Kite Sewing 101

Kite Sewing 101 - AKA Convention 2002

Everything you need to know to sew kites from ripstop nylon.

This web page is not called Kite Making 101, because kites can be made without sewing. It's not called Sewing 101, because there are many techniques we will talk about that are unique to sewing kites. This page is an expanded version of what was presented at the American Kitefliers Association National Convention in Ocean City, MD on Wednesday, Oct 2, 2002.

Sewing Machine thoughts:

    • If you are new to sewing, you don't have to buy a new sewing machine. In fact, don't buy a machine at all. Find one for free. Pick one off the curb on trash day. Tell everyone you know that you want to learn to sew kites and someone will feel so sorry for you that they will give you a machine. Sewing machines are like fitness equipment. Many of them are bought brand new with the best of intentions, then stuck in a closet and never used. Find one of those machines that has spent its entire life in a closet and make it your own.
    • Older is generally better.
        • Metal body and gears, stronger motor and belts.
        • Easy to clean and maintain.
        • Simple, all gear and cam driven. No step motors.
        • You don't need 1,000 different stitches. You will only ever use four. Okay, so 'four' is a number I picked out of thin air. Lemme see, (1) Straight, (2) Zig-Zag, (3) 3-Step Zig-Zag, (4) Reverse.

For those people who simply must have a new sewing machine to learn to sew kites, here is a list of what to look for. This is a wish list, a set of guidelines. Perfectly good kites can be made without any of the following items. In the Seminar at Convention it was mentioned that National Grand Champion kites have been made on machines that straight stitch only.

    • Vertical bobbin, not a flat drop-in.
        • (Vertical bobbins are easier to adjust than flat drop-ins.)
    • Ability to stop Needle up / Needle down.
        • Some electronic machines have a button to push which makes the needle always stop in the 'down' position, into the fabric. This is very handy when sewing appliqué. Pushing the button again makes the needle always stop in the 'up' position. This makes it easy to remove work and trim threads without having to move the handwheel to bring the needle to proper position first.
    • Very wide zig-zag. Most will do 5 mm. Look for 5.5 to 6 mm.
    • Variable width zig-zag.
    • A 3-step or Triple zig-zag.
    • A 'Bobbin-out' warning. (Some machines have a warning light that comes on when there are only 3 yards of thread left on the bobbin.)
    • Dual Feed. (This is sometimes erroneously called a Walking Foot. It isn't a walking foot by sewing industry standards, but it is a very positive feed feature. It really helps when sewing ripstop nylon.)

Learn the machine!

RTFM. Read the Manual. Don't have a Manual? - get one! Most stores will copy one for you.

Threading the machine properly from the spool of thread to the needle is critical.

Learn the proper thread path for your machine.

Minimum things to know about the machine:

    • How to thread the machine. (Thread Path)
    • How to wind & thread & insert the bobbin.
    • How to set bobbin tension.
    • How to set top tension.
    • How to adjust stitch length and width.
    • Replace a needle

Other things to know about the machine:

    • How to clean.
    • How to use reverse, if it has it, to back tack (bar tack).
    • Where, when, and how to oil.
        • Older machines have more places, and use grease-like lubricant in some spots.
        • Newest machines generally only need a drop of oil on the Bobbin Race.

Flat bobbin and slant needle machines: All slant needle machines have flat drop-in bobbins. The bobbin tension adjustment technique that is described next won't work for flat drop-in bobbin machines because the bobbin and case cannot be conveniently removed. Bobbin tension can still be adjusted, but it is more tedious. The Bobbin tension still needs to be adjusted first, but on 'flat bobbin' machines it needs to be done with a screwdriver, with the bobbin and case in the machine.

A great way to learn more about how a sewing machine works is to watch this episode of The Secret Life of Machines. The link is:


Proper tension, top and bottom, is crucial to good sewing machine performance. Most sewing 'problems' can be traced to tension or needle problems.

Sewing kites involves sewing ripstop kite fabric that is thin and slippery. 'Normal' thread tensions will tend to pucker up the fabric. Kite sewing usually involves much lower tension, both top and bottom.

NOTE: Most instructions for adjusting sewing machine tension say to adjust the top tension first. This assumes the bottom tension adjustment is somehwere close and doesn't move much. Experience has taught me that the bottom tension is often way off for sewing ripstop nylon, and it is harder to get at than the top. So it is easier in kite making workshops to adjust the bottom tension first and verifiy it is close before fiddling with the top tension.

