I want to be in stitches!
September 12, 2011 3:21 PM   Subscribe

Sewingfilter: Hand sewing versus machine sewing, and what stitches to use?

I've been wanting a new sewing machine for years, and finally bought one that SHOULD show up tomorrow. This makes me happy because I can finally start making my own clothing, tailoring and fixing old clothing, and generally making things that fit my style and body better than storebought clothes. (Plus, my fashion preference is anywhere from 60-200 years out of date.)

I am now curious, however, how HAND sewing works. I've tinkered around with the idea in the past, making simple drawstring bags and crap, but never anything wearable or really complex.

Is there any reason I can't, or shouldn't, hand sew things anyway? There are obviously some patterns I will only want to machine-sew due to the ridiculous length of time it would take otherwise, but for such things as reenactments and the like I think it would add a bit of realism to actually sew clothing by hand.

I'd probably stick with hand sewing simple patterns: shirts and the like, maybe a gathered hem (because I've broken machine needles that way, and I hate doing that) here and there. I've asked the Google God for advice but haven't really come up with a decent answer to this question:

What stitch(es) would be best for hand sewing the occasional piece of clothing?

(Yes, I could potentially ask my local SCA group but one of the local Laurels gets a bit overenthusiastic about things and the less she's at my house, the better.)
posted by Heretical to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hi there! I do reenactments too!

I'm lucky that my "Era" is the Civil War because I can use both the machine and hand stitching and still be accurate.

I usually use my machine for big long runs. Seams where I'm joining two large pieces of material and other things that would just take way to long to do by hand. I also use my machine for seams that I know will need reinforcement, sleeves and inseams mostly. Almost all the seams I use my machine for can't be seen when my garment is finished. (This only applies to reenacting sewing. For modern stuff there is very little that I don't do on my machine.)

I do hand sewing when I want the stitches to disappear or when I'm only sewing through one layer. For example, when I'm adding a bias tape edge to my neckline and sleeves I will sew the bias tape on with the machine then fold it over and finish it by hand. If I only catch the first layers it won't show on the other side. A machine will go through all the layers, it has to.

I also hand sewed the hem on my giant hoop skirt because I could do huge, long stitches on the inside and just catch a tiny bit on the inside. That way if I catch it on something (like a stupid tent stake that came out of nowhere) the hem stitching will come out instead of my skirt ripping (thank goodness it worked!)

The only stitches I use when I'm hand sewing are the simple running stitch, back stitch, and the occasional whip stitch.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:52 PM on September 12, 2011

Catch a tiny bit on the OUTSIDE!!*
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:54 PM on September 12, 2011

Best answer: I'm not sure if I'm exactly answering your question, but I think this is related and helpful. No, there is no reason not to combine hand and machine sewing, and if you get seriously into making more complex garments, especially into tailoring, you will have to do some of it by hand, this is how collars and lapels are often shaped, button holes often finished etc. Very fine fabrics also sometimes require hand sewing, as does beading and other decoration.

When the term isn't being used way too loosely, "couture" refers to extremely fine construction methods and the tiny number of fashion houses that still use them. There are techniques, many of them hand sewing skills, that are only really used when garments are put together this way. There are some great books out there that teach couture techniques and explain when they're appropriate, this one is great, and actually I recommend anything by Claire Shaeffer, reading her books has dramatically increased my understanding of how clothing and fabric "works".
posted by crabintheocean at 3:55 PM on September 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm bad at hand-sewing, and use an old tank of an antique Singer for my machine stitching. (It only does straight stitch, but oh, how I love it.) I just wanted to pop in and say, though, that if you're female and into reenactment (I don't know), I would NOT recommend trying to sew a corset by hand. Not only does precision and stitch length matter in the strength of the finished garment, but there are SO. MANY. SEAMS. Doing it on the machine makes me angry. I hesitate to imagine what doing it by hand would be like. Yes, it used to happen. Thank heavens progress marches on.

However, even in corsetry, many people hand-sew the binding. There's nothing wrong at all with combining the methods, and if you have the time and dedication, nothing wrong with hand-sewing a garment. (Even a corset, though I would still call you crazy.) Generally, when I do sew things by hand, I either use a simple running stitch or a backstitch, and try desperately to keep things even. I have also never figured out my buttonholer attachment, so I have to do those by hand.

But see, I kind of hate sewing, even though I also kind of do it for money. I may not be the biggest booster of hand-sewing you will encounter.
posted by Because at 4:37 PM on September 12, 2011

What stitch(es) would be best for hand sewing the occasional piece of clothing?

