When you start sewing a seam, you backstitch, right? I mean we all do, don't we?
Nearly every sewing machine made in the last eighty years has a backstitch (or reverse stitch) lever, button, or switch. If we weren't supposed to backstitch, they wouldn't be there.
I own two Singer 66 models (both more than eighty years old) and neither has a backstitch lever -- there's just a knob that controls stitch length and no reverse. I guess the backstitch function hadn't been invented yet. That bothered me when I first started sewing with them.
In all my couture sewing books, however, there is a general consensus that you do not backstitch (or reverse stitch) at the beginning and end of seams. You either pull the loose thread ends through to the back of your fabric and knot them, or you start (and end) your stitching with a teeny stitch that won't pull out (and increase your stitch length in between).
I just read Roberta Carr's wonderful "Couture, the Art of Fine Sewing."
Her message about backstitching? Don't do it!
Claire Shaeffer, in "Couture Sewing Techniques" writes:
"Machine backstitching is never used in couture because it adds stiffness and bulk to the seamline, and it is almost impossible to remove without marring the fabric."
Just checked the legendary Edna Bishop. She advocates holding the fabric with your left hand and stitching "several times in one spot" instead of backstitching. She refers to this as "lockstitching."
I backstitched the hem of my madras shorts and you can see the overlapped stitch if you look closely. On a garment like this it doesn't bother me in the least; this is definitely not couture!
When I was sewing Cathy's silk charmeuse dress last month, I did notice that if I backstitched I could definitely feel a lump from the extra stitches.
What I will often do when I sew is to start stitching a little forward from the end, backstitch a few stitches (to the true end) and then continue stitching forward. That way there are some double stitches, but there aren't triple stitches, which is what you get if you start stitching at the very edge, stitch in reverse, and then continue stitching forward. Does that make sense?
Something else to ponder: when you sew, nearly all your seam ends are going to be encased in other seam ends: i.e., the sleeve seam will be encased in the armscye seam, the skirt seam will go into the waistline seam, and so on. Hems (or a topstitched cuff) could be an example of a seam that would not be encased by anything else, though on a fine garment you're not going to use your machine to hem anyway, right?
My hunch is that most of us were taught to anchor a seam by backstitching. Most sewing books contain that instruction, and it's a difficult habit to unlearn. Whether I backstitch or not, the only time I have to deal with stitches coming loose is when I've cut a few inches off a sleeve or a pants leg, before I've finished the hem. But I suppose it also depends on the fabric you're sewing with and the stitch length.
So how about you?
Have you experienced unpleasant stiffness in a seamline due to backstitching?
Have you ever not backstitched and been sorry you didn't because the seam opened up?
Where do you stand in the sewing machine backstitch debate? (Shhhh...we won't tell Claire Shaeffer!)
I'm a native New Yorker and sewing fanatic! I started sewing in 2009 and today make all my own clothes using vintage sewing machines and vintage patterns, in addition to sewing for private clients. Welcome to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, fabric, and more!