A hand sewn linen shirt from antique linen fabric is the theme of today’s post. I dive into seams, details and techniques and find it surprisingly peaceful and rewarding. Spoiler alert: None of this is my handspun.
A couple of years ago, just in the beginning of the pandemic, I took a weekend class in hand sewing a linen shirt. The course took place at Historical textiles‘ studio (just a bike ride from home) and was taught by Magdalena Fick, museum assistant at the costume collection at Skansen open air museum. She is also a reenactor and creates lots of historical garments.
We were four students in the class, sitting in separate corners of a giant table. A couple of the other students took the class for reenactment purposes and one to add to her regional costume. I just wanted to hand sew a linen shirt for the sake of a hand sewn linen shirt.
We got to sew small samples of different seams and techniques, which was quite fun. A wedge here, a hemstitch there, a sleeve gusset and some smocking in between. We also got to buy fabric, plan our shirts and cut out the pieces.
I wanted a 100 per cent linen fabric and I wanted it to be handwoven. At the studio I found an antique linen fabric to die for. It was at least 120 years old. A bit scary as a beginner to take on such a treasure, but I figured it would be my only chance to handle fabric like that.
The width of the antique fabric I got my hands on was only 40 centimeters, though, so I had some planning to do. As it turned out, 40 centimeters was a bit on the tight side over my shoulders and bust. As I continued sewing at home after the course had finished I realized that I had to choose between wearing the shirt and breathing. I of course chose the best option: Procrastinating.
Sewing (or not) at home
When I picked the shirt up again I turned to my friend Cecilia who knows everything about anything that is important. Like shirt alterations. She guided me by telephone in making wedges at the sides and at the back. It was difficult and the fit still wasn’t ideal over the bust. I procrastinated some more.
A couple of months ago I got some new hand sewing mojo and picked up the shirt again. I had gone down a couple of sizes since I started sewing the shirt, so the shirt fit very well over the bust, but was quite roomy over the waist. I decided to leave the fit as it was, I didn’t want to risk the beautiful fabric by altering the side seams again.
Slow and reflective
Sewing by hand is slow. Which, to me, is a superpower. It gives me time to reflect over what I am doing and to better plan ahead. And there is something very grounding in holding a fabric made of natural fibers and stitch by stitch transform a flat surface into a three dimensional garment that fits my body.
When I am sewing a seam I don’t think about the length of it, I just get into the rhythm or the stitching and breathe in the sewing moment. So simple, yet so complex. All textile work is true engineering and I am so fascinated over the intricate techniques that have stood the test of time and developed since time began.
I know you are all dying to see the wrong side of the shirt. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? The wrong side of a garment tells a lot about the making. Well, I will not let you down. Here are some wrong side wedges for you.
It’s funny, I have sewn a lot of garments for myself in my life. At least up until around 20 years ago. And still I have never known the anatomy of a hand sewn garment.
One of the last things I made was a wedding dress for my best friend. I was reasonably confident in fitting and altering, but I had asked her not to get pregnant, that was an alteration I wouldn’t know how to make. On the day she was coming to collect the dress she whispered in my ear “I’m pregnant!”. I smiled and whispered back to her “So am I!”. I did sew some totally misshapen baby clothes after that, but once my child was born I didn’t want to risk having pins on the floor, so I stopped sewing altogether.
This was machine sewing, though. Hand sewing gives so many more opportunities to sew neat and strong seams. And that has been necessary since there was no such thing as a consumer society and clothes had to be kept in good condition to be worn and handed down over the generations. Clothes were sturdily sewn, patched, mended and altered until there was nothing left to put a needle in. We could use some of that knowledge and awareness these days too.
My friend got married and the dress fit her, despite her 12 week pregnancy. We both had sons who are now 19.
As I had finished all the major seams of my linen shirt the most scary part was left: The neckline. I had just made a T-shaped cut at the top, large enough to fit my head. Now I had to plan, cut and sew the whole shape of the neckline.
There is a freedom in making the pattern as you go along. One of the appealing parts of making a linen shirt in historical techniques is the simplicity of the pattern – rectangles for sleeves and body. A couple of squares for sleeve gussets and a handfull of triangles for wedges. A hole at the top for the head.
At the same time it is truly scary to take on the responsibility for the whole fit with just a handful of geometric shapes. That in combination with the antique fabric and my beginner’s mind scared me. At the same time I knew I needed to make something beautiful of the fabric. I had adopted it and it was my responsibility to make it work and make it beautiful.
So I tried the shirt on, placed a couple of pins, drew a couple of curves and cut out a neckline. And it looked beautiful! Just the right width and depth of the hole and a fitting slit at the front.
When Magdalena showed us samples of neckline lace seams on the course I knew I wanted to make one. Just a small lace triangle at the bottom of the neckline slit. Simple, yet elegant. So once I had hemmed the neckline I started to reinforce the edges of the neckline slit with a tight blanket stitch and a blanket stitch bridge at the top.
At the course we had used a lovely (discontinued) booklet about stitches. I managed to find one on Swedish eBay, though. After having oohed and aahed through the pages I chose one of the lace stitches and sewed a triangle inside my blanket stitch border. I managed to finish it and it was evidently a tiny lace triangle. But not very pretty. I tossed and turned in bed that night, knowing I could do better.
The next day I carefully and determinedly ripped the lace stitch and tried again. I realized that I hadn’t pulled the stitches tightly enough. My second try was miles away from the first one. A real lace triangle, and pretty too!
Isn’t hemstitching the sweetest thing? Just pulling out a couple of weft threads and bundling up the warp threads in pretty patterns. Again, simple, yet elegant. And very time consuming. One sleeve took me one hour. But it was definitely worth it. Such a sweet stitch and such a lovely rhythm.
I found myself looking for more places to sneak some hemstitching in, but I managed to control myself. Less is more. So I closed the hemstitching chapter by hemming the sleeve ends against the hemstitch seam.
Can I have a smock too? Just a tiny one? I did have to do something with the sleeve ends, they were too wide and unpractical. And smocking would be smashing! So I made one, with four threads. It solved two problems: The width of the sleeves and my urge to sew smocking.
I love the result. Just on the right side of flamboyant. And sometimes that’s just what we need, right?
The last detail of the shirt was a monogram. I have so many anonymous monograms in our linen cabinet from all the flea market sheets we have bought over the years. Small traces of people who once lived, loved and dedicated time and skill into beautifully embroidered monograms, but whose lives I would never know anything about. Except from those personal, yet anonymous letters. This would be my own monogram, a testament of my love and dedication sewn into that linen shirt.
I wanted it small but bold, so I chose a flea market bright red linen yarn for the embroidery and my upper arm for the placement and cross-stitched my little heart out. And, as it turned out, the bright red dye. It bled. Just by passing the thread past the neckline as I made the stitches, the neckline changed into a misty pink.
I texted Cecilia again. She said that the dye probably wouldn’t go out of the white linen and that it was a part of the cultural heritage. I replied that I had decided to sulk for a while before I would be ready to embrace the cultural heritage. I am over the sulking part for now, I’ll get back to you for a sulkiness update after the first wash.
I’m very happy with my linen shirt. I got a unique opportunity to dive into hand sewing and I learned some pretty groovy techniques, not to mention the thread waxing skills. I’m glad I managed to control myself and stick to those four details – the lace, the hemstitching, the smocking and the monogram. I would love to sew a fitted bodice to match the shirt.
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