I love linen - the nubby texture, the subtle color variations. My very first quilt was sashed with 100% natural linen and since then I've used it in all sorts of works, both 100% linen and linen/cotton blends like Essex. Unfortunately, of the three quilts made with linen that I kept and subjected to multiple machine washings, all three showed linen to be an untrustworthy bedfellow. In each quilt the linen unraveled to a greater or lesser extent at the seams, so that the seam stitches remained in tact, but many seams gave way. So unfair!
Sometimes I think I'll just give up linen for good, but one way or another I seem to find myself letting it back into my life. In fact, I'm including lots of linen in my current quilt-in-progress! Today I thought I'd share some advice for other quilters who find themselves falling for linen's charming ways. If you'll be combining linen and quilting cotton in your patchwork, take heed!
Linen Patchwork without Regrets
no. 1 Always prewash linen. Linen may shrink at a different rate than your quilting cottons. To reduce stress at the seams and to reduce shrinkage in those critical linen seam allowances, machine wash and dry your linen to induce shrinkage before cutting and sewing.
no. 2 Avoid lightweight fabrics. Beware of patching linen with fabrics such as voile, cotton lawn and double gauze. These substrates are even lighter weight than quilting cotton and thus even more likely to fail. The difference in fabric weight increases stress at the seams, making seams more likely to fall apart.
no. 3 Starch if shifting is a problem. When quilting with 100% linen you may find that accurate cutting and stitching is made quite difficult due to the shifty nature of linen, which often has a loose weave. Spray starch or Best Press (my favorite) on linen before cutting. Turn the fabric over and press on the opposite side of the fabric to set the starch. This will temporarily stiffen the fabric. Add as many layers of starch as you like!
no. 4 Consider a large seam allowance. Since linen unravels much easier than quilting cotton, the seam allowances are prone to unravel, causing seams to fail. Increase your seam allowance to 1/2" to greatly improve quilt durability. Most of the time, you'll want to increase all your seam allowances in the quilt to 1/2" for straightforward sewing.
no. 5 Sew with a short stitch length. An easy and convenient way to make linen patchwork more durable is to sew with a shorter stitch length, such as 1.5. It is harder for the linen to unravel through the stitched seam if the stitches are closer together.
no. 6 Consider finishing linen seams. If you did not use a larger seam allowance, I strongly suggest you finish all linen seams with a zigzag stitch to guard against unraveling. After sewing your 1/4" seam and before pressing, sew a zigzag stitch along the raw edge of the seam allowances. The zigzag should not go past the straight stitch, so that it does not show on the right side. The zigzag will fall slightly off the edge of the seam allowances, wrapping and somewhat encasing the raw edges. Then press seams to the side.
If you used 1/2" seam allowances, you could finish seams with a pinked edge. Run a rotary cutter fitted with a pinking blade just along the raw edge, creating an uneven edge that is less prone to unraveling.
no. 7 Quilt generously. If you're ever tempted (as I am) to quilt minimally, resist that temptation when quilting your linen patchwork. Quilting over seams is an excellent way to reinforce them! How much is enough? One good rule of thumb is that you should not be able to put your palm down anywhere on the quilt without covering some quilting. A linen patchwork quilt is not a good candidate for tying, in my opinion.
In my current quilt, I have included both 100% mocha brown linen and Essex linen/cotton blend in natural. Since I had already started cutting the diamonds for this quilt before deciding to add linen, I was already committed to 1/4" seam allowances. I prewashed my linen and am treating linen seams specially. For linen seams, I am stitching with a short stitch length and am finishing seam allowances with a zigzag stitch before pressing those seams to the side.
It's a little extra work, but I'm convinced it's necessary when quilting with linen!