Although you will probably stitch most of your work on the machine, sewing by hand is a technique which you must master.
Some stitches are functional, others purely decorative. Hand-sewn embroidery gives an individual touch to a garment or accessory, and has the advantage that you can carry around work in progress and pick it up at a quiet moment in the day, without having to set up your sewing area.
Types of Needle
The right choice of needle and thread for the fabric you are sewing will make light work of the job. The size of the needle refers to its diameter: the smaller the diameter of the needle, the larger the number, from 1 to 24 for very fine tapestry needles.
Needles are also made in different proportions, to suit different uses, which are reflected in their names. For example, if you are running long, even tacking stitches through thick fabric you will want a long needle with a small eye. The same type of needle, a shop, is used for sewing slipstitch in fine fabrics.
For most plain hand sewing, use quilting needles or betweens, which are shorter, and therefore easier to work with when making short, even stitches. Embroidery, crewel, tapestry, chenille, and beading needles are all intended for decorative stitching, using heavier threads than the small-eyed sharps or betweens.
For fine embroidery, use the longest small-eyed needles, known as milliner’s or straws. For darning, use the longest long-eye needles.
The sharpness also varies, according to the type, of fabric to be sewn. Tapestry needles and ballpoint embroidery/crewel needles have rounds points so that they do not split the weave or fibre-as you sew.
Types of Thread
For most hand sewing, you will be using fabrics made of natural fibres (cotton, linen) so you should use threads of natural fibre too.
Many different types of embroidery thread are available for decorative stitching. Those with a matt finish are generally softer, used for tacking and stitching utilitarian fabrics, such as household cottons and linens. Mercerized cotton is specially treated to give extra sheen and strength.
There are extra strong threads and buttonhole twists for top-stitching, buttons and buttonholes, in either cotton or polyester, and other special purpose threads such as hand quilting thread and silk thread. Polyester is stronger than cotton, but many people do not like to use is for hand sewing.
Sewing by Hand
Choose an appropriate needle and thread for the fabric (and decorative effect where required) and use a thimble. This may feel awkward and uncomfortable to start with, but once you are used to it, a thimble will make work faster and better, as well as protecting your finger. Find one that fits snugly — they are available in sizes 14 to 17 mm (formerly size 0 to 6) in metal and plastic. Wear it on the middle finger of your right hand, and use it to direct and force the needle through the fabric.
As you pull the thread through the fabric, you may find that the remaining supply of thread tends to twist and kink. Some threads twist more readily than others — for example, buttonhole twist. And some hand stitches, such as fine over-sewing, tend to cause greater twisting and kinking than straight running stitches.
To remove excessive twisting without unthreading the needle, simply hold the thread end and draw the needle down to the fabric. Then let go of the thread end and slide the needle back along the thread to the sewing position. This pushes the extra twist to the end of the thread.
Waxing the thread makes it easier to draw through certain fibres, and helps to prevent kink¬ing. You can either draw the thread several times over a block of wax, or run it through a special wax holder, available at haberdashery counters.
Before assembling any work with the final lines of stitching, and while constructing facings and shapings, the layers of fabric have to be held together temporarily. This leaves you free to concentrate on even stitching, without worrying about the layers of fabric slipping around.
The traditional method of doing this, essential with tailored and intricately shaped items, is by hand racking. When hand sewing, and when stitching long, straight or gently curved seams, pin tacking is a useful short cut. Short seams can be machine tacked.
For hand tacking, use a long, slender needle and a single strand of thread, not more than 75 cm (30 inches) long and in a contrasting colour so that it is easy to see. ‘Tacking’ thread is soft and lightly twisted, or use mercerized thread. Silk thread does not mark the fabric as it is drawn through, or leave a mark after pressing; use it for fine fabrics when tacking on the right side, for example to hold the finished edge of a facing in place when pressing, or for turning up the fold of a hem.
When tacking, lay out the pieces of fabric to be joined on a flat surface such as a table or a lap pad. Pin at each end, at the centre and at any marked points such as notches. Then space out pins between, working out from the centre, without distorting or easing the fabric. Place the pins at right angles to the seam, with heads to the seam edge. Knot the end of the thread and tack by hand then finish with a couple of backstitches. Remove tacking after the seam has been stitched.
Hints for Easy Threading
- Cut the thread with sharp scissors at an angle. Avoid breaking or biting it for then you will have trouble threading it through the needle eye.
- Use a short thread. For finishing and embroidery stitches, use a length less than 60 cm (24 inches). Use a longer thread for tacking, and an appropriate length for gathering. A thread that is too long will tangle and weaken from being pulled through the fabric. And it will make your arm tired from pulling the thread through.
- Use a single thread for most sewing. A double thread helps to speed up sewing when attaching buttons and fasteners, for example.
- Hold the needle in the left hand and the end of the thread tightly in the right hand. Pass the thread through the eye and with the same motion grasp the needle into the grip of the right thumb and index finger. Use the left hand to draw the thread end, pulling it through so that it hangs half way down the remaining supply of thread.