With the exception of sewing on buttons, hand sewing is done with a single thread. Unwind your thread no longer than the length of your arm and CUT it off at an angle. Longer pieces tend to tangle and fray as you work. It's best not to wet the end, as some threads swell and become more difficult to thread the needle. For extra strength and lubrication, run the thread lightly over a block of beeswax.
Thread the lead end through your needle and pull through about two-thirds of the length. Tie a small knot in the long end, then lay this piece alongside the other. When sewing very fine fabrics, skip the knot, as it may leave a noticeable lump in your material. Roll the needle in your fingers, which will help keep the needle from slipping and pulling off the end. You are ready to begin.
Note when hand sewing that stitches are very close together, 12 or more stitches to the inch. On period pieces with gathers, the stitches are often as close as one stitch for every two threads in the material. Hand stitching is not an excuse for sloppy workmanship.
Run the needle from the back side of your material at a point one stitch length from where you wish the seam to start, pulling it gently tight to the knot. Make a backstitch, that is, sew backwards to the start of your seam and begin sewing. The knot will keep the thread from pulling through as you start, and your next stitches will cover the end and help bind it into place. If you don't use the knot, you may wish to make a couple of tiny backstitches, then start.
Wear a thimble on the second finger of your sewing hand to push the needle through heavy fabrics and tight spot, and save yourself a lot of trouble and pain. As you sew and use the long piece, unroll the needle in your fingers, slide it up the thread and roll it again. It's easy!
To finish a seam (left), make a tiny backstitch catching a single thread in the fabric and leaving a small loop in the thread. Make another backstitch, run your needle through the loop in the thread and pull tight. For greater strength, repeat.
Assuming you are right handed, most hand sewing is done from right to left, unless otherwise noted.
The RUNNING STITCH is fast and easy, but not very strong or tight. As with any other stitch, start with a backstitch (see above), then simply run the needle from right to left up and down through the material along the stitching line, making several small stitches at a time. Keeping the stitches close will help a lot in strengthening the seam. The running stitch is most useful for seams not subject to a lot of stress, quick repairs and making gathers.
The OVERCAST STITCH is a quick way to keep raw edges from fraying -- much like zig-zagging on your sewing machine. It is nothing more than a spiral, from the back side up through the material about 1/8 inch from the edge, wrap over the edge, and back up through the material. Stitches are wide, about 1/4 inch apart. Work right to left, and don't pull the thread so tight that it bunches the material.
The WHIP STITCH is used to finish edges on lightweight materials, like ruffles, napkins, rollers, etc. Roll the edge of the material with your left hand toward you, then spiral the thread around, not through, the roll, entering the fabric from the top side.
The BACKSTITCH is very strong and very attractive on the finished side. Start from back or inside one stitch from the end of your seam, come up through the material and back down at the beginning of your seam. On the bottom side, come forward two stitch lengths, then up through the material again. On the top side come back one stitch length and run your need down through the first hole you made. You should have two stitches visible on the top side, end to end. On the bottom come forward, again, two stitch lengths and up through the material. Come back one length, etc. What you get when you are done on the top is a series of single stitches, end to end, that look like they came off a sewing machine. On the back side is a double row of double length stitches that looks something like the drawing below.
We recently picked up a woman's bonnet at an antique show that is completely hand sewn. Not an antique, it is still a fine example of sewing craftsmanship which we will bring along to events this summer. If you are interested, stop by the 55th camp and we will be glad to share it.
For more detailed information on hand sewing, see A Lady's Guide to Plain sewing, by a Lady, by Kathleen Kannick, ISBN 0-9640161-0-9, available from your favorite sutler or directly from Kannick's Korner, PO Box 1654, Springfield, OH, 45501.