Handsewing techniques & tips // Closet Case Files
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HAND-SEWING TIPS & TECHNIQUES

There are approximately a bazillion reasons to get together with sewing people whenever possible and a few weeks ago I discovered a new one: crowdsourcing hand-sewing techniques! Carmen & Deepika from Pattern Review were in town recently, and while we sat around chit chatting on a sunny terrace in a big gang, talk turned to the little tricks people use when they’re handling a needle and thread. I thought it would be fun to share some of that community wisdom.

I ended up doing a lot of hand-sewing on my By Hand London Sophia dress, and most of these little hacks came in very handy. It’s not a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully there may be a technique in here that will be new to you.

HOW TO TIE A KNOT

Apparently I’ve been tying knots wrong for years. When I started sewing as a kid, I taught myself to make knots in thread by doubling the end of the thread in a loop and then tying it in a knot. It was cumbersome and not very elegant but I had been doing it that way for so long it never even occurred to me that there was another way. So when one of the ladies showed me this method my head basically exploded since it takes 3 seconds and feels a little bit like magic.

How-to-tie-a-knot-in-thread_Handsewing

  1. Loop the end of the thread around your finger 1 or 2 times (lick your finger first if you want).
  2. Gently push the looped thread off your finger using the pad of your thumb.
  3. Pull the looped section off your finger and pull it into a knot at the end of the thread.
  4. Tada!

Just in case you’re not still not sure, I made this video as well.

HOW TO THREAD A NEEDLE WITHOUT TRIMMING THE THREAD

If you’ve ever tried to hand-sew without a pair of scissors handy (while you’re on a plane, for example) you know how frustrating it can be to thread a needle when you can’t get a nice clean edge on your thread. Monserratt showed us this old tailoring trick and I can see it being super handy; you basically fold the thread in half over the needle, create a sharp point and use that to thread your needle. I’m not sure if it would work with a very tiny needle eye, but I’ve used this a few times on regular needles with good results.

CUTTING THREAD THE RIGHT WAY

If you do have a pair of scissors, try cutting your thread on an angle; it will make it easier to poke into the needle’s eye (thanks to Deepika for this tip!)

How to cut thread for handsewing

WAX YOUR THREAD FOR LESS TANGLES

One of the most frustrating things about hand-sewing is dealing with thread tangles. However, waxing your thread basically eliminates that tangling, as it smooths down the fluff and essentially lubricates the twist of the thread, making it much easier to pull through your fabric. One of my favourite notion purchases last year was a beeswax disk for just this purpose; it will likely last a lifetime. To use, simply pull the thread through the wax a few times to evenly coat, and then press on high heat in between paper towels or scrap fabric to soak the thread and melt the excess wax. When I have a lot of hand sewing to do I prepare 5 or 6 lengths of thread at a time. It really makes a world of difference!

Handsewing tips and techniques-11Handsewing tips and techniques-14

OTHER HAND-SEWING TIPS

  • Choose the right needle! Fine needles designed for hand-sewing create a much smoother stitch. Try these plated Clover quilting needles, or these Japanese needles, a favourite of couture goddess Susan Khalje.
  • Every time you go to make a stitch, give the needle a quarter turn to help prevent tangling.
  • Use a thimble to save the pad of your finger (and prevent blood from getting on your fabric!)
  • Use the right thread! Good quality thread like Gutterman (the finer the better) will twist less and last longer. If you can afford it, silk thread is smooth and strong and glides through fabric.

Any hand-sewing tips/hacks/techniques you’d like to share? Spill!

  • Thanks for sharing these! The needle-threading trick and knot were both things that I learned from ladies at my church when I was a teenager but had since forgotten about. Now I can go back to them, and use some new techniques, too!

    • All the best sewing tips probably come from ladies at church.

      • I picked up most of these this past month at a hat making class. Which is good, as hat making is almost entirely handsewing. I believe I have sewed around the hat brim about ten times so far, and a few more until I’m done.
        The greatest pleasure of this class has been the conversations while we sew! And I go home with a hat tomorrow night!

  • Patricia Esguerra Galán

    Thanks for these tips! I know what you mean by those aha moments when you learn something new. I have made my knots just like you did in the video since I was little–that’s the way my mom taught me. But recently I learned an even better way (for me anyway), which is to tie what I believe is called a “quilter’s knot” (I don’t quilt). You basically make a few loops with the end of your thread around the needle, then pull it through to the end. It makes a good solid knot without messy loops you sometimes get with the twist-around-your-finger method.

    • You’re not the first commenter with this tip! I’m going to try it the next time I’m handsewing.

  • A lovely post! I learnt to wax thread when I studied tailoring at uni, but never pressed out the excess wax. The beeswax smell is great too 🙂
    My grandmother taught me how to tie a knot in thread when I was 6 or 7 and I’ve always done it that way since (nearly 20 years later…) Thread the needle, then take the long end and wrap it round the needle 2-3 times. Slide the wraps down the needle and all the way to the end, tightening it as you approach the end of the thread. Perfect knots each time.

    • I’ll have to try that one next time! I love how many methods there are for such simple tasks….

  • Mandy Varelis

    I use a leather thimble (Clover Natural Fit Leather is my favourite) instead of a metal one. This both protects my finger and allows me to get a better grip on it when pulling through the fabric.

