The Lost Art of Hand Sewing

hand sewingConsidered as one of the oldest kinds of textile arts, hand sewing started during the Paleolithic Age, when Stone Age people made clothes out of fur and skin.  We published an article recently tracing the origins of sewing back over 25,000 years to the very beginning.

I Love You with All My Needles

In another of our recent articles examined the sewing revolution and how sewing has changed since the invention of the sewing machine and the ready-to-wear clothing market to the present day.

The Sewing Revolution

In this article we look at the time in between, when complex and beautiful garments we constructed by hand often over weeks and months of painstaking effort and what of that art still exists today in the form of the Haute Couture fashion industry.

hand sewingHand sewing became a popular art and craft for thousands of years largely until the invention of the sewing machine in the 1900’s.  The late part of the 20th century witnessed the mass production of machine sewn objects and consequently, there was a decline in the production of hand-sewn garments.  Today, hand sewing is mostly done only for high-quality tailoring and Haute Couture fashion. It is also still alive among textile artists and hobbyists who express their art through hand sewing.  And it is Haute Couture that is considered as a truly fine art.

Hand Sewing in Haute Couture

Literally, Haute Couture in French translates to “sewing at a high level”.  Charles Frederick Worth, the Father of Haute Couture lived during the reign of Napoleon III in the 19th Century, and Empress Eugenie was one of his high-end clients.  He used only the finest fabrics like muslin or toile, which are mostly made of natural fiber.  Tailored fit to individual customers, Worth’s garments used fabrics pieced for design and they were mostly sewn by hand.

hand sewing

Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
Imagine sewing a 19th Century gown completely by your own hands!  Think of the time and effort it would take.  Hand sewing, however, was the standard then because there was still no sewing machine at that time.  And today, couture artists still prefer hand sewing because of its precision and delicacy as opposed to sewing by machine.  Using historical stitches and fine fabrics, couture artists hand sew and piece together garments to create that special historical or exclusive look.

Because fabrics were prohibitively expensive in the old days, garments were pieced together to economize.  Labor, on the other hand, was cheap, so every bit of fabric was used and practically nothing was wasted.  Collars for gentlemen’s coats were pieced at the corner and sleeves and trims were pieced to the ladies’ gowns.  The construction of garments also involved piecing where stripes were cut, rearranged or re-seamed, and small pieces added to produce a new look.  The result is a unique and pleasing aesthetic that is characteristic of the Old World fashion style.

Although hand sewing garments is nowhere near as popular as ages ago, a select group of fashion designers invites fashion editors, celebrities and members of the super-rich to a week-long fashion show in Paris to showcase their Haute Couture collections.  These clothes cost from $25,000 to a million and can take as long as 700 hours of hand sewing, embellishing, bedecking and embroidering to create.  Characterized by lavish fabrics, historic dressmaking and precise tailoring, the presentation of Haute Couture collections are important events in the fashion industry. And it is the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris that gives permission to label collections as such.

hand sewingHaute Couture, however, suffers from a diminishing clientele largely because of its exorbitant prices.  Over the past century, the number of couture houses has already declined significantly. Does this mean that we are losing the art of hand sewing?  There is a small group of hand sewists who are giving the art a revival of sorts and hopefully, their tribe will increase.  And because of them, we cannot definitely say that hand sewing is a lost art.

Do you still practice hand sewing?  Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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65 Responses to The Lost Art of Hand Sewing

  1. Delinda Price says:

    I create renaissance and cosplay garments. Often I sew these totally by hand while commuting. I know it would be a lot fasting to drag out the sewing machine and set it up and “get ‘er done” in a few hours rather than several but I feel I don’t have as much control over the stitching and it’s not near as satisfying to do it by hand.

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      “Have you seen Delinda?” -“Who is that”? -“The one that sews on the train” -“aaahh but of course, she is in the dinning car having tea and sewing”- Yes you would make a good character in a book.

  2. Quiandra says:

    I have hand sewn because I can’t get my sewing machine to act right & I can’t afford a new one. I want to learn more about this’s lost art & maybe start some new projects.

  3. Mea Cadwell says:

    I’ve made a few historically accurate outfits from the skin out (Tudor gown, Queen Elizabeth 1 gown, 1600’s buccaneer, 800’s Viking female outfit, and I’m working on a Regency gown with a 1300’s Houppelande in the planning stage). If they era they’re from didn’t have a sewing machine then I hand sew every item. I’m currently making an 1880’s Victorian lobster-tail bustle outfit (I only have the jacket left to do. YAY!) Since sewing machines were available by that time I allow myself to use the sewing machine.

