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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hemstitching and the Wing Needle

I've just learned to hemstitch this past week, and I couldn't be more excited. I first learned of hemstitching while trying to repair a vintage sewing machine: an Elna Supermatic that I picked up at a local consignment store for thirty-five dollars.

I had purchased a set of special stitch cams for it from a seller on eBay, and was trying out the number 101 cam, also known as the Turkish Hemstitch (you'll see an example at the end). All I got was a pile of messy stitches, since the machine was out of adjustment. I was able to make the necessary adjustments with a little help from my friends at the Yahoo! group, elnaheirloomsewing (thanks again Jim). When I saw the resulting stitch, I had no idea what such a stitch would ever have been used for.

Still not really fully understanding what hemstitching was for, I put it out of my mind for a while. However, after hearing the term in several other places, and since I absolutely have to know how things "work," I finally did some research. I did a Google search for images of hemstitching, and after a few pages of photos, I knew I had to learn to do it.

If you have never heard of hemstitching (as was the case for me), it sounds like a utilitarian term for garment making. However, it is a decorative embellishment that employs a wing needle, and certain stitch patterns to create a sort of lacy or eyelet effect. It certainly can (and is) used in garment making as an embellishment, but it can also be used to embellish any number of other sewing projects. There is very simple hemstitch on my store-bought pillow cases, for example. See those little holes in the fabric? That's hemstitching.

So what do you need to get started?

You need a wing needle. I bought two--in two different sizes.

The larger needle is on the right (in both photos). The large fins of the wing needle spread the fibers apart as the material is pierced.

You also need the capability to do decorative stitches (or utility stitches) in which the wing needle will return to the same spot more than once. The more often the wing needle enters a hole that it's already made, the more defined that hole becomes.

Here's what I have available on one of my machines.

Only some of these stitches have hemstitch potential: 04, 09, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 23. 04 is the stretch stitch. Good for reinforcing seams in high strain areas of a garment (like the seat of your pants), and seaming stretchy fabrics (esp. knits), it produces a hemstitch like the one on the pillow case above. You may need to observe the way your machine performs each stitch in order to asses which stitches will work best for hemstitching. Or, you could just put the wing needle in and use the good, old fashioned, trial and error method.

Next come the materials. You need a natural fiber material, like cotton or linen, thread, and a lightweight, easy to tear stabilizer. I used Gutermann polyester embroidery thread--I like the added sheen for decorative stitching. I also like to use gift wrap tissue paper for stabilizer, among other things. It gives just enough support for this purpose, it's lint free, and it tears away easily.

I had some leftover polka dot gift wrap tissue already sitting out, which was fine for my practice session, but I recommend plain white. That way, if you do have any leftover bits under any of your stitches, you won't see it through your fabric (esp. an issue with lighter colored fabrics).

For best results, pre-wash your chosen fabric, spray starch, and press.

Now that you have your materials gathered, let's get started. Install the wing needle in the needle clamp of your machine the same way you would any other needle. Choose the stitch you want to sample, but don't thread your needle yet.

Because the wing needle is so much wider than other needles, you'll need to slowly proceed through the stitch pattern to make sure the wing need doesn't strike or graze the needle plate. In the picture on the left, you can see that the right edge of the wing needle comes very close to the right side of the needle plate opening, but it doesn't actually touch. If the edge of your wing needle does touch either edge of the opening, lower the stitch width and test again.

Once you've established a "safe" width for the stitch, you can thread your needle, and attach the presser foot. I chose to use the satin stitch foot, which came with my machine.

The underside has a groove to discourage raised areas of stitching from catching on the underside of the foot.

The fabric and stitches do become a bit raised in hemstitching, and if the material were to catch on the bottom of the foot, the stitch length, and therefore the pattern, would be uneven.

Okay--so you've done all the prep work. Let's get stitching. Place your material under the presser foot, and away we go!

If your material is on the thin side, and/or getting pushed down into the needle plate, put your lightweight stabilizer under the material. I used two layers of 205 thread count, 100% cotton muslin, and didn't need to use stabilizer. Here are some samples. By the way, stitching at a slow/medium speed will yield better results than a fast stitching speed.

Stitch 21 (on the far right), didn't work as well as the others on a double layer of material. It's still pretty, but it looks better on a single layer, using the stabilizer. Experiment. Play. Find out which of your machine stitches work best, on what materials, and under what circumstances. From left to right: stitch 12, 23, 20, 21. Below: stitches 13, 14.

