The art of hand sewing requires patience, precision, and knowledge of stitches that are best suited for different techniques and fabrics. From garment construction to embroidery and quilting, hand stitching allows for a personal touch and control that machine sewing cannot replicate. Over centuries, seamstresses and tailors have developed a range of stitches, each with their own unique structural properties and aesthetic effects.
For any sewing project, choosing the right stitch for the task at hand is key to achieving both functionality and beauty. Simple running stitches provide a versatile foundation for basic mending and gathering. Backstitches create a sturdy seam while catch stitches form an invisible hem. Decorative stitches like the featherstitch infuse clothing and crafts with elegant embellishment. And the strong buttonhole stitch produces secure openings for fasteners to pass through.
Mastering hand stitching takes time, practice, and an understanding of how different stitches behave across an array of fabrics. But the effort pays dividends in the form of flexibility, customization, and the satisfaction of creating unique pieces by hand. Whether repairing a seam, smocking a blouse, or stitching an embroidered picture, the quality and care instilled by the crafter’s hand is apparent in every thoughtfully sewn stitch.
The Importance of Hand Sewing
Before we delve into the specific stitches, let’s first consider the value of sewing by hand. In today’s world of high-speed sewing machines and mass manufacturing, handcrafting clothing or crafts may seem outdated or inefficient. However, hand sewing provides distinct benefits that should not be overlooked:
Precision and Control
Guiding the needle and thread yourself allows for an unparalleled level of accuracy and customization. Precisely placed stitches, tailored seam allowances, and subtle shaping details are all easily achievable with hand sewing. For tricky areas like collars and curved seams, the control of handwork simply cannot be matched.
The slight irregularities and inconsistencies of hand sewing lend projects a unique depth and textural interest. Unlike machine sewn items which often appear flat or sterile, hand sewn pieces have more visual charm and appeal.
Strength and Durability
You may be surprised to learn that hand sewn seams and stitches are often stronger than machine sewn ones. The extra care taken in hand sewing leads to denser, tighter stitches that stand the test of time and wear. When durability is key, opt for handwork.
Hand sewing unleashes new creative possibilities through intricate stitches, thread colors, patterns, and mixed media techniques. You are limited only by your imagination and skill when handcrafting.
Clearly, hand sewing should not be considered a lost art form. While machines have their place for speed and convenience, dedicating time to hand stitching is deeply rewarding for both the maker and the end user.
Basic Hand Stitches for Sewing
Now that we have covered the merits of hand sewing, let us begin our exploration of essential stitch types. We will start with versatile basic stitches that every sewist should know:
The running stitch is the bread-and-butter stitch for hand sewing. Simple and straightforward, it can be used in a wide variety of projects from basic mending to gathering to quilting.
- Temporary basting
- Permanent seaming for light fabrics
- Gathering and easing fabric fullness
- Quilting layers together
- Bring the needle up through the fabric at the starting point.
- Insert the needle back down into the fabric a short distance away in the desired direction.
- Continue moving the needle up and down through the fabric in a straight line to create a series of even stitches.
- Keep stitches approximately 1/4” in length for a balanced look.
- Use a thimble to push the needle through fabric layers and protect your finger.
- Start with knotted thread and make knots periodically to secure the line of stitching.
- For gathering, take longer stitches (1/2″ or more) and pull on the thread ends to bunch fabric.
- Use wax thread for sturdy seaming that won’t easily unravel.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to execute neat, even running stitches for all your basic hand sewing needs.
Similar to the running stitch, the backstitch is another fundamental stitch for hand sewing. Backstitching creates a strong, durable seam for medium to heavy fabrics.
- Make a small stitch by bringing the needle up and down through the fabric.
- Move the needle back down through the fabric, directly behind the starting point of the first stitch.
- Bring the needle back up a stitch length ahead of the first stitch.
- Continue in this manner, alternating stitches forward then back.
- Use sharp needles to pierce multiple fabric layers easily.
- Keep stitches close together and uniform in length for a tidy appearance.
- “Lock” your stitches at the beginning and end by sewing two or three backstitches without advancing forward.
- For extra strength, use the lock stitch variation which wraps over three backstitches with each new stitch.
Though slightly trickier than running stitch, backstitching is an essential technique for durable, long-lasting hand sewing.
