As CDC Suggests Face Masks for All in Public, Tips for Making Your Own

stay stitching and understitching are the meat and potatoes of garment sewing

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

On April 3, the CDC recommended wearing cloth face coverings in public settings. Before that, and increasingly since then, Americans have been making face masks at home to prevent disease spread. Proper stitching can make them comfortable and unobtrusive.

Close up of sewing machine, hands stitching a homemade face mask
Using the stay stitching and understitching techniques can help you easily sew your own face masks at home. Photo by Maria Studio / Shutterstock

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, recent information has come to light that suggests the need for the American people to wear face masks whenever they’re in public. “We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” the website said. “This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.

“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing face cloth coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

If you choose to make your own cloth face covering, be sure to use effective stay stitching and understitching for ease of wear. Here’s how.

Stay Stitching

One important technique to nail down for the home sewer is stay stitching. But what is it?

“It’s a row of stitching that you’ll see within the seam allowance on typically curved edges [of garments] such as necklines, around the arm hole, or also on biased grain lines,” said Gail Yellen, independent pattern designer.

After cutting your fabric, when heading over to your sewing machine to make a garment, Yellen offered an important word of advice.

“Be sure not to handle the fabric and hang onto the neckline and allow the weight of the fabric to fall off of that, and the same thing with biased grain lines as well,” she said. “It seems like a very minor thing, but believe it or not, it can change the dimensions [of your fabric]. The weight of the fabric itself will pull on those biased grain lines and you often may end up with a gaping neckline or a bias seam line that’s longer than it should be.”

Yellen said to make sure that when the fabric is under the foot of the sewing machine, handling and guiding it gently along while straightening out the fabric is key to keeping your project in its intended shape.


If your face covering has been cut down to its proper size, but the facing keeps popping up from the inside and keeps annoying you, it can be fixed with a technique called understitching.

“[With understitching] there’s a little line of stitching right along the edge of the facing, and that has a couple of functions,” Yellen said. “It will keep the facing from peeking out onto the right side of the garment if you’re wearing it, but also, the seam line favors the inside of the garment. When it’s pressed and worn, you won’t see that seam at all.”

Understitching can be done by straight stitching along the seam of a fabric or it can be done in a stitch called a three-step zigzag, which is sometimes called an elastic stretch stitch. The three-step zigzag, Yellen said, comes in handy for fabrics that are “a little lofty” like sweatshirt fleece if you want your face covering to come in the heavy-duty variety.

“[The three-step zigzag] is a nice way to compress that seam, keep it nice and flat and smooth,” she said. “Almost any basic sewing machine has a three-step zigzag stitch on it, so it’s pretty easy to find.

Gail Yellen contributed to this article. Gail Yellen is an independent pattern designer, author, and an active member of the American Sewing Guild. She’s been drawn to sewing since childhood, when one of her most treasured belongings was the dress her grandmother made for her first day of kindergarten.