Tips and tricks for hand-sewing (historical and otherwise)

A lot of people are astonished when the hear that I sew entire 18th century garments by hand, and mention that they find handsewing hard and intimidating.  Here are 5 quick tricks to make it a lot easier – whether you are hand-sewing your own elaborate historical garment, or just sewing on a button or mending a tiny seam.

Hand sewing on the hoop channels on my paniers

Hand sewing on the hoop channels on my paniers

1. Use good needles (and the right kind).  

There are different qualities of needles, and different types of needles, and it’s important to have the best quality needles you can afford, and to use the right type the type of sewing and the type of thread you are using.

Yes, a packet of good, high-quality needles can cost you up to $9, whereas the bargain store have  them for $1, but the last time a student brought in bargain needles to a class of mine we ended up tossing the whole packet because they were all blunt (really blunt.  The tip of each was FLAT).  You may spend more money initially to buy really good needles, but if you take care of them, they will last much longer, and save you money on needles, fabric, and thread in the long run.  I have a whole stash of beautiful, high quality vintage needles thanks to Nana, but for modern needles J James are great, and Mrs C raves about Piecemakers.

Different types of vintage Flora McDonald needles

Different types of vintage Flora McDonald needles

A needle with a blunt or snagged tip will catch on your fabric, causing pulls, and it will take you more effort to push it through the fabric.  A needle with a ragged or too-small eye will wear and cut at your thread, causing it to fray and break – costing you time, money, and finish on your sewing.  Good needles will save you so much time and effort when sewing, and will be much better for your fabric and thread.

Use a needle that has an eye just big enough to comfortably hold your thread, without it having to squash through the hole, or without a lot of slipping.   A finer, thinner needle will slide through fabric more easily – so generally the finer the better as long as it isn’t squashing the thread.  Get a threader if you have trouble threading the needle.

Needles do come labeled with their recommended use, but I use that more as a guide than a rule.

2. Use good thread (and the right kind).

A good quality thread will make a huge difference in the ease and durability of hand sewing.  A poor quality thread will be fuzzy and prone to knotting, breakage and fraying as you sew with it, and more likely to break when the item is worn and used.

When handsewing (and machine sewing) I use like for like threads: cotton for cotton, linen for linen, silk or fine polyester for silk, polyester for synthetics (though I rarely hand sew synthetics, or hand sew with synthetic thread), and cotton for wool (though I have use strands of wool thread pulled from the fabric itself for some wool sewing, such as my pallas and stola).

The type of thread will affect the weight of the thread, but there are also different weights within types of thread: finer for basic sewing, heavy twist for extra strong sewing and buttons.

Different weights of vintage thread

Different weights of vintage thread

As I have discussed before, I regularly use vintage thread, and find that as long as it was good quality thread to start with, it works every bit as well as new thread of the same quality and type.  For modern threads, I like Gutterman and Mettler threads equally.  Coats and Clark I find quite inferior.

A selection of beautiful vintage threads

A selection of beautiful vintage threads

3. Wax your thread.

Waxing smoothes down the fluff of your thread, and glosses over the twist, helping it to slide through the fabric more easily.  It also keeps the thread from kinking and knotting.  It’s particularly important when working with linen and cotton threads.

My bee patterned beeswax

My bee patterned beeswax

A cake of wax is very cheap (mine was $3.50) and can last for decades.  As an added bonus, mine is pretty, and smells like honey, so just picking it up and using it makes me happier.

Drawing my thread through the edge of my wax cake to wax it

Drawing my thread through the edge of my wax cake to wax it

4. Learn to use a thimble.

If you’ve tried using a thimble once you probably found it horrible and awkward, and left off using one.  That’s what I did (despite having worked with a traditionally trained tailor and seeing the amazing things he did with a thimble) until I started hand sewing so much that I was regularly wearing holes in the pads of my fingers – and consequently bleeding on my fabric, or wearing holes through my thumbnail from pushing.  So, out of desperation I took up thimbles again, persevered until I had learned how to use one, and let me tell you, they are amazing.  They protect my fingers from stabs and wear holes, and cut down on arm strain.

As with needles and thread, having a good quality one, and the right one for how you sew, is the key.  I don’t have any quick answers to what is the right one: for me it was a matter of trial and error, feeling which thimble fit, which I could use to push the needle through best, which protected my finger, and which finger to wear it on.  I don’t always wear them on the same finger, and sometimes I sew wearing as many as four thimbles at once.

