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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Monday, May 7, 2018

Basic hand sewing stitches: #1 the stitch no sewer should use

I had an interesting conversation with a friend about a year ago during which she said that she didn't think beginning sewers should not sit down at a machine until they had learned to sew by hand first.

I knew that this idea had great merit.

My friend's own mother is a superb Hungarian trained dressmaker, but I also knew that there is a slim to none chance of that happening often these days.

The truth is that so many wonderful and accomplished sewers do not enjoy hand sewing at all - largely because they find the results disappointing. In fact very recently a true sewing powerhouse I know told me she was putting off finishing a beautiful kimono because the instructions called for the band to be hand stitched down. 

She dreaded the thought.

"It always looks so messy," this wonderful machine stitcher said. "I don't want to ruin it."

Oh my.

I know what's wrong here of course. 

Almost none of us are being educated by the nuns these days, and I believe most nuns are more interested in social justice than handwork  anyway, and also the best most instruction sheets offer is are directives to "sew down by hand or machine" without any really explanation of what that hand sewing should be done.

So I am here tonight to tell you why hand sewing is one of the great pleasures of garment sewing. It is certainly one of the easiest and most satisfying. Someone needs to tell you that.

So before you click me off let me tell you why learning to do a few hand stitches is really a great idea.

1. Once you have the idea for a few stitches down hand sewing is definitely one of sewing's most relaxing activities. I love getting to a hand sewing part, it means I can turn off my brain as well as my machine, put my feet up and watch Netflix. Hand sewing is the meditation side of sewing, the breathe in and breathe out part. It's watching the clouds of fitting issues drift by. It's acknowledging that you put that sleeve in the wrong way 14 times and then letting it go. It's releasing the fact that you started this project by cutting out two left fronts and bringing your mind back to the present moment. Needle in and needle out. 

Get my drift?

2. Hand sewing gives you so much more control. You, or at least I, move slow. Much slower than a machine and certainly much slower than a serger. Now I am not ever going to go all totally Alabama Chainling on you and hand stitch an entire garment, but the ability to put in a few hand stitches here and there to get the job done is just so much more reasonable than trying to see that little bit of fabric under that presser foot and moving needle and hoping for the best. I like to put in zippers by hand on terrifying fabrics like velvet for this reason for instance.

3. It just looks classier, hems in particular. The control of hand stitching when combined with the easy to master techniques of near invisible stitches makes hemlines in woven fabrics that are just so much nicer than those done quickly by machine.

So all of this is good.

The problem, and we are back to our absent activist nuns here, is there often isn't anyone around to show you how to do it.

So let's move on to what not to do, and in the next sessions of this series move on to what to do.

Make sense?

Exhibit A: the hand stitch you shouldn't use:

This of course is the sort of hand stitching most of us start out with when we sort of improvise our way around hemming.

Over and under stitches seem reasonable to do and feel natural in your hand.

But it's not hemming kiddo or slipstitching at all.

In fact what you see here is a variation of what old school sewing types call a whip stitch or an overcast stitch - something that is exactly that - a way to go round and round a raw edge to encase it - a sort of pre-industrial manual serging technique.

Couture dressmaking still overcasts seam allowances by hand. 

For a long time home sewers did too- in the days before the invention of pinking shears and the zig zag stitch, and stuff like cake mixes, company recipes that called for cans of mushroom soup, and afternoon bridge parties played on card tables set up in living rooms with bowls of something actually called Bridge Mix all laid out.

In those days before the modern life just described the main way to finish a raw edge was with the a whip or overcast stitch. This was something I rediscovered when inspecting my mother's wool going away suit - full Dior New Look style with a giant horsehair interlined circle skirt and a tight peplum jacket with a a peter pan collar. There were about 75 miles of seams in that suit and every seam allowance was finished like the picture above.

That's how this stitch should be used and not for much else other than finishing seams that I can think of right now. 

OK I have done the part of saying more or less there are only rare occasions where a stitch that looks like the above should be used, but it would also be reasonable to also say why.

1. As a construction stitch the whip stitch just looks messy. It is probably, for that reason, why you don't like your hems, this is what you are looking at.

2. There is too much vulnerable exposed thread here, not at all secured by the structure of the stitch, and these threads will catch and break. If you suffer from hanging down hemitis this stitch might be to blame.

But not to worry.

Before we get out of here over the next week or so I am going to share some really nifty hand stitches that both work really well and look really nice.

In the meantime I will leave you with a video of something you already know how to do - how to knot the end of a sewing thread - with a dressmaker's knot.

Your entertainment for the evening.

How to knot a sewing thread


tmd said...

Oooh, bridge mix. There’s a blast from the past. And after-eight mints. I’m thrilled to say I wasn’t born until the 70’s but am pleased to see I can nonetheless do a dressmaker’s knot properly—I owe it all to my mother, who trained in dressmaking in Paris. (She loathed sewing by the time she returned, never did any if she could help it, but evidently still retained some techniques.) Looking forward to your series—I want to see what bad handsewing habits I’ve got.

SilverMom said...

That's EXACTLY how my mom taught me to do it, too, with the very important addtion of some spit. On the thread or on your finger, both work. (I think Mom-spit must be the secret ingredient of the Mom-iverse. A little Mom-spit on one of those tissue scraps from her pocket (not used, Mom, PLEASE) and off comes that chocolate ice cream moustache!)

One thing to note about handsewing, as wonderful as it is (and I do think it is) - it can be hard for those of us who are dealing with arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other hand mobility issues. I have to very carefully parse out my handsewing capacity these days for only those special projects.

debbie said...

Same way I do a knot.

Like Silver Mom I have to use hand sewing sparingly. I have hand tremors that, even with meds, can only be controlled so much. Makes doing some finer hand stitches frustratingly difficult. Some days even sewing on a button is almost impossible.

Nursebennett said...

I suspect the woman, who we called “maw maw”, and came to our home early every morning to wake and prepare us for school, keep us after school, do our laundry, and kept us in the summer, also taught me this. It is to her I owe my love of all things textile. She taught me to sew on a Singer treadle, but first to sew by hand. I love your blog, by the way. Never fails to bring back a fond memory.

SuzieB said...

Barbara, on one of your trips south plan the route to stop by Alabama Chanin. You will enjoy! Nicest people ever and the clothes are lovely. I was there while a class was happening & those folks seemed to be having a great time also. Sorry if this sounds like an infomercial - I have no connection to the company.

kim nath said...

I find hand-stitching relaxing and completely agree that it gives a large degree of control. For example, I love doing hand pricked zippers and think they give a garment a beautiful, couture look, all while giving me much less aggravation. It may seem like it would take more time doing a zipper by hand but it usually takes me less time than machine stitched because I don't have to rip it out to redo it when the stitching is wonky or I get a bump where the pull is.

ElleC said...

Exactly how my Mom taught me, which is odd, cause she barely/rarely ever sewed!? BTW, my Mom loved Bridge Mix, never could figure out why. Plain chocolate is so much better. I can still see that yellow box with red writing.

I ordered your book today, can't wait to get my hands on it.

Laceflower said...

I do not knot like this anymore it's just messy. I wrap the tail of the thread 2 or 3 times around the needle and pull it down the thread length to the end. Fast, easy, and neat.