This page will cover the very basics of sewing. If you've done anything more than sew a button-hole you'll probably find much of this pretty obvious. Bear with me. I didn't know it when I first started.
Do I have to handsew everything?!Yes and no. I hand-sew virtually everything, but that has more to do with my inability to sew a straight seam with a machine than a lust for authenticity. Hand-sewing is, obviously, far more period-correct than machine-sewing but Kentwell, unlike some reenactment groups, doesn't require everything be hand-sewn. It does, however, require that there be no visible machine sewing. Remember the public will be getting pretty close and sometimes may pick up and examine discarded garments like sleeves or coats. So your costume must look machine stitch free, inside and out, at close inspection.
I'd recommend, at minimum, finishing all your lined garments by hand. That means only machine sewing those bits that will end up hidden between lining and outer fabic. I'd also suggest hand-sewing all your linens - shifts, petticoats, aprons and coifs. Because these garments are unlined there's no way to hide the stitches. If you absolutely must machine sew them, then use a straight stitch in a toning colour thread. Nothing screams "machine" quite as loudly as zig-zag stitch!
Equipment and Materials
At a bare minimum you need
Linen thread is period-correct and is lovely to use for hand-sewing but can be difficult to get hold of, particularly in colours. The Guttermans stuff that John Lewis sell is too thick and stiff for sewing with. I've managed to track down fine linen thread in embroidery shops before - it's used for crochet and lacemaking. But now I'm ordering linen thread from Threadneedle Street and am utterly delighted with it. I use the Londonderry Linen thread in size 80/3. I cannot sing the praises of these guys highly enough - they filled my order within days, answered email queries helpfully and patiently, and the thread itself is gorgeous. Very pleased.
If that's too much hassle, then in my experience cotton thread is less tangly and horrible to sew with than the synthetic kind. It's also readily available. It's worth spending the extra pound or two to get good-quality stuff as it'll fray, break and knot much less.
Use 'sharps' or 'crewel' needles. Sharps are all-purpose needles designed for hand-sewing. Crewels are the same thing, but with a bigger eye to take thicker threads. Avoid embroidery or ball-point needles. These have a round tip designed to push between fibres in your fabric rather than cut them. You'll be making things a little more difficult if you try and use these.
As a general rule of thumb, the smaller/thinner the needle then the lighter the fabric its intended to sew. In practice, I use whatever happens to be lying around when I want to sew. Very large/thick needles can make large holes in linen, which spoils the look of your seam a little.
Sewing, basically, boils down to tying pieces of fabric together with thread. There are lots of different stitches but, at the end of the day, as long as the bits of fabric are joined you can't have gone far wrong. Here are a few stitches I use regularly:
Hemming: the easy way
Start off by ironing a fold all the way along the edge of your fabric about as deep as you want your hem to be. As a rough guide, a centimetre is about the right ball-park. Fold this hem over again so that the rough edge is hidden. You're going to be sewing this fold to the underneath fabric.
I don't, by the way, normally sew in purple on beige. Not unless the cats have been particularly artful at hiding my thread. But it does make it easier to see.
Hemming: the correct way.
This is a little neater but a little slower.
Start by ironing a fold in exactly the same way as for the easy hem. Then, working parallel to the hem, pick up a single thread of the base fabric on your needle. Pass the needle through the very edge of the fold, pull taught and repeat. Because, unlike in the easy hem, needle and thread are always kept in line with the fold in the fabric, the thread virtually disappears into that fold.