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Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Linen for Hand Embroidery

 

Linen is my all-time absolute Favorite Fabric for hand embroidery, and there are many good online sources for purchasing quality linen. At the request of some readers, here’s some information about buying linen for hand embroidery.

The range of types and quality of linen for hand embroidery is pretty vast. It’s Very Vast, actually. In sharing my experiences with linen, I’ll only be talking about a limited selection of linens available for needlework. I’m always happy to hear about different types of needlework linen, where it’s available, and what people like about it – so if you have any input on this subject, please do leave a comment below so that we get as broad a view as possible on different types of linens.

That being said, some linen made for needlework I just can’t stand. Have you ever gone into the local craft store – Joann’s, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Hancock Fabrics, etc. – and explored the fabrics in the needlework section? You’ll sometimes find linen there – it comes folded in bags hanging on hooks or rolled in plastic tubes. I’m not sure of the brands off the top of my head, but I fear some of those packages are probably DMC. Now, I like DMC stranded cotton for an everyday embroidery floss, but golly. Those packages of linen just don’t do it when you want a quality fabric. They’re ok for learning on, I suppose, but when you’re ready to kick things up a notch, it’s time to look for better linen.

So, here’s some linen talk that may help you decide on what kind of linen you want to use, and some sources for buying linen for needlework.

First of all, what is linen? It’s a fabric made from the inner skin of the flax plant. It’s been around as a fabric for thousands of years. Way back in history some four or five thousand years ago, the Jews of the Old Testament used it, the Egyptians used it (before they got into cotton, I suppose!), as did the Greeks and the Romans, and eventually, it moved north into Europe with the re-civilization of Europe after the fall of Rome. We can say that flax has been woven into fabric, then, across pretty much all the known ages of the written history of Western Civilization. It’s Old Stuff.

Linen has always been somewhat expensive, and this is due to the way it must be harvested, processed, and woven. If you want to read about the making of linen – from harvest to weaving – from an historical perspective, with nice photos along the way, take a look at the article “Linen Weaving” on Maggie Blanck’s website. It’s really interesting! I stumbled across it a while ago when I was preparing a teaching unit on the book Silas Marner.

When considering linen for needlework, it’s necessary to determine ahead of time what type of project you’re planning to stitch, because the type of project will determine the type of fabric you want to use. For example, if you’re stitching a counted cross stitch piece, you’ll want “even weave” linen. If you’re stitching a crewel work piece (or something similar to it), you might want to use linen twill. If you’re stitching goldwork and you want a linen ground, you don’t necessarily need something as heavy as twill, but you’ll want a good, sturdy linen (probably with a closer weave, higher thread count – but not necessarily even weave). If you’re working regular surface embroidery – say, a fine needlepainting project – you’ll want a lighter weave of linen (but not too light that it’s flimsy), with a higher count thread that’s firm enough and closely woven enough to support all the stitches. Oh, so many things to consider!!

Then, of course, there’s the question of quality. Are you stitching a project in which you are investing much time and money, to produce a work of art that you want to last for a long time? Then you probably want to use a good quality linen.

In considering quality of linen, you have to go back to its origins – the flax crop. Flax crops around the world vary in the quality of flax they produce. Flax is grown in many countries, and linen is woven in many countries – from Ireland, to Germany, to Egypt, to Italy, to China, to the US, and so on. It seems to be the common opinion, though, that flax grown in Belgium and other close-by areas of northern Europe is the “best” flax for making linen. Belgian linen is usually considered good linen. Though my experiences in fabric do not encompass every type of linen made in every region of the world, I have tried lots of different linens for stitching. I have to say that I have never used a Belgian linen I didn’t like. Even the less-expensive Belgian linens I’ve tried have been pretty nice.

And that brings us to the question of expense. By less-expensive Belgian linen, I’m talking about $30 – $40 / yard. Many fine quality needlework linens are more expensive than this.

My all-time favorite linen is Legacy linen. It’s a Belgian linen woven with nice plump threads, and though it is not all even-weave fabric, even the plain weave comes close to being even weave, as the warp and weft threads are generally pretty evenly sized. It has a great hand. It’s got body, but it isn’t stiff – even after washing, it still retains its nice drape along with linen crispness. It irons beautifully. I just love Legacy linen. But… it is … whew. Expensive.

On the bright side, we don’t normally use a whole yard of linen for a needlework project, do we? So retailers often make good linen available in popular-sized cuts.