Invisible Hand Stitches
In certain cases, visible stitches would detract from the overall look of a project. Enter invisible hand stitches, which allow you to assemble, hem, or mend projects from the inside leaving only a minimal trace on the outside surface.
Slip Stitch/Ladder Stitch
This stitch is used to invisibly join two folded edges together, making it ideal for closing up openings left in seams and hems. When done properly, the slip stitch disappears between fabric folds for a seamless effect.
- Closing side and sleeve seams from the inside
- Joining folded hems invisibly
- Attaching linings to garment edges
- Closing pillows or cushions
- Thread a hand-sewing needle and knot it.
- Working from left to right inside the fold, bring the needle up through one folded edge only a few threads in from the fold.
- Then insert the needle into the opposite folded edge in the same way, again only picking up a few threads.
- Continue in this manner, keeping stitches small and evenly spaced for an invisible effect.
- Pick up only 1-2 threads per stitch to prevent puckering.
- Avoid pulling stitches too tight or they may show through on the right side.
- Use matching or slightly darker thread for optimal invisibility on fabric.
Mastering the slip stitch will allow you to seam and hem projects invisibly for a clean, professional finish.
The blind stitch forms an invisible hem from the outside by barely catching the hem’s edge on alternating stitches. With practice, this becomes an invaluable technique for professional garment finishing.
- Invisible hems on skirts, dresses, sleeves, etc.
- Inconspicuous repairs to seam edges
- Press hem under to desired width and pin in place.
- Work from left to right, bringing the needle up through the hem allowance only and catching just 1-2 threads.
- Then insert the needle into the garment, about 1⁄4” perpendicular from the hem edge, and take a straight stitch.
- Alternate catching the hem edge and garment fabric every few stitches.
- Distribute stitches randomly for an invisible effect.
- Iron hem flat and use lots of pins for easier sewing.
- Begin with a knot on the underside of the hem to secure thread.
- Adjust stitch length as needed so stitches just barely show on the outside.
- Use neutral or matching thread color on medium to heavy fabrics.
Though challenging at first, blind hemming is an invaluable skill for creating hidden hems quickly by hand. With practice your stitching will look professionally finished.
Decorative Hand Stitches
Beyond their functional applications, hand stitches can also provide ornamental embellishments to crafts and clothing when done with colorful threads. Let’s explore some classic decorative stitches to elevate your hand sewing.
The blanket stitch creates a pretty scalloped edge finish, most commonly seen edging handmade blankets. But it has many decorative uses beyond blankets.
- Blanket edging
- Clothing embellishment
- Applique finishing
- Craft edging
- Bring the needle up through the fabric edge at the desired starting point.
- Insert the needle down into the fabric about 1⁄4” inward, leaving slack in the thread underneath.
- Bring the needle back up about 1⁄4” away along the edge, pulling the thread underneath taut.
- Continue in this manner, keeping stitches evenly spaced and looping the thread under each stitch.
- Use brightly colored embroidery floss for added embellishment.
- Mix up stitch lengths and spacing to complement design.
- For applique finishing, place edges of shapes close together to avoid gaps.
Get creative with the humble blanket stitch to add lively detail to any hand sewing project.
Not just for buttonholes, the buttonhole stitch is useful for many decorative edging effects. The closely stacked stitches create a sturdy, attractive finish.
- Decorative edges
- Reinforcing openings
- Bring the needle up through the fabric at the start of the opening edge.
- Loop the thread under the point of the needle.
- Pull the needle and thread down so the loop lies flat against the edge.
- Bring the needle back up very close to the last stitch and repeat.
- Use buttonhole twist or extra strong thread to withstand wear.
- Work closely spaced, even stitches for best results.
- For buttonholes, stitch both sides then cut opening with seam ripper.
- Bar tack ends for added reinforcement.
The buttonhole stitch is worth perfecting for embellishing projects stylishly by hand.
The linked, looped effect of the chain stitch makes a playful decorative touch. Build up connecting chains for beautiful designs.
- Embellishing garments
- Decorative embroidery
- Attaching appliques or trims
- Bring thread up through fabric. Loop thread under and over needle tip.
- Pull thread to form a loop anchor on surface.
- Insert needle back down next to loop, bringing it up farther along.
