The Shift to Chemise

Shift to Chemise 1
Shifting from shifts to chemises.

Language is a funny thing. I suppose we’re all guilty of following fads in our choice of words, and we all have particular phrases we find irritating or amusing – in other people.  I recently came across an example by Jane Austen, written in 1817, just as the polite name of a woman’s undergarment was changing.

Your Anne is dreadful – . But nothing offends me so much as the absurdity of not being able to pronounce the word Shift. I could forgive her any follies in English, rather than the Mock Modesty of that french word…’

So presumably Miss Austen was still wearing shifts, when other ladies were beginning to wear chemises. She wasn’t alone, however, in her annoyance with linguistic affectations. Pantalogia, a New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Human Genius, Learning, and Industry, Alphabetically Arranged; with a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Words (1819) has this to say:

CHEMISE, the French word for that article of linen under dress which when worn by men is called a shirt, by women a shift. Some few modern English ladies, with an affected squeamishness of delicacy, restrict the term always so as to denote the article of female dress chemise de femme; but as every one knows what they mean by the expression, and we see no reason why every one should not know what they mean, we recommend the use of the old English term, and the abandonment of the corresponding French word.

Was there really any difference between a shift and a chemise? Well, yes and no. No, because they both referred to the same lady’s undergarment. Yes, because when the word “shift” was used (up until the early 19th century), the garment was usually made of linen and was simpler in cut.  As the word “chemise” became standard, variations in pattern and trimming were increasing and the chemise was more often made of cotton.

So much for the term; now was there any significant difference in the French and English methods of making this garment? I haven’t found anything consistently, unmistakably,  irrefutably, definitively identifiable. When I examine an old chemise, whether in a book, online, or in person, I can’t raise an eyebrow knowingly and say, Ah yes, English, 1832.

But with the interest and expertise I see popping up in blogs and books, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has – or will – come up with a list of distinguishing features.

If you are curious (or courageous) and would like to compare for yourself, below is a pattern and description, 1840, from a French periodical. (Please excuse my awkward translation. If you are fluent in French and English, I beg you to let me know and help me correct it!) English patterns and instructions of the same date are available in the Workwoman’s Guide.

Shift to Chemise 2
A pattern for a lady’s chemise, 1840.

No. 8 is a woman’s chemise. For ten chemises, purchase 25 meters of percale; take off a meter, and cut the rest into ten pieces; fold these pieces into two; on side No. 1, cut the gore that you add to the other side, cut by a thread as shown in No. 2; inside cut two gussets; indent around the neck; this is shown in No. 3; the sleeves are cut on the bias. Gather slightly on top of the arm and hem the bottom with backstitching. The armholes have to be a little curved under the arm. Take the remaining meter, measure a narrow band along the edge, then cut twenty pieces for double shoulder straps; these pieces are indicated by dotted lines; place a narrow piece of tape between the shoulder strap and its lining, there you insert the sleeve and backstitch, and you fold the lining over; gather the top of the chemise, as indicated, and insert a narrow tape of a meter in length; then cover this piece of tape with a band of percale; using backstitching and hemming, then fold under. Mark the chemise over the left gusset.

Scamp-work

Felling 05
And now back to plain sewing, in excruciating detail. A teacher’s sample of felling, dated 1900.

Do you know how to write instructions in such a simple, straightforward, concise manner that anyone can follow them perfectly? I wish I did.

I was working on a project that required an explanation of “felling,” and reached the point where a little testing of the prototype was in order. I found a Reluctant Victim, and with mild apprehension, gave her the draft to read and check for clarity. She read, pondered, frowned, sighed.

Fail.

Felling 12
The fabric prepared for the first line of sewing: either running or backstitching.
Felling 07
The fabric after it has been sewn together, and the fell is being hemmed down.

After some discussion, I realized that there was more to this little bit of plain sewing than could be covered in my one-sentence description. Why? Because there are a couple of variations, as well as some similar stitches that our g-g-grandmothers used (e.g., French seam, counter-hem, German hem, mantua-maker’s hem) to confuse things. Too much info for a sound bite project.

Sure, felling is just a method of joining two pieces of fabric so that the raw edges are enclosed and hemmed down. But there wasn’t only one way to fell a seam: it was that first line of sewing that made the difference.