5. Don’t think you need to know a bunch of fancy stitches!

You only need to know 3 stitches (well, 3.5, since there is a forth that is a combination of the first two) to do most historical (pre-sewing machine) hand stitching: the running stitch, the backstitch, and the whipstitch.  The most common stitch of all (stitch 3.5) is the running-backstitch – 6 to 10 running stitches, one backstitch, and on you go.  It’s stronger than the running stitch, but not as labour intensive as the backstitch.  I’m not going to do tutorials because there are dozens on the internet already – you can have fun with google and youtube and find one that makes sense to you.

Running backstitches on the bodice of the 1813 Kashmiri dress, backstitches hold the skirt on

Running backstitches on the vertical bodice seam of the 1813 Kashmiri dress, backstitches hold the  heavy skirt on

Whipstitched rolled hem

Whipstitched rolled hem

Teeny-tiny whipstitches on the lining of Ninon's bodice

Teeny-tiny whipstitches on the lining of Ninon’s bodice, large running stitches (basting) hold the un-bound edges together

Other than practice, those are the things that I find make hand-sewing fast, easy and angst-free.  I hope they help your hand-sewing, and if you have any other tips please do share!

49 Comments Post a Comment
  1. LadyD says:

    As someone that hand sews everything even modern garments I would like to say thank you. I’m always surprised by how many people go stright to machine sewing and fear hand sewing. Its much more relaxing to hand sew and I make less ‘mistakes’ so no seam ripping (I always think that’s a waste of thread. If I can unstitch and rethread my hand stitching I will. Its also faster than people think once I get into a rythum I’m rather speedy. And even the other day I showed someone my stitching and they thoght it was done by machine even though it was hand sewed.
    Oh what’s your fave handstitch. Mine is the herringbone stitch….both decorative and practical.

    • Panth says:

      One of the most annoying forms of ‘member of public’ that I get when reenacting are the ones who not only think my hand-sewing is machine-sewing but are insistent that I’m lying to them when I correct them.

      I rather like the ones who think it is machine sewing to start with but then get all wide-eyed and go ‘oooo!’ when I tell them it’s not. Best ones are the ones who do that but are old ladies. They actually are a) impressed and b) understand the amount of work.

      • Oh dear. People are so silly. Hand-sewing (no matter how neat) and machine sewing just look so different. Keep a small sample of ‘work in progress’ in your pocket as proof?

      • LadyD says:

        When you look from the top it looks like a machine..but anyone who’s machine stitched before will see from the underside its hand stitched.
        I like to think of it as a compliment on my neat stitching.

    • Oh, I like the machine in it’s place, and for its thing, but I think it’s important not to be scared of either! Both have their benefits.

      Seam ripping is a dreadful waste of thread, but sometimes when I make a mistake handsewing I succumb because unpicking backstitching and running back stitching does my head in. There is a beautiful scene in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew about unpicking basting and carefully re-winding and saving the threads. It really make me think about how precious thread was!

      My favourite handstitch is the most basic and versatile – the running backstitch. I do love the invisible stitch though.

      • LadyD says:

        I’m sad enough to keep my thread off cuts which I then use as a ‘needle threader’ then I want to thread embroidery floss. I’ve got suite good now at estimating exactly how much thread is needed for a seam so I only have about a 10cm length left at the end max.
        Running backstitch is the workhorse of the handsewing world. Do you do what I do when I’m in a hurry about 6 running stiches and one backstich repeated as a pattern?

  2. sophie o. says:

    thanks for sharing these tips! I really have to make an effort and try using a thimble again, but as you said, I find it very awkward and feel like I can’t hold my needle correctly.
    I love hand sewing, I like the pace of it as well as the control you have over what you’re sewing. The added bonus is that I can sew in the evenings in my armchair listening (rather than watching) to the television and spend the evening with my husband

  3. Libby Gohn says:

    I’ve always been nervous about waxing my thread (especially when working with light-colored fabric). I’ve heard that the wax can melt and stain the fabric – have you ever had a problem with that?

    • Hi Libby,

      I almost mentioned that in the post, but decided to keep it simple. I’ve never had a problem with that, but I don’t wax the threads I use for very light and fine fabrics. If you are worried, I’d just do a test piece. You can also rub your thread with dryer paper which also reduces static cling, making tangling less likely.

    • Kathy P in Pittsburgh says:

      If you notice wax spots on your fabric, you’re using far too much on your thread. Just run the thread through once and then smooth it with your fingers a couple of times for even distribution. Heavier threads might take two passes of wax. If you’re still worried about extra waxing, fold a piece of scrap fabric around the thread and pull it through a couple of times. The only time I had a problem with wax marking it turned out I’d picked up a piece of cheap beexwax/canning wax blend that had dye added to it.

