Many sewists are of the belief that hand sewing techniques are a tedious bummer.
Sewing by hand is slow, complicated, and imprecise, they say.
I used to think that way, too, and I avoided hand stitching at all costs.
But, this was before I figured out the essential — and ONLY essential (I’m pretty unpracticed at almost all other hand stitching) — hand sewing techniques I needed as a garment sewist.
Seriously — if you know these five stitches, you’re covered for probably 95 percent of hand sewing for garments. (I think the last 5 percent is showing off.)
Now I don’t hesitate to employ them as needed. They absolutely have their place, and my sewing machine will always wait for me.
I encourage you to learn these few hand sewing stitches and their uses. Your garments will have a more professional flair, and your sewing practice will expand that much more.
You’re invited to consider:
- Why hand sewing techniques are worth your while
- How to execute the bare minimum number of hand stitches
- The do’s and don’ts of sewing by hand
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Why Bother Hand Sewing?
There are a handful of compelling reasons to occasionally sew by hand.
1.) You have more control.
You control the speed, the thread tension, and the angle of the fabric and needle. You can get your eyes and fingers really close to the action.
2.) You can get into tight spots.
Sometimes a sewing machine and all its trappings are too big to complete a line of stitching.
3.) You can better respect the fabric.
Sewing machines have been known to stretch delicate fabric out of shape. And, sometimes heavy fabric and your sewing machine don’t get along. In these cases, analog is the way.
4.) You can make invisible stitches.
There’s no way a sewing machine can pick up 1-2 threads of fabric at a time. No way, no how. But, you can. And, from the right side, it’s like that hem is turned up with NOTHING.
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Hand Sewing Stitches and their Uses: The Best Basics
In my experience, the following hand sewing techniques will get you through almost everything you’d need to stitch sans machine.
Note: These are not decorative stitches; you’ll have to check another part of the internet for cross stitching, blanket stitching, chain stitching, etc. If I’m sewing by hand, I’m all about function.
1.) Secure the Ends
To secure the end of your thread, when you’re starting OR ending a collection of stitches, you have two options:
🪡 Tying a knot. In most cases, a simple overhand knot will do. Maybe stack 2-3 on top of each other for extra strength.
🪡 Sewing the end into a stitch. I like this method, because it’s faster for me vs. tying a knot and I think it looks neater. Here’s how it works.
1.) Do not knot the end of your thread.
2.) Take a stitch, leaving a long tail end.
3.) Take a second stitch, but leave it loose.
4.) Before gently pulling the stitch tight, run the needle through the loose, loopy stitch.
5.) Pull the second stitch tight, securing the thread in the stitch.
6.) Continue stitching.
7.) Use the same technique to secure the opposite thread end (i.e., pass the needle through a stitch and pull tight).
2.) Tailor’s Tack
I love tailor’s tacks. They’re the best way to mark dart points, pocket locations, and more.
You don’t have to worry about them rubbing off (like chalk), falling out (like pins), or fading away (like fabric marker). And, they won’t accidently leave permanent marks.
1.) Use a long piece of thread.
2.) Sew the thread through the pattern marking, from top to bottom, leaving a long tail.
3.) Turn the needle around and sew from the bottom to the top, creating a large, loose loop.
4.) Repeat Step 3 another 2-3 times. The goal is to create a few large, loose loops on the top and bottom pieces.
5.) Gently remove the pattern piece. Be careful not to pull out any loops.
6.) Peel apart the top and bottom pieces of fabric to reveal the thread. Snip the thread.
7.) Pull the loops down so the little thread tails stick up. Your marks are complete, and you can FEEL them with your fingers on BOTH side of the fabric (vs. chalk or a marker).
8.) Pull out the little threads when finished.
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3.) Basting (Temporary) Stitch
I use a basting stitch most often when I know it’s going to be a PITA to remove pins while sewing — e.g., shifty fabrics (like silk), zippers, applique.
With basting, I can sew with the confidence that my fabric will stay aligned and I can concentrate on my technique at the machine. I can sew OVER the basting stitches, which is something you shouldn’t do with pins!
And, basting is super easy (and satisfying) to remove, too!
1.) Use a long piece of thread.
2.) Insert the needle into the fabric, making sure to leave a long tail. Don’t secure the end.
3.) Create a running stitch — up and down/in and out through the fabric, with gaps between visible stitches on the right side. Make the stitches ¼ to ½ inches long. You may create several stitches at once by inserting the needle from front to back to front (and repeat the length of the needle) and pulling the thread through.
4.) Basting stitches should be just tight enough to hold the fabric together; they should not be too tight, because they are temporary.
5.) Sew the fabric at the machine as necessary.
6.) When finished, pull a long tail and watch the thread release from the fabric.
4.) Slip Stitch
Let’s say you sew a fabric belt. You leave a small gap in the stitching to turn the belt right-side out.
Slip stitching is the best stitching to use to close that small gap after you’ve turned the belt right-side out, because the stitching will be invisible from the right side of the belt.
Slip stitching also is good for hemming and attaching linings to zipper tape.
This stitch is created in the direction that the needle is pointing.
1.) Secure the end of the thread in the interior of the garment (usually a fold). The point here is to NOT secure the thread on the outer layer of fabric where it could be visible.
2.) Move the needle ahead about ¼ inch.
3.) On the opposite layer of fabric, pick up 1-2 threads with the needle. (From the right side, if you’re using a matching thread, these stitches will be invisible.)
4.) Move the needle ahead about ¼ inch.
5.) On the opposite layer of fabric (the interior), pick up 1-2 threads with the needle.
