How to Make a Hem

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, August 19, 1912:  Did quite a bit of sewing today. You see I’m getting some of my things out of the way for when school starts. It rained like everything this evening.

Source: The Dressmaker (1911)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

What was Grandma sewing? Maybe she did some hemming—of a new dress, or to remodel a hand-me-down and make it just the right length.

Here are directions from a hundred-year-old book about how to make a hem. (An aside: I had so much fun with the recent buttonhole post that I decided to do another post using the same book).

A hem is a fold made by twice turning over the edge of the material (Fig. 16). Make a narrow, even turning, and mark the depth for the second turning on the material with a coarse pin, chalk or basting, using as a marker a card notched the desired depth of the hem. Fold on the line, and if the hem is wide, baste at top and bottom.

Hold the edges you are going to sew on, toward you; place the hem over the forefinger and under the middle finger and hold it down with the thumb. Begin at the right end and insert the needle through the fold, leaving a short end of the thread to be caught under the hemming stitches.

Pointing the needle toward the left shoulder, make a slanting stitch by taking up a few threads of the material and the fold of the hem. Fasten the thread by taking two or three stitches on top of each other.

If a new thread is needed, start as in the beginning, tucking both the end of the new and old thread under the fold of the hem and secure them with the hemming stitches. Train the eye to keep the stitches even and true.

The Dressmaker by The Butterick Publishing Co.  (1911)

These directions seem awfully complicated and the drawing doesn’t look exactly right–but then, I guess that I probably couldn’t easily explain exactly how to tunnel through the cloth and then take a small stitch every half-inch or so.

22 thoughts on “How to Make a Hem

  1. The picture shows the basting stiches instead of using pins. It startes out telling you how to bury your end of the thread when you first start so you don’t have a loose end hanging. At the end you take a few tiny stitches on top of each other instead of a knot. Then you bury the thread end again under the folded hem. In those days they were always a little over wordy with instuctions. I like to use a index card that is marked to measure all around when I am heming so my hem is folded the same width all around. I baste alot too because I don’t like to get stabbed by all those pins. It is fun to look at old instructions.

    1. I occasionally hem a pair of pants or repair a torn seam–but I don’t really sew much. I can’t think of any pictures anyone’s ever taken of me sewing.

  2. It does sound like she is mending or not thrilled with sewing a hand-me-down (“getting… things out of the way”). I love reading these entries in the morning, sort of a calming way to start my day by going back to what seems like a simpler time.

      1. Indeed, the times may have been simpler, but Grandma’s feelings are often as complex as ours are nowadays. That is reassuring to know.

  3. I was confused by that photo too but showing basting stitches makes more sense. I always just use pins to hold it as I sew and remove them before I stab myself.

  4. Of course the young ladies would have been taught the basics of sewing, but for me I need lots of visual aides! I may save the directions and see if I can master the art of hemming…My stitching is usually wrong and it always looks so easy. But maybe instead of two left feet I have two left hands!! 😉 I would have loved to have seen some her sewing projects. Blessings – Patty

    1. I know the feeling–I can do mending and hemming okay, but when I used to try to do bigger sewing projects they often didn’t turn out quite right. Looking back I think that I didn’t have enough patience–and didn’t measure carefully, take the time to tear things out that weren’t stitched quite right, etc.

  5. Oh, the memories are flooding back 🙂 Coming from a long line of seamstresses, learning needlework/ darning etc were just a natural part of my learning when growing up in the 1950’s. Oh yes.. we were supposed to baste everying but… nup… not for me. I used pins.The picture is deceiving but the instructions all make sense, e.g “just a few threads of the material” was crucial so the stitches were all but invisible on the “right side”. The little girl me prided herself on her ability to produce the perfect hem…ha ha ha. Trying to remember the term mum used when they were too jagged, far apart etc… and I simply needed to unpick and do it again. “Snaggled teeth”, I think it may have been 😀 … Happy memories. Thanks for the reminding, Sheryl and Miss Muffly.

    1. You’re so right that “just a few threads of the material” is crucial. I know that when I’ve tried to teach family members how to hem that they found that part difficult and their hems very visible.

    1. It seems like jeans and other pants often are too long for me when I buy them–and I end up hemming them. They usually turn out okay though maybe a little crooked (but hopefully no one notices). 🙂

  6. I like to use pins because mine always hangs crooked for some reason and it’s easier to adjust with pins. No matter how careful I try to be it always needs adjusting.

  7. Oh the hems I’ve hemmed :-). I remember standing straight as a die, and turning ever so carefully as my mother measured a tricky hem..something that I repeated as my children stood on the table for their hems to be measured…with much the same air of long-suffering 🙂

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