Last updated 9 September 2013
copyedited 22 January 2014
link added 27 March 2014


Table of Contents

No Finish

Cloths which should be thin on the edge are often better when simply torn to shape and left unfinished.

Fabrics such as leather and felt don't ravel, and can be left unfinished at the edge.

Sometimes such edges need to be reinforced or decorated.  Embroidery or binding may be used to decorate and protect, or the edge may be cut into waves, scallops, or zig-zags.

At one time, dies were used to make fancy cuts.  Nowadays one can buy pinking shears, scalloping shears, and various fancy blades for rotary cutters.  If you don't do much fancy cutting, and if you already have a cutter and mat, the fancy blades will be cheapest — but once worn, wobble-edge blades must be relegated to cutting paper.  If you do a lot of fancy cutting, resharpenable pinking shears will be cheaper, and you can also use them to pink seam allowances.


Don't get too gung-ho about finishing edges that are inside the garment and don't show; over-zealous "finishing" can make lumps that show through to the outside and shorten the life of the garment.  It is particularly important to leave an edge raw when it will end up fully enclosed by a facing, hem, or french seam — that may seem not to need saying, but new serger-owners tend to get carried away.

Torn edges and pinked edges are less likely to show through than straight-cut edges. "Pink", by the way, is an old word meaning "to wound slightly".  Before dies and pinking shears, it was done by pinching a fold into the edge and snicking off the corner of the fold.  One presumes that the notches were spaced a bit more than the side-by-side notches on a pinking shear.

Selvages either don't need finishing, or need to be cut or torn off.  Some selvages shrink, some selvages ruffle, and some fabrics don't have selvages, but try to make use of good selvages when you have them.

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If a woven cloth is left unfinished at the edge, it is apt to develop fringe as it is worn and washed.  Sometimes fringe is created on a fabric by ravelling out threads deliberately.

Fabrics which are woven to be fringed — certain towels, for example — and fabrics with little tendency to ravel, such as pure wool, can be fringed simply by cutting them by a thread, or by tearing them to make the edges thread-straight, and then removing threads until the desired depth is reached.

Or with wool, until you lose patience — it's a good idea to keep all edges of a fringed wool scarf at the same stage of development, so that you can say you meant to make a narrow fringe all along.  An awl or fine knitting needle will help you persuade threads to ravel.

Many fabrics will develop an irregular or undesirably-deep fringe if left to their own devices, and some few will come un-woven altogether.  It is necessary, in these fabrics, to secure the fringe in some way — and the securing must be done before the threads are ravelled out.

Begin by withdrawing two threads from each edge to be fringed:  one at the desired outer edge of the fringe, and one at the desired inner edge.  Cut along the outer edge. (Cutting may be postponed until after securing, if that makes the fabric easier to handle.)

When I was making a fringed placemat for my first year in 4-H sewing, I was told to stitch by machine exactly where the thread was missing, and then ravel out threads until the machine stitching stopped me.  My stitches wobbled, and I secured threads that were meant to ravel in a few spots, but some discreet work with scissors made it presentable enough to take a ribbon at the fair — though I've long forgotten what color.  (At 4-H fairs, everybody gets a ribbon.)

Many a real-life tablecloth was finished this way, but under heavy use and frequent washing, the machine stitching tended to migrate in spots.  As soon as zig-zag machines became common, we all switched to stitching with the zig falling into the gap where the thread has been withdrawn and the zag piercing the fabric that is to remain.  Psst . . . don't tell, but I always draw out at least two threads to make the gap; my stitching still wobbles a bit, so I like a large target.

You may, of course, use decorative stitches to secure the fringe.  Some machines have stitches specifically designed for fringe and imitation hemstitching.

In fine sewing, secure the fringe with hand hemstitching.  All of the hemstitches are easy to work from the diagrams in a dictionary of embroidery, if the fabric is coarse enough that you can easily see individual threads.  If you are into fine fine sewing, use a magnifier.

However you secure the fringe, don't ravel out the threads until you are quite finished with the securing.

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Shirt-tail Hem:

The narrowest-possible hem, so called from its use on the curved tails of shirts.

"Shirt-tail" means a narrow hem simply folded twice and top-stitched by machine, or a hem made narrow to save fabric.

A narrowest-possible hem that's slip-stitched by hand, or made narrow for the sake of elegance, is called a rolled hem.  Rolled hems aren't pressed flat, which is difficult to retain in a washable garment.  To learn more about rolled hems, see a book on fine sewing.

To make a shirt-tail hem, press the edge under a quarter inch — more on stiff fabric, less on fine fabric — then press under again, with the raw edge of the turn-under in the crease of the second fold.

Stitch near the inner edge of the hem, using a straight stitch.  An awl or seam ripper is helpful when the turn-under tries to pleat or come unfolded while you are stitching.

If it's in a spot too tight to stitch by machine, use a spaced backstitch, putting the needle in at a slant to reduce the amount of thread that comes through to the right side.

If for some reason you have to hand-stitch a considerable length, and if the edge isn't stretchy, use a running back stitch:  put the needle into the fabric a little behind where it came out, and weave it several times before pulling through.  This makes a running stitch with a back stitch at intervals.  The back stitch provides a hint of give, and keeps more than one needle-length from unravelling if the thread breaks.  (Use a plain running stitch on delicate fabric, making the stitches as small as possible.)

You can get a hemming foot for a sewing machine to make shirt-tail hems without the preliminaries.  The foot works on the same principle as a bias-tape folder.

Sometimes it is easier to pin the second fold than to press it.  If right-handed, work from right to left, smoothing and placing the fabric with the left hand and inserting pins with the right.  Pinning the right end of the hem to the surface you are working on helps.

Pins should be in the line of stitching.  For hand sewing, you want the heads of the pins toward the approaching needle, to make them less likely to prick you, but for machine stitching they should point toward the needle, so that they can be pulled out easily.

Pins in the stitching line reduce the ripple pushed ahead of the presser foot.  This ripple can be removed entirely by keeping the fabric under tension while stitching.  Be careful to pull exactly the same with the hand behind and the hand in front, so that the needle will feel no net pull.  The feed dogs should pull at their own pace, without any interference from you.

