As chill and relaxing as hand sewing can be, something not turning out right or completely falling apart after hours and hours of work sure is frustrating. I asked the somewhat weekly newsletter subscribers a question last week – are you a beginner and if so what sorts of questions do you have? The most common answer was about basic stitching. From non beginners too. In fact most people who responded were not beginners. It has also been a question at every single workshop I’ve ever taught.
I have a strong opinion on hand sewing: small is the way to go. Really small, between 1/16th and 1/8th inch stitch length. Definitely no bigger than 1/8th. The gaps between the stitches too – smaller than 1/8th. I hope we’re still friends…
A few other tips to set yourself up for success:
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Don’t be in a hurry – take a meditative approach. And practice helps a lot.
Have adequate light.
Mark your seam line – lightly in pencil or with a disappearing marker.
Use a good needle. I like size 9 -11 for basic sewing. *John James is a good brand and easy to find.
Thread – historically I’ve been kind of a slob about it – whatever’s around. I think cotton is best and recently I tried *Aurifil and it is fantastic. And don’t use a super long length of thread – it’s tempting to avoid having to stop and rethread but it will tangle and slow you down.
Secure knots are important – more on that below.
Let’s practice on a simple shape
I’m using the heart from the free needle book pattern. Use any simple shape you like. We will also turn and stuff the heart to demonstrate a couple more tips.
Before you start sewing mark the seam line clearly on your fabric, It helps immensely. Especially when you are sewing small items – the margin of error is small. Also besides large and loose stitches wandering away from the seam line is the biggest reason for hand stitching failing explosively and who wants an explosive failure?
making the knot
Solid knots are key to success! So is the thread length. Cut a length of about 16 inches. Longer thread will tangle.
1. Thread your needle and double the end of the thread.
2. Tie a knot in the doubled end.
3. Pull the ends down and clip most of the ends – leaving just a little.
4. Bring the needle up through the fabric. To make extra sure your stitches don’t pull out knot the first stitch – make a very tiny stitch and put your needle through the loop before you tighten it.
5. Tighten the knot. Put the needle in about 1/16th inch away to begin the next stitch.
6. Notice that I’m bringing the needle through the fabric from the top.
7. And then back up from the bottom.
8. As opposed to weaving the needle through to take multiple stitches at once. This is a controversial point. The multiple stitches method goes faster. A lot faster. But the result is, in my opinion, looser and less consistent. I use it for decorative stitching but never when I’m joining layers of fabric.
9. To end make the same sort of tiny knot as you did for the first stitch. I repeat that tiny knot 3 times on the same spot. Entirely because that’s what my Mother did. It get’s the job done.
10. Before turning and stuffing curved seams and sharp points should be clipped and notched as shown, being careful not to cut the seam.
11. Turn your shape right side out and stuff. Fold the edges of the opening in along the seam line. Make a small stitch just under the fold on the inside on one side. Slose with the ladder stitch.
12. Make another small stitch on the opposite side – just under the fold line.
13. Repeat until the opening is stitched and then pull to tighten.
14. Make a single knot and bring your needle back in very close to it.
15. Bring the needle out away from the seam, pull the thread tight and clip close to the fabric. The thread tail should pop inside.
Thank-you so much for the hand sewing tips. Even though I hand sew most of my doll clothes for Bleuette, I never really feel confident that I am doing it correctly.
Any tips on how to finish the edges on seams to keep them from raveling? Am I saying that right?..like how a serger does the edges. I don’t like frey check as it stains the fabric and is stiff when dry.
Thanks so much.
Use an overcast stitch, either both edges together, or each one separately. That is historically correct. If you don’t know about French seams or flat felled seams, there are lots of youtube videos on how to do them. Those seams really mean business, and are super strong too.
To help prevent tangling of the thread, and to strengthen linen and cotton threads, run the thread (on the needle) over a lump of beeswax. Very traditional.
If you plan to do long stretches of seaming, use a running backstitich.
Yes it’s a life saver when working with awkward fabrics and threads! I’ve even used an organic lip balm in a pinch too.