If you’re looking for good linen, here are the brands that I think range from Very Good to “ok”, and readers are welcome to add their input for their favorite types of linen in the comments below, too:

1. Legacy linen – my all-time favorite. I think it’s the best linen on the market, personally.

I buy different types of Legacy linen through various sources:

Hedgehog Handworks now carries a good range, especially if you’re looking for linen suitable for historical needlework. Out of the linens listed there, I love the alabaster angel, alba maxima, and ecclesiastical. They also carry Strathaven linen, which isn’t a Legacy linen, but is a very nice plain weave for surface work.

Needle in a Haystack carries a decent line of Legacy linen, including even-weave.

Wyndham Needleworks (it takes them forever to fill an order – if you don’t mind waiting two or three weeks, though, it’s a decent source).

Lakeside Linens, by the way, offer some hand-dyed Legacy linens, so if you want the hand-dyed look with the quality of Legacy linens, see what Lakeside Linens has to offer in this line. I haven’t tried any of the Lakeside Linens, because I don’t normally work on colored fabric, but I’ve got a project brewing in my head that requires a nice light buttery yellow ground fabric – I may be contacting Lakeside Linens or one of their retailers to see what they have.

2. Weddigen linen – this is a new-to-me linen that I discuss in this article on Schwalm whitework. I’ve also given the source for it in the article. It’s available in two even-weave thread counts, approximately 32 threads per inch and 50 threads per inch. It’s a nice linen, and I intend to use it in the future for other projects besides Schwalm.

3. Church linen – I have ordered excellent linen from Church Linens and Vestments. Elizabeth Morgan stocks one kind of linen and it is perfect for church linens as well as any kind of surface embroidery that you want to work on white linen. It’s a nice quality linen for surface embroidery and very reasonably priced at $27 / yard (54″ wide). I like it a lot, and I’m pretty sure she’s still selling it. I need to order more!!

4. Other types of even-weave linen, from Zweigart to Graziano (Italian linen) to Lakeside Linens can be purchased through various needlework shops online. Lakeside linens are actually other types of linen (like Legacy, Zweigart, Graziano, etc.) that are hand-dyed – I mentioned them above under Legacy linen.

Some sources for a variety of linens:

I like Shakespeare’s Peddler (she no longer has a website, but has a blog) – she has a good selection of fabrics and is very friendly and easy to order from (she can send a Paypal invoice, which is very convenient).

Nordic Needle carries a wide variety of popular even-weave linens. They don’t seem to carry higher end linens (like Dower quality linens – Legacy, Strathaven, etc.) but they have a good selection of decent even-weaves.

Needle in a Haystack – already mentioned above – has all kinds of different types of needlework linens, including some of the higher-end linens like Legacy.

You’ve probably noticed that my sources overlap, but that’s the way it is – I order from a fairly limited selection of shops, but they all carry good linen, have great service, and fair enough prices.

What about you? What type of linen do you use and where do you buy it? What’s your favorite type, and why do you like it? Feel free to comment and help me broaden the topic a bit, so that readers can benefit from your input, too! Thanks heaps!

Enjoy the weekend!

 
 

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(38) Comments

  1. This is really helpful, Mary. I bought a couple of tubes of linen at Michael's awhile back. I just can't bring myself to use them. They just feel cheap. Thanks for this post!

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  2. Thank you for this extremely helpful and thorough information, Mary. I'm printing the entire post for my embroidery binder. I just purchased some Legacy linen this past week and am SO anxious for it to arrive. Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

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  3. What kind of linen I use depends on what I'm stitching. 🙂 For counted work, I generally use legacy or more often, Zweigart Cashel (mostly because, though I hate to say it, it's getting hard to see higher counts than 28 these days… Time to get out the magnifier lens, I guess!)

    ThreadneedleStreet.com in Issaquah, WA carries a very nice Ecclesiastical linen (though I'll have to check out your sources!) that I like as a basis for goldwork and fine silk embroidery. She also carries traditional linen twill for crewelwork… but says that she actually cuts out the flaws for customers, and that there are a lot of them! She, (and I) is looking for a better source. Ideas? She's also got a nice oyster linen that's suitable for crewelwork.

    I recently got some samples of clothing and canvas weight linens from http://www.fabrics-store.com/. I think I'm going to order some and see how it works. They're a bit cheaper, and they cater to the Renaissance faires and historic re-enactors. I'll let you know what I think when I get it!

