Stuff Mama Never Taught You, #1: Hand Sewing

I tweeted this the other day:

On further thought, though, I decided I was serious.

I asked Twitter which tutorials were most wanted, and “sewing” was first on the list.

Sewing is a big topic. I own several books on it, and I don’t even enjoy it! But here’s a quick 101 guide to help you save clothes and bags when seams split or buttons fall off.

Step One: Tools

You may have grown up around women who had big ol’ intimidating boxes of sewing tools like this:

(Yes, that’s a literal tool box.)

This is what happens when you make your own clothes, blankets, etc. For basic repairs, a small kit will do.

This is the one I carry in my colorguard bag:

It contains everything I’ll likely need for a quick costume or flag fix.

At a bare minimum, you need:

1. Needle

2. Thread

3. Scissors

Depending on the type/extent of your fix, you might find two more things helpful:

1. A tape measure

2. Straight pins

Most of this stuff is pretty cheap. A ruler or the measuring tape from a toolbox will work in a pinch if all you’re doing is fixing a hem.

Do not, under any circumstances, use your fabric scissors for anything but fabric or thread. Ever.

Anyone who sews will tell you that using fabric scissors on non-fabric is a justifiable excuse for homicide. It ruins them for fabric, and good ones are not cheap. Don’t do it.

Step Two: Prep

Once you have tools, it’s time to get ready to sew.

Normally, you want your thread color to match your fabric as closely as possible. Here, though, I’m going to use contrasting colors so you can see the seams better.

Cut a length of thread about 3-4 times as long as the bit you need to stitch, or long enough to handle comfortably.

(The orange line on the bandana is where I’ll be stitching.)

Tie a knot as close to one end of the thread as you can. I tend to pile 2-3 overhand or figure 8 knots on top of each other. It has to be larger than your needle.

(My grandmother used to say “Conceal a knot as you would a secret.” I’m a blabbermouth.)

The not-knotted end of your thread is going through the hole in your needle. You can stick it in your mouth to wet it down, which makes it easier to fit through the hole without unraveling it.

Here’s a secret I both love and hate: Self-threading needles.

Those two little pointy bits at the top of the eye are actually a gap to slide the thread between (like you’re flossing them), so you don’t have to actually jab the end of your thread through the eye. They’re great until the thread slips back out of the needle halfway through your project.

Whichever way you choose, put the not-knotted end of your thread through the eye and pull about a hand’s length of thread through to make a tail:

Holding the tail as you sew helps prevent the thread from slipping back out of the needle.

Starting on the wrong side of your fabric (the side that doesn’t face the world), poke your needle through the fabric and pull it through till the knot stops it:

Flip it over, poke your needle back in a short distance from where the thread emerges, and repeat:

Keep doing this till you’re done with your seam.

Smaller stitches hold more effectively than large ones. They’re also tedious af and hard to do evenly, which is why they were so prized in pre-sewing machine clothing.

Stitching Edges

The method above is best for fixing hems. To draw two edges together and keep them from fraying, however, it’s not ideal.

To fix edges, prep your needle and thread as above. Start by bringing your two edges together and pinning them in place like so:

The pins help keep everything where it belongs.

If you’re stitching parallel edges like in the photo (good for making things like bags or pillow covers), you can pull your thread through both sides at once to start:

Were this to become a bag, I’d put the right sides together to stitch and then turn it right side out when I was done.

When mending a tear, however, you may want to start with the knot on the wrong side of the fabric. The first stitch would then be perpendicular over the tear and to the other side.

Once your thread is pulled through, carry the needle back over the edges and put it through the same side the knot is on:

Repeat until your edges are closed:

Small stitches are best here too, and just as tedious.

Buttons

I think every human being deserves to know how to sew on a button. It’s very easy, and it saves so many pieces of clothing from an untimely death.

Once again, prep your thread as above, knot and all.

Put your needle into the fabric where your button goes. I’ve decided mine goes over the “100%” print on this bandana:

Before extracting the needle, drop the button on it:

Then pull the thread through till it hits the knot.

Stick your needle through an adjacent hole in the button and pull it tight:

Then do the same thing on the other side. Repeat 4-6 times just to be sure your button isn’t coming off.

You may need to pinch the button slightly to keep it close to the fabric. If you’re doing a button on a very thick fabric, like a wool coat, you’ll want to leave a bit of “play” to accommodate the extra fabric layer.

I won’t get into how to shank a button here, but if you can attach a regular shirt button, Googling “how to shank a coat button” should provide comprehensible directions.

When You’re Done

When everything is all stitched up:

Make one more stitch that goes sideways through the wrong side of the fabric, as close to your last stitch as possible:

(This one is actually nowhere near my last stitch, but this is what your needle should do.)

Pull the thread most but not all of the way through, so you have a small loop:

Run your needle back through the loop and pull it tight. Repeat right on top of the stitch you just made. Then cut your extra thread.

Other Important Notes

Store sewing supplies out of reach of children and especially pets. Cats will swallow sewing needles, as an 11 PM trip to the emergency vet once taught me. (The cat survived without complications, thanks to a late-night surgery.)

Pincushions are a convenient way to store pins, although they do sometimes swallow needles. Jab both pins and needles through the little strawberry bit on the tail to remove rust and sharpen them (it’s full of sand for that purpose):

Most pincushions today are stuffed with wool or synthetic materials. By far the best pincushion stuffing is human hair, but if you’re sufficiently dedicated to sewing that you currently save your own hair to make pincushions, you’re not reading this tutorial anyway.

You can buy both pins and needles especially for certain fabrics, but for most wardrobe repairs, the all-purpose ones work just fine. Do buy denim thread and needles if you’re going to try to repair jeans on a machine, though. (More on machine sewing in a later tutorial.)

I own a half-dozen thimbles and have never used one. Make of that what you will.

Questions? Ideas for future tutorials? Drop them in the comments!

If you found this useful, please consider buying me a coffee so I can fuel more tutorials. ❤

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