How to Sew a Simple Strong Seam by Hand: A Step-By-Step Beginner’s Guide


(gentle piano music) – Whether or not you
ever need to replicate a garment from the 16th, 17th, 18th, whatever century, knowing how to sew a strong, durable seam without the help of an electric sewing machine
is an extremely useful skill. Yes, hand sewing is maybe
a little bit slower, but it is no less functional,
and certainly no less durable than machine stitching. Once again, this video is most kindly sponsored by Squarespace,
but more on that in a bit. To demonstrate today, I’ve
cut two strips of linen that will act as the
two pieces of a garment I’m hoping to sew together. These are both super simple
straight grain pieces, that is, with the edges
running exactly parallel to the woven grid of the fabric. Which means that I’ve
been able to cut my pieces perfectly straight along a single thread for ultimate precision. This is generally optional
because I’ve also been super careful to draw my seam lines very straight along the grain, or that single thread of the weave. Ok, wait, back up a second. If your pattern does not
include seam allowance, which everything historical
or self-drafted probably won’t unless it’s a mass market
commercial pattern, you’ll need to trace
around your pattern piece with a pencil, then cut
the fabric a little ways away from that line to allow
room for the seam allowance. Generally half an inch is safe. If your pattern does
include seam allowance, a relatively modern innovation that is not really meant to
work with hand-stitching, you will need to read the directions to figure out what that measurement is. Usually it’s about 5/8 of an inch. Then take a ruler and
measure that distance on all edges in to get that pencil line. This is important because this shows you exactly where you’re
going to need to stich. Oh and ignore that secondary wonky line. This piece of demonstration cabbage used to be a hem at one point. Cabbage by the way is the historical term for off cut scraps of fabric. If you’re a regular around here, you probably already know that. By the way, if you’re working
on a darker colored material, you can alternatively use some white chalk to draw your lines if
the pencil won’t show up. I’m first just going to
pin my pieces together with the right side sandwiched inside, and the wrong sides facing out, so that the rough edges face
to the inside of the garment. I’m holding the seam
allowance in place temporarily with some pins, ensuring that each pin is placed directly on my
seam line on both pieces. You can also take this moment to ensure that your line is drawn
perfectly on grain, since too much deviation
from a single thread will cause your garment
to behave strangely. A couple of threads out of place every now and then won’t do much harm, but the straighter the
better in this instance. The thread you choose should correspond to the type of fabric you’ll be using. If your project is modern,
modern synthetic thread will do. If you’re working before
the 19th century however linen and silk were most common, with linen being more widely used, and expensive silk used only
on areas that will show, such as buttonholes or on silk fabrics. Cotton threads begin to gain popularity in the 19th century, so
much so that sewing guides by the end of the 19th century often refer to the thread in general as ‘the cotton’. And I know this is getting super pedantic, but the ply of your thread matters too if you’re working historically. Threads were generally
plied with two threads instead of the three-ply
threads that we have today, and twisted in an S direction
rather than the Z direction of modern threads. This actually very slightly changes the behavior of the thread. The three plies create a sort
of pyramidal cross-section rather than the flatter
side by side cross-section of a two-ply thread. But three-ply Z twist works better with electric machines, and since that’s what most of our thread
is used for today anyway, that’s what usually can be found. As I’m working in linen today, and demonstrating pre-19th
century techniques, I’m going to be using linen thread. This was purchased from
Burnley & Trowbridge. Definitely the best linen thread supplier I have found for US folk. And it’s the only thread
I’ve managed to find that’s still a two-ply. Incidentally if you wish to see some more stitch demonstrations,
they have a fantastic series of tutorials on
their YouTube channel which I shall link down below. I’m first just cutting a length of thread. All demands of good practice will tell you that the length of your sewing thread should be no longer than that
of your hand to your elbow so you don’t end up with
a long tangle of thread to pull through after each stitch. But I’ve definitely seen
17th century depictions of tailors using like
three foot long threads, so ain’t nobody got
time for ‘good practice’ in historical reconstruction
in my own biased opinion. Linen thread is always first treated with some beeswax to strengthen it, since the friction against the needle can cause it to shred
by the end of your seam if it isn’t coated. Do this simply by running it along a block of beeswax a couple of times to ensure that it is
nice and evenly coated all along the length. Waxing isn’t strictly necessary for the other thread types, unless additional strength
is required for any reason. It is not unheard of to wax a bit of more delicate silk
thread that will need to stand up to, say the
edge of a buttonhole. But linen is almost always waxed. Personally I prefer to
use a very small needle, a number 10 in this
case, since it allows me to make finer stitches. But, if you have difficulty
holding small needles, or if you’re working with thick fabrics, you’ll need something a bit longer. Keep in mind that the
thicker your material is, the thinner your needle should be. Trying to push a thick
needle through heavy wool will require pliers to
pull it out each time, and that is not fun after the fourth hour. I’m threading my needle single
here as opposed to double. Double threading involves
matching the ends of the thread opposite the length from the needle, and knotting them there before stitching. Which is how a lot of