6.) As you create stitches and pull the thread, make sure you don’t create puckers on the right side of the fabric. Use just enough tension — and no more.
7.) Secure the end when finished.
5.) Catch Stitch
The catch stitch is the most “complicated” of our hand sewing techniques, but once it clicks for you, you might enjoy doing it.
Unlike the slip stitch, the catch stitch is NOT created in the direction the needle is pointing. Your hand moves AWAY from completed stitches.
So, if you’re right handed, stitch creation starts on the LEFT and ends on the RIGHT. (Flip that if you’re a southpaw.)
This is a good stitch for hems of garments that need to flex a bit, because catch stitches are kinda open. But, because they are kinda open, it’s easy to snag catch stitches and pull them out.
To avoid pulling out catch stitches, you may create them BETWEEN layers of fabric (like the slip stitch above) so they’re protected and invisible. This is a good way to sew together two flat layers of fabric.
0.) Figure out where to start — left if you’re a righty, right if you’re a lefty.
1.) Secure the thread in the interior/lower layer of fabric.
2.) Hold the needle horizontally, with the point in the direction of the secured end.
3.) Move the needle about ¼ inch in the direction of its eye (where the thread passes through). It’s going to feel like you’re stitching in the incorrect direction.
4.) On the opposite (exterior/top) layer of fabric, pick up 1-2 threads with the needle point. The needle point should be pointed toward the secured end.
5.) Gently pull the thread.
6.) Move the needle about ¼ inch in the direction of its eye. The thread will cross over the first thread.
7.) On the opposite (interior/lower) layer of fabric, pick up 1-2 threads with the needle point. The needle should still be horizontal, and the point should still be aimed toward the secured end.
8.) Gently pull thread.
9.) Move the needle about ¼ inch in the direction of its eye.
10.) Repeat this stitch creation until you’re satisfied. Frequently check the right (public-facing) side to make sure you’re not pulling the stitches too tight and creating puckers.
11.) Secure the end when finished.
Do’s and Don’ts for Hand Sewing Success
Don’t cut your thread too long.
I took a mini hand stitching lesson at Camp Workroom Social, and the recommended length of thread for hand work was from your elbow to the tip of your tallest finger. Too much length will lead to tangles.
P.S. If your thread tangles, run the length of it through a thread conditioner or beeswax.
Don’t pull hand stitches too tight.
The tightness of your stitches should make sense with what you’re sewing; there should be a balance.
This quote from ”Classic Tailoring Techniques: A Construction Guide for Women’s Wear” expresses the ideal state perfectly:
“Any stitch which goes through to the right side of the garment should pick up only one thread of the garment fabric, and should be drawn softly enough to leave that thread’s appearance unchanged on the right side of the fabric.”
Do try a thimble.
The thimble protects your finger as you push the needle through fabric. So, instead of pushing with your meaty, tender fingertips, you push with metal or leather finger armor.
Here’s how to use a thimble.
1.) Place the thimble on the middle finger of your sewing hand
2.) Take the needle and thread between your index finger and thumb.
3.) Guide the needle through the fabric layer with the index finger and thumb.
4.) Finish passing the needle through the fabric by pushing the back of the needle with your be-thimbled middle finger.
5.) Rinse and repeat.
Do use a good light.
Hand sewing with a head lamp is way easier than sewing without a head lamp. Just sayin.’ The importance of lighting for a sewing room can’t be understated.
Do relax and take your time.
You won’t be happy with the results if you rush. You can’t expect yourself to be as fast as a sewing machine, especially if you don’t do a lot of hand sewing.
The thing that helps me remember to take my time (with any sewing task) is that ultimately I’m going to spend more time WEARING the garment than I am sewing it, and I’d rather not wear rushed mistakes.
So, to maximize my wearing enjoyment, I take a deep breath and slow down.
Final Thoughts on Hand Sewing Techniques
My philosophy on hand sewing is: Do whatever works, as neatly as you can do it. I don’t get particularly caught up in what stitches are called; most of the time I feel my way through it.
This is an especially good philosophy if you don’t have a lot of hand stitching to do — just a few inches here and there. If you had to do an entire hem by hand, you might want to do a little research first on hand sewing stitches and their uses.
So, don’t rush, take even stitches, and try to make them as invisible as possible, because in most cases, invisible stitches are preferable to visible stitches, only because you can’t see them and if you can’t see them, you won’t think about how wonky they look.
Over to you: What are YOUR thoughts on hand sewing techniques? Care to share any tips or tricks? Please leave a comment. Thanks for reading.
I learned how to embroider when I was 10 or 12. My mom and I were visiting my dad’s sister in Central Oregon. I was rushing through the project when my aunt commented that my stitches were too long. So I tore it all apart and started over, this time taking my time. From that day until this my stitches are even and I’m less than one year shy of sixty. I’d highly suggest taking up embroidery. It used to be that pillow cases were the thing. But just a scrap piece of plain cloth will do with just a simple line drawing such as a heart and regular thread, colored if you like.
I prefer the ladder stitch to the slip stitch because I find that the stitches are far better hidden and it’s the one used in hand applique of which I just learned fairly recently.
I’ve always wondered how sewing was accomplished prior to the sewing machine. I’ve been enamored with Bernadette Banner’s YouTube videos. Although she does both hand sewing and uses a vintage sewing machine.
I find that the thimble is too cumbersome for me. I have both metal and rubber ones. They tend to slip which to me is just as dangerous as going without. If I really find myself in a pickle then I’ll come up with another method.
Thanks for sharing, Roberta. Yes, Bernadette Banner’s sewing videos are a great resource for learning hand stitching (and entertaining, too). Did you know she has a newish book about hand sewing?