This text – some of our most important sewing tips at Alabama Chanin – is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (which we plan to receive and start shipping around the 15th of this month). It is important to us at Alabama Chanin that we as a humanity (women and men – girls and boys) take back the essential survival skill of hand-sewing, and that we also understand the physics behind the clothing that shelters our bodies.  It’s as simple as picking up needle and thread.

Old Wives’ Tales and Physics

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of old wives’ tales around the sewing room, but I’ve come to learn that many of these tales find truth in everyday life. And as tale after tale has proven true, I’ve also come to understand that there’s reason, or “physics,” behind them.

Needle your thread; don’t thread your needle:

This makes perfect sense in that the thread is the weaker of the two elements and easily moves or bends. Moving the more stable element—the needle—over the thread to “needle the thread” makes this a simple task.

Long thread, lazy girl:

This is a tale that finds proof on many levels even though it may seem easier or faster to sew with a long thread. First, a longer thread is more prone to knotting as you sew. Second, it seems obvious that if you use an extremely long thread, you’ll actually spend more time pulling the thread through your fabric than actually sewing. Third, and most important, as you sew, the thread is being abraded with every stitch you take; and naturally the thread closest to the needle experiences the most abrasion since it is pulled through the fabric more often than the thread closest to the knotted end. Because of this abrasion, the thread closest to the needle becomes weaker and weaker as you sew and sometimes breaks. If you’re sewing on a project that might take months to complete, you certainly don’t want weakened thread to be apparent after your project’s first washing.

Your thread should never be longer than from your fingertips to your elbow:

The best thread length to sew with varies according to individual body size, but it should be about the same as the length from your fingertips to elbow, where the physical action of sewing occurs. I follow this rule but add a couple extra inches to my thread length to accommodate the inch or so needed for my knot and to have “one to grow on.”

The end you cut is the end you knot:

This old wives’ tale tells us to thread the needle with the end of the thread that comes off the spool and knot the end that you cut from the spool. This is because it’s simply easier to thread a needle with the end that comes from the spool. The physics behind this tale has to do with the “twisting method” involved in manufacturing thread (see page 22). The thread’s twist runs in the direction from the loose end towards the spool. If you’re unsure of the twist’s direction, have a look at a cut length of thread under a magnifying glass, and you’ll see that one end is pointed and the other end flares open slightly. Thread the pointed end.

Needle your thread, and then love it good:

This is the one tale that I believe we wrote at Alabama Chanin; and we’ve found it especially true when sewing with a doubled length of thread. By threading your needle and loving your thread (see page 22), you‘re training those two lengths of thread to lie side-by-side and begin to behave like “twins.” The more the two strands are tamed to lie beside one another, the smoother your sewing path will be since you’ve created “the path of least resistance.”

The knot is the tie that binds:

In hand-sewing, there’s no looping action of the thread, as there is on a sewing machine, to help a seam stay forged together. Your sole means of anchoring a hand-sewn stitching line and keeping it in place are the knots at the beginning and end of each seam or embroidery and your correct sewing tension. Just as you created the “path of least resistance” to sew a seam by loving your thread (see above), you’ve also created a path of least resistance for that seam to come undone if you lose the knot at the beginning or end of your work. For this reason, always double- (and triple-) check that you have the perfect knot, or “the tie that binds.”


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  1. Pingback: Does the thread follow the needle? | By The Work Of Our Hands

  2. sandy Connelly

    Love this Physics lesson, I was very excited to come home and share this with my engineer husband when he asked what I learned at your workshop! Needless to say he was speechless! lol

  3. Deborah Collier

    Thank you for these! And there are so many good reasons to load the needle from the loose end of the thread or twine. The thread is spun in one direction, and any loose fibers will stick out in the opposite direction. If you hand sew with the thread going against the ply, the threads will constantly catch and wear down both the fabric and the thread. The thread is much more likely to break or fray early, much more likely to knot up, and uses up more of the sewist’s energy (as you are sewing “against the grain,” as it were).