    The linens in the big box stores are usually either charles craft or DMC. I'll use the charles craft in a pinch for counted work, but the threads on both of them are very sparse and because of that the fabric is almost transparent, even in the darker colors.

    OH! I also Really like the hand dyed Zweigart's linen from SilkWeaver.com Her dye work is amazingly beautiful!

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  4. What I wonder is who was the first person to figure out how to use the flax plants to make the thread and linen? There are so many steps to go through, including the decomposing part, that it's amazing anyone figured out the entire process. I think that people were much smarter and more dedicated centuries ago – I can't see anyone today trying to figure this all out.
    Mary, thanks for the history lesson in addition to the good advice on linen fabrics!
    Kathy

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  5. Mary,
    This was so very helpful. I have been hoping that you would discuss linen (and other fabrics, too) for embroidery. But I am still confused about thread count. When I ask for linen at various needlework shops, they always ask me what count I want. I do surface embroidery but not counted cross stitch.
    Thanks,
    Michelle

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  6. Thank you very much for such a good information. You are happy, taht you can look at many things in your shops. Here in Lithuania we can see only DMC linen and Zweigart cotton. Of course, we can buy in some e-shops and we do so.
    Speaking about DMC linen, it is not the one I would like very much. But I made some cross stitching on it and I can say that some patterns look very nice (especially stitched with DMC linen thread).
    Sometimes I use Lithuanian linen and if I find a good price, it could cost about $1,5-2 (for a metre). Normal prices are about $10.
    But the best linens I used were from my friends. Few of them had some linens weaved at home and the threads also were spinned by hand, without the use of machines. The quality was absolutely perfect. Alas, we are too civilised and most of our weavers are dead.

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  7. Most of my embroidery on linen has been done for heirloom garments or renaissance faire garb. I like the Handkerchief linen sold by Martha Pullen Company. It has a nice drape, few flaws and is (for linen) moderately priced. It's quite nice for blackwork and whitework, and the scraps make excellent hankies, napkins or sachets.

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  8. Mary, wonderful article.

    What is the definition of 'dower linen'? I keep meaning to look into this, but haven't had time. Is it linen of such a quality that one would include it in a dowry?

    I too am curious as to what thread counts are considered suitable for surface work. I can tell by looking at a fabric if it would be suitable for my purposes and have sort of figured out over time what counts to look at. Is there a rule of thumb for counts and surface embroidery?

    I bought some decent handkerchief linen from fabrics.com. I've bought some other heavier weight linens there, but I think they are a bit too coarse for fine embroidery work. They're OK for doodling. By the way, I've bought some fabulous dupionis from fabrics.com.

    I have recently bought some linen from http://www.fabrics-store.com/ and it seems a bit coarse, but probably OK for doodling. It might work for crewel, but I don't think I'd use it for fine work. I don't think I bought the finer quality fabric as I was looking for a specific colour and it was only available in the heavier weight. They have a nice (free) sampler card that contains the different weights of their fabrics. The prices are good, too.

    I bought a lovely piece of white (oyster?) linen twill from Haystack recently. I may be wrong, but it seems to be a slightly (just slightly) lighter weight of fabric than the 'regular' linen twill that I am familiar with.

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  9. I couldn't agree with you more – linen is beautiful to use, far better than cotton. It's good to see so many places selling quality linens rather than the stuff usually available in craft shops that I would call scrim – good for washing windows but I wouldn't use it for embroidery! Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen in Northern Ireland supply beautiful ecclesiastical and other linens, in white and undyed finishes.

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  10. I sewed some rework on Muslim and after applying fusible webbing to the back of and ironing it I find it distorted and then after I cut it it’s just plain lopsided. Would linen be a better choice for redwork – hand stitched because it will hold it’s shape better? I am flustered and have ruined about 5 hours of hand work. Can you suggest a brand that is easily sewed into and holds it’s shape? Would the Belgian linen work for this? Thank you.

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    1. Hi, Ellen – Well, muslin / cotton seems to be the popular choice for redwork. You can certainly work it on linen, but it depends on what you want to use it for. If it’s for a cotton quilt (often what redwork is used for), then it would make more sense to work it on cotton. The key to avoiding warped or distorted stitchery that’s lopsided is the way you place the pattern on the fabric. Your pattern should be lined up with the grain of the fabric. That is, the warp and weft threads are perpendicular (and the fabric is not turned on the bias). You can tell if your fabric’s on the bias by pulling on it. If it stretches a lot, then it’s on the bias, and you don’t want to transfer your pattern across the bias like that. Instead, line up your fabric so that the selvedge is perpendicular to the edge of your writing / drawing surface where you’re doing the transfer. You can also look closely at the fabric and see which direction the threads in the fabric are traveling. The horizontal threads should be parallel to the edge of your writing table, and the vertical threads in the fabric should be perpendicular to it. This is how you avoid transferring on the bias. It’s not that it won’t work, to transfer on the bias, but if you stretch the fabric out more than you realize, then you can end up with a mess.

