self-stitching linen

Unless I’m ridiculously pressed for time, I do tend to self-sew shirts and shifts, regardless of the period to which they belong.

By self-sew, I mean sew the garment using threads unravelled from a piece of the same fabric of which the garment is constructed.

The advantages of this are-

  • authenticity – many surviving garments are self-sewn
  • finish – it looks very good
  • wear – I’ve had problems many years ago with garments falling apart because the sewing thread has worn out faster than the garment. With self-sewing  the whole garment washes the same way

Realising that many people are unsure about this technique, I decided to do a quick walk-through.

First, you need a fairly large piece of leftover fabric. It should be no more than around 2 1/2 feet in length as you shouldn’t try to sew with a very long piece of thread, since this technique means the thread is more prone to breaking than a bought thread

The piece you will use as the source of thread should run along the warp of the fabric, rather than the weft. This is because the warp thread is almost always stronger than the weft.

The warp runs parallel to the selvedge, rather than back and forth across the width.

As you take threads from the edge of your source piece a fringe will grow – trim this on a regular basis, never letting it get more than about 3/4 of an inch long, as it will tangle into the thread you are trying to remove, making your life difficult.

Pick your thread out with the tip of your needle. At this stage the thread can be quite delicate, so try not to stress it by pulling hard – in fact with this technique you should never ever pull hard on the thread. Taking it from the centre reduces stress as the thread doesn’t have to travel through as much of the fringe.

Next you need to wax the thread by running it gently across some beeswax. This makes it stronger and prevents it from snagging too much.

I have tried using ordinary candle wax, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as beeswax. I think it’s because the beeswax melts slightly from the heat of your hands (even my corpse cold ones) whereas the candle wax doesn’t.

By the way, you may have to pick beeswax out the eye of your needle every now and then using a pin, otherwise you’ll have trouble threading it.

It’s not necessary, nor is it feasible if you are sewing along the bias, but you can pull a thread to create a track for your seam if you wish too.

If you are sewing along the grain its an easy way to get a straight seam, as all you have to do is follow the voided thread. It’s also a trick found in many period garments.

Just pick out one thread and pull it out along the length of the seam, leaving a handy gap that you can follow.

I tend to only do this on seams that are really going to show (I’m lazy that way) as I can sew fairly straight without help, but it does leave the seam bedded down into the fabric very nicely

As you can see here.

On this seam I started with a lazy, but perfectly adequate stitch thats about 3mm in length, then switched to a more accurate historical length of stitch that was counted over two threads at a time – although one is not unusual in many surviving garments.

The smaller the stitch, the more it will disappear into the background

The seam was then flat-felled (I habitually use this seam for linen, as aside from any authenticity considerations I have an absolute horror of fraying clothes), and as you can see the results are almost acceptable!

This is the other side.

Hope this helps

Bear in mind that your thread will snap from time to time, but stick at it and the results are worthwhile

You can also make small structural elements from pulled threads, like these dainty little tassels for a tudor shirt closure

~ by opusanglicanum on May 29, 2011.

15 Responses to “self-stitching linen”

  1. Hi,
    I’ve self sewn in wool, but not linen, mainly because I’ve only managed to get cheap linen at prices affordable to me so far, and the warp is so fuzzy that it balls up and falls appart when trying to wax it. (which does rather tell me what I already knew – the linen isn’t as good as I’d like). Also, One roll of sewing linen will do nearly all my linen sewing needs happily.

    I mostly use linen lacemaking thread unwaxed, and have never had any trouble with thread strength, it’s a little stronger than the fabric, but not so much that it wears holes in the fabric. With wool I have had a lot more trouble finding good woolen sewing thread (in fact I haven’t settled on a source within my budget), so when I don’t wish to sew in linen on wool, I tend to self sew. (I don’t wax the wool because its’ generally woolen threads or mildly worsted ones and a bit too fuzzy to wax well.) I’m definately getting stronger thread from the unravelled wool than I can from commercial wools.

    Anyway, given this dichotomy between fabrics for me, I wonder if you’d like to comment on the historical evidence – is it just for self sewn linen, self sewn wool or both? Coming from a fairly good knowledge of 12th C western european garments, but little knowledge of other peiods, i’ve never actually come across any articles mentioning self sewing garments, nor of pulled threads as a thread guide. (probably because there are so few good studies of garments from the era), so i’d really love to hear more about these. And I wonder how you’d tell that linen threads were self sewn – it would be fairly easy to tell with coloured threads, or fatter wool but a lot harder to tell with linen i’d think.

