Heirloom Sewing is best described as Decorative Plain Sewing, used when you need sturdy stitches that are beautifully rendered ( as opposed to being hidden). Heirloom Sewing is meant to be seen and must be decoratively attractive.
For example, a roll-wrapped linen hem finish, which “shows” and is an Heirloom Stitch, is far stronger than a hand stitched blind hem, which is a Plain Sewing Stitch.
What is “Plain Sewing“?
A dated term, Plain Sewing was taught to school girls during the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Darning, hand sewing, seams, and linens, all fit under this tag.
It is the start of a girls training in the skill and art of sewing for her future home and family.
It differs from strictly decorative sewing, such as Embroidery.
Baby clothes and handkerchiefs:
Another difference between Plain Sewing and Heirloom is that Plain uses self-thread or stronger, whereas Heirloom uses finer threads that are of a higher quality. Elegant findings, such as shell buttons and silk ribbons are used to embellish the items.
Costly delicate and pure, natural fabrics are used, justifying the time involved. Silk and cotton batistes, piques and handkerchief linens are most often used, in whites and baby pastels since it lends itself well to the dainty look.
Decorative yet strong:
Heirloom Sewing tends to be sturdier than other types of constructional sewing or garment making because the stitching is allowed to show itself, hence, it circumvents the most treasured talent of sewing altogether, which is the mastering of invisible stitchery.
An asset of Heirloom is its attractive finish which permits exhibition of decorative stitches.
What makes it timeless?
Care is taken to use materials and equipment similar to bygone methods in order to achieve its timeless look.
Specialty threads that are non-mercerized or are minimally dyed or non-treated are used.
Fine- combed stable cottons, silks and linens are the fabrics of choice.
Stitches are executed with the intention of creating a sinking-in or high blending of, the sewing threads to the article fabric. This is achieved by removing a row of threads from the fabric, and replacing it with the sewing thread.
Heirloom Sewing can be identified by the choice of stitches used on the project. Handbound eyelets, and scallop edging, are two staples of heirloom articles.
The most recognized stitch, however, is the Hemstitch (see illustrations below).
This stitch, along with the Ladder Stitch, has led to the creation of many Needlemade Laces.
From heirloom to lace
Hemstitching itself, morphs into an embroidery group, called Pulled Work, which is a lace done on commonweave or evenweave fabric.
If thread is pulled out from the “warp” direction, this could then become an offshoot of Drawn Work, which leads to even more lacework styles, too numerous to list here.
Plus there’s Smocking and Entredeux
Entredeux, or French Handsewing, is another popular outcome of the heirloom style of sewing.
Swiss entredeux is the name of the machine-made ladderback style insert, typically found on ladies blouses.
There is even a branch of Heirloom Sewing called French Handsewing by Machine – which conjures up a sense of irony!
Smocking is a division unto itself in the world of sewing, having entrenched roots in Sweden and Australia.
Smocking designs are commonly found as stunning bodices on girls’ bishop-style dresses.
Worth the time
There are many adherents to the Heirloom style of sewing. Many feel that the time and effort, which can take weeks or even months for completion, is time well spent. The sense of making something beautiful enough to “pass down” is very satisfying, indeed.