hand-stitching is done today. However, single threading
is still perfectly strong, far less bulky, and required
far less consumption of valuable thread, and so it was much more prevalent in history. To thread single, simply thread the needle and leave a short four to
five inch tail of thread on the other side, but
don’t tie it off anywhere. This tail is important to keep your needle from sliding off, but
will eventually be fed through the eye and stitched
into the garment as you sew. This is why strengthening
your thread is important. The thread has a lot
of contact with the eye as you sew here. And we are not under any circumstances ready to begin stitching
until we have a thimble. If you are working by hand regularly, this is absolutely
essential for the protection of your finger, to ensure
that you can keep stitching quickly, efficiently and painlessly for long periods of time. This is worn on the middle finger of your dominant hand,
the finger you will use to push the needle through the fabric. Mine is handmade from
a bit of scrap leather, which I explain how to do
in the video linked above, if you don’t already have a
hard or soft thimble already. Now that I am properly armored
and ready to begin stitching, I’m first just positioning the garment so that the seam allowance is held in my nondominant hand for easy gripping, rather than trying to
grip the entire garment to stitch from the other side. This isn’t always possible
if you’re stitching something in the middle of
another piece of fabric, but it is much more pleasant when it is. I’m going to be putting
together these two pieces with a backstitch, the strongest
method of hand-stitching. To begin the thread I’m first just taking a few stationary backstitches
to lock the thread into place. And while knotting isn’t
strictly necessarily, I do sometimes just like to be safe and pass my needle through the thread loop before pulling it through,
just to keep it super secure. Knots are another one of those things that are technically
according to modern sewing considered bad practice. Probably a thing inherited
from the late Victorians who condemned any visible appearance of a knot anywhere ever. However, extant historical garments, mostly earlier but also
the occasional shameless 19th century piece proudly boast
unashamed knots everywhere. So again I say, if it
works for you, you do you. A backstitch is done by
putting your needle in a little ways behind the previous
exit point of the thread, then bringing it back
up a little ways forward of that exit point. This dual pull on the
thread makes for a stitch that is extremely strong, and really cannot be pulled apart by hand. This weak machine woven modern linen is going to give way
before the stitching does, and the strong fine
tightly handwoven linens produced historically would
have been even more durable. You do have to be consciou
of your tension though as you stitch in order to achieve said iron strong stitching. We are very accustomed nowadays to using hand stitching for
delicate fine finishing work, and we forget that when
sewing structurally, you need to pull your thread
taut after each stitch. You’ll know when it’s too taut if the seam starts to pucker. And lighter materials such as
silk will need lighter tension but with heavier wools and sturdy linens your stitching should
be pulled quite firmly. If you wish to test your stitch quality, stitch a little ways, flip your seam over, and try pulling the two pieces apart. You shouldn’t be able to
see the stitches appearing too visibly between the seam. If you do see the stitches
stretch between your seam, it’s probably too loose. Once I have about an
inch of finished seam, I can take the work
and pin it to a cushion to help the tension. A pin is placed just at the
foot of the stitch line, just where I’ll need
the tension point to be. Then I can use this to pull the work taut to help my seam stay neat,
my stitches even and strong, and make the stitching go much quicker. Then it’s just a matter of stitching along the rest of my line,
moving the pin when I start to get too far away for the
tensioning to be effective. The great thing about working with a straight grain material
such as this linen is that I can regulate my stitch line against the weave of the fabric to ensure that my seam
is perfectly straight. Once again, a couple of threads won’t make a huge difference, but too much deviation from the grain on a
straight seam like this will again cause the
garment to hang funny. I should note that my
stitches are quite fine here, about 16 stitches per inch. Helped of course by the
fineness of the linen and the small needle size. This isn’t strictly necessary. You can certainly get away with as few as 10 or eight stitches per inch for a perfectly functional seam, especially for earlier periods. The 19th century tends to start favoring minuscule stitching like this, often going as small as one stitch for every two threads of the weave. But again, for functional
clothing, this isn’t necessary. I should also note that I’ve decided to work this seam with a backstitch. It’s probably the most
important stitch to know in terms of strength. However, it is much slower than a normal straight running stitch, or
even a running backstitch where a single backstitch is taken for every couple of running stitches. These can be done instead on long seams that don’t need to take
strain, such as skirt seams. But when in doubt, and when
time isn’t highly pressing, backstitching is usually wise. Oh, and sometimes you run out of thread. Simply finish off your current thread by taking a couple of
stationary backstitches, doing that extra little
knot thing if you so desire, then clipping your thread off. Rethread your needle with
some more waxed thread, then I like to resume a
couple of stitches back so that I can be super sure everything is locked securely into place. This will create a slight
bit of bulk in your seam, but less bulky than two knots I guess. (gentle piano music) Phase one of seaming is complete. As you can see, backstitching does have a difference between front and back. The back will have these
long overlapping stitches whereas the front will have the smaller neater line of stitching. But now we have to
