Seam Ripping – What You Need to Know

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It’s inevitable. At some point, you’ll find yourself needing to rip out stitches.

Thank goodness someone invented the seam ripper.

tray with seam rippers

The seam ripper is a handy little tool that allows you to quickly and easily remove stitches you don’t want or need. That’s why I consider it one of the essential sewing tools.

At first glance, it may seem pretty straightforward on how to use the seam ripper.

But like most tools, there is more than one technique on how to use it.

Some methods work better than others depending on the fabric, the thread, and where the stitches or seam is located.

By knowing when and how to effectively use the seam ripper, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration.

Parts of a Seam Ripper

The seam ripper is a small hand tool with a sharp point for unpicking stitches and a blade for cutting stitches or ripping seams open.

The seam ripper consists of several parts: the handle, neck, point, J-curve blade, and (usually) a red ball. 

parts of a seam ripper

The point is very sharp but this isn’t the part that cuts the thread. The thread is actually cut by the blade located in the J-curve.

Most seam rippers have a top that covers the blade when it’s not being used.

Seam Ripper Meaning

Seam ripping is the process of removing unwanted stitches, usually done with a small tool called a seam ripper.

Don’t let the name of the tool or the process deceive you.

Seams aren’t always ripped.

Stitches can also be unpicked allowing you to better control the cutting and removal of stitches.

The ultimate goal when you seam rip is to keep the fabric looking like the removed stitches were never there.

Therefore, you need to avoid pulling or stretching the fabric, catching the fibers/yarn of the fabric, or poking holes in the fabric when you’re using the seam ripper.

Who needs a seam ripper?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been sewing for decades or just started, anyone who sews needs a seam ripper and should know more than one way to use it.

Also, the type of sewing doesn’t matter.

You could quilt, sew home decor, clothes, or small crafts.

At some point, you’re going to need a seam ripper.

When do you use a seam ripper?

This essential tool can be used to cut and remove stitches in situations like:

  • fixing seam allowance errors
  • taking apart pieces that shouldn’t have been sewn together
  • removing basting stitches
  • opening buttonholes

How to Use a Seam Ripper

There are multiple ways to use the seam ripper and the techniques can be grouped into two categories:

  1. Seam ripping from the wrong side of the fabric
  2. Seam ripping from the right side of the fabric

There are no hard and fast rules on deciding what technique you should use to take out stitches but there are some things to consider as you settle on what method to use.

  • The type and weight of fabric
  • The length of the stitch
  • How easy it is to see the stitches
  • How much you need to remove
  • Where the stitches are located

Use these factors to decide whether or not to unpick/rip stitches from the right or wrong side of the fabric.

More than likely, you’ll find yourself alternating between methods.

Seam Ripping on the Wrong Side

One way to use the seam ripper is to work on the stitches from the wrong side of the fabric.

This could also be considered the outside of the seam.

There are a couple ways to seam rip on the wrong side of the fabric, but they both start the same way:

  • Carefully slide the sharp point under a stitch. Be careful not to poke a hole in the fabric.
  • Push the seam ripper forward until the J-curve touches the thread.
  • Apply a little force and the blade will cut the stitch.
slide the seam ripper point under the stitch

Experiment with the interval of stitches. You can do every stitch, every other stitch, or every few stitches. 

Once you have a length of stitches cut, there are two ways to rip the seam:

  1. Pull the uncut thread from the back.
  2. Gently pull the two pieces of fabric apart and the seam “rips” open.
pull the uncut thread from the back
First option – pull the uncut thread from the back
pull the two pieces of fabric apart
Second option – pull the two pieces of fabric apart

Important: If you get resistance with either of these two options, don’t force it. You could possibly damage the fabric. Instead, go back and cut stitches between the ones you’ve already done.

Note: This is how I like to seam rip.

Seam Rip from the Right Side

Another way to use the seam ripper is on the right side of the fabric.

When you use any of the methods described in this section, it’s important to pay attention to the location of the red ball.

In method one, you want the red ball to be closest to the fabric. This will keep you from accidentally poking a hole in it.

Method 1

push the red ball under the stitch
  • Separate the two pieces of fabric so you can see the stitches between them.
  • Hold one side of the fabric and slide the red ball under the stitch. Angle the seam ripper up and push it so the J-curve cuts the thread.
  • Now, pull the edges of the fabric gently apart to open the seam. One or two stitches will rip. Be careful not to pull the fabric too hard.
  • Continue sliding the red ball under stitches, cutting thread, and pulling the fabric.

Note: You can put the point under the stitch instead of the red ball, but be super careful. It’s easy for that point to go through the fabric and create an unwanted hole.

In methods 2 and 3, the seam ripper will be parallel to the seam.

The point goes in the seam allowance and the red ball goes in the good part of the fabric

By putting the red ball next to the visible fabric and the sharp point in the seam allowance, the chance of accidentally poking a hole or ripping the fabric is greatly reduced.

Seam ripping with either of the following two techniques is usually faster than any of the other methods described in the post, but you need to be careful and super vigilant so you don’t accidentally cut or pierce the fabric.

Method 2

  • Position the seam ripper so the point is in the seam allowance and the red ball is in the good part of the fabric.
  • Push the seam ripper forward, cutting stitches as you go. 
  • Be careful, with this method. It’s easy to cut the fabric.
Push the seam ripper

Method 3

This method helps you to control the blade better than in the previous technique and minimize any damage to the fabric through accidental cutting.

