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.

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Read More From Our Quilty Adventures!

WELCOME TO LINEN​

Warning: Watch for Unraveling​

How to Sew with Linen: 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. 

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

How to Sew with 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.

sew-with-linen

42 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

      • Eve says:

        Does it need to be tumble dried as part of prewashing, or will simply washing it in the machine be enough to limit nasty surprises when the quilt it done? I don’t buy huge cuts of fabric, and they already come out of the machine (in those mesh bags, don’t worry) looking pretty frayed and tangly around the edges, so I’ve always assumed I should whisk them off to the clothes horse before that gets any worse. Plus wouldn’t they come out more creased? But since I’m planning to start working with fabrics that shrink more, flannel and linen and such (does corduroy do this? Could you write about corduroy?), I don’t know if I should change my washing routine.

          • Eve says:

            But do I then run the risk of getting nasty shrinkage when I machine wash and tumble dry the finished quilt? I’d rather lose a bit to fraying now than have months of work messed up later.

            My collection of linen blends, flannels and needlecords is growing nicely, and I just received a metre of a really beautiful Robert Kaufman herringbone flannel in soft orange, which I’m planning to use for backing a wheelchair quilt. Also I am planning to start a quilt blog, so watch this space!

  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.

  5. Giulia says:

    Fantastic! I’m glad to have stumbled across this post on quilting with linen. I think I want to make a super simple piece from 6″ squares for my master bed. Thanks for the detailed challenges to watch out for!

  6. Xanthe says:

    Love your writing! So, I sewed some patchwork cushions a while back using vintage linen. As it was vintage I didn’t know what type of linen it actually was, but boy was it a slippery little sucker! I have a feeling it might have been a silk linen (is there even such a thing!?!?!). I had to starch the heck out of it to get it to behave better and even then I was just about tearing my hair out. Slippery and very fray-ee (that is most definitely a thing 😂). But the finished product was well worth every ounce of pain and anguish during the sewing process!

  7. Violet says:

    Hi There,
    I’ve been saving up linen for about a year now for a “down the road”, quilt I want to make. I am even more excited now that I’ve read your short article. I’ve gathered most of it via clothing that I’ve picked up from yard sales, thrift stores, estate sales, etc. Finding a linen skirt is golden as there is a lot of fabric in a skirt. I’ve found some beautiful colors too. I just wanted to pass along this very cheap way to gather some linen pieces to sew. I know your readers can turn it into a quilted masterpiece!

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  9. sheryl says:

    Hey thanks a lot for this, Suzy! I recently acquired 2 Alfred Shaheen hand printed Hawaiian linen panels and as a quilter, i naturally thought “how can i quilt with these?” so i searched and here you are.

    Any recommendations for working with a large swath of it? the panels are very large (and lovely).

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  12. Lisa Marriott says:

    Oh no…I am an inexperienced quilter, but have been sewing for years. I have your glitter glow quilt pattern and I’m making the king size!! AND… some of my fabric is linen (fabric number 1). I have started cutting and only now read your post about pre-washing. I’m about half way through my cutting. Should I just stick with the non-washed linen now? Oh Dear Ö

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      First off, a linen king sized quilt sounds beautiful! And don’t fret, all is not lost. Do you know if your fabric is 100% linen or is it a linen blend? If it’s a blend, it won’t fray much more than your normal quilting fabric. If it’s 100% linen, just handle it with lots of care and I suggest using a Tailor’s Clapper to get the seams really flat so they don’t get over handled.

      Once the quilt top is finished, quilt it relatively densely. The denser the quilting the more stable all of your piecing will be (= less likely to split any seams.) After the quilt is finished, I then suggest washing it by hand, just to be extra safe. Since it’s a king you won’t need to wash it very often. Here’s a post that should hep – https://suzyquilts.com/wash-and-care-for-a-quilt/

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  14. Eve says:

    I’m planning to try different fabrics, including linen blend, and also a tailor’s clapper on your recommendation. Your article series is being immensely helpful. I know that flannels can end up pilling, which I’m anxious to avoid. I spotted one of the Robert Kaufman Shetland flannels in a picture on this post, the herringbone one in teal. How have you found it? I’ll be prewashing and using 1/2″ seams, and I also sew everything by hand. I’m planning to try improv quilting, too.