You can double up two rows of stitching to make a wider pattern. Watch your machine perform the stitch pattern, and determine the best place to stop the needle.

On the left, you see stitch 20. Since I placed my next row of stitching to the left of this line, I stopped my needle on the right (needle up), just before it could take the last (right-most) stitch--represented by the pencil marked dot on the bottom right. When I started my next row of stitching, I placed the needle in the left-most, top hole (shaded a bit with pencil). See the picture below.

Now you have to watch the needle as you stitch. Stitch slowly, making sure that each right-most stitch of the new line of stitching continues to enter each left-most hole of the previous line of stitching. Did I lose you? Just give it a try, and you'll see what I mean. To begin with, it's a little bit challenging, but it can be done. And it does get easier. On this machine (with this presser foot) I lined up the left-most holes of the first line of stitching with the slit in the foot (just in front of the needle, in the picture below).

Repress your urge to guide the material, and let the machine do all the work. Your job, at this point, is to watch, and only make minor adjustments when necessary. If the weight of the material is preventing even feeding, you can make a little hump in the material just ahead of the presser foot. This works well with lighter fabrics, that bend easily.

Notice that it is just a slight hump--just enough to support the material, but not so much that you're "pushing" the material. Use a very light hand.

Here's what it looks like. Doubling up the stitch patterns gives you a much different look. You can also try stitching two different patterns side-by-side. The possibilities are endless. Get creative!

And once you've got it down, start embellishing your projects. I used hemstitching and a touch of lace to make a decorative edge on a plain, white pillow case. The stitches you see below are 04 and 14 on my machine.

And here it is--the stitch that started it all--the Turkish Hemstitch, on white, 100% Linen.

Oops! It's a little wavy. I stitched this sample on my vintage Kenmore 1802, and the feed feels different than on my new machine. I was probably guiding the material too much, instead of letting the machine do it's thing, but you get the picture.

I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial. Spend an afternoon or evening with your machine and give it a try. Once you've learned to do it, you'll be thinking of all kinds of projects you can embellish with hemstitching.


  1. What a beautiful and informative post--the clearest, most detailed one I've chanced on so far. I'm bookmarking until I get hemstitching down. Thank you so much!

  2. the best tutorial and explanation on the web
    i was 2 hours looking for how I could do the hemstitch without buying a machine !!
    thank you very much!!

  3. Great tutorial! I pinned to my Pinterest, I want to crochet the edges of blankets and this will be a great time-saving way to get the holes on the blanket edges. Thank you!

  4. hi i love your page.. i want to know if i can use this type of schmetz wing needle with my csBrothers6000i machine please let me know thanks

    1. Hi Rosaliz,
      I viewed a picture of that model machine online. Yes, you should be able to use a wing needle. Just turn the handwheel manually when trying a pattern to make sure the needle doesn't come in contact with the needle plate, as described above.

    2. Just recently looked into hemstitching. Your information is very clear and easy to understand. Thank you very much for your time.

  5. Nice tutorial, thanks for sharing. I am just now learning about this and will give it a try as soon as I get some wing needles.

  6. Great tutorial, the pictures and text make it so easy to figure out - thank-you! Off to play with the new wing needle:)

  7. thanks, i am new to sewing and love this look. loved your tutorial and am ready to check it out!

  8. I am intrigued with hemstitching. I purchased table napkins recently with a hemstitch around the hem. I have tried to replicate the look, but to no avail. It's just a series of holes around 2mm in diameter. My sewing dealer said that there is no way to replicate holes that size. Is this even possible on our home machines?

  9. Does this allow for crocheting the edges like for a baby blanket or burp rag? Are wing needles sold in stores or online only? My local Jo-ann's didn't have wing needles.

  10. Hi Sarah. Thanks for the nice tutorial.I came upon your blog while searching for machine hemstitching. Do you think I can use your technique to achieve borders like this here :
    Also, would you know how the scalloped hem is achieved here :
    Thanks in advance.

  11. I really like your post so much.. Thank you for sharing! :)
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  12. Great tutorial! I never knew how a winged needle was used. Now I'm going to try it. Thanks -

  13. This is a great tutorial Sarah. I am planning to do some hemstitching using the Entredeux method of joining two fabrics together such as inserting lace between two strips of fabric. Also want to make some napery featuring hemstitching around the borders. I just love the charm of this heirloom style stitching.
    You have a great collection of vintage machines and a very interesting blog. Thanks for sharing your skills.