Sewing Machine vs Hand Sewing Overview
Several people feel intimidated to sew by hand. However, it is an art that every sewer should master. Yes, it takes patience and time, but if it is done right, it can be almost as effective as sewing by machine.
This guide will focus on: the instances when hand sewing is preferable to machine sewing and how it is used; the pros and cons of hand versus machine sewing; five basic stitches for those who like the challenge of hand-making their own clothes; and a description of how a machine stitch is made. Selected resources are included at the end of this guide.
When to Hand Sew
While the majority of sewing patterns are designed to be sewn with a sewing machine, most embroidery and needlework designs are done by hand to ensure a detailed, unique finish on both sides of the fabric. You could resort to hand sewing when:
- you don’t own a sewing machine; it’s impossible or impractical to carry a machine while traveling; there’s a power outage.
- you want to mend torn lace, women’s stockings, holes on socks, torn seams, and other tight places and corners where only your fingers can fit.
- you need to sew small notions such as snaps and buttons.
- you sew lace, chiffon and other extremely delicate fabrics which would have otherwise been ripped under the machine’s foot.
- you have crocheted or knitted pieces of an item which need to be connected.
- you sew couture clothes. For example, you baste non-fusible interfacing on collars, or you finish fabric edges with hand stitching.
- you make customized gifts such as headbands and pin cushions.
- you embroider a design; and add embellishments (beads, sequins, sequins, appliqué motifs, trims) on a garment such as a bridal gown.
- you need to stitch up an open wound in survival situations.
- you simply enjoy it.
Learn to hand sew and you’ll be able to truly personalize your projects. Not to mention, with these hand sewing tips you’ll see that learning how to sew by hand is simple!
Applications of Hand Sewing
Hand sewing is used in many applications such as:
- Embroidery and needlework like cross-stitch and English paper piecing.
- Clothing repairs.
- Equipment repairs such as fish nets, boat sails, and tents.
- Small sewing notions that it’s easier to hold with your fingers.
- Buttonholes, hems, bias binding, quilt binding, and basting.
Differences Between Hand Sewing and Machine Sewing
1. Advantages of Hand Sewing
- It is portable, takes up minimum space, and works without electrical power. For example, you could carry your embroidery everywhere, but it’s not easy or convenient to carry a sewing machine.
- Sewing by hand is precise and detailed. Your garment would look good on both sides of the fabric.
- It is much easier to sew fine and lightweight fabrics by hand because you have more control.
- Hand sewing offers tranquility and satisfaction without the use of technology. You could hand sew sitting on your favorite recliner.
2. Disadvantages of Hand Sewing
- It is time-consuming and takes great patience to complete a project.
- Although hand sewing is precise, it is also inconsistent, meaning, no stitch has exactly the same length and distance as in machine sewing.
3. Advantages of Machine Sewing
- It is much faster, convenient, and time-saving to machine sew.
- Machine stitches are stronger than hand stitches because the machine uses two strands of thread and secures the stitches with a knot. (See Anatomy of a Machine Stitch section below.)
- Sewing machines can sew all types of fabric. They can handle heavier fabrics such as denim, canvas, and leather much better than hand sewing.
- Machine sewing is accurate because the stitch settings are predetermined. They are set either by a computer or by the sewist mechanically.
4. Disadvantages of Machine Sewing
- Learning how to use a sewing machine can be a set back. You have to familiarize yourself with all the components of the machine and experiment at first. For example, you will need to read the instruction manual, learn how to thread the machine and wind the bobbin thread, practice gaining control of the foot pedal, and learn how to clean, oil, and maintain the machine.
- With the exception of portable machines, sewing machines take up space, particularly industrial machines which come with their own stand and can be very heavy.
- Sewing machines use electricity (except for treadle machines). They also cost money to purchase them as do accessories like feet, needles, bobbins, broken parts, and thread.
- To sew on a machine, you have to prepare it first. For example, you have to choose the right foot for a particular task, wind the bobbin thread, and work in a dedicated area like your sewing room or your kitchen table.
Five Basic Stitches for Hand Sewing Clothes
People used to make their clothes entirely by hand for thousands of years before the invention of the sewing machine. If you are up for a challenge and you have ample time in your hands, you too could make your clothes entirely by hand using five basic stitches below:
- Backstitch: This hand stitch is the strongest for permanently sewing two pieces of fabric. It is also versatile because it’s used in both sewing and embroidering for various tasks such as matching plaids, setting sleeves, and outlining designs.
- Basting stitch: Also known as tacking, basting stitch is a long loose stitch mainly used to hold two or more layers of fabric together temporarily, until they are sewn permanently. It is ideal to stitch up muslin seams for fittings.
- Whipstitch: An overcasting diagonal stitch used to keep the fabric edges from fraying or to join two pieces of fabric. It is also used in crochet to join two pieces of work.
- Blind hem stitch: This stitch is used mainly to create invisible hems, particularly on fine silky fabrics. Besides hemming, it’s a great stitch for bias binding and attaching lining.
- Buttonhole stitch: This stitch is used to secure the edges of buttonholes and prevent them from fraying. Other usages are: eyes and hooks, appliques, blanket edges, cutwork, and embroidery.
If you are sewing a new garment or adding buttons to any fabric piece, you need to know how to make buttonholes. If you don’t have a machine or prefer to do it by hand, then you need to learn how to make buttonholes by hand.
Anatomy of a Machine Stitch
The most common stitch is a straight lockstitch (as demonstrated in Threads Magazine). The sewing machine uses two strands of thread: one at the top and one at the bottom (inside the bobbin case). As the needle pricks the fabric, it pushes the thread under and around the bobbin, where the bobbin thread makes a knot before the needle comes back up.
Now that you know all about hand sewing, you should be able to tackle any project with confidence. My recommendation is to keep your hand sewing skills sharp. Hand sewing is not only an art for creating beautiful couture garments and crafts, but also a survival skill. A combination of hand stitches and machine stitches is the best way to create clothing with strong seams that look great.
- Read this illustrated guide on 8 Basic Hand Stitching Techniques Every Sewer Should Learn, including a video tutorial on how to do the backstitch by Sewing.com.
- Here is an article on The Strongest Sewing Machine Stitches / Threads posted at Sewing Machine Talk.
- Couture expert Claire Shaeffer shares her technique on How To Master the Backstitch in this Threads Magazine article.
- Watch this video on Sewing Machine Anatomy: How a Stitch is Made by Threads Magazine.