I’d like to discuss a topic this week which most quilters have strong opinions about – hand sewing.
Now, I’m not talking about hand quilting. That’s another topic altogether which I feel woefully inadequate to discuss. Yes, I hand quilt on occasion. I enjoy it. But I am by no means proficient in the art. And I’m not talking about hand applique, per se. This, too, is another topic. Hand applique has so many aspects entire books have been written on it. While parts of this blog do take in some areas of hand applique, for the most part, it’s not a major part of this blog. I love hand applique and we will be talking about it soon.
No, I’m talking about hand sewing as it pertains primarily to hand piecing. There’s a lot of this taking place nowadays. English paper piecing has developed a host of fans (and fanatics). I’ve spoken with quilters who now religiously save their larger scraps and turn them into hexies by the jarful. Yo yos too, have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and have been churned out by the handfuls. I also realize from having studied the field of quilting, as well as being an active participant in it, hand sewing is a dividing rod. Some quilters like it. As a matter of fact, I know of quilters who solely hand piece and hand quilt. I also know just as many other quilters won’t even sew their binding to the backs of their quilt by hand. They dislike hand sewing completely and avoid it all costs. Rarely will you find a quilter who is completely neutral about it – they can take it or leave it.
Me? I gotta have it. I need it. I crave it. There’s always been something about quilting which centers me. My world can go to hell in a handbasket, but the moment I step in my quilt studio, I literally feel something shift and settle. Calm and peace. Clarity. It slows me down so I can think. And handwork of any kind does this more than anything else. Busy day and muddled mind? Sew. Can’t sleep and it’s two in the morning? I park myself on the couch in my den and pull out the hand sewing. Give me an hour and my mind clears and I’m ready to sleep. Think this is far-fetched? Sarah McKay, MSc, PhD, stated in 2014:
Research shows that knitting and other forms of textile crafting such as sewing, weaving and crocheting have quite a lot in common with mindfulness and meditation — all are reported to have a positive impact on mind health and well-being.
For the sake of her article in MGB: Mindfulness, Dr. McKay studied knitters but did clarify that the benefits of textile crafting included many areas (including sewing). She found that knitters who knitted regularly were happier and had lower levels of stress. Knitters who plied their craft three times a week or more were happier, had lower levels of stress, were calmer, less sad, less anxious, and more confident. And knitters who joined knitting groups were even happier than solo knitters.
There are other benefits to sewing. One of the most important ones for me is the ability to make something beautiful and useful to give away. I rarely hang onto my own quilts. I have a few which I use around the house, but most of them I’ve gifted to others. However, for this blog, I really want to examine hand sewing – its benefits and how to we can make it better. First let’s look at why it’s good for you (besides the whole it-keeps-you-sane thing).
- It improves coordination. Sewing by hand requires lots of skills between your fingers and your brain. It makes the two work together, bringing a level of coordination which is vital in order to make the needle, thread, and fabric work in unison. As a matter of fact, folks that hand sew (or hand craft anything) generally have a level of hand-to-eye coordination most people lack. If you can teach a child any type of hand work, you’ve just upped the young one’s development skills quite a bit. And if you’re an older person (like myself), hand sewing can keep your mind healthy.
- It gives you better control. With hand sewing, you don’t have to worry about changing settings or tension on your machine. You don’t have to worry about attachments or thread. All you do is sew the best you can. Hand sewing also allows for flawless corners, graceful gathers, and perfection in minute details.
- It’s portable. This is always been my favorite thing about any type of hand sewing – from hemming a garment, to hand applique, to hand piecing. When I taught school, I always made sure my small hand sewing bag was tucked in with my teacher’s bag. If I had a free moment, I could pull it out. My hand sewing accompanied me everywhere – while I waited on Meg to finish dance classes, Matt to finish music lessons or ball practice, the doctor’s, dentist’s, and orthodontist’s waiting rooms – it was always with me. And it was amazing how much I could get done in a few minutes. Vacation? Hey, hand sewing takes a lot less space than packing my sewing machine. I always make sure my hand sewing bag is ready to walk out the door with me.
