What is Sewing? The Fundamentals of Stitching

From the needle and thread to modern machines, one artform stitches together culture, creativity, and much more. But exactly what is sewing? Let's unravel the thread.

13 May 2024

Sewing has played a crucial role in human history since prehistoric times. Starting out as a fundamental skill for survival, the practice has evolved, but its importance barely diminished, if at all.

Whether on catwalks or in emergency rooms, with needle and thread or by machine, sewing transcends generations, cultures, and technological advances. The question is, what is sewing in practice? We’re here to thread that needle, from “what is top stitching” to “what are sewing machines” and beyond.

What is the Simple Definition of Sewing?

Buttonhole sewn to thick fabric (Credit: Oleksii Kononenko via Getty Images)

If asked, “what is the simple definition of sewing?” one might say it’s the art of joining fabrics or other materials with stitches made with a needle and thread. And, whilst this is accurate, it’s far from complete. It doesn’t, for instance, take into account the myriad varieties of sewing and their purposes; the fact that sewing is as much an art and a craft as it is a daily necessity and a tool. So, let’s get into the details.

The History of Sewing

Old Asian patchwork (Credit: intek1 via Getty Images)

The origins of sewing can be traced back to prehistoric times, where early humans used bone needles and sinew to stitch together hides for clothing and shelter. Over time, sewing has evolved, with ever improving tools, materials and techniques. What’s more, its functions have expanded. For instance, medical sewing or “suturing” dates back to around 3000 BC.

The Industrial Revolution marked a pivotal moment with the invention of sewing machines, which streamlined textile production and allowed for mass manufacturing of clothing and textiles. This transition significantly changed the face of the sewing industry, creating new opportunities for personal and professional sewing.

Tools of the Trade

Sewing needles (Credit: Adela Stefan / 500px via Getty Images)

A variety of tools are essential for sewing projects, each serving a unique function, including:

  • Needle and Thread: The foundation of the craft, available in various sizes and types to suit different fabrics and projects.
  • Fabric Cutters and Scissors: Allow for precise cuts, essential for accurate construction.
  • Measuring Tapes and Rulers: Ensure accurate measurements, a key to successful sewing projects.

What are Sewing Machines?

Vintage sewing machine (Credit: pedro arquero via Getty Images)

A pivotal innovation in sewing was the development of the sewing machine in the 19th century. What are sewing machines? Ultimately they proved to be transformative devices that mechanised the process of stitching, significantly increasing the efficiency and precision of creating garments and other fabric items. Sewing machines work by interlocking thread in specific patterns that can be adjusted depending on the fabric type and the desired outcome. Today, they range from basic machines suitable for simple sewing tasks to advanced models that can handle complex embroidery and topstitching.

Stitching Techniques

Classic stitching technique (Credit: Nick Dolding via Getty Images)

The craft of sewing encompasses a variety of techniques, ranging from basic hand stitches to advanced machine stitches. Hand sewing stitch methods include:

  • Running Stitch: One of the most basic and fundamental stitches in hand sewing, it’s often used for seams, hems, and gathering fabric. It’s made by passing the needle in and out of the fabric at a regular distance, creating a simple and straight line of stitches.
  • Whip Stitch: This simple sewing stitch is used to join two pieces of fabric together edge-to-edge. It involves looping the thread over the fabric edges, either through or around the edges, creating a series of diagonal stitches on the fabric surface, which can be made visible or almost invisible.
  • Backstitch: A strong and durable stitch great for creating firm seams, this is a variation on the running stitch, involving double rather than single stitches.
  • Catch Stitch: For fabrics that require some give, this stitch is worked by catching a small amount of fabric from one side and then crossing over to the other side, creating a criss-cross pattern.
  • Basting Stitch: A long, loose stitch used in sewing to temporarily hold pieces of fabric together.

What is Top Stitching?

Decorative stitching (Credit: Carol Yepes via Getty Images)

Speaking of specific techniques, what is top stitching? Topstitching is a decorative stitching technique done on the top side of the fabric being sewn. It adds durability and a touch of aesthetic appeal to the seams. Often seen in denim and other thick fabrics, topstitching is also functional as it prevents the layers of fabric from rolling and shifting.

Choosing What to Sew

Vintage quilt (Credit: MBCheatham via Getty Images)

Deciding what to sew is often influenced by skill level, personal taste, and the functional needs of the sewer. Beginners might start with simple projects like pillowcases, aprons, or tote bags, which provide a foundation in basic sewing techniques without overwhelming the novice. More experienced sewers might tackle fitted garments, intricate quilts, or detailed upholstery that demands more advanced skills.

Fabrics and Materials

Sewing spools of cotton (Credit: Liyao Xie via Getty Images)

Having chosen what to sew, an important consideration is what fabric and other materials to use. This entails an understanding of their properties. Sewing encompasses a wide range of materials, from natural fibres like cotton, linen, and wool, to synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon. Fabric weights, textures, and elasticity all play a role in the selection process, impacting how the material handles and drapes. For instance, delicate silk may be suitable for a flowing dress, while sturdy denim lends itself well to durable trousers or jackets.

Patterns and Projects

Old paper sewing pattern (Credit: wwing via Getty Images)

Patterns serve as blueprints for sewing projects, offering detailed instructions and templates for cutting and assembling fabric pieces. Reading and interpreting pattern instructions are crucial skills for sewers at all levels, ensuring accurate creation of garments and accessories.


Through the eye of a needle... (Credit: PeopleImages via Getty Images)

Sewing, like any craft, involves a learning curve, with common issues arising along the way. Thread tension issues, tangled threads, and uneven stitches are frequent problems that can be addressed with practice and adjustment. Fabric puckering, another common challenge, may require experimenting with stitch lengths and tension settings. Techniques for removing stitches, such as using a seam ripper, allow for corrections and adjustments, ensuring a polished final product.

Sewing as a Timeless Tool

Vintage sewing set (Credit: Ana Maria Serrano via Getty Images)

In summary, we’ve examined the question of what is sewing, including tools, techniques, and how to decide what to sew. And in “sew” doing, we’ve seen just how vital it is and how important it’s been over the centuries.


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