Fabric Hunting: Paris – In Search Of Inspiration

Fabric Hunting: Paris – In Search Of Inspiration

fabric hunting paris

I am back in Paris, one of the places in the world I feel at home, and yes, this was once home when I was so poorly paid and blissfully happy. It is a dichotomy, to be sure, but I am well aware of how blessed I have been to be handed the opportunity of living in one of the most iconic cities in the world and the home of Haute Couture.

I have come to Paris in search of inspiration, half forgetting all the pretty people I know have left town, leaving it to the tourist to indulge in. Any Parisian with time, family, or friends with an extra couch will leave town for the rocky beaches of the south or the sandy shores of the old colonies. It is bliss to suck up the sun and enjoy the wide avenues despite the crowds, especially for us who live in the southern hemisphere and are running away from the cold, damp, poorly insulated houses.

A bit of Paris-

What can I say about Paris that you already know? Hardly anything, so I will concentrate on the view from my lens.

My favorite thing about Paris is the light at dusk when the sun bathes the city in this golden glow. It makes me feel that everything will work out best and that anything is possible. This glow charges me with hope… and makes me think that before the french give up, they rather clean the slate and start again. There is so much to learn from this attitude.

Fabric Hunting Paris
View from the Ile de Saint-Louis

I love watching people at the park. So many people come with a modest basket; cloth napkins, cutlery, cheese, fruits, jam, bread, and wine all gather around in happy chatter. The old man in profound political conversation, the games of chess, the artists concentrated on a painting, the pretty girl in a bikini sucking up the sun, the lovers by the trees making out, the whole scene is an impressionist painting.

A walk along the Seinne early in the morning when hardly anyone is around.

I could drop a small fortune here in art shops, bookstores, and stationaries, but I am content with just looking around.

Notice, my dear readers, most of the things I love about Paris are free.

A bit Of Geography

Paris is divided into 20 areas called arrondissements, starting at the center in the shape of a spiral clockwise.

Administrative Map Of Paris

Left and Right Banks, the Seine flows westward, cutting the city in two. The top part of the city is associated with the right bank and the lower one with the left. The most significant attractions tourists want to see are located on the right bank.

A Bit of History

Here is a quick summary that I found detailing Paris’ long and exciting history. The great thing about Paris is that it has always been a unique city, from whatever time in the past all the way to the present.

A Bit Of Architecture And the Best Sights from my camera

Paris was once a dirty plague-ridden town to what is now one of the most visited places on the planet, with wide tree-lined boulevards and imposing stone facade buildings with double windows and zinc grey mansard roofs.

Boulevard Beaumarchais, in the 11 arrondissement
The scenery of Paris and the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower.

Louvre Museum and the Jardin de Tullerie.

The current reconstruction work at Notre Dame.

Le Champs-Élysées and the Arch de Trioumph
My lovely family…

Fabric Hunting: Paris

There are two major areas where to shop for fabrics in Paris. Montmartre on the 18th and Le Sentier in the 2nd arrondisement.


Montmartre area is very well known to tourists since it is the home of the oldest fabric store in the city. It is the place to find inexpensive fabrics for costumes and fancy embellished tulles. T

here are many small stores around the foothill of Montmartre. Today I will only mention the best-known.

Fabric Hunting Paris
Marche Saint-Pierre seen from La Reine Store.

The beginnings of this shop are very similar to Bassetti Tessuti in Rome. A man comes to town with a cart of fabrics, building a reputation for good quality, well-priced materials. And when the opportunity knocks, in 1920, he rents a building and starts selling in one location.

This is a seven-floor french institution, and I am happy to see that despite the pandemic, the store is still in business and with paying customers inside.

The road level is where you will find all the bargains. Tulles for costumes, Ankara fabrics, and printed cotton are perfect for handbags and summer dresses.

I head to my favorite floor: the basement.

fabric hunting Paris

Here is the place for all the beautiful fabrics for couture gowns, and wedding dresses and a good selection of silks, cotton, leather, and laces.

I recommend buying the Guipure lace seen above, the felt wool which is perfect for hats and jackets at 60 euros for a piece of 3 meters 55″ broad, not bad at all, enough for a coat and beret for the winter. Silk chiffon for some very flowy dresses and blouses and, silk velour for a soft skin tight underlayer, wide-leg pants, and trimmings for underwear.

