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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Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality, & Uses


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Last month, we chatted about plain weave and even weave linen for hand embroidery, and that discussion sparked some interesting questions that flowed in via e-mail concerning linen in general.

One reader asked how to tell “good” linen for hand embroidery projects. Another asked about buying linen from online fabric outlets, and there were several questions about garment linen and other types of linen available on the market.

Today, I’d like to chat about these questions in a general way, and further down the road (if there’s interest!), we can discuss the particulars.

Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality & Uses

First things first: I don’t want to come across as a Linen Snob. I’ve used all kinds of linen for embroidery projects, depending on the project and its uses.

In my mind, the question of ground fabric boils down to this: what are you creating, and how is it going to be used?

I’m a whole-hearted advocate of using the best possible materials you can afford on your needlework, while keeping things realistic.

For example, if you’re creating what you consider your Magnum Opus – your great masterpiece – and you want it to withstand the test of time, you plan to put a lot of time into it, and you know that you’re going to be spending a fair amount of fundage on threads (perhaps you’re using silk or real metal threads or the like), then it only stands to reason that you should invest in the best possible ground fabric for the project. Why put all that time, all that expense, all that energy and focus into a project, only to work on inferior ground fabric and run into inevitable problems later because of the fabric’s inferiority?

On the other hand, if you’re creating a quick project for the fun of it, not necessarily something extravagant – say, a hand towel that you know will be used and laundered or a quick little hoop art project – you’re probably not going to put the same effort and expense into ensuring that the ground fabric is the same high quality that the fabric for your Magnum Opus is.

Does that make sense?

Of course, there are in-between projects, too. But I just want to settle the principle: your choice of ground fabric and the expense and effort you go to to procure the fabric you want for a project really depends on what kind of project you’re creating and its purpose.

Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality & Uses

Linen is an ever-suitable ground fabric for hand embroidery of all types, whether it’s a simple, fun project, a Magnum Opus, or anything in between.

But there are different grades of linen on the market, and it’s good to know something about origin and quality when deciding on the type of linen you want to use.

Recently (and I’m still working on this concept!), I procured various pieces of linen from online “wholesale” priced outlets. My plan was to test how good it was as a ground fabric for embroidery and whether it would work up well into useful items.

I was looking for linen that didn’t fall in the same range of expense as some of the better hand embroidery linens. I looked primarily for linen suitable for clothing, for totes or bags, and for toweling (hand towels, linen bath towels and the like).

Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality & Uses

For me, one of the Biggest Clues to the quality of a linen, without seeing the linen, is its place of origin. It’s often very difficult to find the country of origin of linens on fabric outlet-type websites, but you can always ask. They might or might not respond.

Linen from China is usually on the bottom rung of the ladder, when it comes to quality. I’m guessing this has to do with the quality of the linen crop, the length of the flax (I’m guessing it’s made from a shorter staple thread, or from the tow, or coarser, broken fibers of flax during processing).

Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality & Uses

Linens from Russia and from Eastern Europe are next up in quality. The Czech Republic is a major exporter of linen, and their linens range in quality. Some of them are quite suitable for hand embroidery, and especially for items that are to be used, like clothing, toweling, some sheeting and also for displayable embroidery.

The Ulster Linen Company – which, due to the name, you might think deals exclusively in Irish linen – distributes quite a large quantity of linen from the Czech Republic. In fact, the colored linens that I used for some of the letters in Stitch Sampler Alphabet are worked on these Ulster linens, which are not Irish, but in fact, Czech.

When you hear of “Irish linen” these days, keep in mind that there are very few working linen mills in Ireland now. When distributors refer to Irish linen, they could be talking about a look or “type” of linen, or they could be referring to the fact that they have offices in Ireland, rather than the origin of the linen. When it comes to looking for Irish linen, check the country of origin if you want the Real Deal!

The finest linens, by way of origin, hail from western Europe, due to the ideal growing conditions for flax. Some really gorgeous linens come out of Italy, and I’ve tried linen from Portugal, as well, that’s decent, good linen.

When it comes to available linen these days, though, if you want the cream of the crop, look for linens from Belgium and France.

Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality & Uses

In all the photos above, I’m showing off some linens that I bought from an online supplier of “wholesale” priced linen sold for clothing and household uses. I don’t want to mention sources, because I haven’t finished working with them, and I don’t know how they will perform, when all is said and done.

Strangely enough, I can’t get any information on the countries of origin. I’m still following up on that question. I’m suspecting that the linen comes from either Russia or Eastern Europe, though I suppose it could come from China. Some clues here and there lead me to think Russia or Eastern Europe, though. In any case, whenever the distributor mentions “European” on this particular site or its sister-site, it is always as “European quality linen,” not “European linen.” What’s the difference? The former can be translated as “similar in quality to European linen.”

If this is what they mean, they’ve missed the mark!

The linens are definitely not high quality like most European linens, especially compared to good linen from France and Belgium that we see in the needlework industry. They aren’t the type of linen I’d choose for the Magnum Opus. But I would use them for toweling, totes and bags, and more rustic-looking garments, if, in the end, they take hand embroidery well enough and they sew up well.

