Hand Sewing Techniques
So, just how period do you want to get in your construction
techniques? Period enough to not use your sewing machine?
No? Me neither
but it is helpful to know the differences
between modern and period construction techniques. Here we
Modern vs. Period Construction Technique
Basic construction of clothing in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries differed drastically from the approach used in modern
clothing construction in three basic ways.
The first, and most obvious difference was that everything
was sewn by hand. The sewing machine as we know it was not
invented until the mid 1800's and was not in general use until
the turn of the century. Construction of garments by hand
differs in both sequence and technique, which I'll get into
during a later demo (The Difference Between Modern and Period
The second difference between construction now and then was
that textiles were not as readily available nor as cheap.
The textile was more important than the labor used to construct
a piece of clothing. This meant that great effort was taken
to use every scrap and often times to piece things up, with
nap, grain or pattern suffering in the process. This is actually
taken into account in tailor's handbooks. Additionally, there
were no standarized dye lots. Many pieces of fabric were dyed
in seven to twelve yard increments meaning that, if you ran
out of fabric, you did not have the luxury of running down
and buying more; it simply would not be the same color and
might even be a different quality of fabric.
The third difference lies in the way that clothes were fitted.
Fitting was often done concurrently with the construction
process and on the body of the person for whom the garment
was being made. While there were tailor's pattern books, there
were no standard, various sized patterns available.
In general, seam allowances were smaller and, if the garment
was to be laundered, the seams were carefully encased to prevent
them from fraying.
Linings were often cut in the same shape as the shell and
treated as either a foundation or as one with the shell during
construction. Separate facings were very uncommon. The lining
was usually turned under at the edge of the garment and stitched
down to the outer shell.
Bias binding, which we know as the process of cutting strips
at a 45-degree angle to the grain of the fabric (to take advantage
of the stretch) was almost unheard of. Most binding was made
on the straight of grain and eased around corners during hand
sewing; an impossible process when sewing by machine. Bias
binding is actually somewhat wasteful. If you have access
to the text Fashion in Detail, take a good look at the bindings
on the edges of the corset and other garments. None of them
are cut on the bias.
Illustrations reprinted from The Costume Technician's
Handbook by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey. Copyright (c) 1992
by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey. Published by Heinemann,
a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc., Portsmouth, NH. All rights
I've taken the liberty of breaking down the general construction
of a garment into three categories; seam construction, piece
attachment, and finish work.
There are roughly two types of seam techniques and four seam
finishing techniques, based on period sources. The two seam
techniques are the backstitch and the running stitch.
The running stitch is great for basting, easing and gathering
as it is applied by simply running the needle in and out of
the fabric at regular intervals. It forms the basis for cartridge
pleating and easing of straight-of-grain bindings.
The backstitch is much more sturdy and is most often used
for seams in period. It is accomplished by stitching back
under every stitch taken, as in the diagram below.
Flat Felled Seam
Flat felling a seam requires that the seam be first backstitched
and then the resulting flap slip stitched down.
The French seam (one of my personal favorites) uses back
stitching to first stitch the wrong sides of the pieces together
and then the right sides, completely encasing the seam.
Lapped and top stitched seams were often used in period.
The process involves stitching both shell pieces and one lining
piece together then stitching the other lining piece separately
- or - stitching down both shell and both lining pieces down
and then topstitching over.
Last Thoughts -
There is some evidence, based on extant garments, that lapped
seams were used extensively in Eastern European and Central
Asian construction. The lapped seam is also found in Viking
era garments. All of the above are based on rectangular construction.
When garments start getting away from rectangular construction,
the French seam very often takes the place of the flat felled
seam. It is very difficult to flat fell a rounded or cureved
seam. Such a seam is much easier to French seam and sometimes,
binding is used if it is a very difficult seam.
Costume in the Drama of Shakespeare
and his Contemporaries
M. Channing Linthicum. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1936.
The Cut of Men's Clothes: 1600 -
Norah Waugh. Routledge Theatre Arts Books, 1964.
The Cut of Women's Clothing: 1600
Norah Waugh. Routledge Theatre Arts Books, 1968.
Patterns of Fashion: c. 1560 -1620
Janet Arnold. MacMillan London Limited, England. 1985
Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd
Janet Arnold. W.S. Maney and Son, Ltd., Leeds, England. 1988.
The Costume Technician's Handbook
Rosemary Ingham & Liz Covey. Heinemann Educational Books,
Inc., Portsmouth, N.H., 1992
Costume Close Up : Clothing Construction
and Pattern, 1750-1790
by Linda Baumgarten, John Watson, Florine Carr, Costume and
Fashion Press, 2000
Fashion in Detail: From the 17th
and 18th Centuries
Avril Hart and Susan North. Rizzoli International Publications,