Getting technical: the difference between satin stitch and zigzag stitch

Now that you’ve seen some satin stitching and decorative stitching in action, I’m taking a moment to look at the difference between a satin stitch and a zigzag stitch.

After years of using both of these stitches, I recently came to understand the real difference between them. All I knew was that I appreciated the look of the BUILT-IN satin stitch on the Husqvarna Viking Brilliance 75Q. I was getting a beautiful finish to my applique, but I didn’t know why! Now I know and I’m excited to share it with you.

Husqvarna Viking Brilliance 75

I’d like to mention something before I get started. We do NOT play with our sewing machines enough. Some of us see a project that we want to make. We make that project and then we move onto the next project.

What did we learn in the process? Are we a better sewist because we made that project? Did we take the time to learn something new?

We are so focused on the quilts or garments that we’re making, that we lose sight of the amazing tool (sewing machine) that made it happen.

It’s time for us to start thinking about mindful sewing. What is mindful sewing? Oh, don’t get me wrong – I’m not discouraging you from sewing. Matter of fact, I’m encouraging you to sew every day. But the same way that we get excited about starting a new project, we should be super excited about our sewing machines and what they can do.

You got excited when you were shopping for your Brilliance 75Q. You were ecstatic when you opened the box and set it up. Now you’re just sewing the same type of stuff. It’s time to start exploring what the 75Q can really do. It’s time to learn what you’re capable of by using this amazing tool.

Over the years, I’ve learned a ton about sewing. Most of it was by making samples and exploring. I’m still learning today and still making samples. I strongly encourage you to make samples. Explore the possibilities of your sewing machine, build your creativity, satisfy your curiosity!

That means that today, we’re looking at a comparison of the satin stitch and the zigzag stitch. Wait! Aren’t they the same stitch? Actually, they’re not!

The zigzag stitch

Today, I’m focusing on my stitch outs. Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing more info about the set-up for the zigzag stitch and how it looks on the Interactive Touch Screen. It became too much to put into one day.

I started off with a piece of muslin, black 50wt sewing thread in the top and the bobbin, and a stabilizer on the underside. More on the stabilizer tomorrow as well.

I chose a light background because it photographs much better than a dark fabric and I can write the stitch widths and lengths on it for easy reference. Oh yes, I have no intention of throwing this sample away. This is will go in my box of samples. I’m hoping you’ll make one as well.

The sample below is the zigzag stitch that’s built into the Brilliance 75Q. There are default settings to all the stitches and we’ll chat more about defaults tomorrow.

The default for the zigzag is a length of 4.0 and a width of 3.0. What does that mean? I think it’s obvious for the width – from the extreme left to the extreme right, the stitch measures 3.0 mm wide. The length is the distance from the one stitch to the next. See the next photo for a better picture.

Default settings for the zigzag stitch

For those of us who are more visual learners, hopefully, this makes it a bit easier to understand. The top two arrows indicate the stitch width and the two arrows on the side indicate the stitch length

So far so good?

Stitch width and stitch length are indicated by arrows

Let’s start to play around and see what the capabilities of the Brilliance 75Q are with regards to the zigzag stitch. In the photo below, I’ve added two lines of stitching. I’ve kept the width of the stitch the same at 3.0. The line of stitching on the left is the shortest length that I can use with the zigzag. That’s a length of 2.0. On the right, I’ve taken the stitch length to the maximum length of 12.0.

Wow – that’s quite a range of stitch lengths. Remember, the stitch width remained constant.

The range of stitch lengths for the zigzag stitch

In this next sample, I’ve returned everything to the default settings. It’s time to play with the stitch widths. The center line of stitching is the default settings of length = 4.0 and the width is 3.0. On the left-hand side, I’ve done a line of stitching with the narrowest possible setting. Technically, the Brilliance 75Q will stitch a zigzag with a stitch width of 0, but then that becomes a straight stitch and what’s the point of that? So the line of stitching on the left is a width of .5 with the length remaining at 4.0.

The line of stitching on the right-hand side is set at the widest zigzag possible which is 7.0. Again, the length of 4.0 remains constant.

The range of stitch widths for the zigzag stitch

Think about it – there are many, many combinations of settings that I could create by changing the length and the width. If I were a mathematician, I could figure out how many iterations, but that kind of math is not my strong suit. I’ll stick with making samples – I’m good at that.

