Linen garments made of natural linen are comfortable, versatile, and attractive. Natural linen has long been a trendy choice for people wanting an easy-care, go-everywhere fabric. A linen dress or suit is an elegant choice for attending a wedding, but linen looks equally at home on the boardwalk or beach.
If you have never sewn with linen, you may be afraid it is difficult to work with. Actually, linen is easy to sew; it does not slip or stretch when you are cutting it out or sewing a seam. However, linen is prone to shrinking and to fraying, so special care must be taken when preparing it for layout and when finishing seams.
Linen is crisp, clean, comfortable and soft, yet strong and durable. The harder you use it, the softer it gets and the stronger the fibers become. Linen is so highly absorbent that it holds up to twenty percent of it’s weight in moisture before it feels damp, and easily releases it’s moisture in to the air to remain uniquely cool in the summer. It has excellent launder ability, and it is non-allergenic, non-static, and lint free. It is even mold and moth resistant. Bed sheets made out of linen are uncommonly strong, soft and wonderfully cool for sleeping.
Here are some other things that you must know about linen:
There are huge variations in the quality of linen.
Linen is made of fibers from the flax plant.
The best flax fiber is grown in France and Belgium, because of the perfect climate and soil conditions. Flax fiber is also produced in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, India, Ireland and Canada, but from all these countries the quality of the fiber is inferior to that of Western Europe, and is naturally less expensive.
There are a number of factors that can affect the quality of linen. Part of a crop will be “Line” fibers, up to 40” in length, which make a much higher quality linen. The remainder will be ’&Tow’ fibers, which average 5” in length. The price of the long fibers is much higher because the fibers are more difficult and costly to mill.
Many factors in the growing season will affect the quality of the linen, such as the time and weather of harvesting. If a farmer harvests too early, in order to allow for another crop, the fibers will be fine and silky, but weak. It is critical to maximize the fiber length and strength without letting it get too old. Flax that is harvested during the late summer will produce longer and stronger fibers. However, the flax field cannot be used for other crops as it is too late in the season, so the linen grown at this time will be much more expensive.
Lower quality linens are used for less expensive items, such as inexpensive clothing, tea towels, friction towels, and other household linens. Chances are, if you find inexpensive bed sheets, they will have been made from low-quality linen fibers, and they will neither be as soft or strong. They will also tend to feel coarse after laundering.
Here are some tips when sewing with linen:
Choosing an Appropriate Fabric Weight
Versatile natural linen comes in weights suitable for any project. Linen is ideal for warm weather because it “breathes,” allowing perspiration to wick away from the skin. Light weight linen is great for summer dresses or tops and children’s clothes. Medium weight linen is suitable for summer pants and shirts. Heavier weight linens are wonderful for summer suits or jackets.
Linen is lovely for all sorts of home décor projects such as tablecloths, napkins, placemats, drapes, pillows, and slipcovers. It makes stylish shower curtains and guest towels. Linen is also ideal for historical enactment garments. While linen is ideal for nearly any project, it is not suitable for patterns requiring a stretchy fabric. The pattern’s fabric suggestions are the best guidelines; if a pattern is suitable for linens, it will say so on the back of the envelope.
You also must make sure that the color and print of the fabric you choose are suitable for the person who will wear the finished garment. I learned this the hard way. I spent a lot of time and effort making a beautiful cerise dress. The color looked great on the bolt of fabric and I had previously made a dress that I loved from this same pattern, but once I tried the finished garment on, I was very disappointed. Cerise is definitely not my color; it made me look too heavy. Choosing one of the many shades of natural un-dyed linen is one way to avoid this problem; the subtle neutral creams and beiges of un-dyed linen look great on any body shape. When choosing one of the numerous delightful shades of dyed linen fabric, keep in mind the colors which you know you look good in.
Because linen does shrink when washed, you must do something to minimize the shrinkage. You don’t want to sew an absolutely lovely outfit, that fits perfectly, only to have it shrink to a size too small the first time it is washed. A large amount of shrinkage can also cause the garment’s shape to become distorted.
When choosing a pre-treatment option, remember you will want to continue to clean the garment the same way you pre-treated the fabric. Many people enjoy linen’s natural tendency to soften when washed. Linen gets softer and more comfortable with each wash. If the finished garment is going to be washed in hot water, pre-treat your fabric by washing it in hot water before laying it out. Linen washed in extremely hot water will experience maximum shrinkage and thus will not shrink when washed again. If the finished garment will always be washed in cold or warm water, then pre-treat the fabric by washing it at that temperature. I generally pre-treat all my fabrics by rinsing them in plain water without any detergent and then hanging them up to dry.
