To pin or not to pin

Can you count the number of times you’ve sewn -for example- a collar to a neckline and had the experience that the one side will set just fine but the other side is either too large or too small? Or what of joining one front side seam to a back side seam and ending up with disparity? While it can be due to inaccurate patterns, it’s just as likely due to the practice of pinning. I’ve created a test project that I’ll show you, illustrating why pinning can create problems where there were none.

Pinning -as a matter of course- is something that enthusiasts and less experienced designers will debate endlessly. I decided to put it to the test after reading yet again, someone ridiculing those who didn’t pin. It’s one thing to criticize someone’s practices when the method one proposes as a replacement is superior. It’s quite another thing if the method is inferior. As Twain said, “It’s not what you don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what you do know that just ain’t so”. As it happens, quality and attention to detail in garments, whether custom or manufactured, is impinged by the practice of pinning rather than enhancing it.

Unfortunately, some pinning adherents think the singular reason one chooses to abstain from the practice is to save time. This is simplistic; the actual reason is accuracy. Cutting unpinned goods is much more accurate. Moreover, the issue of time is debatable. If you’re making a one-off, it takes a lot more time to make a pattern out of material (presumably oak tag) that can be traced. So rather than “saving time” by tracing, it is actually pinning that is the time saving strategy. So, if one truly wants a high quality garment with all due attention to detail, they will take the longer route of tracing the pattern rather than pinning tissue. This is why manufacturers will go to the bother of creating prototype patterns on oak tag even though they may never produce the item and it takes more time. It is annoying when some people have the attitude that manufacturing necessarily involves lowering standards. It is often exactly the opposite. Replication requires higher standards enhancing uniform duplicity. One-offs don’t.

I made up an example to test the pinning process. As it stands, with all of that in and out going on with the pins, physics dictates that the pieces closest to the top will be the shortest. In this case, fabric being what it is, the two fabric lengths stuck together masking the full effect. But that’s the thing about fabrics, they tend to do that. And that’s the thing about using standard practices. If you have a good practice, it should work regardless of fiber properties. If you have to use one method for this, another for that and still another for this other fabric, most likely your standard practice isn’t standard. In general, that’s the tip off to a proper method. You shouldn’t have to do it one way for this one thing and this other way for another.

Here’s the pattern pinned, a relatively short length of goods representing the length of the average collar and neckline. That pattern is not flat. Just how will this shortened length commensurate to the pattern’s design?

And below it is cut out.

Below the pieces are unpinned and lengths compared.

Below is a better view. The green is the shortest, although theoretically speaking, it should have been the paper that should have been shortest. Pinning melds layers, this fabric is very grabby but the paper is smooth and slides.

Just comparing the two fabric lengths, below you can see the difference is 5/16ths of an inch.

Now, can you imagine the results if the collar were the longer purple fabric and you were trying to sew it to the shorter green neckline fabric? It’d never fit. This is exactly why one side of the collar and neckline will be okay and the other side will not. Still worse, imagine if you pinned the two with the shorter piece on top. The piece on top will be even more pin-shrunk, amounting to shortening the shorter piece even more! Now imagine you were trying to pin sleeves with the sleeve cap ease typically found in home sewing patterns. That reminds me of another related concept. I’ll put up another short entry about it.

Of course, detractors may placate and attempt to justify themselves by saying I trimmed or whatever to reach these results but guess what? You can replicate it yourself. Besides, if I had staged it, I would have made the paper the shortest length to arrive at the theoretical results. If you choose to duplicate the experiment, I recommend to watch your handling. One thing that people do (that makes me cringe) is to run their palms over the fabric to smooth it out with varying degrees of firmness. This lengthens the goods. They should be at rest. So, if you duplicate the experiment, be mindful that before and after cutting, you’re not artificially impacting the goods.

And that’s not to say you should never use pins while cutting out and sewing, just that you should use them sparingly. Until recently, I really didn’t have any (decent) pins. I had to go out and buy some and made a muck of it until Joyce Ireland took pity on me and sent me some (thanks again!). I had a visitor once who was amused by my then dearth of pins. I had four of them; all that was left of a half pound of T-pins I’d bought ten years prior. She thought it amusing that I didn’t use them but then needed to. So much so that she took this picture of me using them. As you’ll see below, I’ve concealed the evidence :).

I.D. and O.D.
Beginner’s guide to sewing with industrial machines
Beginner’s guide to sewing with industrial machines pt.2

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30 Comments on "To pin or not to pin"

3 years 1 month ago

I’m not yet confident enough in the home machine, or in my cutting and handling ability, to sew an entire long seam without pinning. (I was. Then I had to go rip them all out when they didn’t align.) While I’m learning, I’m compromising. I laid the seam flat and made sure it aligned all along its length, then took tight hold of one part of it and sewed up a few centimeters’ worth of seam while I was sure it was gripped flat and not shifting and not misaligned, then laid the entire seam flat again and pounced on another spot. It was a huge waste of thread and time to have five short pin-like sewn segments along each seam before I put the seams through for their proper sewing. It violated two better procedures shown later in this blog. Still, it helped to have the seam gripped at checkpoints, but not pinned, not marred by the rippling that pins would introduce even if they were perpendicular to the seam. It came out even, and not pinned, and I didn’t have to buy anything new for this training-wheel step away from pins. Try it if you like, if you’re also still at the “pins or misalignment” stage of sewing.

3 years 3 months ago

Follow me:
The only way to sew without pins is if you have confidence it will all come out right. True or true?

If you knew, were 100% certain, it would come out exact, wouldn’t you sit down and sew that on, without worrying if it would fit and notches line up? Pinning would then be a waste of time, correct?

That’s the hint right there. Pinning is a waste of time provided:
Your pattern is correct
The fabric was cut correctly
Your machine is feeding evenly.

So that’s what we do. Patterns are checked for accuracy. Fabric is cut and spread according to established practices and lastly, we check the machine to make sure it’s sewing evenly.

This is the thing. All of the above is kind of a hassle to fiddle with if you’re only making one item, I get that. However, if you’re making multiples, you save time and frustration by making sure those three things are resolved.

You’re not stupid or incompetent, you use pins because you truly need them. However, take away the defects that precede you and you won’t need pins anymore either.

You might like this entry I wrote: Deconstructing a sewing class. There are many many comments on that entry. I suggest reading them, they’re probably better than the post itself.

Sheila O'Kelly
3 years 3 months ago

Fascinating. Thanks very much. All new to me and really interesting. How do you sew waistbands, and seams etc without pinning? Would love to know.

Lisa Bloodgood
5 years 3 months ago

Lately I’ve only used pins in sewing to match the starting point of each piece to the other one. I use 2 pins so it doesn’t rotate, but don’t pin other than that unless it’s something super slippery or troublesome.

5 years 3 months ago

[…] Alternative title: Pattern puzzle: the pinning and praying edition, but not praying because you’re pinning but pinning because you’re praying. Oh bother, that makes no sense either, it’s just not this. […]