This haberdashery is an Alibaba cave for every crafter, ribbon, elastic, lace, braid, needles, thread, buttons, fasteners, scissors, and they have it.

Pay special attention to the buttons section; some are small art pieces. Here are some pictures to get a general idea, but you have a much more extensive selection on their online shop.

I have been coming to Tissue Reine for a couple of decades. This is a typical fabric store in many cities, Liberty cotton, quilting fabrics, home deco, jeans, cotton, silks, laces, and sewing equipment, including patterns.

The bargains are outside on the sidewalk for you to browse freely. I recall the many hours I spent with my mother looking through the fabric rolls for costumes for a play.

Inside the store, everything is well organized, and the amount of natural light and lighting helps you choose a fabric in the color you are looking for. My favorite things to buy here are the cotton and cotton blends in natural fibers, cotton/rayon, cotton and silk, and cotton and linen.

I should mention the gorgeous silk chiffons in happy and tasteful prints would make an elegant blouse or a long summer dress an item that would last many years.

The main floor is where you find fashion fabrics.

The haberdashery on the second floor is where I can find the Swiss threads Mettler that works so well with the Bernina embroidery machines. All types of sewing notions are found here, and a pervasive pattern section.

This store surprised me; whenever I am in Paris, I try to find a new store to explore. TissuMarket did it for me, a small hole in the wall, but inside, the quality and beauty of the fabrics take you back. Justin, the man in charge, tells me this is just a small showroom, but if I wanted to see the whole store, go to the 2nd Arrondissement. So I will talk about it in the next section, but I will leave you with some pictures so you can find TissuMarket if you are around Montmartre.

Le Sentier

Le Sentier is a lesser-known area for tourists and one of my favorite parts of Paris. This is the fashion district of Paris, where students come to buy fabrics for school projects, up-and-coming designers have their showrooms, and wholesale materials and designs are sold. You can buy small amounts, but many stores have a minimum requirement. You need to ask before falling in love with any fabric.

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Lace Fabrics For Sewing Projects: So Many Types!

Lace Fabrics For Sewing Projects: So Many Types!

lace fabrics

Lace was once reserved for only the nobility. It was expensive and scarce. Fortunately, we live in an age of affordable lace fabrics with wide availability and tremendous variety. Here is an introduction to lovely lace fabrics.

Lace Fabrics

Bridal shops and fabric stores use special terms to describe the different lace fabrics. Alencon lace is named after a town in Normandy, France has motifs outlined by a heavy white cord. It is widely used for wedding gowns. Chantilly lace is more delicate in appearance, while Cluny lace is much heavier than either Alencon or Chantilly. Lace fabrics may also be beaded or embroidered for extra sparkle or color. Point d’esprit or dotted Swiss are sheer woven fabrics with a pattern of allover dots.

lace fabrics
A wedding dress incorporating Alencon lace.
An example of Chantilly lace. Courtesy: perfectdetails.com
An example of Cluny lace. Courtesy: trimmco.com

Sewing lace requires some careful cutting in order to place large motifs symmetrically. Many lace fabrics have a scalloped border which can be used as a finished hem on skirts and sleeves. Because most lace does not ravel, individual designs may be cut from larger pieces and used to trim veils or cover seams. Double galloon lace has two scalloped edges, making it especially useful for creating borders.

Heirloom Sewing Lace

White cotton fabric may be embroidered around small holes to create eyelet fabric, a type of lace. When strips of narrow cotton trims are joined to create a larger piece of fabric, the technique is called heirloom sewing or French hand sewing (although it is often done by machine now.) Trims with two straight edges are called insertions, as they are made to be sandwiched between other fabrics or trims. Trims with one straight edge and one shaped edge are called edgings because the shaped edge can be left plain as a hemline.

Lace Fabrics

Heirloom sewing is especially popular for christening gowns and other special garments for babies and young children. Nightgowns and other trousseau items also can be lovely in heirloom lace.

Knitted Lace

Very fine yarn and needles of small diameter are used to create knitted lace. The knitter follows a chart to make patterns of holes between areas of plain knitting. Shawls and scarves are popular projects for skilled lace knitters. Master knitters have knit entire dresses or wedding veils. Laceweight wool is the favored fiber for knitting.