  4. Wanda/Dawn says:

    My biggest problem is impatience. I can run up a long seam in 2 minutes flat with a sewing machine but it takes forever with hand sewing. My impatience also causes small stitches at the beginning of the seam an huge stitches at the end. I have no idea how to fix impatience!

  5. Mouse Borg says:

    Thank you for the very useful tips. I really need to work on #4, I’ve tried using thimbles and I did find it horrible and awkward.
    But hand sewing does wear holes in my fingertips, and I’ve got more thimbles than I have fingers (they came with Grandma’s sewing stuff) so I should probably learn to use them.

    In general I find that hand sewing is much less frustrating than machine sewing. No broken needles, no sewing machine oil randomly appearing on your needle and making giant greasy spots on your fabric, and far fewer giant thread snarls.

    • Do try the thimbles!

      And it sound like your sewing machine needs a servicing. Machine sewing shouldn’t be any more or less frustrating than hand sewing – my machine never spots, I break needles on it no more often than I do hand sewing (yes, I break or wear out hand sewing needles on a monthly basis – that’s what happens when you do a lot of hand sewing!) and rarely get giant thread snarls (and when I do, it was my fault). With both machine and hand sewing it’s all about learning to work with your equipment.

      • Mouse Borg says:

        Maybe it does. I’m pretty sure the broken needles were my fault, and the oil running down the needle might mean I haven’t learned to oil it properly. But it does occasionally make giant thread snarls, which are seemingly unprovoked. It’s almost 60 years old, and mostly reliable.
        I should probably open it up and clean the dust out.

  6. Sue H says:

    Thank you for these pointer. A sewing bird or equivalent is a great help for straight seams & using natural fabrics works best.

    • Panth says:

      Where do you buy sewing birds!?

      I was searching for ages the other day but could only find occasional originals on ebay which were too expensive (for me).

    • Yes, I rarely hand sew synthetic fabrics – just not worth the effort, and never looks as nice.

      I don’t use a sewing bird because I carry my hand sewing around with me and often don’t have a table to clamp on. I find that cutting straight edges and practice results in straight seams.

    • Susanne says:

      Oh, those birds are adorable :)
      I use the low tech equivalent: a pin. I just pin the beginning of my stright seem to my trouser / skirt at my knee (but remember to tuck the fabric of the skirt securly under the knee…..) .

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

    • Susanne says:

      Oh, those birds are adorable :)
      I use the low tech equivalent: a pin. I just pin the beginning of my stright seem to my trouser / skirt at my knee (but remember to tuck the fabric of the skirt securly under the knee…..) .

  7. tanya says:

    I handsew most of my medeival costumes, I find it relaxing, you get a better finsih and once you get your hand in its not really much slower than using a machine

  8. I’d add that aside from patience, a certain level of tolerance towards imperfections is needed! :D In the end, there are usually far less than there seemed to be when you were staring at it up close…
    Also, pressing the seams is just as important with handsewing as it is with machine-sewing. That is, it can be avoided, but the results are usually much neater when you do it.

    • Yes! Pressing is key for all sewing (I need to write a post about that actually…. ). A seamstress I worked with used to say “never trust a seamstress who doesn’t press more than she sews”.

      I do find I can sew linen without pressing – it just creases so beautifully with finger pressing.

  9. Lynne says:

    Thank you for the tip about waxing the thread. I’d never thought of that, and it would make such a difference.

    Thimbles. Sigh. I am a lost cause – I didn’t persevere when I was young, and now feel as if my fingers are wearing thigh-gumboots/waders! Such a shame. I would encourage young seamstresses to grit their teeth and learn the skill. I know how much faster my mother was, using a thimble, than I could ever hope to be. Not to mention the holes and the blood and the muttering.

  10. Kathy P in Pittsburgh says:

    I enjoy handsewing, although I’ve not made a completely hand stitched adult garment yet. I find it’s far easier to make doll clothes by hand, though. It allows me to keep stitching while watching mindless TV with my husband in the evenings.
    I’m still not converted to a thimble, but I suspect if I start to work with larger garments in heavier fabrics I’ll teach myself to keep one on fairly quickly. A fingertip full of pricked spots is not comfy!

  11. Mina says:

    Love this :) I used to think I’d never have the patience to sew anything by hand, but once I started making historical costumes the results really speak for themselves. Sadly, the thimble and I never worked it out and now I have a rather large collection on display that mocks me (traditional, half-nail, leather, rubber, etc).