Setting Bottom Tension (this should be done before adjusting top tension)

Note: At the sewing store, when you buy a machine, they will point to the bobbin and say: "See that? That's the bobbin. Don't touch it!"

If you plan to sew ripstop, you will not only need to touch it, you will need to become very comfortable with adjusting it on a regular basis for every different thread you intend to use.

    • Remove Bobbin Case from machine. Check your Manual for how to do this on your machine.
    • Holding latch open holds Bobbin in Case.
    • When the Latch is closed, Bobbin will fall easily out of Bobbin Case.
    • Hold Bobbin and Case by thread.
    • Bobbin and Bobbin Case should just fall under their own weight, with a little encouragement. It takes a little practice to do this without the bobbin falling out of the case.
    • This is just a place to start from, a guideline.
    • Left loose, right tight. Turning the screw counterclockwise will lower the bottom tension.
    • The screw should turn easily without a screwdriver.
    • Replace Bobbin & Case into the machine. Holding latch open holds Bobbin in Case.
    • Make sure Bobbin Case is fully inserted in Bobbin Race.

Setting Top Tension

    • With Bobbin in machine, sew a row of stitches on a piece of scrap.
    • Set/check tension on same type material you intend to sew.
    • If bottom stitches are being pulled UP, lower top tension.
    • If top stitches are being pulled down, increase top tension.
    • If stitches are even, no bumps top or bottom, no puckers in cloth, good to go.
    • If fabric is puckering, remove Bobbin, lower bottom tension, and start over.
    • Very big loops of very loose thread on bottom means no top tension. Check the thread path again. Make sure the thread is between the disks and under the spring on older machines. Make sure the thread is to the left of the pressure plate on newer machines.

In the illustration above, (I) the bottom tension is tighter than the top. (II) shows top tension tighter than bottom, (III) shows ideal tension with both threads meeting in the middle. Using two different colored threads of equal thickness makes it easier to see the differences for adjustment.

Needle: It is tempting to think of the needle as simply poking the thread through the fabric to sew. That is only a small part of the picture. Think of the needle as a delivery system to get the top thread to the bobbin race so the rest of the sewing machine can complete the stitch. The thickness of the thread, the groove in the side of the needle, the scarf on the back of the needle, the size of the eye of the needle, and the size of the hole the needle makes on the fabric all contribute to how well the actual stitch comes out.

Needle and thread note: How many times would you guess that one section of top thread passes thru the eye of the needle? Once? Twice maybe? Would you believe that using HB-33 thread at 8 stitches to the inch (3 mm), one section of thread passes back and forth thru the eye of the needle 24 times? Actually, that is 24 round trips, which means 48 passes through the eye. Think of that when choosing needles and thread. Small needles with small eyes trying to sew lumpy thread often have tension problems.

Size matters.

    • Too small a needle invites tension problems.
    • Some people say that too big can excessively damage the fabric (** see note in Thread section)
    • Best to use is a #14, 90 European, Regular Point.
    • We can make a good case for using 16's and 18's too.

Position matters.

    • Make note of where the 'flat' is before you take it out.
    • Put it back in the same way it came out.
    • Make sure it is all the way in.
    • If you didn't look at the way it came out, there is a one-in-four chance of putting it in right.
    • 'Flat' goes away from last thread guide.

Brand matters.

Use the brand of needle that came with the machine, the brand the Manual recommends. There is a relief, a scarf, a 'gouge' on one side of the needle that makes it possible for the bobbin race hook to grab the thread. The shape of this scarf is different on different brands of needles. Different brands of machines require different brands of needles.

Don't sew with a bent or dull needle.

Dull needles make a 'snap' noise in the fabric.

Bent needles will drop stitches, especially in zig-zag.

Thread: One of the most critical components of sewing and most often overlooked.