      • Eve says:

        Excellent! Which other heavy fabrics could you recommend, for sewing by hand? I’ve found a place selling lovely needlecord in lots of colours, that’s the first thing I’m going for. Cautiously looking at the linen/cotton blends as well, though how soft do they end up? The only linen blend I’m familiar with is the linen/viscose mix summer trousers I always buy. The plan is to combine these fabrics with cotton batting to make a heavier quilt, without going full-on weighted blanket.

        For quilting, I’m getting very fond of crow’s feet stitching, which is a hybrid between quilting and tying. You do little fly stitches, say at 2″ intervals, and use a long needle to travel the thread between the layers in between. So much quicker and easier, works well with perle 8, and I’m having fun working out the design possibilities.

          • Eve says:

            Goodness, I wonder why people keep thinking I don’t know how to quilt when I say I’m trying crow’s feet stitching. I’ve joked that I now have enough quilting rosettes to make a very small costume! But my disabilities are worse, and my hands aren’t coping well with traditional quilting. I’ve nearly finished requilting a bedspread with crow’s feet quilting, however, and it’s going very well. I’ve found one quilter online, Sarah Kaufman, who’s had to modify her techniques due to arthritis, and she’s doing crow’s feet stitching as well. I’m currently planning big spirals with it, with colours shading within the spirals.

            I’m planning to make a heavy quilt because I think my partner and I would, both find the weight soothing, plus I’m in lvor with all these textured fabrics. I’m just trying to work out where my limits lie with quilting them.

          • Eve says:

            Lovely tutorial and quilts, I’ll use some of those patterns for design ideas, and I adore the small dog photobombing the pictures.

            It’s not that I don’t know how to quilt, I’ve won rosettes for my quilting. My disabilities are getting worse, and right now quilting is too hard on my hands. Crow’s feet stitching turns out to be far more manageable, so I am exploring the design possibilities. So far I’ve found people talking about it a bit as a tradition, a few photos of people using it as an alternative to tying in a very basic way, and only one quilter using it in a slightly artier way. Sarah Kaufman, she adapted her techniques due to arthritis. Still not as fancy as I’m planning to get, though!

            I’ve been requilting one bedspread so far, which I made as a newbie years ago and didn’t quilt densely enough, leading to lots of repairs. Nothing exciting, it’s just strips of diamonds and I’m doing eight stitches inside each, matching the fabrics, but it’s allowed me to sort out my technique. For the next quilt, which is more strongly and variably patterned for the piecing, I’m planning to stitch in spirals and shade thr thread colours.

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  16. Misty says:

    Hooray! Thank you for this post! I’ve just finished piecing a quilt top using some vintage cotton 9-patch blocks and linen sashing (I prewashed and dried.). I’m about to cut the backing out of linen and am wondering if it matters which direction I orient the fabric. Since it’s a wide piece and the quilt is crib size, I could easily just use the width, but I wasn’t sure if it mattered. Does that make sense?

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  18. Julia says:

    I have never sewn with linen before but I just got a bunch of Robert Kaufman Essex Linen. I want to use for a quilt top and backing. I know they are a linen cotton blend but I am unsure if I should prewash. I have never prewashed quilt fabric before and my fear is I will ruin my fabric. I have a top load washer, does that make a difference? I also don’t want too much shrinking especially because I am unsure how dense the quilting will be. I’m feeling intimidated by linen haha.

  19. Emily Kiely says:

    Hi Suzy, you’re the best! When using linen in a quilt – would you recommend only using linen in the quilt or can I mix using just normal cotton fabric as well?? I’m a newbie and scared to mess anything up!

    Thank you. Love your blog, patterns, and insta stories! 🙂

  20. Kelsey says:

    What about using linen for a backing? I found a really pretty piece in the print I want. But it’s linen! I don’t know if that’s a good idea??

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