I’ve been working with burlap for a while now, and it’s not like working with other fabrics. It’s
scratchy and it’s messy, and it will dull your scissors and needles quickly. But I like the look it gives. Burlap is usually fairly loosely woven, so it helps to back it with something like muslin for stability. And if you are going to stuff your item with fiberfill, the muslin is definitely necessary to keep the fiberfill from escaping.
A word of warning – If your burlap is really loosely woven, any stress on the seams will cause it to literally come apart. So if you are making something like pillows, I recommend finding burlap with a fairly tight weave. Also, because burlap wants to come apart, it’s sometimes best not to cut out your pattern piece, but to trace it onto a rectangle of burlap, and sew your seam before you cut. If you are backing the burlap, you can make a “sandwich” with the layers. If you are making an item with burlap on the front and back and you want to back both sides with muslin, you lay out the rectangles in this order: (top) muslin, burlap, burlap, muslin (bottom). It’s just a variation of “right sides together.” Then you trace your pattern piece onto to the top piece of muslin, which, by the way, is much easier than tracing onto burlap. Then pin the layers together before sewing. When I turn it right side out, I make sure that one layer of muslin goes with each layer of burlap. The burlap mannequins in this picture were made with a sandwich of muslin, burlap, muslin, muslin or muslin, burlap, canvas:
Tracing onto burlap
By the way, if I am tracing onto burlap, I use a Sharpie marker, making sure there is a seam allowance, so that I can cut off the black marks when I trim. When I am tracing onto muslin, I use a really fine Sharpie or a Pigma Micron marker. If I am making something that will be washed, I only use a marker if I am sure I am eventually going to cut off all marks. Even though they are called permanent, it’s not worth the risk that the ink will run later.
You can cut burlap with scissors, but I don’t recommend using your finest sewing scissors. I’ve had
good luck with Fiskars Easy-Action scissors, which I actually use for most fabric. And you can cut muslin with a rotary cutter. Just be prepared to change the blade more often than usual.
When I cut out rectangles for the burlap “sandwich,” I almost always use a rotary cutter. When
I make rectangular pillows, I use a rotary cutter to cut out the burlap and the muslin pieces, and then I pin the layers together and stitch:
When I make these hearts, I only have burlap on the front, so I cut out rectangles of burlap and muslin and layer them like this: (top) muslin, burlap, muslin (bottom). Then I trace my heart on the top layer of muslin. When I turn it right side out, I make sure one layer of muslin goes with the burlap:
When my burlap is really trying to come apart, I use a zigzag stitch along the edge. When I make pillows, I usually only zigzag along the opening I leave for turning. For the table runners, I will zigzag all the raw edges.
I have used burlap mostly for items that won’t be washed, so I haven’t needed to prewash it. When I make an item that will eventually be washed, I prewash the fabric, mostly to preshrink it. I don’t want my customers to have any unpleasant surprises later. I recently decided to make some burlap table runners, so that called for prewashing. I knew it wouldn’t be pretty.
I had a piece of natural burlap that was a little too loose for mannequins, so I decided to use that.
It was also crooked; the fibers did not run straight. I cut the yardage into smaller pieces, thinking they would be easier to handle. Each piece was a little more than twice the width I wanted for each
runner. I cut the pieces nice and straight. But I got a surprise. The fibers straightened out in the washing process, so that they ran straight and my edges ended up crooked. That was good news in general for working with burlap, but bad news for my poor pieces, because after trimming the edges, I did not end up with the width I had planned on.
I decided to leave the next long piece whole. It was pretty straight to begin with, and it came out just fine. I am washing the burlap on the delicate cycle and hang-drying it, which is exactly what I will recommend to my customers. It does wrinkle in the process, and it is hard to iron out the wrinkles, but it helps if you press it while it is still damp. And I recommend cleaning your iron after you press burlap, because some types have a finish that clings to your iron and ruins your next project. It also tends to leave debris on the ironing board, which I remove with a lint roller or a couple of lengths of packing tape. I use a wet paper towel to remove the debris from my cutting board and from the washer.
How about you?
I hope these tips will help you if you've been wanting to work with burlap but weren't sure what to expect. I would love to hear from you if you have tips for working with burlap, or if you have any questions about my post!