I laundered each piece of yardage separately, on delicate in the washing machine. I dried them to “almost dry” and then left them to dry the rest of the way on their own, smoothing them out a bit, hoping to relieve some of the wrinkle factor. (Didn’t really work! I’ll dampen them before I iron them.)

The lint, slub and selvage factors are all good signs that we’re not looking at linen made from superior fibers that are superiorly spun or superiorly woven.

Upon laundering, the selvage on all yardage fell completely apart, leaving raw edges and globs of strings twisted all over the place.

This has never happened with any of the finer linens I’ve used for hand embroidery. Ever!

The linens produced Mountains of Lint in the dryer, even though the most I washed and partially dried at one time was one yard of linen. The lint filter looked like a 2″-thick piece of memory foam, it was so densely packed. I had a hard time pulling the lint filter out to clean it, and I promise I clean my lint filter out every time I use the dryer. I could kick myself for not taking a photo – it was such a Chuckle Moment!

Again, this has never happened with any find needlework linens I’ve laundered the same way. They produce very little lint.

The fabric, which looked “ok” before laundering (see the blue in the photos above, which hasn’t been laundered yet), revealed lots of “flaws” afterwards (keep in mind, certain “flaws” are often desirable characteristics of some linen, depending on what you’re planning to do with it). I picked out short hairy staples of flax fibers from all over the surface. The slubs became more pronounced with laundering. There were also little hard bits of fiber – little scrubby twiggy bits – here and there.

Once again, this doesn’t happen with the Really Good Stuff!

Exploring Linen: Origin, Quality & Uses

In the photo directly above, you can see a creamy, sunny yellow (already laundered) next to the unlaundered blue. These are both sold as “heavy weight” linen – at over 7 oz a square yard – but I’d really term them more medium weight once they are washed. They seem significantly lighter upon laundering, due, I suppose, to the removal of sizing and the lint loss.

The linens shrink upon laundering, which is typical of even very good linen. There’s always some shrinkage with linen, because that’s the nature of the fabric.

The Upshot

These particular linens may or may not be suitable for what I have in mind.

I’ll iron them up and see what they do. My original plan was to construct a few different things from the pieces I bought, like a small tote, a book cover, a hand towel, and the like – all embroidered, of course! – to test whether or not this type of linen is worth buying. Sure, it’s significantly less expensive than linen sold exclusively for embroidery, but if it doesn’t perform well in the finishing, then…is it worth it?

Incidentally, once I washed the stuff, I wondered whether or not I should put too much time into embroidering the pieces I want to construct. I decided that if I go simple with the first test piece, I could test the embroidery aspect and then move on to something more complex.

So that’s my plan.

Linen Take-Away

All linen is not created equal. The quality of the linen, its origin, and the use of your final product should all be considered when you embark on a linen search.

Depending on your intended use, you don’t always have to invest in more expensive linens.

But if you’re planning on creating something that you want to withstand the test of time, that you’re putting many hours into, and that you’re spending good money on for threads and so forth, it pays to get the Really Good Stuff!

If you’re ready to embark on your Magnum Opus and you’re looking for fine linen made for handwork from the ground up, I wholeheartedly recommend needlework linens from Access Commodities, which are available through local needlework shops and from online fine needlework shops. My favorite all-around white linen from them is called Alba Maxima.

And I’ll let you know how all this other stuff above works out, as I play with it!

Over to You!

Any linen experiences you’d like to share with other folks looking for answers? Any specific questions you might have about linen, that the Needle ‘n Thread community might be able to help you with? You’re most welcome to join in the discussion below!


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(73) Comments

  1. I’m a spinner and (now retired, due to shoulder issues) long-time handweaver. I have made handspun linen yarn, and I have created handwoven linen cloth. Kudos on your discussion of different grades of linen and the issues that embroiderers should consider when choosing linen yardage. This is a really good, educational post.

    1. Hello Ruth,
      Many years ago , I worked on conservation of frescoes and icons in a medieval monastery in Serbia. I spend couple months there every summer and became friends with nuns. One of them gave me nice handwoven towel, which I still use.It seems like new. My teenage kids love this towel.
      I started making linen towels from commercially produced linen, but came to conclusion that if I want something good , I better make it myself. The problem is , I don’t know how to make it. I live in Virginia, close to DC. Do you know any work shop or person willing to teach me spinning and weaving? I do my own embroidery and also I make many things from scratch,like render fat from sheep to make soap , make my lotion ,etc.
      Also, do you sell any of your linens, i am looking to make absorbent towels.
      Thank you for reading such a long e mail.


  2. Do you ever work on any other material besides linen or silk? I usually use high quality cottons, trigger cloth or even canvas. I have worked on linen a few times and only for framed pieces.

  3. Hi – really great and useful info re linen quality. I’m considering making a tablecloth to embroider and would be grateful for any tips about the quality/ thread count etc of the linen I should be looking for. I’ve searched the web (I live in the UK) but am getting confused. Many thanks!

    1. Helen, I would look for a linen from a church supply place. The linens they sell are suitable for altar cloths and are usually of the best quality, expensive but durable with a lovely ‘hand’ if you are doing a surface pattern. If your pattern is of the counted variety then you want to look for a provider of the thread count for the pattern which can be anywhere from 42 threads per inch to 28 threads per inch. 18 threads per inch is probably too coarse for table linen. The thread count will also depend on how good your eye site is (LOL).( Fine cotton sheeting can run from 200 threads per inch up to 4 or 500 threads per inch) I’m in the USA so don’t know off hand where to look in the UK but if you were to go on line and ask fro providers I am sure you would get some possibilities .

