How to Sew Linen from Start to Finish

Linen is one of my favorite fibers to work with, and I’ve made countless items from different types of linen. I have a small army of linen shirts, many pairs of linen trousers, a few linen tops, and even a few linen jackets. I also recently sewed some heavy linen curtains for our kitchen, and I love how they came out. It’s an incredible fiber with unique properties, and by the end of this article, you’ll feel ready to start your first linen project!

  • Linen is easy to mark, sew, and press, as well as being a joy to wear thanks to its breathable and cooling properties. You can mostly use your usual equipment to sew with linen.
  • It’s an absolute must to pretreat your linen by washing it. This will shrink it before you cut your pieces out.
  • Linen fabric is prone to fraying, so you need to pay extra care and attention to finishing your seams and edges properly.
  • Make sure you choose the right weight of linen for your project. The opacity and drape of the fabric will vary greatly depending on its weight and thickness.

Is linen hard to sew?

Linen fabrics are fairly easy to work with: they’re usually not slippery or stretchy, they are easy to press and shape, and easy to mark. 

Some lightweight linens can be shifty, so they require some extra care and attention in the marking and cutting process. In these cases, you might want to cut your fabric in a single layer rather than on-the-fold to get more precise results. 

You’ll also need to make sure you properly finish your seams as linen fabric is prone to fraying, and when left unfinished your final project will not have much longevity or durability.

As with any other fabric, make sure you don’t stretch or pull your fabric as you’re running it through your sewing machine.


Step 1: How to pretreat linen

Most linens have a tendency to shrink when laundered, so it’s a good idea to pre-wash them before you start your sewing project. Some sewists even like to prewash their linens twice to make sure it won’t shrink any further. I pretreat my fabrics in the same way that I plan to treat the finished garments. I want to avoid any surprises after I finish my sewing project. I like to wash my linens at 40C / 104F with detergent and dry them at a high heat in order to get any shrinkage out of the way. 

Tip: Linen fabrics are notoriously wrinkle-prone, but you can help minimize the wrinkles by taking a few additional steps in the laundry / pretreat process.

  • Before you prewash your fabric, give it a good press with a hot, dry iron. This will help set the chemicals the manufacturers put in to help with wrinkle-resistance.
  • Next, wash your fabric as usual, and put it in the dryer.
  • Take it out of the dryer when it’s about 80-90% dry, and press it again with a hot, dry iron. This process will not only give your linen fabric a beautiful, silky smooth look, but it will also help it become a little more resistant to wrinkles. 

Step 2: How to layout pattern pieces & mark linen

Linen fabric usually does not have a nap, so you don’t need to pay attention to which direction you place your pattern pieces – unless you’re working with a directional print.

I like to trace around my pattern pieces using a piece of tailor’s soap, which is a thin sliver of waxy soap used to mark fabric. These soaps and other chalk-based marking tools work best on darker-colored fabrics. If you’re using light-colored linen, you can try using a heat or water erasable fabric marker. For pattern markings that are on the inside of your pattern pieces, you can use chalk or ink-based marking tools, or mark using thread by making tailor’s tacks. 


Step 3: How to cut linen fabric

I prefer to cut my linens using dressmaking shears, but if you prefer using a rotary cutter that would work well too. 

If you’re working with a lightweight, loosely woven, particularly shifty linen, try to cut it in a single layer to get more accurate results. If you’re working with a medium-to-heavy weight, tightly woven, stable linen, cutting it on-the-fold should be alright.


Step 4: How to sew linen projects

Equipment:

You don’t need much special equipment for sewing linen, as it’s an easy, fuss-free type of fabric. You can use your regular marking, cutting, and measuring tools, as well as your regular presser feet. I like using my tailor’s soaps to mark it and my dressmaking shears to cut it.

Sewing machine needles:

Try Universal needles in 3 different sizes depending on the weight of linen you’re working with: a 70/10 for lightweight linens, 80/12 for medium weight linens, and 90/14 for heavyweight linens. 

Hand sewing needles:

Try size 8 Sharps for hand sewing linen, and a longer needle with a cotton thread for hand basting linen.

