Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sewing with Linen

Yesterday's post drew some interesting comments so I decided that I would write a little something about my love of linen.

I have two fabrics that will always be in my fabric collection, wool crepe and linen...guess that covers the seasons! *smile* But I love linen for several reasons:

1. It can make an amazing tailored garment or it can make an amazing relaxed fun weekend outfit.

2. The fabric takes dye well so you can get linen in brilliant and bright colors or soft and shaded pastels. It is also available in prints, plaids and embroidered.

3. It is cool to wear, doesn't hold body heat and is absorbent.

4. The only downside to linen is that it wrinkles...horribly...if underlinings and/or linings are not added to it to support the fabric.

I have used linen in both tailored garments and in more relaxed wear. Pretreatment of the fabric depends on what the end garment will be. If I am making a tailored suit, I will typically wash & dry the fabric once, removing the fabric from the dryer slightly damp, so that the pressing process is not as onerous.

If I am making a more relaxed, casual outfit the linen will be washed and dried at least 3x...yes 3 times! This is to remove all sizing from the fabric and to totally relax the fibers so that the wrinkle factor will be minimal in the finished garment. All of this washing also changes the hand of the fabric so a fabric that once was stiff and unyielding now becomes pliable and drapable.

Now why don't I wash linen 3x for a tailored garment...well that's because I add more support and understructure to the garment, so the initial wash and dry is to remove extra sizing and to prevent shrinkage.

When making a garment from linen I realize that the linen is going to wrinkle...I just decide how much wrinkling I can live with...i.e. Do I want to underline a pair of pants with silk organza and then line them or can I deal with the wrinkle factor? Do I want the arms to crease in a jacket from my movements or do I want to underline and line? Is the dress or skirt for a more relaxed casual occasion? If so, then I pretreat the heck out of it, construct it without the underpinnings and wear it knowing that some wrinkling may occur but not much. These are decisions that you need to make when you are deciding what to do with the linen you have purchased.

Now I know many people can't stand linen's wrinkling properties...I personally think that's what gives it character...but if you don't like the wrinkles there are blends available. However, to minimize the wrinkling pick a piece with a synthetic blend rather than another natural fiber. A linen/cotton blend wrinkles and shrinks...a linen/rayon blend wrinkles just not as much as an 100% linen, and a linen/silk blend while it has a wonderful sheen and doesn't shrink as much will wrinkle without underpinnings.

During construction of a linen garment there are several things to consider...

Linen fibers relax from your body's natural this should be taken into consideration when making a garment. There are several areas that can be extremely affected by this...the neckline and shoulder seams in a top/dress/jacket...the seat in pants, skirt, dress...the knees in pants...and the waistline in any bottom piece.

If you are making an unlined garment you can solve some of "the growing issues" by taping the seams, adding twill tape or stay tape to shoulder seams and waistbands...necklines can get a bias binding and stay stitching....and to prevent saggy butts and knees you can add a full or half lining to the pieces. To prevent deep arm creases in long sleeves, a lining and/or silk organza underlining will need to be included during the construction process.

I always use a new sewing machine needle, a shorter stitch length and a better quality thread when sewing linen. And even though linen can take some heat, I make sure to use my silk organza pressing cloth when pressing seams open.

There are three fantastic books on sewing with linen fabric:

1. Linen and Cotton Classic Sewing Techniques for Great Results
by Susan Khalje - published by Taunton Press
This book tells you how to sew each garment type, how to get the best results and decorative tips. It is a wonderful step-by-step guide that I believe should be in every sewist's library.

2. Fabric Savvy - The Essential Guide for Every Sewer
by Sandra Betzina - published by Taunton Press


3. More Fabric Savvy - A Quick Resource Guide to Selecting and Sewing Fabric
by Sandra Betzina - published by Taunton Press
Both of these books are fabric encyclopedias telling you what needle to use, what stitch size, sewing machine foot and pretreatment method for almost every fabric/fiber under the sun. Again must haves for your sewing library!

Finally Threads has a couple of articles that I think you would find useful:

*Issue #65 (June/July 1996) has an article by Susan Khalje called "Easy & Elegant Linen"

*Issue #52 (April/May 1994) has an article by Patricia Moyes called "The Working Woman's Linen Jacket."

I love working with linen because it can be made into a variety of can fit your lifestyle no matter what it is...and because it is easy to work with...sews up like a dream...and can make your finished garment look like a million bucks.

Again, this is what I know...but if anyone has anything to share or if I've left anything out, please feel free to comment on it! And I hope that everyone will look at linen in a different light and be willing to sew with it a little more often!


