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How to Practice Hand Sewing Stitches


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#1 tailleuse

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Posted 08 May 2011 - 05:44 AM

Hi, All:

I recently bought the Stanley Hostek book on hand sewing because it was recommended here. I feel as though I already own a ton of books and one DVD on hand sewing techniques, but I was willing to suspend my doubts. I imagine the book has some suggestions, but I thought I'd reach out for some advice.

*What kind of practice materials should I use, e.g., muslin, wool? Two layers? A "sandwich" of fabrics? How big should the pieces be?

*What kind of thread? Cotton or silk? Should I use beeswax?

*For needles, I assume milliners for basting stitches, betweens and sharps for permanent stitches?

Recommended brands? What is your preferred method for keeping track of the needles, especially if you have bought the kind that are wrapped in a couple of folds of paper?

Do you throw out your needles after a certain number of hours of use? Does that emery strawberry on old-fashioned pin cushions work to sharpen needles?

*How long should the ideal practice session last, and how frequently?

*How many kinds of stitches should I try to master? Any particular order?

I need to mark a stitching line with chalk; that's not negotiable. But would it be worth it in addition to mark quarter inches along the horizontal line so I can train my brain, eye, and hand better? I've tried using marked tapes, called "Tiger Tape" and tick tape, but they're distracting unless I'm stab stitching. I took a class in which we were shown how to make a sewing gauge out of cardboard that is slid along the fabric as one sews, but I never got the hang of it.

Anything else?


I am already familiar with most basic stitches, with the exception of the buttonhole stitch and perhaps that's not considered basic. I've never been that happy with my skill, however. I'm slow and I still don't think I am manipulating the tailor's thimble correctly. My "weaving" (some people call it "stitch loading") method is not particularly good -- the spaces are invariably inconsistent.

Maybe I'll try making a couple of simple garments completely by hand just to give myself the experience of working on something real as opposed to just samples.

I look forward to your suggestions and insights.

Tailleuse

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#2 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 08 May 2011 - 07:56 AM

I cover some of this on my pinned topic here, under "The Basics" heading. But I will re-answer here, as I know people don't like to read long topics.

What kind of practice materials should I use, e.g., muslin, wool? Two layers? A "sandwich" of fabrics? How big should the pieces be?


I say use the material you will be using most often, for men's wear, Worsted fits the bill. A half metre of pinstripe worsted will go a long way. In my beginning hand tailoring workshops, I usually hand out strips about 5 inches by 14 inches with the stripe running along the long. This seems to be a good size to practice on. Once you fill it up, pick it out and start all over. I think picking the stitches out does two things, one: you get a feel for how well your stitches are and their spacing, two: you respect your work and ingrains a certain pride in your workmanship.

*What kind of thread? Cotton or silk? Should I use beeswax?


For practice, 40 wt. mercerised cotton, waxed. Silk is expensive, and while you are footing the bill cotton works just fine.

*For needles, I assume milliners for basting stitches, betweens and sharps for permanent stitches?


The best thing you can buy are a blister pack of needles sizes. In my introduction I state:

"In Continental Europe, get Prym no. 5-9 betweens. The no 5 needles (the longest) are used for basting and buttons. The no. 7 (middle) is for general sewing and seaming. The no. 9 (shortest) for felling and thick cloths.

In the UK and North America, get John James no. 3-9, The no 3 (largest) then would be used for basting.

Soon you will get a feel for the different needle sizes and can purchase them by the size as you need them."


Recommended brands? What is your preferred method for keeping track of the needles, especially if you have bought the kind that are wrapped in a couple of folds of paper?


I like John James, but needle choices are subjective. I say find you quite a few different multi-sized betweens pack and try them out. As you sew you will notice the difference. There are some Japanese brands that I am dying to try that are supposedly strong, bend resistant and extremely sharp. I typically keep my needles in their envelopes until needed, pull out a few at a time thread them up for uninterrupted sewing.

Do you throw out your needles after a certain number of hours of use? Does that emery strawberry on old-fashioned pin cushions work to sharpen needles?


I throw out my needles as they dull, get hooks or bend. The life of a needle depends on many factors. As you sew you will get a feel for it. As for the strawberry's, I couldn't tell you.

*How long should the ideal practice session last, and how frequently?


I'm hardcore, I would say 8 hours a day. Realistically, an hour or two a day. The important thing to bear in mind, while this will be the most important thing you will do to establish a solid foundation, it is extremely boring. So remember, slow and steady, form each stitch with care and precision, DO NOT RUSH. You are not in a race, and all you will do is cheat yourself if you rush just to get done.