Crocheted Lace

Fine steel hooks and crochet cotton are used to make lace trims by hand. Such lace may be found on heirloom pillowcases and handkerchiefs. Irish crochet is a technique in which individual floral motifs are joined together with a net-like background–all created with just a hook and thread.

lace fabrics

Novelty Lace

Lace fabrics and trims now go far beyond the traditional white or ecru. Lace comes in any fashion color. Lace may include metallic threads or multiple colors. Lace for sewing underwear and lingerie with Lycra fibers for stretch may adorn exercise leggings as well as underwear! Fashion designers now use lace in untraditional applications and combinations. Lace looks good on almost anything.

lace fabrics

Care of Lace Fabrics

Check labels on all lace garments to be sure you clean them properly. Home dressmakers should be sure to get care information from the end of the bolt for any fabrics purchased. Hand knits or crocheted items can often be hand washed, then laid flat to dry after being shaped properly again. For wedding gowns, look for a cleaner with special expertise in bridal fabric care.

Enjoy using and wearing lace every day or for special occasions. Don’t be afraid to try making your own lace items, too.

If you’re interested in more sewing projects using lace fabrics, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll put that on the list!

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Top 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Cutting Fabric

Top 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Cutting Fabric

Mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric

So many people spend hundreds of dollars on a good sewing machine, use it for a few months and then they give up, and put it back in the box in the basement where it remains for years –untouched.  Somewhere in their sewing journey, many aspiring sewers become afraid or demotivated because the project did not turn out the way they wanted.  

A big pile of unfinished garments is a dead giveaway!  Our brain is trained to look for inconsistencies and it is how we judge beauty.  Unconsciously, we know something is off and we give up before we finish. The reason for this doomed journey starts at the fabric store but is often made worse by how we end up cutting the fabric.  Here are my top 5 mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric.

The reason for this doomed journey starts at the fabric store but is often made worse by how we end up cutting the fabric.  Here are my top 5 mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric.

#1.  Not washing the fabric before cutting.

Natural fibers come from vegetable material (cotton, hemp, flax, etc) or animals (wool, cashmere, silk, alpaca, etc).  Below I have tested a 100% cotton swatch measuring 10 x 10cm, I soaked and washed the swatch and ironed it with a very hot iron. As you can see in the second photograph the swatch shrunk considerably, this is because when fabrics are being woven the fibers are being tensed.

When these fibers come in contact with water they relax, but by applying heat once again, the fibers go back to their original state.  This process is similar to how a spring works.  Normally it will take several washes for some fabrics to relax.  A good example of this is cotton and linen.  Both fabrics become smooth after a few washes, but when too much heat is applied –for example when we forget the cloth in the dryer for too long– the size of the garment will shrink considerably.

Mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric

#2.  Not squaring and truing the fabric.  

To understand squaring and truing we need to learn a couple of terms that relate to fabrics.  In the picture below, the yarn being pulled is called the weft.  The yarn that runs perpendicular to it is the warp. In order to true the fabric we need to make a cut on the weft,  pull the thread, and cut in the space that is left by the thread, as is seen in the picture.

Mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric
The weft, wrap, and selvage of the fabric

To be able to square the fabric you must cut away the selvage which is the fuzzy edge that runs along the length of the fabric or, as is known, the warp of the fabric.  Cut away the edge by making a cut and pulling the thread and cutting the same way you did with the weft or the horizontal thread.

Sometimes when you go to the fabric store, the chatty woman at the counter makes a cut in the fabric and rips your piece out, this action actually distorts the shape of your fabric. In the following picture, you can see the effect of this action.  I lost almost a bit more than a 1/4 of a yard getting the fabric to have a uniform edge!

Mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric
Find the true edge of the fabric to cut on the grain.

To square the fabric, after you have taken the selvage out, get someone to help you pull one corner of the fabric while you pull the diagonal corner, change and do the other corners. You are trying to restore the shape of the fabric. This step is particularly important if you are using a cotton/elastane combination.

stretching fabric on the bias to regain the original shape of the fabric

#3.  Not following pattern instructions for placement of the fabric grain.

Ending up with something so tight that it looks like Shapewear or a too-short mini skirt because you didn’t shrink your fabric before sewing is still not as bad as not using the grain of the fabric to place your pattern.  To find the grain of your fabric, all you have to do is square and true the fabric, join the side where the selvage was, and fold the fabric.