  1. I love to sew with linen, too. I irons so nicely. I love to wear it even though it wrinkles so badly.

  2. It's funny, after I left my comment yesterday about never making bottoms in linen I have decided my next project will be exactly that! So thank you for your tips - I will wash my fabric 2 more times and I'm also planning on interlining it with silk organza. It's just an a line skirt so I think it will work OK.

  3. Great info. Adding to my bookmarks.

  4. thanks Carolyn these are extremely useful tips. I've said it before - I can't believe the huge amount of work you put in to your sewing, but it certainly pays off in the wonderful garments you make. I am so guilty of being lazy with pretreatment, but three washes wow!

  5. Thanks for sharing the information about linen- timely for me, as I'm working on a summer dress. I always learn so much from you!

  6. Thanks for all the linen tips! It's close to 100 every day in the summer here, so I love linen! I didn't realize that I needed to wash it that many times before sewing, but it makes sense after checking on garments made that have been washed that many times. I do hate the wrinkle factor for some things, so I appreciate your underlining/lining tips. I would have to line if using silk organza for underlining. Even though I wash it, it is still to scratchy against my skin! My favorite source for buying good linen (at a good price) is

  7. Thanks for the linen info!

    Think I'm going to see if there's a ASDP (formerly PACC) group around here. I belonged to a similar group when I lived in Minneapolis and it really energized my sewing mojo! There used to be an similar organization where I live now, but I'm not sure they ever joined up with ASDP.

  8. I always admire your linen garments. I am one of those that love the feel and look of linen prior to the wrinkles! Some people wear linen and the resulting wrinkles well, it just seems to fit them. Perhaps I need to think more about the underlining/lining thing and give it a whirl again. I have found "faux" linen a pleasure since it is a blend with some polyester. Helpful post on this subject.

  9. I love linen too. I think it's the texture that sucks me in every time!

  10. Carolyn, thanks so much for the info on linen! I have several pieces, but haven't touched them because I didn't know how to pre-treat them. It is so wonderful how you share your knowledge so freely!

  11. Carolyn,
    Thanks for putting so much time into your blog. Your info on sewing books has helped me tremendously.

  12. Hi Carolyn,

    I love your blogs. Do your use a favorite detergent when washing your beautiful clothes? I use Ivory Snow but it is getting harder to find. I think many of the detergents bleed out colors. Thanks again for your wonderful blogs. Rainy City Gal

  13. This is a great post! I share the same love for linen and I am working on some linen pants for my boyfriend right now! Next I will try to make the famous Ralph Rucci dress, for which I'll be using linen too!

  14. Thanks for the great information. I have sewn linen/linen blends and have suffered some of the growth and shrinkage described in this post. I have two pieces on the table for dresses both will be unlined. I'd better start the wash cycle. lol

  15. Rather cool place you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more soon.

    Best regards
    Steave Markson

  16. Hi Carolyn - I have just finished a pair of unlined linen trousers and I wish wish wish I had read your post because I am now the proud owner of butt bagginess. Sigh. Oh well - lesson learnt and your great post if now well and truly bookmarked for when I have the courage to try again with this lovely fibre.

  17. Thank you so very much for your detailed information! I appreciate it greatly. I am a beginner, and I fear take failure very personally, so your experience will help me avoid problems as I try constructing a linen skirt.

  18. I am a huge fan of linen. Like you, I make casual as well as dressy clothes with linen. In addition to all the advantages you cited, linen breathes! When you are dealing with crazy heat and humidity, a crisply starched casual linen dress,skirt, slacks or ensemble is a wonderful choice. Thanks for the tips. I'd actually forgotten some of them. Really appreciate the reminder.

  19. Love what you had to say about linen. I've only just started sewing with it and I love it. I wash and dry mine at least 3 times (sometimes 5) and find it makes all the difference. I've made Katherine Tilton's Butterick 5881 pattern 6 times (the multi-coloured version). Lined it with muslin. Everyone who wears the dresses swears they are the best thing ever - so cool in the heat and requiring very little ironing when travelling. Have just made up made Katherine Tilton's Butterick 5891 (sleeveless, two-toned) and am working on a pair of slacks now. Can't think what to make with all the scraps, though!

  20. Brilliant article. As in other articles, I have commented on you will see I have just discovered your blog so forgive me if I comment on 'old posts'. Such good advice regarding linen. Thank you for sharing

  21. have just made a few linen dish/hand towels from handkerchief linen for gifts. A bit lightweight but they can always use them for wrapping a special piece of jewelry ect. But when I was using the rotary cutter, the linen slipped like silk does. Do you have any tips to combat this. Is this problem unique to me? Thanks for you help, terri

    1. Terri - I don't use a rotary cutter so I can't offer tips for using one. I am a scissors girl and haven't experienced what you're asking about.


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