Learn to Sew Like We Did in the 60’s & 70’s: 2. Stitches

Stitches are either decorative or hold two or more pieces of fabric together. To stitch we need to know how to: fasten on; work the stitch; join and fasten off.

In her book, Needlework for Schools, Melita M. Neal says,’ Learning to work stitches and forming good habits of work is the only foundation for the development of skill in needlework.’ 

Domestic Science classes in the 60’s taught us stitching by making specimens of each stitch. I’m going to relearn each stitch here in the same way as I’ve fallen into bad habits over the last few decades.

Melita has a list of 7 rules for working stitches:

1. Choose the correct stitch for the work to be carried out.

2. Use the correct size needle and right type of thread. I know I don’t do this.  I use whatever needle comes to hand for most things.

3. Fasten on and off securely.

4. Wear a thimble on the middle finger of the hand which is used for sewing.Like I mentioned in a previous post, this is down to personal preference.

5. Work one stitch at a time. I definitely don’t do this.  I tend to put several on the needle at once.

6. Never use a knot for fastening on stitches. Oops, I always use a knot.

7. Thread the needle with the end left on the reel.  This end should be used as the shorter of the two lengths of thread.  This sounds more complicated than it is. What it means is that when you’ve cut your thread off the reel, use the end that was closest to the reel to thread the needle.  This makes it less likely to knot and fray.  I hadn’t remembered this and will start doing this straight away.

The author then divides stitches into 4 groups:

1. Temporary: Tacking; Basting; Tailor’s Marking and Tailor’s Stitching

2. Joining: Backstitch; Running; Oversewing and Machining

3. Neatening: Hemming; Loopstitch; Buttonholing; Overcasting and Herringboning

4. Decorative: Chain Stitch; Satin Stitch; Stem Stitch; French Knots, etc.

I’ll start off with some basic stitches from the first 3 groups to get us going.

Tacking or Basting (temporary stitch):

Tacking holds fabric in place while you check for fit and then machine stitch.  It will give a better check for fit than using pins.  When Melita wrote her book she described basting as a variation of tacking but today the two words are interchangeable.

Here is the Melita’s illustration:


How to work a tacking or basting stitch

Start and finish with a double stitch and make even stitches with one thread along the edge of, in this case, a hem.

Here’s mine:

tacking specimen

Tacking or Basting

I had to fight the urge to knot the thread at the beginning!

Running Stitch (joining stitch):

Running stitch is a smaller version of tacking.


How to work a running stitch

It is a permanent stitch to hold two pieces of fabric together.  Use a thread that matches your fabric.  I’ve used a brighter colour in my specimen so that it shows up in the photograph.

Running stitch specimen

Running stitch

Hemming (neatening stitch):

This one took me a few goes and if you look at my specimen, you’ll see I need a bit more practice.


How to work a hemming stitch

The secret of neat hemming is too pick up just a few fibres of the fabric when the needle goes through to the right side of the hem.  See below.

hemming specimen


We’ll look at seams next but in the meantime, do let me know how you get on with stitching.



2 thoughts on “Learn to Sew Like We Did in the 60’s & 70’s: 2. Stitches

  1. Hi Pat
    Thanks for these great reminders. What’s the reason behind starting and finishing with double stitches instead of knots? I have always assumed a knot makes the stitching more secure and less likely to undo…

    • Thanks for your question Lorraine. Although knots are very secure they can sometimes create bumps on the fabric after pressing, especially if the fabric is fine. I have to admit, I’m still using knots. x

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