Sewing Thick Fabric on a Sewing Machine: Tips and Tricks

Sewists tend to think ahead and plan for the future. Although it is still August, we have recently been fielding a lot of questions from people who are eager to begin sewing gifts for the holidays. Winter weather means coats and blankets, which tend toward sewing on thicker fabrics. To successfully sew on thicker fabrics, your machine will require special attention to certain idiosyncrasies, which we will cover below.

Premium Components

To truly conquer thick fabrics, one ought to own a sewing machine that has been designed with premium components. What do I mean by premium components?

If you were to line up an entry level machine next to a premium machine like the Janome Skyline S7, you would notice several stark differences. First off, the S7 is physically larger than the entry level machines in almost every way. It has a thicker needle bar, a larger zig-zag stepper motor, and a larger drive motor. It’s upper and lower shafts are thicker, and are fitted with ball-bearing seals. All of these differences result in a stronger overall machine.

What does this mean for you, the sewist, as you create the winter coat you have designed? It means your motor won’t struggle to turn your machine over when it hits that difficult fabric. It means that your needle bar will hold firm and your needle won’t deflect as you power through multiple layers of thick wool. It is heavier, and therefore more quiet as it will vibrate less as it sews. It is sturdier, and less likely to experience problems over the years.

Presser Foot Pressure

Another thing to keep in mind when sewing thick fabric is your presser foot pressure adjustment. This feature allows you to tell your machine the thickness fabric you are sewing, and is an absolute necessity for sewing thick fabric. If your machine does have adjustable pressure foot pressure, you are in for a rough ride.

The way a sewing machine is able to feed fabric is simple enough to understand. The fabric is sandwiched between the presser foot and the feed dogs. The presser foot holds the fabric down against the feed dog teeth, which grip the bottom of the fabric and feed it forward. But what happens when you insert thicker fabric? 4 layers of denim? 6 layers of canvas? Thicker fabric will naturally increase the presser foot pressure, often to a point where it is excessive and your machine may not be able to feed the fabric at all. Instead, the fabric will stay in place and the machine will sew in the same spot. How do we fix this? We adjust the presser foot pressure.

It may seem counter intuitive, but in this instance you may find success by lightening the presser foot pressure and increasing stitch length. If the machine can’t feed your fabric, the presser foot is probably pressing down on the fabric too hard, to a point where the feed dogs can’t do their job. So, decrease presser foot pressure in order to free the feed dogs. Then increase stitch length so the feed dogs perform a larger revolution.


In order for a sewing machine to successfully make a stitch, certain relationships between the needle and hook must be in sync. (1)Timing: when the hook point passes behind the needle, the timing must be such that it passes a specific distance above the eye of the needle. (2)Clearance: the physical distance between hook point and the needle must be relatively precise.

Fabric is a variable for that can effect timing and clearance. Without fabric, the needle takes a straight path down to the hook. With fabric, it must pass through the material to reach the hook. When you sew through thicker fabrics, the needle passes through more material than it would if you were sewing through thinner fabric. The more fabric that a needle passes through, the greater chance of the needle’s path being altered. If the needle’s path is altered, then there is a good chance that both the timing and clearance will be effected in way that causes poor stitch quality or skipped stitches altogether.
How do we fix this? Pay attention to your needle size and needle type. Any size under an 12 should probably not be used on thick fabric because they lack sufficient circumference girth, so there is a greater chance they will deflect while passing through thicker fabric. Very few threads flow smoothly through the small eyes of 10 or below, and the small hole created with these needles is rarely large enough to provide a space for the thread knot to tuck into. That said, be careful to not use too thick of a needle, as large diameter needles can also lead to many problems. A needle is not a nail. Try using a 12 instead of a 16 or 18 on thick fabric. It is easier for a pin to go through something thick than a nail.

Please call us at (925)937-7575 for more information, or stop by the shop to see the machines we carry that are capable of handling your holiday projects.
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