It totally depends on what you're doing. I usually do some minor degree of hand sewing on things I'm machine sewing; for instance, basting stitch, tacking, gathering stitch for easing in sleeves (unless I feel like doing it on the machine), and blind stitch for hemming . If you're constructing seams, the running stitch and/or back stitch is what you would use, but at that point you might as well use the machine, IMO. Over stitch is for finishing edges that might fray, whipstitch is used sometimes for narrow seams. If you're SCAing you'll want to do buttonholes by hand and there is a buttonhole stitch for that (not whip stitch!).
posted by oneirodynia at 4:51 PM on September 12, 2011

I've sewed dresses by hand, simple sleeveless gathered skirt type sundresses, and I basically just use a running stitch with the thread doubled up. Since I don't like the looks of raw edges, I make all French seams and sometimes I top-stitch the seams down. So a lot of hand-sewing but I find it very relaxing and the dresses hold up very well.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:13 PM on September 12, 2011

Even though I do have a blind hem foot for my sewing machine, I tend to do blind hems by hand out of sheer thirty-years-worth-of-habit. Until I got my most recent machine, I (like Because) used to do buttonholes by hand (or rather, used to avoid making anything with buttonholes whenever possible), but my newish Janome is actually a buttonhole making dream. Still, that's a fun skill to have and comes in handy if, say, you just need a finished hole for a drawstring and don't necessarily want to set up a whole thing to get it done.

I find it easier to set sleeves and sometimes collars by hand. A very simple sleeve, I might hand-baste and then machine stitch, but anything with gathering, I'll probably just straight-up handstitch it. Really anything that's gathered, I'll handstitch the threads I'm going to pull and then gather it before machine stitching it down. I have rarely been successful with pulling machine stitched threads to gather something, I always end up snapping the thread.
posted by padraigin at 6:24 PM on September 12, 2011

Best answer: I sew mostly by machine, but I do use hand sewing when it's the best tool. The number one most useful stitch you can learn is a catch stitch to do hems, tack down facings, etc.

Also useful - basting underlinings!

I made my own wedding dress, and I have to say that was a month of hand sewing that I rarely have to do- hand basting silk organza underlining. Hand stitching lace motifs over seams. Hand stitching lace over collars. Hand stitching down bias binding under the armholes. Hand stitching to thread trace pleats. Hand picking a zipper in the lace. It was very zen, and if it was anything other than my wedding dress, it would not have happened.

My method is to look at each project and decide what to do. Making a date night dress for myself? Yeah, I'll hand sew the hem & the lining to the zipper in the back. Halloween costume for a kid? 100% machine sewing, absolutely.
posted by lyra4 at 6:27 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hand-sewed for a very long time, because I was kind of afraid of sewing machines. I remembered my great-grandmother sewing her finger once and it was enough to put me off for nearly 20 years.

When I started getting into sewing garments -- something bigger than pillows and toys -- I decided I was going make friends with the sewing machine. I've never looked back, especially since I bought a new machine that I don't have to repair every time I want to use it.

It is just too quick and holds too well. I will still stitch tiny things by hand occasionally for effect, but for the most part it's the machine all the way.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:43 PM on September 12, 2011

Blindstitching is undoubtedly the most versatile hand stitch, not just for hems, but (when you're really good), for shaping interlinings and canvas, and, in modified forms, for closing armholes in lined jackets, and for tacking interlinings and findings in all constructions. But hours of careful hand done blindstiching can be flattened by a stupid dry cleaner with a hot ironing buck. Once you've invested considerable skill in a garment, you become, in my experience, its guardian in cleaning and wear, for life.

I still hand stitch my own trouser hems, and re-inforce my flys, my zippers, my pockets and tack down my waistbands, pockets and pocket welts with few judiciously place hand stitches, and some times, with a jacket I like otherwise, I'll fix machine felling with hand stitching, but, you know, I really only do this for myself, any more.

I'm tired of teaching Joseph Banks sales clerks, and such, garment make.
posted by paulsc at 8:42 PM on September 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh man, as paulsc notes, the things you can do with a needle and thread to better a garment that was tailored by machine or hands unknown...it really is worth doing. I hadn't even thought about it when I initially answered but I have put hand and needle to so many things I've gotten from thrift or vintage shops, to tack down this or reinforce that. In a finished garment there are places a machine just can't go.

I went to a garage sale years ago, when my girls were still babies, and bought a huge pile of dresses from the middle-aged woman who had worn them as a little girl, and her elderly mother who was there at the garage sale and had sewn so many of them, by hand. My kids have outgrown them but I still have a whole box full of these amazing little frocks with tiny, perfect, careful hand stitches. Whenever I falter on how to go about machine stitching anything, I just remember that "hey--I can just do this by hand!" and it never fails.
posted by padraigin at 8:52 PM on September 12, 2011

This may or may not be your thing, but I actually learned to sew clothes from the Mary Frances Sewing Book, which is aimed at little girls learning to hand-sew doll's clothes -- which use less fabric and take less time, in case you screw it all up. It's a much smaller investment! That book will teach you all the hand stitches you need and walk you through a pretty adorable doll wardrobe that can ALL be constructed from the remnants table.

(I strongly recommend ordering from Lacis, you can get the copy of the book with the patterns in the back, when you can then easily copy at the Kinko's or whatever; not all editions come with the patterns. You can also get an appropriately-sized doll at Lacis if you want to. No affiliation, just pleased with their service in the past.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:06 PM on September 12, 2011

Here are some tutorials for hand stitches, which also discuss what each stitch is used for:
Slip stitch
Pick Stitch
Catch Stitch
Fell Stitch
posted by Lycaste at 9:19 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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