It's also possible to maintain tension with the left hand alone, pressing down with the thumb ahead of the needle and the fingers behind, sort of using your hand like an embroidery hoop.

Note:  sewing knits or stretch fabrics under tension will sew in stretch, causing a lettuce edge to the hem.  Sometimes the wobbles can be pressed out, but it's not something you should count on. Lengthening the stitch helps to avoid sewn-in stretch.

In a wider hem, you'd need to measure and pin the middle, then divide the sections in half until they stop trying to unfold, but this is unnecessary with shirt-tail hems, which are too narrow to drift out of line.  And you don't need to measure, because "as narrow as possible" is the same all the way across.

If a shirttail or rolled hem is to be covered with fancywork, it need not be secured first.  Depending on the fabric and the type of fancywork, press, pin, or baste it.  If the fancywork will cover the hem thoroughly enough to protect the raw edge, fold it only once, to reduce bulk.

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Handkerchief Hem, and square corners in general:

The chances are that you will be perfectly content to buy your handkerchiefs ready-made, but the art of putting a shirt-tail hem around a square corner is generally useful, so I'll discuss handkerchiefs in some detail, and then generalize to a wide hem around a square corner.  Facings that intersect with hems will be discussed separately.

Assuming that you don't tolerate sticking-out bits, it is easier to miter the corner properly than to overlap the hems.  Don't be intimidated by the plethora of paragraphs; all this is much easier done than said.  If confused, follow the argument with handkerchief in hand.  Use a cheap fabric; it keeps you calmer and more open to learning.  But make it an all-cotton fabric; in addition to being better for brow-mopping than polycottons, pure cotton is more inclined to stay where you put it, so it gives a beginning seamster less back talk.

You will begin with a square torn to shape, or cut along drawn threads.  Pick off any loose threads at the edges — and evaluate them as sewing threads.

Weaving threads aren't often suitable for sewing, but don't miss it when they are.  In addition to matching perfectly, ravelled threads are easier to secure than sewing thread, being less slick and springy.  They are less strong, but may be more durable in this particular application, since they nestle down into the fabric, instead of springing up to accept wear.

Bear in mind that sometimes the weft threads are unusable while the warp threads are excellent, or, less often, the other way around.  If the threads are smooth enough, but too weak, consider using two.  If they are smooth and strong, but too short, look in the wastebasket for the selvedge you tore off.

If the thread is unsuitable, but you can't get the right color any other way, draw a double thread over a cake of beeswax to smooth it and glue the two threads together.

Turn down a quarter inch or less all around, and glue it down with starch.  Since it is difficult to form a crease when the fabric is damp, dampen the edge with starch, iron it flat, then press in the crease.  The second crease will be pressed or pinned after making the miters.

If the fabric is thin, all-cotton, and well charged with starch, you can do the rest of this without resorting to the iron.  On a loose and ravelly fabric that tends to stretch under the iron, basting the bias creases instead of trying to press them may save time.

Open the folds at a corner and snip off the corner along the true bias, making the snip pass exactly through the intersection of the existing creases.  Lay the needle across the corner, parallel to the fresh cut and crossing the existing creases at the same spot where the second creases would have crossed them if you had turned the fabric under twice.  (In other words, turn down an allowance a bit wider than the previous turn-down.  If confused, turn the edges under twice the first time you press, and use the crease marks as a guide.  But don't press the second crease unless it is useful, as it can interfere with measuring the hem.)

Fold the fabric down over the needle, then pull the needle out and squeeze the fold hard to crease it.  It may be necessary to put it on a hard surface and stroke it with your thumbnail or thimble.  Re-fold the turn-down, and pinch that crease in.  Now fold the corner on the other bias, matching the creased edges, and pinch.  This firms up the turn-down creases, and marks the center of the bias fold with a pinched-in crease.

Thread a ravelling or a matching thread into a needle that is fine, but not too short.

Secure the thread where it won't show, and come out in the center of the bias fold.  I like to take a few running stitches in the straight turn-down that's on the same side as my dominant hand, to keep the tail under control, then take a back-stitch or two in the bias turn-down.

Re-fold any folds you undid while securing the thread, make quite sure the creases and corners match, and overhand the two halves of the bias crease together.  Overhanding is fine whipping: skim the needle just barely through both folds, and make the stitches close together.  (A neck-hung magnifier is a big help.) (I use "3.5" reading glasses instead these days.  Get stronger glasses if you can find them.)

Make two stitches in the same place to secure the corners together, then secure the thread with two or three back stitches in the other turn-down.  Pinch the overhanded seam flat.  An awl or point-turner may help the innards settle smoothly into place, and you may need a thumbnail or "wooden iron" to make it lie down.

Some jobs need to have the second fold measured and pressed, but a plain cotton handkerchief can be pinned without further ado.

After overhanding and flattening each miter, stick a pin into the hem on each side to hold the miter in shape while you are working on the remaining corners.  When all four corners are done, put the handkerchief on the ironing board, stick a corsage pin into one of the areas secured with a pin, grab an adjacent corner, stretch well, and secure with another corsage pin.  Stroke and pin the hem, then repeat for each of the three other sides.

Now top-stitch as for a shirt-tail hem.  Turn each corner by taking one stitch on the bias.  If you are using a long stitch, it may be that one stitch more will be too far, but you aren't yet far enough.  In this case, turn enough to make the next stitch end in the middle of the miter, then turn enough to make the stitch after that land on the stitching line of the next side.  If you are using a contrasting thread, fudge the length of the last two stitches before the turn instead.  If the stitch is too long to bridge neatly, fudge the bias stitch too.

When you are well away from the beginning of the stitching, pause to trim the loose end of the bobbin-thread short.  Pull on the loose end of the needle thread to pop the short end of the bobbin thread through to the wrong side.  Trim the end of the needle thread close to the fabric, then continue to top-stitch until you have overlapped the beginning by an inch.  Repeat the thread trimming — it's a matter of taste whether you break off from the machine first, or trim the threads and separate from the machine in one operation.  I always choose the latter option when I'm sewing with expensive silk thread; the first option is easier.

