Can I sew a dress by hand & sew it well? Will it take (me) forever?
April 3, 2014 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm totally into the idea of slow fashion. I'd like to take up sewing again and sew some simple but stylish items using Very Easy Vogue patterns or similarly easy patterns. The difficulty is that I'd like to do it by hand and want to know if this is practical. If not I may buy a basic sewing machine, but I'd love to try sewing and finishing by hand. Details inside.

I learned basic hand sewing as a girl, and helped my mother sew basic dresses on her machine. This was a long time ago! I now would like to sew some simple dresses and tops with nice fabric (e.g., linen, cotton/silk blends) for myself, but I don't have a machine. I've been looking at machines online and I kind of realize I don't really WANT one; I'd like to sew entire garments by hand. This kind of fits in with my general notion of slow fashion, but if I'm letting myself in for something totally impractical I'd like to know. The idea of NOT acquiring yet another electric appliance and having to find a place to store it when I'm not using it, of being able to sit quietly at a table and stitch with care and attention, is very appealing. I ordered and received this pattern for a misses' dress and thought it might make a good starter project.

But if I'm romanticizing what it takes to make a wearable and durable garment by hand, then I'm definitely soliciting the cold fish in the face here, so to speak! Not ruling out buying a machine someday, but I would love to see if I really take to this process. Sewists out there--do you think I can do it?

I'm also thinking of buying this couture hand sewing book as a reference and inspiration, and probably a basic sewing book as well.

For what it's worth I'm a very advanced knitter with a good idea of garment construction, having knitted a number of sweaters and coats and a top or two, and sewn them together successfully.

Thanks, hive mind!
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sewing on a machine means more precision. Straighter lines, and more easily finished.

Garments were 100% hand sewn for millenia before there was ever a machine, so it can be done.

Some fabrics are more forgiving than others for things like this. I suggest starting off with something simple, a lace tank top for example. See how you like it, then move onto larger garments.

I'd start with fabrics with a looser weave, laces, guaze, muslins.

It will be a very slow process, and when you have to pick a seam and re sew it, I think you'll be doubly frustrated (everyone has to do this and it's SO annoying).

Also, be sure you're getting the right needles and the right threads for your projects. You'll probably want a thimble too.

Good luck, while it's not something I have the patience for, I salute you for what sounds like a very interesting project.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:53 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hand sewing is way slower than machine sewing, but you're a knitter, so I think you have the temperament for it. You've doubtlessly had to rip out work you've spent a long time doing because it wasn't done quite right, and are used to a garment taking a long long time to finish. Go for it! You don't have much to lose! That book you linked looks great and there's a reviewer lauding it who says they sew exclusively by hand now.
posted by foxfirefey at 9:00 AM on April 3, 2014

Of course! It would probably be much quicker with a machine, but as Ruthless Bunny points out, people had been sewing things by hand for a longtime so of course it can be done!

Using sewing machines can also be very frustrating at times (what with tension issues, fabric catching in the feed, etc.) I think it's a great idea to taking the machine out of the equation...and if you already enjoy knitting I think you would like sewing by hand and would therefore have the patience for it.

I think the pattern you picked is a great place to start - easy construction and not a lot of tiny pieces to sew together.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 9:05 AM on April 3, 2014

I have sewn a dress by hand. It took approximately one million years and my hands cramped up so bad the whole time.
But it had way more seams than what you linked to. And it was still a fun project. It definitely gave me a new respect for the seamstresses of the past!
I would actually strongly suggest that you don't use loose weaves- the fabric is a little more unstable, and the process of sewing a whole dress by hand is slow and involves moving the fabric around a lot- the seams are unlikely to lie flat and pretty. Go for a lightweight fabric with a tighter weave, at least for your first project. Muslin or a smooth cotton should be okay. Use a lot of pins. Stop frequently to check that your seam is flat and lying how you want it. It's easier to pick out a few inches you just sewed than a whole seam you forgot to look at as you went. Use a thimble. Take a lot of breaks to let your hands rest.
The pattern you linked to looks like a good first project to try.
posted by Adridne at 9:07 AM on April 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Perfectly plausible, and very pleasant. Long seams are nice to sew because you can sit and listen to podcasts or "watch" TV and do these long, repetitive stitches for three or four feet of stitch. Details are often easier (especially for a beginning-to-intermediate sewer) to do by hand than on a machine.