    • HI

      I’d have to check on the wool thing, but my memory is telling me that most of it was sewn with unbleached linen thread, regardless ofwhether or not it matched. I’m not sure if this applies also to the greenland garments, but it certainly seems to have been standard practice later on. I’ve occaisionally sewn early wool garments with wool, but find I’m happier with using unbleached linen thread for the purpose – on wools it seems to show up far less than on linen. possibly due to the pristine whiteness of linen. (sorry am away from home this week, so I cant scurry off and check, if you nag me next week i’ll have a root around in my library)

      one of the problems with self sewing is that the thread does break more often, but I have noticed that america seems to have greater problmes getting hold of decent cloth than the uk, the stuff I use is good quality irish. I cant really comment on your fabric without seeing it

      There really isn’t much evidence from the c12th due to the overwhelming lack of surviving undies, I think for earlier periods theres nothing wrong with a bit of sensible back engineering, and theres a lot of evidence for self sewing from folk tradition, which has a longer memory than you’d think.

      • I mostly use linen on my wools, and from memory there are more examples of linen thread than woolen thread from the high medieval period, but i’m pretty sure I’ve seen worsted wool used on wool too. I have a feeling it was mostly on coarser stuff though. I mostly wanted to practise using wool thread, and self sewing was the only resonable option.

        I’ve never seen any indications of dyed linen thread in use in construction. The pale colour of the linen thread is used for good contrast in this dress:
        I’ve made a copy in navy, and the finish is really cute. I’ve also made other woolen garments with thicker wool where the pale linen thread pretty much dissapears into the wool.

        I’m confident I could pull up references at home to substantiate wool thread on wool, and linen thread on wool, but It’s the references to self thread that i’ve never seen.

        There are quite a few linen garments from the 12th C, mostly albs, but alas, very few have actually published analyses of the thread used, other than at best “linen”.

        I’m not in America, i’m in Australia. I can get decent quality wool cheaply, but good quality irish linen (as well as rare) is $60/m, a price I can’t justify. In fact even the cheap slubby cotton mill procesed linen the american are using, almost doubles the price to get here, which while affordable is terrible value for something so slubby. I can get unlabelled mystery fabrics cheaply, and occasionally they might be linen, but there is no certainty, and they don’t quite get to the fine irish linen standards. I make do, spend too much or use ramie or other “might be linen” natural fabrics, use slubby stuff etc, but it’s not an optimal solution.

  2. Hello!

    I see that you read my blog! I’m honoured- thankyou 🙂 I’e added you back, although I don’t make clothes. Interested in opus anglicanum tho – on the project list for ‘someday’. Got the next two years all booked up with projects *grin*

    I don’t really do ‘cute’ but I think this is just the sweetest :

    I’ll have to buy it for myself soon if someone doesn’t buy it for me – I’m using ordinary way (in that round plastic case) for wax for my goldwork. Mary Corbet did a good article of ‘why use beeswas not the normal stuff’ awhile back in NeedleNThread.

    best regards

    • well. we’d been having a long conversaion on lj, so…

      the hedgehog is cute, but i think you’d want him as an ornament, cos as soon as you used him he would get smushed. I’ve never come across wax in a plastic case, but we’re at opposite ends of the world

      • Nor have I come across beeswax in a plastic case, probably because quarantine prohibits import of beeswax, and the local market isn’t big enough to make large commercial ammounts. We mostly visit our local apiarist to get beeswax.

        I don’t wax my thread simply because the thread i’ve been using is flowing freely through the fabric. If it didn’t, i’d have the beeswax out pretty quickly, since I’m already using it for shoe thread (until I can suceed in making nice code).

        And I think I more properly qualify as the other end of the world in Australia ;-).

      • I think elmsley rose in that general hemisphere too

      • I know – I was going crazy trying to remember where I knew your name from, then it clicked! You’ll have to excuse me – I have a bit of a non-memory atm because of a new pain drug programme that’s going for 6 months. Did we finish our conversation? I’ve been really really struggling to keep up with mails, because I keep having to go to bed for days on end (booooooring!)

        Oh, let me dream about the hedgehog wax. Ok, here in Oz it gets to 40 plus in summers, but he’s so … charismatic.

      • I can’t remeber if we did or we didn’t. am using a different user name here as this is to be a textiles only blog, whereas lj is more for fun.

        hmm,, not sure if this reply will work. I started the blog from gareths computer, and mine is having trouble with wordpress, so lets see…

        not sure i;ve ever heard hedgehogs described as charismatic before, msotly in these parts they’re described as “flat” (unless someone manages to rush them to st tigglywinkles in time)

  3. I’ve never tried to self-sew (largely for the same reason as Teffania) but I use beeswax on the purchased linen thread I do use, largely because I find the thread goes through the fabric more easily than if I don’t wax it.

  4. Question for you: in photo #6 that shows your very fine stitching, there are no spaces between the stitches. Are you backstitching?

  5. Hopefully you see this–I know it was a long time ago that you wrote this, but I have a question on sources.

    You say that self sewing linen shows up on “many surviving garments”. Do you have sources for the specific garments it shows up on?


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