A Primer to Hand Sewing 17 Lessons for Beginners

A Primer to Hand Sewing: 17 Lessons for Beginners

We all know how difficult it can be, trying to get into sewing. Hand sewing can be especially challenging at first. That’s why we’ve decided to make this article a hand sewing course for beginners.

Whether you’re completely new to sewing or you’ve got a couple of projects under your belt, we bet you’ll find something you haven’t tried yet here.

We’ve listed the basic hand sewing lessons in the order in which you’ll try them. The first 9 tips are the most basic maneuvers: how to choose your thread and pull it through your needle. The following 8 lessons are about different types of stitches you can do by hand. No machine necessary! So let’s start at the very beginning.

Lesson #1: Choosing the Thread

Lesson 1 Choosing the Thread

Most people's first sewing projects involve patching up holes in our clothing or bags. Because we’ll likely be dealing with these types of projects, to begin with, we’ll need to pick out thread according to the material we’re working on.

Most of the time, cotton or polyester thread will work just fine for any type of mending or sewing we need to do. While cotton is the most common material, it’s certainly not the most durable thread to use. Nylon makes for a much stronger thread, which is exactly what you’ll need for sewing leather, for example.

On the other hand, if you’re working on a blanket, using nylon wouldn’t make sense. It would be much more appropriate to use wool thread. Naturally, the fabric we’re working on must be taken into consideration when we’re picking out our thread.

There’s also an endless array of colors to choose from, even invisible nylon thread and metallic colors. However, we recommend trying to match the color of the thread to the dominant color of the fabric, at least as a beginner. Or, if a matching color isn’t available, you may go a shade or two darker. After you’ve learned how to run a straight stitch, you can move on to sewing with contrasting thread.

The final thing you should know about thread is the length you’ll need. If you’re going to be mending a small tear, you’ll need about 10 inches more than the length of the tear. However, if your material is thicker, like corduroy, you can even double that length. After all, the thread is going to weave through the material, and you’ll need to have a bit leftover at the end to secure the stitch with a knot.

Lesson #2: Choosing a Hand Sewing Needles

Lesson 2 Choosing a Hand Sewing Needles

After you’ve found the right thread for your project, the next thing you need to choose is the needle. Hand sewing actually gives much more control than machine sewing does. That’s why, when it comes to needles, we have almost as many choices as we had when we were picking thread!

But, before we tell you a bit more about hand sewing needles, let’s find out how they differ from the sewing machine ones. Actually, hand sewing needles are very recognizable so you should have no problem identifying them. They are long and narrow with the point on one end and the eye of the needle on the other. Conversely, sewing machine needles have the eye and the point on one side, and the attachment mechanism that goes into the machine on the other.

Even beginners should have a range of hand sewing needles on hand. Hand sewing needles come in various sizes and points or, rather, lengths and levels of sharpness. They also come with different eye sizes. So if you’re someone who’s had a lot of difficulties threading needles in the past, you may want to choose ones with large eyes.

What’s more, there are even self-threading needles, for those of us who find threading particularly challenging. However, after our next lesson, we should all know how to thread a needle like professionals.

Lesson #3: Threading a Hand Sewing Needle

Once you’ve selected the right needle and the thread for the job, you’ll need to know how to thread it. First of all, your thread shouldn’t be over 2 feet long since it will tangle as you work. However, if you’ve measured off a proper length, you can get right into the threading. There are a few tried and true methods you’re going to use fairly regularly.

Inserting the thread through the eye of the needle manually takes steady hands and a sharp eye. You’ll want to hold the needle firmly between the thumb and pointer of one hand with the eye pointing toward you. On the other hand, you’ll want to grasp the thread as close to the end of the length as possible.

At this point, you should make sure that your thread isn’t frayed at the ends. That will only make it more difficult for you to push it through the eye. Fraying is also why you should always cut your thread with scissors instead of ripping or biting it off the spool.

