Monday, May 2, 2011

How To - Hem a Dress by Hand

The first step is finding a dress or skirt that needs to be hemmed. 
A little too frumpy as is.
I really love black dresses.  And this one has some nice details.  The lace on the sleeves and neck are great and the sash at the waist is super flattering.
The cute details.
Now you have a dress picked out, but please leave the scissors where they are.  We have a few more steps before we make the big cut.  Next comes hem assessment.  How easy/hard is this job going to be?  For most hobby sewers there are two types of dresses you want to avoid hemming. They are:

The lined dress.

As you can see in the above pic.  This dress is fully lined and where the hem is turned up hem tape is used to attach the lining to the outer shell of the dress.  While not impossible to hem it is a bit more painstaking involving more complicated measuring, and more precise stitching.

A bias cut dress.

Any full skirted dress or circular skirt is cut on the bias.  What this means is that the fabric was cut horizontally to the grain of the fabric, so it can't be turned and folded the way we usually assume fabric can be.  On a bias cut hem the hem itself is very tiny.  The fabric must be tightly folded and the folded again on itself catching as  little fabric as possible to avoid buckling.  As soon as you cut this fabric it will start to fray and as you try to fold the hem and stitch it down you will start swearing.

It's also important to pay attention to the fabric.  Chiffon, silk, and anything slippery is hard to sew with, and anything pleated  can be very problematic.  So what's the easiest fabric to hem?  Polyester, or any other non fraying fabric.  The hem should look similar to this.  No over-lock or hem tape to be seen.  This hem is a simple case of cut and stitch.  Pretty much.
Note: A fabric that frays simply adds one more step to the process, but it's not insurmountable.  Take heart.

So after the dress has been selected you need to put it on.  Put a few pins through the dress where you would like the hem to hit.  And then remove the dress and lay it flat on the floor or table.
From one of the pins measure down toward the existing hem the amount of the new hem.  A good way to determine how much fabric you need for this is to measure the existing hem.  Heavy fabrics usually have a wide hem to help weigh them down.  Make a chalk mark at this point.  If your fabric frays you will need to add an extra half inch to this measurement so you can turn it under.
Now measure from the existing hem to your chalk mark.  This will be your cutting line.  Using this measurement work around the skirt working from the hem up.  Waistlines on dresses and skirts are often slightly curved so measuring from the waist down can create an uneven hem.

Keep working your way around the entire dress.  It might be tempting just to mark one side and cut through the front and back at the same time, but trust me, it rarely works.  As soon as the scissors lift the fabric it starts to fold and bunch underneath and you end up with an uneven cut.
Finally the cutting!  Follow you chalk line all the way around and presto.  A much shorter dress!  Go try it on and make sure it falls nicely.  Keep in mind how much you'll be turning it up.  Cut off too much?  The only thing you can do at this point is turn up less fabric creating a narrower hem.
This is the step I'm always tempted to skip.  But don't.  It makes all the difference.  Iron your hem!  Take your measureing tape and slowly make your way around the dress turning up your hem and ironing it in place.  In this case my hem is two inches wide so I turn the dress up to the two inch mark and iron it in place.

If your fabric needs to be turned under you would turn it up two and a half inches and iron in place.  Then  go over the hem again and turn half an inch of fabric down inside the hem - and iron that.
Though all the measuring and ironing at this point can seem a bit much it will ensure that you have a really nice smooth hem line and it eliminates the need for pinning.

Now it's time to sew!

With needle threaded - I'm using yellow thread here for contrast, usually on a black dress I'd use black - loop through the seam twice.  This eliminates the need for bulky knots.  Pick up the fabric from the seam on the skirt as well and you have a good solid base to work from with your thread securely anchored.
Next pick up just a strand or two from the base of the skirt where the top of the hem hits.  The smaller the amount you pick up the less noticeable your hem job will be from the outside.  
Then pick up the edge of the hem, about a cm down, and repeat.  Around you go picking up a few threads on the dress, and then about an inch away diving down into the hem about a cm -I'm mixing my measurements again, sorry folks.  Don't pull the thread tightly, you want everything to lay nice and flat with no pulling or puckering.  Match up your seams as you go - they help keep things straight and honest.
A few inches of hem from the inside:
And from the outside:
 Even with the yellow thread you can barely discern where the stitches are.  When you've made you're way around the entire hem back stitch through the seam again and Voila!  You're finished.  Go try it on!

See - totally unfrumped!  Super short and super cute.  I love how the sash now hangs below the hem in the back.
Have fun hemming!


  1. Great tutorial! I love the transformation of this dress. So simple but such a drastic difference.

  2. My unsolicited advice is to have a friend mark where the hem should be. When I bend over to mark the hem it pulls the skirt up and you tend to make your mark at a higher point thus ensuring extra leg when wearing the dress. Or maybe I'm just not meant to sew...that has been proven a few times.

  3. Just me,
    It's very difficult to mark a hem on something you are wearing. But if you mark with a pin, then stand straight you can adjust as needed. Then measuring up from the old hem should give you a nice straight line. It never hurts to mark the new hem with chalk and then try it on again!

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