Friday, 21 June 2013

The joys of hand sewing

A Girl Sewing by Philip Mercier, ca 1750
I’m stitching away on my 17th century shirt and I thought that a post on hand-sewing wouldn’t be amiss. I think it needs more love. I know that many thinks that it is difficult to sew by hand, but as any other skill it is more a matter of practice. Most garments can be made with some very basic seams that aren’t hard to do, but it does take practice to get them neat and even. But, hand on the heart, what did your first machine stitched garment look like? Mine looked awful, with crooked seams. To be able to use a sewing machine takes practice too.

I don’t sew my historical clothes completely by hand, well, not all of them at least, but I do a lot of hand-sewing on every project nevertheless. I use my machine for assembling my clothes, to stitch a skirt together, or a bodice. Basically because it is faster. And I sew my stays on a machine, because my hands can’t cope with sewing so many seams through all those layers of fabric. But hand sewing can offer a lot that a noisy machine can’t.


The Needlewoman by Diego Velázquez, 1635-1643
Looks Finishing a garment by hand does improve its general look. For example, imagine a beautiful 18th century silk gown, made after a correct pattern, but with the hemming made on a machine, leaving a very visible stitch line all around the petticoat. I have seen that, and it isn’t pretty.
Period accuracy Well, duh, of course! The sewing machine didn’t reach the general populace until the last half of the 19th century, so of course you are period correct if you sew you clothes by hand. But what you may not think about is that the clothes were designed to be sewn by hand, not with a machine, and if you try to sew a period pattern on a machine, you may have difficulties that disappear when you do it by hand. My big revelation on this subject was 18th century sleeves. I insisted for a very long time to do them on the machine, fighting a very uneven battle and a lot of seam ripping and teeth grinding. Then I tried to set the sleeves as they are described in one of my books, completely by hand, and everything just feel into place and the sleeve looked so much better. Some things are easier to make by machine, but trust me, not everything.


Interior with Woman Sewing by Wybrand Hendriks
Control When you stitch by hand, it is much easier to control the fabric. It is, I admit, a bit of a skill to make sure that your stitches end up exactly where you want it, but fiddly and tiny bits are so much easier to get right if you can use your fingers to control it rather than your pressing foot.

Social One of my favourite things with hand sewing is that you can do other things while you sew. At the machine you have to concentrate very closely on what you are sewing and it is usually not noiseless either. I can talk with family and friends while I hand sew and I can watch movies or TV. My son and I are currently having a Doctor Who-marathon and I do a lot of sewing while watching.

Mobile Small projects or smaller parts of one are easy to bring along. I have a friend who always sews on her train commute. I sew at breaks at work, or in a waiting room.
 
Young Woman Sewing by the Light of a Lamp by Georg Friedrich Kersting, 1823
 

17 comments:

Kleidung um 1800 said...

Thank you so much for this post! I second every word you've written. In my opinion hand sewing gets you closer to understanding not only the garment itself, but also the person holding the needle back then.
Hand sewing takes you away from our busy modern time management.
Back then things simply took their time. And yes, practice makes perfect! Hopefully many will follow your advice and give hand sewing a chance.
Sabine

Isis said...

Sabine: I'm glad you enjoyed it! I agree, sewing by hand gives you a better understanding!

Jen Thompson said...

I love this post! I am a recent convert to the joys of hand sewing, and I agree with everything you said. And what beautiful pictures you found to illustrate your post too!

Rowenna said...

And don't forget the very important, can sew while catching up on BBC costume dramas! Can't do that while the machine is whirring :) It's strange, but since I don't expect to sit down and knock out a whole chunk at once (and thereby keep delaying when I work on them), I often finish hand-sewn project faster because I do a little bit every day.

Anna said...