If you happen to prick your finger while stitching and drip blood on your fabric… your own saliva will remove thestain completely
Phyllis – so good to know, as I’ve done this too often and then go running for water which isn’t all that effective. THANKS!
To knot the thread after threading the needle I hold the needle in my right hand pinched between my thumb and first finger. I hold the end of the thread in my left hand with the end poking out towards the needle. Pinch the tip of the thread against the needle with my right thumb and finger. Wrap the thread around the needle a few times depending on how big you want the knot to be. Grab the point if the needle and pull it through the wraps of thread. You now have a very secure neat little knot. You can tug the end of the thread to snug up the knot and clip the end off if you like. I hope this is clear!
This is brilliant! You can teach an old dog new tricks. I can’t wait to share this with my DIL who has trouble knotting her ends and also my grandsweeties. Thank you!
When you are sewing light coloured fabrics together, be careful about marking your seam lines – if you make the line too dark and stitch exactly along it, it can be visible when the item is turned right sides out. Mark lightly with a pencil and stitch parallel to, but a tiny distance away from, your marked line – then when you turn right sides out, the mark won’t be visible along your stitching.
I rarely use knots when starting or finishing hand sewing, as they can leave a little bump which is noticeable on tiny things. Instead I make three little backstitches on top of one another, which holds as well as a knot. Don’t pull the first two stitches too tight or they might pull out; the third one holds fast.
PVA glue diluted with a little water can be used as Fray Stop. Use an old small paintbrush and brush a very thin layer along the very edge of the fabric, then leave to dry before sewing. (Rinse your brush thoroughly with water afterwards.) The PVA remains flexible and stops edges unravelling – good for very tiny makes when you don’t want the bulk of a hem.
Thank you! I love the three little backstitches idea especially!
Teach yourself to use a thimble is my very best tip! I’m a recent convert and though it felt, initially, so awkward, it really saves my fingers and allows me to hand stitch more frequently and for longer periods of time. I have also found that it’s a useful tool beyond fingertip protection. For example, I can use the thimble to finger press seams and they come out sharp. It’s also helpful for smushing out multiple layers of fabric. It’s important to get a thimble that fits and wear it on the middle finger of your dominant hand. If you previously used that finger not only to push the needle, but also to lightly hold thread and keep tension, you’ll have to delegate that last job to the ring and/or pinkie finger. This was difficult for me! I kept accidentally unthreatening my needle, which is enormously annoying. However, after a couple of hours, I was moving relatively quickly again.
After I tie the knot I poke the needle into the stuffed area and pull the thread and tail into the item, then cut the thread. This leaves a tail of thread beyond the knot that is all tucked inside. I learned this when hand quilting.
I was one of the not beginners who replied to that survey, and this was EXACTLY what I was hoping fo! Thank you!
Thanks so much Ann-Margaret!
Thank you for the lesson – learned why my hand sewn seams were, well, wonky.
Would love to do a scrap swap!!
Yes yes yes on the scrap swap!!! Thx so much for your newsy newsletter
Thank you for the demonstration. I use backstitch a lot, when sewing bunting for instance, I find it totally soothing and so calming. Sarah D.
Thread your needle with the end that comes off the spool of thread. The thread does not get knotted loops because you are going with the natural spin of the thread. Taught to me by an old hand at embroidery. It so works
Thanks Julie -that is fantastic! I’ll definitely give it a try.
thanks for this!
Thank you for all the wonderful tips! It is always fun to learn new sewing techniques. Yes, on the fabric swap. I joined in last time and it was so much fun!
Definitely small is beautiful re stitches .
I didn’t know your knot I just use a quilters knot . Yours is so neat I’m going to try it next .
My tip is to thread several needles at once using a needle threader .
Put half a dozen needles onto the threader and pull them all into the thread then you can either reel off lengths of thread through all the needles or just do one and leave the rest hanging off the reel . I have a magnetic knife holder next to my work station and just stick a row of threaded needles along it ready to go …..can you tell I hate stopping to thread needles ?
Sometimes I will thread needles like this when I’m not sewing . it only takes a few minutes and there they are waiting ready . I mostly sew with white thread too …helps me keep my stitches neat and not visible
I would love to see a photo of your set up!