It takes a little bit of practice to make a neat, even hem stitch, in particular, since hemming is often visible, but interior seams are very easy to get the hang of (I usually just do a running stitch with a back stitch every 5 or 10 stitches for strength for interior seams). If you want to practice-hem first, a simple apron is a good way to practice hand-hemming ... it's just a straight hem on a straight piece of fabric, and aprons are pretty quick to put together.

People hand-quilt all the time, this isn't very different, and the stitches involved are really not difficult at all. You'll really just need a little practice to get into a rhythm and make the stitches even.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:07 AM on April 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Absolutely possible. I prefer hand sewing for the same reason as knitting. There's something so nice about working quietly with nice fabrics on something you can't wait to wear. I've been thinking about getting that book - it's supposed to be very good. I do a lot of my fine-tuning work by hand now - it's easier for me to get a better fit. Also, you can reuse your basting thread! Less waste.

You might want to think about getting an antique manual sewing machine - the kinds with treadles - they are bulky, but beautiful - like an art piece.
posted by umwhat at 9:09 AM on April 3, 2014

I think it's very doable, but I'd avoid patterns that require zippers.
posted by bunderful at 9:12 AM on April 3, 2014

It is definitely possible to hand-sew garments, but there are a few drawbacks.

First, are you thinking of sewing woven fabrics (and given your fiber choices, I assume you are)? If so, there is a level of fitting work required that isn't there with hand-knitted items, which are more forgiving. Your previous experience with assembling hand-knit pieces probably isn't a great guide for the amount of fit work that may be required with a woven fabric.

Unless you're exactly the size of the fit model (and sometimes not even then), sewing garments that fit you well will generally require some combination of either (a) sewing forgiving garments -- knit fabrics, elastics/shirring at waistbands, simple A-line skirts that only need to be fitted at the waistline, etc., or (b) sewing up muslins (trial garments) ahead of time to adjust the pattern to fit you well.

I would totally hand-sew a garment. I would not hand-sew a muslin. (And I enjoy handwork. There's a lot of handwork in any sewing, even "machine" sewing -- pressing, cutting, turning, catch-stitching, hemming, etc.)

Durability would not be one of my main concerns, but be aware that the finish from a hand-sewn seam will look different from a machine-stitched and/or serged seam -- if you look at hand-sewn quilt tops you can see a clearly different seam line/finish. Finishing seams will also be time consuming.

I also thought of a treadle sewing machine.
posted by pie ninja at 9:16 AM on April 3, 2014

You can absolutely do this! Its not any more strange or time consuming than knitting a garment by hand. I have that couture sewing book, it is excellent ( and inspiring) but very advanced and technical. You may want to look into a more basic garment construction book as well.
Check out Alabama Chanin for hand sewing inspiration or kits, if this fits your style.
And definitely start with linen or cotton, those are easy fabrics to handle.
You might also find good information(even though you are making modern clothes) in the historic costuming communities- some people do all the sewing by hand, and a ton of research.Here's a good collection of links.
posted by velebita at 9:17 AM on April 3, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for your responses so far! I'm glad my idea doesn't sound too hare-brained. I do know that folks sewed by hand much longer than machines have existed, but I wondered if my skills (or lack thereof) and patience would be up to the task. A treadle machine sounds nice--I wish I had my grandmother's! I just remember my mom's machine sewing faster than I could, and the endless threading and winding of bobbins and Weird Random Things That Go Wrong With The Machine. (She had a early 60s Singer that she got second hand and I know there have been improvements in technology since that time.) I am a contemplative type in some ways so taking a while to create a garment would be okay with me. I won't threadsit but will look forward to any additional responses. Thanks again!
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 9:38 AM on April 3, 2014

I will be the voice of dissent because I found that the drawbacks mentioned by pie ninja and Adridne far outweighed any satisfaction from sewing. I did this a lot in college when I had no sewing machine and lots and lots of free time and it was really difficult to find time to get anything completed. Trying to work on garments more complicated than very basic shift dresses (such as anything that required much test-fitting, like noted above) was unsatisfying.

