Hand sewing tutorials for history freaks
Welcome to part one of my historical hand sewing tutorial series!
In these articles I will write about materials and techniques used when sewing clothes and accessories in past times when there were no sewing machines. My main focus is Viking and medieval times, but most of the information can be applied to several centuries thereafter as well. Regardless if you’re into reenactment or if you just want to learn how to sew by hand, this is the series for you.
I’ll show you that it’s quite easy to work up a good technique for hand sewing and that you don’t necessary need a sewing machine to make clothes or other sewn items for yourself. Sure, it takes up more time, but a well hand sewn item tends to be stronger and last longer. You can also bring your work with you wherever you go. A long and boring bus or train trip or an evening with crap on TV (that’s every night I guess…) become perfect occasions for working a bit on your garment or accessory.
The first part of the series talks about materials used during Viking and Medieval times. The coming articles will cover common stitches and also give you some tips on smart techniques and working positions that will speed up your work. The latter is something I find is missing in almost every book and blog out there. I hope that this will be a nice contribution for those of you who would like to learn hand sewing or want to improve your technique. At the bottom of each hand sewing tutorial in this series I will post an infographic (as an image and in PDF-format) that you can download and save for later. Also feel free to pin them to Pinterest.
You can absolutely use these articles even if you want to work with modern materials. I have chosen the historical approach since I’m engaged in historical reenactment and have a genuine interest for how things were (or may have been) done in the past. If you have any questions or if there is something you think needs an update (hello reenactors with more knowledge than I have!), feel free to comment below or contact me.
What materials are “period”?
At a later point in this series I will bring up some reflections on historical accuracy, what we do know and what we don’t know about Viking and Medieval times up until now. In this part I will only briefly give some basics about what was common in types of material and colors, both for fabric and sewing threads. Note that my focus is mainly northern and central Europe.
Among fabrics wool was the absolute most common material and came in a wide variation of weave types and qualities. Wool can be dyed in a broad span of colors with the help of natural dyes. What was common and popular during each period is another thing. In some regions and during some times there were strict regulations as to what colors and fabric qualities you were allowed to wear based on your social status. Learn about the period you are reenacting and try to make the fabric you select fit your character. I will give more detailed examples later.
Linen was mainly used for undergarments and in most cases it was unbleached, bleached or sometimes dyed blue (relatively popular during Viking times). Linen is very difficult to dye with plant dyes. (One of the most commonly seen mistakes in historical reenactment is the use of dark linen fabrics in outer garments.)
Silk, like wool, is possible to dye in almost any color. This was a material reserved for the upper classes due to its cost and often came in elaborate woven patterns.
Hemp was relatively common, mainly as an alternative to linen. Cotton existed in Europe from around 1100, but was quite expensive and exclusive. Not something the common man would have used.
I probably could (and probably will) write a full article about materials and weave types, but here I’d like to mention some popular ones:
- Plain Weave – the most common and simple weave with one thread over and one thread under creating a straight grid
- Twill – Easy to spot by it’s diagonal pattern.
- Herringbone – A V-shaped pattern is repeated over the surface. A very decorative weave.
- Diamond Twill or Lozenge – Here the weave has a pattern of rombic shapes or diamonds creating a beautiful and lively pattern.
This site has some nice examples of historical replicas of medieval fabrics. If you want to see replicas of some of the amazing patterns that were achieved, for instance silk or wool brocades, you can check out Almerlin. Note that these fabrics would have been used only by the rich elite of the time.
When it comes to thread, unbleached linen/flax thread was used for sewing on fabric of any color. It may look strange to our modern eye with this contrast but during older times visible seams could actually be a status sign, to show that a garment was well worked. Linen thread needs to be protected with beeswax to not break or fray when sewing with it. I’ll show you how to do this when showing the first stitches.
You can also pull out threads from the fabric you are using for your garment or use wool thread. For embroideries and for silk garments silk thread was also used as well as metal wire for very fancy decorations.
What will I need to get started?
First of all you’ll need some fabric. Start by practicing on something cheap like an old sheet. Avoid elastic fabrics in the beginning since they are more difficult to deal with.
You will need a sharp pair of scissors, needles, thread, beeswax if you choose linen thread and a piece of leather or a thimble to protect your fingers when sewing in heavier fabrics. On the top image you can see a basic kit. For later when constructing garments you will probably need some modern tools like a measuring tape and I highly recommend a longer metal ruler. French chalk for marking the pieces you cut comes in handy and a good iron makes your seams nice and flat.
But to get started, the items above will be enough and you can bring them with you in a small bag wherever you go. To the top left you can see a so called mesma – a rolled case where you can keep your sewing tools nicely wrapped up. Note that this is not documented from Viking or Medieval times, but many people find them practical and use them anyway in historical reenactment as a “could have existed” item.
Click on the image below to see a summary of materials and fabrics that are suitable for historical hand sewing or download the infographic as PDF.