The fabric grain is indicated on the pattern as the long arrow that runs the length of the pattern piece it will cause the fabric to hang correctly because it will be cut at a right angle.  Not only does it look bad, it’s annoying to wear because your skirt or pants will keep twisting around or clinging to you, but more importantly, the pieces of your pattern will not match. This is simply because the fabric will stretch at an angle.  A perfect example of this is a skirt cut on a bias.  We’ve all had t-shirts where they cut slightly off grain to save time and can twist around the torso.

Avoid this by making sure to place your pattern pieces accurately on the grain when you cut out your patterns.  You can achieve this by measuring the distance from the selvage to the grain arrow and making sure it is equidistant, as shown in the picture below.

Mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric
Placing the pattern on the grain of the fabric

#4.  Not having enough fabric to match plaids or stripes.

This is the classic mistake easily avoided by buying more fabric and placing the pattern so it matches the prints or plaid.  On your pattern, mark where the most prominent color is.  In my example below,  I have marked the brown color in all the pattern pieces, because is the most dominant, notice how you actually will use more fabric because not only do you have to use the direction of the color, but also you have to maintain the grain of the fabric.  As a rule, how much fabric you will need, will always depend on your size and the width of the fabric you intend to use.

how to match plaids when cutting fabric

#5. Using the wrong fabric.

Thin silky fabric will not make an appealing jacket due to its lack of structure.  It would, however, make a very good lining.  A knit fabric will perform differently from a woven fabric because of the stretchability of the knit, therefore, the pattern pieces on a knitted garment are going to be less wide than normal patterns.  All Patterns will give you suggestions for what fabrics to use. It is possible to substitute the fabric according to its drapability.

Follow the instructions on the back of the envelope to the letter. It will be clearly marked what kind of fabric will be best suited for the pattern, study the drawing, see how the garment falls away or clings to the body.  Look at the illustration and try to match what the designer has used.  For a sample of swatches and their common uses please watch this video:

It is easy to get excited when inspiration strikes us, and we want to get things done quickly, but by not avoiding these 5 common Mistakes To Avoid When Cutting Fabric, you will only be sabotaging your own efforts and creativity. Taking the time to prepare your fabric may sound boring but it is essential for a good sewing outcome.

Thank you for reading, and Until Next Time, Happy Sewing!

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An Introduction to Sewing Sweater Knits

An Introduction to Sewing Sweater Knits

sewing sweater knits

Ah, sweater knits! These highly textural, stretch fabrics can be cozy, lacy, casual, or sophisticated. With a good sweater knit and a little practice, you can cut and sew a sweater in a day or less, even if you can’t knit or crochet. Yes, they’re enabling. And they’re beautiful. If I sound a little biased, well… full disclosure, I’m a designer of sweater knits and I love what I do!

sewing sweater knits
“Saratoga Rib” sweater knit fabric, 100% cotton,
photo credit: Debbie Iles of Lily Sage and Co

What exactly is a sweater knit? All knits are fabrics that are made by interlooping of threads or yarn; that is, by pulling one loop of yarn through a previously made loop of yarn, row after row, and column after column, depending on the type of knit. A sweater knit is made with heavier yarn and bigger stitches than what you find in a standard t-shirt fabric. You’ll know a sweater knit when you see one because the beautiful textures, often with quite complicated stitch patterns, immediately make you think “sweater”. Any color patterns in this type of knit are usually produced with different color yarns, as opposed to having the colors printed on the fabric. The sweater knits that you find at a fabric shop have all been made on industrial knitting machines.

sewing sweater knits
“Mesa Plaid” sweater knit fabric, 100% cotton

If you’ve never worked with sweater knits before, they can seem a little intimidating at first. Some, though not all sweater knits, can be surprisingly stretchy or unstable or thick. Those pretty stitches that make the fabrics so appealing need to be properly finished in order to prevent the fabric from fraying or running. But once you’re familiar and comfortable with the basic properties of sweater knits and know how to work with them, the fabrics are lots of fun. Your reward is a beautiful sweater to keep or give. I hope these tips, grouped into four categories, will get you started on a creative sweater knit sewing journey!

