Friday, February 16, 2018

Plainsewing in Depth

Being the Class Notes/Synopsis of my class taught at St. Boniface Collegium (UAF) last November.

This class was intended to go over each of the sixteen or so different stitches I could think of, what uses they are most suited for, and how to choose your thread and wax...I didn't quite manage to get that all into the actual class since we kept running off on tangents. I had also anticipated more beginners in the class, rather than leading a class mostly containing experienced seamstresses. The goal of the class—and even more with this article--is to pass on some of the tips and tricks I've gleaned over the last few years of doing a fair amount of handsewing; both in SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism…pre-1603) and more modern sewing and tailoring, and to help make things easier for other historical costumers who want to do more in the way of handsewing. By no means is this article exhaustive and as I think of or learn more stitches, I will update.  Originally, I also intended to provide documentation for each stitch for each period (if it was used); I eventually decided to not do so because it turned out to be a lot more difficult and a more of a massive undertaking than I anticipated and I wanted to actually get the article published someday soon.


To start with, I will cover the required three tools and materials for handsewing and one optional one--this list does not include the fabric. Needle, thread, wax, and I highly recommend a thimble (semi-optional).

As you can see, I store my needles in an old Belgian Ale cork.
The jewelry pliers are helpful for sewing through many layers
and when your fingers start slipping.

Needles are commonly available, and usually fairly inexpensive. I am a horrible seamster, and usually use larger needles than are necessarily required (contrary to the usual advice of “use the smallest you can manage”); this is because A) I have larger fingers and manipulating a tiny needle is a pain in the butt, and B) with 90% of the fabrics I use in sewing (I primarily work with wools and linens), holes will heal. Just rub it slightly and the fibers generally close up around the thread. Reason “B” also means the thread will behave a bit better, since there is less friction on the thread as it is pulled through the cloth. An somewhat general rule of thumb on needle diameter should be that it should be slightly greater than the thread diameter. If you go too small, you will have issues threading (some threads can be compressed however, such as DMC floss), as well as issues with the thread catching at the eye when you take a stitch—both leading to difficulties making your motions smooth and efficient, and tending to leave holes which don't heal quite as well since they are slightly ragged.

Self-sewing with wool on a Greenland Hood.
I do, on rare occasions, use a handmade bone needle to sew. While originally this was purely as an experiment, I found out something handy...a bone needle allows you to sew much more easily with wool thread. This is because the thickness of the needle makes a larger hole...meaning the wool thread is exposed to less friction and breaks less often, much the same as using a larger steel needle that needed—just more exaggerated.


Thread is important since you can't sew without it, and choosing the right thread for the job is just as. Probably 75% of my sewing (leaving aside basting) is done with linen thread, which is generally white; it gets used for all linen handsewing sewing, and most wool. The remainder of the time I use wool thread, primarily for softer woolen fabrics because if something is going to tear, you want it be the stitching, not the cloth—it’s easy to resew a seam, but patching is a pain and tends to be visible. With the exception of sewing buttonholes, I try to avoid using silk thread as much as possible--not because it is necessarily difficult to use (although it can be!), but because I do not feel it is necessary for construction stitches. In addition, silk thread tends to be expensive enough that I only buy for specific projects rather than keeping it on hand. That said, when you are sewing fine silk fabrics, fine silk thread is the only choice because anything else can snag the fabric. The other exception are buttonholes (which are partly decorative) and when you are sewing rolled hems...the smoothness and strength of silk thread helps the stitching go more smoothly, compared to linen thread.

You may notice that cotton--or worse *shudder* poly--thread is not in there. This is for a specific reason...most threads of that variety are for machine use, and I've found that they aren't as strong as decent linen thread (possibly the source of the myth that hand seams are weaker than machine ones), and they tend to snarl and tangle horribly. I do not recommend them for anything but one specific exception…when basting. When I first started handsewing, I found linen thread to be an unbearable pain compared to the cotton quilting thread I had been using, and hated it--primarily due to the natural slubs found in some linen threads. After using it more and getting used to the idiosyncrasies of using linen thread (don’t try to use a section with a large slub, for one), and learning fully the importance of waxing--I can’t stand using machine cotton thread.

The linen threads I use the most are a 60/2 thread in white, and various colours of 50/3. I also strongly recommend keeping a 16/2 linen thread on works well when you need something stronger than normal, such as attaching a skirt to a bodice or gathering stitches in a heavier fabric. The heavier thread also works well for leatherworking. 60/2 is used for the majority of my sewing--and lately, basting--because it is available in larger spools, and is average enough for many of the fabrics I work with. 50/3 is for heavier (but well fulled) wools and linens, particularly where strength is a consideration. I order all of my linen thread from Wm, Booth, Draper since linen thread is not available anywhere near my town (neither is silk or wool), and I am familiar with their products; depending on where you live, you may be able to find it locally. The numbers are how thick the thread is by weight—number of 840 yard skeins per pound--and the number of plies (Cotton count system); in the case of the 60/2 it is made of two plies of thread which makes 60 skeins per pound. Theoretically, anyways—it could also be metric[i] .

Clockwise from top:
16/2 linen; 35/2 linen; 60/2 linen; synthetic thread for basting
Silk quilters twist; #5 DMC Floss.

I mentioned earlier that I prefer to use a fine wool yarn (16/2, if I remember correctly) for soft, easily torn wools because I would rather have the thread break than to tear the fabric. It is far easier to invisibly re-sew a seam than it is to invisibly patch the torn fabric--trust me, I've done enough patching on my clothing. This applies to linens and silks as well as other wools--when choosing a seam keep this in mind; is the fabric likely to tear at a stress point? If so, consider a /weaker/ seam rather than going for the strongest possible. You may also be able to spread out the load by felling or using a supporting tape over the seam, but for the most part, I am not covering combination seams in this article.