    • Using a Thread Stand (properly) is strongly recommended. Available at JoAnn Fabrics, The Fabric Place, Hancock Fabric, Wal-Mart and other notions stores.
    • Overlock and serger cone thread is cheap and breaks very easily. It is okay for satin stitching appliqué on flag cloth (not ripstop) but nothing else.
    • Mettlers Metrosene, Güterman, or Mölnlycke polyester threads are acceptable substitutes but are made from many short yarns and fuzz up the inside of the machine.
    • Color matching: Not always a good road to start down.
        • Mettlers Metrosene, Güterman, Mölnlycke, polyester threads often different colors have different diameters, different tension settings. Must re-tension every time colors change.
        • Make sure thread is 'color fast'. Some 'bleed' when wet.
    • An easy way to 'color match' thread to fabric is to color it later with Sharpies (permanent magic markers).
    • BEST threads are HB (or HSB) 33 nylon or V 30 polyester.
        • These are commercial grade threads. They have very consistent diameters and run very clean. They are very strong for their diameter.
        • Polyester thread is a little softer than nylon. Polyester has better UV resistance than Nylon. Nylon is a little stiffer than polyester.
        • The numbers are based on 'denier' Denier is a French term denoting the weight in grams of 9,000 meters of the thread. In other words, the bigger the number, the thicker (and stronger) the thread. The numbers we see on the thread are the Textile Numbers, or 'T' numbers, and are 1/10 of the denier. Kite makers use (textile) 30 or 33 in most applications, which is a 300 or 330 denier. 46 in some places. Hot Air Balloons and parachutes are sewn with threads in the 150 range. ( **Hint: They are sewing RIPSTOP NYLON using thread more than 4 times the size of ours… What size needle do you think THEY use? What does that do to the 'big needles damage the ripstop' argument?)
        • These threads are available from kite making supply houses like those listed at the end of this page.

Fabric: First, some quick notes about Spinnaker Cloth, or 3/4 ounce ripstop nylon/polyester. Because of its coating, it is very crisp, almost stiff. It holds a crease very well without ironing. Simply creasing a hem will give the fabric enough memory for it to stay in place for sewing. There is no need to iron a crease for sewing as with other types of fabric.

    • Ripstop: to keep it light, is woven from many small threads.
    • Every 1/8 inch or so (usually) a thicker stronger thread is woven in.
    • Any 'rip' will 'stop' at the thicker thread.
    • ¾ ounce means one square yard weighs ¾ ounce.
    • Kite fabric is very stable, may be COLD CUT or HOT CUT.
    • Uncoated untreated fabric is called griege (gray) goods.
    • Only a few mills weave, many places dye & coat, some places only convert.
    • Rolled flat and coated for porosity, called 'calendaring'
    • Because of the coating, ripping out leaves a line of needle holes.
    • Fabric is woven. Long straight threads are WARP. Short crooked ones are WEFT.
    • When strength is needed, cut along WARP threads.

Nylon ripstop fabric:

    • degrades in ultraviolet light. Its dyes degrade too.
    • Fluorescents degrade the fastest, white is almost as bad.
    • The darker the color, the greater the resistance to UV.
    • Stretches considerably when wet.

Polyester ripstop fabric:

    • Lasts much longer in UV. Bright colors fade less.
    • Stable when wet.
    • Colors tend to 'offset', or bleed when in storage.


    • Hold both threads to start first stitch, at very least the top thread.
    • Hand wheel always turns TOP towards you. Never away.
    • Don't sew with nothing in the machine. Don't sew air. It's begging for a thread tangle, and it wears out Feed Dogs & Presser Foot.
    • Only lift Presser Foot when needle is all the way up or down, never mid-stroke.
    • Sewing slow and steady and accurately is better than fast and messy.
    • Shift fabric with needle down. Especially for appliqué.
    • Always cut thread with scissors, close to the work, leave at least 4 inches.
    • Doesn't wear out cutter on machine, don't have to trim a second time.
    • Always cut the little thread tails off the bobbins right after they are wound.
    • These are lockstitch machines. Backstitch only a stitch or two.
    • Industry Standard is 8 stitches to the inch.
    • Let the machine do the work. Don't pull or push.
    • Trim threads as you go.
    • Zig-zag is weaker than straight stitch, but covers a multitude of sins.
    • STORE machine covered, Presser Foot down, with fabric under Foot.