    2. Helen. May I suggest Willow fabrics.com and Sew and So They sell embroidery supplies. Fabric threads. Etc. these are in England .

  4. Years ago I was uneducated about linen quality and I worked on a piece where little fibers appeared when I pulled a silk ribbon through. The edges were a mess, too. It was so hard to work with and I ruined a lot of silk ribbons. I agree with you, Mary, the quality is so impoertant.

  5. I have used linens from all the sources you mentioned and agree. Really good linen has a certain kind of fluidity, I guess it is the (fine) thread count that makes it strong but delicate. I would like to add another linen country–Turkey! I have purchased beautiful linen from there by the bolt. I have used it in making tablecloths and dresses, both with embroidery. Turkey is one of the world’s leading producers of cotton (and jean cloth btw). Thanks Mary for the post, ladies look to your linen!

  6. I honestly never thought of putting linen in the washer. I’ve used some admittedly cheaper linen for cross-stitch and found that after hand-washing and pressing the finished work it was much the same as before. Of course, that was for a framed piece, not something that was going to see wear, like a tablecloth.

    Also, can you speak to the directionality of linen? I was taught that in making a long project that will bear weight (such as a bell pull), the warp fibers should run the length of the piece, since they were under tension during the weaving process and are already “stretched.” Running a long project along the width of the fabric will yield a piece that eventually sags out of shape. Is that right?

  7. This is a topic I’d like to explore further. I have purchased linen for making clothes and also for embroidery. So far, I’ve had good experiences and the quality of the linen was either satisfactory or gorgeous. I have never inquired of the origin though – so your post today was interesting.

    I’d love to hear more as you research this topic as I absolutely love linen garments and also because we attend 18th century re-enactment rendezvous and I sew all of our clothes – many of them from linen. I also sew towels and other household type items from linen.

    Jacqueline Strand

  8. Hi Mary,
    This is an excellent discussion thank you. I gave a short talk to The Weavers Incorporation at their annual Highland Ball earlier this year and banged on about how important the ground fabric was to we embroiderers. I thanked them for keeping the quality high.
    In my view the best linen comes from the North coast of Scotland because the farms are not affected by the pollution blowing in from the Low Countries and from Russia. Any grey in linen is pollution – Yuk! It should be a creamy honey colour and vary slightly each year as the weather changes. I am not a linen snob but will not waste my time embroidering on a linen that will collapse the minute it is blocked (much in the same way that cheap clothing is awful after the first wash). I think that it is particularly important that beginners use great materials as they will think that poor quality stitching is their fault instead of blaming the ground fabric.
    If you do not wish to spend too much on linen but still want a beautiful base fabric, then look at the label on clothing in charity shops and re-use an evening shirt or a skirt. Boil washed knitted cashmere is my fabric of choice as an alternative linen….. Whoops! Did I just say that I wasn’t a linen snob?

  9. The Chinese linen, and maybe some of the “European quality” linen, may be made from “cottonized” linen. That’s poor-quality linen that’s chopped up short and treated as if it’s cotton during spinning and weaving. It would explain the amount of lint produced during the drying.

    The linen with “twiggy” bits in it may be low-quality tow, left over after processing quality line flax. Good-quality tow won’t have twiggy bits in it; instead, it’s just shorter than line.

    I’d appreciate information on the relationship of weight (in ounces / square yard) to thread count. I can’t find that anywhere. And definitions of various common categories of linen, like handkerchief linen, would be great. I’ve seen cloths advertised as handkerchief linen that are over 5 oz and that doesn’t seem very handkerchief-like to me!

    1. I second this comment on handkerchief linen. I am still searching for the best quality linen to use for actual embroidered handkerchiefs. Is there a known manufacturer of this fabric that produces a textile with sufficient drape yet finely woven enough to serve this purpose? (Thank you. Anything I know about embroidery I learned at Needle ‘n’ Thread.)

    2. Hi, Acadia and Holly – for me, the absolute perfect linen for very fine hankies is linen cambric. Access Commodities imports a gorgeous European linen cambric, and they also offer a beautiful “shadow work” linen that is a lightweight handkerchief linen, smooth, with a nice hand. Both are excellent linens. The cambric has a slightly closer weave and a softer drape. I wrote about them both here: https://needlenthread.wpengine.com/2013/06/shadow-work-linen-vs-linen-cambric.html Either would work great, but I have to say, I love the feel of the cambric best. Needle in a Haystack online carries both – if you go to their “fabric” page in their online catalog, you can type in “cambric” or “shadow work” in the search bar on that fabric page, to see the prices for different cuts.

    3. Thanks for the info on handkerchief linen, Mary. In addition to handkerchief linen, I’m interested in giving cutwork a try. I’m realizing it’s a matter of scale to some extent – fine enough cloth for a given design to work well. But I have no fixed reference points to start from. I set up a first, experimental piece on 60/40 linen/cotton, not much heavier than quilting cotton, nice stuff, that I found at Joann’s. But I transferred too-large a design for good buttonholing I guess. Not sure whether to ditch this project or keep plugging away for practice!


