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.
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!
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