Kimberly Servello's Embroidery Blog

Kimberly Servello - Pattern Drawer and Embroideress

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Alluring Elegance of Finely Worked Insertion Seams

"Know first who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly."  
Epictetus (55-135ad)

I find myself drawn to a detail of Elizabethan linen shirts & smocks that most people would overlook, namely, openwork insertion seams.  There's a quiet elegance about them that speaks to me.  They are an art in themselves.

I'm sure that 5 centuries ago someone like myself, with an eye for detail, took the time to take these seams beyond utilitarian to utterly sublime.

My first exposure to these seams was years ago on an early 17th century blackwork jacket at the V&A museum.  I was viewing it online and at first was so entranced with the blackwork speckling that I didn't notice the seams.  Fortunately, the V&A included a closeup of these, which I consider the Mercedes of Openwork seams.  The seams run down the backs of the sleeves.  If you look at the closeup photo, in the open area of the seam is an intricate, weblike needlelace.

While I admired their beauty, it was more than I wanted to tackle learning at the time.  I was studying the jacket to learn how to do the blackwork speckling.  (Those of you familiar with my blackwork purse will recognize the pomegranate that resulted from studying this jacket.)

The next time I came across openwork seams was in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 4.  There are many good closeups of insertion seams - for those of you who own a copy of the book, reference pp. 6,17,18,19,20,22 to name a few.

In some cases, the open area of the seam has intricate needlelace.  Others have plain insertion stitching, but have matching silk embroidery adorning either side of the seam.  The linen on both sides of the seam have been hemmed first, and the insertion stitches, and possibly the matching embroidery, have been added afterwards.

Some of the pieces in Janet's book are also available online:

Boy's shirt at the V&A Museum: T112-1972 - Unfortunately, there's only a glimpse of the seam in the shoulder on the overall photo (upper left).
A man's linen shirt at the Fashion Museum, Bath has been extensively photographed and shared on Flickr.   ( Make sure you thoroughly investigate the page.  There are really nice, clear photos of a blackwork jacket, and a polychrome jacket as well, in addition to other pieces from other eras. )  

Once again, upon coming across these seams in Janet's book I made a mental note to come back to them one day and give them a try.

In early March Spring came to Pennsylvania and I decided I needed a lightweight pink linen scarf.  This time, I wanted to try a longer scarf that would allow for more wraps around the neck.  The dilemma - my pink cambric weight linen was only 2 yards long.  The solution?  An openwork insertion seam, or two.  Necessity is the Mother of Invention and apparently of Art as well.  I decided to start with a simple seam. 

Looking through Janet's book, I found a linen shirt (p. 20) with a simple, yet elegant seam in the neckband.  This was a regular seam, not an insertion seam.  The embroidery consisted of French knots and 4-sided stitch.  Simple stitches, that when combined, create a beautiful pattern.    I decided to use a modified version of the embroidery for either side of my seam.  My scarf consists of 3 pieces of linen, 1 piece 2 yards long, and 2 pieces 7-1/2" long.  All 3 pieces are the same width - about 10" wide.  The photo above shows 2 hemmed edges ready to be attached.  I used the Antique Hem technique to hem each piece.  

Now I'm ready to add the insertion seam.  I've decided to use a Spring green for the insertion stitching.  I will also add fringes to the bottom of the scarf in the same color.  

Check back to see how this project progresses over the next few weeks.


I've completed the insertion seams.  The Spring green color I worked them in helps to make the seams pop.

I haven't found much information on how to work these seams.  In fact, the only sources I found are a few diagrams and photographs in  Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 4, and some instructions in T. de Dillmont's Encyclopedia of Needlework.  If anyone knows of another source, please contact me.

I chose a seam which was both diagramed in Arnold's book, and included in de Dillmont's...

from Patterns of Fashion 4 by J. Arnold
from Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework by T. deDillmont

It consists of groups of 3 Buttonhole stitches, with the center stitch about twice the length of the 2 outer stitches.  Therese deDillmont's instructions state that both pieces of linen should be lying flat while the seam is stitched.  I found this uncomfortable and in the end I folded the 2 pieces of linen at the area of the seam and stitched them like that.  After ironing the seam it lays flat and doesn't appear to look any different for having been stitched at a different angle.  It was quite fun to work.  If you like hemming by hand, you'll enjoy doing this.

Here you can see the seam in process.  The 2 pieces of linen to be seamed have been placed together with wrong sides facing each other.  Pick a side to start with and begin the buttonhole stitches.

The needle pierces one piece of linen at a time.  So, in this step the needle pierces the top piece of linen only.

The first buttonhole stitch is complete.

The second buttonhole is about twice
 the length of the first.

The third buttonhole is the same
length as the first.

Next, complete the same sequence of buttonholes on the second piece of linen.

 I turned the piece in my hands so that the side I was working on was facing me each time.  The thread is run back and forth between the 2 pieces of linen to work groups of buttonholes first on one piece, then on the other.  It's the thread connecting the groups of 3 that actually holds the 2 pieces together.

The fringes on the scarf need to be completed yet.  I ran out of floss and am awaiting my package in the mail.  As soon as the fringes are complete, I will post a pic of the finished scarf.

Here are the photos of the completed scarf that I promised.  As I mentioned before, I wanted a scarf that was longer than 72" (the length of my pink linen material) so I added more fabric to each end using a decorative seam technique used in Elizabethan times (and probably long before that).
The green floss I had ordered finally arrived in the mail, allowing me to complete the fringes.  

I used a simple technique for the fringes.  These were made with 6 stranded DMC floss in color 471 to match the embroidery in the seam.  
I simply wound the skeins of floss around a credit card and cut along one edge of the card to get my lengths of floss, all the same length.

Next, I took each piece of floss, folded it in half, without separating out the strands.  Using a fine crochet hook, I pulled the loop of floss through a hole in the bottom hem of the scarf, then passed the floss ends through the loop creating a fringe.  I repeated this for every other hole in the hem.

Materials used:

Cambric weight linen, pink.
DMC 6 stranded cotton floss, color 471 green (fringe)

For the embroidery on the seam:
DMC Coton a broder No. 25, color 471 green
DMC Coton a broder No. 25, color 761 pink


  1. I'm used to seeing these things in white, it looks very different in pink

    1. Yes, I love monochromatic embroidery, although it never occurred to me to limit myself to white.

    2. I can never keep white clean, so I only use it for shifts

  2. How very interesting! And pretty :-). Great links!

  3. Oi amiga
    Adorei seus trabalhos, Parabéns!!!!

    Fique com Deus!
    Beijos do Brasil.

  4. I've wanted to do this myself, and just never got around to it. I shall enjoy watching your project as a surrogate!

    1. Had you gotten as far as deciding which insertion stitch to use? That's the point I'm at now.

  5. Thank you for explaining this! I plan on making a decorative shirt as a gift, and I want to seam it all together with these nice open stitches, but I couldn't figure it out just from Arnold's book. Thank you for the clear and simple play-by-play!

  6. This came out so beautiful--the insertion seams really makes the scarf special--

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