The first line of sewing joins the two pieces of fabric. The second one (it was always hemming in hand work)  fastens down the folded edge. So for the first line,

You could use a running stitch.
You could use a backstitch (called stitching in early English texts).
You could use a half-backstitch (variation of the above).
You could use a very shallow overcasting stitch (called sewing or seaming in early English texts).

This difference in the first line of stitching made all the difference in understanding period instructions on how to fold it and how to hold it. (Sorry, Kenny.) That’s what gave me real problems when trying to condense my instructions.

Methods that use a running stitch or a backstitch are easier to explain, and they’re the ones most people use today when hand sewing. You place the pieces right sides together and sew. Then spread the work open, fold the edge over, and hem it down.

Seaming

It’s the last method that gets a little tricky, the one that uses seaming (I’ll use that term since that’s what I called it in Plain Needlework) for the first line of sewing.

Felling 11
The work held properly for seaming, from a period manual.

Seaming was a sturdy method of joining two pieces that utilized every inch of fabric. When you spread the seam open, the edges look butted together.

Linen used for underclothing early in the century had nice selvages that could be joined this way. Therefore, it’s easy to see how a seamstress would be inclined to use the same stitch if she had to join two “cut” (non-selvage) edges. Because you should never use selvages that have unsightly little holes!

An excerpt, dated 1821:

SECOND CLASS.

Q. How should you fix a seam? – A. I turn one paper down once, and the other once on the right side, and turn it back again the same width to form the fell.

Q. What do you do next? – A. I pin the two pieces together.

Q. What should you do before you fix two selvages together? – A. Examine them, to see if there are any little holes in them.

Q. If there are, should you sew them together? A. No, cut them off, and fix a fell seam.

How do you prepare and hold the fabric if you want to use seaming? Most of the old manuals say the fabric is held wrong sides together and worked on the right side. And that’s how all the illustrations show it. After all, if you’re turning down the edges before you seam them, you don’t want those pesky folded parts in the way while you work, right?

But there are a few sources that say otherwise. A Sewing Course for Teachers advises placing right sides together for seaming, because the slanted bits of thread will then be inside, and the straight bits will be hidden in the grain of the fabric on the right. (See the pics in the Flower Patch post for an example.)

And in that venerable text, The Workwoman’s Guide, A Lady states

The work for sewing is thus prepared: the two selvages are placed together, or if there are no selvages, the raw edge of one piece is turned down once, and the edge of the other piece is turned down double the width, and then half the width is turned back again for the fell. The two pieces are pinned or basted together, with the parts turned down face to face and held firmly between the finger and the thumb…

At first I assumed she meant to place both whole pieces of fabric face to face. But after considering a century’s worth of other sources, I think “A Lady” meant that only the folded down parts are face to face. The two pieces of fabric are actually wrong sides together.

So what was “the rule” back then? I believe that seaming without felling was done either on the right or wrong side of the fabric – assuming there was a difference in the right and wrong sides! And I think seaming for felling was usually done on the right side with the little folds tucked inside. But does it really matter? Maybe I’m the only soul on earth who finds it interesting?

Felling 06Folding for Felling, the old-fashioned way:

If, however, you also like picayune sewing trivia, below are some images showing the method of folding for felling.  I’m really surprised that such consistent, detailed instructions and examples have survived. And very, very grateful!

 

Felling 01
Children learned by first folding paper in preparation for felling. Lancaster’s manual, 1821.
Felling 02
A close-up of the folded paper that has come unglued.
Felling 03
Even closer-up! You can just barely see the double fold in the top paper.
Felling 08
This 1890s manual illustrates the fold on the first piece.
Felling 09
The fold on the second piece.
Felling 10
The pieces aligned and basted together for seaming.

Now, what method do I use? Mostly run-and-fell. But sometimes I use seaming because it’s my favorite stitch to work. I recommend doing what suits your project or suits your fancy. Anyone who sews two left sleeves on a blouse, twice!!, can’t be too snooty about setting standards.

Although some 19th century sewing teachers were! Writing in 1884, Miss Jones insists,

“Run-and-fell is not allowable in plain needlework. It must be called ‘scamp-work.’ If properly done, it takes as long as the seaming and even then is not very secure….”