Another option is to set a length of seam to do a day. Don't worry about the clock. the down fall to this is you might rush just to get the seam done.

*How many kinds of stitches should I try to master? Any particular order?


Start with a fore-stitch, do not move on from this stitch until you can do A) keep stitches evenly spaced, B) each stitch is evenly tensioned and C) you can do this at a good clip. Not necessarily fast, but at a consistent speed with out having to stop and fiddle. Once you can do the above, move on to the Back-stitch. Use the same guides before you move on to the other stitches. At first stick to structural stitches, Fore, Back, back and fore, catch/ cross, pad and felling (all three forms) and them move on to the decorative.

I need to mark a stitching line with chalk; that's not negotiable. But would it be worth it in addition to mark quarter inches along the horizontal line so I can train my brain, eye, and hand better? I've tried using marked tapes, called "Tiger Tape" and tick tape, but they're distracting unless I'm stab stitching. I took a class in which we were shown how to make a sewing gauge out of cardboard that is slid along the fabric as one sews, but I never got the hang of it.


This shows that you do not hold your needle and thimble properly, or that you have not been shown the relation of needle holding and stitch length. For example:

When you pick up the needle you pick it up so as from the edge of your finger to the point of the needle is the desired length of your stitch. As you sweep the needle with your thimble finger, to set the needle for sewing, make sure to maintain the stitch length from the finger to the point. The purpose of this is that you do not have to think about stitch length, simply bite the needle into the cloth till it hits your fingers and then break the cloth over the needle as you press the needle through. Advance the needle with your thimble, and grab the needle at the same distance from the point. Pull needle from the cloth, bring up and pull the stitch home, sweep, set and take another stitch. One you become proficient in this method you will never worry about guessing the stitch length by eye, it is automatic.

Note* a regular stitch is 1/4" long (in a back stich 1/4" equates into 1/8th inch stitches. If you hold the needle at exactly 1/4" from the point, your stitches will form at 1/10th of an inch due to the material thickness. So if you want 1/8th inch seams hold the needle a smidge longer than 1/4".

Also, when forming back stitches you will notice that the top layer will full on to the bottom layer causing the bottom layer to work out longer than the top. To counter this, as you break the cloth over the needle you will need to strain the top layer as you pass the needle through.

I'm slow and I still don't think I am manipulating the tailor's thimble correctly.


Don't worry about speed, speed comes with practice as does making even stitches. As Mr. Poulin states:

"At first, you will have difficulty making the stitches even and fine. Don't worry too much about that; skill will come in time. A beginner's seam, even if uneven, can be as strong and durable as that of the best tailor in the world."

To add to this, since you are practising and not jumping right into the fray, please do take the time to carefully and purposely form each stitch. This will help develop muscle memory and as you strike out into making garments, you will find it easier to for each stitch without stress of doing it right. It may not be perfect, but this will come in time.
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#3 tailleuse

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Posted 08 May 2011 - 02:07 PM

This is so helpful. Thank you for the detailed responses.

I say use the material you will be using most often, for men's wear, Worsted fits the bill. A half metre of pinstripe worsted will go a long way. In my beginning hand tailoring workshops, I usually hand out strips about 5 inches by 14 inches with the stripe running along the long.

Using pinstripe makes a lot of sense. I once went to a seminar on handsewing and brought some 1/4" check gingham because it was recommended in a book. Same principle. But the seminar leaders hadn't heard of it.

This seems to be a good size to practice on. Once you fill it up, pick it out and start all over. I think picking the stitches out does two things, one: you get a feel for how well your stitches are and their spacing, two: you respect your work and ingrains a certain pride in your workmanship.


Sounds sensible to me.


For practice, 40 wt. mercerised cotton, waxed.


How can I tell the weight? It's not always on the spool. Also, what is considered basting thread? I went to Steinlauf and Stoller, a respected professional sewing notions store in New York City, and asked for basting thread and they gave me a lightweight thread that broke reasonably easily. On the other hand, I bought some basting "tailoring" basting thread from Atlanta Thread and it's coated and wiry.

Sometime I'd like try to French basting thread from Sajou ("Tacking thread," which is discussed on this site, apparently is British English.) http://www.sajou.fr/...hp?cPath=98_181




The best thing you can buy are a blister pack of needles sizes. In my introduction I state:

"In Continental Europe, get Prym no. 5-9 betweens.



The no 5 needles (the longest) are used for basting and buttons. The no. 7 (middle) is for general sewing and seaming. The no. 9 (shortest) for felling and thick cloths.

