Fabric Focus – Linen

We are very lucky today, readers. Carolyn of Diary of a Sewing Fanatic works a lot with linen and I thought she’d be the perfect person to talk to us about this fabric. I wasn’t wrong! She kindly agreed to give us a run down of how to wrestle this wrinkly monster to the ground…

Hi, everyone! I love working with linen because it can be made into a variety of garments:

  • It can make an amazing tailored garment or it can make an awesome relaxed fun weekend outfit. No matter your lifestyle, linen can work in it.
  • It’s easy to work with, sews up like a dream, making stunning outfits for both a beginner and an advanced sewist.
  • The fabric takes dye well so you can purchase linen in brilliant and bright colors or soft and shaded pastels. It is also available in prints, plaids, florals and embroidered.
  • It is cool to wear, doesn’t hold body heat and is absorbent.

Linen culottes, blogged about here.

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

What is Linen?

It may be the oldest natural cellulosic fiber, having been used by Swiss lake dwellers as early as 8,000 BC. Egyptian linen fragments have been dated to 4,500 BC. Linen is made from the stem of the flax plant, linen fibers, which 2” to 36” long, are spun into yarn then woven into fabric. Linen is available in a variety of weights, from handkerchief linen to heavy suitings, linen has a natural luster, high moisture absorbency (12 percent) and no static electricity. Cool and comfortable to wear in warm climates, linen fabrics are quick drying, lint free, and resistant to moths and the alkalies in detergents, Borax, ammonia, and washing soda. They have good shape retention, and even though strong when dry, they are even stronger when wet. They shed surface dirt, resist stains, and are not damaged by sunlight, but yellow with age.

Definition from: Fabric Sewing Guide (2nd Edition) by Claire Shaeffer

When making a garment from linen I realize that the linen will wrinkle when worn. I just need to 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 deep wrinkling that will occur? 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 as much. These are decisions that you need to make when you are deciding what to do with the linen you have purchased.

Personally I have used linen in both tailored garments and in more relaxed wear. Pretreatment of the fabric depends on what the garment’s end use will be.

Pretreatment Methods

I’ve used linen for making skirts, dresses, tops, pants and jackets. My chosen methods of pre-treating are:

  • To wash the linen in the hottest water and then dry it upon the highest heat setting three times. That means putting it through the wash and dry section three times.
  • Once it has gone through this process, I then put it on my ironing board, get out a spritz bottle full of water, fill my iron up and set it on its hottest setting.
  • I then spritz the linen and press the heck out of it.

When I use this method of pretreatment, there is an entire day of prep work involved and I usually do several pieces of fabric at one time. This very labour intensive prep pays off. Garments made after being subjected to this process still wrinkle but the wrinkles are not as deep and fall out easily. The linen also loses any finishing agents that have been applied to it. It will also lose some color and sheen. This method allows the fibers to totally relax so that the wrinkle factor will be minimal in the finished garment. All of this washing changes the hand of the fabric so a fabric that once was stiff and unyielding now becomes soft, pliable and drapable. Garments made using this process are usually very relaxed, non-tailored gear and it allows the items to be wash and wear.

However, for more tailored garments, I don’t use the extensive wash and wear linen pretreatment method especially since I will dry clean these garments. After putting linings and a lot of internal structure into a piece, I don’t want to lose that work in the wash. For tailored garments, I usually wash and dry the fabric just once primarily to remove sizing and to allow for fabric shrinkage. I haven’t experienced any shrinkage with the finished garment, using just a one wash treatment method.

Construction Methods

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 also wrinkles and shrinks quite a bit. A linen/rayon blend will wrinkle just not as much as a 100% linen does. Linen/silk blends while they have a wonderful sheen, in my experience don’t shrink as much, but will wrinkle without underpinnings.

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

Linen fibers relax from your body’s natural heat so this should be taken into consideration when making a garment. There are several areas of a garment that can be extremely affected by this ~ the neckline and shoulder seams in a top/dress/jacket, the seat area in pants, skirt, or a 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 have bias binding and stay stitching added. To prevent saggy butts and knees you can add a full or half lining to the pieces. To avoid 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 universal sewing machine needle size dependent upon the weight of the linen being used.

