A Quilty Adventure Part VI: How to Sew with Linen

How-to-Sew-with-Linen

​Before jumping in, I first want to point out that my Sew Mojo mini quilt patterns are an excellent way to try out some new fabrics and textures without the scary commitment of making an entire quilt.

Get the patterns here! The pattern below is Sew Mojo #4 which is now available in the shop!.

Linen-mini-quilt

We’ve been on this adventure for a while now, people. We’ve stuck together through the twists and turns of many fabrics. But now, we’re going to take a walk on the wild side. We’re going to dive into the dark jungle of risky quilting. That’s right. It’s time to take on Linen.

Did you just give me a funny look? Oh, I see. You don’t think linen is risky or adventurous at all. Well, that’s where you’re wrong. By the end of this post, you’re going to be really glad you had me as your adventure guide, because you would have been lost in linen’s wiley web of one-way-streets.

Now, now, don’t be too intimidated. With the right gear and a good guide (heeyyy) you’ll be fine.

WELCOME TO LINEN​

Warning: Watch for Unraveling​

The History

Before we get into linen’s dark side, let’s talk about how incredibly cool it is. I mean that literally. Linen is a great fabric to keep you feeling fresh and cool in hot weather. Now here’s something you might not have known: linen is actually made from fibers of the flax plant. Yes! The same flax you eat ground up on your oatmeal.

The name linen comes from the latin name for flax (linum) and the Greek one, too (linon). Sometimes, people think they get to call cotton or hemp fabrics “linens” if they’re woven the same way, but we all know who the real linen is. Way back when, linen was actually used for currency in Northern Africa.

Though we can’t bring strips of linen to the bar to cover our cocktails, we can sew some pretty awesome stuff… that is, if we know what we’re doing. 

The quilt below uses a variety of fabrics including (cotton broadcloth, poplin, denim, flannel aaaaaand....)​ linen as the background fabric. This linen specifically is Essex Yarn Dyed by Robert Kaufman.

Linen Quilt

Special Attractions

Remember during our last stop, poplin got dubbed a “forgiving fabric?” Well, linen isn’t as forgiving. It holds a grudge. Don’t get me wrong, linen is lovely and versatile and attractive, just like that boss you had at that company you used to work for. But just like that same boss, linen can be hard to work with, especially when you throw water on her… er… it.

Let’s just get it out there: linen is prone to shrinking, bleeding, and unraveling, so if we want to be satisfied with our finished product, we’re going to want to do this thing right – that means taking care when we’re piecing our quilt, and being super vigilant when finishing our seams. Yes, I said “our.” I love your quilts as if they were my own.

So let’s pack like we’re on a mission… because we are: sew the best damn linen quilt this side of the Mississippi (you know, whatever side you’re on.)

how-to-sew-linen

What to Pack

Let’s start with the good news: thin linens are a breeze to cut. Get out that rotary cutter and your very favorite self-healing mat, and get to work.

Now, if you’re me, you like to do some good, clear marking on your fabric so you can measure twice, and cut once. Here’s our first bit of bad news: marking pencils might not do the trick on linen because of its texture. The marks just aren’t sharp enough, and they can be hard to remove. Test your marking tools on some fabric scraps first, and adjust your methods accordingly.

Okay, back to some good news! Linen actually gets along pretty awesome with sewing machines. It’s not too slippery and doesn’t stretch a ton. You can use your typical quilting thread and a universal needle on your machine.

The best thing to pack when getting ready to have an encounter with linen is a good attitude. Get ready to put in some extra effort, and some extra time, to make sure this project is one that will last (and not fall apart when you wash it.) It’ll be worth it.

The Itinerary

Here we go! I know I made linen sound all dark and scary, but now that we have the right gear and the right attitude, we’re going to be fine. Let’s follow the map:

  1. Prewash. With regular quilting cotton I can get a little lazy when it comes to prewashing. When I sew with linen, however, I know it’s important. The stuff shrinks. A lot. And that can be disastrous if you wash after instead of before. Just wash before. Stop asking so many questions.​
  2. Don't Iron Too Much. Linen is one of those fabrics that gets shiny when it’s over-ironed. If you like that bright, shiny, happy look, then go for it, but if you’d rather have linen's natural sheen, finger press your seams down, then lightly press each seam with your iron for a few second. If that's not working for you and you really like your seams good and flat, try using a pressing cloth too.
  3. Shorten Your Stitch Length. To prevent puckering, use a nice and short stitch length when sewing with linen. Go ahead and do a test on scraps first, too. It never hurts (unless, of course, you’re talking about Scraps, my dog. Don’t test anything on her.)
  4. Be Generous with Your Seam Allowance. Don’t be stingy with your allowance like my mom was with my allowance in the 80’s. Linen unravels guys! Don’t say I didn’t warn you! If you're one of those quilters who religiously uses a scant ¼" seam, linen will be a challenge. You don't have to get crazy, but definitely bump that up to a generous ¼" seam. If it won't throw off your quilt math too much, try bumping it up to a ½" for extra seam strength.