- It’s better for delicate fabrics. Most of the time quilters use quilting cottons. However, for that rare opportunity we have to experiment with other types of fabric – such as for a special effect in applique – hand stitching may work better, especially if the fabric is delicate, stretchy, or loosely woven. You’ll have better control over the material and there’s no chance it will get chewed up by the feed dogs on your machine.
- It preserves vintage sewing techniques. The earliest quilts were hand sewn. And even after the sewing machine was mass produced, some of the finest quilts had hand stitching – whether applique or embroidery. Don’t get me wrong. I love my sewing machines and marvel at what they can do, but I also think it’s important we remember how old quilts were made and know how to execute those techniques.
- It’s inexpensive. If you think you may want to dip your toe in the quilting world, but aren’t sure you can afford even a basic machine, hand sewing is the way to get that toe wet. Hand piecing is the least expensive way to begin. All you need are needles, threads, scissors, fabric, and marking tools. You can download free hand piecing patterns from the internet. And even if you’re starting out piecing by using the English Paper Piecing method, you can make your own templates out of those little cardboard inserts which are found (by the dozens) between the pages of all magazines.
- It’s relaxing and therapeutic. Sewing has been related to a better heart rate and blood pressure. It requires your mind and body to work in harmony, and thus eliminates stress. It truly is yoga for your brain.
- It’s quiet. A sewing machine has its own rhythm, and your brain can get in sync with the rhythm to the point it’s nearly hypnotic. But hand sewing is quiet – which is why I turn to it when I can’t sleep and it’s the wee hours of the morning. I can sew for hours and not wake a soul in the house – even Sam. When you take it with you, it doesn’t disturb others, so you can enjoy it wherever you’re at. It also allows you to listen to podcasts or audiobooks at a decent decibel range.
- It’s versatile. With hand sewing, you can work on almost any type of sewing project and use nearly any kind of stitch without switching needles or changing out sewing machine attachments. Whip stitches, running stitches, blind hem stitches, button hold stitches – these all can be done with a hand sewing needle and thread on nearly any type of fabric. With a sewing machine, you have to switch feet, readjust settings, and maybe even play with the tension.
As mentioned in number six, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to begin hand sewing. Needles are usually the first tool which comes to mind. I wrote a pretty extensive blog about needles,( https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/10/28/hand-sewing-needles-more-than-meets-the-eye/) so I won’t rehash the topic again. Just promise me you won’t buy the really cheap, crappy needles. Good needles aren’t expensive and they’re worth every red cent.
The next tool you should make sure you have is a good thimble which fits the middle finger of your dominant hand. I wrote a blog about that, too: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/11/18/thimbles/. Thimbles take a little getting used to, but they can really speed up the process as well as protect your finger.
Thread requires some special consideration. I’ve written how older thread has a shelf life, so if the thread in your studio is on spools like these:
Toss them or put them on display in a pretty jar or basket. Don’t sew with them.
I’ve also published some pretty extensive blogs about thread, because I am a self-admitted thread snob. The last blog I wrote on thread was in 2019, and there is a need to update it because thread technology is constantly changing and getting better all the time. Different hand sewers like different thread, so I can only relate to you my opinions about which kinds I think are the best. Personally, I like long-staple, cotton thread for nearly everything. Please note I said nearly everything. We’ll get into the exceptions in a moment, but for hand piecing and hand applique, I like cotton. I use cotton quilting thread for most of my hand piecing.
It’s a bit stronger than regular cotton thread because it’s mercerized for increased strength and color longevity. It’s gassed to reduce lint and designed to smoothly pass through the fabric without damaging it. It’s also generally 40-weight, so it’s thicker. This is the thread I use when I use Cindy Blackberg’s piecing stamps, not on the rare occasion when I English Paper Piece. With EPP, I use a finer thread – usually a 50 to 80 or even 100 weight.
