Here’s how to hand sew the strongest seams using a backstitch (full and half versions). I’ve included beginner-friendly instructions for the whole process: getting your supplies, preparation work, the sewing process, and how to finish your seam and secure it in two ways.
- What’s the best hand stitch for seams?
- What supplies you need
- How to start hand sewing (preparation)
- How to hand sew a strong seam using a backstitch
- How to finish & secure your hand sewing
- Q: Is hand sewing as strong as machine sewing?
What’s the best hand stitch for seams?
The main hand stitches used for sewing seams are the running stitch, whip stitch, full backstitch, and half backstitch. The full backstitch creates the strongest seams because you’ve gone back and secured or knotted each stitch. This means even if a thread breaks with wear and tear, it will not affect the stitches on either side of the break.
This is probably the most common hand sewing method. The running stitch works by simply pulling your needle up through the fabric and back down to form one stitch. Then you repeat that stitch.
The running stitch is a favorite because you can work your needle up and down through the fabric multiple times, essentially loading several stitches onto the needle. Then you pull the needle through until the thread is taught and create multiple stitches in one pull.
While a running stitch is quick to work, the downside to joining a seam with one is that there’s a gap between every two stitches. This makes it less sturdy. With wear and tear, if one stitch breaks, the whole thread can easily slide out of the seam.
Another speedy option, the whip stitch loops around the outer edges of the two pieces of fabric that you’re joining. To create a whip stitch, push your needle through the fabric. Then take the needle up and over the edge of the seam to the back of the fabric. To finish the stitch, push the needle back through to the front which begins the next stitch. So your stitch will look a bit like a spiral-bound notebook, with the thread as the spiral around the edge of the seam.
A whip stitch can be an excellent choice because it helps keep the edges from fraying, and it also creates a somewhat decorative finish. You’ll often see a whipstitch in patterns for dolls and other toys.
The downside to a whip stitch for sewing most seams is that it can be difficult to keep the tension correct. And thin flimsy fabrics will bunch and be pulled into a tight thick ball that won’t lie nice and flat in your seam. Another problem is the impossibility of pressing a seam open when it’s whip stitched. But for thicker fabrics like felt, a whipstitch can be ideal.
Finally, the backstitch is a simple but sturdy option. There are two versions of this common stitch.
The full backstitch comes up through the fabric and back down much like the running stitch. Then you bring the needle back up through the top of the fabric. But instead of moving forward to form the next stitch, your needle then retraces its steps. Take the needle back down through the fabric at the point where your first stitch finished. After this, you are ready to bring the needle back up ahead of where you left off. This creates a gap that you will then go back over and down to close.
This method makes a pretty stitch that looks complete with no gaps between stitches. It also looks similar on the back and the front sides of the seam. And most importantly, it’s an incredibly strong stitch because you’ve essentially gone back and secured or knotted each stitch. This means that even if your thread breaks with wear and tear, it will not affect the stitches on either side of the break.
The backstitch is a little bit slower to create because you can’t load multiple stitches onto your needle. You must work one at a time. It will also require about three times more thread than a running stitch since you are going back to secure each stitch. But if you want to create the strongest seam possible with hand stitching, this is your go-to method.
A half backstitch is very similar, but perhaps not quite as sturdy over the long haul. The half backstitch begins the same as its full sister. But when you push your needle down through the top of the fabric, you pick a point between stitches instead of meeting the end of the last stitch. Thus, you create a line broken by small half gaps instead of one continuous line.
Supplies: what you need to hand sew a seam
The beauty of hand sewing is how few supplies you need. They are very basic and small, so it’s easy to take hand sewing with you on the go.
You will need:
- Short to medium length hand sewing needle, like a “sharp” needle or “embroidery” needle.
- Polyester all-purpose thread in a matching color. You can use cotton thread, but polyester is the sturdiest option.
- Scissors or thread snips.
- The two pieces of fabric you wish to join.
- (Optional) ruler to measure and mark a straight line to sew along.