When using this method for a wider hem, it will be necessary to press both folds in before beginning, so that you can make the bias cut above the point where the two second folds cross, then make the bias crease through the point where the two second folds cross.

If you want the hem wider than a shirt-tail, but aren't fussy about precisely how wide, you can cut the same triangle off all corners, miter them with the same turn-down, and make the hem to match the corners.

When the hem is really wide, don't trim off the corners, pre-fold, and overhand.  Instead, fold the corner in half on the bias, matching the creases of the turn-down, and stitch by hand or machine at right angles to this fold.

To mark this seam, find the place where the second folds of the hem will intersect the bias fold, and (with the aid of any handy object that has straight sides and a square corner) draw a line perpendicular to the fold which passes through this point and extends across the turn-downs.  Check that the length of the line just drawn is equal to the length of the bias fold; if it isn't, the line isn't quite perpendicular, or something is stretched.

Sew on this line.  Trim off the corner, leaving a reasonable seam allowance, and open flat the easiest way, so that the hem is on the incorrect side (the right side, if it is supposed to end up on the wrong side.)  Press open the little seam, pressing the little dart that forms at the upper end into a right triangle that fits the corner.  Then turn the hem the correct way, using a point turner to sharpen the corner.  Measure the hem in several places when you pin.  Sew by hand or machine as suitable.

In places where the corner needs weight or support, or where you may need to open it out to put in hems of different width, don't cut off the corner, but instead open the seam by poking the iron inside the dart, then flatten it into a square that fits the intersection of the hems.  Somehow this is much less lumpy than making one hem, then making another that crosses it, even though you have the same amount of fabric in the corner.  (If the hems are not the same width, see "Facing-hem Corner".)

When hemming canvas or other heavy fabric, use the full-dart method, not the trim-to-a-seam method.  After sewing the dart, pick out half an inch of seam at the point — more if there is a seam running along the bias fold, as in the sleeve of a poncho shirt — and tie the thread ends together to prevent unravelling.  When turning the dart right-side out, put your finger in through the opening thus created to help flatten the innards of the folds.  When the hem is otherwise finished, overhand the opening closed, or neaten it with a bar tack.

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Top-stitched Hems:

Same as shirttail hem, except that the hem is wider than the turn-under.  Where a shirttail hem may be secured by pressing alone, a wider hem is easier to make if you don't press the second fold at all until after topstitching.

A hem gauge is a great help, or draw a line on a small card or a fold of heavy paper.  If a hem is pinned out under tension, it will tend to fold itself uniformly between the spots that have been measured and secured.  (This is one of the reasons to cover an ironing board with duck or canton flannel, rather than a "reflective" fabric that shows pinholes.)

If the hem is giving you fits, pin at strategic points with pins at right angles to the hem.  Pin to the board as far as possible from the ends of one of the sections so defined, with enough tension to make the hem between the pins lie more or less where it should.  Put the card or hem gauge under the fold near the middle of the section, and smooth the hem to meet the line or slider.  Holding the fabric in place, remove the gauge, smooth the fabric away from the section you are holding toward both pins, then put a pin in the stitching line, pointed toward the approaching needle if you mean to sew by machine, or away from it if you mean to sew by hand.  Work toward the right-angle pins in both directions, or repeatedly divide sections in half, or combine the strategies.  When one section is pinned, re-stretch the hem and work on an adjacent section.

Remove each right-angle pin when the hem is secured on both sides of it.

Corsage pins — long pearl-head pins — are useful for nailing hems to ironing boards.  There are many other types of long, thin pins.

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Curved Hems:

If the edge is straight and on-grain, the only limit on the width of a hem is the length of the skirt or whatever.  With curved hems, you have to deal with an inner edge that is shorter or longer than the fabric it is sewn to.

It is customary to deal with the S curves in the tail of a tuck-in shirt by making the hem so narrow that the difference isn't enough to matter.  (See "shirt-tail hem", above.)

Circle skirts, gored skirts, and the like sometimes have shirt-tail hems or rolled hems, but more often a bit of weight is wanted to make the skirt hang correctly, so the hem will be an inch or two wide — perhaps three if the skirt is not much curved and the fabric eases well.  Run an easing thread around the turn-under before hemming, as in the cap of a sleeve.

It is important to press out the puckers before hemming.  Sometimes such a hem will be sewn with little pleats, in order to make it wide enough to let out when the child has grown a bit, but the creases invariably show, and the edges of the pleats wear disproportionately.

If you want more than a shirt-tail hem on a sharp curve, you need a facing.  Since only a seam allowance need be turned under, it is easy to make the edge smooth.

The facing can be matching fabric, lining fabric, or contrasting fabric.  A wide contrast facing is all but required for circle skirts that are part of an athletic uniform; if the skirt is particularly short, the facing should be extended into a complete lining — perhaps stopping an inch short of the top to save bulk in the waist seam.

Bias tape is frequently used for facing, because it is so narrow and eases so easily that the facing does not have to be cut to shape.  It is usually applied by pressing open one of the folds of single-fold tape, matching the raw edges, then stitching along the crease line.  Make sure the tape lies flat along the outer edge, even if this means a little ripple inside the stitching line.  Press the allowances toward the tape, then turn the tape to the inside and hem or top-stitch.

Quarter-inch and three-eighth-inch twill tape are narrow enough to curve, if they aren't polyester.  To apply ribbon or tape as a facing, turn under a seam allowance and use the tape to cover the raw edge.

Sometimes you can turn a narrow hem to the right side and use ornamental tape, rick-rack or other braid, or decorative stitching to cover the raw edge.  This treatment can be particularly effective on neck-holes in casual wear.

A shirt-tail hem may be the best treatment for a scoop neck on work shirts.  Such a hem will try to be narrower around sharp curves and wider in the straight stretches; it is probably wise to indulge this tendency, striving only to make the right match the left.

Don't forget that an edge is often subject to heavy wear; if a curve is sharp, it may need the added strength imparted by a bias-tape facing, or you may need to bind it.

