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Introduction to Hand Stitches

Guest Author - Tamara Bostwick

Prior to the invention of the sewing machine, sewn items were made solely by hand, using nothing more than a needle and thread. To our modern view, this seems so labor intensive compared to how we can whip out most projects in a few hours using our sewing machines. When I think about the elaborate garments of the 15th and 16th centuries, for example, I am awestruck by the amount of handwork that was required to assemble them.

Women were taught sewing skills as an integral part of their education, often having to demonstrate their ability to make neat, consistent stitches for construction as well as mending. I remember reading about the girls sewing stitch samplers in the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In fact, she ultimately used that skill to earn money during hard economic times on the farm.

Today, it is somewhat rare for people to learn how to hand sew beyond the basics of sewing on a button or placing a hem. In fact, when I was volunteering for my college's costume shop years ago, after the shop director found out that I knew how to sew well by hand, I always got "stuck" doing the hand stitching and finishing after that. Which was mostly fine, but let me tell you, my fingers were very sore after finishing 14 corsets and I kind of regretted sharing that information.

While the majority of sewing construction can be done by machine, there are times when hand stitching is needed so it is important to develop those skills, especially if you have any interest in learning couture techniques. Below is a brief introduction to a few of the more commonly used hand stitches. Future installments will discuss other more specialized stitches.

Running Stitch

running stitchA running stitch is a straight stitch made by weaving the needle up and down through the fabric several times and then pulling the thread through. It will look like a dashed line (see image below) because half of the stitches are on the top of the fabric and the other half show on the bottom. The stitches should be evenly spaced apart and the size of the stitch will depend on what it is being used for.

running stitchWhen used for basting, the intervals between stitches can be fairly long. When used as a gathering stitch, the intervals should be shorter to create gentle gathers. Multiple rows of running stitch can be used to create pleated fabric for smocking.

You can use this stitch as a seam, but the backstitch is a better choice for permanent hand seaming.


back stitchA backstitch is created by first bringing the needle and thread up through the fabric and then down halfway back to the starting point. The next stitch is made by bringing the needle back up through the fabric at a forward distance of twice the length of the stitch. This sounds confusing, but it is much easier than it sounds. Essentially, the stitches on the bottom are long and the ones on the top are short. The stitches on the top (should) look like they are right next to each other while the stitches on bottom look like a continuous line. This is a quick stitch that makes a strong seam.

back stitchThis image shows how the running stitch and backstitch look on the front. The running stitch is on the top and the backstitch is on the bottom.

back stitchThis image shows the back view of the stitches; running stitch at the top and backstitch at the bottom.

The pictures below show the difference between seams stitched with a running stitch and a backstitch. The backstitch has two stitches through each spot, equalizing the pressure on the stitches, making the seam pull more evenly and flatly. If you look closely at the running stitch seam, you can see how the fabric curves slightly above the stitches.

running stitchRunning Stitch Seam

backBackstitch Seam

Next time we will discuss some stitches used for hemming.

Happy Sewing!

For more detailed information about hand sewing, check out these books!

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Content copyright © 2015 by Tamara Bostwick. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Tamara Bostwick. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Cheryl Ellex for details.


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