In this 2014 file photo, Rachel Soll, assistant costume shop manager at Maine Stat Music Theatre in Brunswick, sews buttons on a costume for production of "Footloose." Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Some sewing tasks are easier and faster to do by hand, like simple mending and reattaching buttons that have fallen off. That’s why knowing how to hand sew is a valuable skill.

“Number one is practicality,” said Kathy Stanley, owner of Sewing by the Sea in Trenton. “I have people tell me that they throw a garment away if it loses a button. Most people don’t know how to put a button on by machine, and some buttons cannot be put on by machine. I consider that a life skill, to be able to do a repair here or there.”

Even experienced seamstresses use hand sewing in their professional lives.

“I still do most buttons by hand,” said Susan Chretien, owner of Blue Line Alterations in Benton. “The amount of time it takes to set up on a machine you can just have it hand sewn.”

Plus, hand sewing can be relaxing and enjoyable ways to pass the time.

“I do a lot of hand sewing because I like it,” Chretien said. “I find it relaxes me.”

Here are some tips to get started with hand sewing and how to improve your technique over time.

Gather your tools

The main things you will need for hand sewing are needle and thread. It is best to purchase a pack of all-purpose needles of various sizes for different sewing projects.

“There are a lot of different types of needles,” Chretein said. “It depends on what fabric you’re using for what type of needle you would use.”

Stanley said that you should start with an all purpose thread, made of cotton or polyester (the former is better to use on cotton, the latter can be used for a variety of knit fabrics). However, Jeanne Anderson, owner of Snip and Tuck Alterations and Repairs in Augusta, said that it is worth spending a little extra money on quality thread, especially if you are opting for one that is made of polyester.

“I always say, ‘Anything that is not three for a dollar,’” Anderson said. “Those cheap threads, once you get it next to a heat source or iron, it will melt. They make good polyester too but the cheaper ones or the serger thread those are really thin thin cheap things and they’ll break apart so quickly.”

You might also want tailor’s chalk or some other marking tool that will wash out of fabric in order to help mark where you plan to cut and stitch. It also might be helpful to have a pair of fabric scissors, a seam ripper and some pins. Thimbles can also be useful for hand sewers, though it ultimately comes down to personal preference.

“I don’t have much luck with them,” Chretien said. “If I do use a thimble I like a rubber thimble that helps you grip. If I need one that pushes the needle through heavier material, I use a leather one. Metal ones are not comfortable. They slide off and you wind up poking your other finger.”

Thread the needle

Threading the needle can be one of the most challenging and frustrating parts of hand sewing. There are a few tips and tricks that will make the process easier.

“The best way and the easiest way that works consistently is to lick your fingers and slide it over the end of the thread,” Chretien said. “That sticks all the fibers at the end together so when you put it through the needle it doesn’t split. They do have self threading needles too, but I don’t find that they work very well.”

Stanley had a similar trick for threading the needle — licking the thread, and then wetting the end of the needle to draw it through — but generally, she prefers to use a needle threader.

“We sell them three for a dollar,” Stanley said. “Buy them in threes, because you will lose them.”

Anderson said that she prefers to use a Clover desk needle threader.

“It’s something that I can put on the table, put the thread through and hit a button and it pushes it through to the needle,” Anderson said. “It is the best investment ever.”

Start sewing

To begin sewing, take your threaded needle, poke it through to the other side of the fabric, and then pull it back up though the fabric at a point a little further in the direction where you want that stitch to go. That simple up-and-down motion through the fabric is all you need to know to get started hand sewing.

Anderson said you should practice sewing on a gingham or striped fabric to get the spacing down.

“I suggest to a lot of people to practice on gingham fabric so that you can go in and out of that space or on striped fabric, go from one stripe to the next stripe,” Anderson said. “It helps your consistency rather than having a big stitch, then a little stitch, then a big stitch.”

Over time, you will learn how to make your stitches closer together and more even. Stanley said that one stitch every eighth of an inch is a good standard, but it is more important to “make it work.”

“If what i’m doing is making it so tight that it puckers then I’m obviously putting my stitches too close together,” Stanley said. “If I see gaps, then I don’t have enough.

Tying off

Once you are finished with your seam, knotting it off is another challenging part of hand sewing. It’s not as simple as backstitching on a sewing machine.

“That’s a little bit of finesse,” Stanley said. “That requires more skill than almost anything, is making that knot at the end.”

Your knotting technique will also depend on what you are sewing, as well as your preferences. Anderson said that she will knot her thread off before she starts sewing and then again at the end.

“I hide it in the seam and when I finish I try to hide it someplace else in the fabric,” Anderson said. “I try not to have anything hanging off of the fabric, so that it comes out as neat as possible. Back stitching can get too thick.”

Chretien also had a trick for hiding her hand sewing knots.

“I make a loop, put the needle through the loop and slide it so the knot goes down by the material,” Chretien said. “Do it two or three times, do another stitch, and do another knot, and do another stitch and do another knot.”

Practice, practice, practice

Practice is the only way to get better at hand sewing.

“My mantra has always been that people always want a product or a pill for a problem and the best way to solve it is with practice,” Stanley said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s just practice.”

Once you get good at the basic stitch, you can look up other stitches to try. As you practice, you will get a better feel for what makes a quality stitch and which ones work best for you. Chretien said you can even print out stitches and practice right on the paper, following the marks with your needle and thread.

“[Or] just get a decent piece of solid color white material and fold up and edge and start practicing,” Chretein said. “See which ones are more comfortable.”