There are all kinds of construction techniques you come across in sewing where you question whether or not they're required. It's important to understand the principles of what they are trying to achieve so we have a better understanding of whether or not they are truly "optional". Enter the bar tack! You may be inclined to think they are merely decorative, but in fact, bar tacks are small but mighty details that take your garment from something that might last a few seasons to something you will wear for decades. They not only help your clothes last longer and take more abuse, but they can also add a custom and professional-looking touch to your me-mades. Let's dig into how to sew bar tacks so you can take your garments to the next level.
What is a Bar Tack?
A bar tack is a small area of dense reinforced stitches to help lend strength to areas of high stress. It can be created in many ways but essentially is made up of tiny, closely sewn zigzag stitches forming a shape or pattern. They are usually added after the main seams have been sewn and can be created manually by adjusting your zigzag settings, or by selecting special bar tack stitch types on more sophisticated machines.
Where Do You Add Bar Tacks?
Generally speaking, functional bar tacks get added to places where a seam is straining. The top of pockets, alongside seams at the hip (on tight jeans especially), or places where straps, loops, zippers, or handles connect. If you look at a pair of RTW jeans you will most likely be able to find at least a few examples of where they are typically installed.
We love bar tacks and call for them in many patterns, not just jeans! We like adding them for both aesthetic and functional purposes, such as our Sepia Pants, which feature little diagonal bar tacks at the edges of the floating pockets.
If you are adding a bar tack at the end of your stitching, make sure you overlap your stitch line with the tack to catch the end of your seam within. If you create a bar tack next to your seam instead of on it, you are actually weakening this area rather than reinforcing it – this is why it's crucial to understand WHY you're putting a bar tack there before you start.
How to Sew Bar Tacks
A manual bar tack can be created on a standard sewing machine with a regular zig-zag stitch. When sewn correctly, bar tacks resemble a narrow bar or rectangle of stitches, with little to no space between the horizontal stitches of each zigzag. The width of the zigzag determines the final width of the bar tack, while the length refers to the amount of space between the horizontal stitches. The shorter the stitch length, the denser the bar tack.
In most cases, you want a stitch length that is *just* above zero. A length of zero may jam and not move through your machine - anywhere from 0.1-0.5 tends to work, depending on your machine. Next, play with the width of your zigzag stitch until you like the thickness of your tack. Below you can see examples of a manual bar tack set at various stitch widths. A good all-purpose width is 2.0-2.5 ( perfect for jeans and workwear) while a finer project like a button-down shirt may call for a finer 1.5 width.
Always practice your bar tacks first so you can determine the right settings. Using a scrap of fabric that is the same weight as your project, test the stitch length and width of your bar tack to make sure you like the look of it before tackling the ones on your garment. To finish the stitch, backstitch at the end. If your machine can't backstitch when zigzagging, leave a long thread tail on your top thread, pull the thread through to the back by pulling the last stitch out, and then tie the thread tails together to make sure your tack stays put.
More Bar Tack Tips!
- Whether or not you use topstitching thread on top, always use regular thread in the bobbin to avoid thread nests and snarls.
- Make sure your machine foot is wide enough to accommodate the width of your zigzag stitch - you will break a needle if you're using a straight stitch foot.
- Adjust the tension as needed to get a balanced stitch. You should not be able to see the bobbin thread from the right side or the top thread from the wrong side.
- Don't push or pull your fabric when sewing a tack or you will get gaps. The feed dogs will do the work of moving the piece under the presser foot. This way, you'll ensure nice dense stitches.
- To avoid skipped stitches and to add even more stability, sew your tack over a piece of tear-away stabilizer or pattern tissue and remove excess after.
- If your machine doesn't want to sew a bar tack through a very thick seam, try hammering the area with a mallet (protect your fabric with a scrap) to thin the seam out.
Different Types of Bar Tacks
Check your manual to learn any pre-sets your machine may have. Our Pfaff Creative Icon II has a bunch of fun settings for specialty tacks. Judith made a little sampler for us to look at. These can be cool design details to customize your me-made, but some of them actually have specific applications.
From left to right:
Bartack- Reinforce pockets, shirt openings, and belt loops as well as at the lower end of a zipper.
Denim Bartack- All of the above, but make it denim.
Decorative Bartack- Same functionality, different look.
Cross Bartack- For reinforcing openings, particularly cute on the top of a split hem on a kit shirt.
Leaf Bartack- Absolutely cute as heck.
So that's it! Don't be afraid to play around with these stitches to max out the quality and lifespan of your garments!
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