Handstitching Basics — Background

Parte The First (the background):

Have you ever had the desire to sew something by hand, but didn’t know how to go about it? Have you wanted to try handsewing a garment with authentic threads but didn’t know where to get them? Have you ever tried to sew with wool or linen and been frustrated by the thread breaking or snagging?

Then this is the class for you! Sewing with authentic materials is quite simple if you use medieval techniques too. In this class, you will learn documentable period stitches from the Coppergate, York, and London digs as well as a few Irish examples. You’ll get a chance to try them all with wool and linen thread on swatches of wool, linen and silk. Swatches and threads will be provided. On display will be a number of hand-sewn garments of wool, linen, and silk.

It Started in the Middle Ages…
In the London and York excavations and Great Wardrobe accounts (14th century), the thread most commonly used was linen. Interestingly enough, wool thread is found in abundance in York and London in the 10th and 11th century digs, but drops off in 14th century London. Presumably, silk and linen replaced it as a favourite. The Herjolfsnes finds in Greenland (14th c) show nothing but wool thread. Irish textiles from both that century and later are uniformly wool sewn with wool thread. The wool thread found in the digs appears to have been simply unraveled from the cloth. In the Great Wardrobe accounts, wool thread is only specified for embroidery motifs.

Clothing preserved by royalty shows silk thread for seams and hems of silk garments and for decorative work, topstitching, buttons, buttonholes, etc. Silk thread was also used on woolen cloth, but more typically for decorative and highly visible stitching.

In the MoL and Coopergate books, they show stitches from the Coppergate, York, and London digs (among others).

Flat felled seams are found. So are back stitches. So are a number of seam treatments we don’t have names for anymore. Hems were usually unfinished, but our modern hem stitch, rolled hems, and blind stitch are also found. The most popular stitch in all the textiles was a plain running stitch. This doesn’t sound like a very strong stitch, but I assure you, the stitches are only 1/4″ to 1/2″ apart and yet they haven’t broken in 400 years of being in a bog! (2-4mm stitches are recorded in London) I have also seen whipstitches in the garments I examined. These are the two most popular stitches in the garments I’ve personally seen.


© 2006 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. 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.