Getting to know your sweater knit

Before you even choose a sewing pattern, I highly recommend that you choose your fabric first. This may be opposite to the way you’re used to working, but your fabric may help in your choice of sewing pattern. (We’ll get to suitable sewing patterns later.) Choose a fabric that you love and get familiar with its basic qualities. If this is your first cut-and-sew sweater, look for a sweater knit that’s relatively stable and with a good amount of natural fiber, at least 55% cotton or wool, if possible. I’ve found cotton, wool, and linen are the easiest of natural fabric knits to sew. Fabrics that are primarily made of natural fibers work well with the steam from your iron. Though there are a couple of exceptions to the rule, when you work it’s best to hold your iron about a half inch above your sweater and allow steam from your iron to penetrate the fabric. This method will help preserve the stretch and texture of your fabric. Avoid applying pressure with a back-and-forth motion as you might do with a woven fabric. You’ll use this steaming method to make flat seams, hems, etc.

If you’re just making a practice garment and feel more comfortable practicing with less expensive fabric, try your cutting and sewing techniques on a natural fiber sweater from the thrift shop rather than using 100% synthetic fabric. If you must use fabric with a high percentage of acrylic, polyester, or other synthetic, omit the steam and high heat, which could ruin this type of knit.

Each sweater knit will have its own “personality”. Cut a small rectangle and fold over an edge. Get to know the fabric’s properties by stretching the fabric at the fold. Now fold and stretch in the direction perpendicular to your first fold. Make note of which direction stretches the most. Now stretch the cut edge a little. Now stretch the cut edge a bit more. Does it run easily? Probably not. Usually, only the laciest or slippery fabrics will run easily. Sweater knits just may be sturdier than you imagined!

sewing sweater knits
“Washington Square” sweater knit fabric, 100% wool

Choosing your sewing pattern

If you’re happy with your fabric, you’ll want to feature its wonderful texture and color(s). Look for a basic sewing pattern designed for knits and with few seams. I’m thrilled to see both major and independent pattern companies publishing more and more patterns specifically designed for sweater knits. Know, however, that your tried ‘n true t-shirt or sweatshirt pattern may also work wonderfully with your sweater fabric. Just make sure your chosen fabric meets the stretch requirements listed with the pattern. This Pinterest board may be helpful for sewing pattern ideas

sewing sweater knits
“Commercial Sewing Patterns Suitable for Sweater Knits”
Pinterest Board

Setting up your sewing machine

Use a ballpoint needle (sometimes called a “jersey” needle) of appropriate size for the weight of your fabric. Sewing with polyester thread and a narrow zigzag or stretch stitch is best for seams that need to stretch. I personally prefer the narrow zigzag, because the stitches are easy to remove if I need to change anything. If your sewing machine is refusing to sew sweater knits smoothly or wants to “do bad things” to your fabric, don’t panic. If you can, lessen the pressure of your presser foot. Some machines may need a little more help. Try these tips for smooth sewing and be sure to practice all settings on the test rectangle first!

Finishing your edges and seam allowances

There are several good choices for edge finishes — bands, bindings, facings, hems. Your sewing pattern will provide instructions for this important step. When you become more comfortable with sweater knits, you may discover your absolute favorite finish and use that one all the time!  Or you may want to diverge from the pattern instructions and swap out an edge finish just for the fun of it.

Sweater knit seam allowances can be finished in a number of ways. They can be serged or overlocked. (Tip: If using a serger to finish a sweater knit seam, the differential feed setting will almost always need to be set to 1.5 or higher.) A serger is not mandatory. Some of my favorite finishes are actually made on a regular sewing machine! They can be zigzagged and trimmed, bound, topstitched, taped, or covered. We all know that finishing seam allowances makes the inside of any garment look nice, whether it’s made with a woven fabric or a knit. With a sweater knit, a finished seam allowance also protects the seams from fraying or running after repeated wearings and washings. No matter how you decide to finish your seam allowances, always practice on your the cutaways first.

Like so much of sewing, there are many approaches when working with sweater knits, and there’s really no one “right” way of finishing a detail or accomplishing a task. The more you work with sweater knits, the better you get. Enjoy the process of learning which techniques work best for you, your particular fabric, and your style. Use and modify these recommendations as needed in your own sweater sewing adventures.

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Olgalyn Jolly is a knitted textile designer and teacher based in Soho, New York City. She has studied fashion and textile industry techniques at Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology and has many years of experience developing stitch designs for leading fashion designers and retailers. Olgalyn’s specialty is sweater knits and designed the fabrics pictured in this article. You can read more about Olgalyn and sweater knits on her website O! Jolly! and blog Crafting Fashion.

