Friday, February 10, 2017

Embracing Hand Sewing with Sore Fingertips

It's finally winter here in Eastern Massachusetts, after a long spell of barely cold, non-snowy weather, and my hands are showing it. After just a few days of below freezing weather, my fingertips begin to crack and my cuticles get ragged, the remnants of a horrible battle with eczema that I went through as a teen and young adult. It's gets to the point where I could end up with bandages on more than half of my fingers.
To make matters worse, I have a ton of bridal sewing to get done.

They say it's good luck when the bridal gown gets a drop of the seamstress' blood on it. That sounds like an old dressmaker's tale made up to calm the young woman whose gown was just soiled, and I don't know of any bride who'd be happy to hear that if she were to see the spots I often find on the gowns I'm stitching! That darn hand sewing needle just pierces my already fragile fingertips while I struggle to get a stitch completed. You see, in spite of having learned from some of the best couture instructors in the country, I never have been able to master using a thimble while hand sewing. (I'm sorry Susan Khalje!) As a result, when I'm faced with having to hand sew to understitch the straplesss bridal gown bodice I've just finished taking in, I poke my fingers repeatedly with the force of pushing that needle through all those layers. (Good thing I also learned the trick that my own saliva on a ball of thread is the best way to get a blood drop back out! Icky, I know - but it works, thank goodness!)

I've run across several articles and blog posts on hand sewing and thimbles, lately. The other day I posted this nice graphic on the ladder stitch to close an opening in a seam, and I was struck by the precision of the illustration. The blog post is quite well-written too, and a good teaching tool. Then today a new post from Brooks Ann Camper popped up in the list of blogs I follow. She's a fellow member of ASDP who specializes in custom wedding gowns each individually designed and patterned, and sewn with beautiful couture techniques. Today's post seems to have been written as if she's speaking to me! "How to choose and use a thimble" hit me like a smack upside the head.

Brooks Ann says: "Enter another grouchy professor, this time at the Master’s degree level, who would not allow me to do handwork without a thimble. Once I (quickly) got over the initial “this feels unnatural” phase, I was hooked! As my thimble now feels like an extension of my hand and is quite possibly my most treasured sewing tool, I owe her a huge thanks for making mandatory something I strongly resisted."

Maybe if Claire Shaeffer or Susan Khalje had been a bit grouchier, I'd have learned to love a thimble a long time ago. (Or maybe I chose to ignore their advice because I was an adult and not a college student, so I knew better.) I urge my young sewing students to learn good techniques and practices from the start, giving them rules for safety and protection around sewing equipment, even charging them to scold me if they catch me breaking one of the rules (like no pins in my mouth, or never sew without shoes on - both very bad habits of mine!) I have thimbles of various kinds all over the studio - because I tried them at one point, but didn't stick with it - so maybe this will be a good time to push myself and establish a really good habit, one that might even have healing benefits for those fragile fingertips?

So that's my plan - I will begin with the thimbles I already own, following Brooks Ann's advice and wearing one around for a while to get used to it being there. My hope is that there will be far fewer finger pricks and blood dots to remove from this new crop of bridal gowns that has landed in the studio. I'd love to know how you feel about hand-sewing and thimble-wearing, too.

Wish me luck - I'll keep you posted.


  1. If metal is too foreign to your process, could you try a leather thimble? Color transfer might be an issue...and you can try hydrogen peroxide on blood spots, at least when a customer is in view. Best of luck developing your new habit!

    1. I am trying a leather one, as well as one of the metal thimbles I found hiding in my studio. Baby steps, I'll get there! I'm actually looking forward to scouring local antique shops looking for old thimbles to add to my possibilities!

  2. I'm in the same boat with you Janee when it comes to thimbles. I have a calloused middle finger that often has little holes at the tip where I prick it with the needle. I just don't find thimbles, metal or leather very comfortable to work with. I've also used the old saliva trick if I have inadvertently pricked myself an get a dot of blood on the fabric. Doesn't happen often, but it's good to know this is the most effective solution. I didn't know about the thread ball though--I use a q-tip.

  3. I too have resisted doing hand sewing with a thimble. The times I have tried, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. You have encouraged me to give it a try again...perhaps this time with a leather thimble.