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Hems for dish towels:

A hemmed edge on a dish towel is lumpy; a serged edge stretches; a raw edge frays in the laundry, a fringed edge tangles if you don't shake it well and then air-dry it.  (Not to mention that I have set fire to many a dish towel by letting a fringe get too near a stove burner.)

I turn under a quarter inch or three-eighths of an inch, as if beginning a hem, then flatten it with a row of zig-zag, then sew a row of zig-zag with its middle over the raw edge, overlapping the first row of zig-zag a little.  The two rows of stitching make it taper from the double layer to the single layer.  This edge is flat, thin, and durable.

Some sergers can make a similar hem in one pass.  The serging makes a ridge, but it's not a thick ridge, and it's usually soft.  Such machines are good for various types of appliqué — the application of reinforcing patches, for example.

The once-turned zig-zag hem is also good for heavy fabric, particularly fuzzy heavy fabric such as light blanketing, but should be an inch or so wide.  If the fabric is so heavy as to seem to require significantly more than an inch, it may be better to bind it.

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False Hems:

False hems are facings or bindings that resemble hems.  They are applied for decoration, or because there isn't enough fabric for a true hem.

The basic false hem is simply pieced, with all of the added piece turned to the wrong side:  you sew a strip to the edge of the fabric with the right sides together, press the seam toward the added piece, and hem by whatever method you'd have used if the fabric had been long enough in the first place.

The false hem is useful for lengthening a garment by the width of the hem, provided that the original edge is not a permanent crease or a faded streak.  The crease may be ignored if one is letting out old clothes to wear for dirty work.  If the crease is weak, or if the garment is for casual wear, it may be covered with bias tape, twill tape, braid, rickrack, or a strip of fabric.  If it's for elegant wear, you're probably stuck with the original length, but a strip of lace or a row of embroidery might blend in with the design.

Or cover the crease or faded streak with a fancy machine stitch in thread that matches the fabric perfectly.  It will look like a subtle enhancement, but may become less subtle if sunlight and washing fade one more than the other.

If there isn't enough fabric in the hem, your best bet is to find a shorter person to wear the garment, but a stripe of contrasting fabric at the hem might fit into the design, especially if you appliqué a narrow strip of the same fabric a few inches above the hem.  Another expedient is to cut the garment above the hem and insert the contrast fabric.  Another:  open the hem, cut along the weak streak at the former edge, sew a narrow strip of contrast fabric to the garment, sew the hem back on, add sufficient contrast to achieve the desired length.  Consider using the same contrast fabric to add decorations elsewhere, or use it to make a scarf or other accessory.  Altering garments is an art, and artistic imagination must be employed.

Cast a jaundiced eye not only on the crease of the hem, but on the row of holes where it was sewn.  It may be necessary to cut or cover two streaks of damage.

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Decorative false hems

Pretty much covered in the above discussion of lengthening old clothes.  Your basic ornamental false hem is like the basic piecing false hem, except that you sew with the right side of the strip of ornamental fabric to the wrong side of the fabric to be trimmed, press the seam away from the added piece, and turn the hem to the right side.

For a sheet, you would press the allowances away from the sheet and turn the added piece just far enough to cover the first row of stitching, so that the hem looks much the same on the wrong side.  Make the second row of stitching with thread that matches the hem in the needle, and thread that matches the sheet in the bobbin.

When adding an ornamental false hem to something elegant, you may sew it on with the right sides together, fold it to the back, so that the free edge barely covers the stitching, and hem or slip-stitch by hand.  A variation is to fold the hem to the back so that it generously covers the stitching, then top-stitch on the right side.

Secure ornamental false hems with top stitching, blind stitching, slip stitches, various hand and machine hemming stitches, fancy machine stitches, or embroidery.  The default is top-stitching by machine, since that's the easiest way, and it is quite neat and presentable when done carefully.  (Some people find a special edge-stitching foot useful; I prefer to guide my fold along the inside of one toe of a particular zig-zag foot.)  Consider also how close the eye will be to the stitches; I often hand-sew facings on necklines, but always use machine topstitching on the hems of long pants and floor-dragging skirts, no matter how elegant.

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A facing can always be substituted for a hem, and this is frequently done when there isn't quite enough fabric, or the fabric is very heavy.  Whenever the edge is perfectly straight, a hem can be substituted for a facing, but we are likely to call this "cutting the facing in one with the body".

Facings are used to finish curved edges, to provide a wide support for an edge, to conceal interfacing, to cover parts of the inside that show, and to cover parts of the inside that are worn turned to the outside, such as lapels and cuffs.

Facings can be left hanging free — not a good idea for rough sewing — or secured in any of the ways that you would secure a hem.

Sewing the seam allowances to the facing can help keep the seam of a free facing from rolling to the outside.  A more emphatic method is to top-stitch near the edge.

For elegant work, top-stitching should be done by hand in spaced backstitch, or in running stitch that uses tiny stitches on the right side and slightly longer stitches on the wrong side.  An inch of typist's removable correction tape can be used to keep the stitching a uniform distance from the edge.  When you move it, move it a little beyond where the needle is, as you can stitch quite straight without a guide when the goal is close at hand, and this saves you from having to shift it quite so often.  (Long pieces of guide tape don't work very well.)

Embroidery and fancy machine stitches also serve to hold a facing in place.

If you face both the neckhole and the armholes of a garment, make one facing do for all.  Just copy the patterns for the front and back, and draw the desired edge of the facing on them.

Apply the facings to the front and back separately, using a slightly wider seam allowance on the facings so that the facing is slightly smaller than the outer fabric and the seams will naturally roll to the inside. After pressing the allowances the way they should lie, press the seams open at the ends and trim them.

Attach the front to the back by folding in one shoulder and slipping the corresponding shoulder inside it.  Then reach in through the shoulder that you folded in, grab the nested shoulders, and pull them out where you can pin and stitch them.  Press this seam open, then pull with one hand on the front and one on the back to pop it back inside the tube of the shoulder.  Repeat for the other shoulder.

If you are pressing the side seams open, open the facing out at the side seams, and pin and sew each side seam for the garment and facing all in one stretch.

