Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hand-Finishing a Garment

I, like many modern medieval sewers, often use my sewing machine to sew the pieces of my dresses together. These are referred to as the "construction" seams, and are, for the most part, considered "non-visible" since the thread used for these seams is not seen. While it's possible to sew and entire dress by machine (construction and finishing), this doesn't provide the hand-made quality that gives the garment a medieval character. So once the garment is assembled into its raw form, whether by machine or by hand, I will do most of the rest of the work, the finishing, by hand.

Despite the vast array of hand-stitching techniques in use in the middle ages, I actually only use the basics. Running stitch is great for many needs, but I also use hem stitch for hemming and other similar types of securing, whip stitch around eyelets, and buttonhole stitch for... you know... buttonholes.

Seam Finishing

In the past, before my dresses became super tight, I used a "clean finish" technique. To clean finish a seam, the two seam allowances are pressed open to their respective sides of the construction seam. The raw edges are turned under and the allowances are stitched down. I would usually use running stitch for that.

Clean finishing means the outer fabric will show on the inside.
This is a great technique, and is a pretty easy way of going about finishing a seam. On the outside of the outfit, you'll have two lines of stitches on either side of the seam, which provides a pretty nice symmetrical look. The biggest problem with this seam finish is that it doesn't make the seam any stronger. It is designed only to finish the seam allowances. This is perfect for seams that won't be under stress. The other problem is that all the seam finishing needs to be done twice on every seam- once on each side.

A clean finished seam from the outside.
To create a stronger seam for tighter garments, I use "flat felling". To complete this technique, one side of the seam allowances is trimmed in half. Then the other side is folded over it, and the whole thing is tacked down. Trimming the one side reduces bulk in the seam, but I have certainly skipped that step on garments that use thinner material, such as linen or lightweight wool, where bulk isn't actually a problem. Here again, the finished allowance can be tacked down with running stitch. If I want to over-engineer the seam, I'll use hemming stitch instead.

Flat felling a seam
Flat-felling is the strongest type of seam finishing. Its strength comes from the spreading of the tension on the seam across the entire finishing- from the original construction stitching to the tacking stitches. When sewn with even, tight stitches, with flat felled seams, the fabric of the garment is more likely to give and rip than for the seam to pop.

A finished flat felled seam using hem stitch.
When it comes to gores, I have found that flat felling works the best. When the seam hits the gore point, it's fairly easy to tuck the allowances in such a way that the gore seams can radiate out from that point. It's easiest to do this if all the seam finishing lays in the same direction.

When working with a fulled wool, folding under is usually not necessary in seam finishing, since folding under is meant to conceal raw edges that may fray. When deciding on how you'll finish the seam, take a look at how the cut edges behave.


How I finish a neckline depends a lot on whim, but I use one of two techniques. The most straight-forward method is to simply turn the neckline under two times and use a hem stitch to tack it down. On the tighter portions of the curves, usually over the shoulders, the allowance needs to be carefully clipped to be turned under and still lay flat. If I can't get the hem stitches to look neat and even, I'll use a running stitch. This is only an option, however, when I've got a good amount of seam allowance. Otherwise, I have to use a tight hem stitch to keep the raw edges from working their way out over time.

A narrow linen facing on the neckline of a wool dress.
The second method I use (and I use this more often these days) is to use some type of binding.I've used bias tape, woven twill tape, and strips of left over cloth (the selvedge edge works nicely) for this. This technique is great when there is either too little seam allowance to turn the hem under twice, or when turning under twice is too bulky (usually happens with plush wool flannels). There is also period evidence of silk facings used in this manner from the later medieval London finds. The tape is laid on the right side of the garment and sewn to the edge of the neckline (just a little bit in- about 1/8"), then the tape is folded into the inside, and sewn down. Running stitches around the neckline stabilize it and add detail.

Either of these same techniques can be used for sleeve cuffs.


I will almost always leave the hem finishing for last. In a lot of cases, that brings me down to the wire before an event, and I end up using the sewing machine to complete the hem. I'm actively working on timing the project better to sew the hem by hand instead.