In the UK and North America, get John James no. 3-9, The no 3 (largest) then would be used for basting.

Soon you will get a feel for the different needle sizes and can purchase them by the size as you need them."







I like John James, but needle choices are subjective. I say find you quite a few different multi-sized betweens pack and try them out. As you sew you will notice the difference. There are some Japanese brands that I am dying to try that are supposedly strong, bend resistant and extremely sharp. I typically keep my needles in their envelopes until needed, pull out a few at a time thread them up for uninterrupted sewing.


Thanks. I have seen John James needles in stores.


[CONTINUED. THE SYSTEM SETS A LIMIT ON QUOTES.]
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#4 tailleuse

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Posted 08 May 2011 - 02:26 PM

[CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS REPLY]


I'm hardcore, I would say 8 hours a day. Realistically, an hour or two a day. The important thing to bear in mind, while this will be the most important thing you will do to establish a solid foundation, it is extremely boring. So remember, slow and steady, form each stitch with care and precision, DO NOT RUSH. You are not in a race, and all you will do is cheat yourself if you rush just to get done.

Another option is to set a length of seam to do a day. Don't worry about the clock. the down fall to this is you might rush just to get the seam done.


Thanks again for the specificity. Now I know what to aim for, given my schedule.




B) each stitch is evenly tensioned and C) you can do this at a good clip. Not necessarily fast, but at a consistent speed with out having to stop and fiddle. Once you can do the above, move on to the Back-stitch. Use the same guides before you move on to the other stitches. At first stick to structural stitches, Fore, Back, back and fore, catch/ cross, pad and felling (all three forms) ... .


Sorry, what are the three forms of felling stitch? Does it depend on what's being joined? BTW, in the U.S. we call it the "fell stitch," and a sewing teacher who was a purist (which I like) once said that only misinformed people called it the "felled stitch."



This shows that you do not hold your needle and thimble properly, or that you have not been shown the relation of needle holding and stitch length.


Oh, I'm fairly certain I'm not doing it correctly. I'm not knocking any of my previous construction classes, but they were large and there's only so much detail a teacher can go into in that kind of setting.



For example:

When you pick up the needle you pick it up so as from the edge of your finger to the point of the needle is the desired length of your stitch.


I've never heard this before. Someone gave me a magazine article and it recommended holding the needle as close to the eye as possible. This was supposed to provide more control; more leverage, I think.






Advance the needle with your thimble, and grab the needle at the same distance from the point. Pull needle from the cloth, bring up and pull the stitch home, sweep, set and take another stitch. One you become proficient in this method you will never worry about guessing the stitch length by eye, it is automatic.


Thank you. I will definitely try to get this down. I knew there had to be a trick. Eyeballing alone wasn't doing it for me.



Note* a regular stitch is 1/4" long (in a back stitch 1/4" equates into 1/8th inch stitches. If you hold the needle at exactly 1/4" from the point, your stitches will form at 1/10th of an inch due to the material thickness. So if you want 1/8th inch seams hold the needle a smidge longer than 1/4".





I will try to internalize this.


Also, when forming back stitches you will notice that the top layer will full on to the bottom layer causing the bottom layer to work out longer than the top.


I suppose that's a bit like the effect with a sewing machine? It happens even in hand sewing?

To counter this, as you break the cloth over the needle you will need to strain the top layer as you pass the needle through.


There are many more subtleties to "simple hand sewing" than are generally acknowledged.Posted Image



Don't worry about speed, speed comes with practice as does making even stitches. As Mr. Poulin states:

"At first, you will have difficulty making the stitches even and fine. Don't worry too much about that; skill will come in time. A beginner's seam, even if uneven, can be as strong and durable as that of the best tailor in the world."

To add to this, since you are practising and not jumping right into the fray, please do take the time to carefully and purposely form each stitch. This will help develop muscle memory and as you strike out into making garments, you will find it easier to for each stitch without stress of doing it right. It may not be perfect, but this will come in time.



Thanks for the reinforcement. It's very helpful to be reminded that these skills aren't mastered immediately. Still, if one puts in the requisite time and works with awareness and intelligence, there will be improvement.

I'm happy to learn and to practice. What I hate is when someone takes a needle and thread goes shoom shoom shoom through the fabric without explaining the details of how that is achieved (telling me you started sewing at the age of 11 is not helpful ).

Thanks again! Posted ImageI just had a strong premonition that a volume of "The Victorian Tailor" is in my near future.

