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What is a Hemstitch?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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A hemstitch is an ornamental stitch sewn at the hem of a piece of fabric or garment. Hemstitching is a form of drawn thread embroidery — a section of parallel threads are removed from the fabric, and the remaining perpendicular threads are grouped together with additional thread to make small ornamental holes in the fabric. These holes are often patterned to form designs that resemble lace. Despite its name, a hemstitch is not by its nature limited to the edges of fabric — it can be used for ornamentation on any section of fabric.

Hemstitching is often used as ornamentation for table linens and handkerchiefs. While theoretically any woven fabric could be hemstitched, fabrics with strong, easily removed threads typically make the process easier. The basic hemstitch involves grouping the threads on only one side of the open gap, but there are many varieties of hemstitch and numerous possible variations on this technique. Additional hemstitch designs include the ladder, double twisted, and the serpentine.

While hemstitching has become a primarily decorative form of needlework, it was originally used to hold a hem in place. The fabric was folded and positioned in such a way that the stitch caught its edge to create a neat and attractive hem. With advances in technology, sewing machines have been invented that give the appearance of hemstitching without removing any threads.

These sewing machines rely on the tension of the sewing threads to make holes in the fabric. The holes are less easily controlled than hand-embroidered bunches, so they have less of a lacy appearance, but they are quite useful for creating crocheted edges on fabric. A crochet needle is pushed through the holes to connect the crocheted lace to the hemstitched fabric.

Hand-woven fabrics are often woven with a hemstitch in mind. At the desired location of the stitch, a placeholder is inserted into the warp. The weaving then continues after the placeholder. When the project is removed from the loom, there is no need to carefully draw out threads — one simply removes the placeholder and creates the desired bunches.

It is important to note that the word hemstitch has meanings both for embroidery and other fabric arts. Hemstitching, more appropriately written as two words — hem stitching — is often used to mean any kind of stitch performed on a hem. When following a pattern, it is important for a person to understand which of these meanings is being used. For example, a blind hem stitch is not a form of drawn thread embroidery, but a sewing technique. This stitch is often written as blind hemstitch, and should be differentiated appropriately.

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