It also works best with a seam ripper that has a longer neck.

  • Position the seam ripper so the point is in the seam allowance and the red ball is in the good part of the fabric.
  • With the seam ripper between the fabric pieces, place your thumb and index finger near the top of the neck on the outside of the fabric.
hold seam ripper through the fabric
Look carefully. You can see the outline of the head of the seam ripper just in front of my thumb.
  • Instead of pushing the seam ripper forward, pull back on the fabric, sliding your thumb and index finger along the neck of the seam ripper.
Pull back on the fabric, sliding your thumb and index finger along the neck of the seam ripper
With this method, a few stitches at a time will be cut.

Tip: Wish you had another hand to help you hold the fabric taut? Use the presser foot on the sewing machine as a third hand to hold the fabric in place.

Seam Ripper Alternatives

Are you wondering how to remove stitches without a seam ripper?

Whether this is because you can’t find your seam ripper or just don’t have one, no worries. It is possible to remove stitches without using a seam ripper.

Substitutes for the seam ripper are:

  • Sharp pointed scissors (cut stitches on the wrong side of the fabric)
  • Eyebrow razor (cut stitches on the right side of the fabric)
  • Rotary cutter blade (cut stitches on the right side of the fabric)

CAUTION: Be super careful when using any of these alternative tools in place of a seam ripper. It’s much easier to accidentally cut the fabric or yourself.

Use an eyebrow razor in place of a seam ripper
While the presser foot is helping to hold the fabric in place, an eyebrow razor is being used to cut stitches.
A rotary cutting blade is being used to cut stitches

While I’m not a big fan of any of these options, they do work when I’m not able to put my hands on one of my seam ripper.

Did you know some seams can be ripped without any tools?

It doesn’t work in all situations, but you can sometimes remove a seam by pulling on the bobbin thread without cutting any of the stitches made with the top thread.

The success of this technique depends on the type of fabric and thread you used as well as the length of the stitches.

Pulling on a bobbin thread is especially useful when you need to remove basting stitches.

Again, be super careful when pulling on the bobbin thread. Make sure you aren’t pulling or stretching out the fabric.

After Seam Ripping

Regardless of the technique you use to seam rip, there will be loose threads in the fabric, all over your work area, and sticking to your clothes.

There are several options for a quick clean up of these small threads:

  • Tape lint roller
  • Packing tape
  • Eraser
  • Fingernail brush with soft bristles
Tools you can use to remove the loose threads
Pictured – nail brush, eraser, tape lint roller

There always seem to be a few particularly stubborn threads that won’t come out with the above tools. Use tweezers if you can’t grasp the hangers-on with your fingers.

Video – See Seam Ripping in Action

The techniques described in this blog post can be seen in the linked video.

Look at the timestamps listed below the video to see the information that is included.

YouTube video

Video timestamps:

  • 0:53 – Seam ripping on the wrong side of the fabric (2 ways)
  • 3:19 – Seam ripping on the right side of the fabric (3 ways)
  • 7:03 – Removing a seam without a seam ripper
  • 8:10 – Other tools for seam ripping and a hack
  • 10:01 – Cleaning up cut threads
  • 12:06 – Seam ripper and buttonholes

Best Seam Ripper

There are many seam rippers on the market. In order to find the best one for you keep the following factors in mind:

  • The point – they come in different thicknesses; long and skinny points are easier to get under small stitches
  • Size of the handle – you want one that fits in your hand and is easy to hold
  • Material of handle – how heavy do you want it to be; rubber can help you get a good grip
  • Length of neck
  • More than one purpose – some seam rippers are part of a combo tool
multi-purpose seam rippers
The wooden tool is a 4-in-1 tool – seam ripper, stiletto, presser, and turner. The plastic seam ripper has a lid with a brush on it.

In addition, the best seam ripper is one you can get your hands on when you need it.

It’s a good idea to have more than one in your sewing space.

I actually have six seam rippers. They tend to get moved around, but I try to keep one near my sewing zone, one near my pressing zone, and one near my cutting zone.

Even with this plan, I can’t always put my hand on a seam ripper when I need it.

However, I almost always manage to find at least one of them after a little searching.

How to Sharpen a Seam Ripper

The blades on a seam ripper can become dull especially if you use it a lot.

You don’t want to use a seam ripper that doesn’t cut very well. More pressure will need to be applied to get it to cut the thread, possibly causing you to damage the fabric

If you find it difficult to cut through the stitches, more than likely the blade is not sharp anymore.

My research turned up several tools you can use to sharpen seam rippers:

  • Steel wool
  • Bead reamer
  • Emory board

Check out this article on Quilting Digest for tips on how to use the above tools to sharpen seam rippers.

Instead of trying to sharpen worn seam rippers, I just replace my dull ones with new ones.

However, if you have a favorite one that you’re unable to find an exact replacement for it might be worth the effort to see if you can sharpen the blade.

Shopping for Seam Rippers and Supplies

4-in-1 Essential Sewing Tool – seam ripper, stiletto, presser, and turner

Seam Fix Seam Ripper – seam ripper with a rubber tip to remove threads

OttLite Seam Ripper with LED Magnifier

3 Pieces Ergonomic Grip Seam Rippers – comes with snips

Bead Reamer – set of 4, to sharpen seam rippers

Lint tape roller – to clean up all those loose threads; 2 rollers and 300 sheets

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My goal at The Ruffled Purse is to support, empower, and inspire you to sew and make wonderful things for yourself, your home, and others.

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