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Hi, Mea would you consider witting for So-Sew Easy? we have around 1 M visitors a month, it would be an honour to have you on the team.

  4. Alice Taylor says:

    I still enjoy hand sewing. I too keep a bag ready to grab and go in the event I have spare time waiting at an appointment or similar. I have recently become interested in Sashiko.

  5. Yvonne Larson says:

    I love hand sewing, too. The dress that I am currently finishing is reproduction of a 1825 style Welch dress. The only way to get a dress like that is to make it myself. Also that is the only way I could afford it! The dress is made from a 100 % cotton plaid. I have a pattern for it but there is still much room for creativity. It takes a lot of study to be sure that creativity is still period correct. I usually use my sewing machine for the seams that don’t show and hand sew the ones that do. This time I wanted all of the dress to be hand sewn. I had to learn all about guimps, tuckers, berthas and rushing, also how to create the under garments that make the make the dress look right.

  6. bakerskid1 says:

    Thank you for this article…I’ve been doing some hand sewing with making doll clothes but am not happy with the results. Would you be able to guide us with exactly what stitches were used in haute couture? thank you.

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      OHHHHHH! I would love to, this is a huge subject and one so very close to my heart. Consider it done, I am going to start working on it, let you know when I publish it.

      • bakerskid1 says:

        Thank you Mayra! Looking forward to your article!

      • Tina says:

        Please let me know when you have published it also. I do mostly all hand sewing and quilting. But I have self taught and it was hard enough finding information on hand quilting when I started. But even harder to find hand sewing tutorials. Thank you. Just want to see if I’m doing close to the right way lol

  7. Nina says:

    I love this article on hand sewing. It is amazing what can be done with just a few stitches.

  8. lindaswanner says:

    I, too, love hand sewing. I keep a variety of small projects packed up in tote bags and ready to grab on a moment’s notice. I find that I can get a lot completed in the small moments between events in daily life. As a result, I never mind waiting anywhere or for anything. My projects include dolls, doll clothes, felt projects, wool projects, beading, etc. I follow the blog and projects of a very talented woman who promotes hand sewing, Ann Wood, and I recently read in an old blog of hers that she likes to wake up in the morning to a bit of hand sewing all ready to go. As she is waking up while working on a bit of small sewing, she organizes her thoughts for the day. I’ve taken to doing the same thing and it helps me set the tone of my day positively.
    Mayra, I love the bits of the history of sewing that you share with us!

  9. It’s a fun way to decompress…and its finally starting to be seen world wide as a unisex art and its not just associated with stereotypes because now a days females.that are into guns and other things that normally wouldn’t happen to be into traditional female hobbies can still be into sewing…and men that are into all sorts of things can also be into sewing as well!

  10. pleasentpossibilities says:

    I love and prefer hand sewing . I am currently investigating and learning about historical stitches, some of which I was apparently already using.
    I mostly sew for my dolls and enjoy trying the antique style patterns. I have a singer sewing machine from the late 40’s and one from 1892 which will currently be powered by hand, but sewing by hand is my first love.
    It is peaceful, soothing and much easier to control.

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      I agree with you it is peaceful…perfect before going to bed, sitting by the fire swapping stories like the olden days.

  11. Maggie Todd says:

    I do English smocking. In many of the dresses, hand sewing makes for better quality.

  12. Leslee says:

    I make clothes from many historical periods and sew most all of them by hand. I recently finished an 18th century Italian gown and all the underpinnings which I wore at Costume College in Los Angeles in July. This included the chemise or shift, a pair of stays (corset in later years), two petticoats and a false rump to get the correct silhouette. The hardest part of all this is fitting things correctly – the stitching itself is pretty easy. After 12 years of making historical clothing by hand my stitches have become tiny and regular and there are a lot of choices depending on what is being sewn. I’ve learned so much about seam finishes and stitches for many applications that I feel I should teach it. Hand sewing is definitely not a lost art in the world of costuming. I love it.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      WOW Leslee, I can only imagine, it would be a privilege to see this in action. Have you made a video or documented it somehow?

    • Jamie Dawn says:

      I want to learn to sew by hand and make my own clothing. I like the older styles of clothing to begin with and you can’t find it in stores. Would love to find someone to help teach me. Is there a decent affordable pattern for a nice looking chemise?

  13. Dawn M. Zillich says:

    Every Autumn, I have the sewing club at school begin the school year hand sewing Christmas ornaments for our annual fundraiser. They learn stitches such as blanket, back stitch, lazy daisy, french/colonial knots and more. Some really take to the idea and continue building on these basics throughout the year. Others prefer the machines but they at least have a basic knowledge they can use later in life to hem pants or sew on a button.