YES! I love reading posts like this, thank you for taking the time to say it so well. In my opinion, hand sewing is so much more rewarding (and I started on a sewing machine!) because you feel that much more accomplished when your stitches start to become quicker and more even and you really take ownership of your project. I find it extremely soothing, and machine sewing for me is now too hurried and harried and easily botched. Not to mention the accuracy issue!

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

For those who, like me, don't have a place to set up the sewing machine and leave it up, hand-sewing is more convenient (for smaller projects, anyway) because I don't have to clear off the kitchen table and keep everyone else from using it until my project is done! I can sit and sew, and I get so much more sewing done when I can pick it up and just sew, while watching a movie or documentary on YouTube or something, without all the hassle of getting out my machine.

It did take me a long time to enjoy hand sewing, though. I used to hate it because it took so long to get projects done, but then I moved to a house where I didn't have the space to set up my machine, and then my machine needed repair and was unusable for over a year, and I was forced to come to terms with hand-sewing if I wanted to get any projects done at all! The machine is lots faster for long straight seams, but I enjoy the greater control that I have when sewing by hand. I finished my nephew's 15th century linen shirt last night while visiting with family, which I wouldn't have been able to do on the machine!

Hana - Marmota said...

So true! I especially love the mobility of handsewing, travelling as I do between home and school. Hauling my sewing machine is much less fun! (And I, too, sew on the dining table, so there's that, too.)
And like Rowenna, I find I am more careful and more productive with it. Not exactly faster, because I'm slow with everything, but the way I can do a bit her and a bit there, and do not have to dedicate time and space to it so much, that helps on many fronts.
Example: I sewed most of a chemise while commuting... and I look at it now and marvel at all those tiny stitches I made. If your project fills up an otherwise boring time, fills a kind of wasted time with something productive and relaxing, instead of it being crammed into "free time" in the evenings when you feel a need to do as much as possible in one sitting - that is a great way to ensure your project will be done well. ;-)

jwg said...

Thank you for a lovely post, dear.

Isis said...

Jen Thompson: Thank you! I think there is a bit of a myth that it is very hard to hand sew. It took me quite a while to take to it myself. :) I'm glad you like teh pictures. I have insomnina, so I spend sleepless night hunting pictures.

Isis said...

Rowenna: Well, I wrote Doctor Who, but of course, costume dramas are excellent as well. :) I agree, I can often get a bit of hand sewing into each and any day, but not always in big chunks.

Isis said...

Anna: I'm glad you enjoyed my post! I too started on a sewing machine- I think most of us do. :)I find it very satsfying to look at a finished seam that I have made by hand.

Isis said...

South Bay Ladies Tea Guild: I appreciate the mobility too, even if I can have my machine permantly up. But it is so boring to be in the work room when the rest of the family is in the living room!

Isis said...

Hana Marmota: Indeed. I do most of my hand-sewing in front of the telly. In fact, I now feel a bit strange if I watch something and not sewing. :)

Isis said...

jwg: Thank you!

Lady D said...

I sew most of my clothes by hand just because I prefer the control and the ability to multitask and watch tv while I sew. I don't get on well with the machine so I only use it if I need something done very quickly. If I'm seing with nice fabric and I have a good block of time and something nice to watch I can make a skirt -my record is a skirt in 1 week and that included hongkong seams) or dress in good time. Its why I tend to stick to cottons so much easier on the hand.
I'm always surprised people don't start learning to sew by hand then move onto the machine.

Isis said...

Lady D: I didn't learn any hand sewing until I was over 20 and was taught pattern making. We had sewing classes in school since I was nine or so, but though we learnt knitting, crochet and embroidery, we didn't learn anything else than machine sewing. Seems very stupid to me now. When I was 12 I made my first garment, a skirt, and wasn't even told how to hem it by hand.

Maya O'Connell said...

I agree with everything you've said on the subject of hand sewing. I have 6 daughters and have hand sewn several of their dresses. It feels so good to see them running around in something made from my own hand. I am particularly partial to the old ways though. I think we would do well to return to many of them.

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