The last bit of thread choice I will touch on is a technique called self sewing--you draw your sewing thread from the fabric you are using. What this does is guarantee that the colours will match, as well as how they behave when washed. I have successfully used this technique before, with linen, wool, and silk thread, and I can say that depending on the thread used it is a pain in the butt, since they are almost always unplied. The linen needs to be high quality and low slub in order for this to be an option--the stuff from won't cut it.


I keep three varieties of wax in my sewing box...a paraffin wax, a slightly soft and sticky beeswax, and leatherworking code. While I use the beeswax the most, the other two do have their places. I find paraffin is best used with thread which is smooth and doesn't require much slicking or taming, so the purpose of waxing is more to lubricate the thread--I typically use it when basting with a modern thread because it does make it easier to pull the thread through the multiple large stitches, while keeping it tamed just enough. Shorter stitches means more friction over a given length of thread, and the wax is required more taming and smoothing.

Paraffin, beeswax, code.

Beeswax is, of course, the standby for any thread which needs some smoothing and sticking together. I prefer my wax to be slightly soft and sticky because it allows the fibers of the thread to smooth down more easily than a harder beeswax—if you live somewhere warmer than me your mileage may vary since your wax will be softer at room temperature. If you tend to work with darker fabrics in any quantity, I also suggest making or otherwise acquiring black beeswax, since the normal, pale coloured wax does leave markings on dark fabrics.

Often, you will see recommendations to wax and thread multiple needles at once for efficiency, and iron them between parchment paper in order to make the wax penetrate. I generally don’t bother, but it is a technique to keep in mind.  If I happen to have my iron on when I am handsewing (which I try not to do, since it's a potential fire hazard), I might run the waxed thread across the edge of the iron to melt the wax.

Code is (was) one of my secret weapons. Normally used for waxing thread in leatherworking, it is a heat activated glue made from beeswax and resin and it MUCH stickier than beeswax (go figure). While for the most part, I don’t recommend code for general use—it can make pulling the thread difficult because it /is/ so sticky, but there are a couple of instances where it is the only thing which helps. Difficult threading is one—as well as being sticky, it stiffens the end of the thread far more than beeswax, which makes it easier to thread the needle. And secondly, for finicky threads: if you’ve tried beeswax and the thread is still untwisting and fraying, try code, and re-apply to the thread occasionally as you sew—the 80/3 linen thread I have, and the silk pulled from the fabric (self sewing) I'm using to sew the Hasting's suit with both require the code instead of beeswax in order to prevent the thread from breaking constantly.

My original leather thimble, and the metal replacement.
I am not going to discuss thimbles in length, other than to say that I highly recommend learning to use them, and to suggest trying different styles until you find one which works well for you. Personally, I use a custom-made tailor's thimble cut from sheet nickle I had laying around. It's a relatively narrow strip of the metal which widens into an oval to cover the side of my finger (middle bone of my left middle finger), the oval was stippled with a nail to keep the needle from slipping, and because it is open I can adjust the size when my fingers swell or shrink. You can also make similar out of a tiny scrap of leather and some elastic, which was what my original version was.  Both Rory Duffy and Seamus O Grady briefly talk about using the thimble.

Threading the Needle:

Most people know how to thread a needle...however, there are a couple extra tricks which aren't as well known. Wax the entire thread before threading, using extra on the end you will be threading with. Do NOT moisten the end of the thread with saliva since that will soften the thread—instead, moisten the eye end of the needle--having saliva there lubricates the eye and helps draw the thread through. American made (most needles, in fact) have punched eyes, not drilled...what this means is that there is often a slight burr, and a needle may be easier to thread from one side than the other. Even when I don't wax the length of thread--normally when I am sewing buttonholes with a fairly well behaved and short length of thread--I will wax the end for ease of threading.

Stitch lengths:

The stitch length should be directly in proportion to the tightness of weave on the fabric. If I’m sewing a tightly woven wool or linen, I will use fairly small stitches (regardless of type of stitch). If the fabric is rather coarse, then larger stitches will be necessary…if you sew too small you may not be catching enough threads for the fabric to actually hold, which makes the seam tearing out more likely. Backstitches can be shorter than a running or stab stitch on the right side of the fabric in this circumstance since the wrong side makes up for it. My rule of thumb is each stitch needs to catch 2-4 threads (on each side), although with heavily fulled wools, this is somewhat immaterial since you can't actually see the weave.

There are a couple ways you can moderate your stitch length to keep it nice and small. The first (and way I do it), is to have your index finger underneath the seam, and use that as a gauge--just barely prick your finger, and it will be nice and small. Of course, that does mean the tip of my finger is full of holes, and slightly tattooed when I've been doing a lot of handsewing (especially pad stitching). The other method is to hold the needle just far enough back from the point to allow it to go through the fabric, plus the desired visible stitch length on the opposite side of the fabric. These methods work best for running, back, and some whipstitches--not so much on stab stitches.

Using your finger to keep the stitch short.

Positioning the Fabric for sewing:

One of the little tricks I found helped the most in keeping my seams even is to work them under a slight amount of tension--doing so allows your hand room to move, allows for greater precision, and helps keep your seams straight (with practice!). Depending on my sewing position, I may either put a weight on the end of the seam (working at a bench), or pin it to my knee, sock, or cuff of my pants if I am sewing tailorwise (cross-legged). For me, when I use a weight it is typically a 1.5 liter wine bottle (filled with a failed lilac wine if you are curious) with the addition of a brass rod stuck in the cork to hold a spool of thread--but you can use whatever, or a sewing bird if you prefer. At times, I may also pin the other end of the seam to my waistcoat, which reduces stress on my non-sewing hand, since I am not having to pinch the fabric to hold it taut.

Victorian Sewing Bird
The fabric of the seam would be clamped by the beak.