Using a sharp cutting tool ensures that your thread has a sharp end, as well. And, if there’s a bit of fraying, you can wet the thread (most of us usually lick it, but you can dip it in water if you prefer). Then, roll the damp tip between your fingers a bit to create a rounded end that can easily slip through the eye of the needle.

However, if all of this sounds like a bit much to you, you can also just use a needle threader. The tiny metal wire can pass through most the eyes on most needles. Either way, once you get the thread in, you can pull it through and secure it with a knot.

Lesson #4: Thimbles

Lesson 4 Thimbles

Now you’ve got your thread in your needle and your fabric on standby. All you need to do is to pick up your fabric. If you’re a beginner, we suggest practicing today’s lessons on a scrap of fabric you don’t care about. However, if you’re tempted to dive right into stitching, we advise caution — your fingers may be too soft for the job.

People who have never sewn with their hands before find it a bit difficult to transition to the technique. Not because of any complicated stitches, of course — you’ll see soon enough that the stitches are easy enough to do. Rather, it’s their fingers that can’t stand the pressure. If the needle and the fabric are a bit thicker, you may find yourself exerting more force than your fingers can comfortably take. In that case, we suggest using a thimble.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t use thimbles on the hand that’s accepting the needle, under the fabric. Instead, we need them to protect the finger that’s pushing the needle in on the top. Usually, that’s going to be the middle finger on your dominant hand. Or, if you tend to push with your index finger, you’ll wear the thimble on that one.

Still, some people find that traditional metal cap thimbles hinder their control over their fabric. Fortunately, there are many different kinds on the market nowadays. You may get a cap thimble or an open-top one, a metal one or a flexible plastic one. Quilters even use leather thimbles that cover their whole finger.

The most important thing is for the thimble to be slightly snug on your finger. Fortunately, there are plenty of different sizes to choose from. Ultimately, when you’re going shopping, you should already be aware of your personal style of sewing.

Lesson #5: How to Baste

Lesson 5 How to Baste

Before you use any real stitches, you’ll need to know how to attach your pieces of fabric together. We call this loose, temporary stitch “basting,” although you may also use pins to do the same thing.

Still, if you don’t want to have to work around the pins, there’s nothing easier than running a straight baste stitch. Allow us to explain in the plainest terms possible. Let’s say that you’re making a simple shirt and need to sew a side seam. You’d take your two pieces of fabric — the front and the back — and lay them against each other with their outward-facing fabric on the inside. As always, you need to stitch inside-out.

Once you’ve aligned the pieces of fabric, you can thread a needle with any color thread you like. In fact, you could even go for a contrasting one, in order to see the baste clearly. Then, starting at about half an inch away from the edge of the fabric, start weaving the needle up and down in a zigzag motion. This doesn’t need to be a clean or a dense stitch. However, it does need to be tight enough to hold the fabric where you want it to be.

After you baste your fabric, you’ll be able to sew the side seam without having to worry about ending up with an asymmetrical shirt.

Lesson #6: How to Sew on a Shank Button

How to Sew on a Shank Button

After mending, attaching buttons is the most common type of sewing project beginners deal with. The most common types of buttons you’ll be dealing with are shank buttons and flat buttons.

Shank buttons are the type of buttons that have a rounded top and a stem that has a hole through it underneath. If you’ve ever seen one, you’ll have noticed a big difference between these types of buttons and flat ones. Namely, shank buttons don’t have holes on the top, but underneath the visible part of the button.

When you’re sewing buttons — say, on a blouse — you’ll need to have your spot appropriately marked with a water-soluble marker. Once you have threaded your needle with about 8 inches of doubled thread, you can begin. First, you’ll need to catch a bit of the material right on the spot with the needle. Then, pull it all the way through until the knot you’ve made at the end catches on the fabric. At this point, you can cut off any excess thread after the knot with tiny scissors.