If you are flat-felling the side seams — umm, why not bind the neck and armholes, eh?  Well, if you must, open the ends of the seams that attach the facing just enough that you can comfortably flat-fell the side seam and make a plain seam for the facing, then top-stitch by hand to simultaneously close the gap and force the flat-felled seam to fold.  (Or sew up the gap, then top-stitch by machine around all openings to match the flat-felling.)  It's a good idea to make the flat-felled seam thinner in the part that will be hidden by the facing by letting it taper into a mock-fell seam.  You can keep the facing in position over the raw edges by back-stitching along the seam of the facing, not quite piercing all layers of the felled seam.

If you are sewing the side seam with a french seam, you're on your own.

When a facing is left flopping free, it's because you don't want it to show on the outside.  Don't hem the edge, or overlock it, or even turn it under — all these make lumps that will show through the outer fabric.  Instead, cut the edge with pinking shears, and straight-stitch by machine a quarter inch from the edge.  Not necessarily in that order.

Commercial patterns nearly always make free-flopping neck-hole facings too narrow; they need a little weight to hold them down, particularly in the back.

It's fairly easy to design a facing by tracing off part of the pattern for the part being faced.  Sometimes you can omit a seam in the facing, and sometimes it's desirable to move the seams so that the allowances don't pile up together.  Most of the time, you can copy the pattern exactly.

In heavy fabric, it may be a good idea to make the facing a trifle smaller than the outer layer.  Or make it a trifle larger, if it is the outer layer.

Bias-tape facings are discussed under "curved hems".

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You bind an edge by covering it with a separate strip of fabric, usually a thinner fabric than the edge being bound.  Binding is particularly appropriate for heavy fabrics — blankets are nearly always bound, for example.

The most common binding is bias tape.  Cross-grain strips will do if the edge doesn't curve much.  Strips cut lengthwise of the grain probably won't work unless the edge is dead straight, but most cotton twill tapes can be curved some.  Seam tape, ribbon, etc. are also used; sometimes for decoration, and sometimes because the edges don't have to be turned under.

If you use a lot of bias binding, buy a special foot that folds bias tape and guides it under the needle, so that you can do everything in one operation.  You need a separate foot for each width of tape that you use; probably only a foot for folding one-inch tape into quarter-inch binding will be available for your modern machine, but some old machines still have sets of half a dozen or more binding feet.  (Accessories are often lost, junked, or sold separately when a machine falls into the hands of an antique dealer.)

Double-fold bias tape is made especially for binding edges.  You will notice that one side of the tape is folded a bit wider than the other.  Stick the edge to be bound inside the fold with the narrower side on the right side, nestling the raw edge into the fold.  Pin, glue, or baste into place, then top-stitch along the inner edge of the tape on the right side.  Since the side underneath is a fraction wider, it, too, will be caught in the stitching.

To bind an edge with single-fold tape, press one fold open, then pin the tape to the edge, right sides together, raw edges matching.  Ease the tape on outside curves and stretch it on inside curves.

Sew along the crease mark.  Press the tape away from the garment, then turn it to the inside, tight over the raw edge.  Hem it down.

If the tape on the inside covers the stitching generously, you can "stitch in the ditch" on the right side, though hitting the "ditch" precisely when the edge is so narrow that you can't take hold of it to pull the crease open is a bit messy.  It's easier and most-likely neater to sew the tape to the wrong side, then top-stitch on the right side.

To use home-made tape, press under a quarter inch on one edge, then sew the other edge to the fabric as above.

When tape is very thin in proportion to the fabric being bound, you can cut it six times the width of the desired binding, fold it in half, sew the raw edges to the fabric, then turn the folded edge to the other side.  This is particularly suitable when the folded edge is to be sewn down by hand, or when you want the binding on the right side to be very narrow, with a wider strip behind.

The Hong Kong Finish is a binding that is finished on only one side, used to finish edges to be hemmed or appliquéd, to neaten the edges of seam allowances that are pressed open, and to give a piped effect on lap seams.

If you are using pre-folded bias, press the folds open first.

Sew thin bias tape to the edge, with the edges matching.  and right sides together. If you want a particularly narrow edge, trim the allowances after sewing.

Press the tape out, then smooth it over the raw edges and down flat in the back.  Press, pin, or baste as required to make it hold still while you stitch again as close to the tape as you can without catching it.  This is called "stitching in the ditch"; if it is done perfectly, the stitches will pull down into the crease between the tape and the fabric, and not show.

For appliqué and lap seams, the securing stitches are not necessary, but you will probably need to baste.

Ordinarily used only on fine tailored clothing, this finish sometimes adds to the life of a rough-service garment by protecting a raw edge without making it lumpy.

A variation of the idea is useful for attaching cross-grain knitted bands at necks and wrists:  cut a crossgrain strip half an inch more than twice the desired finished width, sew a quarter inch seam as above, turn the band to meet a line drawn a quarter inch from the stitching on the wrong side, stitch close to the fold on the right side.

French Binding is the same as hong-kong finish, except that you cut the tape twice as wide and fold it in half lengthwise, so that you have a fold on the inside instead of a raw edge.  The fold is then hemmed down by hand.  This term appears to be used mostly by quilt makers, who frequently use strips of cross-grain fabric to make it.

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Wide bindings, straight-grain bindings &&

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Mitering binding at corners &&

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Facing-hem Corner

Sometimes two hems of unequal width meet in a square corner.

Press both hems just as they will go, allowing them to overlap in a thick rectangle at the corner.  Try to make the creases sharp enough that you can find them after woolling the hems around — starch helps.  It also helps to pin the folds in, and remove only those pins that get in your way.

Using a ruler and a water-erasable pen or other removable marker, draw a diagonal across the thick rectangle, from the corner to the intersection of the two hem edges.  Unfold the hems, then refold them with the other hem on top, and draw the diagonal again.  When you unfold, you should find that these two lines join into one straight line.  You may find it helpful to use a ruler, tracing wheel, and a sheet of dressmaker's carbon to copy this line onto the wrong side of the fabric.

