How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges

If you have not already done so, before reading this tutorial I highly recommend reading Medieval Hand Stitching – Basic Stitches (Start Here).  It describes what supplies you will need, how to start and end your thread, and the basic stitches upon which most other stitches are based.  This tutorial illustrates several basic and common ways how to hand sew hems and edges on a medieval garment.  There are a great many more options for hand finishing, including complex decorative stitches and tablet weaving directly to the garment.  If you enjoy detailing your garments by hand, it’s worth taking the time to look into those techniques as well.

Even if you sew the majority of your garb on a sewing machine, hand finishing can add a special touch and look of authenticity in those places where machine stitching would be immediately obvious.  For those new to hand work, it also provides a less daunting introduction to hand stitching because it is far less time consuming to finish a few details than to hand sewn an entire garment.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the exact styles of hems that have been found on extant medieval garments.  Instead it shows the major types, and explains why you may want to pick one type of hem over another in particular situations.  Hemming is almost always a variation on running stitch and/or whip stitch, and I strongly suspect that the multitude of variations are mostly a result of the personal preferences of individual sewers.  I recommend trying multiple kinds of hems in multiple situations, regardless of my personal recommendations, until you find stitch styles that are comfortable and natural for you to sew.

 

Folded Hems

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Basic Whip Stitched Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenBasic Whip Stitched Hem

I use this kind of hem more often than any other, be it the bottom hem of a dress, or a neckline, or sleeve cuff.  It goes quickly and the stitches visible from the outside are very subtle.

  • Fold over the edge of the fabric toward the inside of the garment so that the raw edge is hidden.  Depending upon the fabric and desired final appearance, this roll can be as little as 1/4” wide or and inch or more.
  • Catch a couple threads of the outer material and then a few threads of the folded over hem.

I recommend close stitches, six to ten per inch, on narrow, delicate hems, like around a neckline or the end of a sleeve.  Fewer stitches are needed on wider hems, where I usually place them about 1/4” apart.

 

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Basic Running Stitch Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenBasic Running Stitch Hem

This kind of hem can be used anywhere, be it the bottom hem of a dress, a neckline, or a sleeve cuff.

  • Fold over the edge of the fabric toward the inside of the garment so that the raw edge is hidden.  Depending upon the fabric and desired final appearance, this roll can be as little as 1/4” wide or and inch or more.
  • Stitch close to the edge of the folded over hem, keeping your stitch widths even.

I recommend close stitches on narrow, delicate hems. In modern reenactment, this kind of hem stitch is often used decoratively, sometimes in a thicker or contrasting thread.

 

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Viborg Shirt Running Stitch Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenViborg Shirt Running Stitch Hem

This stitch is specifically found on the Viborg shirt, and is included here to show how a basic stitch can be varied.  From the outside, this hem will look identical to the basic running stitch hem, but on the inside it will lack the little lip of folded fabric at the top of the hem.  This means the garment will likely wear a bit better, because that lip on the basic hem is going to be subject to the most friction and have a tendency to wear out first, like the outer edge of a t-shirt cuff.  When fabric wears a hole that close to a seam, the seam will have a tendency to pull free.  This type of hem will also look cleaner and lay completely flush in those situations where both the inside and outside of the hem are likely to be seen, like on a cloak edge, or a large open sleeve.

 

 

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Two Running Stitches Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenTwo Running Stitches Hem

In this kind of hem, the hem is rolled in the same manner as the basic running stitch hem and the basic whip stitch hem, and then an extra row of running stitches is placed close to the outer edge of the hem.

This type of hem is most useful on wider hems, when the material is thick and will have a tendency to bulge, rather than folding nicely at the bottom, like some wool fabrics or when multiple layers are involved in the hem.

This stitch is also used decoratively, sometimes in thicker or contrasting color threads.  When the stitches are kept perfectly even with each other they can be used as the foundation for some woven embroidery stitches and other embellishments.

 

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Herringbone Stitched Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenHerringbone Stitched Hem

This is a very decorative stitch that can be used to hem a garment. It is most often seen on Scandanavian garb from the Viking era.  For reenactment purposes it is sometimes applied over a hem that is already finished with another stitch.

 

Rolled Hems

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Basic Rolled Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenBasic Rolled Hem

This type of hem is most often used on very lightweight and delicate fabrics, like chiffon.  In medieval reenactment you will see this used on lightweight veils, especially silk, more often than anything else.

When hemming in this manner, several stitches are worked at one time and then gently pulled so the thread is straight.  With very lightweight fabrics this will cause the fabric to naturally roll into position.  If you have trouble with this stitch, there are a number of excellent videos on YouTube that show how to do it.  More than most stitches, I feel a visual demonstration is particularly helpful.

I have also used this stitch on lightweight linen, but you may need to fold the fabric manually as you create the stitches.  Linen will not roll easily on its own when you pull the thread.  I found either of the other rolled hem stitches shown below are easier to use on linen.

 

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Whip Stitched Rolled Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenWhip Stitched Rolled Hem

Ideal for lightweight, but slightly stiff fabrics like linen and cotton, hand roll the edge of the fabric and then wrap it with a whip stitch.  This can be done in thicker or contrasting thread for a decorative effect.

 

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Blanket Stitched Rolled Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenBlanket Stitched Rolled Hem

Ideal for lightweight, but slightly stiff fabrics like linen and cotton, hand roll the edge of the fabric and then stitch around it with a blanket stitch.  The illustration shows arranging the loops of the stitches so that they snuggle the rolled over edge, but they can also be stitched to the outer side (needle goes over the rolled edge instead of under it), or so that they fall along the edge (needle goes towards the outside of the fabric rather than the inside).  This can be done in a thicker or contrasting thread for decorative effect.

 

Bound Hems

How to Hand Sew Hems and Edges, Bound Running Stitch Hem Illustration, by Sidney EileenRunning Stitch Bound Hem

This is specifically found on an Icelandic garment where the neckline has been bound with a narrow piece of material.  It is not bias cut, nor are any other examples of bound edges that I am aware of in Europe.  From what I understand there is some evidence of bias cut bound hems in Persia during the middle ages.  Bias cutting is extremely wasteful of material, so bear that in mind when cutting on the bias.

This is extremely similar to the two running stitches hem, with the first row of stitches used to secure the binding to the garment, and the second used to make it lay flat.  This is particularly helpful around curved hems like a neckline, because the outer line of stitches can be gathered slightly to make the straight cut binding lay flat along the curve.

 

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