finish off that raw edge so that our fabric
doesn’t fray into oblivion and ruin our nice garment. To do this we’re going to
fell down the seam allowance which will involve folding
it over onto one side and stitching it down. We want the seam allowance
to be as narrow as possible for neatness, so I’m just trimming down the width that I have
here a bit less than half to about 3/8 of an inch. Then, since the underside
of the backstitching is the less aesthetically pleasing side, I’m going to fold my seam
allowance in that direction so that the upper backstitching
is the side that’s seen. The flap of the seam allowance
on the underside half is then cut away even more
to about 1/8 of an inch to reduce bulk when we turn the seam. Then that upper half gets
folded around the under half, pressed down to the fabric
and stitched into place. Once again, this stich
is begun with a couple of backstitches in
place, and a little knot if you’re feeling cheeky. Then the rest of the seam is held down with a whip stitch, which
runs in a sort of spiral taking up one or two threads
of the ground fabric, and one or two threads of
the folded seam allowance right at the very edge of the fold. You want to try and come
in at a very shallow angle so that the thread wants to bury itself in the space between the seam
allowance and the fabric. The sharper the angle of your needle, the more obvious your stitches will be. The distance you travel between stitches as well as the angle of your needle as you stitch into the seam allowance will dictate how neat and
regular your stitches are. If anything, you want to be sure at least that the stitches you take on
the ground side of the fabric are as small as possible,
since these will show through to the outside of your garment. You also want to be pressing
the outside of your seam super flat with your
nondominant hand as you stitch so that you don’t end
up with extra material bubbling between the seam
and the felling stitch. This conveniently also
really presses the seam flat, so you won’t need to iron it later. Once again, when we’ve gone about an inch, we can then pin the work to
a cushion for added tension. This is particularly
important with felling. Unless you’re working on a hem there really isn’t any way not to have the entire garment bunched
up in your nondominant hand, which has the tedious job of
holding the fold down neatly, pressing the seam flat,
and otherwise keeping vertical tension on the seam. Which, let me tell you, is
so painful after a while, and I have definitely
spent many an evening running my poor left hand under a warm tap after eight hours of felling. So, having at least the vertical tension taken care of externally
with a pin is a huge help. I should also note that this
particular method of felling, that is with a cushion on your lap and working away from the body, is very strictly pre-19th century. Somewhere in the first
third of the 19th century, people decided to start stitching with the work wrapped over
the nondominant index finger for tension, and working towards the body, as seen in my late Victorian
combinations video. It seems like a small difference, but this actually causes
the stitches to slant in the opposite direction, which can be an important visual distinction if you’re going for
historical authenticity. Although, everything
changes if your left handed, so neither method is
inaccurate in any way. One is just generally more prevalent in one period than the other. If you’re doing this just for yourself, by all means work however
is comfortable for you. Just like the backstitching, be sure you’re pulling your
threads nice and firmly. If Mary Berry were
narrating a sewing video she’d probably have a witty
soggy bottom equivalent for describing loose,
limp, weak stitching. And we certainly don’t want
to disappoint Mary Berry. This incidentally is the point where you may or may not have
gone slightly delirious watching one too many Bake Off
episodes whilst you stitch. The seam is then finished off once again with a couple of backstitches,
and your seam is complete. Strong, durable, untearable. Take that romantic period dramas trying to tear hand stitched linens for bandages or something. Those stitches aren’t going anywhere. Anyway, if you are new
to historical stitching and new to this channel,
you are most welcome to stick around and behold these stitches making actual real garments. And if you are new to sewing but have been around for a while, I
thoroughly respect your patience in having sat through all those videos whilst having absolutely no
clue what I’m talking about. So I hope this vaguely helps a bit. Anyway, more sewing of
course to come anon. Oh, well hello, what is this? Could this possibly be the
beginnings of a cutting table? Why yes it can be. As you can see, we are
very much in process of getting our lives together over here at ye olde Bernadette Banner studios. That sounds ridiculously pretentious. Speaking of getting our lives together as you may or may not be aware, I am in process of setting
myself up a sewing room and also of building myself a website thanks to Squarespace who have most kindly sponsored this small series of videos. I have been having way too much fun scheming of all the possible ways I can organize my online existence. Obviously I will have my own
little portfolio gallery, but I’m also possibly thinking of moving my print sales into my
own little web shop, which sounds super swanky. Anyway, if you wish to join me
in my web design festivities, head to squarespace.com to
sign up for a free trial. And, when you are ready to launch your fabulous new website, head to squarespace.com/bernadettebanner for 10% off your first purchase. And now before I fall
asleep on this lovely unfinished cutting table,
I think I’m going to go resume my sewing room endeavors, and I shall talk to you next week with probably something to do with this. Unless of course you
are watching this video more than two weeks out. In which case, that video is already up and you should go watch it. Unless you’re not into this kind of thing, in which case, go forth on your merry way and have a nice life.

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