Tips & Tricks for Handsewing

I love handsewing: I find it calming, relaxing, easily transportable, and more social than machine sewing (as much as I love that, and as awesome as it is) because you can sit around and chat and handsew just about anywhere.

Tips & tricks for handsewing

Sewing on a button with waxed cotton thread

I’m always sad when people mention that they find hand-sewing hard and intimidating.  It really doesn’t need to be! It’s a great, fairly easy and inexpensive way to get into sewing, or at least save yourself money hemming and mending.

Hand-sewing also adds a beautiful finish to any garment – your hems will be more discreet, your facings will sit smoother, and everything can be held in place without any sign of stitching on the exterior of the garment.  Couture garments are predominantly hand-sewn, and finishing yours with hand-sewing adds that extra touch of so-much-better-than-boughten.

Here are 5 quick tricks to make hand-sewing a lot easier – whether you are hand-sewing your own elaborate historical garment (which is what I do), hand quilting, or just sewing on a button or mending a tiny seam.

Hand sewing on the hoop channels on my paniers

Hand stitching with waxed linen thread.

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.

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.

There are also different kinds of needles, from embroidery to darning.  Having a selection will help you to pick the right needle for your project.  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.

Tips & tricks for handsewing

Mettler & Gutermann polyester threads

When hand-sewing I often use like-for-like threads: cotton for cotton, cotton or linen for linen, silk or fine polyester for silk, polyester for synthetics, and cotton for wool.  Most frequently though, I use silk thread.  Silk thread is amazing for hand-sewing.  It will change your whole perspective on hand-sewing.  It slips through the fabric like butter, rarely knots and tangles, and is such a pleasure to sew with.  It costs a bit more, but is worth every penny for the effort it saves you!

Tips & tricks for handsewing

Gutermann silk thread

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.

Tips & tricks for handsewing

Different weights & types of Mettler & Gutermann cotton thread, including waxed, quilters, mercerized, and button twist

For sewing thread (both hand and machine), I like Gutermann and Mettler threads equally.  Coats and Clark I find quite inferior, and that slightly fuzzy no-name stuff will just knot and snarl on you and make sewing a chore.

3. Wax your thread.

Waxing smooths 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  and can last for decades.  As an added bonus, they are pretty, and smell like honey and sunshine and happiness: what better thing to make you enjoy hand-sewing!

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.

Tips & tricks for handsewing

How to use a thimble correctly, as illustrated in a 1931 sewing manual

As with needles and thread, having a good quality one, and the right one for how you sew, is the key.  Picking a thimble is a matter of trial and error: feeling which thimble fits best, which can be used to push the needle through best, which protected your finger best, and which finger to wear it on.  I love the soft silicone thimbles, which are just strong enough to protect your fingers against all but the most strenuous sewing, stay on well, and are so light and easy to wear.

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 hand stitching: the running stitch, the backstitch, and the whipstitch.

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

Whip-stitched rolled hem

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

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

Once you are comfortable with the basic stitches, and with tying knots quickly and easily, there are dozens of other practical and decorative stitches that you can use to expand your sewing abilities – but just the basics will add a beautiful couture finish to your sewing.

Tips & tricks for handsewing

Chain stitch, feather stitch and blanket stitch illustrated in a 1931 sewing manual

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!

And, of course, you can get all the right threads and snips and thimbles and wax cakes at either Made on Marion shop.

This post has been adapted from one with a hand-sewing focus that was originally published on my personal blog in March 2013.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Oh yes, yes, yes hand sewing is the best. I have found a leather thimble which is amazing – I tried and tried the metal ones but just couldn’t do it. I agree, good needles and the right thread make all the difference and I love my bees wax. Great post 🙂

    1. The Dreamstress

      Thanks Sandra! I find the leather thimbles don’t hold up to the heavier of sewing I do (binding heavy corsets and remaking shoes) and I’ve got a great metal corset which is shaped to my finger, but the leather ones are fantastic for light sewing. The silicone are a little more robust than leather.

  2. Heather Hiebert

    I customize one of a kind 1/6 – 1/12 scale dolls, Mattel Kelly and Topper Dawn being my dolls of choice. I hand-sew all their clothing and am largely self-taught. I am so glad I found this blog post. After reading it, I went out to my local fabric store and exchanged all my polyester threads — except 3 neutrals I’ll keep for repairing synthetics — for cotton and silk ones. I bought a wax block and new needles. I also found a video on YouTube with five basic hand-sewing stitches which I bookmarked and reviewed several times.

    Today I got down to work. and SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, what a difference! It took me a lot less time and effort to sew the doll’s pants than it ever had before — and this is a pattern I’ve sewn many times before. It looked much neater and more professional, too. Wow, wow, wow, I can’t thank you enough!

    1. Clever clogs

      Hi Heather, that is awesome! Indeed, hand sewing has a lot going for it, especially for precision work. I’m so happy we were able to help.

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