The only reason you should sew anything by hand is because you think it would be cool to sew it by hand. Otherwise, use the machine and do all of the finishing (hemming and visible stitching) by hand – it’s almost always worth it to finish by hand. If hand sewing seems like penance to you, use it where it matters the most. I bet you can’t tell which of my construction seams are handsewn (with a few exceptions – like some techniques used on linen, it’s rare that you can tell if something is handsewn if the person’s stitches are good), so if it doesn’t affect the final product much AND it sounds horrible to you, why would you spend your free time doing it? Personally, I like the idea of sewing something completely by hand, but if that doesn’t sound like fun, put your time and energy into something that brings you joy.
Just like any other skill, hand sewing is all about technique and practice. Have someone show you efficient motions for your stitches or check out Youtube videos. There are easy ways and hard ways to do everything. I probably am not doing everything as efficiently as I could, but I’ve figured out a few things through practice, and I’m much faster now. Ask someone who sews a lot for a demo.
You’ll probably learn a running stitch first, and you’ll have to take it one stitch at a time to start. Your stitches will be big and ugly and inconsistent – so start with something that’s not very visible, like construction seams. Focus on making the stitches consistent, and they will improve. Through thin fabric, I can now take several stitches at a time – rocking the needle back and forth and manipulating the fabric – and cover almost an inch per pull, and they’re as even as my individual stitches.
Use the right materials and tools. Don’t buy cheap thread. I try to use silk thread when sewing silk or wool, but I sometimes cheat and use a good cotton thread that is a better color match for the fabric in places where an imperfect stitch is really going to show if it’s the wrong color. When you can’t match thread to fabric, err on the side of using a thread that is darker than the fabric. Black, navy blue, forest green, dark red, dark brown (notice these are all dark colors), white, ivory, and a gold color cover pretty much all of my needs. I’ll get around to getting them all in silk, but a good cotton from a quilting store works. They make quilting thread that is specifically for hand sewing, and that is really nice, but I’m usually lazy and just use the cotton stuff I bought for my machine if I’m not using silk.
I used to think I needed a really strong thread for seams that would be under tension or for holding pleating on a skirt that might get stepped on. NO. If that seam is put under too much tension and something breaks, you want it to be the THREAD that breaks, not the fabric. It’s easy to re-stitch a popped seam. Torn fabric is a much bigger mess to fix – try to avoid using thread that is stronger than your fabric. Avoid polyester threads for this reason (full disclosure: I still have some from years ago and use it in some machine stitching, but I’ll never buy another spool of it).
Use the right needle. You’ll probably need to start with larger needles because they’re easier to hold and manipulate when you’re starting out, but experiment with shorter and thinner needles as you gain more experience. If I’m doing construction seams on thin fabric, I use a longer thin needle that can hold several stitches for each pull. If I’m doing finishing work, I use a tiny quilting needle that doesn’t put big holes in my silk trim. If I’m sewing stiff (e.g., interlined with a couple of layers of linen) pieces, I use a thicker needle that won’t bend when I push it through the fabric. Use big tapestry needles for tucking the ends of braid into the seams of garments. Start with a multi-pack and figure out what works best for you for various purposes. If you’re going to do a lot of hand sewing, decent needles are worth the price – I like these for detail work. If your eyesight isn’t great or your hands aren’t very steady, get a needle threader from the notions aisle.
Get a good thimble. This is a very personal choice, but I like the leather thimbles you can get at Joanns. I’ve tried the metal ones a few times, and I vastly prefer the leather ones, although I sometimes get one that is too loose, and they can be really stiff when they’re new. I tend to use them until they get holes in them because the well worn ones work best for me. If I’m sewing something really thick, I use a leather thimble that has a metal disk over the tip of the finger. You wear the thimble on the middle finger of your dominant hand, and you use it to push the needle through the fabric. That, or you develop calluses. 🙂
Use short lengths of thread. The time saved by using longer lengths and needing to cut fewer new lengths will be eaten up by dealing with tangles. You’ll figure out over time how long you can go with your type of thread without cursing, but start with short lengths.
Some people like beeswax for their thread. It’s the period material, but I like Thread Heaven. Use one of these things, and you’ll curse a lot less. After you try it, you won’t be able to live without it.
Learn a quilter’s knot.
Get a magnet for your pins – I like these, but you can find cheaper ones. Use the right pins too. Get silk pins (available in various sizes) for thin fabric. The big ones with larger heads are good for holding layers of wool together. I can’t have pins around Teddy, the Klepto Kitten, so I use pins, baste by machine in the sewing room(use biggest stitch on machine if you don’t have a basting stitch), remove the pins, then can sew by hand without worrying that the cat will steal my pins. Use a contrasting (I usually use white) thread for the basting so it’s easy to rip it out after you’re done.
Decent scissors are a good investment. Some people swear by Ginghers, but I like these for cutting fabric, and these for snipping threads and detail work. Don’t pay full price. Get a good coupon or wait for a sale and get them 50% off at Joanns.
Make sure you have decent lighting. I need to work on this, so feel free to share your advice on which lights work best.