After doing my Victorian workshops I realised I haven’t really written here about a major source of headaches for me in making historic garments: modern thread is generally made for a machine.
It’s also incredibly fine.
I like to try and use a very short stitch and even triple stitch where I can and that means basting the schiznitt out of everything so that unpicking that is a nightmare. To the point it is more stable than a straight sewn seam even before I get it under the foot. I am not entirely sure I have found a thread that is readily available that actually matches historic threads and yet passes modern ideas of how invisible stitches need to be.
So what am I talking about? Surely there isn’t that much difference?
First is the gauge (thickness) I tend to use two strands for everything because of the needed strength.My victorian bodices have a thread much more like my vintage cotton threads and actually even a bit heavier. I do have the remnants of similar weight thread in some very old long bobbins and it matches the vintage stuff well enough that I think the machine was used even in the mid 20thC.
Second is twist. It’s quite hard to tell but, yes, like a twill the spin can be Z or S (see the middle section of those letters? That’s the direction of the pattern in a twill and corresponds to a clockwise or counter clockwise twist in a yarn.) Modern thread is the opposite spin to what is needed for a right handed stitcher. So if your threads twist up, it’s not just you. And of course when you double thread that twist goes up then down and makes for even more snarls. Also this is part of the reason one side of the thread gets shorter than the other. But waxing thread still works even on modern polyester threads so try and grab a block 🙂
Thirdly when sewing by hand the thread goes through each stitch for the length you sew. So by the end of your work that thread has gone through the fabric multiple times. But there is also the wear of the eye of the needle that is only at the end of doubled and probably for the last 1/3 or so of a single strand work. In a machine thread only passes through a single stitch. But each and every stitch has passed through the eye of the needle.
Fourth thread types and chemical threatments and dye types all have a part to play. Even now I find thread dyed black to shred more frequently than any other colour. Of all the readily available threads the very best is Metrosene. I can’t break it by hand where I can break even Gutermann by hand.
Finally, ply. Our ply is super obvious. If you have ever had difficulty threading a needle (machine or hand) you’ll know this. But when I look at historic garments the ply is not so obvious. Over time what this does is allows the thread to swell or flatten against the fabric. Not quite a floss but not heavily twisted and chemically treated to shrink the fibres into smoothness and strength (fun fact, linen can be mercerised! I have 11m of orange linen that was so shiny we all doubted the other evidence- until the burn test,)
Anyway. I just finished doing some handsewing that is obvious even if only on the inside and I am already looking to see if any of my vintage threads can be used to mask the overtly modern thread.