How to Hemstitch by Machine
by Barbara Callahan
Wing needles are typically associated with heirloom sewing, the kind used for christening gowns and Victorian linens. But my wing needle hemstitch technique adds a fresh accent to contemporary clothing and accessories and is an easy, yet lovely way to secure a facing or hem by machine—it’s one of my favorite ways to finish and simultaneously embellish a garment.
Wing needles divide and separate
As the wing needle descends through the fabric, the fins spread the weave and make a hole without cutting or tearing the fabric. The hemstitch is more effective when the needle backtracks to pass through a hole more than once to complete the stitch pattern.
A wing needle can be used on any zigzag machine as long as both the presser foot and throat plate accommodate the needle fins with the stitch you are using. Make sure the needle has plenty of room by hand-cranking through the stitch pattern before sewing. These are extra-heavy needles that can damage your machine if metal meets metal.
Natural fabric works best
Fabric choice plays a major part in the success of your hemstitching. For the best results, I use 100-percent linen, but other all-natural fiber fabrics work also. However, fabrics made of synthetic fibers such as polyester don’t retain the same crisp design definition you get with linen. Even after my linen garments have been laundered many times, the hemstitching holes remain distinct, the pattern is still well-defined, and the facing hasn’t raveled.
I often prepare the fabric by spray-starching the hemstitch area before pressing and sewing. Lightweight, tear-away stabilizer is essential for supporting some fabrics, but not for others; experiment to find the best results for the fabric and stitch you’re using.
Use embroidery thread
As the threaded wing needle spreads the threads of the fabric apart, the stitches hold the holes open. I use a 40-weight rayon embroidery thread for the needle with a lightweight bobbin thread. You might want to experiment with various thread weights to see what works best for the fabric you are using and the effect you want. The color of the needle thread should come close to the fabric color; I think a slightly darker shade of thread blends better than a lighter one. If your holes aren’t well-defined when you stitch, use two layers of stabilizer.