Quick Tutorial: Hand-sewing 101

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Sometimes I run into craftsy people who do some machine sewing, but express amazement that I can stand to do much by hand. They’re right that it takes more time, but there are plenty of advantages to hand-sewing—primarily that it is silent (so you can watch TV or hang out with people at the same time) and portable (so you can take it on your public-transit commute or to crafting bees). To me, an hour of machine-sewing by itself is a lot more boring than several hours of hand sewing whilst doing other things. Hand-sewing has other advantages too: less start-up cost, less visible stitch lines, more flexibility in tight spaces, less thread use, and so on. So I thought I would put up a few notes on how to hand-sew and how to make it maximally easy on yourself.


First off, you will need a needle, some thread, and two pieces of fabric you want to sew together; pins are also useful. Anything marked as a hand needle or quilting needle will do, so long as it’s straight, thin, and about 1″-2″ long. All-purpose threads are fine. Good starting fabrics are quilting cotton, broadcloth—anything without noticeable stretch and not too slippery. Pins are used for holding the two pieces of fabric in place relative to each other as you sew.

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100_0790 (1024x768) Two examples of starting knots

To start off, cut a length of thread about a yard long—the longer it is, the less often you have to tie off and cut more, but the more likely you are to have tangles in your thread; I usually cut about 4 yards these days, but pay for it in tangles. Tie a starting knot in one end: basically the starting knot is an intentionally-made tangle, not a formal knot. Pinch the very end of the thread in your finger and thumb and wrap the thread twice around your fingertip. Slide/roll the loops off your finger, allowing them to twist and tangle; pinch the loops and roll them around between your fingertips until they are good and tangled. Still pinching, pull the long end of the thread until the tangle tightens up into a small, hard ball. If it pulls out, try again; if it continues to not work try wrapping the thread three or four times instead of two. This takes some practice. Once you have a good strong knot, it’s time to thread the needle. This just takes patience, steady hands and a good eye; hold the needle in one hand, the thread about a half-inch from the end in the other, and poke the thread through the eye. It helps to dampen the end of the thread so it won’t separate—lick your fingertips and pinch the end of the thread, smoothing any frayed fibers towards the end of the thread; if it’s too frayed, cut a clean end with sharp scissors and try again. If you prefer, you can also buy a needle-threading tool, which makes the process much easier, but I find that these tools are very fragile and, to me, not worth the hassle.

You have a number of options for stitching, the easiest being running stitch and backstitch. In the running stitch, you can make multiple stitches at once, covering ground very quickly, but it is easy to pull the thread out or create puckers in the fabric. With the backstitch, the seam locks itself in place and avoids puckers, but each stitch must be made individually. My workhorse stitch, therefore, is a hybrid of the two—a number of running stitches made at once, with a backstitch every time I pull the needle up. Thus:

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Several running stitches are accumulated on the needle at a time, then the needle is pulled through. The next set of running stitches starts behind where the thread emerges from the fabric, whereas for a pure running stitch the next set would start in front. The final picture shows the back of the seam; the arrows point to where two stitches overlap due to the backstitch. You can make this seam less noticeable (for top-stitching, for instance) by a) choosing a thread that matches the color of the fabric, b) making the stitches in front as short as possible, catching as few as one or two threads in the weave, and c) making the stitches in back longer.

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100_0809 (1024x768)100_0810 (1024x768) Making the finishing knot

When you have finished your seam or run out of thread, you will need to tie a finishing knot. My preferred knot works thus: as close as possible to where the thread exits the fabric, insert the needle and make a tiny stitch, and pull the thread through until you have a 1″ or so loop coming out of the fabric. Put the needle through this loop, come around, and put it through again, then gently pull the thread to close the loop. Don’t ever cut the thread closer than about 1/2″ from this knot, as it will unravel with a short enough tail; I usually hide/secure the loose thread end by making an inch or so of running stitch in the seam allowance before cutting.

Et voila! The rest is details.

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Detail 1: Seam Allowances and Sewing Straight

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Seam made with a measuring tool (top) vs. without (bottom). Note that the upper seam is considerably straighter than the lower; it is also a known, consistent distance from the fabric edge.

Whenever you sew, it is a good idea to leave some space between the line of stitches and the edge of the fabric. This space is called the seam allowance. Most commercial patterns allow either 3/8″ or 5/8″ for the seam; in my experience 1/4″ is a bare minimum, and that only for straight seams in a fabric that doesn’t fray. Any less and you are asking for the seam to come apart, or at least for frayed ends to show through your seam.

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Sewing a 3/8″ seam with a cardboard measuring tool

Sewing machines often have small rulers on the foot or the arm so you can keep a consistent seam allowance, but in hand-sewing you have no such amenities unless you make your own. One option is to check your seam every few inches with an ordinary ruler or measuring tape, but this is really tedious. My solution is to make a little cardboard tab with 5/8″ and 3/8″ markings on it, and to hold this against the seam allowance with my off-hand thumb while stitching.