I categorize stitches into 4 classes; running/fore-stitch, backstitch, whipstitch, and buttonhole stitch. The last could also be considered a whipstitch variant, but I go so far into depth on it that it is a separate class and writeup, available as my article on Buttonholes Through the Ages. Almost every other stitch I can think of is a variant of those four, with slightly different techniques, and angles.

Using a weight to hold the seam.
And pinning it to my knee to keep tension.

As a note on terminology, rather than suggesting to stitch working towards the left or right, I will say outside and inside. Outside means—whichever hand you use—the seam is being worked toward the shoulder of your stitching hand and continuing as though you were reaching out on that side. Towards the inside means your sewing hand is crossing your body.

Running Stitch (or Fore-stitch):

Probably the best known stitch, along with backstitching; the running stitch is performed by running the needle through the cloth in a wave motion. It is quick, since you aren't moving your hand to the opposite side of the seam, but not particularly strong if you take multiple stitches at once. That said, I certainly do recommend using this stitch, especially when you are only going through a couple of layers of fairly light fabric at once. However, instead of taking multiple stitches at once I recommend going with single stitches, and pull the thread tight every few stitches (how many depends on stitch length and thread), then take a backstitch at the beginning of the next string of running stitches.  Any basic handsewing page will give you instructions or at least a diagram, but this is one of the first I found (don't sew towards your hand like that though!).

Fabrics to use on: anything thin enough (in the full number of layers for the seam) where you can keep the distance between stitches reasonable--no more than twice the stitch length (so...4-8 thread) is what I would say. The exception to the single stitch at a time rule is when I am running gathering stitches on a single layer, as for a shirt/chemise or ruff; you can keep the stitch length even, your thread choice is designed for smoothness, and because there is only a single layer of fabric, it can't shift and become uneven. When the fabrics are too thick or too many layers, I use other stitches.

Such as...

Stab stitch:

As you can see in the illustration below, a stab stitch is superficially the same as a running stitch, and there is quite a bit of confusion, until you picture what the thread is doing as it goes through the layers. With a stab stitch the needle is going all the way through the fabric, being pulled from the wrong side, then inserted to the right side. In addition, the needle is not angled forwards along the seam, but is kept either vertical (think crenelations on a castle) or angled back to produce something which looks like a dovetail join in carpentry. When the latter version is done correctly, the seam will look almost machine sewn and be extremely strong.

From my old G63 Documentation
In contrast to a running stitch, which when you pull it tight will create a puckering effect in soft fabrics (and gather if you continue pulling it tight), a stab stitch /compresses/ the fabric--an effect which is used to great effect in some circumstances. I use stab stitches for three things: extremely thick, dense fabrics, where a running or even back stitch would be too large; on the edges of certain garments, particularly 14th century ones, where when done through a facing [1. Page 160] it compresses and stiffens the edge of the fabric; and finally, those rare times when I use a bone needle (originally for experimental archaeology's sake, and now because I find wool thread sews better with it). Because of the thickness of and friction from the needle, a running stitch is impractical to impossible depending on the density of the fabric being sewn.

A warning though...while you can get quick at the stab stitch if you arrange your workstation correctly--I prefer to work tailor-wise and pin the fabric to my knees so that the edge of the seam is towards me—several of the other stitches are faster to sew with.

One end of the seam pinned to a knee as I work
from left to right as a Southpaw.
The stab stitch as discussed here is primarily found beginning sometime in the 14th century….theoretically. Textiles and Clothing makes no mention of stab stitches [1. Pages 153-161], but Woven into the Earth does with a diagram on page 100. There are a couple of possible explanations for this, the simplest being that Textiles isn’t distinguishing it from a plain running stitch in regard to sewing down and reinforcing facings. The other explanation is a bit more complicated and involves some guesswork, but revolves around the assumption that metal needles were scarce in the Greenland colonies—problematic because while no metal needles were found, they most likely would have dissolved in the acid soil, so the lack of finds doesn't prove anything. I already discussed how I found that a bone needles work best with a stab stitch.


Basting is a dirty word in some households, I know. But it /is/ necessary to use it on occasion. As a general rule, basting is just a long running stitch (for the other version, see the pad-stitching section) used to hold the layers of fabric together while you either fit the garment, sew it permanently, or occasionally to tack the inner layers--canvassing, interlining, padding--together (perma-basting). A variation of basting is also known as tailor's tacks and will be covered in the backstitching section.

Basting is one of the few places where I will use modern, synthetic thread...usually a buttonhole/upholstery thread, which is fairly stiff and tightly spun. This particular modern thread behaves, and rarely requires waxing...both are important factors when you may have 10 feet of thread on the needle. It's also fairly strong, so it is more likely to be easily removed. I also recommend using dedicated basting thread in some colour that contrasts your usual materials—doing so makes it easier to find when it is time to remove.

In using it the basting stitch for fitting, I recommend sewing the seams wrong sides together, in order to make any adjustments of taking it in/out easy. Because the seams may be under a bit of strain, it would be best to use smaller basting stitches.

Basting the Hasting's Trunkhose layers.
When using to hold the pieces together for sewing the size of your stitches need to be depends on the complexity of the seam. If it is a fairly straight seam or you are holding fashion and interlining layers together then they can be relatively large, but if you are sewing a complex seam (where the seam edges don't match in shape) then shorter stitches may be necessary. Make sure your basting stitches are NOT where you will be sewing the actual seam! This is important, since if you accidentally sew through the basting thread, it will either be a pain to remove, or break the stitch in your actual seam...basting for this purpose is one of the places I will use a weaker thread (with exception being armscyes, since they are often under strain during fitting), so that the basting thread will be more likely to break than the sewing thread.