Tackling this topic helped my muddled mind, and made me decide to simplify that project. Run-and-fell only for that one. I guess that makes me a shameless promoter of scamp-work!

Up Her Sleeve

Shift 1 Sleeve
Here is the sleeve slipped into the first shift.

As a follow-up to the previous post – and a helpful comment, thank you! – I’ve tried slipping the sleeve (cuff, undersleeve, engageante?) into the sleeve of a linen shift. Well, three different shifts. Above is the first. Very nice fit!

The next one, below, is an even better fit.

Shift 2 Sleeve
Just about perfect! You’ll notice the sleeve length on this shift, unlike the first one above, extends past the gusset.

The last one I tried just for comparison. It’s obviously a wider sleeve, and I have a feeling that the shift was perhaps of an earlier date, and the sleeve was cut off to fit later fashions. And after looking at a few over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was rather common. Although a shift didn’t require as much work as man’s shirt, the tiny stitches worked on fine linen were very tedious to do, and clothing was valuable!

Shift 3 Sleeve
Sorry Cinderella, it’s not quite right. This last shift is in the original “attic find” condition. Can you tell?

Nourishing Juices

Diaper 1
Diaper cover, late 19th century. Plain sewing in flannel! Could those red cotton stitches be laundry marks?

There is an odd Notion enough entertained about Change, and the keeping of Children clean. Some imagine that clean Linnen and fresh Cloaths draw, and rob them of their nourishing Juices. I cannot see that they do any thing more than imbibe a little of that Moisture which their Bodies exhale. Were it as is supposed, it would be of service to them; since they are always too abundantly supplied, and therefore I think they cannot be changed too often, and would have them clean every Day; as it would free them from Stinks and Sournesses, which are not only offensive, but very prejudicial to the tender State of Infancy. – Dr. William Cadogan, 18th century author of An Essay upon Nursing

Plain sewing examples are usually cotton or linen, but here’s one of wool flannel:  a baby’s diaper (or napkin) cover. Maybe this one is similar to what Mrs. Bakewell meant in her 1836 Mother’s Practical Guide. “I cannot too strongly recommend the use of a flannel napkin over the diaper for the very young babes, when they are carried out. The chest, too, should be guarded with flannel, especially if there be any constitutional or hereditary predisposition to inflammation.” Wool, the cure for what ails you!

Instead of the herringbone stitch, this has been bound with a cotton facing and trimmed with a blanket stitch in neat scallops. Herringboning, the stitch recommended in period manuals for anchoring seams on heavy material, wouldn’t have been sufficient to secure the edges, considering the laundering required.

Diaper 2
Cotton facings, hemmed with tiny stitches.

In the days before modern heating, wool flannel was often part of a baby’s wardrobe. Although warm, it seems like wool would be awfully heavy and itchy if worn close to the skin. Maybe that’s just my modern-day sensibilities? But at least the wearer of this diaper enjoyed the relative comfort of buttons for fastening, rather than pins. And I don’t mean safety pins! Babies in earlier times weren’t always as fortunate as the owner of this diaper. Advice books often warned against pins and the possibility of terrible consequences when they pinned the baby instead of the clothing! William Buchan, writing in 1808:

It would be safer to fix on the clothes of an infant with strings than pins, as these often gall and irritate their tender skins, and occasion convulsions. Instances have been known, where pins were found sticking above half an inch into the body of a child after it had died of convulsion-fits, which, in all probability proceeded from that cause.

Diaper 3
Closeup of the button and scalloped trim. Better than straight pins, any day!

Unless the fits resulted from trying to scratch the wooly itches!

 

It Seams French

French Seam 1

Once upon a time, I thought every seam that was sewn, by hand or machine, had to be finished. By that I mean it could have no raw edges. Raveling? Horrors! Unthinkable. What would happen when the garment was worn? When it was washed? And so I zig-zagged, overcast, or French-seamed every seam so thoroughly that I might as well have used Super Glue.

I also assumed, when I first started to explore the history of hand sewing, that French seams must have been part of the basic sewing repertoire. After all, they didn’t have Super Glue back then, did they?

However, as I studied antique clothing I quickly learned that all seams weren’t finished. The only seams to match my hermetically sealed standard were felled, like those in shirts and shifts, and felling was used because underwear (or family linen, as they called it) had to withstand tortures that would have impressed Vlad the Impaler.