    4. As Mary noted, the Legacy Cambric is a good handkerchief linen. It’s what I would use for one that might actually get used as opposed to solely decorative. The Shadowork linen is very sheer, hence its name, and would make a lovely, delicate handkerchief suitable for say, a bridal gift.

      Another option is Zweigart’s Kingston linen. It’s not quite as fine as either Legacy linen but I have used it in the past for handkerchiefs. And it comes in more than white, which can be a plus.

  10. This is REALLY useful information.
    Thank you for the details, especially getting to the bottom of
    country of origin. It can be so
    confusing in the last 20-30 years due to foreign markets and labelling. Last year my local needlework shop ordered a
    piece of Alba Maxima for me thanks to your information. I was
    so pleased and she has added this
    resource to her inventory.

  11. Thank you so much for this article. I purchased several yards of white linen, serval years ago, for a project that I did not make. Now I am interested in getting it out and testing it to see whether it might be “good enough” for embroidery – or not. I look forward to more information about linen from you, as I totally trust your comments.

  12. Putting linen in the dryer is probably a good test of quality, but I beyond that, I never put linen in the dryer. The risk of more or less permanent creasing is too great even if you don’t quite dry the piece. It may not dry evenly so part of the item may be dry before you realize it and all that warmth and friction can make the threads a bit fuzzy. Besides, that’s what my mom told me, and one should always listen to one’s mother!

    1. About wrinkles: I sew a lot of linen clothes and I sew cotton for quilts. I found that the SPIN cycle in the washing machine is what puts wrinkles in place. Use medium spin and always shake your fabric out before putting it in the dryer. You can even stop the washer near the end of the spin cycle and shake your fabric before you put it into the dryer. Dry on normal but take out when still damp and lay the fabric out flat on a bed. I stack several pieces of one yard lengths on top of each other and smooth them flat as I go. It’s New Mexico so they dry quick and flat. The fabric is really nice and wrinkle-free. When ironing, I always spritz with distilled water first.

  13. Thank you for a very interesting topic. I’ll try to find some French or Belgian linen to buy somewhere in EU. Quite often I use Lithuanian linen, but I want to try theirs too. By the way, if you would like to try Lithuanian linen (I prefer this company’s: http://www.siulas.com/about-us.html, their shop: https://www.linenfashion.com/linen-fabrics.html), I could buy and send some to you. Simply write to me. It would be very interesting to hear your opinion.
    Only one ‘but’ about this linen: once we were a linen country and I likeour dark grey linen very much, but there is no Lithuanian flax at the moment (there was no 2-3 years ago and I doubt if something has changed.

  14. Bless you, Mary! I love making and wearing linen dresses, but finding the good stuff is really difficult. I just want a nice weight of navy blue linen for the “little black dress”. I haven’t received replies from on-line companies regarding the weights and fluidity. Looking for information, on-line and books, also gives no explanation. What does weight (7 oz.) mean exactly? per yard, sq. foot?? I know where to get a decent handkerchief linen for christening garments but they don’t have heavier weights for adults. Does color also make a difference? I got some linen/cotton sheets from Target. Very nice weight, suitable for a kimono robe, child’s dress and some totes. The pink, after washing, became very smooth and silky (really nice for slippery sleeping) and lost a ton of lint, but the natural remained rougher and didn’t lose the same amount of lint, they remained good for a warmer heavier sheet with no blanket. I would use the natural for a summer dress but not the pink. So, thank you for any information about linen weights and where to buy as this “little blue dress” will be a Magnum Opus and contain embroidery. RSmith

  15. Has anyone here ever embroidered on denim twill? I am thinking of doing a large chair cushion and was thinking of trying store-bought, not-blue denim for the embroidery, backed with a good muslin.

    1. I’ve been making totes out of worn blue jeans, and embroidering pockets from other parts of the jeans. Works great! I generally use 2 strands DMC floss and a size 8 needle. If I choose 3 strands for something, I use a little larger needle. I’ve had no reason to back the cloth though it’s well-worn (but not actually see-throughish 🙂


  16. Great article! I’ll be waiting to hear/read more results from your experimenting.

    My adventures have included forgetting to prewash fine linens for altar cloths and drying them in a dryer. Over time and use 120 inches can shrink almost 6 inches requiring some clever use of lace insertion to continue the use of said items.
    When it comes to linens for counted work I have a tendency to go for Belfast or Lakeside brands. It seems to be a little more difficult to obtain the heavy weight linen for crewel embroidery. I want to write ‘drill’ but that is a word for heavy weight cotton. My son would say ‘brain fade’ or ‘ lapses in the synapsis’ mom.

  17. I have had excellent experience over the years in garment sewing, with linen/cotton blends, and I think they would be suitable for non-magnum-opus embroideries as well. But one has to beware of all kinds of fabric called “linen” when what is actually meant is “linen-weave”.
    This was a very interesting post. I do remember when “Irish Linen” meant just that, and ordering linen and damask from catalogues!

