Learn how to hemstitch by hand

The age-old craft of the hemstitch has experienced a remarkable revival recently.

From selecting the perfect fabric to mastering the intricate techniques of hemstitching, this step-by-step guide will equip you with the knowledge and confidence to try it yourself.

No longer confined to the realm of grandmothers and antique linens, hemstitching has emerged as a popular DIY hobby and creative outlet.

In an era dominated by technology and fast-paced living, the appeal of slowing down to learn hemstitch, embracing the simplicity of a needle and thread, and creating something beautiful with our own hands has struck a chord with many.

People are craving a return to the tangible, the tactile, and the handmade.

A tiny mat edged with Danish hemstitch

Whether it's a vintage handkerchief passed down through generations or a contemporary tablecloth that sets the stage for a memorable gathering, the art of hemstitch adds a touch of sophistication and artistry to every piece.

What will you need?

Hemstitching is all about bringing threads together into groups, which creates these bead-like openings and a neat edge.

If you want to make your hem more fancy, you can pull out a few threads and decorate the ones that are left with needleweaving and other decorative stitches. We call this technique drawn thread work.

For our Danish hemstitch, it's best to use a thread that matches the fabric color so that the holes are more visible than the stitches.

Also, pick a thread that's similar in thickness to the fabric threads. You don't want something too thick! In the example I showed, I used 28 count evenweave fabric and no. 8 pearl cotton.


Folding the hem

Decide where you want the hem to be in relation to your design. Count out the required distance from the outside edge of your embroidery. We will then fold the fabric along this line. To "assist" the fabric to fold, we will use a technique known as scoring.

Place the fabric onto a table, face down. Place the blunt end of your tapestry needle in the channel between two fabric threads where you wish to score.

Keeping a firm pressure with the hand holding the needle, gently pull the fabric with your other hand; the needle will temporarily "mark" the fabric in a wonderfully straight line. If you mark the wrong place, do not worry as you can easily remove this score line by pressing the piece flat again.

After scoring, finger press the fold in the fabric.

Decide how deep you want your hem (how much fabric between the outside edge of the work and the stitching). Six to ten threads are normal and here we will use eight. Working out toward the edge of your fabric, score another line eight threads outside the first.

Then count another seven threads (or one less than the number you chose for the depth of the hem) and withdraw the eighth thread. 

The easiest way to do this is to snip the thread in the centre and, using the needle, gently tease it out until you have enough to grab hold of. Then pull gently but firmly to remove it. This drawn thread gives you a lovely straight line to guide your scissors as you cut off the excess fabric.

Fold and finger press the scored lines, from the outside in, to create the hem. Turn your work clockwise and repeat on the other sides.

A diagram showing how to fold and cut the fabric for a hem

Folding corners

To avoid bulk, you will need to remove a small piece of fabric in the corners. Lay the work face up on the table. Gently unfold the left-hand corner. Carefully cut off the piece marked in the diagram.

Refold the cut edge first. Turn clockwise and repeat. Each corner will "chase" the rest around the piece of work. You can tack the hems in place if you wish.

Working the hemstitch

Hold the hem horizontally with your thumb on the hem. Lay the end of your thread in the hem's fold.

Working from left to right, take a small backstitch through just the hem to anchor the thread.

Pick up two threads from the work and pull gently. Then pick up two threads from the folded hem to the right of the first stitch.

Move on to the next two threads in the work, pull gently, then pick up two threads in the hem. Note: in the first picture, below, that the stitch in the body of the work goes from right to left, although we are working our row in the opposite direction! Continue towards the corner.

The process of stitching a hem
Step 2 of hemstitching

Compensating for the corner

As you get close to a corner, count ahead and check whether the number of fabric threads left is an even number.

If not, take a compensating stitch by working one bundle over three threads at this point.

Try not to leave this compensating stitch until you are right in the corner, as it will be more likely to show.

Dealing with the corner while hemstitching

Neatening the corners

When you reach the corner, take the needle through the hem to the point of the corner, then overcast with tiny stitches back around to bring you back into position to work the next side, as in the diagram above. This will help prevent distorted, misshapen corners.

I will soon cover other edge treatments for your hemstitch projects, further expanding your knowledge and skills in hemstitching.

Image link to my hardanger patterns store


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