Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hand sewing tips from a quilter.

Ever looking to learn about different areas of sewing, I've been wanting to give hand quilting a go. I know very little about it, though for some time I have wanted to learn how - I really want to hand quilt a petticoat someday! So I ordered this book from Amazon. It's very interesting, and it doesn't only benefit quilters, there is a lot that can be applied to all hand sewing.

That Perfect Stitch:
 The Secrets of Fine Hand Quilting,
 by Dierdra A. McElroy

There is even a two page chart that describes all different weights and brands of thread and their pros and cons, an article that shows how needles are made and loads more.

I wanted to share a few interesting hand sewing tips I got from reading this:

- Thread has a twist, just like perle, only smaller. Thread on a spool has either an "S" twist (to the right) or a "Z" twist (to the left). These twisted strands are combined with others to form "plies," as in "two-ply" thread. The "Z" twist thread was developed to be used in sewing machines, since the machine can actually untwist "S" thread. Twists matter to hand-sewers and embroiderers because you can tighten the twist, or loosen the twist, depending on how you move the needle. If you twist too much, the thread can kink up and get knotty.

Image via

- Your thread has a right and wrong direction. The way thread is wound onto a spool results in the thread having a "nap," which is like little hairs that stick out. I have heard a good way to feel which direction the nap goes is to run a thread across your lips. One way will seem rougher. This is against the nap. Think of this like a feather: if you stuck a feather through a button hole backwards, the feather would ruffle. Usually, the way the thread comes off the spool, the end you snip should be the end you knot, with the beginning of the thread going through the needle. If you sew with the nap the thread will stay smoother and will be less likely to tangle and fray.

- Waxing you thread. It is often recommended to wax your thread before passing it though the fabric. This helps the thread to stay smooth and not fray and break down. What I learned from this book is if you only run the wax over your thread and go, the wax can be rubbed off in a couple passes. It is helpful to iron the wax into the thread, or even put waxed threads in a very warm place to help the wax soak into the thread. Prepare many ahead of time so you can sew away!

- Keep your thread looking its best and use short lengths (like 18in). The longer the thread, the more times it passes through the fabric, the more worn and fuzzy it will become. Also, make sure your needle is large enough to make a good hole in your fabric so the thread has ample room to pass. Take care not to have a needle to big as it can leave your work looking sloppy.

- Match your thread to your fabric. It seems quite obvious, but even I shortcut and use a thread for its color sometimes and not its content. And it's not only for aesthetic reasons. Some threads, like polyester are too strong for natural fabrics, and over time, they can cut through the fabric. Silk stretches and can leave fabric pieces loose over time, which looks sloppy. As a pre-automobile-mostly historical costumer, polyester is never a good option. Just don't buy it. Ick.

- Marking your fabric safely. This one scared me. I usually use a disappearing purple marker for my embroidery designs, but apparently the chemicals in them can break down fabric over time. Yikes! So either wash after using one of these, or use chalk or pounce. Tailors chalk is also a no-no for fine work. Apparently it is mixed with indeterminate wax to keep it sturdy. Paraffin and beeswax are really the only safe waxes for fabrics. I also read, in a book by the Royal School of Needlework, that you can use pounce and then go back with a fine brush, dipped in grey watercolor, to outline your design.

Image via Needle 'n Thread.
Buy it at Berlin Embroidery.

These were just a few bits and pieces I found especially interesting, as the entire book was fascinating. Such a lot of knowledge! I would recommend it to anyone that hand sews or quilts.

I think I'm going to sign up for a quilting class soon (because I now know that quilting isn't just a running stitch...) and then make myself a petticoat! Exciting!

Detail of 18th century quilted petticoat.

via 1812: War and Pieces

Quilted white satin travelling petticoat, c. 1745-1760
via A History of English Embroidery


  1. Glad to see that you're doing your homework! Another great resource on hand quilting is at I look forward to seeing your finished products!

  2. Oh, I've been preparing to make a quilted petticoat too. I have all the I need time to lay it out and start hand quilting! Definitely a good winter project!

    1. Wouldn't it be just fabulous to make and have a real one! I have a cheater quilted petticoat right now, but I long for the free time to devote to sewing a legit one.