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A Super Quick History Of Linen

A Super Quick History Of Linen


The flax fields are blooming in a beautiful display of blue-purple flowers.  Bees fill the air with their happy flight, children duck and dive through the waist-high stalks.  The seasons eventually change and soon the stalks will begin to ripen into a bright blonde, signaling the farmers to begin their harvest.  The clipped straw will lay there, steaming in the hot sun and soaking in the dawn dew.  When enough time has passed the villagers will gather and begin the taxing process of turning the straw into one of the world’s most valuable fibers.  Time and trade will see the fruits of their labor travel across the Mediterranean Sea to lands they could have never dreamed of, their efforts are now a part of the ancient history of linen.

history of linen
Flax in bloom should be ready to harvest in a couple of months.

Last week we dove into the exciting history of cotton.  Today we’ll look at an even older textile, a textile known across the ancient world from Pharos of Egypt to the Kings of Europe and the Emperors of China. That textile is of course Linen.  Join me today to take a quick look at the history of linen.

What Is Linen?

Linen is made of the processed fibers of the flax plant.  The flax plant is suited to cooler climates and has a long history across the Old World and Asia.  The plant is both a food and fiber crop.  The oil (called linseed oil) and the flax seeds are both edible, although the oil is more often used for varnishing wood or in paints.

Linen is a very strong and hardy fabric.  In fact, it is one of the few fabrics that is stronger when wet than dry. The fibers are not flexible and do not stretch.  However, because linen fibers have very low elasticity, the fabric eventually breaks if it is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly over time.

The plant grows up to four feet tall and has beautiful blue-purple flowers.

The Ancient History Of Linen

The history of linen goes so far back that our very language has been shaped by this remarkable textile.  The word comes from the Latin word for the flax plant; linum, and the earlier Greek λίνον (linon).  This word has given birth to a number of other terms:

  • Line, comes from the use of a linen thread to determine a straight line.
  • Lingerie, via French, originally meant underwear made of linen.
  • Lining, because linen was, and is, often used to create an inner layer for wool and leather clothing.
  • The term in English ‘flaxen-haired’ denoting a very light, bright blonde, comes from a comparison to the color of raw flax fiber.

The oldest evidence of Linen production may go as far back as an amazing 36,000 years ago!  This was an impressive discovery of a prehistoric cave in Georgia that contained dyed wild flax fibers, suggesting the crafting of dyed linen fabrics.  Imagine that, even cave-people loved the cool, luxurious feel of linen.

history of linen
Linen yarn, thread, fibers, fabric, and stalks.

More “recent” records show evidence for flax yarn and fabric dating to about 8000 BC in a Swiss lake dwelling.  There is evidence of domesticated flax in India and China dating to about 3,000 BC, and a similar time period for Germany and further Western Europe.  Flax was first domesticated in the ancient “Fertile Crescent” region, which is a place home to some of the earliest human civilizations.  The region is primarily made up of Mesopotamia and The Levant (modern Iraq, Syria, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon).

The ancient Egyptians used linen to wrap their dead Pharaohs.  Amazingly, after more than 3,000 years some of these wrappings have remained in perfect preservation.  Our earliest evidence of structured linen production comes from Egypt, written by the Greeks on the famous ‘Linear B Tablet‘.  It mentions the Egyptian women workers cataloged as “li-ne-ya” (λίνεια, lineia).

The ancient Greek historian Plutarch mentions Linen as being the preferred garb of the priests at the temple of Isis.  The Greeks, like the Egyptians, saw linen as a symbol of divine purity and cherished it deeply.

An ancient price edict by Emperor Diocletian setting the prices of three different grades of linen.

The Phoenicians (originating in Lebanon), who, with their merchant fleet, opened up new channels of commerce to the peoples of the Mediterranean, and developed the tin mines of Cornwall, introduced flax growing and the making of linen into Ireland before the birth of Christ.  Many credit their merchant fleets as one of the main reasons flax is so widespread (among other crops/crafts that originated in the Levant).  The Phoenicians traded Egyptian linen extensively throughout the Mediterranean.

The Romans were great purchasers of Egyptian linen, as well as growing substantial amounts within the Empire. Notably, they used Linen to make their sails.