      But to answer your question (!) yes, you can do redwork on linen, and it’s a lot easier to keep the fabric on grain, because normally, you can see the weave better. You’d have to work on a pretty high thread count linen (I’d say 40 or 48 threads per inch or higher), and it doesn’t have to be an even weave linen. It can be a plain weave. The problem is finding this type of linen at local shops. Mostly, you have to order it online.

      Hope that helps a little bit!

      MC

  11. I would like to start embroidering french linen domestics (bedding, tablecloths & napkins, etc.) What kind of linen is appropriate for that type of project and can you direct me to a good source for that purpose? Thank you.

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  12. Hi Mary! I have the same question as Brenn; for embroidering French domestics: bedding, tablecloths, napkins, etc., can you list resources for high quality linen by the yard, as well as, pre-finished linens ready to be embroidered?

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  13. What would you recommend for a beginner (I needlepoint and do other forms of needle work, but haven’t done much embroidery) to practice on or do a first real piece? I bought two of your ebooks and wanted to start learning more but I was hesitant o spend to much money for learning pieces.

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    1. Hi, Sharon – Well, that’s a difficult question! I think it depends on the beginner. You could start by using regular floss (DMC 6-stranded embroidery floss, which is widely available) and a good quality cotton muslin set up in a Susan Bates plastic hoop bought at a craft store. All of these supplies are affordable. Then trace a design you like unto the muslin and work it out in various stitches, completely randomly – using whatever colors and stitches strike you as being appealing. You don’t have to think, “What am I going to use this for?” – just consider it practice, to get the hang of how the stitches work, the feel of the thread and the fabric, and so forth.

      But some beginners start embroidery because some particular thing that they’ve seen appealed to them, and they thought, “I want to do that” or “I want to make that.” If this is the case, and if whatever you saw that drew you in is available in a kit form and is written so that beginners can tackle it, then you might launch into a full-fledged project right off the bat. Just keep in mind that there is always a learning curve, and your project might not come out exactly perfect – you have to consider that you are learning, and it’s ok to make mistakes!

      If you’ve already done other needlework (like needlepoint), then I wouldn’t say you’re a “beginner” in the most-beginner-sense. You’ve handled needles, you understand how threads work, you know how to start and end threads, etc. So I’d say find a surface embroidery project or kit that inspires you, and do it! Chances are, it’ll turn out great! Most of Tanja Berlin’s kits are written with the beginner in mind, and I think they’re a great place to start. Her instructions are so absolutely thorough, and her kits contain everything necessary to work the project. So maybe you should check out her website and see if there’s any piece that really strikes your fancy. She has all types of embroidery on there, from whitework to goldwork to shadow work to blackwork to “modern Jacobean” (which combines all kinds of stitches and uses regular floss, not wool). So you might start there.

      If you bought the lattice jumble book, you might consider starting there. It’s a learning sampler. You can use regular floss, any colors you want, and just work through the stitches. All the stitch instructions for the various parts of the jumble sampler in the guide ebook are explained clearly in step-by-step instructions here on the website. So that’s a possibility, too. You can work it on muslin or any fabric, really, as long as it is a close enough weave to support the stitches.

      Hope that helps a little bit!

      ~MC

  14. Thanks, Mary, that helps a lot.
    I’ve been needlepointing for over 30 and I’d say I’m intermediate to advance. I’ve also done other forms of needle work like punch, bunka, hook, etc. I did some embroidery many many years ago and your blog has inspired me to get back into it and try other kinds of needle work like tamba. You and your blog are really awesome!
    One more question please. You said any kind of muslin that can hold the stitches. Can you be any more specific then that, how would I know which kind of muslin or cotton will hold the stitches?. Also, for your ebook I think you recommended 40ct linen. Is it a problem to use 32ct? I think I can find 32 ct in my local store, but I will have to order 40ct and patience is not one of my virtues as I have nothing interesting to work on or play wi at the moment (awaiting the arrival of kits, etc)

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  15. HI Mary,

    I was just catching myself up on your Secret Garden project. I saw that you were recommending the Alabaster Angel Legacy Linen but it is out of stock at the current time. It doesn’t say what thread count this linen in and I saw several other posts asking for a thread count. Could you please share this information for all of us?