After you’ve gone through the fabric, you can pull the needle through the hole in the button. Then, return your needle to where your thread knot is, and pull it through the same spot until the button is flush against the fabric. Continue passing the needle through the hole in the button, then through the fabric under it a few times.

When you’re satisfied with the results, you can pull the thread through the fabric one last time without tightening it. Then, take your needle and pull it through the loop you haven’t tightened. That will form the knot that will secure the button, but you can do it once more just to be safe.

Lesson #7: How To Sew on a Flat Button

The more common type of button you’ll find is the flat button, which may have two or four holes on top. Once again, you’ll take 8 inches of doubled thread (so 16 inches in total) and tie a knot at the end. Poke the needle through a tiny piece of fabric at your mark and draw the thread through until it stops on the knot. You can also cut off the excess thread after the knot.

Now, you’ll push the needle upwards from the bottom side of your button, then down through the hole on the opposite side of the button. If your button has four holes, you’ll alternate pairs in order to create an X. Once you push the needle downwards, you can find the same spot on the fabric. Then pull the thread through until the button pulls against the fabric.

At this point, many people like to put a toothpick under the button, between the two holes, to ensure that there’s some wiggle room once they’re done. After all, you’ll need to be able to pull the button through the buttonhole and have it sit nicely against the top layer of fabric.

Continue to pull the needle through the fabric, in through the bottom of one hole, and down through the other hole. Once you’ve done that enough times, you’ll pull the needle through the fabric one more time, without going through the button. Wind the thread counterclockwise underneath the button a few times, remove the toothpick, and wind the thread some more. This is how you’ll preserve the distance between the button and the fabric.

Finally, you can push the needle down through the fabric and up to create a loop. Without pulling the thread tight, bring the needle down again, and create a knot.

Lesson #8: How to Sew a Basic Fabric Yo-Yo

Making a fabric yo-yo is not only fun and easy to do, but can also be a great and unique accessory.

Take any rag or lightweight fabric you’ve got, and thread your needle with any color of thread. We recommend using fabrics that have fun patterns since you’ll be able to attach the final result to a headband or use it as home decor. Lay the fabric down flat (iron if necessary) and use a glass or a hoop as a circle pattern. However, keep in mind that the finishes yo-yo will be half as big as the circle you’re using.

Now, place the rim of the glass onto the fabric and draw around it with a water-soluble marker. Then cut out the shape and place it face-down in front of you. You’ll need your thread to be a bit longer than the circumference of the circle and smooth enough to pull on. We recommend going for a polyester or nylon thread.

Start a running stitch, the same up and down motion we use for basting, around the edges of the circle. Keep folding the edge inward and stitching, but remember, the longer the stitches you use, the tighter you’ll be able to close your yo-yo. Once you’ve gone around the whole circle, take the thread and needle and pull the yo-yo shut. Press your hand against the center of your yo-yo to flatten and shape it a bit.

Finally, you can sew a few more stitches to secure the center and knot and cut the thread. If you want to use a fabric yo-yo for decor you can stack yo-yos of different sizes on top of each other, and put decorative buttons in the middle.

Lesson #9: Knotting the End of the Thread

Lesson 9 Knotting the End of the Thread

The way you tie off your thread when you finish a stitch can make or break your whole piece. And, while there are technically no rules when it comes to your final knots, some techniques are more sightly than others.

If you’re working with a double thread, you can finish off by cutting the thread off the needle and tying off the two threads a few times. Just make sure that you tie it right on top of the fabric and that the knot can’t pass through it.

On the other hand, if you’re working with a single thread, you’ll need to tie it around itself. Loop the thread around itself, and hold onto the thread near the spot where it came out of the fabric. As you tighten the thread, the knot will stay near the fabric, which is exactly where you need it to be.

You could also loop the thread, rather than knot it, as you would with a button. Pass the thread through the fabric without tightening it all the way, then pull your needle through the loop and tighten. Cut off the tail, and you’re done.

