Sewing Tips


Every stitch you sew saves you the expense of a tailor's bill and extends the life of your clothes. What's more, you might get some satisfaction out of mending an item of clothing all on your own.

In this artricle, we'll cover all the key basics of sewing. We'll tell you how to assemble and organize a sewing kit, thread a needle, replace a button, hem, and do basic sewing stitches. When you're done reading this article, you'll be able to mend with the best of them.

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The first step is to put together your sewing kit -- after all, it's impossible to sew without the right tools. That task is covered in the next section.

The Basic Sewing Kit

Most mending jobs can be done by hand, without a sewing machine. To do these tasks, you'll need a few essential items on hand, such as:

  • A selection of buttons
  • A selection of needles
  • A selection of threads
  • Sewing scissors
  • Pins and pin cushion
  • A thimble
  • A tape measure
  • Fasteners, such as snaps and hooks and eyes
  • Self-fastening tape
  • Patches

If you don't have those items already, keep the following tips in mind when shopping for them:

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  • Light trimming scissors or shears in a 6- or 7-inch length are best. Use these scissors only for sewing.
  • Pins with large glass or plastic heads are the easiest to use. Buy the longest ones you can find -- up to 11/2 inches.
  • A package of assorted sharps -- medium-length needles with round eyes -- are suitable for all fabric weights.
  • Thimbles come in various sizes; find one that fits the middle finger of your sewing hand.
  • Hooks and eyes in assorted sizes (1, 2, and 3) and snaps in sizes 3/0, 2/0, and 0 solve most replacement problems.
  • A 6-inch metal sewing gauge is more useful for sewing than a tape measure, particularly in hemming where it can be used for keeping a desired measurement.
  • Other items that make sewing a lot easier include a seam ripper -- the sharp, curved edge is used to cut seams open, while the fine point is used to pick out threads; a needle threader, which saves lots of time and frustration; and pinking shears, which have zigzag edges, allowing you to trim fabric without fraying.

Beyond just stocking your sewing kit, you'll want to get everything organized for whatever project might come your way. See the next page for tips.

Organizing Your Sewing Supplies

Get your sewing supplies organized with these helpful hints and tips:

  • Keep a small magnet in your sewing basket. When needles and pins drop on the carpet while you're sewing, retrieve them quickly with the magnet.
  • Sewing needles can get rusty and dull. Rub off any rust with an abrasive soap pad or steel wool.
  • Leave a length of thread in a needle before storing it in a pincushion. You'll be able to see it more easily, and the needle will be less likely to slip inside the pincushion.
  • A bar of soap makes a perfect pincushion. In addition to storing pins and needles, it lubricates the tips so that they slide easily through stiff fabrics.
  • To keep scissors from damaging other items in your sewing basket, cover the points with the rubber protectors sold for knitting needles.
  • Before throwing out clothing you no longer wear, stock up on notions by saving any usable zippers, buttons, or decorative trim. These can come in handy when you're trying to replace a fastener.
  • Thread looks darker on the spool than it will on fabric. Choose a thread a shade darker than the material you'll be using it on.

Ready to tackle that first sewing project? Let's start with a simple task: threading a needle.

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Threading a Sewing Needle

Threading a needle is pretty simple. Hold the needle upright with one hand, and rotate it in your fingers until you can see the eye. Hold the cut thread about 3/4 inch from the end with the fingers of the other hand, and push the thread through the eye of the needle until about 1/2 inch extends beyond the eye. Pull about 1/3 of the thread length through for a single thread; match the ends if a double thread is needed for the mending job.

If you have trouble threading the needle, the following tricks may help:

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  • Position the needle in front of a white surface so the eye is more visible.
  • ©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Place your needle in front of a white surface to make its eye more visible.
  • Stiffen the thread end by moistening it or running it through some beeswax.
  • Dip the end of the thread into a bottle of red nail polish, and allow to dry. Colored polish will make the thread easier to see and will provide a slick end for threading.
  • Spray your fingertips with hair spray and then stiffen the tip of the thread by rolling it back and forth in your fingers.
  • Try a needle with a larger eye, or use a needle threader.

Knotting the Thread

To knot the thread, place the end of the thread along the ball of the index finger of your left hand (right hand if you're left-handed). Hold the thread with your left thumb, and position the point of the needle over the thread about 1/2 inch from the end of the thread. Hold the end of the thread and the needle in place with your left thumb. With your right hand, wrap the thread snugly around the tip of the needle, twice for a small knot or four times for a large knot.

Pinch the wrapped thread between the thumb and index finger of your left hand. Push the needle up between those fingers as far as you can with the second finger of your right hand. Then grasp the point of the needle with the thumb and index finger of your right hand, and slide the wrapped thread slowly and smoothly down the needle, over the eye, and down the length of the thread into a snug knot. Trim away the excess thread below the knot.

Another darned button missing again? Keep reading to learn easy tips for making quick work of replacing a button.