- (Optional) pen, pencil, or chalk to draw a straight line to sew along. Use a contrasting color to your fabric so that you can see the line. On dark fabric, you could use white fabric chalk. And on light fabric, you could even use a regular writing pencil that will wash out easily at the end.
- (Optional) a thimble, rubber thumb, or floral tape wrapped around your fingers to make it easy to grab your needle.
The number of needle types can feel overwhelming, but the best choice for a backstitch is a short to medium length needle. You will be working the needle in and out of your fabric one stitch at a time, so you don’t need to drag a long needle along for the ride. A short needle will make the process quicker. Either a “sharp” needle, which has a small round eye, or an “embroidery needle”, with an oval elongated eye that’s easier to thread, will work.
For thread color, I’ll demonstrate with a contrasting color so that it’s easy for you to see. But for your project, choose a matching color thread to make your seam as discreet as possible.
How to start hand sewing (preparation)
Cut your thread (about twice your elbow-length)
In general, you want to work with a thread that, when pulled through the needle and back to the beginning, is no longer than the distance from your fingertips to your elbow. In other words, cut your thread twice the length of your fingertips to your elbow.
This length makes it easier to pull the thread through the fabric in one motion. If it’s longer than this, your thread may twist and knot.
Thread your needle
Make sure you have good lighting to see. And use sharp scissors to cut a clean sharp edge on your thread. You do not want a scraggly cut that can unravel and result in you trying to push two separate fibers through the tiny eye of your needle (aka. the hole).
Hold the thread still, and slide the needle eye over the thread. This is the easiest way to maneuver your delicate thread. If your thread is moving or flimsy, you can lick your fingers and press them along the first 1” (2.5cm) of your thread to make it temporarily stiff and able to stand straight.
Once threaded, hold your needle. Pull the short end of the thread through until the needle sits at about the middle of your thread. Finally, run the thread between the pads of your thumb and index finger one to three times. This gentle pressure plus the oils on your fingers will encourage the threads to lie flat and together. That will help minimize twisting and tangles as you work.
Double knot the end of your thread
A knot will act as a stopper on the end of your thread so that it doesn’t pull straight through your fabric. This is best accomplished by tying a small knot near the end of your thread. Leave a ¾” tail (2cm). Later you may trim the tail down to between ¼” and ½” (0.6cm and 1.3cm).
Then create a second knot, but leave it loose. This way as you slowly pull it tight, you can use your thumb and index finger to gently coax the knot on top of the first knot. This makes a thick stopper so that if you pull your thread tightly, it won’t slip through a loosely woven fabric.
Mark your stitch line
Next, it’s time to plot your course. Get your ruler and marking pen or pencil. Place the ruler on the “wrong side” of your fabric. (This is the side of the fabric that won’t be visible on the outside of your item). Position the ruler so it’s parallel to the edge of the seam, and the correct “seam allowance” that your project calls for. (Seam allowance is the distance between the stitch line and the edge of the fabric). If you’re not sure what seam allowance to use, ⅜” (1cm) is normal for clothes.
Gently, run the pen or pencil along the edge of your fabric. It’s important to make this line as straight and true as possible. Otherwise, you may get wonky seams, and the item may not hang properly.
Mark your finger
A simple hack to ensure that your stitch length is consistent is to take your ruler to your index finger as well. Choose the index finger that will be holding your fabric. (If you’re right-handed, use your left index finger. But if you are left-handed, choose your right index finger.)
Use a pen to transfer the ⅛” markings onto the pad of your finger, from the tip toward the first knuckle. Make approximately five marks. This will give you an easy guide along the edge of your fabric to follow as you sew.
Pin the fabric layers together
Your final preparation step is to line up your two pieces of fabric. At the beginning of the seam, place a pin through the marked line and down through both pieces of fabric. Then push the pin back through and out the top layer through the same marked line. Repeat this pinning process every 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8cm). Make sure that your last pin pops up near the very end of your seam.
