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Making Costume Hems

Strong, Good-Looking, Easy-to-Ornament Hems

Good hems balance the entire look of the costume, enhance the way the costume moves when dancing, flatter the dancer´s figure, hold up during repeated cleanings, and keep the garment from fraying and catching in a toe or heel.

Before you cut, think about the end result desired. Do you want a light and floaty edge? Very narrow hems often work very well for circle skirts and sleeve hems, since a light and floaty edge is desirable in these pieces. But if you want the garment to look and feel weighted (as in a royal dress or coat or ornamental skirt panels) then consider a deeper hem.

Make sure your garment has stretched. In the case of a not-too-full skirt with no seams on the bias, overnite will be fine. In the case of skirts made of circles (or the double-square skirt with ruffled hem), you must hang your skirt for a week. Why? Because BIAS STRETCHES and a skirt with lots of bias in it WILL STRETCH LIKE CRAZY for the first week. If you hem it immediately you will have to rehem it! What a drag! If you don't have a week, and your fabric is washable, you can try wetting it thoroughly and letting it hang until dry. (The weight of the water helps expedite the stretching).

Do not get sloppy! It is so easy to get sloppy on hems because they are often the last thing to do on a costume piece that you have become sick of sewing. Bite the bullet and treat yourself to a smooth and durable hem. You'll thank yourself every time you wear the costume.

To keep hems smooth, make the area under the needle a stress-free zone. Don't let the weight of the garment drag or twist the material while you sew it; keep the costume supported as much as possible on a table, stool, or similar surface. Keep the wide side of the pressure foot on top of your hem whenever possible. And press before you sew!

Mark the hem

  1. Place a safety pin at the center back.
  2. Have the dancer put the costume piece on inside-out and then stand on a stack of encyclopedias or a stepstool or something similar to make it easier for you to mark the hem.
  3. If you are heming a skirt, use a ruler and measure up from the floor. If you are marking hems on sleeves for a dancer whose arms are the same length, then marking one sleeve hem and using that as a template for the other sleeve can work. If you do a lot of hems, time to evolve: buy one of these hem markers and measure and mark at the same time!
  4. Mark the hemlines with pins, safety pins, chalk, washable pens, whatever. Unless you are working with a small hem that you are going to trim to fit immediately, avoid the pens whose marks fade automatically -- on a humid day the marks may fade before you cut the hem!
  Standing Chalk Hem Marker (Stock number CM2 in 2014) at Wawak Sewing.

Cut the Hem

Cut the hem while the dancer is still on the premises, in case there are spots where the marks are not clear or non-existent and a refitting becomes necessary. (In case of refitting - remember to position the pin marking the center back at the dancer's center back, especially if working with a skirt or pants.) A rotary cutter works great AS LONG as you keep the rest of the skirt away from where you are cutting!

Sew the Hem

Here's the Big Picture: the easiest fabrics to hem are natural fabrics (cotton, silk, wool, rayon) with a plain weave, because you can press them into shape before stitching them. Remember that there is a troubleshooting section at the end of this page.

The Simple Hem

1) Press the outside edge to the inside. If this is a hem for a circle skirt, try to keep the fold no more than 1/4" wide. (If a veil, no more than 1/8" wide.)

  Turn raw edge to inside
2) Fold and press the hem one more time. Stitch the hem down with a machine straight stitch.   Turn once more and stitch down.

The Simple Hem that does not roll Up

Narrow shirt-tail hems that are turned twice and curve up at the side seams may flip up without special handling. The Six-Thread hem (below) usually eliminates the roll factor, but if you do not want a very narrow hem, try this.

  1. Lay the part to be hemmed on the ironing board and gently pat and pull into shape.
  2. Fold up the hem at the desired hemline and hold it in place with pins stabbed at 2" intervals through the fabric to the ironing board.
  3. Press the fold with the tip of the iron without removing the pins.
  4. Turn under the raw edge and stab pin it as well.
  5. Press again. You are now easing the fabric with your iron.
  6. Stitch the folded edge to the garment. Do not allow it to shift. Use pins or very narrow fusible web tape strips to keep it in place for stitching.

The Six-Thread Hem

A six-thread hem is more work, but it has a subdued elegance as well as a slight extra balance and swing to it. So if subdued elegance is your plan:

1) Press hem edge 1/4" towards the wrong side, then stitch as close to the folded edge as possible.

  turn raw edge and stitch on folded edge.
2) With little scissors, trim the raw edges right next to the edge stitching.   Trim close to stitching.
3) Turn and press again, creating the smallest possible hem (1/16 inch is not unusual). Stitch again on the very outside (bottom) edge.   Stitch again at outside edge.
Stitch along the folded edge on the inside of the skirt (you'll get a smoother hem if you stitched the bottom edge down first). Now you have three rows of stitching in this hem, which means you have six threads (top and bobbin) in this hem, which gives it a bit of definition without being overwhelming.   Last Seam at inside edge.

The Bias Trim Hem

1) Purchase or make bias trim. For the Square Circle skirt I cut a big square (52 x 52) of skirt fabric, dyed it pink and made 20 yards of bias out of it.

2) Stitch right side of bias to wrong side of skirt along the edge.

  Attach bias to wrong side
3) Turn the bias to the right side and press.

4) [Optional] Stitch along the very edge of the hem.

  Turn bias to right side
5) Press the remaining raw edge of the bias under 1/4 inch. Baste with pins or thread if necessary to maintain the shape of the bias strip. Stitch the folded edge of the bias to the skirt with a long straight stitch.   Stitch bias down.

Press the Hem

PRESS means pick-up-the-iron-and-set-it-down, NOT slide-the-iron-along-as-fast-as-you-can-because-you-are-sick-of-this-skirt. You will slide the entire hem out of grain and into ripples!

Trouble shooting:

Straight Hems will not press flat:

  • Use vinegar to convince it to stay folded. Try moistening the hem area with white vinegar and then pressing it. This will often work on plain-weave synthetics. You will need to wash the vinegar out later so make sure your fabric is washable... AND.. best to test the ENTIRE process (moistening, pressing, washing and drying) on a scrap of fabric!
  • Use your sewing machine to have the final word. Overcast or zig zag the raw edge of the skirt to control fraying. Stay-stitch a seam on the marked hem line. Make sure the thread tension is correct (no slight gathering on top or bottom). You should then be able to fold it with your fingers and stitch along the very edge of the fold to hold it in place.

Circular or curved hem will not lay flat

  • The problem is that the circumference of the raw edge is greater than the circumference of the marked hem line. You'd think so little of a difference wouldn't matter, but it does! And the bias slant of the fabric at most of the hemline doesn't help, either.
  • The six-thread hem or the bias trim hem (above) will often work very well.
  • Press the hem to fit: if you are lucky and your hem is not too deep, you will able press the hem to fit with your iron.
  • Ease the hem to fit: Overcast or zig zag the raw edge of the skirt to control fraying. Run two rows of easing/gathering stitches near the finished raw edge. Fold the hem on the marked hem line. Gather and pin the hem to fit the shape of the skirt bottom. Press lightly. Finish the hem with a straight (visible on outside but very durable) or blind (invisible on outside but less durable) stitch.
  • Fit the hem: Fold the hem along the marked hem line. Create darts as necessary to make the hem into the same shape as the skirt bottom. Overcast or zig zag the raw edge of the skirt to control fraying. Finish the hem with a straight (visible on outside but very durable) or blind (invisible on outside but less durable) stitch.
Maura Enright, Proprietor
©2013 - 2014 by Maura Enright
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