I think linen is lovely even though I don’t use it much.
I’ve had to almost force myself to sew with it. But why? My very first truly historical costume (not counting that blue velvet Italian Renaissance gown or any other Halloween stuff) was an 1880 polonaise courtesy of Past Patterns. You know the pattern.
Well, guess what? I used a linen/rayon fabric for the skirt ruffles and a linen blend for the polonaise. And it looks great! I love that rose print fabric and would totally use it again in another bustle project. So why do I shy away from using linen?
I guess that might’ve come from my research of Victorian undergarments that revealed that most chemises & drawers were made of cotton. Well, that’s not entirely accurate even if it appears that way because of what has survived now. But linen was used too.
Or maybe I stay away because of those horrible creases that occur due to the nature of the flax fibers. Some wrinkles just never come out no matter how hard you press with a HOT iron. It’s just the nature of linen. And despite the enormous amount of time I spend pressing I don’t want a costume that requires that much upkeep time.
My next use of linen in costumes was in my medieval/fantasy gown for Costume College 2005. I used a very nice cranberry linen that actually turned my armpits pink. Yikes! Guess I should have washed it two or three times to bleed it all out.
Then as I progressed in my 19th Century sewing, I decided to make a linen shift for my Regency costumes. I LOVED it! Oh my gosh! I have to make more undergarments out of lightweight linen.
So despite sewing only a handful of items (there are more than what’s listed here!), I have picked up some good tips that I’m sure to use when I work again with linen. Apply them to your next project too.
*Linen MUST be pre-washed, even multiple times, to shrink the fabric piece as much as possible. Wash in warm or even hot water. Use low heat to dry or lay out to air dry. Hanging in the sun on a clothesline is a marvelous way to dry linen. (Just wish I had a line in my yard.)
*Press when still damp or use a spray bottle with water to dampen then press with a hot steam iron. You will save SO much time if you dampen the linen first before pressing. Yes.
*Linen is a delight to use as an underlining in bodices, especially for summer wear. It works really well for sheer dresses too. 😉
*Linen comes in various weights (listed in ounces (oz.)). The smaller the number (2.5), the lighter the weight. A 5.5 can be fairly stiff and thick – good for under-petticoats and cool weather bodice underlinings.
*Higher quality linen will have very few slubs (bulky sections of thread fibers within the weaving).
*Handkerchief linen is the lightweight stuff you would make a handkerchief out of. Common sense would tell us that something you wipe your nose, eyes and face with would not be a heavy, scratchy thing. I have a couple of mid-20th Century handkerchiefs made from linen and embroidered and they are the airy-est of items.
*When making a costume for a poor impression, go for the heavier stuff in darker colors.
*Black linen is not really black but a charcoal or gray-black. If you find a dark black (oxymoron, I know) snag it! But be aware the color is not fast and will bleed and lighten with washing.
*The more you wash, the softer it gets.
*It sews like cotton. It breathes like cotton. It’s snuggly (after lots of washing of course).
Update, January 2014: I was recently told to soak linen before pre-washing in the washer before cutting. This helps to soften the plant fibers so they don’t get permanent creases when dealing with the fabric later in the making and wearing of it. This post on washing linen was shared. It was so insightful that I wanted to pass it on to you.
Below are a few online sources I found that sell linen. I have not purchased from all of them so remember buyer beware. If you have another place you love, please post a comment to share with us.
Fabric-Store.com – wonderful linen textiles
Renaissance Fabrics – Tell Diana you found her here!
Burnley & Trowbridge – Tell Angela you found her here!