If you have not already done so, before reading this tutorial I highly recommend reading Medieval Hand Stitching – Basic Stitches (Start Here). It describes what supplies you will need, how to start and end your thread, and the basic stitches upon which most other stitches are based. This tutorial illustrates several common ways how to hand sew seams on a medieval garment, both by assembling and then finishing the seam allowance, or by finishing the garment pieces before assembling.
When hand sewing seams I strongly recommend basting your seams together before sewing them. It is easy to accidentally pull more on one layer than the other, resulting in getting to the end of your seam and finding that one layer is longer than the other. The seams can be basted with a large running stitch (I recommend a contrasting color so it’s easier to remove later), with straight pins or safety pins, or various other basting tools like those used for quilts. I have found that a large basting running stitch, or a combination of straight pins before basting running stitch is usually the fastest and easiest method for me, but use whichever you are most comfortable with.
There are two main ways to approach stitching your garment together. You can join your seams together and then finish off the raw edges of your fabric, or you can finish all edges of your garment pieces before stitching them together. Both are equally correct unless you are seeking to emulate a very particular extant garment, and I believe a matter of personal preference. Try both and see which you prefer.
As I mentioned in the Start Here tutorial, these examples are far from exhaustive of all the variations of seam joining and finishing that have been found in extant examples. Included here are basic examples so you can start hand sewing your garments without getting lost in all the options. As you gain experience I highly recommend looking into all the possibilities that are available.
Joining Seams Before Finishing
Far and away the most common seam joining stitch is a running stitch, but there are a couple other options.
My illustrations of seam finishings are all shown with running stitch used for joining the seam, but all the seam finishings can be used regardless of how you join your seam.
- Stitch up and down along the fabric in a line, keeping even spacing between the stitches.
The closer you make your stitches, the stronger and more stable your seams will be. Extant medieval garments usually have between eight and twelve stitches per inch.
This is used when you want to make sure you have a very strong seam that is extremely stable, like when the seam runs horizontal across the body and will be holding a great deal of weight. The disadvantage is that it takes significantly more time to sew than a running stitch, and in most cases the added strength and stability is not needed.
- Stitch forward two stitch lengths, and back one stitch length.
This is most often used when joining two bias-cut fabric edges, to preserve the bias stretch. It has an effect nearly identical to using the zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine, and is used in very similar situations.
- Stitch in a diagonal direction, creating a zig-zag pattern centered on the desired seam line.
The closer you make your stitches, the stronger and more stable your seams will be.
This creates a seam area that is flat and smooth.
- Fold the seam allowance onto itself and stitch it down to the body fabric with a whip stitch. As with a whip stitched hem, only four to eight stitches per inch are needed.
This creates a seam area that is flat and smooth.
- Either join your seam with one layer of the fabric having half the seam allowance of the other, or trim one layer of the seam allowance to half length.
- Fold the longer seam allowance over the shorter and hide the edge under the fold.
- Stitch down the folded seam allowances using a whip stitch (or running stitch if you prefer).
- Only four to eight stitches per inch are usually needed to secure the seam allowance.
This results in a seam that is very similar to a french seam on a sewing machine.
- Fold the edges of the seam allowance in towards each other and the joining seam.
- Whip stitch along the top of the folds to hold them closed (or running stitch if you prefer).
- Usually only four to eight stitches per inch are needed to secure the seam allowance.
Finishing Before Joining Seams
There are several reasons you might want to finish your garment pieces before sewing them together. It is an easy way to smoothly add lining or layers to only part of the garment. If your garment has a great deal of bulk to it, this can make it easier to work with the various parts of the garment without the entire mass of it in your lap until it is almost finished. If you are adding decorations, it can help prevent seam edges from completely unraveling while working, or prevent overhandling of the decorated pieces while assembling the bulk of the garment. You may also simply find that you prefer to work in this way.
Unless you are using a fancy decorative seam stitch, seams are always joined with a whip stitch when the garment pieces are finished first. Use a very tiny, close stitch, and it will be difficult to see on the finished garment. I would use no fewer than eight stitches per inch, and more likely twelve or more.
I chose whip stitch for the illustration, but any hem finish may be used on the garment pieces before they are assembled. What you use will likely depend upon what stitches you like and how you want the stitches to appear on your finished garment.