Replacing a Button

Replacing some sew-through buttons requires shank builders (left). When removing a shank builder, wind the thread under the button bottom (middle). A shank button has a small loop on its underside (right).
Replacing some sew-through buttons requires shank builders (left). When removing a shank builder, wind the thread under the button bottom (middle). A shank button has a small loop on its underside (right).
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Most buttons can be sewn with general-purpose thread. Buttons should be sewn on loosely to allow for the overlapping garment layer containing the buttonholes. Buttons sewn too tightly will make the button difficult to close. Sew-through buttons usually have two or four holes through which the button is sewn to the garment. Shank buttons have a loop on the back through which they are sewn to the garment.

To replace a sew-through button, you will need a shank builder -- either a toothpick or a thick matchstick. Insert the needle into the fabric on the side of the garment where the button will be, and bring the point up 1/8 inch away. Pull through to the knot. Make two small stitches to mark the spot for the button and to give your work a firm base -- the button will cover the knot and stitches.

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Now insert the needle through one of the holes of the button from the wrong side. Let the button fall down the needle and the thread to the garment. Place your shank builder across the top of the button. Hold it in place with your finger, and stitch over the shank builder as you sew on the button.

Match your stitches to the stitch design of the other buttons. Take three to six stitches through each pair of the button's holes, depending on how much stress the button will receive. Then bring the needle up through the fabric but not through the button.

Remove the shank builder, hold the button tightly away from the garment, and wind the thread snugly two or three times around the threads under the button. Insert the needle through to the wrong side of the garment, and push the needle under the button stitches. Pull the thread partially through, forming a loop. Insert the needle through the loop, and pull the thread snugly to form a knot. Cut the threads close to the knot.

To replace a shank button, begin by inserting the needle on the side of the garment where the button will be located. Bring the needle up 1/8 inch away, and pull the thread through to the knot. Make two small stitches to mark the spot for the button and to give a firm base for your work. The button will cover the knot and stitches.

Position the button at the marking with the shank parallel to the buttonhole. Insert the needle through the shank and then down through the fabric. Stitch through the shank four to eight times. Be careful to keep the stitches on the underside of the garment small and neat. Finally, make a knot. Insert the needle under the button stitches on the wrong side of the garment. Pull the thread partially through, forming a loop. Insert the needle through the loop, and pull the thread snugly to form a knot. Trim the threads close to the knot.

Hemming is another sewing project that takes some time to master. The next page has tips and guidelines for hemming.

Hemming Techniques

Before you start a hemming project, consider these tips:

  • Before hemming a skirt, dress, or pants, let the garment hang for a day on a hanger to allow the fabric to settle.
  • You can often steam out small puckers at the top edge of a hem. Don't redo a slightly puckered hem until you've tried to press it.
  • Clip-type clothespins can be more convenient than pins for holding a hem in place while you sew it.

Read the final section to learn some basic stitches that will get you through most sewing jobs.

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Basic Sewing Stitches

Four basic stitches can get you through almost any type of hand-sewing repair. If you haven't sewn before, you may want to practice a bit to develop the ability to stitch evenly in a straight line.

  • Backstitch: Viewed from the top, backstitching appears as a continuous line of even stitches; viewed underneath, the stitches are twice as long as those on top and they overlap at the ends. Use a single knotted thread, and work from right to left. Insert the needle from the underside of the fabric layers 1/8 inch to the left of where your stitching will begin. Pull the thread through to the knot. Insert the needle 1/8 inch behind where the thread emerges (that is, where your stitching will begin). Bring the needle up 1/4 inch beyond this insertion, and pull the thread snugly. Bring the needle up 1/4 inch beyond the insertion, and pull the thread through. Continue in this manner, forming evenly spaced stitches about 1/8 inch long.
  • Basting: Basting is used to hold two or more layers of fabric together temporarily during fitting or construction. You may want to baste a hem or cuff to make sure you like the length before completing the hem with a more permanent stitch. Use an unknotted single thread, so it will be easy to pull out, and work from right to left. Insert the needle from the right side, and weave the point of the needle in and out two or three times. Basting stitches may be as long as 1 inch. Pull the thread partially through, securing the unknotted end between your thumb and forefinger so that you don't pull it through entirely. Reinsert the needle, and repeat the process. Leave the thread loose at the end so that it can be easily removed.
  • Running stitch: The running stitch, used for delicate repairs, topstitching, and gathering, is worked in much the same way as basting, but the stitches are shorter and even. Secure the thread at both ends with a knot. Use a single knotted thread, and work from right to left. Insert the needle from the wrong side, then weave the point evenly in and out of the fabric two or three times. Pull the thread through firmly, but avoid puckering the fabric.
  • Overcast stitch: This stitch is used to keep a fabric edge from fraying. Use a single knotted thread, and work from right to left. Insert the needle from the underside of your work. Pull the thread through to the knot, and insert the needle from the wrong side again, 1/8 to 1/4 inch to the left of the knot. Pull the thread through, but not too tightly or the fabric will curl. The more your fabric frays, the closer the stitches should be. Keep the depth of the stitches uniform, and make them as shallow as possible without pulling the fabric apart.

See, sewing isn't just for your grandmother anymore. By following the simple tips and guidelines outlined in this article, you'll be "sew" ready for any project that comes your way.

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