Hem ready for hand sewing. The edges have been turned under twice and pinned.
The easiest method of hemming, after cutting the garment's edge down to a smooth curve all the way around, is to double fold the edge in and stitch down using either running stitch (not as good) or hem stitch (what it's designed for).

Hem with facing (I have the skirt turned up- you can see the skirt's bottom edge in the center of the photo).
I have also used a facing on the hem in one case where the lining material didn't go down far enough. The facing covers up that mistake, but it also gave the skirt some weight, producing a nice drape.

Other Openings

On my dresses, I'll have openings that need finishing where I'm going to add buttons and lacing. I try to plan these areas out when I'm in the layout/cutting stage by cutting the seam allowances for the openings wider (usually about 1.25" minimum) than my typical 3/4" seam allowance. This allows me to fold the extra seam allowances in to create a self-facing. This doubled (or sometimes tripled) section creates a sturdy zone for the extra finishing, and also helps the garment handle the strain of a tight fit (usually in laced areas). When I can't achieve this self-facing for some reason, I'll use the same technique describe above in the Neckline section, using a separate piece of cloth.

A front opening with a linen facing on the inside.
To finish these sections, I'll treat them the same as one side of a clean finished seam by folding under the raw edge and tacking it down with running or hem stitch. I'll also top stitch the edge of the opening to strengthen and define it.

Top stitching right along the edge of an opening.


I measure out the distance between eyelets, and mark the spots with either a chalk mark or a fine pen dot. For the most part, I eyeball the distance away from the edge, but I could measure that out too if I wanted to be really precise. I don't usually go any closer together than 1" with these dots. The further apart they are, the more gaping or rippling you'll get at the opening. (Yes. I learned that the hard way.)

Sewing eyelets open. You can faintly see the black placement dots on the ones I haven't done yet.

To create the eyelet holes, I use an eyelet awl. I have a small bone one, but recently purchased a new wooden one that widens the hole a bit more. The hole needs to be larger than the finished eyelet. Partly that's because the thread will take up some space, but it's also because, as you work the eyelet, the hole will close a bit. It can take some time before I'm able to get all my finished eyelets to be the same size, so I start the process at the bottom of the opening. By the time I'm at the top, I've gotten into the zone and the eyelets are much better and more consistent. Also, I punch the hole one at a time and I go along sewing. Otherwise, the holes just close up and I'd have to open them again anyway.

I don't prefer my eyelets to contrasting or overly visible, and there isn't any great need to completely encase the opening, so I use a simple overcast stitch around the hole to keep the eyelet open. Then I do a knot to secure the eyelet and pass my needle between the layers of the dress up to the next hole. There's some thread waste in the method, but the payoff is that you only have a few thread endings along the line.


I mark buttonholes with a fine pen. Here again, I measure the spaces between the slits, and I use a stitch gauge to measure consistent slit lengths. I try to aim for about 1/4" away from the edge. Unlike modern machined buttonholes, period holes are opened before they are sewn. This is a little nerve-racking, but unless you really stop paying attention to what you are doing, most of the time you won't have irreparable mistakes.

I use a sharp pair of scissors and cut the slit as straight as I possibly can. Especially on fabrics that fray, if the slit isn't straight, I'll have a harder time getting it all encased in the finishing. I use La Cotte Simple's buttonhole method to sew the holes using silk if I can or a thicker thread, such as pearl cotton. I have found that using buttonhole stitch instead of blanket stitch has vastly improved the look and quality of my buttonholes.

Of course, before making buttonholes, be sure you know your buttons will fit. You can see how I make self-stuffed fabric buttons here.

And after all that, I have a hand-finished dress!

For me, going through these hand-finishing steps takes my garb from costume to clothing, and the investment I make in the effort is paid back in the finished look and quality.


  1. Those are awesome buttonholes! I literally gasped as I scrolled past them. Well done, your hand finishing is absolutely lovely!

  2. Excellent information.

    Have you thought of trying chisels for your buttonholes? I couldn't afford proper pinking chisels but just bought some bevel-edged wood chisels of appropriate width (I have 1/2" and 5/8") and they make cutting a neat hole for buttonholes so much easier. :)

    1. I actually just bought a chisel set at Pennsic, but I haven't had a chance to use them yet. I'm looking forward to giving them a go.