  18. Dear Mary

    It’s really interesting what you said about Irish linen I had never thought about where the linen came from before and as you point out there are not many Irish linen mills anymore, I never considered where the linen was made. You can tell a lot about the quality of the linen when you wash it as you have shown. A really useful post for future reference when I want to buy not so expensive linen for embroidery. I look forward to the progress on your linen tests. Thanks for sharing the differences between the quality of linen with us and for the photos, I look forward to your progress on this.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  19. I LOVE linen! I’ve a good supply stash that I have carefully hoarded. Some is the lesser quality, for mock ups, practice, etc., but I think the best quality I ever found was from a couple in Ireland that weave their own fabric in their home. It is gorgeous, everything you want in your linen. The language barrier was not an issue, discovered between English & my (rusty) knowledge of German we communicated. I purchased 2 yards, & with shipping; came to <$30 total. I'm getting more. The next source I thought was exquisite was hand woven in Italy. (a 10" × 42" piece ran @$18usd) My cat found a small piece being prepped, made "dough" with it & ruined it. I learned a key lesson, hide the good stuff from kitty! Too be honest, it's almost scary to work on "good" stuff, the terror of ruining it, maybe my skills are lacking… I have a beautifully preserved, teeny, remnant from the mid 1700's, & I look at this mystery woman's work in envy & awe. She had no electricity, no computer magnifier, it gives me inspiration! I'm frugal, & have found decent quality linen for great prices, just look carefully. And if you do get some less than great linen, it's still linen & useable for something! BTW-this is the only site I ever read, Mary, you have a fine site!

    1. Hi, Karen – Yes, I do, just to get the sizing out. Some stitchers don’t – and some like to have the sizing in when they stitch, and then wash it afterwards. But I prefer to wash ahead of time. That way, if I have to wash it afterwards, there’s no shrinking going on.

  20. Thank you for this post. I’ve never found such comprehensive information about linen anywhere, and it’s much appreciated. I, too, love Alba Maxima, and I’ve used high-quality quilting cotton for needlepainting embroidery. I’ve found that it works well, but the quality of cotton is key. I’m curious now to find out more about Turkish linen. Thanks, Mary!

  21. Hi Mary,
    I love estate sales and have found beautiful Belgian linen tablecloths, still in their original packaging, for less than $20. The last set I purchased included six matching napkins that I have already used for small embroidery projects. (They wash up beautifully). I have even purchased well used 100% linen tea towels (for $1 a piece) and used them to create instantly old cross stitch samplers.

  22. I find many good quality linens in second hand stores. Often tablecloths or napkins, usually in pale colours such as beige or light blue even pale pink find there way to such places many of which have localized stains that are easily cut out as you divide the material in workable pieces. And the best part, the price is negligible. I’ve never spent more then 75 cents and that was for a huge beige tablecloth. The bonus is because it was a tablecloth you know it must wash well!

  23. Hi I have a query. I am making samples for approval of order. Personally I feel that fine and high quality linen brings out the best embroidery work. Fine quality linen really enhanced the beauty of embroidery work. Is my thinking right? If it is then what type of linen I should use.

  24. I love working with linen. I’ve bought my linen from Scarlet Letter for years, as well as a few other sources. Always fabulous quality.

  25. Great article…I am fairly new to Linen..having only tried it for my first time just over a year ago. Needless to say I’m hooked.
    That said i have stitched a few projects on just the standard Med weight clothing linen with great success! For these particular projects I loved the non uniform shape the design takes on and the extra heavy nubs and slubs that give the piece character.
    I wouldn’t however use them for that very special project you were talking about…for that I would use a much higher standard quality linen.
    Thanks again for a great article!!

  26. Where can one obtain really good quality linen? Is it possible for you to name stores you trust? I was recently looking at some beautiful linens at the French Needle on line shop, but I can tell if they are good quality linens just by looking at the website.
    I would be grateful if you could make some suggestions as to where to shop.
    Thank you. Mary Jo Neyer

    1. Hi, Mary Jo – I recommend Needle in a Haystack in Alameda, CA – they carry linens from Access Commodities. If you have a local needlework store nearby, you can find out if they can special order stuff for you from Access Commodities, as well. Their Legacy Linen line is excellent, especially Alba Maxima (medium weight white linen, about 40 threads per inch, closely woven, perfect for all kinds of surface work), their shadow work linen, their linen cambric, ecclesiastical linen, Strathaven linen, and any of their counted linens as well. Another online store that carries them is A Stitching Shop in Denver, Colorado.

  27. Hi Mary,

    This article is a must-save one, and I need to reread it and some of the comments you’ve received, but I find this timely in that I found myself the other day out of fabric for practicing stitches–the cheap, framed cotton I’d gotten at a chain shop was out of stock–so I decided (I’m a complete beginner, by the way) I should try the real thing and learn and explore on the right stuff. I found mention in your article about stitch samplers of Legacy Round Yarn linen and figured I’d try to find it. That very thing didn’t come up in a Web search, so I called Needle in a Haystack and was told that that product has been discontinued, so I asked the helpful person on the phone to help me, and she suggested a small length of Legacy Linen Alba Maxima (40 count) and one of Legacy Provincial Linen (20 count). Each piece (eighth of a yard, I think) was not too expensive, but I realize now I likely bought some very high-quality linen, maybe of the highest, and when I think about practicing stitches (rank beginner that I am) on such good cloth, I get a little unnerved. I hope I’m on the right track. Anyway, this is a very valuable article that will no doubt be a big help to me as I go.


