Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Part 4 of hand sewing for hand knitters: THE BACK STITCH

We're at part 4 of the TECHknitting series on handsewing for handknitters. So far, we've gone over two ways to start your thread, and one way (not to) sew it. Now we come to a very useful stitch --the BACK STITCH. The back stitch isn't much use in attaching knitted fabric to itself, but it is very useful for
  • sewing up WOVEN cloth, or
  • ATTACHING woven cloth firmly TO knitted fabric--sewing in a zipper, for example.

Before machine sewing was invented, the back stitch was widely used for general seaming of all sorts (seaming=sewing cut pieces of cloth together). The back stitch was also widely used for hemming (hemming=sewing folded-over fabric shut so as to conceal a cut edge).

Today, most folks substitute machine-sewing for the long, straight lines of stitches at which back stitch excels. Yet, back stitch remains a very useful stitch to know--even if you have a machine and prefer it, you may find that setting up the machine, threading it, and maybe having to wind a bobbin, takes longer than sewing a simple seam by hand--sewing shut a narrow head-band lining of polar fleece, for example.

For those without access to a machine, or those who prefer to work by hand, the back stitch would be an excellent choice for many types of sewing which hand knitters are likely to do: sewing up a purse lining or a sweater lining, or attaching a zipper.

So, without further ado, here is...

THE BACK STITCH, illustrated
1. (above) After you have anchored your thread on the back of the fabric, stab upwards with your needle, pulling it to the fabric face. Next, re-insert your needle one stitch length behind the point where it emerged. By "behind," I mean that right handed knitters, who are working from right to left, should insert the needle one stitch length to the right of where the needle first emerged, while left-handed sewers would reverse course, and insert the needle one stitch length to the left. This step ends with the needle on the back of the fabric.

2a. (above) At the end of step 1, above, the needle was drawn to the back of the fabric. In this step, the needle will be returned to the fabric face by stabbing upwards, ahead of the previous stitch. The distance between where the needle was stabbed down in step 1, and where it is to be stabbed up in step 2 is called a "stitch length PLUS."

The "PLUS" refers to the fact that you must stab the needle upwards at a distance FROM the last stitch of one stitch length PLUS the "interruption length" between stitches.

2b. (above) The "interruption length" is simply a fancy name for the distance between the stitches. If you skip ahead to illustration 5, you can see a variation on the back stitch called the "continuous back stitch," in which the back stitch is created with no interruption length. With no interruption length, the stitches touch.
3. (above) To complete the second stitch, again re-insert the needle one stitch length behind where it emerged. The path of the thread under the fabric is shown by the dotted line.

4. (above) Repeating steps 2 and 3 yields a line of back stitches. As you can see, the (dotted) line of the thread under the fabric is looped. This means that the back stitch takes quite a bit of thread--like an iceberg showing on the ocean's surface, the thread showing at the surface of the fabric is only a small fraction of the total amount.

5. (above) The variation called the "continuous back stitch" is illustrated here. To make the chain of stitches continuous on the face of the fabric, the "interruption length" has been diminished to zero. In other words, a continuous line of stitches on the fabric face has been made by stabbing the needle up EXACTLY one stitch length AHEAD of the previous stitch (as illustrated) then stabbing it down IN THE SAME HOLE as the previous stitch came up.

There is no particular structural difference between the regular back stitch (WITH an interruption length) and the continuous back stitch (NO interruption length) but the look is different, and some folks prefer one look over another.

6. (above) As with the running stitch illustrated in the last post, the back stitch can also be created by a shortcut method. However, this shortcut method is best reserved for thin fabrics--bulky fabrics would pucker by this method, so bulky fabrics are best sewn by the stabbing method illustrated in steps 1-4.

7. (above) Unlike the running stitch, the back stitch does not look the same on both sides. The back of the fabric shows the loops where the thread was "brought back" before the stitch re-emerges on the fabric face. This loop of thread attending each stitch is one reason why the back stitch is superior to the running stitch: those thread loops form a little reserve of thread which can adjust (somewhat, at least) when the fabric is stressed. Also, the loops distribute the stress on any one stitch over a greater area of fabric, which helps prevent wear holes where the thread emerges from the fabric, and helps protect the thread from snapping when stressed.

And yet...

Regardless of how important the concept of thread reserve is to hand sewers, hand knitters should BEWARE not to be misled. To hand knitters--accustomed to the great stretch of knitted fabrics--the scale of the stretch allowed by the thread reserve of the back stitch is negligible. It is only in the context of the relative inflexibility of woven cloth that the thread reserve in back stitch is worth talking about. For use on stretchy fabric like hand knits, the back stitch should only be used where a firm attachment is wanted between a piece of woven cloth and the knit fabric--inserting a zipper or a grosgrain ribbon backing on a button band.

Bottom line: the back stitch is an excellent stitch--a real workhorse stitch--for
  • seaming woven fabric (attaching cut pieces of woven fabric together, permanently)
  • hemming woven fabric (attaching a folded-over piece of woven fabric to itself to hide a cut edge and prevent it from unraveling) and
  • attaching a woven fabric firmly to knitted fabric (hand-setting a zipper or a grosgrain ribbon, for example)

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on hand sewing for knitters
Part 1: Starting off
Part 2: Starting off with a doubled thread
part 3: the running stitch 
part 4: the back stitch (this post)
part 5: the overcast stitch (best way to attach lining fabric to knitting) 

--TECHknitter (You have been reading TECHknitting on: the back stitch: hand sewing for hand knitters, part 4.)