Thread:

I like to use all-purpose polyester thread for sewing with linen. My brand of choice is Gütermann, but you can use any high-quality brand of thread. I use all-purpose polyester thread for both construction and decorative seams on my linen projects, but if I’m working with a particularly heavyweight linen, I switch to a higher weight topstitching thread for decorative top stitching. 

Sewing machine settings for linen:

  • For the vast majority of construction seams, a straight stitch with a tension of 4 to 4.5 should work beautifully for linen fabrics.
  • I like to use a slightly shorter stitch length of 2 mm for really lightweight linens, the standard 2.5 mm for midweight linens, and a slightly longer length of 3 mm for heavyweight linens.
  • If you’re doing topstitching on linen, remember to use a longer stitch length to get the best results. I prefer using a 2.5 – 3 mm for topstitching on lightweight linens, and 3.5 mm for topstitching on medium to heavyweight linens. 

Pressing linen: 

Linen fabric can handle really high heats. I personally like to use my iron at its highest heat setting when I’m working with linen. It presses beautifully, making it quite easy and enjoyable to work with. 

As with any sewing project, make sure you press your seams as you go for the best-looking results.

Linen is also shapeable by steam, meaning you can manipulate it into conforming to curves by using lots of heat and steam. 

The one thing you need to be careful about when pressing linen is avoiding scorch marks. These are shiny marks that are left on your fabric when you press it using high heat and without a pressing cloth. They’re more apparent on darker-colored fabrics. I like to press my linen projects on the wrong side as much as I can, and I always use a silk organza pressing cloth when I have to press linen from the right side. You can also use a handkerchief weight linen as a pressing cloth for pressing linen. 

If you have deep, stubborn creases on your linen, wet the fabric using a spray bottle before you press it, or you might have a hard time getting those creases out. This is also the reason why I like to press my linen garments when they’re slightly damp.

I love using a wooden clapper for pressing seams on linen. A clapper is a block of unfinished wood that’s placed on fabric after it’s pressed with steam. It absorbs extra moisture and cools the fabric down, giving you beautiful flat seams. If you don’t have a tailor’s clapper, you can do what I do and simply use a small wooden chopping block.

Tips for hand sewing linen:

If you’re planning to hand sew construction seams, I recommend that you condition your thread using some beeswax, and use a short stitch length combined with a shorter needle. The finer the linen, the smaller your stitches should be. 


Step 5: How to finish linen seams & edges

As linen is prone to fraying, you need to pay extra attention to finishing your seams to increase your project’s lifespan. Here are some common seam types and finishes and how they work with different weights of linen fabric:

French seams:

  1. French seams are sewn by first sewing the pieces wrong sides together,
  2. trimming the seam allowance,
  3. and then sewing the same seam with right sides together.

The resulting seam neatly encloses all raw edges, making the inside of your project as beautiful as the outside. It’s a perfect option for light to medium weight linens, but it can lead to too much bulk for heavier weight varieties. 

Flat felled seams:

  1. Flat felled seams are achieved by sewing the two pieces with ⅝” (1.6 mm) seam allowance,
  2. trimming one side to half its width,
  3. wrapping the other side of the seam allowance around the trimmed side,
  4. and topstitching it into place.

It creates a durable, flat, clean-looking seam on the inside and the outside, and it’s perfect for all weights of linen. I especially like to use it for heavier weights, as it creates a little less bulk than some other seam finishes.

Serging (aka. overlocking):

You can clean your seams by simply serging (overlocking) the pieces separately and pressing them open, or serging them together and pressing the seam allowances to one side. While not as clean-looking as the previous two methods, it’s a quick, easy, and effective way of finishing your seams. It creates minimal bulk, making it great for all weights of linen. I love using my serger when I’m sewing linen trousers, as it gives a really flat, smooth appearance on the outside.

Zig-zagging the edges or using pinking shears:

If you don’t have access to a serger (overlocker), you can also try running a zig-zag stitch at the cut edge of your fabric, or cutting your seam allowances using pinking shears. I recommend using these two methods as the last resort, as they’re less effective at stopping frayed edges. 

Bias bound & Hong-Kong seams:

You can use some pre-made or home-made bias tape to finish your seam allowances for a decorative look on the inside of your garment, and a really durable finish. These methods are especially good for linen projects that use heavier weight fabrics and that are unlined.