Famous Locals

Bow & Arrows, Me! (Suzy)

linen-binding
Modern-Linen-Quilt
Shot-Cotton-Quilt

​Two words. Linen. Binding. This one may seem a little like cheating, but hear me out. Even though the majority of this quilt uses woven cotton and poplin, the linen binding is what brings the texture of the design together. Since quilts are 3-dimensional and not 2-dimensional, a challenge as a quilter I sometimes forget is to remember that THIRD dimension – the feeeeeel and fold of the quilt. 

Late last year (2016) I made a resolution to dive deeper into traditional quilting theology and use fabric outside of the modern quilting canon. In layman's terms, I was going to use fabric that wasn't quilt-weight cotton broadcloth (Hence the whole reason for these quilty adventure blog posts.)​.

As a modern, minimal quilt designer I am trying more and more to challenge my designs to not just incorporate more texture and dimension but neeeeed more texture and dimension in order to look fully finished and unified.

Guys, I realize I'm starting to ramble here and you may be asking yourself, "where is she going with this...?"

SO, I'll wrap up this TED texture talk by remembering our quilting ancestors. Utilizing texture was second nature to them – cast-off clothing, tablecloths, even old quilts were being cut up and recycled continually. In a modern world of flatscreen TVs, tablets and smooth tech surfaces, shouldn't we textile artists be enhancing our quilts with more texture and dimension than ever? 

Just a thought ;)​


Indigo Dyed Half Square Triangles, Jen Beeman

Belgian-Linen-Quilt

​Inspired by indigo floor tiles, Jen and her mother hand-dyed some luscious Belgian linen to make this stunning quilt.


Essex Linen Hourglass, Beech Tree Lane Handmade

Essex-Linen-Quilt

​Elaine from Beech Tree Lane Handmade takes the simplicity of the hourglass block and elevates it by adding the subtle texture of linen. In her blog post (link above) she talks more about her process and tips for working specifically with Essex Linen. 


Before You Check Out

Now that we’ve been through linen together, I feel like we can do anything. You and I can take on the fabric world! We have one more stop on our quilty adventure, and I can’t wait to finish up this wonderful trip with you. It’s been a blast. You’re the best. That mixtape you made for the ride really pumped me up. Friends forever.

Suzy Quilts

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7 thoughts on “A Quilty Adventure Part VI: How to Sew with Linen

  1. karen s says:

    Suzy, this is a terrific series! Bow and Arrows is a gorgeous quilt! I’ve got to try some linen in a quilt, now that I’ve seen how much it adds. I need to make myself some linen pants for my daughter’s wedding 🙂 and the last time I sewed with linen–in the 60’s–I made a lined linen dress and I think it weighed about 15 pounds! So some questions:
    1. Cool water wash? With/without detergent?
    2. Hang or dryer dry?
    3. Do I need to finish the seams? Zigzag, . . .? (Don’t have a serger 🙁
    Looking forward to the last in your series. I’ve sewn for over 5 decades, and I’ve learned something new in every one of your posts. Thanks so much!

    • Suzy says:

      Hi Karen! I’m so happy to hear that you are enjoying this series. I’ve learned a ton too!
      1. Even though linen has a reputation for being heavy and unraveling, it’s pretty tough and can take the heat of your washer and dryer. I would probably prewash with warm water and a little bit of detergent, then throw it in the dryer on a regular setting. If that makes you nervous, hang drying would be fine too.
      2. Both would work great.
      3. Technically…yes, that’s a really smart idea, especially if you plan on using your linen for garments. I did not include that in my list because 1) it would totally freak out quilters (hahaha) and 2) quilt seams don’t have to be as durable as garment seams, so quilters can get away with a 1/4″ – 1/2″ seam without total disintegration. Most quilters, too, are probably sewing with a linen/cotton blend rather than 100% linen.

      Hope that helped! xo

  2. Hayley says:

    Ahhh I was hoping that you would have a linen series. Did a quick google search and you where right there first in line.

    Question. I got a whole bunch of beautiful linen fabric samples. I am dying to attempt a quilt or something with them. Would you stick with bigger pieces or would they work ok with blocks with more smaller pieces sewed together??

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      Let me respond to your question with a question, is it a linen blend, lightweight or heavy? A lot of fabric manufacturers have started producing “linen for quilters” and it’s a light-weight linen blend. That stuff you can treat very similarly to quilt-weight broadcloth. The thicker stuff is a bit more complicated. The smallest I have cut heavy linen for piecing is 1″ wide strips (which is still pretty small). I finger press the seam down and then place a pressing cloth or piece of cotton on top – then hit it fast and hot with the iron. That works well to keep seams flat and in place.

  3. Hayley says:

    Some of it is 100% linen, some are a jute and cotton blend. Or just a linen and cotton blend. Most are light weight to medium weight.

  4. Nicola says:

    I’ve just been given an Irish Linen bedsheet and would like to incorporate it into a quilt to give back to the donor! Would I be better to applique cotton “patches” onto it or use the linen sheet as the backing fabric? I’ve only handsewn a Hexi quilt top til now!

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      Depending on the pattern of the linen and the look you are going for, you really could do anything. Linen is pretty versatile, so most things you can do with quilting cotton you can also do with linen.

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