Restore the turn-under of both hems.  If one of the hems is facing and interfacing all in one, you may trim away some of the interfacing where it would be inside the corner.

Fold along the near-bias through the corner, matching the two lines together.  Stitch along the marked diagonal.  Make sure the stitching line passes exactly through the corner and the intersection of the turned-under edges of the hems.

Open the easiest way, so that the hems fold to the incorrect side.  (That is, if the hems are supposed to end up on the wrong side, fold them to the right side.)  If necessary, poke out the corner with a point turner.  Press the seam open, and flatten the dart you have made in such fashion that its folds lie along the folds of the hems, filling up the rectangle where the hems overlap.  The inner ends will lie at odd angles; ignore this.

Turn the hems to the correct side again, using a point turner as required.  You will find that although you have just as much fabric in the corner as before, it lies much flatter than it did when the hems simply overlapped.  It is usually a bad idea to try to reduce bulk by trimming excess fabric out; you can't reduce the maximum thickness, so leaving all the fabric in there makes the corner more uniform.  And in most of the places where such a corner appears, you need the weight of the fabric to support the corner.

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Shirt-tail hems meet facings

In rough sewing, a corner of this sort is found almost exclusively in button-front shirts and blouses.

Open the facing out and press in the shirt-tail hem in the facing and the part that the facing will cover.  While you are at it, do any pressing that will help you form the rest of the hem later — usually only the first turn.

Turn the facing inside out and stitch along the second fold of the shirt-tail hem.  Press the first fold out of the hem in the parts that won't show when the facing is turned back to the correct side, tapering the crease to a proper hem at the point where it emerges into view.  Grade seam allowances as required.

Turn the facing right side out, press, and make the shirt-tail hem.  If you are top-stitching the facing, sew it down, turn a corner, and continue to stitch the hem.  If there is another facing at the other end of the hem, turn another corner and stitch up this one also without breaking the thread.

If the facing is to be left free, or if it is to be secured with hand stitching, stop the stitching of the hem when the needle pierces the edge of the facing, then break the threads long enough to thread into a needle and secure.

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If you do a lot of overcasting, you need a special overlock machine, also called a serger.  This machine overcasts and cuts the fabric in one operation, which reduces the ridge formed by scroonching the fabric.  However, the multiple threads add thickness of their own.

Edges are never serged in fine sewing, but there is considerable use for it in rough work on knit fabrics.  Bike shorts, for example, can be overlocked instead of hemmed, which makes them less lumpy under tights.

In the manufacture of cheap clothing, serging is substituted for hemming as much as possible, because a few square inches of fabric per garment adds up to a tidy sum when you multiply it by several thousand garments.

If you don't overcast often, a zig-zag machine will work nicely.  A hefty dose of starch helps to keep a cut edge from curling.  Whenever possible, overcast first and cut later.

For example, if you want to cut a piece of fabric into squares for cleaning cloths or whatever, draw threads to mark where you want to cut, then zig-zag on each side of the marked lines, letting the zig fall into the drawn line and the zag into the fabric.  End by cutting between the rows of zig-zagging.  It helps considerably to draw more than one thread on the cutting line, to give yourself a bigger target.  If the cloth is to bear hard wear, stitch around each square a second time before you cut, letting the zig pierce the first row of stitching, and the zag pierce previously-unstitched fabric.

Ordinarily, one would cut an extra quarter inch of seam allowance, zig-zag a quarter inch from the edge, then trim close to the zig-zagging.  A variation is to mark the desired edge on the fabric, then zig-zag along the mark before cutting out.  Some fabrics seem to explode into loose threads when cut; overcasting before cutting is one way to deal with them.  A better way is to leave such fabrics in the store, and pay a bit more for something that lasts longer.

If you are overcasting temporarily, don't worry about curling; just set the longest stitch and widest zig-zag and cover the edge, stitching in the direction that smooths the majority of the ravels.  Unless your serger has a stitch that unzips easily and continues to unzip easily after washing, zig-zagging is better than serging for temporary overcasting.  I use a double thread in the bobbin for temporary overcasting, because a stiffer and stronger thread is easier to pull out.  (It also makes it easier to tell which thread is the bobbin thread.)  Loosening the top tension a little also makes basting easier to remove, but usually a thicker thread in the bobbin supplies the necessary imbalance.

Of course, if you mean to cut the edge off instead of removing the stitches, it doesn't matter what method of overcasting you use, and you will choose the one you find easier to do, or the one that uses cheaper thread.

Hand overcasting uses the least thread, and gives the most control over tension, so it makes the flattest and least lumpy edge.  Hand overcasting is usually reserved for fine sewing, awkward spots, correcting mistakes, and mending.  Whipping is the thinnest and quickest way to overcast — hence "every little whipstitch" for "too often" — but there are many embroidery stitches that can be worked over an edge that shows.  Buttonhole is the most common ornamental edge stitch.  Single crochet is perhaps the easiest way to cover an edge with ornamental hand stitches, because you can use thread directly off the ball, instead of having to cut it into short pieces and then hide the ends.

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Elastic Edges,
curtain-rod pockets,
and other casings

Elastic can be sewn to the garment by its edge, or it can be run through a casing.  The latter, called "tunnel elastic", was once the mark of high-quality underwear.  It looked nicer, it didn't irritate the skin as much as naked elastic, the elastic lasted longer when not directly exposed to skin oil, and when it did give out, it was easily replaced.

But it is much cheaper, in a factory, to sew elastic on by the edge, people got used to the way naked elastic looks, and elastic got longer-lasting, so edge-sewn elastic climbed up the price range and nudged cased elastic out.

However, elastic is still irritating — so you'll be glad to learn that the coutier method is actually easier than edge-sewing if you don't have a dedicated sew-elastic-on-by-the-edge machine.

Nearly everything I say about elastic casings applies also to drawstring casings and curtain-rod pockets.

If you don't want the elastic right at the edge, you can appliqué tape or a strip of fabric to the area you want to gather.  Tape is useful for adding an elastic or drawstring waist to a dress cut all in one piece, or for setting elastic in from a finished edge to make a ruffle.  The tape-and-ruffle method is best for garments that will endure heavy wear, because the tape can be removed and replaced when it is worn, and because you don't have the wear at the elastic and the wear at the edge occurring in the same place.  Tape is also a good way to gather heavy fabric that would be much too thick if folded to make its own casing.