By having this information on a sample, especially when I’m new to sewing, or I’ve got a new sewing machine is that I don’t have to recreate the wheel when I’m looking for a particular type of stitch. I can pull out my sample and visually see what I need.

Stitching out the samples, also helps me to understand the settings of my sewing machine. When I change the length, how does that affect the stitch? When I change the width, how does that affect the stitch? What are the maximums and minimums that my sewing machine is capable of?

Trust me, you’ll become a lot smarter when you start stitching samples. It’s a good way to impress your friends.

The Satin Stitch

Before I show you the difference between the satin stitch and the zigzag stitch, I’ll do the same exercise with the satin stitch that I did with the zigzag.

I’m starting off by choosing the satin stitch from the built-in stitches on the Brilliance 75Q. It also has a default setting which is a width of 4.0 and a length of .8.

Default settings of the satin stitch

Remember back to the example above that shows what exactly is the stitch length and the stitch width? It’s very important to know the difference. You want to be able to get the stitch exactly how you want it to be and you need to know how the setting changes will affect the look of your stitch.

In the sample below, the center line of satin stitching is the default setting on the sewing machine. It’s a length of .8 and a width of 4.0.

Keeping the width of 4.0 a constant, I took the length to the maximum length possible which is 3.0 and that’s looking just like the zigzag (well it’s not, but we’re not there yet). The line of stitching on the right-hand side is the minimum length of .1. I didn’t get much stitched – this length is super small, takes loads of time (and thread) to stitch out and unless one is careful, you’ll end up jamming the machine. More details tomorrow on the presser feet you should be using.

The range of stitch lengths for the satin stitch

I’ll do the sample exercise as I did for the zigzag. Now I’m keeping the length of .8 a constant and I’m changing the stitch width. The minimum width on the left is 1.0 and the maximum width on the right is 7.0.

The range of stitch widths for the satin stitch

So you can see that we have quite a variety of settings that will allow us to get exactly what we need. The key to remember is that you have all these extra “stitches” in the Brilliance 75Q. It’s time to get out of the default mode!

Before choosing the length and width of the stitches, you must evaluate what it is that you’re stitching so that you ensure you get the correct width and length for the job. Yes – that means you need to stitch more samples. If the piece that you’re stitching has a lot of points and curves, I might not want to use the widest satin stitch. While pretty, it can be harder to turn corners and the minimum width might be too small to actually cover the entire edge of your applique shape.

We all have different skill levels and strengths, which means that the flexibility of the Brilliance 75Q will allow us to find a setting that works for the job at hand and also that fits with our skill level.

Hey – I’m not done playing. There are still more options to choose from. I know that the default length is .8 and I know that a length of .1 is probably too small, so what happens when I start at .8 and decrease the stitch length.

You’ll notice in the default setting at the extreme left (remember, I’m using 50-weight piecing thread here), that I’m not getting a solid coverage with the satin stitch. I’m also at the widest width of 7.0. That’s perfectly normal. See what happens as I decrease the stitch length? The coverage gets tighter.

The sample at the length of .6 has better coverage than when the width is at .8. The coverage at .5 is better than when the length is set to .6 and so on. Remember that you’re using more thread as well so that’s why you’re getting better coverage. You’re literally taking MORE stitches each time you shorten the stitch length.

The coverage between the length of .4 and .3 is very little so it doesn’t make sense to go with an even shorter stitch length. It this were my project, I’d probably go for a length of .5 as I’m getting a decent coverage with that setting and this thread type.

The satin stitch coverage changes considerably when the stitch length is shortened

Thread Weight

Let’s chat about thread weight. The idea of a satin stitch is that it should cover what’s underneath. You know from the sample above that I can make that happen by shortening the stitch length. But I can also increase the coverage by changing the weight of the thread. This will take less thread and the process will go faster!

The line of stitching on the left was done with a 50wt thread that you would piece with. I don’t like to do my satin stitching with 50wt thread as it doesn’t provide the best coverage. The middle line of stitching was done with a 40wt thread which is typical of threads used for machine embroidery. I love using this type of thread for satin stitching as the little bit of shine helps to pop out the applique stitching. The line on the right is done with a 30wt thread which is a little bit thicker and you can see provides even more coverage.

All the settings were the same – I only changed the thread weight.