I set my sewing machine’s stitch length shorter or lower (2.7 – 2.9 on my machine).

I use a polyester quality thread when sewing linen.

Finally even though linen takes heat well, I make sure to use my silk organza pressing cloth when pressing seams open.

Linen is easy to sew and even easier to press. It’s a hardworking fiber that makes beautiful garments.

Resource Materials

There are several 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

4. Fabric Sewing Guide by Claire Shaeffer – published by Krause Publications

The last three 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!

Threads also 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.”

Finally, did you know that you can also buy linen as a knit? Yes, linen knits are available to the home sewist. They are loosely woven and come in pretty colors. Due to their rarity, they can be quite costly but they are a unique knit that can add a new dimension to your garments. Be on the lookout for them because they are worth finding.

I hope that if you’ve never sewn with linen you will give it a try. It’s a wonderful fabric that makes an awesome garment and definitely worth making a sewing journey with. For me, it will always have a prominent place in my fabric collection because not only do I like sewing with it but I love wearing it also!

Wow! A massive thank you to Carolyn for her generosity with time and knowledge. I’ve learned so much here and hope you have, too.  Any other tips to share? 

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41 Responses to Fabric Focus – Linen

  1. Sara Mayo says:

    I was window shopping in the mall the other day and noticed a lot of long-sleeved loose- knit sweaters of 100% linen. Now I’m itching to knit a linen summer top. Linen yarn is also very distinctive looking, but in different ways than the fabric and the wrinkling really does not seem to happen with linen yarn.

  2. punkmik says:

    love this! have only used a linen blend fabric so far and it wrinkled a bit but not that much, cannot wait to try out the tips!

  3. Charlotte says:

    Wow, that was some rundown of linen! I’ve just made a linen Kelly skirt but wish I’d read this before! I’m really enjoying this series on different fabrics, thanks!

  4. Every day is a school day!

  5. Rachel Pinheiro says:

    Linen is one of my favourite fabrics, together with cotton sateen. Great guest post from Carolyn…

  6. What an anazing and informative post. I’ve been thinking about making a summer jacket out of linen. Great that I now know much more what to consider. Thank you 🙂

  7. Great post! I have only worked with linen once before but now I have a plan for a party dress in this lovely navy linen with gold brushed onto it… Thanks for the information, very helpful!

  8. I love the colors and varieties of linen but I just can’t stand the wrinkles so it is a no-sew for me. However I can admire everyone else’s creations 🙂

  9. Maggie says:

    Thanks for sharing this great info!

  10. sheila says:

    Great Article. Thanks for sharing.

  11. LLADYBIRD says:

    Really fascinating post, I only wish I’d seen it before I sewed up my linen shorts 🙂 Oh well – guess I’ll have to make more, ha! Thank you for putting this together, Carolyn!

  12. Gaenor says:

    Thank you – this is very timely as I have to help make 9 (rainbow hued) linen waistcoats this summer, and need to tame the wrinkles a little (for my Mum’s sanity if nothing else).

  13. Shams says:

    Carolyn, you are the queen of linen! I don’t sew with linen a whole lot, but I usually do wash/dry it several times. Thanks for this tutorial!

  14. hedgewick says:

    Oh, very timely! I was gifted with a 100% linen sheet in a pale peach color. I love peach, but do not wear pastels well. Now that I know I can dye it, I’ll try to wash/dry/iron it into submission and make it into a summer dress.

  15. zora read says:

    Thanks so much for the info Karen. I have some sewing books but your information just seems more pertinent to my kind of sewing and easier to read as well. I love linen, but tend to go for the mixes. I bought a linen/poly blend at Walthamstow market a few years ago that has not been made up yet. I must make it up if only to compare to the skirts I have made in 100% linen which crease quite badly. Next time I make up a 100% I will try your method as I prefer a more relaxed casual look.

  16. Kelly says:

    This is such a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!

