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.


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.

2019 Year in Review and Plans for The Year of the Stash

Happy New Year, everyone!

I was a little disappointed at first when I looked back at the posts from this year and realized how few there were, but it was a good time to remind myself that this was a crazy year, and that’s ok! I only completed three major projects, plus a few smaller ones, but all three are things I’m extremely proud of. Sometimes I forget that quality is better than quantity (and also fits better in my little house!). I think back to a few years ago, when it seemed like I was cranking something out every week or two, but then I remember that the things I’m making are becoming ever more complex and time consuming!

It was also a weird year for starting one project, and then having something else more urgent come up, so hopefully this year I will have time to go back and revisit some of the things that had to drop off the schedule in 2019.

So let me take a minute to look back at the things I made this year, and check in on a few UFOs (un-finished objects) that may pop up again in 2020!

Daenerys Dragonstone Dress

Photo by Alexandra Lee Studios, Wig by Custom Wig Company

Actually, looking back, this is the reason I only got three big projects done! Meet the dress that, in my hubris, I thought I could crank out in a month or two, and which then took nearly half the year to make! That’s what I get for being an embroidery nut…

I started the corset for this outfit in January, and over the course of the next five-and-a-bit months made the dress, cape, boot covers, wig, ring, and hairpiece. I have also now made leggings to go under it. In this photo I was just wearing black jeans. As much as it frustrated me at times, and as many times as I was tempted to just throw in the towel, I’m really thrilled with how it turned out, and glad that I pushed through. You can read all about it here.

Checked Silk Waistcoat

This waistcoat is the only other thing that I managed to complete during the five month Daenerys marathon! I got Brandon the fabric from Burnley & Trowbridge for his birthday in December, and I wanted him to have a nice, new waistcoat to wear to the winter ball at Locust Grove in February. The waistcoat is all handsewn, and pairs great with our 1820s outfits! It’s one of too many things this year that haven’t gotten a write up on the blog.

UFO: Yellow 1780s Stays

And here we come to the first un-finished object of the year. I had, of course, intended to start these stays much sooner than I did, but then my life was subsumed by the Mother of Dragons. I don’t care for my current 18th century stays at all–they’re too large and not very flattering. I made a valiant effort to complete these in order to wear them with the next project, but ran out of time. In the end, I had to drop the stays for the time being so that I could finish my new chemise à la Reine in time to wear it to Jane Austen Festival along with the other Custom Wig Company ladies.

I cannot wait to get these babies done this year! All the boning channels are sewn (by hand!), so really, the worst is over.

Cork-Stuffed Rump

My old rump was looking pretty sad and deflated, so I really amped things up! Learn how to make your own stuffing out of used wine corks here:

Chemise à la Reine

Photo by Lisa Renee Wilson, Wig by Custom Wig Company
Jewelry by Dames a la Mode

This was a project I’ve been excited to make for a while! For years at Custom Wig Company we’ve talked about doing a set of coordinated chemise dresses to wear to the Jane Austen Festival, and this year we finally did it! I chose to do one with a fitted, pleated back and gathered front. It is entirely handsewn, and I enjoyed every second of it. It was really satisfying to combine a lot of handsewing skills and construction techniques that I’ve been picking up over the last few years. The other best thing about it after I’d just spent 5 months on a single project? It only took 9 days! Read about the construction here.

1850s Underpinnings (Corset, Hoops, and Petticoat)

It’s always a fun adventure to embark on a new period! I particularly like this corset (made from a Redthreaded pattern). The hoop and petticoat patterns came from Truly Victorian. Most of the materials came from my stash, too, which is always a joy. You can read about these three pieces here.

These pieces went to support the third big dress of the year:

1850s Cotton Day Dress

Photo by Fox & Rose Photography, Wig by Custom Wig Company
Taken at the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum

This dress hasn’t gotten a write up because I finished it up at four in the morning the night before I needed to wear it, and I still have some modifications to make, and trim to add, so I’ll wait until it’s fully complete to blog about it. 1850’s was a period I would never have gotten into if it wasn’t for my friend Amy playing Queen Victoria at events. I’ve taken on the roll of one of her Maids of Honour, and so I needed a dress to fit the roll! I’m so glad I made this one, because as soon as I put it on, I was in love! I can’t wait to bring more 1850s plans to fruition in the future!

UFO: Late 18th Century Frock Coat

This one barely rates a mention, really. But, I have cut it out and sewn the center back seam, so it’s technically a work-in-progress. I basically didn’t exist in October, because I was playing a costumed character at the zoo for their month-long Halloween festivities in addition to my regular job, and I hugely overestimated how much costuming I would be able to do while also doing that. Brandon was more in need of a new waistcoat than a new coat for our trip to Williamsburg in November, so the coat got set aside to make room for that.

18th Century Bits (Two Projects, Really)

Best laid plans… At the beginning of the year, I was planning to have so many lovely new things for our trip to Williamsburg, where I was teaching a tambour embroidery workshop. New stays, new dress, cloak, new hat, new full suit for Brandon. In the end, he got a new blue waistcoat, and I got a red short cloak, and we both had a wonderful time! All those projects are back on the slate for 2020, though!

And that’s all! After that, it was Christmas presents all the way for the rest of the year!

What’s coming in 2020?

That wraps up the journey of 2019, so what’s in store for 2020? Big plans, but also an exciting new pledge.

There are a lot of reasons to use up your stash. I’d like to save money to do something big for my 30th birthday next year. I’d also like to open up some space in our tiny house. Plus, it’s certainly better for the planet all around if we use the things we have instead of buying new ones.

So, in case you haven’t guessed yet: 2020 is the year of the stash! From today, I will not be buying any fabric for myself for at least a year. I am allowing myself to buy notions, trimmings, linings, etc… as necessary so that I don’t have to compromise the quality of my work, but all main fashion fabrics and as many other things as possible have to come from the stash.

I went through my stash a few months ago, and counted up 35 potential projects. Some are UFOs; some are projects that have been on the docket for ages, but keep getting delayed; some are re-makes of older things I’m not as happy with; some are just ideas for what to do with fabric I picked up just because I liked it; and some are ideas for leftover fabric from old projects. Considering I only finished 9 pieces total in 2019, I think I’ll have plenty to keep me busy and then some!

There are lots of plans, but here are the first few things on my list: Brandon’s new 18th century suit (UFO), my new 18th century stays (UFO), 1850s ball gown with fabric Brandon got me for Christmas, and the elusive multi-year project that is the tambour’d Regency ball gown (UFO).

I’m actually really excited for this. I’m sure I’ll be distracted and tempted by other things, but this will give me a chance to work on projects that I’ve been really looking forward to, but that keep getting pushed to the back of the queue.

Wish me luck, and I hope that your 2020 is bright!