After scrutinizing sewing techniques in antique clothing, it also dawned on me that French seams didn’t show up in anything older than late-nineteenth century. Hmm. So when did French seams become common? I don’t know for sure, but out of all my sewing instruction books, the earliest (definite) explanation of the method I could find appears in a French dressmaking manual, circa 1860s, as shown above. Ah, French!

Perhaps it was used earlier in particular garments, by particular seamstresses, or in particular countries. My experience and resources are pretty limited, so if I come across more information on this stitch, I’ll certainly update.

But by the early 1900s, the French seam was common enough to appear in most sewing manuals. It was well-suited to the ubiquitous sewing machine, sheer waists and dresses yearned for neat seams, and it was soooo easy to do. Or teach. Or learn. And since efficiency was so very, very modern … pourquoi pas?

French Seam Sample
This sample by Miss Beulah H., early 1900s, shows a bias-cut French seam.
French Seam  Woolman 1
Instructions from Beulah’s book for making the sample…
French Seam Woolman 2
… and the conclusion.

 

Picking a Pocket

Pocket 1

Pharaby’s pocket’s been picked!

(If you expected the Lucy Locket quote on this one, maybe I succeeded in surprising you?)

There are so many images available online that it was hard to choose a model for her pocket. I finally settled on “the look” of a sweet little doll version in the online Pockets collection at the VAD. (Click the link and then search for “doll´s pocket Nottingham.”) It resembled a couple of others, also worked in yellow thread, that were made for women rather than dolls. And it only required a backstitch!

The pattern: traced, pricked, and pounced. The fluff of canary-colored silk is the remains of
The pattern: traced, pricked, and pounced. The fluff of canary-colored silk is the remains of my fight with the floss.

The design I used was loosely based on an 1770s pattern from The Lady’s Magazine. I scanned the original pattern and scaled it down to Pharaby-size. Then I raided a stash of old 1890s embroidery silks. I tried using the thread as it came from the skein, but it was way too thick – using only one ply made it almost small enough. And I can tell you that it did NOT work like the illustration on the wrapper!

Pocket 4As you can see from the remaining yellow fuzz, it was a struggle. But once that was done, it was pretty simple to cut out the front and back, then bind them with some matching yellow silk.

Pocket 6
I tried. It didn’t work like the picture.

To finish the pocket, I added narrow tapes on the ends. Yes, one MORE thing to go around her waist. But now she has a place to carry her handkerchief – when I make her one.

Pocket 5Oh! And while she was showing off her pocket, I took a picture of her wearing her marked shift. I neglected to do that in the last post, and she let me hear about it.

Pharaby's Marked Shift

X Marks the Spot

Pharaby's shift is now marked.
Pharaby’s shift is now marked.

“The art of marking was brought to perfection many years ago, and if our great grandmothers could but see the meagre attempts made by us now-a-days, I fancy they would have some contempt for the system by which our needlework abilities are tested.”

– A. K. Smith, 1892

They would certainly have some contempt for how long it took me to mark Pharaby’s shift, regardless of the quality of my work! I should have tended to this little essential when I first made it, but better late than never. We can’t have her single shift getting lost in the laundry, can we?

X Marking 2
A lovely linen baby shirt marked with Turkey red cotton; note the quarter next to it for size. I’ve kept the image full size, for anyone who wants to view beautifully done original marking up close – just click the image.

First I had to do some practice stitching. Sampler collectors and makers would laugh at how astonished – and intimidated – I am by the miniscule cross-stitches made during the past 200 years. You can see from this little baby shirt (last quarter 19th C) how blithely they marked countless linens. I’m guessing at the “blithely” part, but since I have many shirts from this baby, somebody was doing a lot of marking!

Making it to Pharaby’s scale would be impossible, since barely matching ordinary period work would be the best I could hope for.

I used a pretty little c1900 linen collar to experiment on (damaged – I wouldn’t inflict my needle on it otherwise), as you can see in the picture.

X Marking 3
A linen collar marked with ink that I used for practice. “No textiles were harmed during the making of this experiment.”

Since the threads in linen are not all exactly the same size, my stitches over two threads looked a bit messy. I tried sewing over four (too big) or over however many made a perfect square (too awkward). By this time I was just about ready to use ink, like the collar owner! But hey, I’m all about plain sewing, right?

