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.
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.
Next time we will discuss some stitches used for hemming.