I’m thrilled that we have an article from the fabulous Carolyn of Diary of a Sewing Fanatic! I’ve admired Carolyn’s work ever since I first started sewing, and her technical abilities especially regarding specific fabrics is just phenomenal. Here, Carolyn gives you the inside info on everything you need to know about linen. Take it away, Carolyn! – Jenny
I love working with linen because it can be made into a variety of garments.
~ It can make an amazing tailored garment or it can make an awesome relaxed fun weekend outfit. No matter your lifestyle, linen can work in it.
~ It’s easy to work with, sews up like a dream, making stunning outfits for both a beginner and an advanced sewist.
~ The fabric takes dye well so you can purchase linen in brilliant and bright colors or soft and shaded pastels. It is also available in prints, plaids, florals and embroidered.
~ It is cool to wear, doesn’t hold body heat and is absorbent.
~ The only downside to linen is that it wrinkles…horribly…if underlinings and/or linings are not added to it to support the fabric.
It may be the oldest natural cellulosic fiber, having been used by Swiss lake dwellers as early as 8,000 BC. Egyptian linen fragments have been dated to 4,500 BC. Linen is made from the stem of the flax plant, linen fibers, which 2” to 36” long, are spun into yarn then woven into fabric. Linen is available in a variety of weights, from handkerchief linen to heavy suitings, linen has a natural luster, high moisture absorbency (12 percent) and no static electricity. Cool and comfortable to wear in warm climates, linen fabrics are quick drying, lint free, and resistant to moths and the alkalies in detergents, Borax, ammonia, and washing soda. They have good shape retention, and even though strong when dry, they are even stronger when wet. They shed surface dirt, resist stains, and are not damaged by sunlight, but yellow with age.
Definition from: Fabric Sewing Guide (2nd Edition) by Claire Shaeffer
When making a garment from linen I realize that the linen will wrinkle when worn. I just need to decide how much wrinkling I can live with…i.e. Do I want to underline a pair of pants with silk organza and then line them or can I deal with the deep wrinkling that will occur? Do I want the arms to crease in a jacket from my movements or do I want to underline and line? Is the dress or skirt for a more relaxed casual occasion? If so, then I pretreat the heck out of it, construct it without the underpinnings and wear it knowing that some wrinkling may occur but not as much. These are decisions that you need to make when you are deciding what to do with the linen you have purchased.
Personally I have used linen in both tailored garments and in more relaxed wear. Pretreatment of the fabric depends on what the garment’s end use will be.
I’ve used linen for making skirts, dresses, tops, pants and jackets. My chosen methods of pre-treating are:
To wash the linen in the hottest water and then dry it upon the highest heat setting3x. That means putting it through the wash and dry section 3x.
- Once it has gone through this process, I then put it on my ironing board, get out a spritz bottle full of water, fill my iron up and set it on its hottest setting.
- I then spritz the linen and press the heck out of it.
When I use this method of pretreatment, there is an entire day of prep work involved and I usually do several pieces of fabric at one time. This very labor intensive prep pays off. Garments made after being subjected to this process still wrinkle but the wrinkles are not as deep and fall out easily. The linen also loses any finishing agents that have been applied to it. It will also lose some color and sheen. This method allows the fibers to totally relax so that the wrinkle factor will be minimal in the finished garment. All of this washing changes the hand of the fabric so a fabric that once was stiff and unyielding now becomes soft, pliable and drapable. Garments made using this process are usually very relaxed, non-tailored gear and it allows the items to be wash and wear.
However, for more tailored garments, I don’t use the extensive wash and wear linen pretreatment method especially since I will dry clean these garments. After putting linings and a lot of internal structure into a piece, I don’t want to lose that work in the wash. For tailored garments, I usually wash and dry the fabric just once primarily to remove sizing and to allow for fabric shrinkage. I haven’t experienced any shrinkage with the finished garment, using just a one wash treatment method.
Now I know many people can’t stand linen’s wrinkling properties. I personally think that’s what gives it character but if you don’t like the wrinkles there are blends available. However, to minimize the wrinkling pick a piece with a synthetic blend rather than another natural fiber. A linen/cotton blend also wrinkles and shrinks quite a bit. A linen/rayon blend will wrinkle just not as much as a 100% linen does. Linen/silk blends while they have a wonderful sheen, in my experience don’t shrink as much, but will wrinkle without underpinnings.
During construction of a linen garment there are several things to consider…
Linen fibers relax from your body’s natural heat so this should be taken into consideration when making a garment. There are several areas of a garment that can be extremely affected by this ~ the neckline and shoulder seams in a top/dress/jacket, the seat area in pants, skirt, or a dress, the knees in pants and the waistline in any bottom piece.
If you are making an unlined garment you can solve some of “the growing issues” by taping the seams, adding twill tape or stay tape to shoulder seams and waistbands…necklines can have bias binding and stay stitching added. To prevent saggy butts and knees you can add a full or half lining to the pieces. To avoid deep arm creases in long sleeves, a lining and/or silk organza underlining will need to be included during the construction process.
I always use a new universal sewing machine needle size dependent upon the weight of the linen being used.
I set my sewing machine’s stitch length shorter or lower (2.7 – 2.9 on my machine).
I use a polyester quality thread when sewing linen.
Finally even though linen takes heat well, I make sure to use my silk organza pressing cloth when pressing seams open.
Linen is easy to sew and even easier to press. It’s a hardworking fiber that makes beautiful garments.
There are several fantastic books on sewing with linen fabric:
by Susan Khalje – published by Taunton Press
This book tells you how to sew each garment type, how to get the best results and decorative tips. It is a wonderful step-by-step guide that I believe should be in every sewist’s library.
by Sandra Betzina – published by Taunton Press
by Sandra Betzina – published by Taunton Press
4. Fabric Sewing Guide
By Claire Shaeffer – published by Krause Publications
The last three books are fabric encyclopedias telling you what needle to use, what stitch size, sewing machine foot and pretreatment method for almost every fabric/fiber under the sun. Again must haves for your sewing library!
Threads also has a couple of articles that I think you would find useful:
*Issue #65 (June/July 1996) has an article by Susan Khalje called “Easy & Elegant Linen”
*Issue #52 (April/May 1994) has an article by Patricia Moyes called “The Working Woman’s Linen Jacket.”
Finally, did you know that you can also buy linen as a knit? Yes, linen knits are available to the home sewist. They are loosely woven and come in pretty colors. Due to their rarity, they can be quite costly but they are a unique knit that can add a new dimension to your garments. Be on the lookout for them because they are worth finding.
I hope that if you’ve never sewn with linen that you will give it a try. It’s a wonderful fabric that makes an awesome garment and definitely worth making a sewing journey with. For me, it will always have a prominent place in my fabric collection because not only do I like sewing with it but I love wearing it also!