When the Roman Empire fell the production of linen and flax declined rapidly.  Production only recovered by the time of Charlemagne (770 AD) who widely publicized the health benefits of linseed oil. Eventually, Flanders became the major center of the linen industry in the European Middle Ages.

history of linen
Flax tissues, Tacuinum sanitatis, 14th century

Linen In Recent Times

During the Victorian era, the majority of the world’s linen was produced in Belfast, earning it the nickname Linenopolis.  Belfast remains one of the most famous linen-producing centers throughout history.

The processing and weaving of linen greatly advanced with the industrial revolution, but to a far lesser extent than cotton.  Linen can be woven with the same machinery as cotton, but it loses its distinctive linen weave making it an unpopular choice.

history of linen
1912 Industrial spinning room. Not actually for linen, but it serves the same purpose. Photo taken in Fall River, Massachusetts by Lewis Hine

The modern centers of high-quality flax production are primarily found in Western European countries and Ukraine.  Linen products range from lower quality bulk from Eastern Europe and China to the highest quality which is found in Ireland, Italy, and Belgium.

How Is It Made?

We all know linen to be an expensive textile.  This is due to its difficulty in growing, harvesting, processing, and weaving – all of which are labor-intensive.  Of course, the development of modern mechanization has greatly changed the process, but the steps remain largely the same, just done more efficiently.

The flax plant is grown in loose, high in organic matter, and loamy soil.  It does not require the use of many fertilizers and pesticides.  Heavy clays are unsuitable, as are soils of a gravelly or dry sandy nature. Flax is often found growing wild just above the waterline in bogs.

Flax is ready to harvest after about 100 days, this is about a month after the plant’s flower, and two weeks after the seeds have formed.  The clear sign is when the base of the plant begins to turn yellow.  There are two methods to harvest the ripe flax plant.  The first is mechanical, where the plant is cut as low as possible for the greatest length of the fiber.  After it is cut and dried a combine then harvests the seeds similar to wheat or oat harvesting.  By hand, the plant is pulled up with the roots to maximize the fiber length.  The flax is then allowed to dry, then the seeds are removed.

Flux drying in upright bundles.

After the flax is threshed (separating the seeds from the straw, either by machine or hand), it is then retted.  Retting is getting the woody center of the flax stalk to rot away, leaving the fibers available.  There are three methods of retting, the most used and the one that yields the highest quality fiber is retting in the field.  Retting in the field is as simple as leaving the cut hay in windrows on the ground to collect dew (and rain) and steam in the sun.  Depending on the climate this can take two weeks or up to two months. When complete the straw is rolled up and moved to processing.

The next step is scutching.  Scutching removes the woody parts of the stalks by crushing them.  This is commonly done between two metal rollers.  The fibers are removed and the other useful parts of the plant are set aside for other uses (linseed, shive, and tow).

Next, the fibers are heckled.  This is where the short fibers are separated with ‘heckling combs’ that combs them away, leaving only the long fibers.  Now the fibers are used to be spun into yarns.  This is also a delicate process as the linen fibers cannot stretch, and the individual fibers can break easily.  The yarns are then woven or knit into linen textiles.

history of linen
Threads on a linen loom.

Wow… Now I think you can see why linen is so pricey.  Compare all that work to the relatively simple process of spinning cotton or wool!

What Is Linen Used For?

Our use of linen has changed significantly in recent times.  In the 1990s about 70% of linen production was for apparel textiles, compared to the 1970s only about 5% was used for fashion fabrics.

Linen has a diverse range of uses, from bed sheets, tablecloths dish towels, wallpaper, shirts, skirts, and suits, to industrial products like thread, luggage, and canvases – to name a few.  Before more modern synthetics linen was the preferred yarn for hand-sewing, particularly with shoes.

Historically, undergarments, both men’s and women’s, were often made in linen (if you could afford it).  In the 20th century, the linen handkerchief was the standard decoration of a man’s suit.

Linen fabric is one of the traditional supports for oil painting.  Linen is preferred to cotton for its strength, archival integrity, and durability.

In the middle ages, linen was notably used for shields, bowstrings, and gambesons (padded cloth under armor), as well as sometimes for books.

The United States and many other countries use a 25% linen and 75% cotton paper for their currency.

The Future Of Linen

Linen will always have a place in wardrobes across the world.  No other material can match its comfort in hot weather coupled with its durability.  Also, since it is a food crop, there is even more reason to continue to grow the stuff.