    1. Go for it, Mike! Or, now that you have the feel of good linen in your hands, check out resale shops for something similar to use for practice, while waiting for inspiration to strike for the nicer pieces.

      My daughter works in such a shop, and has become my personal shopper for linen 🙂 Though some of the clothes she brings home seem too beautiful to cut up!


  28. Wow! Thank you for this informative post. Nowhere else would we learn this level of detail about linen ground fabric.

  29. Good subject! Good education! Someone once told me that good linens just get better with age (softer, less wrinkly) — and they don’t really “wear out”. This makes sense as the lesser qualities give up so much of their “hand” in lint and it must thin the linen, causing it to wear from just washing. I look forward to some of your further conclusions.

  30. Another very informative article. Most of my linen has been purchased through local needlework shops. I almost never wash it, as the items I’ve made won’t be laundered later. Your experiments are a real eye-opener. I’ve occasionally seen discussion of some of ‘bargain’ fabrics, but this makes me even less inclined to try them. I use mostly Wichelt & Zweigert; for”Magnum Opus” pieces I have used Graziano, Lakeside Linens, and Access Commodities — but they are typically special orders at my LNS of at least a stitcher’s half, which can be expensive. Some of the overdyed linens are very stiff. I prefer a softer drape and work with a scroll frame or stretcher bars. Looking for quality materials doesn’t make one a snob; it just means that you recognize that not all fabrics are created equal and you “kit up” according to the project.

  31. I found this very interesting! The subject of linen fascinates me endlessly – ever since my mother told me about Irish linen when I was a little girl. I read a brilliant article on it too, years ago, in the British magazine called Selvedge. I have come to the conclusion that linen described as Irish (when it clearly is not) is similar to the trend of calling coffee beans Blue Mountain as an indication of quality and not actual origin (because the origin was not registered to protect the use of the name). I always zigzag the raw cut edges of pieces of linen that I buy and wash in cold water on a normal cycle. I air dry the fabric on a rail and then shake it well and fold it. Even though I do not know the origin of the linen that I buy (from a supplier to the interior design industry, so would be intended for soft furnishings and upholstery) I do suspect it is from India. The selvedge never unravels in the wash at all, but the fabric shrinks handsomely and gives off an incredible amount of fluff. I also find that the weave of some of the linens, even if the fabric appears quite strong, proves problematic for drawing threads as they seem fragile and disintegrate when you pull them. I am interested in what other embroiderers have to say.

  32. I’ve ordered light-weight linen for sewing from Fabrics-Store.com a couple of times and have been pleased. I pre-washed and dried them and don’t remember seeing a huge amount of lint. Good service and wide variety. Thought you might like to check them out.

    1. Hi, Marilyn, I’ve also bought linens from Fabrics-Store.com for historical re-creation costuming, and found it very nice, comfortable fabric, long-wearing and easy to sew. I’ve a piece of the 7-ounce waiting to become a 16th-century dress, and used the 5-oz. to line a jacket, and the 3.4-ounce for shirts and an apron, embroidered with Holbein-stitch. It’s not quite a square- or even-weave; I worked the Holbein stitch over 3×4 threads and it came out nearly square. They carry an even lighter weight, which I’ve not seen for myself but am told it’s not finer (higher) thread-count but actually coarser – more like cheesecloth, albeit really good-quality cheesecloth that you might actually use for making cheese, rather than the flimsy stuff grocery stores sell for straining.

  33. Thanks Mary, this was a super informative article. I particularly enjoyed learning about the country of origin and how that relates to different linen grades/quality. I have sometimes looked at value linen on sites like Amazon but could not really assess quality and whether it was fit for an embroidery project. I’ll be interested to read about the results of your testing process later. 🙂

  34. I usually stitch on quality cotton of some kind. I’ve never done a “Magnum Opus” and really don’t have any plans to do so. But, since the creation of Pinterest I’ve seen such beautiful pictures of embroidery and now I realize it’s not only the embroidery itself but the fabric used. So, I’ve decided it’s a must for me. Two weeks ago I lost almost a whole weekend online trying to find and retain, in my brain, information on embroidery linen…even weave and/or plain weave. There really isn’t one place (or 10 places) for this information and even the sites I have found that sell linen don’t really offer any information. They assume we know quality, thread count, place of origin and the like. In the end I was back on your site reading older posts and found you are the best resource around. Thank-you for that……you just introduced me to woolandhoop for colored linen so I can start stitching monograms(from your Stitch Sampler Alphabet) for some Christmas present mirror compacts. All that rambling being said…any more information you’d like to provide would be greatly appreciated and I’ve learned my lesson…in the future I will start with your site instead of finishing with it. Thanks for all you do!

  35. What a great article; I am fascinated at the differences in quality!

    I had a question; I have recently bought some Legacy Linen (34 count) for a cross-stitch project, and pre-shrank it according to your instructions. I have never used pure linen before but thought after reading your blog that it was the right fabric for my project which will be a wedding present.

    I ended up having to store it for a few weeks before getting it out to iron, and although I have been liberally using the spray bottle and had the iron on the top heat and top steam setting, I can’t get out the fold-lines! What can I do about this?

