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Sewing handwoven underarm seams

WestVirginiaWeaver | Posted in Gather For A Chat on

What I would like to see in Threads is an exhaustive article on how to sew underarm seams using handwoven fabric. I can’t seem to find just the right solution to the problem.

If you merely serge the seam, it is reasonably flexible, but will it wear well? I tried binding a seam once and had to cut it out and redo it entirely. How closely do you trim the seam? What kind of unraveling preventive?

And what do you do with the shoulder seam that feeds into the underarm seam?

West Virginia Weaver
Rainbow Weaving in WV


  1. sewelegant | | #1

    Before anyone would be able to answer your question they would need to know a lot more about the fabric you have created.  What is the fiber content?  Is it loosely woven? lightweight or heavy? Is it nubby or smooth?  Is it lacy?  I do not know anyone who handweaves but I would assume those who do it can make anything they choose, just like in knitting and crocheting.  When you say underarm seams, just what do you mean?  Are you inserting sleeves?  Or is it sleeveless?  I do not understand why you had to cut away some binding you had done before because it would seem to me that using a very lightweight "Seams Great" type of binding around the edge would be perfect to control the fabric from ravelling, but if you are thinking sleeveless, then that would call for turning the edge under, maybe, or applying a facing of some kind.  There are a lot of options so one would need more information before figuring out a solution.

  2. User avater
    ThreadKoe | | #2

    Many of the couture jackets that you see are made with difficult fabrics, and handwovens. The trick to it I think is to stabilize the fabric in the area, usually by underlining the pieces. If this is not possible in the styles you are making, then you need to stitch the underarm area with two closely set(1/4in) apart seams. This then can be overcast by hand or machine. It is soft, flexible and sturdy. The area from the underarm to the sleeve cap is graded or sloped out to a wider trimming. These edges can also be overcast. The object is to get a neat clean finish. Binding is done to enclose the seam allowances, also known as a Hong Kong finish. Most good sewing, and tailoring books will have good instructions on both.
    Serging the seams is a strong, flexible finish that encloses the seam allowances also. You will still need to double stitch the underarm for security and wear. It is also great to prevent ravelling, and can add a decorative factor if you wish. Serging the seam allowance edges before construction can help prevent ravelling as you are working with the fabric as well.
    Top stitching or flat felled, or mock felled seams are great for dropped shoulder styles, or raglans. It encloses and strengthens the armhole areas at the same time.
    I hope you find this helpful. Cathy

    1. WestVirginiaWeaver | | #3

      Sewelegant,The fabric is usually cotton, woven of 10/2 sett at 24 ends per inch, woven plain weave and or twill with 10/2, beat to about 20 ends per inch. It has a nice hand and doesn't ravel immediately, you have to handle it some before it begins to ravel. By "underarm" seams, I mean the seam intersection that results when you sew a sleeve in (not too fitted) then sew the body-arm seam that crosses it. Sleeveless is not a problem.Seams Great melts when you iron it and is unsuitable for use, in my opinion. (I had great hopes for it, until I got my hands on some.)The binding I mentioned earlier was so stiff that the garment was unwearable.
      I make light-weight, unlined garments. I usually bind edges with bias which works very well. For those troublesome underarm seams, the stitching with two close stitching lines sounds like a good idea to try. You do recommend serging for the final finish???!!! (Before sewing the garment seams.) (After the two rows of straight stitching.) I like serging the seams, easy to do, looks good - my concern was how well it would wear. Thanks for your input!
      Cyndi Bolt
      West Virginia Weaver

      1. User avater
        ThreadKoe | | #4

        Serging or coverlock stitches wear well. They are threads enclosing the seam allowances. The idea is to use a stitch length that encloses, but does not get too stiff. I would only stitch the underarm once before serging, as the serging would be the 2nd line of stitches and the edge finish all in one. Like all areas of stress, such as underarms, and crotch seams, double stitching and trimming close is usually all that is required, for both finish and strength. The serging just adds that little extra. RTW uses this all the time. Often only single stitching with the serger on the under arm. Garments tend to wear well. If pulling apart at the underarm is still a problem, perhaps there is not enough fitting ease through your sleeve and shoulder in your pattern? Wear is inevitable, but I think the stitching will last longer than the fabric. Cathy
        PS, there are several good books on Serger Techniques that are widely available. You might want to get your hands on one for a better understanding of the serger's capabilities. There are several past posts here under search on them. Try searching under MaryinColorado, as she has some really good advice as well. :)

        Edited 6/17/2009 9:53 am ET by ThreadKoe

      2. sewelegant | | #5

        I think Seams Great is made of nylon and would need the nylon setting on your iron, but anyway... I always used this before I got my serger and just used a lower heat setting than cotton and do not remember melting being a problem.  (I probably never used it on cotton, come to think of it)

        If I were making this I would probably sew the garment body together and press open the side seams then serge each seam allowance separately.  To reduce bulk I would do the same with the sleeve seam, but make its width a bit smaller so the fabric would be "layered".  RTW would just serge with the seam closed and that's OK, but if you want the garment to last a long time you will have noticed that RTW is not meant for durability.