  14. Bob says:

    I have only been sewing for about 4 years and right now I am just hand sewing the yoke and under collar on my shirts that I make. And closing the lining on my waistcoats. My hand sewing is improving but I know I have a ways to go.
    I am in awe of the Quilt, Glenda, I would like at some point to attempt a quilt like that, but, would not know where to start.
    Do you have any book recommendations for hand sewing skills, Mayra?
    Great topic as usual!

  15. Muriel says:

    I do most mending by hand. I make cloth dolls and clothes entirely by hand. There are many components that could be done by machine , eg straight seams, but hand sewing is good for the soul.
    Love my sewing machine too. My skills are quite mediocre because I see how much better I could be. People are VERY impressed by my hand sewing skills. That is sad because it means they cannot sew, or barely. Every child should be taught basic mending, sewing a straight even line, Fixing a hem, replacing a button. Like cooking an egg. Checking tire pressure. Just a basic life skill.

  16. Glenda Correll says:

    When I make clothing, I use it for hems, etc., but I mainly use it in piecing quilts. Of course, most of my quilts are machine sewn, but I also hand applique, and I always have a hand sewing quilt going, too. I keep a small bag of it so that it is always ready to go – sewing while waiting (dr. office, meetings, etc.), and also while watching tv with my husband. You can get a lot done that way! 🙂 Additionally, it is soooooo much easier to sew unusual seams by hand – “y” seams and curves both go together easily when sewn by hand. I do not do English Paper Piecing, but rather I use my hand sewing method for those patterns so that I do not need papers to sew around. My hand sewing is quite fine, so stitches never show on the front. Basically, I love it! :). I will try to attach a picture of one of my hand sewn quilts.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Goodness me Glenda! What an astonishing piece of art. I would hang this on the wall for all to see! Bless your hangs! Thank you for sharing!

    • Carrie says:

      Really gorgeous Glenda! I aspire to create like that someday, I love your suggestions, thank you. I prefer hand sewing although I’m not that good at it, I find it peaceful to sew by hand.

  17. Marlena Burger/Marlena says:

    It would be nice to learn how to make a hand rolled hem, incase the electricity goes out and I can not use my Brother serger.

  18. Eileen Bicker says:

    I started hand sewing when I was about 10. I got really big into it when my granddaughter was born and I joined the Smocking Arts Guild of America and got into French hand sewing baby garments. I love hand embroidery and hand rolled hems. I find hand sewing peaceful and relaxing and I do knitting.

  19. Sheryl Lawrence says:

    Only hand sewing I do are hems and sewing on buttons. Everything else is by machine.

  20. Tammi says:

    I’m trying to learn now. My grandmother taught me how to embroider when I was little, but that was a long time ago.

  21. Bev Wilson says:

    I’ve been hand sewing my whole life and will never stop. While I sew often with a machine, I think the true sense of sewing really comes from doing it by hand. It may take a little longer but I’m not usually in a hurry;)

  22. helen moore says:

    I hand sew a great deal, have made several hand stitched cathedral window bedspreads, much lingerie and prefer to hand finish items when I do machine sew.
    I find it relaxing and hand stitched silk is a beautiful thing,

  23. Dulcenea says:

    I taught myself to hand sew when I was 5 a d still fi d it relaxing 35 years later. I wasn’t aloud at a machine, treadle, till it was 9. I still do a lot of hand work. I hand quilt everything. I hand baste all my work. Hand stitch zippers and hems. I have made complete outfits and quilts by hand over the years. I made a queen size hexagon quilt all hand pieces and quilted. Took 2 years. I have always believed hand stitching is the first thing one should learn and no is what I have taught any students I have had. They don’t see the point till I tell them that it is the only way to fix something when it rips out in public. I was fortunate to have over 5 generations of seamstresses to raise me. My great great grandmother even sewed for queen victoriana.

  24. Becky Lynn says:

    I love to embroidery, and I find it very relaxing. My mother made quilts, and she hand quilted everything. She had a large hoop that she held on her lap for the quilting.I am interested in hand sewing and I’ve done a few small things. I hate sewing machines. I don’t think it’s truly art when an electrical machine is involved. Art takes time.

  25. Charlottw says:

    My mother had sewing skills. She mastered the sewing machine. However, when my son was born she made him a blanket and matching hat, all by hand. It had the tiniest, most even stitches. And it had lace trim all around both items.