Extremely heavy fabric is reluctant to gather, so it may be necessary to sew a casing of finer fabric to the edge.  In making a duck ironing-board cover, for example, you would cut the duck the size and shape of the top of the board, plus the depth all around, then cut a strip of twill — on the bias, if convenient — about four inches wide and as long as the circumference of the duck (plus seam allowance), make a casing in one edge of the twill, and sew the other edge to the duck.  The lighter fabric will gather under the board easily, and hold the duck in place.  (For a long drawstring of this sort, use nylon mason's line, as it is strong and slips easily inside the casing.  It will be necessary to use a surgeon's knot to keep the slippery string from untying itself.)

Sometimes heavy fabric will gather if you make the casing much wider than the elastic or drawstring, providing room for large wrinkles.

It is easier and more common to run elastic through a hem — usually a top-stitched hem.  If a ruffle is wanted, make the hem allowance wider by the depth of the desired ruffle, stitch around twice, and run the elastic or drawstring between the two rows of stitches.

To ruffle or not to ruffle?  As a rule of thumb, if you have pronounced gathers, a ruffle above will help the gathers hang correctly below.

Curtains nearly always have "headers", because curtains with headers seem to slide on the rod more easily than curtains of the same fabric without headers.

On a sleeve, it's purely a matter of desired appearance — the ruffle is slightly more durable, but also more likely to get into the cookie batter.

A waist elastic in woven fabric will probably be more comfortable with a narrow ruffle — up to half an inch. Underpants and other lightweight knits seldom have a ruffle.

A drawstring purse definitely requires a ruffle, as without one, it is difficult to open the bag.

A bag to be opened by cutting the string requires no header — unless you have darned the string through the fabric instead of making a casing.  A more-common approach is to tie a string around the mouth of the sack in a clove hitch.  A clove hitch not only cinches tight easily, it is possible to untie it and use the same string to close the bag again.  See any Boy Scout website to learn how to tie a clove hitch.  I've written a whole section about bags.

If you don't want a ruffle, but do want its regularizing effect, make a ruffle just one thread wide.  It won't show, but your neckline will look much neater.

Getting the elastic inside the casing:

One way is to work a buttonhole in the hem allowance, then make the hem as usual.  This was the default method in the making of fancy underwear, as it allowed an expired elastic to be withdrawn and a new elastic to be put in without any trouble.  The buttonhole was set diagonally in the narrow casing to minimize its presence.

If you let a drawstring out through a buttonhole, use two buttonholes, set about an inch apart, to allow a space for tying the knot.  Make them parallel to the casing.  You can set one on each side of a seam, which sometimes simplifies construction.  Catching the string in the seam at the back also may simplify construction, and makes it harder to lose the string.

Another way is to open part of a seam that crosses the casing.  For a drawstring, you would sew the allowances of this part of this seam to the main fabric before making the hem, to keep the raw edges from coming out through the opening.  It would be a good idea to sew down all the allowances that will end up inside the casing, to stop them from rumpling as the string works back and forth over them.

A tape casing can have the folded-under ends of the tape butted together without sewing — for a drawstring, sew the tape to the right side of the garment, and leave a gap between the ends to leave room for the knot.

For elastic, the most-common way is to leave a small part of the hem unsewn, insert the elastic, tie or sew the ends together, then finish sewing the hem.

On sleeves and other narrow tubes, you have the option of sewing the elastic into a circle first, then putting it into the casing, and then sewing the casing.

With a ruffle:  baste in the fold-under, if it is the least bit inclined to come unpressed.  Measure and pin the casing, but sew only the outer row of stitching.  Arrange the casing the way it will be sewn, and mark four or more places by stroking a washout marker off the hem onto the fabric.  Put the end of the inside-out sleeve inside the circle of elastic, then slide the elastic under the flap of the casing-to-be.  Pin the casing closed, matching the seams and the marked spots.  Put at least some of the pins well inside the stitching line, to make the elastic stay out of your way while you sew.  Stretch a section of the seam out flat, letting the elastic gather up the rest of it.  Sew the flat section, then shift the gathers to create a new flat section.

Without a ruffle:  measure and pin the hem with the pins at right angles to the proposed row of stitching, and pointing toward it.  Slip the inside-out sleeve inside the circle of elastic, then poke the elastic under the edge of the casing.  Push the elastic down between two of the pins and put a pin parallel to the stitching line to stop it if it tries to crawl back up.  (Make sure this pin points toward the needle, like an in-the-seam-line pin.)  Push and pin the elastic between the next two pins, then pull out the right-angle pin between the two parallel pins.  Continue around the circle, then stitch the hem.  The parallel pins usually suffice, but if the fabric seems inclined to misbehave, put some in the stitching line too.  Line them up with the parallel pins, so that you won't have pins in too many places while you are trying to stretch the elastic out flat.

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Flat-felled seams:

Opening a vertical seam to let the elastic in and mending it after the elastic is installed comes a serious cropper when the seam is flat felled.  Opening the seam is a royal pain, and mending it is practically impossible.

When I want three rows of quarter-inch elastic, leaving a gap in the top-stitching isn't a serious option.

I'll spare you the awkward ways that I put three rows of elastic into bras the first two times, and refrain from dramatizing the fuss and feathers and hand sewing, and get on with describing the method that works.

This method requires a pre-graded flat-felled seam, and is advisable only when there is a good bit of ease in the width of the casing.  The fabric is thick and stiff at the opening, and when you pull the bodkin out, you have the bodkin and three layers of elastic inside the tunnel while you are trying to pull through the lump where the elastic is sewn to the bodkin, and you have four layers of elastic in the tunnel when you pull the splice back into the casing. Three eighths of an inch works for quarter-inch elastic, but just barely.

I'll assume half-inch seam allowances; adjust any specific numbers as required.