Basic Hand Stitches for Beginners

Finally, we’re on to the good stuff! We’ve prepared a few of the prettiest and most useful stitches beginners can learn easily. So without further ado, let’s get right to it!

Lesson #10: Running Stitch

If you’ve been practicing your basting, you’re one step closer to learning the running stitch. The running stitch is the most basic sewing technique you can learn.

In fact, the only difference between basting and the running stitch is that the running stitch is much more controlled. You’re meant to make each stitch the same length with the same length of fabric between them.

Other than that, you’d still be doing the same up and down weaving motion with the needle. You can even do a few running stitches at a time if you weave the needle through the fabric without stopping to tighten the thread. As you work on your sewing, you’ll see that even a stitch as basic as the running stitch can look great in the hands of a committed practitioner.

Lesson #11: Slip Stitch

Doing a slip stitch, otherwise known as a blind stitch, is an invaluable hand sewing skill. When done properly, it’s meant to be invisible, making it perfect for creating concealed hems.

Although the slip stitch may seem like witchcraft the first time you see it done, it’s actually much easier to do than it appears. You’ll start with two pieces of fabric with already folded hems pressed together with their face.

Pull your thread through the fabric making sure that the knot is on the inside of the hem. Then, you’ll cross onto the other piece of fabric, pushing the needle into the hem. These two sports are going to meet at the end, so they should be at the same height.

From the opposite fold, move the thread downward and bring it back up. Now, you’re back to square one, so you’ll weave the thread into the opposite hem, and back out a little ways away. Continue until you reach the end of the line, then pinch the knot at the beginning of your stitch and pull on your needle. The two pieces of fabric will meet, with an invisible hem between them.

This stitch is also very helpful for mending clothes. But, instead of working with two separate pieces of fabric, you’d be working on a single piece. For example, if you’re working on a tear in your shirt, you’ll start by pushing the thread up from the bottom of the shirt, coming up right next to the tear.

Then, cross the thread to the other side of the tear, push the needle down and up, and cross it back. As you continue to do this, you’ll notice the parallel lines this stitch makes before you tighten it. That’s why it’s also known as a ladder stitch.

Lesson #12: Overstitch/Overcast

Overstitch Overcast

The overcast stitch is used in order to secure the raw edge of a fabric that will likely fray. We usually see it on blankets or patchwork-style projects. Still, even though the overstitch has such a practical purpose, there’s no reason it can’t be decorative as well, especially because it’s such a visible style.

If you’re working on a blanket or on felt materials, you can choose a thicker thread in a contrasting color to spruce up the piece. Since there’s no better way to learn a stitch than to do it, let’s try it out together.

Overcast stitching is one of the easiest techniques for beginners to master. However, there are a few tricks to it. For one, you’ll want to start working on the right side of the fabric. As always, start by pulling the thread through to the knot.

Then you’ll go over the edge of the fabric and slightly to the left, and push the needle from the back toward you. Take the needle and pull it through, then keep repeating the process down the line. Essentially, you’re creating a spiral by wrapping the thread around the edge of the fabric.

The stitch should lay firmly against the fabric, but it shouldn’t tug or wrinkle it. Because the thread is wrapping around the open edge of the fabric, it will protect it from fraying.

Lesson #13: Backstitch

The backstitch is one of the strongest and the most reliable stitches, whether you’re working by hand or with a sewing machine. Beginners to sewing usually believe that this kind of pristine stitch can only be done on a machine. However, that’s not the case.

Really, the only thing you need in order to execute the perfect backstitch is a straight line. If you’ve already ironed your hem flat, you can use a ruler to mark a straight line with a pencil. You’ll be sewing on the bottom side of the hemline, the one that won’t be visible.

First, push the thread in through both layers of fabric wherever you’d like to start stitching. Pull on the needle until you reach the knot at the end of the thread. So far, this is exactly what you’d do to make a running stitch. The difference is in the following steps.