    I am being driven mad by this, and would appreciate any help!

    1. Hi, Linda – I’d try soaking it for a few hours, then spread it flat on a towel, roll it and press it with your hands (don’t wring), then let it dry only a little bit. While it’s still damp, iron it. Be careful not to hold the hot iron in one place for long – keep the iron moving. Eventually, the center will dry a little more than the outside edges, and the edges will ripple – just keep ironing. Turn the fabric over now and then and iron both sides. Iron it until it’s dry. Even though you think it’s dry at this point, I usually will let my linen sit flat until the next day, to make sure it really is all the way dry. Hope that helps, and it takes care of the creases!

  36. I did a personal study of linen fabrics 3 or 4 years ago. 1 and 1/2 yards of fabric was purchased from several sources. The goal was to find the most affordable fabric that would serve as elegant altar linens. The desire was to hand embroider the altar linens and to do hemstitching on a select few pieces. The linen fabric from JoAnn’s and Hancock’s was purchased at a low price of $10-$15 per yard. The fibers were not pullable and would fray when I tried to remove them from the body of the fabric. Vogue fabrics offered Warsaw linen at that time at about $15-$20 per yard. The fibers were chunky, but pulled easily and made a fairly nice manly looking set of small altar linens. The set was hemstitched by hand which was easily accomplished because of the relatively loose chunky weave and strength of the fibers. Vogue also offered Vienna linen. Good stuff for altar linens. The next piece came from Bunny at ChurchLinens. It was superfine linen, gorgeous, but too small for my eyes to see to do hemstitching. If I remember correctly, it was between $20 and $30 per yard at that time. Next came AllBrands in Lafayette, Louisiana. The fabric was nice, but not real pullable and fibers a little on the tiny side for my eyesight ($20-$25 range). Finally was Ulster, which was the winner. The linen was from the Czech Republic. The fibers were pullable and the weave was fairly fine. There is a large minimum purchase required from Ulster, but the price was reasonable at <$25 per yard. On the second bolt I purchased from Ulster, the threads were not as easily removed. So, in the final analysis, linen suitable for hemstitching is either out of my price range or difficult to find. Also, nice linen can be purchased for under $30 per yard. No linen above $30 per yard was examined during my project. (I was afraid I would like them too much!!!) For making hand embroidered altar linens, I would definitely recommend fine linen fabric from Vogue, ChurchLinens, AllBrands, and Ulster. Still looking for affordable linen for hemstitching.

  37. Just an FYI about hand-dyed linens you’ll find at your LNS. Lakeside Linens, Weeks’s Dye Works, Picture This Plus, Hand-Dyed Fabrics by Stephanie, Primitive Hare, Black Cauldron, R&R, etc. all dye fabrics manufactured by someone else. They are solely the dyers. So each of them might dye fabrics from one or from several linen companies. For example, Lakeside dyes on Zweigart, Legacy and Graziano. Weeks dyes on Northern Cross as well as a French linen. PTP dyes solely on Zweigart. Dyers in other countries might use Zweigart or if they have a locally milled linen, dye it. If you are buying a hand-dyed linen and the source of the fabric matters to you, it’s always good to ask who made the base fabric.

    1. I bought some Kingston thinking its thread count (around 55) meant it would be fine, though I wasn’t thinking handkerchief fine. However, it’s very heavy and stiff, even after washing, even after tea dyeing and washing. Great for embroidery, but I would never think of it for handkerchiefs. In fact, as I like to embroider stuff that will be used as opposed to just hung on the wall, I really don’t know what to use it for!


  38. What a wealth of info on the linen fabric….. our needle group was going to order some linen to do Sardinian knotted embroidery and the info will help a lot. Thank you for posting this information.

  39. I like Sotema Linen of Milan, Italy. http://www.manifatturatessilesotema.it/en/company/about-us

    I am a linen snob. It’s my favorite fabric to sew, to embroidery and to wear! I never have to worry when I buy from Sotema. Use their contact page to request sample booklets of their linen. The shipping is not cheap, but it’s worth it. I’ve also purchased many yards of even weave.

    I just received linen batiste and it’s fabulous! Do check out the creative space.

  40. Interesting! I’m someone who pretty much *has* to buy needlework supplies online (assuming I don’t only want DMC or Anchor flosses and variations of Aida), and it’s super-hard to judge fabric quality from a photo on a website!

    However, I have been using charity shops as a source for clothing-quality linen – I’ve been collecting 100% linen garments in shades of green for some time now and am planning to turn them into a crazy-patchwork embroidered quilt with the addition of some rather sweet embroidered table mats I also found in a charity shop. Magnum Opus? Maybe not, but at least I know the linens I’ve got currently can stand up to a bit of washing! 🙂

  41. Well, not sure why you risked investing in Eastern Europe-Asian linens of obscure origin…
    Here in Europe practically everyone stitches on Zweigart linens (a German manufacturer). Can’t top those.
    I’m talking counted embroidery mostly, but larger count ones are suitable for any kind… And they are quite accessible