When cutting out the garment, mark the fold lines for the casing.  Choose the place where the opening is to appear:  probably the middle part of the casing allowance, the part which will be exposed on the inside of the finished garment.  Hereafter, I will refer to the two places where the fold lines that delimit this part of the casing cross the cut edge as "marks".

Press a quarter inch of one edge of each seam to the right side, as usual for pre-graded flat-fell seams.

Now press under an eighth of an inch of the raw edge between the marks.  Once the crease is far enough beyond the marks to be sure it extends to the marks, let it curve out to the raw edge so that the allowance is normal from there on.

If the fabric is linen, you can leave this crease to the last minute, pressing it with your fingernail against the bed of the sewing machine.  In the next paragraph, I'll call this crease "the fingernail-folded edge" and call the ironed-in crease "the folded edge" to avoid confusion.  Don't presume that you can't iron-press both or fingernail-press both.

Start topstitching about a half inch outside one of the marks.  Stitch an eighth of an inch from the folded edge until you reach the mark, then stitch right on the fingernail-folded edge until you get to the other mark, then stitch an eighth of an inch from the folded edge until this end of the little hem is secure.  It is important to stitch as close as possible to the fingernail-folded edge, as any sort of tuck will catch on the bodkin when you are feeling your way through the tunnel.

Now pin the seam right sides together, all fold lines and other marks matched, with the raw edges together.  Between the marks, keep the raw edge of the new piece a quarter inch from the folded edge of the little hem.

Stitch the seam half an inch from the folded edge.  When you reach the first mark, lengthen the stitch and baste until you reach the second mark, then shorten the stitch and finish the seam.

Press the seam open.  (Use the iron only if the fabric is stubborn.)  You will find a quarter-inch seam allowance folded over the basting.  Hem between the marks the same way you hemmed the other edge.  Re-press the allowances to original position.

Turn to the right side and make the first row of top-stitching the usual way:  finger-press the allowances to one side as they approach the needle, and sew near the stitching line to hold them in place.  Skip the space between the marks or, if it is more convenient, switch to a basting stitch between the marks.

Now turn the work over and stitch near the folded edge.  When you approach the first mark, turn the wheel one stitch at a time, turning a little after each stitch to make a smooth curve that blends into the first row of topstitching.  Overlap half an inch to secure the stitching.

Begin again on the other side of the opening.  Start stitching on top of the first row of topstitching, then smoothly curve into the correct position to finish the seam.

Another way:  Iron press the seam into its final position, then make the two rows of topstitching in one pass for each side of the opening.  Work from the wrong side, and turn the handwheel to smoothly curve from one row to the other.

Make the casing according to your plan, then remove the basting.  The tunnel is one-way, so start the elastic this way:  sew (or otherwise secure) the elastic to the bodkin, then wrap the elastic over the top of the bodkin and poke the bodkin into the tunnel eye first, with the bodkin on the bottom and the elastic on top.  Push it an inch or two farther once it's free of the tunnel, to provide a little slack in the elastic, then reverse direction and push it back through the tunnel, feeling with the point to get it into the other tube that leads into the casing, not back outside.

Push it all the way around the casing in the usual way, and when you get back to the tunnel it will be going the right way to come back to the outside.

In Threads #141 February/March 2009, page 69, Fred Bloebaum suggests that for a triple casing one use three identical bodkins and move them around together, so that one bodkin doesn't get hung up on the gathers made by another.  I have no quarter-inch bodkin at all, but use one collar stay with a couple of holes drilled in it.  (You can easily drill holes in sheet plastic by twisting the point of a paring knife.)

But:  I'm gathering up only a dart allowance, and the casing is just barely puckered — he is making a gathered skirt.  I'm working in stout linen — he is working in chiffon.  My channels are 7/16" — his are 3/8".

Join the elastic by one of the methods in the next section, and pull the loop inside the casing.  I strongly advise that you leave or pull out a considerable length of the tail that folds back inside the tunnel, and get the splice a few inches into the casing before you let the last loop of elastic pull inside.  If you get a kink in the elastic at the splice, nothing will unkink it short of pulling the splice back out and starting over.

Catching the elastic and pulling it back through the tunnel is Extremely Difficult. A medium-sized steel crochet hook finally did the trick.  Then pulling the splice back through the tunnel is harder than it was the first time, so that you have to put safety pins through the fabric into the elastic that you don't want to move in order to persuade the other side of the elastic to pull on the splice hard enough to drag it through the tunnel.

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Joining Elastic:

Cord elastic is joined into a circle by tying the ends together in a square knot.  (You can use a weaver's knot or a carrick bend, but a square knot seldom comes undone, as the elastic deforms inside the knot.)

The ends of flat elastic are overlapped and sewn.  I always do this job by hand — hand sewing is easier and less likely to cut the lycra cords than machine sewing.  Overlap the elastic by the amount you have allowed for the seam.  (I usually use the width of the elastic, or half an inch on wide elastic.)  Slip the end of the thread between the two ends to hide it, and loosely overcast your way to the edge, catching the raw end down to the elastic under it.

Overcast one of the sides of the doubled area, placing the stitches close together, so that there is little slant to them.  Try to catch just the covering of the elastic, or if that is too difficult, pass the thread between the two outer cords.  Overcast the raw end to the elastic under it, placing the stitches farther apart than at the edge.  Turn the work over and overcast the other edge of the doubled area, then overcast the other raw edge down, covering the previous stitches.  Slip the needle between the two layers to hide the end of the thread.

If the elastic is wide and not awkwardly attached to a garment, you can do the same thing with machine zig-zagging.

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Uncased Elastic Edges &&

Appliquéd to a finished edge &&

Sewn near an edge and turned under twice &&

[elastic completely covered to protect your skin]
[won't be written until I have need of this finish, or somebody asks.]

If you want the grabbiness of the elastic to keep your shirt tucked in &&
[isn't this covered under "appliquéd to a finished edge"?  I must have had something in mind when I made this note.  Baffled queries to jog my memory welcome.]

Sewn on by the edge to show on both sides — I hates 'em, I does precious, so you're on your own.

(But the special foot for sewing butt seams would probably come in handy.)

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