How to hand sew a strong seam using a backstitch
Full backstitch method
To begin your seam, poke your needle through the marked line from the bottom of your fabric. Slowly pull the thread all the way until the knot rests at the back of the fabric. Don’t yank the needle because you may pull the knot through.
Poke the needle down through the fabric about 1/8″ away (0.3cm).
Then go back up 1/8″ further. So you have gone up, down, forward, up.
At this point, you have one stitch showing on the top of your fabric and another after it that appears on the back. Now take your needle and poke it down through the end of that first stitch. You are now headed in reverse to cover the empty space.
Once you’ve pulled your thread all the way through to the back, you will head forward with your next stitch. Bring the needle back up through the fabric which will create another small gap on the front side. So now you have gone up, down forward, up, down backward, up.
Repeat the reverse stitch process to cover that gap, and so on.
As you move along, you should see your stitches forming a continuous unbroken line on the front and the back of the seam. Congratulations! You’re creating a full backstitch.
Keep going until your seam is done. Then scroll down to learn how to finish your line of stitching.
Half backstitch method
To create a similar seam that’s almost as strong, you can follow the same process with one small modification to your backward stitches. Instead of reinserting the needle at the point where the last stitch left off, poke the needle down midpoint in the gap. So you will go up, down forward, up, down halfway backward, up, down halfway backward, up, etc.
Tips for hand sewing a backstitch
As a general rule for hand sewing, choose a stitch length between ⅛” and ¼” (0.3cm and 0.6cm). This will keep your seams strong and long-lasting. If the stitch length is smaller, you could pull the fabric too tight and prevent it from lying flat. Any larger and it could create stitches that snag and pull.
Tension can be one of the tricky parts of sewing an excellent hand stitch. But with practice, it’s easily mastered. Your fabric should lie nice and flat with taught threads. If you see puckering or gathering in your fabric, this means you’re pulling your thread too tight, and your tension is too tight. If you see loose stitches that can move or allow your fabric to slip around, this means your tension is too loose.
To help ease stitch tension, gently smooth the fabric between your thumb and forefinger. This helps distribute the stitches evenly and encourages them to lie nice and flat in the fabric.
Another common issue you may run into is your threads tangling. If you notice your threads twisting, take a quick break to let the needle dangle and start to untwist. Then when your thread relaxes, you can keep sewing.
How to finish & secure your hand sewing
When you come to the end of your seam (or if you’re near the end of your thread and need to knot off and start a new thread), you’ll need to secure your thread. To “knot off”, first make sure your needle is on the back side of your seam.
Loop the needle around the thread to form a circle. Then poke the needle through the bottom of this circle to create a knot. Use your thumb and index finger to gently ease the knot down to the base of the thread where it comes out of the fabric. You can push the knot down with the tip of your finger while pulling it closed with your other hand. This will ensure that the knot closes at the very base of the thread. Repeat this to create a second knot on top of the first. Then use your scissors or thread snips to trim your thread leaving a short tail that’s ¼” to ½” long (0.6cm to 1.3cm).
Another method for knotting off is to slide your needle under the last stitch (still making sure to work on the backside of your project). Then through the loop you created to form a knot. Pull the needle to tighten. Repeat the loop through the same stitch for a double knot.
Q: Is hand sewing as strong as machine sewing?
A strong hand-sewn backstitch is as durable as a machine’s straight stitch. This is because a backstitch involves going back over stitches and securing or knotting each one. So even if a thread breaks with wear and tear, it will not affect the stitches on either side of the break.
A hand-sewn backstitch also gives you a level of control that greatly surpasses working with a sewing machine. This makes it an ideal option for slinky fabrics that shift easily. It’s also an excellent choice for hard-to-maneuver sections of a garment such as collar stands, sleeve cuffs, etc. It can even add an element of luxury and a couture-like finish to hems.
This article was written by Alex Davies and edited by Sara Maker.
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- Fallon, J., 2017. Complete dressmaking. London: Quarto Publishing Plc.
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- Youtube.com. 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt8vEI4izeg.