  42. Mary, you mention excellent fabric from Italy, Belgium and France? Where do you obtain these linens?

  43. Mary, some might think I am a tight wad, well that I might be. Maybe time to kill!
    Your item some time ago on Stumpwork gave me the idea what to do with scraps.
    I too had a bit of a shock when washing several lengths of linen. I was lucky in one way that I always machine sew two lines around the edge of the entire piece before washing.
    Even so I was amazed that there was a lot of fraying similar to what your photos showed. Even the really good stuff to the less expensive got tangles, or fluffing. After cutting all that tangle off I found I had about 1/2 a medium freezer bag of ends.
    Pure linen.
    When I thought of the cost of linen across the board, the miser in me clicked in. What a waste. Well the short of it was I carded the scraps as you card wool, it came out fine and the lengths in lovely soft fluff. I found a use for the fluff. I roll it into shapes to use in Stump work, and padding out embroidery. You can roll it hard/ dense, or a soft line just to lift slightly. It is a TV watching job.
    What I like about it is that it is all natural fibre, and I recycled.

  44. Hi mary, really thankful and feel lucky to have subscribed coz I have no idea what a linen cloth looks like, i have been and still searching for this type of cloth but still can’t find the right linen, unless i get a piece,touch and feel it, i wish someone could send me a small piece of this linen cloth

  45. Mary just a bit of a chit chat here. Burnt my hand and sewing and much anything else is off the books.
    I have noticed ( a bad thing to have too much time ) that not much adventure is coming through with a some younger people. Younger advisedly, as I am nearly 80 and the brain works very well.
    To my fellow embroiders, you are only limited buy your brain as to what you would like to sew on. If it has holes and you can thread fibre through it you are sewing.
    Over the years I have learnt to keep a work book, where I have every fabric I have used.
    I found this book invaluable when it comes to the more expensive ground fabrics. Cottons, Linens, silks, hessian, yes even hessian has grades. I only use my very best threads for the very best ground fabrics. Even ecclesiastical gold fabrics (well that is take a mortgage out getting that. Even so there are different grades in those and it depends where you get it from.
    Sewing on wire mesh, from copper, painted aluminium to the plastic ones. These I have sewn test squares. I use several types of threads to see how they are effected by the minerals in the wire.

    With the linen and silk I show price, type, place bought and when, along with colour name. Colour name is very important if you have to repair anything.
    I have self dyed ones and all details on those. I did a bit of conservation work for various places both public and private. Louis chairs, clothes of various eras etc, so it meant I had to dye with what was used in those times.

    Swatches are great, but sometimes you have to make a few mistakes. Shopping on line is handy but there is nothing better than being in a shop feeling the fabrics and talking to a person.

    What I like about your pages Mary is seeing new and variations of the stitches. We can all learn and keep up to date.
    A work book can be invaluable.
    Best advice, if you don’t give it a go, you will never know.

    Happy days all.


  46. Hi. I am wanting to make samplers, cushions etc for my Victorian 12th scale dolls house interiors. Could you advise what fabrics I should be using and what count. I will be using embroidery threads of 1,2,3 strands.

    Many thanks


  47. I’d be interested in an update of where to find quality linen online now that it’s a few years later. I went searching for the linen you mentioned and am not able to find it.

  48. I want to buy some very high quality linen to make Christmas stockings and add a bit of cross stitch to them. Can you recommend some linen fabric? I’m overwhelmed with all the choices.

    Thank you so much,

    1. Hi, Julie – I’d suggest contacting Cathe at Needle in a Haystack (www.needlestack.com). They offer a wonderful range of good quality linen, and she’ll be able to narrow down choices for you.

  49. I really appreciate this article. I’ve done most of my embroidery on cotton. I’ve gotten a little better and would like to start using linen. I’m definitely not ready for Maxima Alba, but I don’t want to waste time, even on little projects, with the junk you just illustrated. I’m currently working on a bath towel for my sister. Not an important piece, but will be washed a lot. If it going to be like some of your examples, I would have rather gotten some better linen.

    I’ve been studying your linen articles (and there a LOT of them) but I still need some advice. I am just doing regular surface embroidery using floss or other comparable threads, maybe some beads. I won’t be doing any counted work, what count should I get. I’m not so anxious to use linen that I will pay over $100 a yard, but I would spend $50. Can you recommend some choices.

    Sorry if I went overboard, but enquiring minds (or mind) want to know.

    1. Sorry Mary. I was paging up from the most recent posts and this came up. I didn’t check the date. You can discard this because the comments and your replies gave me the answers I needed LOL. Thanks for everything.

  50. Hello,
    I need a good piece of linen 57 x 57” for my magnum. It is a wool applique quilt with tons of embroidery on both the wool appliqués and the background linen. It is a pattern called “Round the Garden” by Wendy Williams of Flying Fish Quilts out of Australia. It’s a wall hanging. I’m modifying the pattern replacing many of the houses with barns.

    What thread count/weight would you suggest? I have looked at the Access site but I’m still not sure what I should get. I didn’t see the Alba Maxima you mentioned.
    Your insight would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi, Leslie – I just looked that up. It’s really wonderful – a colorful and big piece of work! What does the designer recommend? I’d probably try contacting the designer directly, to see what weight of linen she recommends, if it is worked on linen. Many of the samples I saw online look like they are worked on quilting cotton, but I can’t really tell by the photos.

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