Skirts, Pants, Dresses & More: A Beginner's Guide on How to Hem


All sewers, at some time or another, will have to hem something — a dress, a pair of pants, sleeve or skirt. It’s just inevitable. Whether finishing a homemade garment or altering a store-bought one, knowing the proper way to hem is an important life skill for anyone to have. It will save you tons of money on alterations and, the good news; it’s pretty easy to do. The hardest part will be figuring out where you want the hem to be in the first place!

What complicate any hemming task are the extras, like lining, a kick pleat, or a cuff on a pair of pants. For today, we’ll tackle just a plain hem, or in other words a hem that has no interruptions. The bottom edge is simply turned up and stitched, or hemmed, in place. But, even here some things need to be considered which have mostly to do with the garment fabric itself. The cut or raw edge of the turned up hem edge must be finished in some way to produce a clean appearance on the underside of the garment and no bleed or bump on the public or right side. The type of fabric will determine which way the edge should be finished.

Where should the new hemline be?

Let’s begin by first figuring out where that hem should be. If you are trying to figure that out on yourself you can simply replicate the hem length of a similar garment you have in your closet. Measure the inseam of a pair of pants or the waist to hem measurement on a skirt and then use those measurements as your guide for the new garment. Then there is the trial and error approach. Try on the garment and pin up the hem to where you think you want it be. I know, that’s not easy to do on yourself, but with one or two attempts you should be able to settle on a hemline you like. The best method is to try on the garment and have someone else turn up the hem. Train your child, friend, husband or significant other to help you and you are set for life when it comes to hemming!

Ready the garment for hemming

Once the location of the new hem is determined, pin the excess fabric up to the underside around the entire circumference of the garment. Try on the garment once again. Look to make sure the hemline is where you want it to be, and - very important- make sure the pinned up hem is even all around. The hem should be equal distance from the floor at all points. The only exception here is women’s dress pants. Some women prefer the back side to be a bit longer to accommodate wearing high heels. If that is the case, make the desired adjustment.

Trim and ready the hem

With the pins still in place iron the hemline so when the pins are removed the ironed crease is visible. If your fabric doesn’t hold a crease, hand baste the hem in place about ½” from the folded hemline edge. Remove all pins.

A hem can be any width you want it to be, but for guidance, pant hems should be around 1 ¼” – 1 ½” and dress or skirt hems around 1 ½" – 2". Whichever hem width you choose trim away any excess fabric. Do this by measuring and then marking the hem width with a fabric pen or chalk. Use that mark as your guide to cut away the excess.

Finish the raw edges

All garments should look as clean and finished on the underside as it does on the public or right side, so some careful finishing of the hem’s raw edge is necessary. There are essentially three ways to finish a plain hem. The type of garment fabric will determine the appropriate approach. The objective is to secure a hem that is invisible from the public side of the garment. Here are your options: For standard types of fabric, like cotton,  serging the edge is the easiest approach and will produce a clean finish. The serged stitching will prevent the raw edges from fraying and provides a medium for the final hand stitching.

For lightweight to medium-weight fabrics, a turned edge looks clean and finished. Of utmost importance, the added bulk of the double layer of fabric should not bleed through to the public side of the garment when pressed. To be sure that is the case, test the turned edge on a piece of scrap fabric first. To do a turned edge, simply fold under the top raw edge of the hem by ¼” and press it in place. Then stitch the folded edge down 1/16" to 1/8" from the fold.

For heavier fabrics or ones that either fray excessively or will be too bulky to handle a tuned edge, it is best to finish the edge with some hem tape. This keeps the fraying in check, conceals an otherwise unattractive edge and most importantly, prevents a bulky hem edge from bleeding through to the public side of the garment. Hems edged with hem tape produce the most professionally looking hems, especially for garments that are unlined.

Slip stitch for hemming

Hand stitching the hem in place is by far the best approach to a well-executed hem. If done properly it is hardly visible and produces a secure hem. The hand stitch I use almost exclusively for hemming is the slip stitch. I like it best because when done properly only a small pick stitch is visible on the underside of the garment and nearly invisible on the public side.

Here is how to slip stitch a hem:

1. Position the garment so the hem is turned up (north) and facing you. You are going to sew from right to left. Thread a needle with roughly a 20" length of thread. To strengthen and prevent it from knotting up, run it through some beeswax and then iron it. Now knot one end of a single thread. 2. Insert the needle into the hem’s top edge starting from the underside up through the top of the hem edge (this becomes 6 o'clock). Notice the needle placement is roughly 1/8" or less from the hem edge.

3. Now take a tiny — no more than a thread- stitch directly above (at 12 o'clock) into the garment base. The resulting stitch should be quite small and perfectly vertical.

4. Next, angle the needle to enter the hem edge approximately 3/8" to ½" from the first stitch, (the space between each stitch will depend on the fabric). Bring the needle up at the 6 o'clock position and repeat the process described in steps 2 and 3. 5. Continue this process throughout the hem making sure only a thread or two is captured of the garment fabric. Also, make sure the spacing between each stitch is consistent and even. On the right side of the garment, only small, evenly spaced pick stitches should be visible. If applying on lofty or dense fabrics, the stitches will most likely not be visible at all.

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Skirts, Pants, Dresses & More: A Beginner's Guide on How to Hem