Feed problems: If fabric doesn't want to feed straight, or reliably, it is a problem between the Presser Foot and the Feed Dogs. Things to check:

    • Pressure of Presser Foot (not all machines have this)
    • Presser Foot is straight and installed properly.
    • Straight means left to right and also level, or parallel to Feed Dogs.
    • Presser Foot meets Feed Dogs evenly.
    • On older machines, Dogs could be worn. Seek professional help.
    • Original Presser Foot may be replaced with a Teflon coated foot, a Roller Foot or a Walking Foot. (Note: A Walking Foot doesn't pull the fabric, its feet grab better and slide with the Feed Dogs)

Seams: Seams join two or more layers of fabric.

    • There are many different kinds of seams.
    • Most often used are Plain and Lap,also Flat Fell or Double French, and Mock French.
        • Terms differ among different schools of sewing.
        • It doesn't really matter if you call the different seams Tom, Harry and Fred, as long as you know what they are and when to use them.

Lap seam is simply put one layer over the other and sew. This is what our appliqué seams end up being.

The Plain Seam is the most commonly used seam in kite making.(Some people call this Flat Fell, but the Flat Fell is also called the French Seam.) Match up the edges, and sew. Open out the bottom panel, fold over the sewn part, and sew down again. It is a strong seam that doesn't 'bulk up' with a lot of layers. It is only 3 layers deep.

The Mock French Seam is slightly more complicated than the Plain Seam. People who are obsessed about not leaving a 'raw' edge use this seam because it is easy to plan for, easy to sew, and hides the raw edge. (Note: Raw edges in ripstop nylon are not the problem they are in other fabrics. I need to confess that in 15 years of making kites I have never used this seam.)

The Mock French Seam starts out just like the Plain Seam. After the bottom panel is opened out, the sewn flap is folded in half, with the raw edge going between the flap and the bottom panel.

Then the folded flap is sewn down.

This gives a very finished look, but is not a good idea where may seams will overlap, since it is 5 layers of fabric thick.

The French (or Flat Fell) Seam is the seam you see running down the outside of your jeans. It is a very strong seam and is frequently used in tents and jeans and hot air balloons. It is also called Full French or Double French to distinguish it from the Mock French.

It is more complicated to sew because the bottom layer needs to have 2 seam allowances added instead of one. It takes a lot of planning to use one of these seams.

The Franch Seam is better than the Mock French in that it is only 4 layers of fabric thick instead of 5.

I have used it once or twice when making sides for EZ-Ups, just to prove I could.

Planning for seam allowances:

    • Choose a seam allowance that works for you.
    • Most plans denote 'finshed' sizes, you will need to add your favorite seam and hem allowances and plan accordingly.
    • Draw template for panel, add seam and hem allowances.
    • On angled panels, sew line needs to match edge line.

Anchoring or stabilizing seams before sewing, holding the panels together:

    • Can use a Hot Tacker to spot weld together. Check out the Hot Tools page.
    • Can hot cut panels together.
    • Seamstick or tape can work. Duct tape sometimes.
        • Use seamstick in areas where it won't show or where it can be removed later.
        • Dark colors will show thru lighter colors if seamstick is in between.
    • Other adhesives. Sprays or Smurf Snot (poster tack, keen tak, fun tak)
    • Water can work.
    • Straight pins are last resort.They bunch the fabric and put holes in the coating.

Sewing a straight seam:

    • Can use edge of Presser Foot as guide.
    • Use marks on Throat Plate as a guide.
    • Can use tape placed on machine as guide.
    • You will develop your own taste for seam allowances.

Hems: Edge treatments / edge binding / bias tape / grosgrain tape

    • You will develop your own tastes for size of hem.
    • Double fold hems last longer than single fold hems.
    • For accuracy, mark a line on GOOD side, crease on line.
    • For double fold hem, fold again to the fold.
    • One row of stitches.
    • Bias tape is a good way to finish a curved edge.
    • To hem a curved edge, mark, fold, use a Hemming Foot.


Appliqué - applying bits of cloth to add graphics to a surface.

Back tack / back stitch / lock stitch - backing up two or three stitches to lock the beginning or end of a row of sewing.

Basting stitch - very long stitch used to hold something in place temporarily because it is easily ripped out later. Not a good idea when making kites.

Bias tape/Edge Binding - Tape for finishing a fabric edge, especially when the edge is curved. Tape may be made from scraps or purchased at a sewing store/supply house. BIAS TAPE is cut on the bias and stretches to follow a curve very easily. GROSGRAIN TAPE is cut on the grain and doesn't follow a curve as well.