The main reasons I will use basting over pinning to hold the fabrics for sewing the finished seam is in particularly thick fabrics, since pinning can cause the layers to get uneven; likewise on many layers of fabric, but even worse. When I need to ease two seams together--either because they are uneven in length such as the shoulder seam of many fitted/tailored body garments, or because I'm dealing with a convex and concave edge as in the back/sidebody seam of later (1590s or so) doublets and upper body garments onwards—I will baste rather than pin in order to keep things more accurate. Basting also holds up to travel better, and is unlikely to stab you when you grab the fabric.

For perma-basting, my goal /is/ permanency of course. The stitches will normally be slightly smaller, or take the occasional anchoring backstitch, and the thread used may be more historically accurate (i.e. linen) if I feel that may be a concern. I will also make the knot neater, to prevent it from appearing as a lump in the fashion fabric. The main places I use this is to sew interlinings and canvassing together, or join underlining and fashion fabric within the seam allowances. One subtlety in the latter is if you baste the edges with the pieces over a curve--such as your knee—the layers will be slightly moved so the inside one is slightly it needs to be for a perfect fit on the body.

Rantering a Seam:

This is a fun technique, which shows up in the 18th century as a method of hiding seams in woolen (i.e. fuzzy or fulled) cloth garments, along with fine drawing (which is not a technique I have tried as of yet). Begin by sewing the seam “the normal way” i.e. with fore or back stitch, then, on the right side of the fabric and using a fine needle and silk thread catch the nap of the fabric only to draw it together over the seam. If there is no nap, you will need to brush one up—I use a slicker brush from the pet store to do so. Following that, you will brush it again in every direction until the nap is even, full it together, and—if necessary—shave it until the surface over the seam matches the rest of the cloth. A couple of tips are to go slowly, take tiny stitches, and when you full it (since you will likely use your knuckles) make sure your hands are /clean/.  The instructions at Prinny's Taylor is where I learned the stitch, and is reputedly from a volume dating to 1801.

An example of a rantered seam on my cotte.  I had made
a mistake and had to remove and piece a section in.
I am still having issues actually finding examples of this in the 18th century…however, it is not difficult to find in the 19th , where it is discussed on page 219 of The boy's book of trades (1866), and even 20th century where it was recommended to hide the waist seam in woolen or tweed coats (Thrift with a needle; the complete book of mending. 1954).

“Le point a rabattre sous la main”:

This stitch is another primarily 18th century stitch or seam, and one without—as far as I know—a name in English, although recently it has come to be called the "English Stitch", thanks to American Duchess's new book. When I first got ready to teach this class, I had planned to present it as a 18th century (and therefore out of period) stitch, but then I realized it shows up on the Viborg shirt—an 11th century Danish find. Its purpose is to allow you to sew a seam as quickly as possible by eliminating the steps of sewing a lining separately—something important for a professional who gets paid by the garment. In addition, because there is only one seam holding both shell and lining, unstitching for adjustments due to weight loss/gain should be easier. I haven’t used this stitch all that much yet, so I don’t have all that many tips on use.

Le point a rabattre sous la main is best used on lighter and medium in weight fabrics, rather than heavy wools. It is worked by folding the raw edges under with wrong sides together on both the lining and fashion fabric, placing the pieces to be sewn with the right sides together (as normal), and stab stitching through 6 of the 8 layers as close to the edge as feasible. Which side of the lining is skipped alternates between sides of the seam, so that the lining appears to be whipstitched down, while the fashion fabric is stab-stitched. With the close stitches required to make this seam neat, it would appear to be a fairly strong seam, but I have not yet tested it.  I learned to do the stitch from a blog where it was initially referred to as a "weird running stitch thingy".

In Costume Close Up the author says that this stitch is documentable and illustrated in a French book published between 1762 and 1777, the Encyclopédie…Recueil de Plances… by Denis Diderot [5. Pp. 8, 120]. Its use in earlier period clothing is shown on the Viborg shirt, although I suspect that example is an outlier, since it is a single piece of clothing. I do not know of any examples of it showing up in Renaissance or Victorian clothing at the moment.

Side seam of the Viborg Shirt.  From


Most people know how to sew with the backstitch…one of the three primary stitches along with running stitch and whipstitch. No, don’t raise your hand if you don’t know it, I still plan to cover it anyways. In usage the backstitch is similar to a running stitch, and is the stronger alternative to the running stitch. The back and forward motion of the stitch does two things: it can lock the stitch if you go through your sewing thread, and it gives a little bit of elasticity to the seam to help keep the stitches from breaking under strain. For this reason, backstitch is best used in higher tension areas, and parts which have a small amount of stretch…armscyes, for instance, or the rise of a pair of pants. Other times I tend to use them for plainsewing is when I am dealing with thicker fabric or too many layers to perform a small enough running stitch--while I don’t necessarily need the extra strength, backstitching is quicker than stab stitching. I also backstitch every 5-10 stitches when sewing a seam with running stitch to help prevent the entire seam from coming undone if a stitch breaks.

We have a couple of variants here…even and uneven. Even tends to be smaller, and from the right side of the fabric almost looks like a machine sewn seam since you are inserting the needle where you came up from the last stitch. Uneven back stitches are not quite as strong as even backstitches, not quite as elastic, but are almost as fast as a running stitch (but stronger). They are also a bit less visible (on the right side). A large backstitch may also be used on the bias edges of a garment—such as around an armscye—before manipulating the garment in order to keep the edge from stretching unduly while checking the fit.

Like Running stitch, I would say most people know how to perform a backstitch.  If you do not, I will refer you to this video.

