Basic stitches for handsewing

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This is the stitch I use when sewing two pieces of fabric together, like side seams on a bodice or stripes or anything that I later fold and finish the seam. Run the needle 2-3 times, with about 5 mm spacing, go back one stitch, and then run the needle 2-3 times.

The back stitch ensure that you don’t accidently start to pull the fabric into pleats, and makes it easier to keep the seem firm, if you look closely on the picture, you can see the little back stitch next to the base of the needle.

The seam allowance depends on the material: I usually use a 1 cm for a thin linen or wool that I don’t finish the seam on, or 1.5 or thicker linen and wool that needs to have a finished seam.

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The front and back of the seam

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Then cut half of the seam allowance on one piece of the fabric, double fold the other piece over the cut part and hem stitch it down as fine as you can to finish the seam.

When hem stitching, I usually pick up around 2 threads on the fabric, that is enough to make it last, and will make the stitches in the front almost invisible; the right picture shows the front of the seam, and you can see the stitches as little dots on the top of the seam.


I rarely finish the seam when sewing in wool. Why? Because it’s felted (not all wool are felted, you will notice the different when you cut it) and will not start to fray as linen does and because I don’t wash it. Well… you see, wool is a natural fiber, the natural oil prevents most of the dirt from getting inside it, and the underdress you wear prevents your dirty body from soiling it …An old trick to washing a wool dress is to lay it outside on the grass in the dew, the moisture in the grass will draw the dirt out of the wool …or just hang it in the bathroom when you take a shower. And don’t forget to hang it outside, preferably over night, directly after an event. IF your dress is really really dirty (like when I was pouring beer for six hours at Kapitelhusgården in Visby the front of my dress was completely soked in beer), then you might want to dry clean it. …but washing wool in a machine kind of removes the natural water/dirt repellant of the wool fabric.

For shorter seams that are visible on both front and back, I usally use a simple running stitch (for example the opening in the front or the cuffs of a shirt), because it’s easier to make it look even and it is faster…
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Front and back

Sometimes you need to line the inside of a cuff or a collar. A simple way to make sure that the points don’t fray is to fold it like this:
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…and then stich it to the inside by using running stitches
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-If you decide to hand sew, try to make it as simple as possible, the time you put into making garb makes you want to see progress, so don’t over work the stitches, try to find somethings that works for you. The only wrong thing you can do is if the dress falls apart, then you need to maybe work a bit more on the details. There is many different techniques you can use to assemble a dress, it depends on the type of fabric, what you prefer and where on the dress you use a specific stitch. Start with something small and easy to finish (like a hat), and start finding the stitch you prefer at your leisure)

-Try to always maintain a straight line, use the needle as a guide, always keeping an eye on the edge of the fabric. Don’t use too much seam allowance, since it will be harder to get a straight seam. 1.5 cm seam allowance is always a good start, and if it might be a bit tricky to keep the seam straight, then draw some guidance lines every 10-15 cm.

-Don’t pull the fabric to hard when sewing the bodice; the fabric has been cut on the bias and will be strechy, always pin the fabric at the beginning, until you get a right firm grip on the fabric.

-Whenever you are cutting a straight line (as making stripes for the skirt for example, or cutting out the pieces for a shirt/chemise), remember this:
Linen; use the pull-a-thread technique: cut a small cut in the end of the fabric, carefully pull out a string of thread until it breaks. Cut at the visible line until you reach the end of it, then pull out another string …and so on. This will get you a precise and straight cut.
Wool/silk/velvet: cut about 2-5 cm, grab both sides and pull. The fabric will easily rip in a straight line. (You might want to test it on a small piece first if you’re not sure), You can rip linen, but don’t. It’s not going to look pretty and you will end up losing a couple of centimeters of fabric and will need to cut away the frizz anyway…

– Last but not least: Hand sewing is easiest to do with wool or linen and with a sharp needle and a linen thread (okey, I know it’s very hard to find a good linen thread, then at least use a thicker cotton thread (look in the embroidery section for example), NOT standard machine sewing thread! It is so thin that when you put any stress on the seam, the thread will cut right through the fabric.) …the thread is not suppose to be unbreakable! Because if your seam has a lot of stress, you actually want the thread to break; you can always re-sew the seam, but it is very tricky to fix ripped fabric.

For tips about what tools you might need for handsewing, visit my previous blog “5 Simple steps to start handsewing”

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The finished shirt took about 35 hours to make, (including the smocking, which is kind of 80 % of the total hours)

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How to do a basic honeycomb smocking (pleatwork embroidery): How to do smocking[1]
How to make an easy 16th century shirt/chemise: 16th century shirt-Constance[1]
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There is a number of other kind of stitches that you eventually would want to use in the future, these stitches will get you started at least, and if you are interested in other period stitches, then I recommend you to google “archaeological stitches”.

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5 simple step to start handsewing

One of the things I have chosen to do as a part of the overall experiance of recreating the past is to handsew the garb, for some people this seems like complete madness, for me it’s kind of a mix between the possibilities to do two things at the same time (sewing and watching movies, or chatting with other people), it looks very nice and period and I don’t have to worry about showing other people modern stitches, I don’t like the sound of the sewing machine (…and I do think that it sometimes just is pure evil and will not work just to piss me off), and I do actually love to sew! The journey is kind of as important than the goal …so to say.

