For sewing novices, the plethora of stitches can be confusing.

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When I was 16 and newly minted with a South Carolina driver's license, I signed up for my first sewing class. After a few days of sessions, my long-suffering instructor picked up my pillowcase, studied its clumsy seams, and declared wearily, "I hope you drive straighter than you sew." I haven't revved up a sewing machine since. Suffice to say, the world of needles and bobbins is still foreign to me, so I called on Cobbie Llewellyn—owner of Birmingham, Alabama's The Smocking Bird sewing shop—to explain the difference between a lockstitch and a chain stitch.

One quick note before we jump in: While there is something called a "chain stitch" in embroidery, for the purposes of this article, we are exclusively focusing on these two stitches as they relate to machine sewing.

"The lockstitch would be the stitch that you would see on a typical sewing machine," explains Llewellyn. "There's a thread that comes from the needle and a thread that comes up from the bobbin, and they intertwine with the material in between them." Several kinds of machine stitches fall into this category, from straight stitches to zig zag stitches. Home sewers, she notes, are more likely to use a lockstitch, as that's what standard sewing machines are equipped to do.

An entirely different contraption—either a serger or a coverstitch machine—is required to create a chain stitch. "Instead of having a bobbin, the serger or coverstitch machines have loopers [so named because they create thread loops] on the bottom." These loops enclose the fabric's edge within the seam, creating a finished look more quickly than a standard sewing machine can.

In terms of home sewing projects, Llewellyn says, you're more likely to find lock stitches on pieces like cotton blouses, and chain stitches (which are stronger) on stretchier, athleisure-type fabrics. 

Both stitches get the job done, so at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference and the machinery available to you. Happy sewing!