Prick/Pick Stitch:

The first uneven backstitch is the pickstich, and there are a couple of variations of this, but they are essentially the modern version of a stab stitch--their main modern purpose is to help support and neaten the edge of a garment. Have you ever seen tiny stitches on the front edge of a modern suit jacket? Those are prick or pick stitches and are designed to keep the layers in the edge neat and flat. Essentially, the pickstitch is worked the same as any other backstitch, just taking care to only catch a few fibers (not even threads!) on each side of the garment, and not pull it tight since that will produce puckering (unless you desire that effect for decorative purposes). It is essentially a modern use stitch, although may possibly be used on the edges of structured Renaissance era clothing to later. For a video of the stitch being performed, I refer you to this Rory Duffy Video. If the fabric layers are thin enough, you can also perform the stitch as a running stitch.

Pick-stitch being performed on a waistcoat front.

Tailor’s Tacks:

Related to basting is a technique known as tailor’s tacks. Essentially, this is a way to transfer markings from one side of a garment to the other, for things like pockets, darts, or when you have inlays (wide seam allowances for fitting) on a seam. You are tracing the markings and seams using a modified (uneven) basting stitch, but with each small stitch take a backstitch and leave a loop standing above the fabric. Snip the long stitches on the top side of the fabric, then carefully peel the layers apart and snip the stitches between the layers. You should have a visible line of stitches on both pieces of fabric. I highly suggest using a contrasting thread for this technique. It is far more accurate than chalking between the layers, and a bit safer than pin marking.  One tutorial--on doing them efficiently, no less--can be found here.

Catch/Cross/Herringbone Stitch:

The naming on this particular stitch is somewhat confusing…for a plain sewer, it’s all the same stitch. If you come from an embroidery background, I have seen it labeled be labeled as a long arm cross-stitch. This is primarily a hemming stitch, especially for multiple layers or heavier fabrics, as in the hem of a structured garment. You may also not see it holding down seam allowances in a tailored garment (not see, because the lining would be hiding it). But, essentially it is an alternating backstitch—you are running two parallel seams at once, alternating. I find it is worked most quickly downwards—holding the edge in your off hand and working over your index finger, needle pointing up as the stitching line goes down. Since it isn’t supposed to be seen—in structured garments it will be covered by a lining, and the stitches shouldn’t show on the outside of the fashion fabric—it doesn’t matter all that much whether the stitches are pretty and even. But if it matters to you, the easiest way I found is to come up directly above (or below) the prior stitch. Then you just have to keep the lines straight. If you are using it to secure multiple layers of cloth, I tend to recommend the use of a medium weight thread in a colour which will blend with that of the fashion layer.

Cross-stitching the hem of a waistcoat.  The lining the gets slip-stitched over it.
The catch stitch also gets used to join overlapping seams in your canvassing/interlining layers, as when you inset split or dart your canvas/haircloth, or to secure the edge of the canvassing if you are concerned that basting stitches won’t do the job (which they may not, if you plan to machine wash the garment). In watching this video tutorial, it was pointed out that there is another way to do is as well, as a blind stitch.  Another tutorial is here and includes a double cross-stitch.

This stitch—in some variation or another—dates back to pre-Viking age, showing up on a skirt in Huldremose[ii], and a hem in Hedeby[iii]. I have not found examples from the 14th century or so, but it is visible (between layers) in at least a couple of 16th century examples in Patterns of Fashion 3—that of Nils Sture (Figure 100) is the easiest found.


Singling is an interesting little stitch, and not particularly common or well known outside of those reenactors who have read Woven into the Earth. It would best be considered a hemstitch for heavier wools which aren’t fulled enough to go completely unhemmed, such as Vadmal. In the version I use you are sewing a fine cross-stitch on the wrong side, keeping it almost completely buried in the wool. What this does is stabilize the raw edge of your wool with a miniscule overcast stitch…if you just used an overcast (whip) stitch it would be ineffective since the stitch wouldn’t actually be attached to more than one thread or would have to be much larger and terribly visible. If done correctly, it appears as a series of tiny running stitches on only the wrong side of the fabric, an even smaller whipstitch on the edge, and maybe hints of the thread running through the fibers of the cloth. It isn’t only used to stabilize and leave the edge raw…if you are tablet weaving directly to the edge of the cloth, using singling is highly recommended to allow your warp stitches to stay small and while being sturdy enough that the weaving should not fall off.

Not particularly visible, even from the wrong side.
At least in this fabric.  You can barely see some red stitches.
While Woven into the Earth shows singling done in a sinuous “S” sort of shape, I prefer to use a cross-stitched form as I have found it quicker and less finicky (since you are working in straight lines rather than curves). Ideally, a fine wool thread which colour matches the fabric would be ideal and the most historically accurate, but linen or even silk in a matching colour will also work fine and is more readily available.
Edge on, showing the overcast.


The third of our quartet of base stitches, and another that everyone knows by one generic name or another…is the whipstitch (my preferred term). A whipstitch is typically used to bind an edge or hem a piece, and consists of simply inserting the needle from one side repeatedly…at its most base form you end up with something that looks like a spiral bound notebook. For the most part, it is an easy way to fell seam allowances (either open or to one side), or to secure a single or double folded hem on a garment. In either of those cases I generally prefer to stitch with my needle pointed to my inside and parallel to the grain of the fabric if it is going to be visible on the right side; by following the grain of the fabric the stitch becomes less obtrusive. The exception are fabrics which easily fray or tear, where I will usually have the needle running diagonally across the grain in order to catch more threads….but if your fabric is that delicate, a different stitch may be called for, such as a catch-stitch, since it covers the edge more completely.

The whipstitch in general is useable in just about any fabric, and with any thread (following the usual rules about thread/fabric choices). If you are felling a seam/hem on a fuzzy or thick wool, it is not all that difficult to make the stitches invisible from the right side, by keeping the thread buried in the nap of the wool. When felling seam allowances, there are two ways you can angle the thread on the wrong side; either with the grain of the seam allowance, which buries the thread and makes it almost invisible. Alternatively, you can go steeply across the grain, which gives more surface area for more loosely woven fabrics. In addition, you can often take two or three stitches before pulling the thread tight…this is sadly only possible with stronger, well behaved threads-- otherwise they tend to tangle.