To make: get a notecard or other piece of thin, stiff cardstock, a good ruler, a fine-line pen or pencil, and some clear tape. The precision with which you make your guide limits the precision of all your seams, so it is worth using your best tools and taking some time to get it right. Mark two parallel lines, 3/8″ and 5/8″ from one edge of the card. If you expect to use other seam allowances than the standard 3/8″ and 5/8″, mark those as well. Mark another line perpendicular to the first two, 5/8″ (or your most-used allowance) from another edge. Carefully cut out the marked 5/8″ square. Laminate it with clear tape and cut off the excess tape. These little guys are pretty easy to lose and aren’t super durable anyway, so you may as well make several at a time out of the same card.

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Detail 2: Saving Your Fingers

One drawback of hand-sewing is it can be pretty rough on your fingertips—I have a pretty permanent callus on my first finger from damaging it with the butt of the needle. However, this is partly because I can’t always be bothered to get my thimble out—you can protect yourself almost entirely with thimbles. I recommend the soft thimble kind, like this one, because it fits my finger better than the traditional metal cylinder ones and accommodates long fingernails. The thimble is used both to push the butt of the needle through the stitches—so you will want one with a hard plate in the tip at least—and to grip the sides of the needle when pulling it through.

Detail 3: Stitch Choice

One thing to note about the running stitch is that its drawbacks for normal seams make it ideal for basting, gathering, and the first step of setting zippers. For gathering fabric, I usually make a row of running stitches just inside the seam line and then a second, parallel row just outside; instead of the usual finishing knot I cut the thread about 3″ from the fabric and make another starting knot. The fabric is gathered by pulling both knots together, and the stitches are removed later by cutting one knot off and pulling on the other.

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Making the blanket stitch

Another stitch I use regularly, especially for buttonholes, is the blanket stitch. It’s usually done on a loose edge; the needle is passed through the fabric about 1/8″-1/4″ (wider on thicker fabrics) from the edge, from back to front (or front to back), passed through the loop of thread thus made from front to back (or vice versa), and pulled snug-but-not-tight. The result is a decorative square stitch that prevents fraying or stretching of the edge.

If for some reason you want to counterfeit a machine stitch—for repairing a really nice machine-made garment, moving a hem, or similar—you can do so with pure backstitch, inserting the needle for each stitch where the previous stitch ends, or with another hybrid. This hybrid stitch starts with a backstitch that enters at the end of the previous (running) stitch, coming up exactly where the loose end of the thread currently emerges, then making one running stitch before pulling up the needle. Final picture is of the back side of the fabric.

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Detail 4: Ultra Portable Sewing Kit

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Since I talked about portability in the rationale for this post, I thought I’d share my on-the-go sewing kit. You really can’t get around needing lots of space for cutting fabric, but once you have the pieces cut, the rest is easy to take with you.

You will need:

  • Mint tin or other small container that closes firmly
  • Scrap of felt or other fabric that fits flat inside the tin
  • Needle and pins
  • Short seam-ripper that fits inside your tin (you may need to ditch the sheath)
  • Soft thimble, if you use a thimble
  • Seam allowance measuring tool (see above)
  • Bobbin of thread
  • A needle-threading tool, if you need one, will also fit

The seam-ripper lets you cut thread on-the-go, and is so small and safe that it has never even been banned from airplanes; if you like, use a thread-cutting ring or a pair of tiny scissors (e.g. nail scissors) instead. The scrap of felt or other fabric is your pincushion; it takes a little more time to use than a standard pincushion, but my tin isn’t large enough for anything bigger. The bobbin lets you not carry a full spool of thread, if you want to be super self-contained; I mostly just use it for emergency thread though and carry the spool separately these days, since I use so many different colors of thread. The tin contains the rest of the stuff and is also your portable thread-ends-and-fuzzies trash receptacle so you aren’t leaving detritus everywhere you work. You can also keep safety pins, buttons, hooks and eyes, or whatever other small notions you need in here.

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In the photos, the black shiny thing is my leather thimble, and the pincushion is a scrap of cotton that’s been folded into four layers and stitched around the edges; the line of colored dots are pin heads and the needle is perpendicular to the pins. The blue-handled thing is my stitch ripper; it came with a sheath that made it about twice as long, but without the sheath just barely fits on the body diagonal of my itsy-bitsy mint tin.

One drawback is you don’t have a pair of scissors, so you can’t trim seams properly, however, I’ve had reasonable success with trimming corners and clipping seams with the ripper. For clipping seams, insert the point of the seam ripper 1/8″ from the seam in the allowance side, and rip outwards. For trimming corners, insert the ripper 1/8″ from the seam corner, grip the fabric firmly and rip at 45 degrees from one seam line, then put the ripper in the tear you’ve made, facing the other way, grip both sides of the tear, and rip at 45 degrees from the other seam. If you really need to trim seams, for instance on a long convex seam that you want to look really professional, just bring a pair of scissors separate from the main kit.

Another drawback you may have noticed is that the kit does not admit an iron. If you are doing really professional sewing and need to press large areas flat or press creases, you may need to do it at home, but I have found that I can press seams open—the main use of the iron in hobbyist sewing—by scraping along the seam with my thumbnail or simply pinching it between finger and thumb. This method can stretch out some fabrics; I had particular trouble with a fairly heavy, loose-woven linen blend recently, so test this method on scraps of your fabric before relying on it, but I’ve had good success with quilting cottons, suitings, and jersey knits among others.

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