A passion shared

Linen Love

Fall in love with linen fabric

Linen is my choice for all my own stitching, I wear linen clothes, have linen furnishings and thus spend much of my time clutching a steam iron. As many treasures start with linen, I feel it deserves a section all its own.

Linen treasures

Amongst my treasures you will find various little pieces of loveliness made from, or incorporating, linen fabric. I love to visit vintage and brocante fairs when I can and sometimes come home with a real find – last time it was the most wonderful antique linen sheet in perfect condition. I am still not quite sure what I am going to turn it into – gorgeous pincushions or will it be cushions for the house? What a luxurious crisis of indecision…

Living with linen

I love the way linen lends itself to so many different ideas and can be enjoyed all around the house.

I have lots of linen furnishings here at home with raw linen curtains in one room and beautifully embellished ones in another. I bought some embroidered linen from India to make curtains for the new barn at the back of the house. This in itself is a story because I bought 28 metres of linen that had been embroidered by one family. They quite literally started the embroidery at one end of the fabric and finished at the end with no planned pattern repeats but stitched with the same colour palette. Just beautiful! The curtains are lovely but matching the pattern was out of the question.

The joy of stitching on linen

It was entirely a fluke that I learned to stitch on linen before I know that aida fabric existed. It was just the fabric sample I was given in early 1983 when I spent a day learning to transfer stitches from a chart to a piece of fabric. As a result, this is a love affair that shows no signs of abating.

As a stitcher, I use what is called ‘evenweave’ linen. It is woven with the same number of threads across and down the fabric ensuring that when your stitches are made, they will be square. This does not mean it has a smooth and uniform appearance – all those characterful slubs are still there.
I look at my old samplers, some from early 18th century, and you can see that the linens used were certainly not evenweave and this creates some very interesting shapes and motifs. If you stitch a rabbit on non-evenweave fabric you can make a hare!

For more information about stitching on linen, visit The Cross Stitch Guild

Linen samplers

Mary Fowler

Dutch Darning sampler

Mary Hubbard

I still find it difficult to imagine children as young as eight, working away at some fine embroidery for hours at a time. When you consider poor nutrition, no electricity, rough needles and complete lack of equipment, it is even more incredible that these beautiful pieces of stitching were completed at all. During the 30 years I have been designing and stitching, I still love to work traditional samplers on unbleached linen, attempting to emulate the standard and excellence of those long-gone school-age children.

Making the most of linen

One of the lovely things you can do with linen fabric is cut and drawn thread work, which I am glad to say is simple to do but looks very clever indeed. Linen is used particularly for pulled thread embroidery because you are creating patterns by pulling the thread tight and creasing the fabric. 

As I have mentioned linen creases and will stay creased – a great benefit for some of my favourite techniques. Try my Little Book of Hardanger for my guide to trying a very effective technique.

Trying linen threads

In addition to stitching on linen, you can also stitch with linen threads. They have a natural matt finish, perfect for a vintage look. They are also very strong, making them ideal for pulled stitches. I like to combine them with cotton threads, such as ‘flower thread’ and standard stranded cotton (floss), which has a natural sheen to it. If you are used to working with the latter, linen threads might feel a little stiffer to stitch with.

For linen threads, talk to Tanja of Linladan, a fellow Finder of Treasures if ever there was one. She has an archive of 1960’s embroidery designs and has created a contemporary range of linen threads to work with them. (She also creates ‘Treasure Boxes’ containing vintage and modern treats. Resistance is futile…) She releases amazing new colours, so do keep visiting her site.

Linen thread tends to be non-divisible (unlike stranded cotton that divides neatly into six). A neat trick to test the suitability of thread for your base fabric is to pull a strand from the edge of your fabric and match this to the thickness of the thread you intend to use.

What is linen made of?

This natural fabric is made from the fibres of the flax plant, ‘Linum usitatissimum’ if you want to show off. It grows in a variety of countries around the world. Fields of blue flowering flax are becoming a more common sight in the UK, but these are grown to produce linseed oil rather than textiles. Linen fibres are made from the entire length of the straw-brown flax stem, so the crop must be pulled rather than cut, and the processing is labour-intensive and expensive.

Linen has certainly stood the test of time.

There is evidence in Switzerland of flax working as far back as 8,000BC, and linen cloths were discovered in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs. It is the strongest natural fibre, and is recognised by its characteristic coolness, smoothness and sheen. The irregularity of the individual threads can still be seen in even the finest linens.

How flax becomes fabric

Before I started this new venture, I was the MD of the Cross Stitch Guild for over 20 years. As a result, I spent some time travelling to see where our materials were made. I have seen linen being woven on the vast looms at the Zweigart and Sawitski factory near Stuttgart on five occasions and it is always fascinating to watch.

Linens for embroidery are treated quite differently to that of furnishing fabric and that woven for clothing. In addition to seeing wide bolts of linen I have been lucky enough to visit Vaupel and Heilenbeck in Wuppertal and seen beautiful linen bands being created. This linen band can vary from dainty ribbon styles to broad widths to fold into pockets and all manner of projects. The edges are ready finished in several plain and fancy styles.

Take a look at The Cross Stitch Guild for a selection of kits and linen bands available by the metre.

The vast looms at Zweigart and Sawitski

Linen bands being woven at Vaupel and Heilenbeck

Join me for a quick linen class