    I use silk thread for basting because of how easily it pulls out. If I’m careful enough I can even reuse the same length of silk thread many times.

    • I’m going to have that add that thimble to my neverending notions wishlist….

  • I never knot – we were taught in school to start with some tiny tight invisible stitches, trim tail thread and go from there. and nothing has ever come undone using this way either….. I am still getting the hang of a thimble and will only use it on a long project! I may try the leather one as the metal one always reminds me of the movie ‘the piano’…..

    • There are a few folks who don’t knot….. I use that technique for buttons!

  • I don’t knot either- my evil old school sewing teacher would have exploded! I learned the wax trick via Susan Khalje on Craftsy, and I ALWAYS thread as many needles as i can bear to in one go- usually ten or so. Being a blind old bat, I always use a good old fashioned needle threader, way faster than any faffing, and you don’t need to worry if the end is tatty. I can only use a thimble for a long project, but learned that when [not if] you get blood on the project, your own saliva will get it straight back out again. Works like a dream- enzymes or something!

    • THAT IS SUCH A GOOD TRICK!!! I have a few garments I bled all over and praised heaven at the time for Tide pens,

  • Amy

    Cool videos! The twisting-around-the-needle method was a revelation when it was first taught to me! I could never make a knot that “stuck” before that. Also, I read somewhere that to thread a needle it’s easier if you hold the thread very very close to the end so that it stops it from bending at the eye, and so far it’s worked pretty well.

  • Just discovered your blog through The Sewing Affair Podcast eventhough I’ve been hearing about the Ginger Jeans everyqhere! Love this post, though as a costume seamstress (where 80% of all sewing is by hand) we’re always discouraged to knot thread at all. Something about it not being as secure as stitching in place 2-3 times at the beginning. 🙂

    • Welcome Nina! I’ve also been known to not tie knots – I do that when I’m sewing buttons. I can’t believe 80% of your job is hand-stitching….. I’d imagine you’d need to pump out stuff more quickly for costumes!

  • Emma H

    Thanks for these tips! I don’t know why but I thought that “lick your finger first if you want” sounded so funny. As in, if you have some jam on your finger you can lick that off before sewing, but you don’t have to 🙂
    My mom taught me to use the thimble on the middle finger instead of the index finger as I had done before and I always do that now. Another trick she taught me was when threading a needle you shouldn’t bring the thread towards the needle, you should bring the needle towards the thread, if that makes sense.

    • Makes sense. I’ve read about the thimble on the middle finger trick. I’m used to the index finger but I’ll try to make the switch next time I’m using one.

  • Vivella

    Needles have a front and a back so if your thread doesn’t go in one way, turn the needle around and it’s usually much easier.

    • Good one! I’m going to have to do a follow up post…..

  • I was fully prepared to see that the way I make a knot is incorrect, since I basically have done the same thing since teaching myself how to do beadwork when I was like, 11. But omg, it’s actually what you showed, go 11-year-old me! Love the wax on the thread tip, too. For a long time I’d use wax on thread (actually a hold-over from aforementioned beading days), but it never helped it be less tangley. It was only once I read somewhere that tip of then pressing to get the wax to sink into the thread (like you mentioned) that I realized the error of my ways. Makes a HUGE difference!

    • I imagine if you didn’t press it you’d also get weird wax residue in your handsewn seams….. Also, HIGH FIVE 11 YEAR OLD TASHA!

  • I found an interesting tip on a sewing blog recently re thread tangling. It said to thread the needle before cutting the thread from the spool. I’ve tried it and I fancy it does work. A shorter thread is also less likely to tangle. The teacher at an embroidery class I attended last year recommended measuring your thread from hand to elbow

  • carmencitab

    It was such a great moment with Deepika and Montserrat and all of you! Thanks for the little videos, now everybody will know!

  • Thanks for sharing! I would have never figured out that knot thing – genious! Also – I love the little videos!

  • I once read that you are always supposed to thread the needle with the cut end of the thread to prevent tangling. THIS REALLY WORKS! I do a lot of hand applique and I can always tell if I threaded it wrong.

    I didn’t know you were supposed to press the beeswax! I’ve been using it without pressing, and as long as you put a thin coating on it doesn’t leave a residue on the seam… at least not a perceptible one.

    I think the leather thimbles are superior, too.

    And I’ve been a convert to the “no knots” school for about 2 years… never looked back, and never had a problem! 🙂

  • ooh I love these tips! there is something so therapeutic about hand sewing to me- I need a good hand-sitiching project!

  • DIY Wardrobe

    Really useful (or should that be handy?) tips – thank you. I’ve got a motley collection of old needles I’ve picked up from family members over the years – it’s probably time to do something about modernising it!

  • I found Natalie Chanin’s work (THE Goddess of hand sewing!) on “loving the thread” helpful. I know it sounds so whimsical 🙂 but it works! Once you’ve threaded your needle, hold it up in front of you and let your fingers run down the length of the thread a few times. This unwinds some of the inherent tension thread develops from the way it is spun and allows it to “relax” a bit. I coat it with a little Thread Magic too and both of these have reduced that ANNOYING to DEATH tangling that results in knots that lead to a re-thread (which you have to do often enough!). Natalie also recommends not to make your thread too long – from wrist to just above the elbow is just right (18 in or 30 cm). Sharp needles (and needles do get dull like our machine needles) and top quality thread help too 🙂