Couched Overcast/Whipstitch:

This is a “fun” little stitch, which works much the same and follows similar rules to using plain whipstitch. However, the stitches also secure a cord, which has a couple of purposes. The addition of the cord helps keep the seam from stretching when you have a fully bias cut seam because the cord will not stretch much, as well as filling the gap between stitches to make snagging your hem slightly less likely. It is important to note that the cord is not merely run under the stitches, but consists of two cords plied together…a 180 degree twist per stitch. This is most easily done with opposite holes in a card weaving tablet, and prevents the cord from slipping out of place as it eventually will if you just run it under the stitches.

From the seam allowances of a 14th century hood.
Like Singling, the couched overcast stitch primarily shows up in the Greenland finds, on page 100 of Woven into the Earth.


I am going to discuss a couple of almost identical stitches, which are used for /almost/ the same thing…but it is important to keep them separate. The slipstitch is best used for things like felling facings, where you are sewing down a folded or otherwise stable edge to something with several layers. It should not be visible on the outside of the garment. Essentially, it is performed by catching a few threads of the facing and immediately burying the needle between layer before coming up and repeating. The stitches do not have to be particularly close, but /do/ need to be regular in length since they are visible. As a rule, you want to use a moderately light thread for this purpose, which matches the facing in colour, assuming it is not contrasting as a decorative feature—not a period feature to the best of my knowledge. While I said this is primarily for facings, you may also use it to fasten linings to the turned edge of structured garments (around armscyes, hems, and cuffs) so that the lining is back from the turned edge by a 1/4th inch or so (and therefore invisible during regular wear). For this use I usually use it in conjunction with a herringbone to secure the multiple outer layers, which then gets covered with the lining and pressed.

Slipstitch, from the top and with the layers separated.
 Rory Duffy has a tutorial on the stitch under the name of "felling stitch", which is lovely, since I thoroughly enjoy listening to his accent.  He also includes a number of subtleties in practice.


While it is worked much the same as the slipstitch and looks the same from the wrong side, it is used in places where you only have one layer of fabric to anchor to—such as turned hems. When working the hemstitch, you will bring the needle back up to the wrong side of the fabric, then run the needle through the fold of your fabric until the next stitch. In the finished product, it looks essentially the same as the rolled hem stitch further up this article, just with a larger hem. As a general rule, it is best used when you have a hem or similar, and speed and invisibility are more important than something which is sturdier (such as whipstitch).

Blind Hemstitch.
As they are so similar, everything I said in regards to the slipstitch applies to this one as well. In fact you can use it in place of a slipstitch (but not vice versa), but it is slower.

I actually found there were no video tutorials of what I mean by a least not a true blind hemstitch as I prefer to use.  So I threw together a rough one at least.

Rolled Hemstitch:

While you would think that this is a whipstitch, especially since I have it sorted into that category, it isn't necessarily. Or at least, one of the three styles isn’t. The first two are easily documentable through the Viking age and 16th century…it is simpler but also a bit slower. Essentially, you roll the fabric in your wetted fingers, then either sew the rolled edge down this tiny hemstitches or completely overcast the rolled edge. It would be used on any lightweight fabrics for the edges of veils or on shirts, and should use thread which matches that of the fabric since the stitches will be visible. Stitches are quite close…Textiles and Clothing notes that the example is around 12-15 stitches per inch [1. Pp. 158]. Photographs of extant examples of this type of hem may be found in the 14th, and 16th centuries [3. 17].

Textiles and Clothing 1150 - 1450.  Rolled Hem.

The third variety is sometimes known as “the magic veil stitch”. It really is a running stitch, where the thread is progressing in a straight line through the layers of the finished product. As you might guess by the name, it is specifically for hemming extremely light, fiddly fabrics--linens and silks for the most part, although it could show up on a wool gauze as well.

Essentially, the stitch is a staggered running stitch, performed at a turned edge of the fabric and the raw edge of the turn. Start off by folding the edge of your fabric in by 1/8-1/16th of an inch and pressing it into submission. Start your needle at the fold, take a tiny stitch parallel to the raw edge, then up into and inside the fold. Then repeat. After you have done a few inches of stitches, pull the thread tight, and if you did it right, you will have a finely rolled's really cool, actually. When your thread breaks or runs out, anchor it at the folded edge of the fabric after pulling it tight, then start the new thread just behind it in the seam.  This tutorial is fairly clear, although I generally recommend shorter stitches here than she uses.

The first style, with the finger rolled hem being hemstitched.
This is a work shirt in cotton.
Some tips are to use a well behaving and preferably strong thread--I got by with linen, but silk probably would have worked better and hopefully resulted in a bit less frustrating breakage. Wax your thread for lubrication more than stickiness. Trim the edge of the fabric so it's smooth...the stitch doesn't work all that well if there are irregularities in the edge. Using shorter threads helps somewhat, as does pulling it tight every few inches, instead of every foot; something which will depend on your thread, because the more times you pull it taut and take that next stitch, the slower it have to find a balance.

Unfortunately, I have not found evidence of the third variety until the beginning of the 18th century [3. P.57], where you can see something that /could/ be it…it is described just as being “hemmed”. You do see it in one form (finished form more like an overcast stitch, rather than the slip stitch) in the Ladies Guide to Plain Sewing using this method of pulling the stitches tight combined with overcast stitch [4. P.16]…however, there are no notes as to the source of the image used, although at least a couple of the books in the bibliography are from the 18th century.