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#5 theBlackSheep

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 03:30 AM

There are some Japanese brands that I am dying to try that are supposedly strong, bend resistant and extremely sharp.


i'm intrigued, what are these japanese brands exactly? i'd like to try them if i can find them.

maybe more suited to the needles post in this forum, but there are these

http://regal.bankoku-needle.co.jp/

has anyone used these or any other premium japanese needles?

Edited by theBlackSheep, 09 May 2011 - 03:52 AM.

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#6 MANSIE WAUCH

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 05:14 AM

Tailleuse -I've never heard this before. Someone gave me a magazine article and it recommended holding the needle as close to the eye as possible. This was supposed to provide more control; more leverage, I think.

Thank you. I will definitely try to get this down. I knew there had to be a trick. Eyeballing alone wasn't doing it for me.



Be careful you don't have your eye out! :rolleyes:
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#7 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 06:54 AM

@ Tailleuse

I have seen how seamstresses, tailors, home-sewers and complete noobies hold the thimble and needle. And of this lot the tailor's method is the most ergonomic and economical in movements. In my workshops I see the seamstresses that have been sewing forever and the home-sewer and noobie holding the needle close to the eye, holding the needle on the thimble at the side or worse yet trying to push the needle through with the tip of their finger, or even neglect to use the thimble despite it being right on their finger. Their wrists wobble and rotate around the stitch, and they hold the work up like they are knitting, thus supporting the weight of the work on their arm muscles and them complain after a few minutes of sewing their tendinitis is starting to flair or they are getting carpal tunnel. Yes, no wonder as nothing they are doing is ergonomic.

So for your sake here is some more oral transmissions that are not in books.

1. When you set the needle into the thimble and it is primed to bit the cloth notice these points:

A. The fingers are equally on either side of the needle shaft and held just tight enough to have command over the needle. If your thumb starts to tense or cramp you are holding the needle to tight.
B. The thimble is the base, this is the mechanism which you use to advance the needle. Also take note that you have formed a triangle with the fingers and the thimble. This gives you control and the needle is less likely to slip or move out of place.
C. The fingers do not guide the needle, the thimble finger does, using the fingers as a pivot.

2. Whether you sit cross-legged on the bench or in a chair with one leg lapped over the other take note of the position of your arms in relation to the article being sewn.

A. Sit erect with your shoulders square to the article.
B. make sure your arms are 90 degrees or a little less, do not tense muscles use your knees/ knees as a base.
C. Notice in this position as you start your stitch, your head and postur will pull itself into the proper sewing position. With your eye trace the geometry thus formed from shoulder to the point of the needle. You should notice that your upper arm is in a neutral rest like position, with the lower arm in a right angle. keeping your thumb straight and in line from the elbow through the fore-arm allows for economy of movement. Also this posture, if the needle and thimble is held right will give the proper attack angle in relation to the seam. i.e. straight across and parallel to your shoulders. This position allows for natural sewing and if held properly allows for straight seams with out having to think about it.

*Note A: ALWAYS support the weight of the garment across your knees, never hold the garment up to sew.
*Note B: Use the hypothenar muscle of your palm to steady your sewing hand upon your knee. Not only does this steady the sewing but the material being between the hand and palm allows you to gain leverage and a bit of a lamp on the material to allow you to strain the top layer to counter the fulling.
*Note C: Always advance the needle with the thimble and not the fingers, use the fingers as a guide for the needle.
*Note D: Formation of the back-stitch- this part is a little hard to explain in words, but allow me to try. In particular relation to the back-stitch the needle always bites the cloth in the down stitch nearly vertically. Do not rotate the sewing hand's wrist, but use the thimble to guide the needle into this position, with the hand in the neutral position. As the needle bites into the cloth and you insert the needle to the tips of the fingers, rotate the needle up into the neutral position. Now break the cloth OVER the point of the needle. As the point starts to bite into the lower layer start to strain the top layer of cloth by rubbing the top layer over the bottom layer between the index finger and thumb of your guide hand, using the sewing hand palm on the knee as leverage. Now advance the needle with the thimble as the point of the needle breaks the top layer. Advance until you have enough needle viable to take between the thumb and fore-finger at the required length of the stitch from the needle point. Pull the needle from the cloth straight up and at the apex of the stitch give a little tug up and out to set the stitch. Finally, as your arm come back to neutral, simultaneously sweep and reset the needle to take the next stitch.

OK I hope that helps to clarify a little more. This is an operation that is best shown.
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#8 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 06:59 AM

Tailleuse -I've never heard this before. Someone gave me a magazine article and it recommended holding the needle as close to the eye as possible. This was supposed to provide more control; more leverage, I think.