I will still handpick a zipper or do a hem by hand (or, for that matter, quilt), but I would not sew a modern garment by hand.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:42 AM on April 3, 2014

I had an aunt who used to hand sew the most beautiful undergarments from lovely materials. Slips, camisoles, chemises, cute little summer pjs that sort of thing, nothing sexy,more just pretty and girly all beautifully hand stitched. . It might be a good place to start because they usually use less material, and if the fit is off or hems not perfect no one but you is going to see it.
posted by wwax at 9:59 AM on April 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Once I cut and sew a pair of pants. All the seams were internal, so that was easy, but I back-stitched all through, so that was a bit more time-consuming. Cutting and ironing perfectly was all-important, and I used a rough silk fabric which was very easy to control. The pants were fine and I used them a lot, so in that sense it was a success, but I only did it that once.

I tried it for about the same reason as you - I wanted to make my own clothes, but I didn't want the machine, and I liked the idea of a more useful craft-project (as opposed to the decorative embroidery I'd done before). Now, I'm very busy at work, but I would really like to get back to the embroidery. Maybe it's useless, but it is very contemplative, and more playful than the rigorous discipline required to get those pants right. Maybe I should have started with something simpler...
posted by mumimor at 10:01 AM on April 3, 2014

sister nunchuk, buy a machine. hand-sewing of course is possible, but the industrial revolution happened for a number of good reasons, one of which was to enable you to make a dress in a day or two instead of six months. i know there's a romantic appeal to pre-industrial skills - my brother makes his own soap - but i say no to hand-sewing and home saponification.
posted by bruce at 1:29 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hand sewing doesn't leave as flat or even a seam as machine sewing, so a fully hand sewn garment can look a little rough; you may get the best results by doing a combination - sew the main seams on a machine, but do all the finishing and details by hand. hand sew the hems, collars, cuffs, and other details.

Once you have an article cut and pinned, machine-sewing the biggest seams is very quick. For example, on the dress you linked, it would be the seams down each side, and the ones that attach the block of fabric at the bottom. After that you'd still have lots of hand work to hem, attach the sleeve bands, etc. Do you have any friends that own a machine? if one of my friends wanted to drop by with a pinned garment to sew a few seams on my machine, I'd be all for it.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:29 PM on April 3, 2014

I made a whole lined coat by hand for a sculpture class project, and it took approximately ten times longer than I anticipated. But the only real challenge was sewing strong enough seams - my hand stitching was less regular and less strong than what I've done by machine in the past. Patience is probably key.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:03 PM on April 3, 2014

I have no advice to offer, but you may find this link interesting. 52 "how to"s from history, and this week's entry is about dressmaking.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:19 PM on April 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I only made underpants from this, but I can highly recommend just for reading and for that project alone Sewing Lingerie. I think if you made a simple nightgown (the shift linked above looks great for simple long seams), you would have a good idea of how much work would be involved for a dress and if you liked it enough to do a more complex piece. Sewing just a camisole would work too. Also, slippery fabrics like silks are easier IMO by hand than on a machine without a lot of practice.

Now I regret giving that book away. It was one of those books that are just pleasant to read for the skills involved.

Does anyone know about handsewing knit fabrics like thin jersey? Because clothes around jersey fabric tend to be much more forgiving of size isues, but I only know how to machine-sew jersey fabric with a ballpoint needle etc.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:58 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again for the thoughtful responses and useful links. I may start with a small, simple project and see how it goes. I probably still do need a machine for many reasons listed above. One that isn't hard to thread and with variable speed would be good--but that's another question entirely! Still planning to buy the couture sewing book because I am a nerd about everything and would love to have better fitted garments and finish them beautifully. I appreciate everyone's time.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 8:20 AM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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