If you’re planning to use these methods on a lighter-weight linen, I suggest making your own bias tape at home using a lightweight linen, as most store-bought options are made from a slightly thicker cotton or cotton-polyester blend.


Step 6: How to hem linen garments

You need to be careful about using a durable hemming method to make sure your project is durable against wear and tear. Here are some common hemming options that you can use for linen:

Single turn hem:

You can finish the cut edge of your fabric by serging (overlocking) or bias binding it, and then turning your hem allowance up once and stitching it into place. This is a great option for heavier weights, as it minimizes bulk – just make sure you properly finish the cut edge so it doesn’t fray. To secure the hem into place, you use your sewing machine at a longer stitch length, or sew a catch stitch by hand for an invisible finish.

Double turn hem:

Alternatively, you can simply turn your hem allowance up, and tuck the cut edge of the fabric in, creating a double fold hem. This creates a durable hem with no chance of fraying, and it’s a great option for light to medium weight linens. Similar to the single turn hem, you can use machine or hand stitches to secure it into place, depending on the look you’re going for. 


Tips for sewing buttonholes on linen fabric

Sewing buttonholes on linen fabric is fairly straightforward. Even the heavyweight linens are not as thick as, say, wool coatings, so it’s usually easy to machine sew buttonholes on them. 

If you’re working with a loosely woven linen, lower the stitch length in your buttonhole settings so that the fabric doesn’t fray around the buttonholes.


Quick Q&A’s about linen:


Does linen shrink when washed?

Linen is prone to shrinking when washed, so pre-washing your linen fabric before you start cutting it is important to make sure the finished garment fits correctly.


How do you tell the right side of linen?

Many linens look identical on both sides, so you can decide which side you prefer and use that as the right side. I recommend marking this side so you don’t get mixed up during the sewing process.


Does linen have a nap?

Most linens do not have a nap. A nap is when a fabric has a raised surface or pile that goes in one direction. It will look different colors in different directions, so it’s important to cut your pattern pieces in the same direction if the fabric has a nap.


What weight of linen is best for dresses?

Depending on the style of dress you want to sew, you can use all weights of linen:

  • Lightweight linens look beautiful on dresses with a lot of volume – think densely gathered skirts and a loose-fitting bodice. They don’t work best on tighter fitting garments, and you might need to line your dress if the fabric is too sheer for your taste and comfort level.
  • Midweight linens are incredibly versatile, and they’re suitable for most dress styles. They work great for shirt dresses, shift dresses, tent dresses, wrap dresses, and so on.
  • Heavy weight linens are ideal for more tailored dress styles, as they have the necessary structure to give the dress shape. A heavy weight linen would look beautiful as a sheath dress.

Should you line linen pants (aka. trousers)?

Some people do not line their linen trousers because they like how linen garments feel against their skin, especially in warm weather. Linen is a naturally cool-feeling fabric that doesn’t feel scratchy, so a lining isn’t necessary for comfort reasons. 

Linen does, however, have a tendency to grow and sag when worn. You might find that certain parts of your linen trousers can get a little baggy, like the knees and butt. Lining your linen trousers may help with this issue.

Many light-colored linens also tend to be semi-transparent, in which case a lining would be required. Hold your linen against the light to see if it’s opaque enough for the project you have in mind.


Best interfacing for linen?

The rule of thumb when it comes to choosing interfacing is to use a lighter-weight interfacing than your fabric. The closer your interfacing looks and feels like the fabric, the better it will work with your sewing project. Another thing you should be careful about is the openness of the weave of your linen. When working with an open-weave, loosely woven linen, the glue on the fusible interfacing may leak out and show its texture on the outside. To avoid this, consider getting a lightweight sew-in interfacing. 



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This article was written by Nisan Aktürk and edited by Sara Maker.

Nisan Aktürk (author)
Nisan started her sewing journey in December 2019 and already has a fully handmade wardrobe. She’s made 50+ trousers, 20+ buttoned shirts, and a wide array of coats, jackets, t-shirts, and jeans. She’s currently studying for her Sociology Master’s degree and is writing a thesis about sewing. So she spends a lot of her time either sewing or thinking/writing about sewing! Read more…


Sources

These sources were referenced in May 2022.