    Thanks!
    Catrina

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    1. Hi, Catrina – it’s about a 48 or 50 count linen, I believe. You might try Needle in a Haystack. They also carry it, and I heard from another reader who said they still had it in stock. Not sure if they still do, but worth checking.

  16. hi. i would like to find a vintage plain white 52″ square tablecloth so my mom can embroider it for me. i’d love it to be vintage. any ideas where i can purchase? i’ve tried ebay and etsy, no luck.

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  17. Dear Carol,

    I started embroidering at about age 14 Year. I stopped due to many reason, in my thirties.

    I am looking for ready made tablecloths, etc. to embroider. Am I behind the times; do they in fact still exist.

    The cloths I embroidered were made of pure linen and the edges were completely finished off and the dsigns were already stamped onto the cloth so that all I had to do was actually embroider do the emboidery.

    I’m not a sewer and I don’t particularly like to buy material. I simply want the beautiful ecru coloured line to work on. Are you able to help me.

    My request would be similar to that of Judy’s 23/June No.17
    Cheers,

    Wanda Wolfe

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  18. Hello,
    I have been searching for an answer to some questions that I have about even weave linen but haven’t found any yet. I want to make some of the items from Yvette Stanton’s Portuguese whitework book. In her book the material she lists is a 38 count even weave linen. I have only been able to find that over seas. Because of the cost of the linen and shipping, buying it from these sources is out of the question for now.
    Can I use a 36 count or a 40 count linen for this type of embroidery? Which would be the best count? If I can which type of legacy linen is even weave and which would be the best for this?
    Thank you for any help you can give me!
    Ren

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    1. Hi, Ren – I’d write to Yvette (at Vetty Creations) to get her opinion on whether you should go down to 36 count or up to 40 count. I’m not sure which would be a better choice for the technique. My inclination would be to go up to a 40 count, but… the threads might end up too bulky for a 40 count. Drop Yvette a line – I’m sure she will get back to you with the best answer!

  19. Wondering about the 30 count Legacy linen that Nordic Needle has in their newest catalog. Is it the same as what Hedgehog Handworks sells? Color is called White Swan.

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    1. Hi, Beth – it’s from the same company. It’s not the same linen as Alba Maxima (and others). It’s a 30 count even-weave. It’s a nice linen – the weave is full and consistent. but it’s not the higher count surface embroidery linens like Alba Maxima, etc. If you’re looking for a good 30 ct linen, though, it would be a good choice!

  20. Thank you so much for this information! I was thinking about embroidering some linen hand towels for a friend.

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    1. Hi, Linda – linen will last longer! I’d personally go with linen, but it depends on what you want or like. You can find fine linen handkerchiefs as blanks for embroidery, already hemmed and everything. That might be the way to go. Just look up “embroidery blanks.” Two places I know that might carry them are All About Blanks and EmbroiderThis – they both carry pretty good quality blanks in a good variety.

  21. Hi, I am trying my hand at making a hand embroidered linnen edwardian travelling suit. My question is do I need muslin or something on the back side of the fabric? I have seen it used with machine embroidery but not sure if I need it doing by hand.. Thanks

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    1. Hi, Laura – There used to be an embroidery shop that I’d order the linen from, that specialized in Italian linen and threads, but it is no longer in operation. You might try asking Jeanine at Italian Needlework if she has any information on where it can be ordered. This is her blog: http://italian-needlework.blogspot.com Hope that helps a little bit!

  22. Linens !

    I just received my first piece of Alba Maxima Linen. Wow, this is what I call special fabric. It’s a beautiful weave, to the touch is soft.

    I use ordinary linen for projects. Since I did not know about other linens before I joined
    your website Mary. But now I can tell the difference and it’s so much easier to choose.

    In Canada I found Alba Maxima and other very good Linens at: traditionalstitches.com

    The prices are very good, shipping costs are low. I paid $2.32 for 2 pièces for fabric.
    Shipped by regular mail in an enveloppe. The pieces are folded in separate bags with a tag. It includes the size of the piece and the price, the name. So if you need to re- order
    well it’s easy to.

    They also have the Appleton crewel wool. I love their collector’s program. Every month I get 8 colors in a nice bag. For $23.10 that a great price.

    Louise

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