The Basics of Hand Sewing – The Running Stitch

Posted by on Sep 15, 2014 in Lessons, Sewing, Theory | Comments Off on The Basics of Hand Sewing – The Running Stitch

Today, I’m going to talk about hand stitching and your most basic stich – the running stitch. I want to start by saying that I don’t believe that anyone is an idiot, but I am going to go over this step by step. You would not believe the amount of times that I’ve started teaching someone a technique and discovered, halfway in, that he or she didn’t know the very basics. A couple of examples:

  • I had a person claim she knew how to sew, but that it had been a while. She then proceeded to try to thread a straight pin.
  • I had a person ask me which end of the needle went into the fabric.
  • I’ve had more than a few people tie their sewing knots right next to the needle.

If any of these seem preposterous, I absolutely have seen them with my own two eyes. If any of these seem like something you’re afraid of doing – that’s why I’m writing this post. If my year in the University costume shop taught me anything it was that I should always start from the beginning and not skip steps. That’s partially why I started teaching my daughter the way I have. I may mention concepts and techniques beyond her ken, but I never ask her (or you!) to do anything without explaining how.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

This is a needle. You should have some. I’m labeling its parts so you can look at them for reference.


Okay, so here’s where the oversimplification comes in. The eye of the needle is where your thread goes. The tip or point is what goes into the fabric.

needle eye and tip

This is (an example of) your thread. You should have some too. If you aren’t sure what kind to buy, check out my post on thread first. It is made of many twisted filaments and will hold all of your projects together.

First off – you should never have a piece of thread that is longer than your arm. It makes your sewing very difficult. Try it sometime, if you don’t believe me. I always experience excess tangling and knotting when I use a thread too long. It’s just not worth the time it will take me to untangle the mess versus the time it will take me to cut a new thread and thread it through my needle.

As a good measure, hold your spool in one hand (the one you write with) and grab the end of your thread with the other. Now, still holding the thread, move the spool to the top of your shoulder. Take the length of thread that results (don’t cut it!) and double it. Now cut it.

measure thread

As a side note, you should use your fabric scissors to cut your thread. You can also buy specialty scissors called thread nippers, but they usually cost more than they are useful.

thread nippers

Now you’re going to thread your needle. For some this is easier than others. First, make sure the ends of your thread are cut cleanly with no fraying. For best results, hold the thread against a differently coloured background and make sure that there aren’t any tiny bits sticking out.

thread frayed and trimmed

A piece of thread displaying fraying then properly trimmed.

This is the point where you’ve probably seen others put the end of the thread in their mouth. If you’ve trimmed it correctly, you really shouldn’t have to. However, for many of us who sew, this is simply a reflex. I find myself doing this on a freshly trimmed thread all the time. All you’re doing is wetting the filaments and flattening them through your pursed lips.

Hold the needle close so you can clearly see the eye and put one strand of thread through it. This might take some doing, but it is possible.


However, if you find that threading your needle is far too hard, your local craft section has plenty of needle threaders if you just look. These have tiny, flexible pieces of wire attached to them in a large triangular shape. Push those wires through the eye of your needle then thread them on the other side, leaving a long tail of thread. Now pull the needle threader back through the eye of the needle and you’ll just be left with a perfectly threaded needle. Honestly, using these takes me more time than actually threading the needle, but it’s nice to know they’re out there, if you need them.

needle threader

A needle threader


A needle threader in action. I so did not make this image. Source

Now that you’ve got your needle threaded, make the two ends of your thread meet and let your needle drop down to the centre.

needle on thread

Wrap the ends around one of your fingers and stick them back through the loop to tie a really good knot. Your knot should be as far to the end of your thread as you can possibly make them.

tying the knot

Tying the knot – literally.


Grab a couple of spare pieces of fabric or cut them from your unused pillow fabric. They don’t need to be very big, but I’d recommend they were about 6 inches long. Put some pins along the length of them and draw a line down the middle using a straight edge.

line on fabric

From the bottom, pierce your fabric with the needle and pull it upward from the top. When you near the knot, pull slowly so you don’t pull the knot through the fabric. If you pull it through, try again.

running stitch 1

Now, put your needle back through the fabric about a quarter of an inch down the line. You don’t need to measure this distance, approximate it. Pull the thread taught, but not so tight that it bunches your fabric.

running stitch 2

Congratulations! You’ve just made your first stitch! Continue in this way all the way down your two pieces of fabric.

running stitch 3

This is called the running stitch. If you were to cut the knot at the far end, you could pull the thread out in one quick motion. In fact, if this is really your first time sewing, I’d recommend you do that and repeat the exercise a few times until you’re comfortable with it.

Now to finish it up we’ll need to make a knot. You can’t really tie a knot like before and expect it to hold right up to the edge of the fabric. Instead, we’re going to sew a knot into the fabric. This ensures that the thread will hold as tight as possible.

  1. Place the tip of your needle next to the last thread you just pulled up and push it under the layers of fabric. Bring it up just on the other side of that thread.
  2. Hold the resulting loop of thread in the fingers of your non-dominant hand and pull your needle through until you have a loop of thread about 1 inch in diameter.
  3. Put your needle through that loop and pull tight.
  4. Repeat that process once or twice more to make sure your knot is really secure.

tying sewing knot

Now cut your thread and get ready to sew your pillow together next time!

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