“Mantua Maker’s Seam”:

I have not used this one much, nor am likely to. However, this is another one of those seams which are designed to streamline production by avoiding re-sewing a seam as much as possible. In this case, it is a way to sew and fell the seam allowances on lightweight to sheer fabrics; French seam, or sewing then felling are other options…however, both require sewing the seam twice, slowing you down if you are a professional. It is worked by placing your fabrics right sides together, turning the raw edges under as if you were felling the seam allowance down, then actually felling it through all layers without sewing the seam first. I recommend using a fairly light thread (light fabric, light thread), which matches the primary colour of the fashion fabric. Try to keep your needle insertion perpendicular to the seam so they don’t slant through the layers.  Burnley and Trowbridge put out a video tutorial, which even includes an early 19th century extant example.

Thick, contrasting thread used for display purposes.


One of my absolute favourite stitches and sewing tasks. Even though it isn’t used for seams, I consider it to be a whipstitch as you have the same spiraling stitch motion, if worked on the flat of the fabric. Padstitching can be used for a few different purposes: permanently shaping multiple layers of fabric, quilting padding into place, stiffening layers of fabric, and basting.

A doublet back--belonging to my Red Striped Doublet, I believe.
The primary use is, of course, for padstitching—a method of permanently joining (yes, technically quilting) the layers in a structured garment over a curve (often your fingers or knee) in order to curve it to your body. Normally, the layers worked are the canvassing/haircloth/ some padding (not necessarily in that order), although occasionally it becomes visible on the outside of the fabric, if in a generally concealed place such as the lapels of a jacket, or stand and fall of a collar. When you padstitch, you generally want to keep the stitch on the backside fairly small in order to get the most benefit out of it—this is where I use pricking my forefinger as a gauge--, but playing with stitch size and tension can give subtle effects on the amount and springiness of the curve.

I generally use a medium to heavy weight linen thread for my padstitching, as it gives the right combination of price and strength (combined with authenticity); like basting, I don’t worry too much about neatness and trimming the tail end, because speed and effect are the important things here…the stitches won’t be seen.  However, if the fashion layer over it is a lighter fabric, I recommend either burying the knot or making it neater in order to prevent it from showing through.  In addition, because you are going through multiple layers of heavy fabrics, I /strongly/ recommend a thimble—probably more so than with any other stitch. There are a couple ways you can treat the fabrics…either baste around the edges first—which results in some puckering and shrinkage so is not recommended; or leave them lose. In either case you should work from either the center or one side to the other to allow the under layers to shift—which starting point I use depends on the size of the piece being worked.

Page 76, PoF 3
As for quilting the padding, you are looking at using rather large, even stitches, which—on the right side—show up as neat squares. The long, diagonal stitches on the wrong side help keep the wool or cotton-wool in place. You can see an excellent example of what I am talking about on page 76 of Patterns of Fashion 3

The section of clothing a padstitch is normally used to stiffen and shape are the breast and collar of a structured garment (although I made a tall hat shaped and stiffened entirely with padstitching), where the horizontal lines of stitches form vertical channels…this is what causes the stiffening, along with the interplay of tension of the front collar against the back. As a rule, the stitching here is often visible as a large quantity of tiny puckers on the underside—this is why the underside of many suit collars is made of a wool felt rather than something lighter, in order to allow the thread to be buried. Obviously when you do this, you want a lighter weight but strong thread--silk—which matches the outer fabric in colour, and your stitches need to be even. I have also heard of people entirely padstitching an entire Elizabethan bodice interlining to give support and a smooth finish to the bodice.

As in this example by Centuries-Sewing, intended for a version
the Pisa Gown.  Read more HERE.

Lastly, I use a loose padstitch for basting in certain cases—mainly ones where I am concerned with the layers of fabric slipping along each other as I sew (more of a worry when sewing with machine), since the stitching keeps it from moving either vertically or horizontally. When used for this purpose, it may also be called Diagonal Basting. This is also important when you are easing two seams together that are different lengths. Needless to say, avoiding slippage is particularly important when pattern matching fabrics. The other time I will use a loose padstitch is when basting around buttonholes prior to cutting the hole: using a pad stitch--in addition to being better at preventing shifting of layers—means you do not have to keep shifting the garment you are working on, as you would with a running stitch; just take some stitch up, a couple over, then back down. The time and effort saved is important when you might be preparing 40+ buttonholes at once.

Prior to cutting the scalloped hem of the Brunswick jerkin,
I used a padstitch to baste them.
There are a couple of different tutorials I have run across--one from Scott Perkins at Garb-for-Guys, and one from The Sempstress.

Buttonhole stitch:

Those who know me, know that I am one of those weird, masochistic seamsters who actually likes sewing buttonholes. A good thing I am…most of the later period clothing I enjoy tends to have a multitude of them! The primary place buttonhole stitch is used, is, of course, for buttonholes in clothing from roughly 1300 and onwards. While it may possibly be used for eyelets as well I feel this is overkill. The buttonhole stitch may be used for a decorative hem stitching on occasion, but that is not a topic of this article.

Sewing here is finished, but the basting threads
are still in place.  Jerkin from the Brunswick suit.
It is /extremely/ important to not mix up buttonhole and blanket stitches. Blanket stitches only loop the thread…buttonholes form a knot, or perl, with each stitch. This means that if the thread breaks, it won’t all come undone. I am against using blanket stitch in general, mostly for that reason.

Blue wool cottehardie.
On sewing buttonholes, you should first read my article on the topic of how they evolve through their timeline. I feel it is particularly important to use the correct buttonhole style for the period you are sewing in…to the point of it being a “make it or break it” thing for a garment looking right. Tutorials for each style are linked in the appropriate sections of the buttonhole article.

