Before you can sew your own clothes, create crafts, and take on sewing projects, you have to learn the basic sewing stitches. From hand-sewing stitches to seam finishes, sewing instructor Cathy G. is here to help you master the basics…
Modern sewing machines have all but eliminated the need for hand sewing. Gone are the days of constructing a garment by hand with a needle and thread. That being said, there are still many places where hand-sewing stitches are necessary for a high-quality finish. Moreover, there is something satisfying about adding the smooth finish of a hand-stitched hem or crocheted button loop, for instance. The joy of constructing something with your hands never gets old.
Personally, I use my sewing machine to build and construct garments, but I still hem and mend by hand. When it comes to hand-sewing stitches, we seamstresses need to consistently hone these skills if we wish to improve. I’m going to cover some basic hand-sewing and machine stitches in this article, starting with basic sewing tools, and then going into the different types of stitches.
Tools of the Trade
In order to do any hand stitching, you’re going to need sewing tools like need high-quality needles, thread, and scissors. I cannot emphasize this enough. In addition, you may want to invest in a small ruler, tailor’s chalk or marking pencil, and straight pins. And depending on the types of finishing, you will also need both narrow and wide bias tape (I sometimes make my own to match or contrast with the garment or project), hem tape, narrow stretch lace, and pinking shears.
Also, make sure you’re familiar with these basic sewing terms and vocabulary.
Hand Sewing Stitches
The running stitch is the most basic of the hand sewing stitches, and has many variations. It’s used for gathering, mending, and tucking. Depending on its use, you an either knot your thread or take a couple of back stitches to lock it into place. In its longer form, it becomes a basting stitch.
Bring your needle through the fabric from the back (wrong side). Once the knot hits the fabric, make a stitch to the left or right. Bring the thread back up and repeat.
Use the same technique as the running stitch, but make longer stitches (between 1/4 inch and a 1/2 inch).
Today, we tend to pin baste more than hand baste our garments and projects, but hand basting can still be useful, especially with both lightweight (silk and chiffon) and heavyweight (leather and Melton) wools.
Before sewing machines, all clothes were built by layer upon layer of backstitches.
Working from left to right, take a small stitch, then insert the needle at the end of the previous stitch, bringing it out beyond the point where the thread emerges. Continue, always inserting the needle in the end of the previous stitch.
Catch stitch (Cross-Stitch)
You can use this stitch to to finish hems with fabric that doesn’t fray, and to tack facing invisibly.
Working from left to right, take tiny stitches on the hem, and then on the garment. Keep the stitches loose and even. They will appear as crosses on the wrong side and small stitches on the right.
This is my go-to stitch when it comes to hems and other finishes. It’s tidy and almost invisible, when it’s done right, and with care on both sides.
Bring the needle through the fold of the hem and pick up a thread of fabric at the same point. Make the stitches about a 1/2 inch apart and fairly loose.
Blanket Stitch (Buttonhole Stitch)
If you want to sew eyelets or buttonholes by hand, learn the buttonhole stitch.
Secure the thread on the wrong side of the fabric, then with the right side facing upward, insert the needle from back to front through the fabric 1/8 inch from the edge. Wrap the working head around behind the eye end of the needle, then behind the point. Pull the needle through, bringing the knot to the fabric edge. Continue, making closely spaced stitches and knot.
The eyelet version is worked in a circle, with the wrapped edge to the inside; the blanket stitch variation has at least a 1/4 inch spacing between stitches.
Sewing Machine Stitches
Standard Forward / Backward Stitching
Begin straight stitching 1/8-3/8 inch from the fabric edge. Backstitch the forward stitch over the pinned or basted seam. Repeat the reverse stitch to finish.
You can use the straight stitch for seams, under stitching, stay stitching, and simple top stitching.
The zigzag stitch provides a clean finish to raw edges, and you can use it as a finish technique in combination with a stay stitching line. You can adjust both the width and length of this stitch.
The good news is that most sewing machines can make buttonholes, either with a fully-automatic buttonhole foot attachment, or in the case of some mechanical and most computerized machines, a pre-programmed buttonhole.
Check your machine’s manual for these details.
Blind Hem Stitch
This sewing machine stitch consists of two or three straight stitches, and then one wide zigzag / catch stitch. Just as in the hand-stitched version of the blind hem, the fabric is folded under and away with the hem edge just projecting. The stitches show as a small dot on the right side.
There is a special machine foot that keeps the fabric folded away. This technique requires a lot of practice, and I recommend learning on lots of scrap fabric.
Once mastered, the blind hem stitch makes quick work of hemming pants and skirts.
You can use a zigzag finish on most types of fabric. Once the seam is sewn and pressed open, zig stitch the raw edge and and trim away the excess. The width and length of this can vary depending on the fabric weight. There is a variation where the seam-edges are trimmed to half their depth, zigzagged together, and pressed to one side.
Turn and Stitch
This is mainly used on crisp cottons. Fold and press the seam, allowing a 1/4 inch, and machine stitch along the folded edge to finish. The seams are then pressed open, or to one side, depending on the pattern’s directions.
This creates a tidy finish and wears quite well.
This is mostly used on unlined jackets and skirts.
Using purchased 5/8 inch bias tape, enclose the raw edge with the tape and stitch through all layers. Commercial bias tape
is slightly wider on one side; that side should be on the underneath the fabric.
You can also make your own bias tape in contrasting or matching fabric.
Pinked seams are the simplest of seam finishes. Using pinking shears, trim away as little of the seam allowance as possible. This version is best used on wools and polyester fleece and is not very hard wearing.
A better version of this finish is to machine stitch 1/4 inch from the seam, then trim the edges with pinking shears.
The hand overcast seam finish is used as an alternative to the zigzag stitch in small areas or on very thick
Taking very loose stitches, overcast the raw seam edges by hand.
The top stitch creates a hard hem line, and can be used to strengthen a seam or as a decorative finish.
Press the seams opens and then stitch in place from the wrong side. The seam are often pinked beforehand, sometimes with a contrasting bobbin thread.
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This just the beginning, as you become more proficient with sewing stitches, you will discover even more techniques for you to master. A good general sewing book is an invaluable resource. Find something that suits your learning style.
Personally, I find photographs confusing and like to use line drawings instead. I also encourage you to try a new technique with every new project, this way, you’re continually expanding your repertoire and improving your skills. The more choices you have when you sew, the better your project will turn out.
While books and online resources are very helpful for beginners, the best way to learn sewing basics is through one-on-one lessons with a private sewing instructor. Search here for sewing teachers near you.
Do you have questions or feedback? Let us know in the comments below. Good luck and sew on!