  17. ClaireE says:

    What a great post, I learnt a lot. I think I’ll be making something out of linen for my summer holiday…

  18. Lene says:

    Thank you so much Karen and Carolyn. I have 10+ metres of linen in several colours, which I plan to make up this summer. I have washed them once and line dryer them – now I know to be a lot more brutal except for the fabric planned for a jacket I hope to make. Thank you so much!

  19. Shelly says:

    Even though it wrinkles I love linen fabric . This was a great guest post with lots of good tips from Carolyn.

  20. AnotherKaren says:

    Golly gosh – an outstandingly informative and beautifully written article. I am particularly taken with the section on pre-treating the fabric. In fact, I am just about to take a couple of acres of the stuff out of a suitcase in the attic space and into the washing machine. I’ve been far too wimpish with this toughie, so bring it on, oh Hot Wash, Tumble Dryer and Iron. I shall have muscles on my muscles by the time I’m finished.

  21. Catherine says:

    I’ve made a few things from linen and I only find that I have crease issues in the crook of the elbow. But other wise it’s such a nice soft fabric to work with I don’t mind the creases! Thank you for the article. I may even try the triple wash next time I use linen!

  22. aem2 says:

    Oh, I really wish I had seen this before I cut out my linen Thurlows! Oh well. I will embrace the wrinkles.

  23. liza jane says:

    This was fantastic. I sew a lot with linen but I always sew more casual things with the realization that wrinkling is inevitable. Now I know I can underline and line to keep some of the wrinkles at bay for for work related things.

  24. Carolyn says:

    First, I would like to thank Karen who asked me to write this post. I was very honored and am thrilled that everyone is finding the information helpful! I hope more people will sew with linen because it’s such an amazing fabric to wear!

  25. Gjeometry says:

    Very nice linen “round-up”! I have some white linen that I plan on making Butterick skirt 5285 (the gathered version, you have made this before, I saw it on your blog). I figure that the gathers and pockets will detract from any real wrinkle issues, moreso than, say, a pencil skirt.

  26. Hayley says:

    I have 2. Metres of linen currently waiting to become skirts so will have to be careful how I line them now

  27. gingermakes says:

    What a great post! I’m definitely bookmarking this and will refer to it often as I LOVE linen!

  28. lloubb says:

    fantastic post! How did you both know that I am working on a dress with a linen/rayon blend skirt and some all linen contrast? 🙂

  29. Thanks, Carolyn for setting me straight after hours of fussing around on the internet, including your own previous article. You wrote here, “For tailored garments, I usually wash and dry the fabric just once primarily to remove sizing and to allow for fabric shrinkage. I haven’t experienced any shrinkage with the finished garment, using just a one wash treatment method.”
    I’m using black linen to make a sheath dress to wear to a dressy wedding and I really don’t want it to look all soft and crushed the way I usually love linen. I’m going use a little castille soap in a hot/hot wash/rinse and hang to dry, then iron it damp with a hot iron.

  30. bernieandi says:

    Thanks for all the useful information! If I am ever lucky enough to work with linen now I will know what to do!

  31. sewrmaciwi says:

    brilliant and concise. loved reading this. I love linen! see my latest pattern and dress http://sewrmaciwi.wordpress.com/

  32. Alisha says:

    Thank you so much! I am making a Megara costume (Disneys Hercules) and opted for linen to be more period specific. This is some well needed information.

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  34. Janet says:

    Thanks for this. I am stood next to my washing machine now- some navy linen on its second go of hot wash thanks to this advice. I don’t intend to stand here the entire two hour cycle. That would be odd, right?!

  35. I too love linen! I have found that when I don’t want the wrinkle, I can use the bias cut! It works especially well on dresses, tunics, tops and SLEEVES! Linen wants to wrinkle on the warp and woof of the fabric. If you use the bias, the folds of the body (your lap, knees, elbows, waist) will not occur on the warp and woof. Very little wrinkling occurs. So helpful.

  36. MK Martin says:

    Wonderful post — I learned A LOT, more than I expected. Thank you so much!

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