Sewing with linen – everything you need to know to make a linen garment!

Lovely Linen: A Guide for Sewing this Natural Fabric

Dressy or casual, for a day at the office or a day on the boardwalk, garments made of natural linen are comfortable, versatile, and attractive. Natural linen has long been a fashionable 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.

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.

Pre-treating Linen: to wash or not to wash

So you have your fabric and your pattern chosen. You love the crisp look of that brand-new piece of linen. It seems a shame to pre-wash it before cutting it out and sewing it. Do you have to?

I have found that the answer is yes and no. 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. A 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 distinctive 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 grain of a fabric runs parallel to the selvages–the finished edge on each side of the fabric piece.)

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).

Sewing

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.

Press as You Go

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.

A Garment to be Proud of

With a little effort and patience, even the novice home-sewer can produce a lovely linen garment. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempt doesn’t turn out as you envisioned it. Like any other skill, sewing takes practice; even experienced sewers occasionally make mistakes. Great thing is you can practice all your need to perfect your sewing skills with linen. Nice quality linen makes it easier for you to sew and provides better looking finished garments. And even though linen is considered a luxury fabric, it is not as expensive as it is thought to be.

Just go to www.fabrics-store.com to make your linen selection and your fabric satisfaction is guaranteed.

An avid seamstress,
Elizabeth A. Quinn

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6 comments

  1. Linda

    Reduce wrinkling? Only by yielding to its nature. Never, ever press or iron it; that just makes it shiny so -any- bend will show as a wrinkle, and bending will shorten its life. Always wash and then either hang to dry (dries -very- quickly) or put it into the dryer (not too hot); if hanging to dry, shake it out afterwards to loosen the fabric. Store by hanging, or folding softly and carefully. The softer hand will still wrinkle but won’t be quite as obvious. And people know it’s -real- linen!

  2. Ann Montgomery

    I suggest underling with a very light weight linen to lessen wrinkles; however, I too worried abot the linen wrinkling until I talked with a close friend, Millionaire, by the way, and she responded to me with, “but Ann, it wrinkles so beautifully.” If really softened by several washings, it feels so good to the body….and it looks so expensive!!

  3. Marilyn Elliott

    I was disappointed that your article did not address how to reduce wrinkles in Linen garments. Do you suggest underline with silk organza or use interfacing?

  4. Linda

    To remove scorch marks, as soon as possible (immediately, if you can) rinse the area with ginger ale (I prefer Canada Dry), then cool water.

    I was having issues with an old iron overheating erratically, so both linen and cotton were getting regular rinses with ginger ale; it’s a good thing I keep a small stash of it.

  5. Courtney

    Thanks for the article. I wanting to do my own linen dress (with very little experience.)

    Is there a particular iron you would recommend?

    Do you know the best thread tension for linen?

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