This month I’ve thinking about the thread we use when we sew, particularly how easy it would be to source thread locally made from natural fibres.
Normally I just go with the Guttermans thread in the fabric shops and haberdasheries, so generally this is either cotton or polyester thread. However, linen and silk thread were the most widely used threads by the pre-19th century seamstress until cotton thread became the sewing thread of choice later in the 19th century. Perhaps I could source some linen thread locally? If so, what would linen thread be like to sew with?
After a bit of searching on the internet, I noticed that linen thread is used frequently for bookbinding. leather work and jewellery. Apparently, linen is tough and copes well with years of wear. It is strong, and its strength even increases (10-15%) when wet. It has just the right amount of give when stitching – it neither too elastic or inelastic. It is resistant to UV and heat. I imagine that these characteristics make it an ideal thread for working with fabrics that will have outdoor use, such as equestrian clothing and equipment. In fact, it doesn’t cut through leather when it is stitched.
Something to consider though is the thread size, which I noted seems to be more complicated matter than I had first imagined. I am considering making a jacket from a medium-weight linen. Linen thread size is indicated by a numbering system. The first number is the size and the second is the ply. A high size number is a fine thread and a low size number is a heavy thread. A 100/3 size linen thread would be a fine thread used in stitching fine handkerchief-weight fabric. A large heavy size would be 12/3 used for sturdier applications. It seems that linen thread is easily available is the heavier weights for use in bookbinding (18/3 and 12/3 sizes are used by bookmakers) and leatherwork, but I have found it difficult to source finer thread for medium-weight fabrics.
The WM Booth website contains a wide range of threads. These include 16/2 which can be used for Dorset buttons, 32/2 and 50/3 for buttonholes, top-stitching and hand sewing medium to coarser linens and wools. More importantly, it also stocks 80/3 linen thread which is better for medium weight linen and fine wools. The problem is this website is American and although the linen thread is probably European in origin, it will have travelled all the way to America and back to reach my letterbox!
Again, it seems that this whole challenge would have been much easily, and possibly not a challenge at all, had I tried it fifty years ago. There were quite a few linen thread mills in Northern Ireland, for example, the Barbour linen thread mill in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. However, this closed in 2006.
More searching on the internet followed and I finally found a UK website, House of Sculthorpe, who specialise in historical costume and haberdashery, but sad to say that the linen thread is European, rather than Irish. The Mulberry dyer has some weights of thread too. I think I’ll order some through this European website where there’s more choice and try this thread out.
Finally, this is a really interesting article on the history of sewing threads.