Slowly but surely I am working through my 14th Century Shift project. I have now decided upon 5 different styles to construct. I have patterned and cut out 3 of the 5 styles. I have even started the hand sewing on one!
I won’t go into all the details about what I’m making today…I’ll save that topic for later. What I want to do was discuss the stitching techniques I have decided to use.
According to The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant by Sarah Thursfield, oversewing, also known as over stitching or whipping appears to be the most traditional method for joining selvedges. I have used this technique in a past sewing project and it makes a beautiful finish, but I found it very time consuming and slow moving! Here is a photo of one of my finished seams in a previous project:
Further reading in Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot et al unearths slightly more information. Though it does discuss extant pieces of tabby woven silk that appeared to use the overstitching method (which I may use on a possible silk shift), it does mention a joining technique of overlapped edges with one or both edges being folded, giving higher strength to the join as in run and fell seams. This book also mentions later on that in the majority of cases a fine running stitch was the norm, with a back stitch being used for areas under more pressure such as armholes. Strength was added to seams in the finishing of the seam allowances which appeared to be a running stitch on both sides of the seam, working through all layers and running parallel and very close to the seam. Stitches would be between 2-4mm in length with 2-3 mm being the norm and the finishing running stitch would come as close as 2-3 mm to the seam. This tells me that the seam allowances were very narrow. A diagram borrowed from the website Rosalie’s Medieval Woman that is taken from the book demonstrates these stitching techniques:
With all this information in mind, I had originally decided to use a fine running stitch to join seams, using a back stitch in certain areas and finish the seams with the running stitch on either side of the seam. Before beginning my first piece, however, I had a niggling feeling this would not work. I am working with linen which frays rather badly on unfinished cut edges. Simply finishing the cut edges of the seam allowances with a running stitch seemed rather inadequate. I decided to read through my research material once more and came to the conclusion that the technique of using a running stitch to finish the seam allowances was likely referring to the construction of wool garments, the fabric used for the majority of outer garments at the time. So I decided to go with the earlier mention of the use of run and fell seams.
Before actually starting the official hand sewing of my project, however, I decided to do a little experiment. Using some scrap pieces of the linen I would be using in this project I made two practice pieces. On one piece, I sewed my seams together with a tight running stitch and finished the seam allowances with a running stitch as mentioned, including the very narrow seam allowance. On the second piece I used a run and fell technique, cutting one seam allowance slightly narrower than the other and folding the wider edge over the narrow edge to one side of the seam, creating a folded finished edge. I finished this edge with a running stitch. I then washed and dried the finished pieces twice to see what my results would be. Here is what happened: The first 2 photos show the "run and run" seams from the inside and outside before washing:
The second 2 photos show run and fell seams from the inside and outside before washing:
And finally, the next two photos show the results after 2 washes of the “run and run” seams and run and fell seams:
My results were exactly what my intuition told me. The run and fell seam showed no signs of unraveling while the “run and run” seam showed extensive fraying. Although the “run and run” seam had not actually fallen apart in any areas, the extent of fraying after only 2 washes tells me it wouldn’t take many more to have a seam come undone.
I also believe the run and fell method results in a stronger seam. As you can see here, when I attempt to pull the seams apart the “run and run” method reveals more gaps than the run and fell seam: