sewing saves time and thread.
You’re saving time because you don’t have to stop after every set to lift the presser foot, remove the set, cut the thread, insert a new set, lower the presser foot, sew, and repeat.
If your machine requires lifting the presser foot to position the fabric, you’re still saving time using chain sewing because you won’t have to cut the thread between sets.
It’s good practice to leave a thread tail of 4-5 inches when you remove sewn pieces from the sewing machine.
With chain sewing, since you aren’t cutting the sets apart as you sew, you’re saving 4-5 inches of thread for every set you sew together.
So, you’re saving thread because you don’t remove each set after the seam is done.
When To Use Chain Sewing
Chain piecing isn’t just for constructing quilt blocks. It can be used almost anytime you have more than one set of fabric pieces to sew together.
As you’re working on a project, read all the directions and think about the construction process. Is there a way to sew more than one set of fabric pieces at one time without getting confused on what you’re doing?
Whenever you have more than one set of fabric pieces to sew together, you should consider using the chain sewing technique.
A few examples of when I used chain sewing are:
- string piecing
- making pattern weights
- sewing the pennants for a banner
- sewing welding cap (see video below)
Chain sewing can even be used when making clothes. If you have a favorite pattern and want to make more than one, think about making several at one time and batch the sewing process.
During construction, chain sewing could be used if you complete each step on all items before going on to the next step.
How to Chain Piece
Step One: Prepare the fabric you’ll be sewing.
- This means the sets can be pinned or clipped together.
- It could also mean the fabric pieces are organized in such a way (within reaching distance of your sewing machine) that you know which pieces go together.
- When chain sewing pattern weights, I separated the fabric so each pattern weight was made up of 4 different fabrics. Then I organized them in front of my machine.
Step Two: Insert the first set of fabric pieces under the presser foot and sew them together. (In the photos below, I’m chain sewing flags in a pennant banner.
Step Three: When you come to the end of the set, take a few more stitches so the fabric clears the back of the presser foot.
This will leave a short length of thread between the fabric sets. Don’t cut the thread.
Step Four: Feed another set of fabric pieces under the presser foot. The feed dogs will pick up the fabric and move it under the foot.
Unless your sewing machine manual tells you to, lifting the presser foot isn’t necessary. (In the video below, I demonstrate chain sewing with and without lifting the presser foot.)
Keep feeding a new set of fabric under the presser foot once the previous one clears the back of it.
Keep stitching without clipping threads between the sets.
Step Five: After stitching the last set of fabric pieces together, remove the chain from the sewing machine. Leave a 4-5 inch length of thread.
Step Six: Clip the sets apart carefully.
Before Cutting Sets Apart
Based on your project, consider pressing the seams BEFORE cutting the sets apart. It may be easier to press them when the sets are connected.
Also, the construction of your project may require you to keep track of the order of the sets (like the pattern weights I made).
If this applies to your project, determine a way to do this BEFORE you cut them apart.
A Note on Backstitching
Typically when chain piecing, you don’t need to backstitch.
With garment construction, as long as there will be a crossing seam, you won’t need to backstitch either.
However, if there won’t be a crossing seam or if it’s a seam you want to reinforce, you should backstitch. This can be done as you’re chain sewing.
Video Tutorial – How to Chain Sew
In the video below, I demonstrate how to chain piece a project that isn’t a quilt block.
When making a welder’s cap for the third time, I was able to chain sew several items at once saving time and thread.
Some of the pieces had a mark where I needed to start the seam, so you’ll see me chain sew with and without raising the presser foot.
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Chain piecing is awesome! It’s such a time saver, and it can help stop your fabric from getting sucked down into the feed dogs too.
Elizabeth, I agree! It definitely improves sewing time but I never considered how it helps the fabric move smoothly under the presser foot. Great point!
I have an older (1960’s) machine and manual says to never stitch without fabric under the needle. This makes me believe I shouldn’t try chain stitching ? but I really want to be able to. Any ideas whether chain stitching would actually harm machine and what the problem/harm would be?
If the manual says not to sew without fabric under the needle, I wouldn’t.
I’m not sure what damage it would cause, but if you want to find out, consider contacting a sewing machine repair person and ask them what the effect would be.
There is good news…you can still chain stitch! You’ll just need to lift and lower the presser foot between each set.
While this doesn’t save you a lot of time, it will save you thread.
All you need to do is:
Sew the first set.
Lift the presser foot and pull the set to the back of the machine so there is 1-2 inches of thread visible.
Put the next set under the needle, lower the presser foot, and sew.
Continue until all sets are sewn.
When you remove the chain, you’ll see how close together the sets are and that will give you an idea of how much thread you need to leave between each one.
Hope that helps!