Thank you. I will definitely try to get this down. I knew there had to be a trick. Eyeballing alone wasn't doing it for me.



Be careful you don't have your eye out! :rolleyes:


Yes, holding the needle near the eye gives you no control and as the fingers are at a much lower leverage point, and the fact that you have to hold the needle much tighter between the fingers to maintain control is the reason why needles are so readily bent in this position. The method I learned and present in my book and above makes it quite rare to bend needles. The majority of needle breaks I have are point hooks due to breaking several layers of cloth over the needle point. But I am a masochist in this respect, and many people would opt to use a machine for thick layer sewing.
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#9 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 07:02 AM

@ Black Sheep-

Sorry I do not know the names of them, the ones I seen were brief and the labels were in Kanji and Hiragana.
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#10 Joseph

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 07:59 AM

Do yourself a favor and stop sewing aimless stitches in scrap fabric. As soon as you have the least bit of control move on to the simplest of alterations like hemming pants and taking in the waist and seat. Work on your own pants, buy cheap pants at the thrift store, maybe even do some for family and friends when you get the nerve. Doing alterations is one of the best ways to learn. It lets you work on real clothes, gives you a feel for the needle, the machine, the cloth, let's you see the product of your work and how good or bad it is. This is where you should put your energy. Don't get ahead of yourself but don't dumb yourself down either. Hope this makes sense.

#11 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 08:51 AM

I disagree with Joseph. You are working on a foundation, repetitive movements for muscle memory and the longer stitches allow for this. When making alterations, you are going at short bursts, short seams and you concentrate more on the garment than the formation and mechanics of the stitches. Once you have a solid foundation then move on to what Joseph suggests. Trust me, a solid foundation builds confidence and reassures the student that when he does move on to what Joseph suggests then a better job will be had.
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#12 greger

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 09:43 AM

J. Maclochlainn, never seen that method before of how to sew. There are a number of methods, and it is probably good to know a number of them and change the methods from time to time.
Have to give that one a try sometime.

#13 greger

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 09:56 AM

I disagree with Joseph. You are working on a foundation, repetitive movements for muscle memory and the longer stitches allow for this. When making alterations, you are going at short bursts, short seams and you concentrate more on the garment than the formation and mechanics of the stitches. Once you have a solid foundation then move on to what Joseph suggests. Trust me, a solid foundation builds confidence and reassures the student that when he does move on to what Joseph suggests then a better job will be had.


Jason is right here, because of the long term (you want to be able to sew in your sleep). Though, I do suggest to work for 20 minutes or as long as your mind can reasonably handle it. Over time the mind will be able to do it for long hours. Another suggestion is when you are finishing your time for the day stop on the best stitches and then begin the next day (learned this from a music teacher and its a much faster method of learning than the methods I used before).
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#14 Sator

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 02:43 PM

I tend to agree with Joseph. Stitches are intended to serve a purpose. The ultimate test is to see if your stitches are serving the end to which they are intended. For example, you can practice pad stitching two pieces of scrap cloth together but only when you pad stitch a canvas so it has shape and is smooth without bubbling have you really mastered this technique.

Still, you can start with pieces of scrap cloth. It is like riding with training wheels.

#15 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 04:00 PM

You only agree with Joseph because Greger and I agree :p

Seriously though, doing the way I present, when it comes time, the student will produce much better results.

But which ever-way the student decides is up to them. I strongly feel my way gives a more solid foundation.
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#16 Nishijin

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 07:28 PM

I would say that learning on scraps is good to start, until one has an OK result. As soon as the result is good enough, it's a good idea to work on real garments, because the difference of cloth, the place where you make your stitches, etc. has an influence on the result, and it's impossible to have scraps of every kind.

But the transition should not be too soon either. Nobody learns buttonholes by making buttonholes on a coat.

So, the problem is "how to know when it's good enough"... No easy answer on that. Either one has a teacher, or one has a good critical mind.


Same for pockets, BTW.
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#17 eboli

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 10:08 PM

Does that emery strawberry on old-fashioned pin cushions work to sharpen needles?


It does, since it contains aluminium oxide granulate. A lot of grinding stones are made of that material. It is said you simply have to prick into it a few times, but I suspect that can dull a needle's tip. Therefore
I like to pinch the strawberry while withdrawing the needle. By doing that I always get smoothly sharpened needles.
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#18 J. Maclochlainn

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 10:51 PM

Oh and please don't get me wrong. I'm talking about proficiency, not mastery.
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