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Hand Sewing for the Military Reenactor

Posted on Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 9:05 am

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You’ve just popped a suspender button.  What to do? If there are civilians handy, having them fix it would be an authentic solution (offer to pay).  But so is doing it yourself: cut off from experienced seamstresses, Civil War soldiers had to develop aptitude with the needle.  The following will help you do so as well.

GENERAL TECHNIQUES

Threading the Needle. Wetting the end of the thread, cutting off any frayed fibers, and flattening the end with your fingernail all make it easier to get the thread through the eye of the needle.

Handling the needle.  Two threads side by side while sewing can knot together.  To avoid that, pull just enough thread through the needle so you can grasp both threads. Grasp the needle over the eye when sewing to keep the thread from pulling out of the needle.

Anchoring the thread.  Merely knotting the end of the thread before putting the needle through the material is not enough, since even knotted thread can pull through loosely woven material. Instead, begin by putting the needle through the material, tie the loose end to the thread thus pulled through (Figure 1a-b), and then pull it tight (Figure 1c).

Tying off the thread. When you’ve sewn what you have to sew, put the needle through the material one last time and tie the loose end to your last stitch, Specifically, put the needle under the previous stitch (Figure 2a); put the needle under the stitch just made, creating a loop (Figure 2b); pull the stitch taut; put the needle through the loop you just made (Figure 2c) and then pull it taut.

If there are two plies of material at or near the last stitch, you can “bury” the loose end by pushing the needle between the plies and out again, then cutting the loose end close to the material.

Avoiding Edges. Anchors or stitches made too close to the edge of material will pull out. So never pierce material with a needle less than 3/8 inch from the edge of the material.

AFFIXING A BUTTON

Use heavy-duty thread for buttons. Run the thread from the button eyelets through the material at least 16 times.  To reduce the danger of a button tearing a hole in the material, spread out where you pierce the material (Figure 3). For buttons without shanks, leave the thread loose enough to allow for the width of the material you’re going to button it to.  For high-stress buttons (e.g. suspenders), to reduce the danger of the button tearing a hole in the material, use a “backing button.” That is, sew two buttons in the same place on opposite sides of the material.

RESEWING A SEAM

If a seam pulls out (as sometimes happens in high stress areas, such as armpits), pin the seams back together (the pins at right angles to your stitch line; (Figure 4) and restitch along the seam, using a “back stitch.”

A back stitch means doubling back with each stitch. Specifically, from the anchor, push the needle into (point A, Figure 5a) and then out of the material (point B, Figure 5a).  Pull it taut. Then push the needle into the material at Point A and out of the material a stitch length beyond point B (labelled point C on Figure 5b).  Pull it taut (Figure 5c). Push the needle into the material at point B and then out a stitch length beyond point C (Figure 5d).  Repeat this process to the end.

A back stitch is stronger, will not unravel even if the thread is broken or cut, and reduces the tendency of material to “pucker” along the stitch line.  Incidentally, to avoid puckering while sewing a stitch line, periodically stretch the material taut.

AFFIXING A PATCH

The paucity of patches evident in period photos suggest that most soldiers let holes go, trusting that they’d draw new clothing before the holes got too large.  However, since reenactors don’t receive multiple issues of clothing every year, patching may be necessary.

Cut a patch large enough to cover the hole or rent, plus at least an inch extra all the way around.  Pin the patch over the hole (Figure 6a).  Sew the edges of the hole or rent to the patch using a baseball stitch or a whipstitch (Figure 6b).  A whipstitch is a stitch over the edge of material.

When that is done, remove the pins, fold the edges of the patch under themselves, and whipstitch down the edges of the patch (Figure 6c).

EDGING A BUTTONHOLE

Ladies who sewed buttonholes on period uniforms were adept enough that their edging looked a lot like machine-sewn button holes. Consequently, if you replace machine-sewn buttonholes with crude hand-sewn ones, the result will look less like the buttonholes on period uniforms than if you had left the machine-sewn ones alone.

On the other hand, buttonhole edging deteriorates with use, creating the danger of the buttonhole unraveling if the edging is not renewed.  To renew such edging,

1. After anchoring the thread, pull it through the buttonhole.
2. Form a loop over the buttonhole (Figure 7a).
3. Put the needle back through the material a thread width over from the previous stitch.  Push the needle through the buttonhole and over the loop you created (Figure 7b).
4. Pull the needle taut enough to close the loop (but not so taut that it puckers the edge of the buttonhole) (Figure 7c).
5. Repeat steps 2-4 a thread width over from your first stitch.
6. Repeat as often as needed to cover the edge of the buttonhole that needs renewing.
Note: this same stitch can be used to edge wool blankets to protect against unraveling. Simply increase the gap between stitches.

DARNING

A hole too small to warrant a patch can be repaired by darning, which can prevent a small hole from turning into a large one. However, beware of darning weight-bearing surfaces of socks. Darning creates irregularities in the surface which contribute to blisters.  Better to let such a hole go until it is too large, then replace the whole sock.

1. After anchoring the thread near the hole, pass through the material to the opposite side of the hole. Pierce the material a few thread widths up and pass back the way you came (Figure 8a).
2. Repeat this back-and-forth sewing until the hole is covered. Starting at the same line can promote tearing along that line, so start each run on a different line.
3. Pierce the material at right angles to what you have sewn, and repeat Steps 1 and 2 at right angles, alternating over and under the threads being crossed (Figure 8b).

SIMPLE TEARS

Suppose a tear or rent has occurred without significant loss of material. Merely sewing across the rent will pucker the material and is likely to pull out.  Those problems are mitigated by using a baseball stitch. This involves pulling the thread over the material to the rent, then through the rent under the material on the opposite side (Figure 9a). Then turn the needle 180 degrees and repeat the process one thread thickness over (Figure 9b). Continue this back-and-forth stitch until the rent is closed.

This article is dedicated to my grandfather Dana K. Badertscher (who sewed his own curtains) and my mother Marjorie Badertscher Braden (an accomplished seamstress), neither of whom considered sewing to be unmanly.

-By John A. Braden