Bobbin - very small spool that holds thread inside the sewing machine and provides the bottom thread on a lockstitch sewing machine.

Bobbin Case - case which holds the bobbin and controls the tension of the bobbin thread as it enters the machine.

Bobbin Race - Part of the sewing machine which holds the Bobbin and Bobbin Case and contains the Bobbin Hook which picks up the Top Thread out of the Needle and pulls it around the bobbin.

Controller pedal -The gas pedal. The foot pedal that controls the speed of the machine,

Denier - Term that denotes the thickness of the thread. It stands for the weight in grams of 9,000 meters of the thread. Basically the bigger the number, the thicker the thread. Common kite sewing deniers are 30 and 33.

Dual feed: An integrated feed foot that is driven to move with the feed dogs to move fabric more easily. See also Walking Foot.

Edge Binding/Bias tape: Tape for finishing a fabric edge, especially when the edge is curved. Tape may be made from scraps or purchased at a sewing store/supply house. BIAS TAPE is cut on the bias and forms a curve very easily. GROSGRAIN TAPE is cut on the grain and doesn't follow a curve as well.

Feed dogs/feed feet - the jagged teeth under the needle that move the fabric thru the machine.

Grain - the threads of the fabric. Cutting along the threads in either direction is cutting on the grain. Cutting in any direction not along the threads is cutting on the bias.

Greige Goods - (pronounced 'gray goods') fabric straight from the weaving loom with no finishing treatments.

Hand wheel: wheel on right side of sewing machine for advancing needle or stitches manually.

Notions - all the other stuff needed to sew. Needles, thread, scissors, etc.

Presser Foot - Feed foot that presses the fabric against the Feed Dogs. Many machines have a means of adjusting the pressure with which the foot presses on the fabric.

Ripper/Seam Ripper - Hand held tool for ripping out stitches.

Ripstop - Fabric woven with thin threads with thicker threads added at regular intervals. Any 'rip' will 'stop' at the thicker thread.

Satin Stitching: Many stitches close together to 'bind' layers of fabric to prevent fraying. Useful for flagcloth appliqué.

Seamstick - double sided sticky tape used to hold layers of fabric together for sewing.

Tension - the part of the machine the controls the amount of 'pull' there is when the stitch is pulled tight. Also, the amount of pull there is when the stitch is pulled tight.

Balance tension - making sure that the top and bottom tensions pull the same amount so the knot or loop where they meet is right between the layers of fabric being sewn.

Thread Path - Path of thread through the sewing machine from the spool to the needle.

Timing - The top of the machine runs everything on top including the needle up and down and zig-zag. The bottom of the machine runs everything on the bottom including the Bobbin Race and the Feed Dogs. Since the needle and the bobbin hook need to be in the same place at the same time, the top and bottom need to be 'timed' to run together smoothly. Sometimes a machine can jump time and the bobbin hook won't pick up the thread no matter what. Time to call the professionals.

Throat Plate - Also called the Aperture Plate. The plate under the needle and Presser Foot where the feed dogs protrude. Usually it is easily removable to clean underneath.

Walking Foot - an after market (sold separately by manufacturers often other than that which made the sewing machine) Presser Foot that has rubber dogs on the bottom that move with the Feed Dogs. Often gives a more reliable feed in slippery fabric than factory Presser Feet.

Warp - when fabric is woven on a loom, these are the long continuous thread that go the entire length of the roll of fabric. These are generally much straighter than the weft, or fill, threads. This means they will stretch less over time.

Weft - in woven fabric, these are the threads carried back and forth by the shuttle and combed into place. They can very crooked and so tend to stretch more than the warp grain of the fabric.

Sources for kite making supplies:

Kite Studio appears to be down for the count. We may see it return one day.

Into the Wind, 1408 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO, 80302-5307 Phone: 800-541-0314



Hang-'em High - Bonny Marvin has hung up her cash register.

Goodwind's Kites

3420 Stone Way North, Seattle WA 98103.

Phone: (206)632-6151



Sewing Notions Catalogs:

Nancy's Notions, 333 Beichl Avenue, Beaver Dam, WI 53916

Phone: 800-833-0690 Web:

Clotilde, PO Box 7500, Big Sandy, TX 75755-7500

Phone: 800-772-2891 Web:

Other sewing links:

Written by Gary Engvall.


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