Hand Sewing

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April 28, 2018 By Maria Greer

The foundation of all hand sewing hasn’t changed since the first time someone decided to join two pieces of something together. Early sewers used fine, sharp objects to make holes that they then passed a thin cord or piece of plant material through and tied off in some fashion. While twine or another type of thread made from sturdy plant fibers isn’t in common use today, cotton and linen threads are widely used, and thin leather strips used as lacing can be seen on many fashionable sewing projects.

Early sewers were concerned with creating something functional with a minimum of fuss. Sewing by hand remained the primary way to join fabrics together for centuries. A visit to any museum will give you an appreciation for the effort that our ancestors put into sewing. Clothing and household items were generally loose fitting and shapeless, but decorated with ornamentation from nature, like seashells.

Adding holes allowed a seashell to be attached using a variety of threads. Thin strips of leather, animal sinews and tendons and even threads made from plants were used for attaching such decoration. If you’ve ever tried to pull apart a Clematis vine, you can appreciate how well it would work for joining something like a skin bag together. The same goes for the plant Old Man’s Beard, also known as Spanish Moss. The plant may appear delicate, but when turned into twine and used in a sewing project to hold fabric together it has incredible strength and resists breaking.

A step up from using thorns to make a hole in skins came when the first sewers created needles. Sharp thorns had been used to make holes in leather, and tough yet flexible leaves were adapted to use for pulling the fibrous “thread” through the material. Early needles made from animal bones followed these leaf needles and carved wooden needles also were used. It is interesting that needles carved from the wood of a Holly tree are noted for keeping their point and not breaking. These sturdy needles can still be found occasionally in some areas, being used for mending nets. Any modern-day seamstress knows that a needle that doesn’t bend or break and keeps its point is a truly valuable tool.

Things that we take for granted today, like buttons, were made from items that were readily available in nature. One of the earliest examples of a button is a seashell, discovered in the Indus Valley. Such seashell buttons were more for decoration than joining pieces of fabric together. Buttons as a type of fastener didn’t become popular until sewers in Germany began using them to fasten clothing more tightly while making it easier to put on and take off garments.

Fabrics used for sewing have also come a long way since the early days of skins and leaves. This growth in available materials for sewing resulted in sewing projects beginning to have more pieces and shaping. The invention of scissors for cutting was a giant leap forward, providing an easier way to cut fabric with more precision.

Once you have mastered the basics of hand sewing, you’ll be eager to try new projects that take your skills to an advanced level. Whatever the project, whether it is creating a beautiful quilt or delicate embroidery, the foundation principles developed by creative sewers to join pieces of material together will always apply.

You May Need Hand Sewing For:

  • Buttons: You can sew a button on using your sewing machine, but this can make a first project more complicated for someone who is learning to sew. Sewing buttons on by hand is a valuable experience for a beginner. For an experienced sewer, it is often quicker to sew buttons by hand than to have to set up the sewing machine. Sewing a button on by machine requires you to know how to lower the feed dogs of your machine (so that they don’t move the button away from the needle. You will have to use a zigzag stitch to attach the button carefully, I have broken many buttons when the stitch width I’m using is wider than the holes of the button.
  • Hook and Eye Closures: These tiny closures are often found at the top of skirts, and while it would seem easy to attach them by machine, they are so small that it's hard to position correctly without the presser foot pushing them out of alignment when it is lowered. The presser foot is strong enough to shoot the tiny notions across your sewing room making it difficult to sew them in place easily using your sewing machine.
  • Hems: Sewing purists will tell you that you should follow the instructions exactly for hems, turning them up the required 1 1/2 or 2 inches and then carefully sewing them by hand. This can be good practice for hand sewing, but in today’s busy lives, it is easier to do a smaller rolled hem, particularly on easy to sew beginner projects.

Maria Greer loves to sew. She created Stitchandsew.net to provide sewing tips, review the latest products, and most importantly built a community to express her love of sewing. You can email her at maria@stitchandsew.net.

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Maria Greer