However, even with our advanced processing and manufacturing processes, we have yet to find a less time-consuming method to make linen – which means it always will be a low-volume textile with high prices.

A field of yellow flax.

These problems are unlikely to be solved with genetic modification, or even more automated processing, as so much of the work comes from the simple nature of the plant.  You can’t have the fiber without the strong and hard-to-break apart woody-layers that make it so hard to work with.

Thank you for following this quick history of linen.  Always when talking about history you inevitably have to pick and choose what information to share, otherwise, this simple article would turn into a book! Let me know if I missed anything important and thanks for your feedback on the last history article.

Comment down below if you have any topics you’d like me to write about.  Anyways, Until Next Time, Happy Sewing!

P.S. Inspired to try out an all linen project?  Check out the Linen V-Top Pattern!

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Salvage Your Selvages! | So Sew Easy

Salvage Your Selvages! | So Sew Easy

salvage your selvages

Now any seamstress or hobby sewist will undoubtedly have discarded that little white strip along the fabric edge without a second thought, probably a few hundred times or more. You know that “useless” strip where the manufacturer’s branding is printed…along with a few strange colored circles? Well, there’s more to it than just branding! That printing along the fabric edge is known as the fabric selvage marking and, together with keeping the fabric from fraying or unraveling, it actually contains more useful info than you’d previously imagined.

What’s in a name?

Before you learn the secrets of the strip: how about that weird name?! Well, the name selvage or selvedge originated from the term self-edge, meaning a self-finished edge of the fabric. You will find that the specific weave in the selvage strip stops it from fraying entirely. It is “self-edged”.

salvage your selvages

The colored circles (or whatever other shape the manufacturer uses) contained in the selvage strip offer a wealth of guidance when it comes to color matching of fabrics for a larger project and, when placed alongside each other, the selvage markings of two different fabrics can tell you whether or not the fabrics really match, color-wise.

For example…should you be looking for a solid color match for a complex and colorful print, the selvage dots will allow you to tell whether or not your eyes are deceiving you as we often lose perspective of individual tones when a print is complex and color-rich. When dealing with two complex prints, matching more than two of the circles in each fabric up should tell you whether or not the fabrics will complement each other.

salvage your selvages

What’s even more exciting about the selvage strip is this: once you’ve used it to help you pick out colors for your project…save it! There is actually what I can only call a movement of sentimental sewists, quilters in particular, out there who religiously save their selvage strips. You’ll be inspired and utterly amazed once you’ve had a look at what some of these artists have done with their collections!

Plus, it’s not only because the sturdy, un-fraying weave makes for great pincushions, pencil pouches, and seat-covers, it’s also because there, on whatever you chose to construct out of your saved up selvage strips, stands a history of the brands you’ve used and your choices and experience of every project you’ve undertaken since you started selvage-saving! In the end, you can produce an item that’s bright and detailed, a color-coded history book telling the tale of all your hard work in front of the machine! One thing’s for sure: undertaking a selvage project of your own is bound to be a rewarding and sentimental experience!

salvage your selvages

The wide variety of fonts, colors, and patterns used in different selvage strips make for incredible detail and what’s more…no one’s item, even if they use your selvage pattern, will look remotely the same.

When sewing together strips for your project, consider this: the cut edge of the selvage won’t fray…instead, it may well create ribbons of the most adorable fluff, adding even more texture and detail to your piece. Keep about an inch of the actual fabric attached to your strip (to play around with) when you trim it off the main fabric. Use topstitching to sew your strips together: just within the finished edge.

RFID shielded handbag

You may not have noticed it in the project pictures, but I made the handles of the Gleam, RFID Shielded Handbag from the selvages of the Marimekko fabric I used for the bag.  If you look closely, you’ll see the markings.  I used the technique detailed in the tutorial and video about Making Bag Handles from Twisted Fabric Scraps to make the handles.

Not only were these handles very strong because of the more robust nature of the selvages, but the subtle display of a brand like Marimekko was fantastic.  So many people have asked me about it and assumed the bag was a designer item.  And all this with something sewists would often just throw away!

salvage your selvages

So Salvage your Selvages!

I’m pretty sure this has given you a little bit to think about, a little colored, printed strip to think about…happy sewing and happy selvage salvaging!

What sort of things have you made using selvages?  Please share your ideas with us in the comments below.

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