That is such an ingenious idea! I will begin doing this immediately. Thank you so much for sharing!
GREAT tip!!! Thanks for this!
Thanks for the fishy fish pattern, loved it. I have made it mine with gills though. Wish I could send you a picture. Fun and easy too.
Did you know that the stitches you used for the fish is the same technique doctors use to stitch up patients?
Thanks for the hand stitching tips Ann Wood and everyone. It’s inspiration to improve my stitching!
Lovely to Meditate slow stitching, very inspiring.
Thanks for this! Very helpful. I would love to learn more stitches, especially a blanket stitch, so I could use it on some little accessory things in my shop. I always seem to have trouble with the corners on that, especially! Always love your newsletters. So newsy and just plain fun, and your instructions are the easiest to follow. Thanks again!
Sure Lois – We will probably explore blanket stitch in an upcoming project. Thanks!
Yes!! to the scrap swap, have been pondering a similar thing here in England and for where I live usually, France.
Love your blog Ann, so sharing and helpful, and all your little project makes. Thanks for all the tips……
My tip, the length of thread to use :- an embroidered once taught me – if I held the end of the thread between my finger and thumb I should cut it no longer than when it reached my elbow!
Thank you and wishing you all well x
Perfect! great tip!!
Yes to scrap swap!
I am not sure how everyone is marking the seam line. I have the correct pencil, but do you freehand the line? Use dressmaker’s carb?on
Hi Patricia – a couple ideas – you can use a ruler to mark dots at 1/4 inch all around and then join them. Or you could print a pattern twice and cut one out on the seamline and use that as a template to trace onto the fabric. Or trace the seamline onto another piece of paper, cut out and trace that.
Thanks, that is very helpful.
whew! thanks Ann, i never think of logical tips like this…
This was my question, too!
I don’t usually use a doubled thread when sewing little things. I use it single. I also have some spools of size #140 white cotton thread. Very fine and strong. The stitches disappear into the fabric.
I do a lot of basting now to make sure that the pieces fit as I want before I devote an evening to tiny tiny stitches. baste on the inside or the outside of the seam line. Consistently. It’s easy to cut the basting thread if I catch it with the needle.
A friend who is a professional sewing person advises interspersing running stitch with a backstitch every 5 or 6 stitches to stop the thread from inadvertently gathering or otherwise pulling out of shape.
I’m curious if anyone who slow stitches ever uses two needles on one strand of thread to create gathers for skirts and sleeves of doll clothes? The center of the strand of thread becomes the “knotted end “,then work the two needles as though they are one. The gathering line develops in half the time and you end up handling the fabric less too!
Do you ever use bees wax on your thread ? I was taught many years ago to always wax my thread before sewing. It keeps the thread tangle free.
Good stuff! I too have 3-4 needles ready to go w various thread colors but will do more—have one pincushion just for these needles.
I also use backstitching & blanket stitches often…no need for knots in thread most if the time.
Knotting w fingers is a real pain, so When needed I take a stitch only 2-3 grains long (of fabric), leaving the end of the thread loose, about 3/4”. Go back thru the 2-3 grains already stitched again. This process does not require a knot. Tuck the 1/2”-3/4” thread that dangles into the seam. Is easier than it sounds.
A gripe: I have a hard time finding needles that have fairly wide thread openings. Most thread packages have a variety of sizes; some are a waste—then others are all same size with tiny openings & very short/thin so hard to handle. Any brands that are better/easy to handle?
My sister taught me many moons ago how to keep embroidery thread from twisting back upon itself, rope-like, and how to keep it from inadvertently knotting: take the length of thread before threading the needle, and run it through water-dampened thumb and index finger firmly pressed together. This straightens out the inevitable zig-zag effect the thread has when fresh off of a little thread card. I wet my fingers with saliva if i don’t have a glass of water handy; the thread doesn’t stay wet for any longer than it takes to thread the needle.
Thank you Ann. This is so helpful! Thank you for all your hard work! This is an amazing website. You are brilliant! What a fantastic community you have created!