I know a lot of hand applique artists use silk thread. I’ve always found silk thread difficult. No matter how I knot it, it seems to slide out of the eye of my needle and it’s also not as strong as cotton thread. If the hand appliqued quilt is washed (even by hand) there’s a chance the silk threads will pull away from the cotton fabrics. I use 50 to 80 weight cotton thread for my hand applique most of the time. There are rare occasions when I can’t find a thread color which blends the way I need it, and then I’ll turn to my machine embroidery thread. However, this is a rare occasion. My favorite hand applique threads are Aurifil, Superior Thread Masterpiece, Wonderfil, and DMC Machine Embroidery Thread.
The more you hand sew, the clearer your preferences will become. Hand sewing does not require as much thread as machine sewing (there’s no bobbin to wind), so you can afford to splurge a little more on thread. Whatever you do, pinky-promise me you won’t start with cheap needles or cheap thread. Those two will ruin your hand sewing experience.
While we’re parked on the topic of thread, another hand sewing tool which may (or may not) be helpful is some kind of thread conditioner. In general, a thread conditioner puts a protective layer on the thread that guards against soil, moisture, damage caused by ultraviolet rays, mold, and mildew. Using a thread conditioner also helps release any static electricity in the thread, which is a common cause of tangling. I find these are the two most common thread conditioners in my area:
I know there are probably more out there, and I’m aware there’s a DIY recipe for one similar to Thread Heaven floating around the internet (which I’ve never tried). Let’s work with Thread Heaven first. To use this, you simply run the thread along the conditioner, holding the thread against it with your finger or thumb to lightly coat the thread. Next, pull the thread between your thumb and finger to smooth it and remove any static. Thread Heaven (and similar conditioners) work well, there’s just a couple of things you need to be aware of. First, the quilting jury is still out on whether these man-made conditioners cause any long-term damage to the thread or fabric. Not enough time has passed to see any extended results. Second, if you’re using white thread, be aware the conditioner leaves a somewhat sticky residue which picks up lint and dirt. This can make your thread and your seam appear gray.
Beeswax is my hand-down, all-time-favorite thread conditioner. I am admittedly old-school in many areas and this is one of them. When I began sewing, this was the only thread conditioner/detangler on the market and I still use it. You run your thread over it the same way you would Thread Heaven and then pull it between your finger and thumb to work the beeswax into the thread. I do this a couple of times, as the beeswax doesn’t soften up as quickly as Thread Heaven. If I plan to have a hand sewing mini-marathon, I will thread several needles, coat the thread with beeswax, and then run a warm iron over the thread (it’s a good idea to have the thread between two fabric scraps or a folded pressing cloth when you do this). This really sets the beeswax into the thread and makes your hand sewing an untangled, wonderful experience.
So why do I prefer beeswax over a conditioner such as Thread Heaven? First, it’s all natural. It’s not manmade. Sewers have used beeswax for hundreds of years with no harmful side effects. Second is its availability. I prefer to purchase my beeswax in this type of container
because it makes the coating process super easy. However, if you can’t find it, there is beeswax available for bulk purchase online. You can use it as is, or melt it, pour it in molds (such as those used for candy), allow it to harden, and pop it out. I’ve also purchased beeswax candles for hand sewing purposes!
Those are the tools you will want for hand sewing. The only way to get really good at hand sewing is practice –just like most anything else. As you begin to sew, it’s important for you to be conscious of what you’re doing – especially at the beginning. Is the way your sitting comfortable? Is the lighting adequate? Do you make stitches better with one size of needle verses another (my favorite is a size 10 applique needle)? If you’re mindful of how the process is going, you can tweak it to make it work better for you.
I also find it’s easier to work on a flat surface. I’ve mentioned this before, but briefly and in passing. For me, it’s easier to get a rhythm and do better work on a flat surface than holding it in my hands or on my lap. I found these little jewels online a few years ago:
They’re portable, flat surfaces. I find the base of these fit in my lap wonderfully, providing me a flat surface when I Zoom and sew with my quilt groups. They’re also great to take on vacation or to have in your den for sewing (if you don’t want to drag out a TV tray or table). There are pegs to hold your thread and thimble and a magnet to place your needle on if you have to get up. Bonus, it has a padded surface you can use if you need to pin something out or do a quick press with a small iron.