- Loop the thread under needle tip again over the new spot.
- Pull thread through to create a linked loop. Repeat to extend the chain.
- Keep stitches evenly snug but loose enough to remain flexible.
- Outline shapes or meander in free-form designs.
- Combine with other decorative stitches for interest.
Unleash your creativity with the artistic chain stitch to embellish projects in a unique, hand-crafted way.
Temporary Hand Stitches
Not all types of hand stitching need to be permanent. Some are intended just to temporarily hold together fabric before permanent sewing. These temporary stitches are useful for pattern making, basting, and preparation work.
Basting provides a simple way to temporarily hold fabric together before permanently sewing a seam or hem. The long stitches are quick to sew and easy to remove later.
- Temporarily assembling quilt layers
- Holding garment pieces in place for fitting
- Preparing fabric for gathering or smocking
- Securing trim or appliques temporarily
- Stitch through all layers using long straight stitches approximately 1⁄2” to 1″ in length.
- Space stitches evenly so project lies flat and even.
- Do not tie knots or backstitch so basting is easily removed later.
Basting by hand allows you flexibility in test sewing garments, quilts, and craft pieces before final construction.
For a more permanent way to hold layers together, use small tack stitches instead of basting. They can be neatly removed later if needed.
- Securing fabric pieces during test fitting
- Temporarily attaching pockets, trim, appliques, etc.
- Holding quilt layers together during quilting
- Take a very small straight stitch through all fabric layers to tack them together.
- Space tack stitches 1 to 2 inches apart across project.
- Try to keep stitches perpendicular to project edge for stability.
- Knot thread securely at beginning and end.
Tack stitching adds stability for test sewing and light construction work with hand sewing.
Finishing Hand Stitches
Even after the main sewing is complete, a few special finishing stitches are often needed to add the polish to projects. These techniques neatly finish raw edges and add sturdy hems.
Also called the whip stitch, this technique prevents fraying by encasing raw fabric edges with stitching.
- Finishing raw edges of seams and hems
- Edging patchwork quilt blocks
- Work from left to right, bringing the needle from back to front over the fabric edge.
- Loop the thread over the fabric edge before pulling the thread through.
- Space stitches evenly and approximately 1⁄8” apart.
- Do not stitch into the garment, only over the edge.
For a neat finish in high-wear areas, overcast stitching is a must-know technique.
Not to be confused with hemming, the hemstitch is a decorative way to secure a hand sewn hem while adding ornamental interest.
- Decorative hem finishes
- Edge embellishment on napkins, table linens, etc.
- Make two parallel rows of running stitches along hem edge, approximately 1⁄4” apart.
- Pull needle through one row, then loop threads under the second row.
- Continue crisscrossing threads to create woven bars.
- When hem is secured, tie off and trim threads.
Add tailored interest to hems and edges with the hemstitch. Play with contrasting thread colors too.
Comparison of Hand Stitches for Different Sewing Projects
|Sewing Project||Recommended Stitches|
|Clothing construction||Backstitch, basting, slip stitch, blind hem, buttonhole|
|Quilting||Running stitch, basting, hemming, applique|
|Soft toys||Backstitch, ladder stitch, blanket stitch, whip stitch|
|Embroidery||Chain stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch, feather stitch|
|Applique||Blanket stitch, satin stitch, straight stitch|
|Home decor (pillows, curtains, etc)||Hemstitch, slip stitch, blanket stitch, running stitch|
|Leatherworking||Backstitch, saddle stitch, blanket stitch|
|Mending/alterations||Darning, slip stitch, ladder stitch, backstitch|
|Bags/purses||Backstitch, blanket stitch, saddle stitch, topstitch|
|Patchwork||Running stitch, hemming, slip stitch, applique|
- Backstitch is the most versatile stitch, good for construction and decoration on most project types.
- Invisible stitches like slip, blind hem, and ladder are useful when a discreet interior seam is needed.
- Blanket and buttonhole stitch add decorative edge finishes for crafts and clothing embellishment.
- Running stitch works for basic sewing needs like gathering, basting, and quilting.
- The right stitches depend on fabric type, visibility needs, and desired durability.
Hand Sewing Tools and Materials
Now that we have covered a wide range of hand sewing stitches, let’s briefly discuss the tools and materials needed to get started.
