Couture Hand Sewing: Stitches to Try

Posted by on Sep 19, 2013 in Sewing | Comments


Hand-sewing seems to be one of those techniques that some sewing practitioners loathe, and others find to be relaxing and satisfying.

While many home sewists prefer a machine stitch, couture seamstresses rely heavily on hand stitches to improve accuracy and obtain absolute control of the fabric. Of course, both of these techniques have their place in modern sewing.

Woman Hand-Sewing a Garment

Image via Susan Khalje’s The Couture Dress

If you have been a hand-stitching abstainer, a little practice will most certainly improve the uniformity of your stitches as well as help you develop a personal rhythm and pace for handwork. Who knows, you may even become a devotee!

These four stitches are just a sample of hand stitches used by couture seamstresses, but they are a good introduction to hand work and are often utilized in garment sewing.

Start by using good quality thread, and run it over a cake of beeswax. Remember to lay the coated thread on a paper towel and press with a warm iron before stitching to meld the wax to the thread. Thread a small (size 9 or 10) hand-sewing needle with about 18 inches of waxed thread, and you are all set to practice a running stitch, backstitch, catch stitch and hand overcasting.

Grey Fabric with Hand Stitch: Running Stitch

Hand running stitch using a single thread, stitched from right to left.

Running stitch

A running stitch is used for basting, thread tracing and gathering fabric.

1. Inserting your needle on the top of the fabric through to the underside, move the needle forward an inch or more, and then bring the needle back up to the top of the fabric.

2. Tie a knot at one end of your thread if desired.

This stitch does not need to be perfectly uniform, and should be made quickly. See how easy this hand stitching business is?

Grey Fabric with Hand Stitches: Overcast Stitch

Hand overcast stitch stabilizing seam allowance, stitched from left to right.

Hand overcasting

Hand overcasting is the method of edge-finishing seam allowances on unlined garments preferred by couture seamstresses.

1. Tie a knot in one end of the waxed thread.

2. Bring your needle up to the right side of the seam allowance, and moving from left to right, catch a thread in the underlining and then back under the seam allowance

This stitch should be slightly loose so the garment seam allowances do not pull and hang incorrectly from the right side.

Grey Fabric with Hand Stitches: Back Stitch

Hand backstitch used as topstitching, worked from right to left.

Backstitch

The backstitch is used for hand stitching seams, securing thread instead of a knot, hand-picking zippers, and decorative topstitching.

1. Tie both thread ends into a knot.

2. Starting from the underside of the fabric, bring the needle to the right side of the fabric through all the layers of fabric.

3. Insert the needle approximately 1/16″ or 1/8″ back toward the direction the thread came from, forming a prick stitch.

4. Move the needle forward the desired length (1/8″ – 1/4″ for seaming, longer for topstitching) under all the layers of fabric, and bring the needle to the right side of the fabric again.

5. Continue, spacing the stitches an even distance apart and maintaining the same size prick stitch.

On the underside of the fabric, the stitch should look similar to a chain. This is a particularly strong stitch, and was used to assemble garments by hand before sewing machines were available.

Grey Fabric with Hand Stitches: Catch Stitch
The catch stitch hem is worked from left to right, forming small “Xs” at the top and bottom edge.

Catch stitch

The catch stitch is used for hemming, tacking a facing at the seam edge, and securing a seam allowance to an underlining. This stitch is worked from left to right, and when done correctly, will form small “Xs.”

1. Tie a knot in one end of the waxed thread.

2. With your needle pointing to the left, take a small stitch at the hem edge, and then a small stitch at the garment edge, moving from left to right.

This stitch has some built-in elasticity, which makes it ideal for hems, tacking and sewing with knits.

Try giving these four hand stitches on one of next your garment projects, and be sure to let us know what you think.

To learn more about couture sewing techniques, check out the Craftsy class The Couture Dress, taught by couturier Susan Khalje.

Have you always loved hand-stitching, or is this a new technique you are just learning to incorporate into your sewing toolkit?

Comments

  1. Tina Newton says:

    Instead of waxing and ironing thread, could hand-quilting thread be used instead? It has that waxy finish already.

  2. Maris Olsen says:

    Great question, Tina – maybe! I have no experience with this thread so I can’t say for sure. What I do know is in most situations (not hand-picking a zipper) you want the thread to “disappear” into the garment. Is hand-quilting thread heavier than normal weight garment thread? Silk thread, which is also used sometimes is definitely a finer gauge.

    Maybe you could try it and tell me how it works out!

    1. Pam Rice says:

      jumping in here, because i very much enjoyed this article and the tips on hand sewing you’ve shared, Maris. i have a friend in New Mexico who does all her quilting by hand, and does some absolutely gorgeous articles; mostly baby blankets. but i digress, lol. ….. i have used quilting thread on many of my projects, and yes; it is quite a bit heavier than ‘normal’ thread. i found it knotted and tangled easily, tho it does give extra strength to the seams and etc. …. using the waxed thread is something i learned while making jewelry, and have also applied it to my hand sewing; (tho i enjoyed the tip about ironing it. never did that before); ……… sooo,,,,, my advice on the question of using it instead of waxing would be,,,,
      hmmmm…. not really a good trade-off.
      thanks for letting me ramble, lol,
      Pam

      1. Maris Olsen says:

        Thanks Pam! I was thinking the quilting thread might not work but not certain.

  3. Jane says:

    Thanks for this thorough explanation. I feel like I could do this now!

    1. Maris Olsen says:

      Hurray, Jane! That was the goal! :-)

  4. Gillian Sutherland says:

    I hand sewed everything – yes, everything – for over 40 years, and although it’s slow compared with a machine, it gives the articles stitched a certain something. I never machine sew zips, always hand sew, likewise hems, gathers and embellishments with the exception of my using one of the built in embroidery designs . Machine sewing is good for seams, oversewing raw edges, and lots of other techniques too – one which I prefer over hand sewing, recently, since having arthritis, is my buttonholing foot for my Husqvarna machine – it’s like magic, and guaranteed to be a success every time (as long as I remember to ensure the bobbin is full first! ahem)

    1. Maris Olsen says:

      Wonderful, Gillian. I really think hand-stitching is underutilized. You have a great deal of control over the fabric when you work it by hand. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Betty Stanley says:

    When I was pregnant with my first child and I had no sewing machine I made several maternity outfits completely by hand- stitching. I still love to hand sew and find it very relaxing.

  6. Maris Olsen says:

    That’s awesome Betty! Keep on sewing!

  7. Alta Hanlon says:

    Thanks for this informative article on hand sewing. I have only used hand sewing for hems and buttons, but lately I have found that the hand sewing is very relaxing and yes, you do have more control over the fabric and you can get into places where a machine can’t. I have also learned that repetitive movements of the hands, such as in sewing, raises serotonin levels in the brain, which feels relaxing. Maybe that’s why some people love knitting and crocheting. I think I will try making something simple by hand just to see how it goes. I like to relax in bed and watch TV, and the hand sewing would be ideal. I would imagine that to finish a garment this way would give a real feeling of accomplishment.

  8. Maris Olsen says:

    Thanks Alta! Let us know how you enjoy hand-sewing, and post a picture of your work. Love to see what you are up to!!