This series of tutorials is by no means comprehensive, but is instead intended to be a practical guide to hand stitching and hand finishing your medieval style clothing. Even if you make most of your garb on a sewing machine, hand finishing can provide a lovely finishing touch of authenticity in those places where a machine sewn seam would be the most visible.
Contrary to modern myth, skillfully hand sewn seams are not only beautiful and durable, they will actually last longer than machine sewn seams, eyelets, and buttonholes.
This first section on basic stitches describes what supplies you will need, how to start and end your thread, and the basic stitches upon which most other stitches are based.
You will need thread, beeswax (or other thread conditioner), needles, a thimble, and small sewing or embroidery snips.
The vast majority of extant garments from throughout the middle ages are sewn with linen thread. Linen thread is available mail order from some specialty embroidery and sewing suppliers that cater to reenactors and historic embroidery enthusiasts, but for many of us there is no local source. If you do not have linen thread, cotton quilting thread, buttonhole thread, or even all-purpose thread will work fine. If your garment is made from linen, depending upon the weight and quality of the fabric, it is sometimes possible to pull threads from scrap fabric and sew with that. Regardless of which thread you use, waxing it (pulling it through beeswax once or twice) will help it pull more easily through the fabric without fraying, twisting, or knotting, and extend the life of your seam.
Use whatever needles you are comfortable with. Embroidery sharps or quilting betweens often work very well for hand sewing. Choose a needle that has an eye just large enough for your thread.
Not everyone uses a thimble when they hand sew, but I highly recommend it. Once you are accustomed to using one, it helps greatly in quickly and accurately directing the needle through your fabric, and makes it much easier to push the needle through stiff or thick fabrics. Modern thimbles are a closed cup that sits on the tip of your middle finger, and the eye of the needle is braced against the top of the thimble. Medieval thimbles are shaped like a ring with little divots all around the outside. When using one, you bend the tip of your finger and brace the base of the needle in one of the divots on the side of your finger. Medieval style thimbles are sometimes available at SCA events, or from specialty suppliers who cater to medieval reenactment.
Starting and Finishing Your Stitches
There are a few options when starting and finishing your stitches, and which you use is entirely a matter of personal preference. What I do depends upon my mood and the particular seam/fabric that I am sewing. There are also other knots that can be used to tie off your thread that work equally well, so pick one that feels comfortable and you will remember. Regardless of what you do, be sure to leave a tail of thread that is no less than 1/4” long to prevent your knot from coming undone.
Stitch In Place
You can stitch over the same spot two or three times. This is the same premise for backstitching on a sewing machine to set the start and end of a seam. When you stitch back over your own thread, it pins it in place and prevents it from pulling free. After two or three stitches, give it a good pull to make sure it is set and won’t come free later.
Figure Eight Knot
- Put your needle through the nearest stitch, or through a couple threads of your fabric.
- Take your thread and pull it under the back of the needle, across the top of the needle, and under the front of the needle.
- Pull your needle through and pull the knot tight
Most of the stitches you will see on extant garments, or use for your own hand sewing, will be a variation of just a couple different basic stitches. Learn these stitches, and you will have a strong foundation for hand sewing and finishing your garments.
- 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.
Basting Stitch – This is a variation of a running stitch where the stitches are deliberately far apart, with no more than six stitches per inch, often fewer. I recommend using a contrasting color of thread. It is used when you need to quickly hold two or more pieces of fabric together, with the intention of removing this thread after sewing is completed. This can be helpful when appliqueing decorations or trims to make sure they lay smoothly and are placed properly, or before sewing a garment seam to make sure the layers stay even along the entire length of the seam.
- Stitch at an angle, creating a zig-zag pattern.
The closer you make your stitches, the stronger and more stable your seam will be.
This is the fastest hand stitch I have used. It is extremely handy for tacking things, hems, and for seams where you want to preserve bias stretch.
- Stitch straight towards where you want the line of loops, catching the loose thread underneath the tip of your needle.
- Pull in the direction the needle points until the loop is snug.
In modern use, this is called a blanket stitch when there is distance between the stitches (as shown in the illustration), and buttonhole stitch when each stitch is made directly adjacent to the previous stitch.
This stitch is used for buttonholes and eyelets, to edge fabric, to attach trim or applique, or decoratively as an embroidery stitch.
This is when you sew with a running stitch, and then sew a second running stitch to fill in the empty spaces. In medieval sewing this is most often used decoratively, often in a contrasting thread, anywhere that you might use a regular running stitch. It is also sometimes used when a seam is expected to bear extra weight or stress, and added strength and stability is needed.