        1. WestVirginiaWeaver | | #6

          Thank you for your suggestions. I feel much better about sergery now. I have a serger book and will re-read it. Thanks again.I'd still like to see a Threads article on this tho...,
          Cyndi Bolt
          West Virginia Weaver
          Rainbow Weaving in WV

          1. jjgg | | #7

            Cindy,My first question is why are you sewing the side seam and underarm seam as one, and not inserting the sleeve (in the round so to speak). I know in men's wear, sleeves are put in this way, I just personally don't like the look of it in the underarm. BUT, that is a personal choice and it is easier sometimes to put it in your way.There really are many ways of doing this, I think someone said to double stitch the seam, you could also just zig zag over the edges - this may be a little less bulky than the serged seam. (and do each side separately - don't serge or sew the 2 edges together. What did you bind the seam with that you didn't like? Did you bind both edges together? have you tried doing like a hong kong finish with a very sheer silk charmeuse - that shouldn't add too much bulk. I might also use that to bind the sleeve/shoulder seam.

          2. WestVirginiaWeaver | | #8

            Side and underarm seam in one go: well, yes, it is easier. That's the way I prefer to do it. It seems to look okay on my loose, very unstructured garments. I was concerned about wearability, mainly.U usually sew the sleeve to the garment, tapering the ends of the seam to near a small seam. These are either selvage edges or cut and serged edges. Then sew the side-underarm seam with enough allowance to: 1) press the concavely curved seam into a convex seam, 2) serge over it which trims it to about 1/2 to 5/8 inches wide. This seems to fit okay for my taste.Cyndi Bolt
            Rainbow Weaving in WV

          3. jjgg | | #9

            I took some weaving lessons once, and would really love to get into it more, but, I know when something is not a good idea for me! LOL all the other STUFF I would accumulate! Not just a loom or two but all the yarns, and then I guess would come the spinning and the fibers! When would I ever sew? My sister weaves (and knits) and spins - she goes to the 'sheep to shawl' contests

          4. MaryinColorado | | #12

            Why not try a serged safety stitch under the arm and side seam and forgo the sewing machine entirely?  Mary

          5. WestVirginiaWeaver | | #13

            What is a serged safty stitch?I have a very old serger that does only three thread and four thread stitching. No differencial feed. It has served me well.I think the machine stitching is necessary for the actual seam. I am finishing a jacket (unstructured) with my usual technique: serge out the sleeve (top and two sides), sew onto the selvage edge of the garment in a dropped sleeve style. Looks nice so far. I shortened the serger stitch for the edgework so the stitches are closer together.Cyndi Bolt

          6. MaryinColorado | | #14

            It's five thread serged seam.  It's usually done with a 3 thread coverstitch and looks like a serged edge with a row of chainstitch about 1/8" inside of that.  It works extremely well for loosely woven fabrics, especially popular with handweavers.  It stitches the seam and finishes the edge in one sweep.

            My second choice would be a straight stitch on a regular sewing machine, then the two thread overlock (to prevent bulk). (Do you have a converter that attaches to your serger?  If not, then a three thread would be okay too.)

            Are you concerned with ravelling edges or strictly looking for a nicely finished edge with a strong seam? 

            I think you will have less bulk if you straight stitch the seam and then serge the 2 edges together.  (you might even want to do a test run with a soft yarn like serger thread such as YLI Success Serger Yarn (acrylic) in the loopers and a longer stitch length.  It feels softer against the skin too.  (Wooly Nylon might melt with a hot iron or I'd suggest that possibility too, sometimes I think it feels a little itchy though most people like it.)

            Hope this helps!  I'd love to see your finished top!  It must be a wonderful experience to weave your own fabric.  Kudos to you!  Mary

            I was thinking the YLI Success Serger Yarn might be nice because of less holes but you'd still get the edge coverage.  

            Edited 6/30/2009 12:36 am by MaryinColorado

          7. WestVirginiaWeaver | | #15

            I didn't know about the YLI Serger Success thread. That sounds like something I'd like to try. Wait til I catch up with some of it...
            I've used wooly nylon and like the spreading/covering it does but it does melt if you iron it too hot and I'm a fan of hot pressing!
            If I have time today, I'll take a new photo of the finished Jacket. The photo space is cluttered at the moment and I'm dragging out display for a show, set up tomorrow.
            Thanks for your serging thoughts!
            Cyndi Bolt
            Rainbow Weaving in WV

          8. loomchick | | #10

            If you can find early copies of Threads, there is handweaving in there . . . although, I don't recall any specific article on sewing with handwoven fabric.  In fact, the very first issue of Threads had handweaving on the cover.  I think there's only so much scope a single publication can handle.

            There are some really good articles on sewing with handwoven fabric by Stephanie Corina Goddard in some recent issues of Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot.  This is the publication the Handweavers Guild of American (HGA) publishes.  If you have a yarn store in your area, you may be able to find them available. 

  3. sec | | #11

    One option that I have used in the past when I can not fuse the whole garment, is to fuse the seam allowance. Cut a strip of fusible the width of the seam allowance plus another 1/8" to 1/4", so if the seam allowance is 3/8", cut the fusible strip 5/8". Fuse the seam allowances, making sure the fusible is well adhered to the fabric, then sew the seams.

    Option #2: after seaming, press the seam allowance to one side, then topstitch 1/8" away from the seam . This will reinforce the seam, and help stabilize it with out adding bulk

    Option #3: if needed, serge edges, join seams and press open. Cut a strip of fabric the width of the open seam allowance, so if it is 3/8" seam, cut 3/4". Place strip under the seam allowances, pin in place to prevent shifting, and topstitch through all layers 1/8" to 1/4" away from the seam. You can use lining or self fabric if it is thin for the strip.


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