- Hand Sewing Needles: Select sharp, fine needles with long shafts and the right size eye for your thread. Aim for 10-12 needles in an assortment of sizes.
- Threads: Cotton is suitable for most work, but try specialty threads like silk or polyester when more strength, sheen, or elasticity is needed. Embroidery floss offers variegated color.
- Thimble: This metal cap protects your pushing finger from repeated needle pokes. Tailor’s thimbles have open ends to allow more fingertip sensitivity.
- Pins and pincushion: Stock up on sharp, thin pins for temporarily securing fabric while hand sewing. Store them in a stuffed pincushion.
- Seam ripper: This small cutting tool removes basting, mistakes, or seaming to make alterations. It’s indispensable for neater unstitching.
- Needle threader: Pass the wire loop through your needle’s eye effortlessly, saving frustration and eyestrain.
- Sewing scissors: Sharp small scissors kept just for cutting thread will make your stitching more efficient.
With these essentials, you will be set up for success with any hand sewing endeavor!
Tips for Learning Hand Stitches
Mastering the variety of hand stitches presented here will certainly take some patience and practice. But the effort you put in will take your sewing skills to exciting new levels. Follow these tips to smoothly grow your hand stitching expertise:
- Start simple. Focus on fundamental running stitch and backstitch until the motions feel natural.
- Practice consistency. Pay attention to stitch spacing and tension until stitches appear uniform.
- Work from right to left. This allows for better needle control if you are right-handed.
- Use a hoop or frame. Keeping smaller pieces taut in an embroidery hoop makes stitching easier.
- Follow a step-by-step tutorial. Finding visual guides online can illuminate proper technique.
- Start small projects. Stitch sampler squares to learn a new stitch before diving into large projects.
- Be patient with yourself. Building hand sewing skill takes time and dedication. But the rewards are immense!
Frequently Asked Questions about Hand Stitches for Sewing Projects
What are the best hand stitches for hemming?
The slip stitch and blind hem stitch are ideal for creating nearly invisible hems by hand. They allow you to seamlessly join the hem allowance to the garment from the inside.
Can I combine hand stitches and machine stitches on one project?
Absolutely! In fact, combining hand and machine sewing is very common. You may machine sew the main seams then finish edges and hems by hand for greater control.
Is embroidery floss just for embroidery or can I use it for sewing too?
Embroidery floss can be used for all kinds of hand sewing since it comes in a huge range of colors. Separate the strands to fit your needle and use it for decorative stitches like blanket stitch appliques or whip stitched edges.
Why do my hand stitches sometimes look uneven or loose?
This usually happens when tension is not consistent. Make sure to pull the thread taut as you complete each stitch for uniformity. Check that your knot is secure and re-knot periodically when stitching long seams.
What is the best way to knot the thread when hand sewing?
Aim for a flat knot by looping the thread twice around your fingertip then rolling the knot tight against the fabric. This provides security without bulk. For extra strength, knot at the end of seams too.
Is waxing the thread necessary for hand sewing?
Wax helps strengthen thread and prevent tangling and fraying. This allows for smoother sewing, especially for tricky fabrics like leather, vinyl, or heavy canvas that can easily fray. So for heavy projects, consider waxing your thread beforehand.
How do I hide knotted thread ends when hand sewing?
For an invisible finish, try hiding knots within folded seams or hems. Or, thread the end through the eye of a needle and weave it through previous stitches on the backside then clip. This buries the knot inside the project.
What size hand sewing needles should I buy?
A variety pack with needles ranging from size 5-10 will have you covered for most hand sewing tasks. Use fine needles like 5-8 for lightweight fabrics, and thicker needles like 8-10 for heavy fabrics like denim.
The Possibilities of Hand Sewing
From mending torn seams to embroidering motifs, hand sewing allows us to instill creations with personal care and attention. While machines speed production, the unmatched control and versatility of hand stitches should not be abandoned. Makers who honor the tradition of handcraft retain an essential cache of skills and an appreciation for quality over quantity.
In this guide we have only scratched the surface of the vast array of inspiring hand stitches awaiting you. Whether for practical techniques or artistic expression, thread a needle and discover for yourself just how much hand sewing has to offer. Our fabric world always benefits from a few more devoted hands stitching away.