The 16th century buttonholes on the striped doublet.
As for waxing, sometimes I will wax the thread, sometimes I do not. If I am sewing the buttonhole with perl cotton (DMC floss) I will usually wax it with paraffin, and run the waxed thread though my fist a few times to make the wax penetrate. When using other threads…it varies. Linen gets heavily waxed. Wool cannot be waxed, and silk buttonhole twist, I also do not wax. You will have to use your judgment, and it depends on the fabrics you are sewing as well. If the fabric frays easily, waxed thread doesn’t help with that since it can tug the fibers out of place.

  • When you sew buttonholes, the prepwork is important, particularly if you are going through more than two layers of cloth (as you usually will be). Baste around the perimeter of the buttonhole location, as discussed in the padstitching section.
  • Cut the buttonhole with a chisel instead of scissors, this gives a neater edge and keeps it from getting uneven; for the super tiny buttonholes you see in 14th century sleeves, you can sharpen a flat head screwdriver and use that as a chisel. Do make sure the cut is long enough for the period as well…for the most part, they should be just long enough for the button to fit through, with the exception of 1680s to maybe 1780s where the length of the buttonhole was a feature.
  • If you have more than three layers of fabric or fabric which likes to fray, whipstitch the edge with a fine silk thread, preferably matching the fabric. This both keeps the layers from shifting while you work the buttonhole stitch, and helps keep the fabric from fraying as you do so.
  • While I typically recommend working in sequence…baste all of them, then cut, then baste the edges with a finely set whipstitch to keep it from fraying...if the fabric tends to fray I recommend cutting one at a time and basting the edges before cutting the next one.
  • Use a “gimp” thread if called for…that would be after the 1680s mark or so. The gimp thread is a heavy, extremely stiff thread—usually silk--used as a filler and to keep the fabric from stretching—it is not something you can leave off if you are cutting the buttonholes on anything other than straight of grain.
  • Choose your buttonhole thread carefully…use the correct size and colour for the period in question. Roughly, earlier buttonholes could be somewhat coarse in thread; Georgian buttonholes would be quite fine, with tiny stitches, later periods… it depends. Take class into account, if applicable. Buttonholes are one of those things which would generally be worked in silk, not only because they were highly visible decorative features, but for the strength and because smooth thread makes a neater buttonhole. However, I quite often work them in DMC floss as a cheaper substitute, or even linen and wool on occasion (not generally recommended).
  • The mnemonic I use to remember which way to wrap for a correct perl is the tail of the thread—the doubled thread coming out of the needle’s eye—wraps around the point of the needle in the direction you are sewing. The working thread (the side attached to the cloth) needs to be aligned with the buttonhole in the direction you came from—to do otherwise can end up with indistinct perls. I much prefer this method of wrapping to slipping the needle through the loop of thread, which often gets twisted.
  • The distance between stitches should be no less than half the thickness of the thread. It can be more, depending on period and class, but less and you will have issues with evenness.
  • As you pull the thread tight, keep your hand going in the same angle—around 45 to 60*. If you pull straight to the side, the perl will end up inside the buttonhole slit instead of on top of it. Appropriate for 14th century when you work from the wrong side, but no other time that I’ve noted. It is also important to keep your tension the same with each stitch, and not to pull the stitches too tight.
  • Pay attention to the bar tacks on the end (if applicable. 14th century buttonholes have no bar tack). They are a fine detail that most people may not notice, but are still important. Bar tacks and what periods they are required for are discussed in my Buttonholes Though the Ages article.
  • Practice…it is a good idea to do one or two practice buttonholes through all the same layers and with the same thread before you cut into your garment. 
  • One hint I have run across is to start working your buttonholes somewhere around the middle of the line and work out from there.  That way, you don't get a obvious gradient of poor to nicely sewn buttonholes as your skills improve.

A Point (or two) in Closing:

Typically there is no one way to do something…there might be the most appropriate or neatest way, most period way, and the most efficient way. It is up to you to decide which is the most important to you….just make sure to note down /why/ you made that decision for your documentation.

In a couple of the stitches (the two “all in one” seams), I talk about the importance of efficiency to professionals . If you think about it, when you are being paid by the /garment/ not by the hour, you will need to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible. The real most efficient way is for individuals to specialize. Think of it this way; if you are only doing one task (say, sewing pockets) you are going to get in your 10,000 hours or repetitions much more quickly than someone who is doing every step…obviously, that isn’t an option for hobbyists like us. I have heard it said, more than once, that old shops would do that…one person per task or piece. However, reading through Nothing but the Best by Thomas Girtin, on page 28-29 he talks about streamlining in this way having “invaded certain of the workrooms” and how suits made in this manner were missing an indefinable personal touch he remembers. This book was written in the 1950s. Figure then, that the assembly line method of commercial bespoke clothing construction /may/ not have shown up until the 20th century at the earliest, since the author remembers it being done by individual. Then again, I could be wrong. I will admit that buttonholes were probably done by an individual paid by the piece, and that specializing in individual garments was likely (this tailor in the shop might be better at or focused on leg coverings, that one may be outer garments, and a third may be best at upper body garments, etc.).


1. Crowfoot, Elisabeth; Pritchard, Frances; Staniland, Kay. Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450 (Boydell Press, for Museum of London. 2001)
2. Baker, Jennifer. Stitches and Seam Techniques. Webpage, 2009. [Accessed 12-2-17]
3. Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 4. (MacMillan, 2008).
4. Kannik, Kathleen. The Lady’s Guide to Plain Sewing,. (Published by Kannik’s Korner. 1993). PDF copy.
5. Baumgarten, Linda; Watson, John. Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Patterns 1750 – 1790. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999).
6. Unknown. The boy's book of trades : and the tools used in them. (London : George Routledge and Sons, 1866.) Digital Format [Accessed 12-26-17]
7. Ryan, Mildred Graves. Thrift with a needle; the complete book of mending. (New York, Scribner, 1954). Digital Format: [Accessed 12-26-17]

[i] Thread sizes:

© John Frey, 2018. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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