I know I appreciate hearing about specific techniques, tools, and materials used by others, so I thought I'd share some of my own favorites here.
Stitching without a hoop or frame: Learning to quilt without a hoop or frame made a big difference to me. I like hand-stitching to be portable, so didn't want to be tied to a frame, and even a hoop is awkward to carry around. I learning the method I now use from Suzanne Marshall. I have not seen it described in her books, which focus on applique, but this Youtube video shows the method I learned from her. The key thing is that most of the movement is in your left hand, moving the fabric up and down, rather than in your right hand that holds the needle (reverse for lefties). One key thing that the video doesn't show: When stitching in the center of a larger work, with too much fabric to gather in your hand and still keep your thumb on top of the work, you can move your left hand underneath the work and grab a kind of pocket of the fabric near where you're stitching. You can see a photo of what I mean here (Suzanne Marshall) and here (Tonya Ricucci).
Stitching in limited stints: For the first few years that I was doing hand-quilting and hand applique, I would stitch for an hour or more at a time. I started developing hand pain, then numbness, and also a ganglion cyst on my wrist. I was reassured that the cyst was not dangerous, just ugly, and I could live with that, but the pain and numbness were troubling. I learned a number of hand and wrist exercises through physical therapy, and that helped a great deal. But I was also instructed to stitch for shorter stretches of time. It was hard to cut back, but I knew that keeping hand function was important! So, I started timing my stints of handwork to the length of one side of an LP record, treating myself to listening to some old albums while I sewed. I continue to limit myself to about 20 minutes of hand-sewing a day. It is a little island of quiet for me. The work goes slowly, but it progresses steadily. I have accepted the slow pace, knowing that the work still will eventually be complete. Here's a link to a substantial piece on hand health for stitchers. It focuses on arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome; my issue was repetitive strain injury.
Threading multiple needles at once: The part I like least in hand-sewing is having to thread the needle time and again. I find this annoys me less if I get multiple needles lined up with thread at the end of a session, so I'm all set to go when I sit down to sew. This also serves as another way for me to time a limited stint--sewing 6 needles is, for me, about 20 minutes.
TOOLS & MATERIALS (needles & thread):
When handquilting with thin quilting thread, I've used a size 8 or 9 between needle, with most any make satisfactory. But I've had more trouble finding a needle I like for doing bigger stitching, with heavier thread or multiple strands of thread. I like a needle thin enough to go through the fabric easily, with a big enough eye that I can thread it without a needle-threader, and a comfortable length (not too long). The two brands/size of needles detailed below fit all three criteria when I'm using DMC embroidery floss, up to three strands. In my current project, I'm using one strand of 20/2 pearl cotton from Halcyon yarns, recommended to me by a weaving friend as a thread that dyes well (as I was dyeing thread to match the fabric). The roundness of this thread (as opposed to embroidery thread, which seems flat) prevents it from easily going through the eye of the needle, so I've reconciled myself to using a needle threader with this thread. I did try a needle with a larger eye, but since the whole needle was larger, it was a lot more difficult to push through the fabric.
Mary Arden Embroidery needles--in a packet of assorted needles ranging from size 5 to 10, there seem to be three sizes. I use the middle size. I bought them at Colonial Needle.
John James Embroidery needles in a dusky pink "pebble." I also use the middle size needle in this pack.
I would be very interested to hear about what type of needle you prefer to use--please leave a comment (or e-mail me directly) if you have one you like!
And here's Beth Berman's great tutorial on dyeing thread, including how to make up the skeins from a larger ball/cone of thread, and how to take individual threads off the dyed skein.