The last item you may want to purchase is a needle threader. Needle threaders look like this:
This little tool is strictly optional — if you’re young and have good eyesight, you may not need one yet. However, if you’re like me and your eyes have some mileage on them, these are wonderful devices to have. They save you time, and either one works well. However, if you like the needle threader in the first picture, you may want to purchase several at a time. The thin wire part wears out and falls off.
Once you have the tools, the next step is practice. Practice. Practice. And practice some more. In the beginning, everything may feel awkward and that’s okay. The first time you try anything new, it’s going to be awkward and feel awkward. The needle may feel like a sword or a chopstick. You may have trouble positioning the fabric in your hands so it’s easy to needle. Everyone feels a little clumsy starting out. However, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. You don’t have to hand sew for long periods each day, but 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there really helps.
As you get more comfortable with the process, two things will happen. The first is you’ll get a rhythm going. Between the thimble, a flat surface, and good lighting, it will become easier and easier to get faster at it. Pretty soon you’ll find your stitches get smaller and more even. It won’t happen immediately, but after a month of hand sewing a few minutes a day, look at your current work and compare it to the first few hand stitches you put in. You’ll be amazed.
The second thing is you’ll become conscious of your technique. You’ll notice when it’s the best time to knot or lock your stitches before your thread gets too short. You’ll know how to hold the fabric so you can make small, even stitches. And what’s even better is you’ll realize when you have something out of kilter – it doesn’t feel right – and you will automatically correct it.
I’d like to briefly cover how hand piecing works. I am planning several blogs on hand applique, so I won’t cover that type of hand sewing in this column. For sake of my reference, I’m using Cindy Blackberg’s piecing stamps, but any two pieces of block units you’ve cut out will work.
Step One: Assemble your tools. Thread your needle and condition your thread (if desired). As you plan longer hand sewing sessions, you may want to have several needles threaded and prepped.
Step Two: Take two of the block units to be sewn together. With a mechanical pencil or other fine-tipped fabric marking pencil, pen, or marker, draw a ¼-line in from the edge of the fabric. If you’re using piecing stamps, simply stamp out a few forms and cut them out of the fabric.
Step Three: Place the block units right sides together. At the beginning point, take a couple of stitches on top of each other to lock the threads. Then sew across the marked line to the point where the next seam will begin. You weave your sewing needle in and out of the fabric in small increments. In the beginning, these stitches may be longer than you want, but the more you practice, the smaller these stitches will become.
Step Four: At the end of the seam, depending on the pattern, you can turn and sew down another marked seam or you can lock your stitches, snip your thread, and begin at another point. Personally, I lock my stitches and snip the threads. I find if I don’t, instead of having sharp points, my blocks units have a more curved appearance.
That’s it. It’s really easy, and the method doesn’t change whether you’re joining block units or the blocks themselves together to make a quilt top.
I encourage you to give hand piecing a try. When my friend, Karen, introduced me to this, I didn’t believe her when she told me how peaceful and calming hand sewing was. In my mad, rush-around world, I couldn’t imagine piecing any other way than with a sewing machine. Through her gentle encouragement and prodding, I gave it a try and became hopelessly hooked. Several years later (and after purchasing nearly every stamp set Cindy Blackberg had in stock), I am a dedicated believer. Hand sewing slows me down, calms my spirit, and allows me to create something beautiful and useful. Plus, it’s portable. You can’t ask for much better than that.
In closing, I’d like to offer a YouTube resource for all things hand sewing. Abby Cox has a YouTube channel, and while not always strictly about hand sewing, a great many of her videos are. Ms. Cox works with antique clothing. She’s designed period pieces for Colonial Williamsburg and historical films. She’s smart, sassy, and brilliantly hilarious. She has a new video up every Sunday morning (around 10-ish EST) except for the first Sunday of the month. I am a dedicated viewer and always come away having learned so much and been magnificently entertained while doing so. Give her a look-see. It will be well-worth your time.
Until Next Week, Quilt On!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam