Stitches, Seams & Sewing
STITCHING - CONSTRUCTION TIME- JOINING FABRIC
- HEMMING - NECKBANDS - EYELETS
EYELET CONSTRUCTION - BUTTONHOLE CONSTRUCTION - CLOTH BUTTONS
- TASSELS - LUCET CORD - REINFORCED EDGES
Methods of sewing, joining seams and making eyelets and buttonholes
is a topic of great interest to many historical costumers and
Contemporary sewing guides say a
little about actual techniques, and snippets of information come
to us from other sources- such as a few extant garments scattered
the world over, and from written advice.
One snippet to a young housewife when caring for fabric that it
should be 'sprayed by mouth as a tailor sprays water on the
part of a dress he wishes to hem.'
This tells us that it was fairly common practice for a tailor
to dampen a hem with water as it is being sewed. The image at
right is a detail from a 15th century illumination showing a woman
cutting and patterning.
Making clothes was a time-consuming business, More than one person
might work on a garment at a time, which can make it difficult
to determine how long it took to make something. Housewives might
also work on a garment or outfit sporadically.
A little information about the time and costs of making garments
comes to us from the Great Warderobe accounts from the English
Royal Family in the 14th century, and from this we can estimate
the time taken to make certain things.
A pair of hose: about half a
A cloak: 3 - 6 days depending on whether it was lined or not.
A supertunic: 3 - weeks depending on whether it was lined or
A tunic: 1 - 6 days depending on complexity, lining etc.
Based on my personal sewing experience,
these times are all achievable, with exception of the hose, unless
the seams are left raw, which would make the feet extremely uncomfortable.
Some special purpose clothing appears to have been commisioned
on very short notice and may not have has the finishing quality
of garments which were to be worn again and again.
There is a common misconception about the quality of medieval
Many suppose that because sewing machines were not invented, the
stitching and quality of clothing was rough or poor. This is nothing
more than a gross insult to our women forebears.
It must be remembered that as everything was hand-stitched,
sewing was a skill that a young girl would attain great proficiency
in at a very young age. By the time a young woman was sewing clothes
for herself or her family, a considerable level of skill could
reasonably be expected.
Even a poor woman with home spun fabrics would take care to provide
her family with the best sewing she could manage to produce garments
which would be both warm and durable. Shoddy workmanship would
lead to clothing falling apart at the seams whilst the fabric
was still serviceable- a waste that the poorer woman could not
Methods of stitching fabric were
fairly simple. Shown above:
Method 1. Fell stitch.
Method 2. Running stitch.
Method 3. Combination fell and running stitch for added
Different methods were employed for the joining of different fabrics.
For a comprehensive look at archaeological sewing, please visit
Heather Jones's website ARCHAEOLOGICAL
I will not reproduce all the information here when she has done
such a huge amount of excellent research already.
Three simple methods of joining fabric
together are shown here-
Method 1. The fabric is
laid with the outer sides together. A running stitch joins
Method 2. A backstitch provides greater strength for
Method 3. A more time consuming method of seams utilises
an initial join which is then opened flat and overstitched
with two lines of running stitch. This third method makes
a very solid and flat seam.
The images shown here and those shown
below are taken from the Museum of London series of books
about medieval clothing and remains their property.
If a selvedge could be used, it did away with the need for a hem.
Cut edges, of course, required hemming to prevent fraying.
The fell stitch, shown at right, was most common. The fabric is
folded under and the folded again and stitched into place is depicted
below along with variations: combined with a running stitch and
a running stitch used alone.
The Goodman of Paris in the late 14th century advises his wife
that fabric should be:
'sprayed by mouth as a tailor
sprays water on the part of a dress he wishes to hem.'
This example of a neckband shows that a silk strip has been sewn
to the inside of the neck of a high-grade woolen garment.
A band like this one would provide extra re-enforcing where wear
and tear is likely to occur. The opening reinforcing is made from
a narrow silk strip. It is dated between 1325 to 1350.
It is possible that this garment
or others like it had similar bands at the ends of the sleeves
to reinforce the edges which were subject to the most wear.
Without the use of zips, dresses were fastened by either buttons
or lacing. It was more likely that the underdress was laced, providing
and smoother and flatter silhouette and a more snug foundation
garment. The outer dress was more likely to be fastened with ornamental
buttons which were rounded or ball-shaped rather than flat.
Shown at right, a detail of eyelet
holes on silk facing from a deposit dated at the 14th century.
Traces of woolen cloth from the original garment are able to be
seen at the edges of the facing band also.
Eyelets and lacing holes on kirtles were generally no more than
2cm apart. Placing the holes any further apart and the lacing
would not prevent the dress from gaping unattractively. A well-made
eyelet was as strong as the metal ones we use today.
Take a tape measure or ruler and
mark out the eyelets at no more than 2cm intervals. When you have
marked the eyelets so they are evenly aligned on both sides, you
may remove the tacking stitch. Using a double thread or a thickish
linen thread, backstitch a circle around the marked hole to provide
re-enforcement. It will also give you a guideline to keep your
eyelet where you intended and prevent it becoming lopsided.
Using an awl, pierce the fabric carefully
pushing the threads apart.
It is very important that you do not tear or cut the cloth or
your eyelet will lose some of its strength or tear under pressure
or repeated wear. Make 4 stitches north, south, east and west
to hold the hole open and gently use the awl to reopen the hole.
All that remains, it to sew around
the circle with close stitches, using the awl from time to time
to keep the hole open. You will be surprised at how sturdy the
in construction to the eyelet, the buttonhole is achieved as shown
in the picture. The main difference in construction is that the
buttonhole always needs be cut before stitching.
The blanket stitch is then used to go around the opening. Buttonholes
were usually, but not always, sewn onto a garment which was reinforced
with a strip of silk or linen fabric for re-inforcement.
Buttonholes, like eyelet or lacing
holes, were very close set and always ran at right angles to the
edge of the opening of the garment. Care must be taken to make
the buttonhole not too large as it will open a little with sewing.
The images shown here are taken from
the Museum of London series of books about medieval clothing
and remains their property. The image shows buttonholes at the
edge of a woolen garment from a deposit dated to 1325 to 1350.
I have a few tutorials
showing how to make eyelets, buttons and buttonholes as well as
how to make the lucet cord which is handy for lacing gowns or
for using for drawstrings on pouches.
Look for them on the Pattern and DIY page HERE