Today I want to share some things I’ve learned over the years about making really professional-looking handmade items. In particular, I want to talk about making the stitches themselves less obtrusive, or even completely hidden, on a finished garment or other project. I will mostly be talking about hand sewing, but include a couple tips that are good for machine sewing too.
1. Get creative with construction
These techniques work with machine or hand-sewing, and I’m not going to go into a lot of depth, but just list for completeness’s sake. There are a lot of ways to slightly change the construction of your project to hide stitches:
Replace hems with facings: cut strips of fabric 1″ to 2″ wide that follow the contours of the edge, sew to the edge right side to right side, and turn to inside
- Line some or all of the garment and work inside out and then turn
- Sew yokes and straps inside out and then turn, rather than top-stitching, as much as possible
2. Work on making smaller stitches on the front
One of the lovely things about hand-sewing is that you have more control over where the thread is—and isn’t. Sewing tutorials and stitch diagrams generally show all of the stitches the same length, but this ignores a wealth of customizability. For seams, I will generally do fairly even stitches, the same amount of thread in front of the fabric as behind (see photo at right; as always, click for larger photos). Even stitches are better for seams than uneven stitches, because no one can see the thread anyway and it distributes the stress more evenly.
For hems, however, I shift as much of the thread as possible to the back/inside of the piece, coming up only for one or two threads every eighth-inch or more (see photo). Still, although I am proud enough of my stitching to brag about it on the internet, it’s a work in progress—there’s no special trick to improving your stitching, just a little bit of paying attention and a lot of practice. Just to drive home the point, here are some photos of the inside and outside of hems I’ve made recently:
Another benefit of making your visible stitches smaller is that they look much neater, even if you can still clearly see the stitches; compare the apparent neatness of the inside and outside of the green tunic above.
3. Don’t sew all the way through
This last tip is going to be useful whenever you have a pattern tell you to “stitch in the ditch” or topstitch a multi-layer area. I use it for cuffs, collars, yokes, and straps. It’s similar to the “invisible stitch”, which is more used for stuffed animals and pillows than apparel sewing; think of it as a one-sided invisible stitch if that will help.
I’ll take the example of putting a waistband/yoke on a skirt, just for clarity: imagine you have the main part of your skirt all done and you have two waistband pieces: the outside/front and inside/lining. You’ve attached the outside piece by sewing a right-side-to-right-side seam, and pressed it flat. You’ve attached the two waistband pieces together by sewing their top edges, right-side-to-right-side, and then flipping the lining to be on the inside. Now you need to attach the bottom edge of the lining to the outside so it doesn’t flip or fold while you’re wearing it. If you’re machine sewing, you have two options: “stitching in the ditch”, which is a decent way of hiding machine stitches, or topstitching through the outer and inner layers of the waistband and a few seam allowances. If you’re hand-sewing, you can do either of the above, or you can sew the waistband lining to the seam allowances of the outer piece and the skirt panels without involving visible parts of the waistband at all.
Turn the piece so that the lining is facing you. Insert your needle as if to stitch, but simply don’t go through all of the layers—it helps to insert at a somewhat glancing angle, and use the fingers of your off hand to check that the needle doesn’t go through (no thimbles, sorry). If it does, pull out the needle and try again. While the needle is in the fabric—before pulling the thread through—give it a tug perpendicular to the fabric to make sure that you’re actually attaching what you want to be attaching. It’s a bit tedious, but with practice you get a feel for it, and can get three or four running stitches on the needle at once, so it’s not too much worse than basic seams.
If you are working with particularly loose-spun, loose-woven or thick materials, like a large houndstooth twill or a brocade satin, you may be able to pull off this technique with hems: work from the back/inside of the piece, as above, and catch only the back threads of the front layer of material. Note however that this can lead to puckering, fraying, etc., so make a test hem with a scrap before using it on the real thing.