How to Sew: Historical Seam Finishes

There were many ways of sewing and finishing seams in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, and there are probably as many variations as there are people who have ever sewn a garment, but these are some that are relatively common, and which I have found useful.

Three of these seam types (Mantua Maker’s, English stitch, and the Stacked seam) exist to save time by allowing the stitcher to sew a seam and finish the raw edges all in one go. Before the sewing machine, techniques like these saved a ton of time over modern techniques like bag lining, because they allow the dressmaker to sew each seam only once, rather than twice (once for the fabric and once for the lining).

Flat Felled Seams

Best for seams with no linings

A flat felled seam is sewn along the seamline with running stitch or backstitch. One side of the seam allowance is then trimmed down; then the longer seam allowance is wrapped around the shorter seam allowance and hemmed to the fabric. This encases all the raw edges within the seam allowance, and keeps the allowances flat against the fabric. It gives the seam a nice, crisp appearance, but does leave a visible line of tiny stitches along the seamline on the outside. Flat-fells are particularly useful for trousers, breeches, shirts, and shifts, as they are strong and hard-wearing.

Sew your seam as normal by hand or machine and press open.
Press the untrimmed seam allowance over the trimmed one.
Begin stitching so that your knot is inside the folded seam allowance.

Mantua Maker’s Seams

Best for seams with no linings

In a mantua-maker’s seam, the two fabric edges are folded over together twice, and the seam is sewn along the inner edge of the fold. It comes out looking like a hem on the inside, and an ordinary seam on the outside. Best for long skirt seams. It is best done by hand, but can be done on a machine in a pinch.

Working with both pieces of fabric as one, fold the edge a small amount.
Now fold the edge again, so that the raw edges are encased inside the second fold, as if you were preparing to hem.

Hem and Whip

Could be used with or without lining

This is a method by which the pieces are finished individually, and then joined together afterwards. I would recommend this method most for lightweight, lined pieces, but you could also use it in unlined areas, though the hemming would show as a very small row of stitching on the outside of the garment if you use it without a lining. It is especially good for dealing with fabrics that fray easily, as it allows you to eliminate the raw edges before assembling the garment.

Fun Fact: The bodice of my Chemise à la Reine is constructed this way.

Cut your fabric with seam allowance, and your lining without. The example on the left is ready to begin; the example on the right is already finished.
Fold the trimmed corner in so that the fold hits right at the point of the lining.
Fold up the edge of the piece so that the raw edges of the fabric touch the raw edges of the lining.
Fold the edge up again so that the raw edges are encased. Pin in place.

Repeat the mitering process for all corners of your pattern piece, and fold in all of the long edges to match.

You should now have all corners mitered and a hem pinned in place all around your piece.
Your pieces are now ready to be assembled.
Place your pieces right side to right side and pin.

Overcasting

Best for flat-lined areas

This technique is by far the most common to be seen in Victorian era bodices, which are generally flatlined, with the seams pressed open and overcast to the lining. It is not the most beautiful finish, as the raw edges are left visible, though protected. It’s best not to let this bother you–our ancestors were not nearly so bothered about raw edges as we seem to be, and folding the seam allowances over in order to encase the raw edges would create unnecessary bulk in a tightly fitted bodice. This finish also makes it very easy to go in and make small fit adjustments if necessary.

Your pieces are now flatlined, from here on out you will treat the fabric and lining as one.
Start your thread so the knot is underneath the seam allowance. Stitch around the raw edges, catching the lining as you go, but not the outer fabric, so that the seam allowances are held flat against the lining.

“English” Stitch

Sews and finishes fabric and lining concurrently

I use quotes here because this stitch does not have a name that we know from the period as far as I have seen. It has come to be known as the English stitch in much of the historical costuming community. It is best known from this description in the Workwoman’s Guide from 1840:

The mode of sewing these four thicknesses so as to make them lie flatly when opened, is rather peculiar. Take up with your needle, three of the thicknesses, leaving the fourth unsewed. The next stitch, take again three folds, leaving the other outside one unsewed: continue alternately taking up one side and omitting the other, letting the stitches lie close together: when completed, open the seam, and flatten it with the finger and thumb.”

The Workwoman’s Guide, by a Lady, 1840

The edges of each piece (fabrics and linings) are turned under, and stitched in a way that sews all four together with raw edges between the layers. It is a very efficient way to sew fabric and lining, and is very useful for 18th and early 19th century gowns.

Place your fabric pieces right sides together (folded edges out).
Pin your four stacked pieces together.
Make your first stitch from the outside in through one lining and both fabrics. Do not including the final lining in this stitch.
Make your second stitch from the other side, through the lining you didn’t sew last time, and again through both fabrics. Leave the lining you sewed in the first stitch out of the second stitch.

“Stacked” Seam

Sews and finishes fabric and lining concurrently

This one is in quotes because I have no idea whether this technique has a name. It is another one that is useful for lined 18th and early 19th century garments. I also use it for a lot of my cosplays and modern sewing. It again sews the seam at the same time as encasing the raw edges, with the extra advantage that (unlike the English stitch) it can be done by machine as well as by hand. It does leave all four seam allowances running in the same direction, rather than opened out, so consider that when choosing between it and the English stitch. All four fabric thicknesses are stacked in such a way that the seam can be sewn all in one, and the lining and fabric will open out, covering the raw edges and leaving a nice, finished seam. It’s amazing how fast a lined bodice or dress can go together when using this technique.

Fun fact: most of the seams in my Dragonstone Landing dress are sewn this way.

Place your fabric pieces right sides together. In order to save confusion here, the top fabric in this picture is pattern piece A; the bottom is pattern piece B. When the seam is finished, all your seam allowances will point towards the piece in the ‘B’ position. Consider that when you decide what order to stack them in (I generally try to face them towards the back, or if it is a curved seam, towards the outside of the curve so that they can be clipped and not create as much bulk.
Place the wrong side of lining piece A against the wrong side of fabric piece A.
Finally, place the right side of lining B against the right side of lining A. All four of the pieces involved in the seam should now be in your stack: B fabric on bottom, then A fabric, then A lining, then B lining. This can also be achieved by putting your two fabrics right sides together, and then your two linings right sides together, and then placing the lining stack on top of the fabric stack.

There you have it: six different historical methods of sewing and finishing seams.

2 thoughts on “How to Sew: Historical Seam Finishes

  1. Thanks for all the photos and videos that illustrate the stitches. I don’t know how anyone made sense of the 1840 verbal description!

    Like

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