  12. Lynn Brooks says:

    thank you for these tips. i still have not taken a sewing class to learn to use my machine, i am soooo intimidated by the machine. what little sewing I do (hemming skirts, fixing rips) is by hand. somehow hand sewing doesn’t scare me (it’s the idea of trying to properly cut and sew a garment that makes me a nervous wreck), the main reason I wanted a machine when i decided i wanted to learn to sew was that i knew at times i might get frustrated with something time consuming and the machine could whip through it quicker. but there is really something that appeals to me about sewing something by hand while watching tv with a cup of tea.
    an hour ago I did not understand the importance of better needles, I have the cheapies, now I know better. I did not understand the importance of what type of thread to use or about the wax. i always have problems with thread snagging, now i know why. And I really need to learn more than my ghetto variation of the whipstitch.
    I feel a little less intimdated now.

  13. Rachelle says:

    I hand-sew for a living so tend to machine sew my garments. I always hand-sew hems on things like wool skirts or trousers though, they hang much better that way and you can ease the hem more easily too.
    I think if I was sewing stuff from earlier than the 20th century I’d do more hand sewing though, it would be appropriate to the period.

  14. Panth says:

    All of my medieval sewing is entirely by hand. I find sewing machines terrifying, but more than that I prefer the ability to sit and chat, drink tea, watch TV, listen to radio, etc. whilst sewing or the ability to take a small project with me somewhere.

    Having said that, I don’t use a thimble (I need to learn to use my medieval ring one) and you’ve just given me a little wake-up call about making sure my thread diameter and needle diameter match (thanks!).

    I used to sew back stitch or whip stitch exclusively (for seams/hems, respectively). Now I’m entering into running stitch as it seems to be much more commonly used than back stitch (at least going by the London medieval textiles). I used to have terrible trouble with unintentionally gathering when doing running stitch, but I’m learning not to.

    • Kate says:

      Love that you mentioned the social benefits of sewing by hand. I do both (hand/machine), maybe equally but hadn’t reflected on this difference before.

  15. Black Tulip says:

    Thanks for the tip about how long it takes to get used to using a thimble. I’ve tried before (usually once I’ve created a small crater in one finger), but have given up well before 24 hours. Clearly I need to persevere a lot longer.

    I can’t agree enough about cheap needles, either. I once bought some where the eyes were prone to splitting at the top. On about the third time that I found myself holding an empty needle I realised what was happening – at that point the whole packet went straight in the bin!

  16. Kylie says:

    Love this post! When people hear that I occasionally sew something by hand, they get all squinty eyed and look at me like I’m nuts. Maybe I was when I first started. I learned to sew by machine, and only hemmed by hand, until I moved overseas and needed a party dress/costume before I’d managed to acquire a machine. A week of frantic experimental sewing later and I was all set.

    I still have the dress, and feel the urge every so often to practice/improve my sewing so still make some things that way, even though I use my machines more often than not. But given the current heat wave in Melbourne, if I wasn’t hand sewing, I wouldn’t be doing any. It’s the only way I can sit in front of the air conditioner and sew!

    I take your point about the thimble though – I’ve got some fair calluses on the pads of my fingers from needlework! They always just felt so clumsy whenever I tried them though.

  17. Sarah says:

    The button hole stitch is an essential one too I think!

    Thanks for this post I’ve been needing this type of encouragement. I’m hand-sewing historical garments for the first time and found it intimidating at first. But, really, it’s such a soothing way to do things. Imagine that our ancestors found hand-sewing tedious before sewing machines – now we have high-speed everything and relish some peaceful slow hand-sewing! I find that very ironic! :-)

  18. kaitui_kiwi says:

    I just bought some beeswax for my hand sewing. I’ve always used good quality needles and thread so I thought I was just rubbish at hand sewing because I am impatient but I can’t believe what a difference using beeswax it makes.

    I am trying to make myself use a thimble too, even though I feel so awkward, I know if I persevere it will be better for my poor little fingers in the long run :)

  19. Thank you so much for putting together this post! It’s exactly what I needed to know. I do find that my hand-sewing has gotten better and faster the more I do it, but now I need to work on getting the hang of thimble usage! When I made my last corset, my thumbs were definitely taking a beating…

  20. Bonnie says:

    Thanks for this post! Super duper helpful and will hopefully make me loathe hand sewing less. Also, I live close to Piecemakers, and that place is an absolute WONDERLAND. They’ve got anything you can imagine, and high quality stuff. They even have trunks of vintage trim and ribbon you can pick through that’s been donated by Piecemakers members! If you’re ever in the SoCal area, definitely check it out. Such a beautiful and charming, friendly place. Now I need to go back there…..

  21. […] the aforementioned links. Historical recreation is the place to look for hand-sewing tips, such as The Dreamstress and Extreme Costuming. For machine sewing, especially garments, my favorites of the pages I found […]

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