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Unpicking is unfortunately an inevitable part of dressmaking. However carefully you’ve placed your pins or even tacked a seam, at some point you’ll need to undo misplaced stitches.

If like me you are fond of secondhand clothes and frequent your local charity shops you may also spend a fair amount of time altering factory made garments.

Here is my guide to the tools you should have for unpicking and how to undo some of the most common stitches.

Essential tools:

Unpicker, scalpel or Stanley knife blade, small scissors or snips, good light, very good eyesight or possibly a magnifying glass, and a few pins….


Common stitches:

Straight seam

To get the best use from our unpicker we must first understand it’s anatomy. You probably think I’ve lost the plot right now, but bear with me.

There is a small blade for slicing through stitches, a pointed end to guide the blade and a little ball of enamel (which is blood red for danger! – only joking), which is actually to stop the blade from going too far into the cloth and helps the unpicker glide through a seam without catching on the fabric…


The most common thing you’ll be unpicking is probably a misplaced seam or maybe a not-quite-right zip. Here’s how to unpick quick.

Use the blade of the unpicker to break a couple of stitches on the surface (this is not a magic floating unpicker I just couldn’t photograph both my hands and take the picture)…


Then tease apart the layers until you have an opening large enough to slide the unpicker into…


Turn the unpicker over so that the ball is below the surface of the seam, this way when you slide through the stitches you don’t need to worry about the pointed end catching on anything and tearing a hole.


Depending on what your fabric is like and what you find easier, you may want to pinch the seam closed as you slide the unpicker through the stitches, this creates a tension in the seam and will protect the fabric from being ripped…


Alternatively, hold the two edges being separated between your fingers, holding each side with equal force, and slide the unpicker through the errant stitches…


The key to getting this right is to have an equal amount of tension on each side of the seam, that way the unpicker is simply sliding through the stitches in the centre. If you only hold one side of the seam the blade is likely to veer to one side and could slice a hole in your work.

Seams in denim, leather or canvas

Sometimes our trustily little unpicker just doesn’t have the might to deal with the tough thread in garments. Items made from leather, canvas and denim all tend to be constructed using an extra tough or ‘topstitch’ thread. It is designed to be super-durable and therefor tough to break.

On these occasions a simple blade will do the trick. Gently work at a few stitches until you can hold the seam taught with your fingers on both sides of the seam, then run the blade gently but firmly through the stitches away from your body.


Easy does it…


You should find that you can breeze through tough thread. Just beware of the grotty fluff monsters hiding inside those seams!


Everyone groans at the thought of undoing a row of overlocking but if you know which thread to undo first it is actually a cinch!

To understand how to remove the threads we need to understand how they are formed.

Very simply, you have two looping threads (that wrap around the cut edge of the fabric) and either one or two ‘stitching’ threads (these are the ones that go through the needles of the overlocker and look like a straight row of stitches on the fabric surface).

They will look like this with four threads…


And like this if they have three…


I’ll start with the four thread overlock. Catch one of the stitches on the top side of fabric from the middle of the overlocking as shown…


Once you’ve broken the thread, pull it through the fabric until it has worked loose, you may need to break the thread every few inches to achieve this. When this row of stitching thread is gone, you will have three thread overlocking…


Hook the end of the unpicker under the remaining row of stitches, again on the top surface of the fabric as pictured…


As with the first row of stitches, pull the thread through until it works loose and comes out…


The looper threads will just fall away. Joy!


I hope this busts the fear of undoing overlocking stitches.

Chain stitch

Chain stitch is really easy to undo, it’s just tricky to get started. It looks like an ordinary straight stitch from one side but on the reverse the thread loops back on itself after each stitch forming a tiny ‘chain’.

To undo this stitch work from the chain side of the fabric. First snip the thread at each end of the area to be unpicked (once this starts to go you could get carried away and undo a whole seam!). Next we need to identify the direction the stitches will unravel. Carefully work at the thread until you work the cut end loose from a loop, it should look like this…


This is a diagram to show the top and bottom threads, and the form he stitch will take. The arrow points to the end that will unravel when pulled, but the thread must be free from the loop drawn directly below it in the illustration…

IMG_4416 chain

Once the correct thread is identified, simply pull gently…

IMG_4428 chain 1 IMG_4428 chain 2 IMG_4428 chain 3IMG_4430 chain 4

Delicate fabrics…

Unfortunately there is no really quick way to unpick these stitches, the thread tends to be stronger than the fibres in the fabric so tugging vigourously on the thread can tear holes or bruise the fibres of the fabric. If someone could invent a magic pen that dissolves stitches but not fabric that would be great, keep me posted on your progress please!

In the mean time, happy sewing! X


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2 comments on Unpicking – oh joy!

  1. Mary Sheppard says:

    This is an excellent tutorial – your photos and instructions are very clear. Unfortunately I think I must have an odd factory stitch because I can’t find any directions for it and I know there must be a way!

  2. Becky Drinan says:

    Hi Mary, thank you, I’ve discovered a few odd stitches myself recently, maybe I should write another tutorial! I’m glad you found the tutorial helpful, even if it didn’t work out this time!

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