  26. Amy B says:

    I am a novice at sewing in general, but have been doing it by hand. I have sewn one toddler quilt (pieced and quilted by hand), a toddler skirt, a skirt for myself, and a sleeveless shirt. It is relaxing and it feels like such an accomplishment when I finished.

  27. I love my sewing machines, but there is something so wonderful and cathartic about hand sewing. The world goes away and I find my inner bliss =)

  28. I recently broke my hip so cannot sit at my sewing machine & have been hand sewing instead. I am usually very end product focused & find hand sewing very relaxing. I have discovered the addictive world of hexies, made a rabbit toy and started a felt quiet book.
    As I will be off work for a few weeks I am planning to make a completely hand made blouse from some Liberty fabric I have been hoarding.
    I am developing my patience and tougher finger tips!✂️?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Sorry about your hip and wish you a speedy recovery, but your seam to have made a lemonade out of a sour situation. Love your spirit! 🙂

  29. Sandy Wilburn says:

    Thanks, for your article. It is good to know the importance of sewing things by hand. I had learned machine sewing from my mom in the 60’s and made a lot of my own clothes through the 80’s. I did not know the satisfaction of hand sewing until I started learning hand quilting in 2001 while living in Oklahoma. Today I belong to a quilt guild and enjoy both hand and machine quilting. Of lately, I have been doing patchwork soft jewelry broaches with hand sewn beading…..and to my surprise, have currently won ribbons at my county fair. So I would like to encourage anyone thinking about hand sewing to go for it. I am at 66 years and enjoying what I do.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Sandy, thanks for sharing. I too enjoy hand sewing although I certainly end up doing most by machine these days.

  30. Vilna Bashi Treitler says:

    I’ve completely hand-sewn a few garments with Natalie Chanin’s designs. (alabamachanin.com) I can’t afford her hand-sewn fashions, which can cost $1000s but she wrote a few books about how to make those designs yourself. I took her class on Craftsy.com and purchased her first three books. I mix fabric paint, stencil the fabrics, and embroider/construct as I sew on my long commute to work, on airplanes, when a passenger on a long car ride, or when I get to the wine-drinking-and-dessert course at dinner parties. It’s sloooow sewing, but I love the garments when I’m done. At this rate, I’ll have a wardrobe when I’m 85. 🙂

    • LeeAnn says:

      I would love to hand sew a dress. I’m afraid to start, though!!! I’ve done some hand sewing on quilt blocks and I have hand quilted a lap quilt. I just love working with fabric!!!

  31. Marty says:

    Did lots of embellishments by hand about 20 years ago and this past year did hand-sewing for grand-daughter’s christening gown and a few special garments. Currently making yo-yos (Suffolk puffs) whenever I’m riding in a car and plan several projects after I get hundreds of them made.

  32. Joanne says:

    When my grandmother taught me to sew (more than 50 yrs ago) I had to be able to sew a blouse by hand, to her standards, before she would even let me even sit at her machine, which was a treadle machine then. I was 8. I have always been glad that I learned this fine art. I still hand stitch lots of things, like the linings of garments. I find hand stitching to be very relaxing and just gives me a sense of having a well finished item. Even if I machine quilt, I will sew the bindings on by hand. I wish more of the newer sewing crowd would take the time to learn how hand stitch.

  33. misha says:

    I sometimes use hand sewing for the finishing touches in a garment but being short of time i tend to use my machine for the seams and darts etc

  34. I do embroidery, have just started stumpwork and finish off garments that I made with my sewing machine.

  35. Judy O'Casey says:

    I hand quilt all of my quilts. So relaxing and satisfying.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Wow! You are amazing! Keeping true to the art form of quilting. I admire your determination.

  36. Wynona says:

    I still do a lot of hand sewing, both construction and embellishments. As a retired seamstress, hand sewing relaxes me and gives great satisfaction.

  37. Genesis says:

    My mother taught me how to hand sew, and I still sew small things. I don’t have much experience using sewing machines since the last time I used one was almost 10 years ago, and it was an old Singer that was still human powered, so those really modern ones that are being sold now would probably confuse me too much.
    Mostly I just fix things, but I’m planning on making a small doll once summer vacation starts.

  38. Linda Gonyer says:

    I started hand sewing with a friend that wanted me to hand sew a the same quilt she was sewing by hand.Once I started I just loved sewing by hand. I have a hard time siting at a sewing machine because of a bad back. I finished the quilt. It was my first quilt and I got 2nd place ribbon at our quilt guild show. I am teaching my granddaughters to sew by hand.

What do you think?