The weight of thread can affect the coverage of the satin stitch

The Stabilizer

Here’s something else that’s very important when using a satin stitch – you MUST use stabilizer. In my samples above, I used ONE layer of a stitch n tear stabilizer with ONE layer of fabric. One layer of fabric is not stable at all. Normally when stitching applique, we’re working with at least two layers of fabric and often there is fusing as well.

You probably noted in some of my samples, especially when I moved to the wider stitches, that there was a little bit of pulling. That’s because I only used one layer of the stabilizer with one layer of fabric.

In the photo below, I used one layer of stabilizer on the line of stitching on the left and two layers of stabilizer on the line of stitching on the right.

This is another reason why we do stitch-outs. It’s important to know how much and what kind of stabilizer that one needs. Again – more on stabilizers tomorrow.

Stabilizers are important to a good appearance

The Sample

Here’s my final sample – and yes I know I haven’t told you the difference between the zigzag and the satin stitch yet. I wanted you to get a good appreciation for the two stitches before I chatted about the difference.

Stitching out something like this will take you a couple of hours at the most. It doesn’t require any special tools or techniques. Only some thread, fabric and some stabilizer – most of which I’m sure you all have in your house.

But learning to make this simple sample is priceless. I can show you samples, I can teach you how to make samples, but I can’t ‘learn’ this information for you. Trust me, it’s worth making samples on similarly sized pages and then keeping them for reference! It’ll be your best manual ever.

A stitch-out sample exploring the satin stitch and the zigzag stitch

The difference between the satin stitch and the zigzag stitch

Now we’re down to the final moment  – what really is the difference between the satin stitch and the zigzag stitch? If you looked carefully at the samples above, you may have noticed, but you probably didn’t see the difference.

In the photo below, I’ve stitched a sample of both stitches side by side. Can you see the difference now?

Can you spot the difference between the satin stitch and the zig-zag stitch?

Look how the satin stitch is formed. It’s essentially a horizontal stitch that always stitches left to right. There’s a “repositioning” stitch on an angle that gets the needle back to the left so it can take another horizontal stitch. The angled repositioning stitch helps to create additional coverage.

The zigzag stitch is totally stitched on the diagonal.

Why is this so important? The look of the final stitch – the horizontal stitches of the satin stitch will provide a much nicer finish to your applique than the diagonal zigzag stitches.

And now you know! That’s why having a built-in satin stitch especially if you’re doing a lot of appliques is so handy.

That wraps up another day of learning with the Husqvarna Viking Brilliance 75Q.

I learn so much from these exercises and I’ve always wondered what the difference between those two stitches was. It wasn’t until I played with them that I can really appreciate the difference. Hopefully, you’ve learned something as well!

Tomorrow, I’ll have a look at the Interactive Touch Screen and show you how easy it is to make changes to the default settings, some tools, and supplies that are critical to machine applique and also a couple of samples using some of the stitch settings used above.

Be sure to come back for that.

Have a great day!


This is part 3 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 2: Getting technical: the difference between satin stitch and zigzag stitch

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Diane May 24, 2020 - 11:43 pm
Absolutely brilliant! Thank you so much:)
Brenda West March 31, 2019 - 9:17 am
As a beginner - this was so interesting and informative. Thanks for helping those of us who are just learning to sew more. Love the article.
Laura S March 31, 2019 - 9:07 am
That was very informative! You're right, we need to play with our machines more to learn all that they do. I know my machine will do tons of things I've never even tried yet.
Lu Wilmot March 29, 2019 - 5:10 pm
Thank you for the tutorial on satin and zigzag stitches. This is really informative and helpful.
Melody Lutz March 28, 2019 - 2:05 pm
Very helpful while I am figuring out my new machine!
Delaine March 28, 2019 - 7:38 am
Thank you for this helpful information. I love to finish my applique with satin stitch but sometimes struggle to get it perfect. This definitely will help.
Lori M. March 27, 2019 - 11:16 pm
Oh thank you for this stitch out tutorial... I have not made one of these samples for my regular machine only my serger...but now I will.
Nancy J March 27, 2019 - 8:45 pm
Wow! Did not know there was a difference, but it is so obvious! Thank you for the enlightenment.
Rolanda Tovey March 27, 2019 - 4:09 pm
Thanks for the information, Elaine.
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