The “Elizabethan Seam” and outer garments

Twice in the last week, I’ve seen a link to Mistress Isobel’s “The Elizabethan Seam” with the question “well, yes, we’ve all seen this in smocks and shirts, but is there any extant example that isn’t a smock or a shirt?” If you don’t feel like clicking the link, the gist of it is that a very strong hand sewn seam can be made by hemming your pattern pieces then whip stitching them together.

Everyone pull out your copy of Janet Arnold’s “Patterns of Fashion 3”. The following images show seams that I’m certain are whip-stitched together:

  • Page 18, image 105. Nils Sture’s pluderhose are whip stitched together. The pieces are finished with a bound hem.  (1567)
  • Page 24, image 156. There are black whip stitches on white fabric. (1590-1600)
  • Page 25, image 167 (1610)
  • Page 52, image 370. The pieces of that shoulder wing are whip stitched together. (1610-1620)

Yes, you can tell the difference between whip stitch and running stitch with a close enough photo. For a contrasting example, see image 197 on page 29. If you look very, very closely (possibly with a magnifying glass if you’re less myopic than I am), you can see that stitches alternate direction /  \  /  \   This is the sign of a running stitch. In contrast, the seams listed above have parallel lines running across the seam: |  |  |  |

Only one of these examples lets us see how the edges were finished before the whip stitch was done. I would love to see inside photos of the others, but alas that bit of information remains a mystery. Well, a mystery except that we do have other examples in shirts and smocks, and now that we know the “hem then seam” technique does occur beyond the realm of linens, I think it is safe to expect the types of hemming used to match as well.

There aren’t many extant garments from the early 16th century, and “Patterns of Fashion 3” starts in 1560, so I can’t show you earlier examples, but I hope this does answer that question for the next time it comes up.

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