Once you have the needle on the front side of the fabric, make a single straight stitch along the line and push the needle back to you. Then, backtrack a bit to where the previous stitch ended, and push the needle through. Continue on like this, and you’ll have a line of stitches on both side of the fabric. The only thing you have to worry about is keeping the same length and keeping the line consistent.

Lesson #14: Blanket Stitch

Lesson 14 Blanket Stitch

You might have guessed it — the blanket stitch is a decorative joining stitch often used on blankets and felt toys. Like the overstitch, one of the purposes of the blanket stitch is to keep the edges of the fabric healthy. However, it’s still primarily a decorative technique, which is why we recommend using a contrasting thread.

If you’re using the blanket stitch to connect two layers of fabric, you can start by pulling your thread through one of the pieces of fabric, from the bottom side up. That should hide the knot at the end of the fabric. Now, you can lay both pieces of fabric against each other.

Once you have aligned the two pieces of fabric, you’ll pull the thread over the edge. However, unlike with an overstitch, you’ll push the needle back in through the same hole. Rather than pull the thread all the way taut, you should leave some space in the loop. Then, you can pull the needle back through the loop and tighten the stitch.

Pull the thread back over the edge and push it back toward you about a quarter of an inch away. Before you tighten the loop, pass the needle through it moving from the back toward the front. That completes a single blanket stitch. All others will continue in the same vein. You’ll push the needle in toward you from the back and push the needle through the loop, also from back to front. In the end, you can tie everything off as usual.

Lesson #15: Cross-Stitch

Cross-stitching is another great option for hemming projects. In fact, we’d even say that the technique performs much better on circular hems than straight stitches do. And, because it’s shaped like an X, it can also be considered a decorative stitch.

As usual, we’re starting with wrinkle-free fabric. Working from the left to the right, push the needle toward yourself from the bottom side of the fabric to hide the knot in the thread. Bring your needle up and toward the right then push it in toward the left, exiting through the top left point of your first X-stitch.

Then, you’ll just cross over to the bottom right point. The next stitch is going to start just next to the bottom right point, continuing on until you finish the full length.

Lesson #16: Chain Stitch

Lesson #16: Chain Stitch

The final stitch we’re going to learn today is another one that’s perfect for curved hems. However, the chain stitch is also just a pretty hemming technique. There are actually several varieties of the chain stitch, all of which look slightly different. But since we’re trying to make this lesson plan beginner-friendly, let’s talk about the easiest one.

Push your needle up from the bottom of the fabric, then send it back down next to your first hole. That’s going to be the first link in your chain, so don’t tighten it all the way. You’ll create the next link by pushing the needle back out of the fabric, through the original loop, and back through the fabric right where it just came from. Likewise, the following links continue on with the same pattern.

Once you’ve mastered this chain stitch, you can move on to the more challenging ones for some real fun.

Lesson #17: French Knot

The French Knot is more of a decorative technique than a stitching method, but we believe that it’s a great thing for beginners to master. We recommend using a thicker thread for making French Knots, in order for it to be more visible. In addition to the thicker thread, you’ll naturally need a needle with a bigger eye. So collect those materials and let’s get going!

As always, push your needle in from the bottom, hiding the thread knot. Once your needle is out on the top side, bring it down to the thread near the fabric. Holding the thread firmly, wrap it around the needle once or twice. Then, push the needle back down right next to where it came from, tugging on the thread around the needle to push it down.

Once your needle is on the bottom side, you can repeat the process if you want more of these decorative knots on your fabric. Otherwise, you can just tie the thread off and be done with it.

Keep Practicing!

At the end of the day, all that’s left to do is keep practicing! If you know a beginner who would appreciate having a hand sewing lesson plan, feel free to share this post with them. And if you have tricks of your own for all the hand sewing beginners out there, leave them in the comments below!

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