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How to Hemstitch by Machine

The stitching can cross at the corners.

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.

Find a stitch that perforates and binds
Look for a stitch with these two characteristics: the needle penetrates the fabric in the same place more than once as it sews; and the stitch has enough width to prevent the unfinished facing edge from raveling.

Examples of standard stitches with these characteristics are a honeycomb, blanket, or decorative daisy chain. Several utility stitches have these characteristics, and when their stitch width and length are adjusted, they create a handsome hemstitch. Utility stitches can be adapted for hemstitching, and typically there is also a menu of built-in hemstitches.

Compared to many decorative stitches sewn with a regular needle, which can be used in a similar manner, I find this finish to be tastefully restrained. It makes an excellent companion for subtle beaded embellishment and renders beautifully in crisp silks—but it is equally suitable for casual clothing and accessories, as well as for home-décor items. I can’t find a better way to decoratively attach a facing to a garment with such a delicate and durable finish.

Hemstitching: then and now
Historically, hemstitching was an involved process of pulling out threads parallel to the hemline 
and then hand-sewing the hem in a manner that grouped the remaining vertical threads to create perforations in the fabric.

Nowadays, hemstitching is easy to do by machine using a wing needle, which has two finlike projections along its shaft, and an appropriate multistep stitch.

How to secure a facing with hemstitching
Demonstrated here on a neckline is the process for securing a facing with wing needle stitching. You can also use this technique to secure a folded-back hem allowance.

1. Don’t interface the facing or finish its edges, just stitch it to the edge of your garment as you would normally attach a facing. Trim the seam allowance to 1⁄8 inch. Press the facing flat, then turn it to the inside of the garment and roll the seam slightly inward as you press it again.

2. Prepare your sewing machine with a wing needle, embroidery thread in the needle, and lightweight thread in the bobbin; select an appropriate stitch such as any of the ones shown below. Position the garment face up in the machine; if needed, slide lightweight tear-away stabilizer under the facing. Start sewing at the shoulder seam and stitch an even distance from the edge around the neckline until your stitches meet. (If you wish, first mark a stitching guideline on the right side of the garment.)

3. Gently tear away the stabilizer and press the neckline. Then use duckbill scissors to trim the excess facing close to the stitching. That’s all there is to the process.

Select or invent a hemstitch

Utility stitches such as those designed to overedge or stretch often have the right characteristics for hemstitching. Samples of typical ladder, blanket, smocking, and overedge stitches are shown below. Quilting and decorative stitch collections often include a stitch suitable for hemstitching. And you can design your own if your machine has custom stitch capabilities.

Many sewing machines have stitches designated for hemstitching, such as the ones shown on this on-screen menu.

There are two ways to navigate corners

The stitching can cross at the corner. One edge at a time, fold back the allowance (unless the corner is already faced), and hemstitch from one adjacent edge to the next adjacent edge. This technique works only on outside corners.

The stitching can echo the corner. If the corner is not faced, fold back the allowances and miter them. Hemstitch, pivoting at the corner. This works on outside and inside corners.

Before pivoting the hemstitching at a corner, experiment sewing corners with the stitch you are using to decide how you want your corner to look. If the stitch is perfectly symmetrical, navigating your corner may be as simple as pivoting with the needle down on the outside point of the corner.

But if your stitch isn’t symmetrical, the direction you sew, the point in the pattern at which you pivot, and the direction you turn the fabric can change the way the corner looks. With wider stitches, the best results may occur if you hemstitch one edge at a time, break the stitching at the corner, turn the fabric, and abut the end of the next row of stitches against the side of the previous row. The example above at right shows some of the possible effects. If the stitch you’re using includes a motif, such as a daisy chain, be sure to identify the exact stitch with which the motif ends and pivot at that point.

Depending on your stitch pattern, it is often possible to hand-crank the needle and coax the fabric so the needle aligns with previous stitches to make a beautifully engineered corner.

Almost any hem can be an embellishment: just fold, press, and hemstitch. Whether for lamp shade covers like these or another project, experiment with various stitches to see the effects of light passing through the pattern of tiny holes.

by Barbara Callahan

excerpted from Threads magazine #115, p. 57


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  1. User avater
    zeshuregi | | #1

    it's so good and simple also.thank you so much for sharing...

  2. AMAtkinson | | #2

    I love wing needles but can never figure out how to use these beautiful stitches. This is perfect!! Thanks so much for sharing!!

  3. TheThreadLady | | #3

    I am a total embellishment person who teaches classes on thread embellishment. I am retiring from teaching in August and want to do my own patterns, etc. instead of making samples all the time. This is just another way I can incorporate more embellishments in my garments and quilts (I am a contemporary quilter and use anything I want in my quilts). I am thankful for the tip. I use my wing needles all the time, but have never used them like this. Thanks for the new techniques.

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