If you want your linen to stay as crisp as the day you bought it, you may want to dry clean the fabric before you lay it out. I have found that a nice alternative to dry cleaning is steam pressing the linen before you lay it out. In addition to steam from the iron, I use a damp press cloth or towel over the fabric. Always protect your linen with a press cloth when ironing; although ready-made press cloths are handy, any iron-able fabric will do. An extra piece of the fabric you are working with makes a handy press cloth. In a pinch, I’ve even used damp paper towels.
Laying out, Cutting and Marking
Because of their unique texture and weaves, it is best to layout linen fabrics following the napped layout given in the pattern instructions. I have found that that as long as you follow the grain-line of the fabric, you can generally lay pattern pieces much closer than the picture in the layout suggests.
The thinner linens are a breeze to cut. You may find thicker linens easier to cut with a rotary cutter. If you use a rotary cutter remember to protect your table with an appropriate self-healing mat designed for rotary cutting. Holding a ruler as a guide on the straight edges of the pattern helps you achieve nice straight edges when using a rotary cutter.
The next step in achieving a professional-looking linen garment is accurate marking. I generally use marking pencils to mark my patterns and tracing paper to mark details such as darts and pleats, but these tools are often not appropriate for heavily textured linens. Marking pencils and tracing paper don’t leave sharp enough marks on some fabrics and the marks they do leave are often difficult to remove from heavily textured materials. Test your marking tools on a scrape of the intended fabric, before using them on the fabric itself.
Tailor tacking is accurate, but time consuming (and something I just hate to do). I often mark with straight pins which have colored heads. If you don’t mind if the pattern gets a little torn, place a regular straight pin (one without a large head) directly through the pattern markings. Then carefully remove the pattern, holding the marking pins so that they don’t move. Once the pattern is removed, replace the pins, with pins that have a colored head. Be sure to position them securely and use care when moving the fabric pieces. This method works very well for marking the position of sleeves and fasteners. It can also work well for darts or pleats, if you carefully draw the dart or pleat lines after the pattern is removed, using the straight pins as guides. (In a pinch, I’ve used a regular number 2 pencil to do this; once folded and sewn, the marks will not show).
Linen is a joy to handle at the sewing machine. It does not slip easily, so it can be pin basted. It guides easily over the feeddogs and does not need the delicate handling required by stretch knits, lamé and other specialty fabrics. Simply remember the basic rule of guiding, not pulling the fabric under the needle (after twenty years of sewing, I still sometimes find myself tempted by this common beginner’s mistake). Any basic thread will be fine for linen
Finishing the Seams
Seam finishing is one key to a professional looking garment and all linen needs some sort of seam finish. On light-weight and medium-weight linens, a clean-finished edge works well and looks neat. A clean-finished edge requires two steps and takes a little-more time than simply zigzagging the raw edge, but it is worth the extra effort. To clean finish an edge, straight stitch approximately one-eighth inch to one-fourth inch from the edge and then turn the edge under on the stitch line and straight stitch through the two layers.
You can also use double-fold bias tape or special seam-finishing tape to enclose the raw edges. This looks great, but if you are a beginner, you may find it somewhat tricky. I personally prefer the clean-finish method. It is easy to learn and requires no extra supplies.
Of course, the clean-finish method is not suitable for finishing the armhole seam of a set-in sleeve. You can let the seam stay unfinished, but I prefer to zigzag the edges together after I have set the sleeve in. To avoid a bulky seam, most patterns recommend trimming the underarm seam between the notches, after setting in the sleeve. This is generally a good idea; zigzag over the trimmed edge as well.
Don’t Forget To Press
Another key to sewing a professional looking garment is to press every seam as you go. Commercial patterns always recommend this step, but when I first began sewing, I did not see the point of it and often neglected to do it. I’ve since discovered that it makes a real difference
in the look of the finished piece. Using a press cloth, press the seam flat on both sides to set the stitches and then press the seam open.
To save time, sew several pieces (such as sleeve seams, and side seams) in a batch and then press them before you sew the pieces together.
Some fabrics do not require the use of a press cloth, but linen has a tendency to shine when pressed, so remember to protect it. A press cloth also helps to prevent scorching, but it’s not foolproof, so use caution since linen scorches easily. Keeping the press cloth damp, even if you are using a steam iron, will help prevent problems and give your pressed details a nice crisp look.