Lately there has been a lot of curious people asking me about it, and it made me realize that just to say “It’s sooo easy, just do it!” is kind of like handing someone a sewing machine and say “just thread it and it will be so fast!” …but their is some basic knowing you do need that will make it easier. If you never have thread a machine, then you proabaly need someone to show you how to get started, and if you never have done handsewing before, then you need some basic tip and tricks that will make the sewing fun rather then challanging. Handsewing is kind of like buying linen: it’s different weight and colours and prize classes that you need to know about before buying the fabric you need for your garb.

And I guess your main question now is “but… will it be strong enough?”, which is a good and valid question. And yes, it will even work for the fitted cothardie dresses. I will post some pratical advice about how to do the actual stitches, but first the basic things you need to get started:

1) I prefer to use linen thread, it is period of course, but it will also act in a way that cotton thread doesn’t do: it is more “ruff” so it grabs the fiber and prevents it from sliding. I normally use either 60/3 or 35/3 or 50/2 (All threads are constructed of multiple strands wound together, which gives them their strength. Linen threads are given two numbers, the first is a description of the thickness of the threads, the second how many there are. The lower the first number, the thicker the individual strands, and the more individual strands wound together, the stronger the overall thread). I buy mine thread from Kapitelhusgården (Sweden) or Pimp Your Garb (US) , and it seems like the Swedish brand ‘Bockens Linen Thread/ Bockens lintråd’ is the most common to find even here in the US. Bockens Linen Thread is also so well made that you don’t need to wax the thread before using it (and *tadaa* you save some time).

The advantage you have when using linen thread is also that it will break easier than a cotton thread in the same thickness. This might seem a bit weird to read, but the other option is that you instead rip the fabric: and you can always re-sew the seam, but it is tricky to fix a ripped fabric.

Besides linen thread, I also use silk thread when I need some extra strength (like button holes and lacing holes).

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This is how the linen thread looks like, and this thread is 20/3, so about what I would use to make a pair of shoes, or a pouch or something else in leather. (Or for making a string to close the shirt with as I usually do)

I got an advice from someone a long time ago, that you always should try to sew with the same kind of fibers as your fabric, which is a good advice to have in mind. Though I use linen thread for both linen and wool fabric, since my experiment with sewing with wool thread was a disaster (it is way to weak for the seams so I hade to pratically redo the whole dress :), I use silk for silk fabric (like hemming a silk banner or a silk cloth) and standard polyester thread when I zick zacking modern brocade (it really just falls apart if you dont immediately take care of the edges).

1 linen thread is more then enough for one dress, and you basically only need white, neutral and black since it is actully a bit modern to use a perfect matched colour for sewing. I do have though, several colours of linen thread that I use to finish the hem, it gives you a bit more room for bad stitches to not have a bright white thread in a place where you might have sew a bit to fast and sloppy. I generally use white or non bleeched linen thread for assambling the dress, and then a coloured linen thread to finish the hemming. (…and a red thread works on practical all kind of red fabric, remember that it doesn’t have to be a perfect colour match!)

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You can see the lighter colour of the thread I used on the inside of the slashing, the wool is actually thick enough so I don’t have to go all the way through when I sew. And if it happens, then it’s not a big deal, but I suggest to maybe not use a bright white thread when working on black fabric 🙂

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The pants are sewn with a neutral linen thread, and for those who are curious about how long time it took, so about 5-6 week. But then all the slashes are cut, folded and hand sewn (something about 200 slashes if I remember correct).

2) I like to use as thin and sharp needle as possible, my favorite length is 5 cm (2″), which gives me a good control over how straight I sew the line. A friend of mine just recently said that she got the advice that you should pick a needle twice the size of the double folded thread that you are going to use, and that advice is so simple to follow that I had to pass it on to everyone (Thank you Amber!)

3) The awl is perfect to make holes with, stick it through your fabric carefully since you are supposed to go between the threads without destroying the fibers.

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Bone Awl, http://shop.kapitelhusgarden.se/somnad/bensyl.html

4) I use two kind of scissors (actually three kind since I also bought a special button hole scissor, but it is not really necessary since I kind of use my small one to cut button holes with anyway), one large scissor for cuttin fabric, and one small scissor for the handsewing. I really recommend to buy a good pair of scissors, and only to cut in fabric with to keep it sharp and easy to use.

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‘Sisare’ has been used since the Viking Age and is very handy for cutting threads while sewing, and it looks nicer to bring to an event then the modern one with plastic handles, which reminds me that I really should start bringing it to events instead of letting it lay around in my sewing room. I apologize for my plastic ziplock bag I brought to the last event as well…

5) Measurment tape is always nice to have, and it is even easier to have one with both inches and centimeters on the same tape, especially when you move from Swedens metric system to American inches. A tape with both will also help you transfering the measurements between the different systems, for example if you find a nice pattern from another country than your own.

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Pleatwork embroidery (smocking) with linen thread