1930s Sew-along with Norma: Conditioning basting and hand sewing threads


In  Courture Sewing Techniques Claire Schaeffer describes how the seamstresses who work for the Paris couture houses always use waxed thread when hand sewing.  Each strand is cut a particular way, run through beeswax and then ironed.  The heat from the iron melts the wax and ensures the thread is evenly coated.  The result is an abosultely straight strand of thread that will rarely, if ever, knot or tangle when doing fine hand sewing.

I am not sure if this technique was in use among the home sewistas of the 1930s but since it is used in fine dressmaking I have adapted this technique to working on my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  The rayon challis I’m using requires much TLC so I thought it would be good to condition not only the hand sewing thread but the basting thread, too.

What follows is an adaptation of the technique Claire describes.  In all honesty I’m not down to the level of granularity she presents in her book.  I simply do not have the time to wax and press one strand of thread at a time.  I also don’t have the time to examine the ends of each thread to make sure I’m putting the best end through the eye of the needle.  I’m limited to an hour or two of sewing on the weekends so expediency is what I go for.  While this isn’t true to the couture technique it’s working well for me so far.  Maybe it will for you, too.  As in all things, I believe each sewista eventually works up her own repertoire and techniques.  So go with what works best for you, the fabric, the pattern,your creative vision and the time available.

Conditioning the threads

I found that beeswax strengthens the sewing thread which is a good thing when using it to sew a seam.  For basting thread I learned, by trial and error, that using a new dryer strip was good enough.  Upon pressing the basting thread it was rendered soft, straight and easy to remove from the fashion fabric.  I always use mercerized cotton thread for basting since poly/cotton thread is much finer and harder to pick out of the seams.


1.  Organize your supplies.:  cotton basting thread, a new dryer sheet, your sewing thread, beeswax, tape measure and a small sharp scissor.  Measure out strands of each thread so that each measures between 18-26″.  The important thing is to keep the thread running in the same direction.  Place each cut end next to the other.  According to Claire, the end that is cut is the best one to put through the eye of the needle.


2  After cutting many strands of thread, knot them at the top.  Here you see the basting thread ready to be pulled through the dryer strip.  This step replaces conditioning one strand at a time.  I find that running the threads through the strip 2-3 times gets them very soft and manageable.


3.  The best way to condition the basting threads is to enclose them within the dryer strip and then pull them through.


4.  Cut the ends of the basting threads on an angle.  This will make threading the hand sewing needle easier.


5.  Do the same thing for your sewing thread except run it through the beeswax 1-2 times.


6.  Iron the basting and sewing threads from the top where the knot is down to the end.  Do not iron back and forth.  Go in one direction, top to bottom until the threads are straight.


7.  Threads after conditioning and pressing.


8.  I thought about winding the threads around a piece of cardboard and storing them with the other supplies for the dress.  But then it occurred to me that the waved thread might need ironing again.  So I came up with the idea of pinning the threads to a roll of toilet paper.  This worked out because when I take the knotted strands off, they are straight and do not have any dents or need further ironing.

Place a pin in the knot and then insert the pin into the roll.


9.  The conditioned threads can now be safely stored until ready to use.

So far the sewing is going very well.  I’m finding the waxed thread is behaving very well as I use it to hand overcast the seams of the rayon challis dress.  The big test will come when I hand sew the zipper into place.  I’m starting this part of the construction tonight.  The next posting will be an update on how that process is working out.


8 thoughts on “1930s Sew-along with Norma: Conditioning basting and hand sewing threads

  1. I have so much admiration for your process Em. And what the inevitable results of such consideration must be.
    I feel like some long, slow sewing may be headed my way. I have a quilt and a bedspread I need to mend and I think that will encourage me to slow down and enjoy the process more. With sewing, as in much of life, I am very outcome focused. I feel that’s starting to shift a little which I think is a good thing.

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    • Good for you! I hope you blog about your quilt and bedspread. Although this craft is different from dressmaking I can pick up some tips about threads and hand sewing needles.

      I think being goal oriented is natural given our contemporary values favor quantity. Also participating in online competitions and challenges promotes that focus.

      Both are good but have a time and place. It’s by slowing down and considering the process that learning takes place. When there’s a deadline, learning also takes place but not at a level one is always aware of. The realization comes later.

      Thank you for saying you admire my process. This is the mark of the teachers at the French Fashion Academy and also my Grandmother. My Dad used to critique me. I had to answer explicit questions about why I did certain things. He was interested in teaching me how to reason things out. This is an approach all sewistas can do and benefit from.

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  2. I too think your slow process is admirable – I am sure you will get a better garment from it.
    I have never ironed my thread but I do wax it – working with handspun linen for historical items taught me that. I also thread direct from the bobbin, re-cutting the end if necessary. I find it tangles less if I use the thread in the direction it was wound. Same as a machine does, I suppose.

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    • Thank you, Norma. If you like I’ll look up the part about how to tell which end of the thread should go through the needle. When I posted I just didn’t have the patience for it. There has to be something to it. It’s just that I think anybody will need a magnifying glass to spot the difference.

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