A lot of trial and error showed that to be small enough, I’d have to work over two threads, no matter how lumpy my letters looked. I found that just like many projects, things that look pretty awful as I’m working, look a little better when I’m done. Or maybe I’m just cross-eyed by then!

X Marking 5
The baby shirt, Pharaby’s shift, and the practice piece, all together. The little birds I tried were from a pattern by the most knowledgeable sampler collector I’ve ever met. Maybe Pharaby will make a sampler one day….

 

Aprons, No Strings

Apron 1854
An apron pattern, c.1850 for the 19th century layette.

At three months old, it is usual to commence the use of aprons, which are made of bird’s-eye diaper, or, just now, brilliante, a firm, close-figured cambric, which will wear nearly as long. These last are bound with cambric, in solid colors, as pink, blue, buff, &tc. Bird’s-eye linen is usually trimmed with tatting or anything that wears well. At present, button-hole scollops, either plain or filled with dots, eyelets, &tc., are much used; they are made in this way ornamental, as well as useful. For an infant, the “bib-apron,” round front, coming a little below the waist, with a little shoulder strap buttoning around the arm (see cut), is the most suitable. From six months to two years of age, a similar front, with back to correspond, cut of bird’s-eye also. A large variety of shapes, however, are constantly to be had. The material and length is our province; no child needs an apron coming to the end of the dress skirt, as we have seen them made.

So says Sarah Hale, in a little instruction book written for new mothers in 1854. It amazes me that such a functional item could survive 150 plus years, but I come across them from time to time.  If you’d like an actual-size pattern of the one below, send an email to me, m at twothreadsback dot com, and I’ll send you a pdf – free. Gratis. No strings attached!

Apron 1A
An apron for a very small baby, made of cotton diaper by a mother who was cutting the pattern with one hand and holding the baby with the other.

The hems are almost invisible, so I assume Mother was able to use both hands for that. The tiny buttons are made of delicately carved mother of pearl.

You can see the tiny mother of pearl buttons.
A close-up of the buttons and narrow hem.
The photo(s) are slightly underexposed because the apron is so white it's hard to see.
The photo(s) are slightly underexposed because the apron is so white it’s hard to see.
Apron 1D
The fabric is still so strong that the fold-down part in the front refuses to fold down – and I refuse to press it that way. Not a good idea for preserving old textiles!

Another common pattern, made for an older child, is like the one pictured below. It’s also made of diaper – but in linen – and trimmed at the armscyes and hem.

Apron 2A
This one is less like a bib and more like what we’d call a pinafore today.
Apron 2B
A view of the back to show the tape threaded through the neckline and the pretty buttonholed trim.

Apron 1854 Thumb

Little Biggin Two

18th C Cap 2a
Another 18th century baby’s cap – with frills.

This little cap is a favorite. Yes, the linen is coarser than the lovely smooth cambric in most of the other really old baby things I’ve found. The slubs are noticeable, and they show even more due to washing and wearing. But there’s just something about that little ruffle around the brim. And the extra gathers right in the center – can’t you just see them sticking up, stiff with starch? Rather like a little plume or crest!

18th C Cap 2b
A perfect frame for a baby’s face.

The measurement around the brim, including the ruffle, is about 12 inches; the center front to the back is about 9 inches.

18th C Cap 2f
Baby’s cap with the two-part brim folded open.

It seems like every time I examine a garment to write about it or list it for sale, I find something I’d overlooked before. And sometimes it’s unusual, a feature I haven’t seen before. That happened here, too.

The little crown was stroked and gathered and attached to the upper brim with backstitches, the same way cuffs or collars were attached to shirts. Then the under-layer-brim was hemmed to the crown from beneath. That does make the technique look like “setting in,” a construction process taught from (at least) the 18th to the early 20th centuries – if you’re one of the rare people who’ve seen my book Plain Needlework, you know what I’m talking about.

The strangest thing though, is how the upper layer is hemmed. It’s backstitched! But not securely on the folded hem itself; instead the stitching rests along the very edge. In fact, I really don’t see how it holds. I’ve looked at it with magnification because it’s so different from what I’m used to seeing. But that’s right. The hem is barely caught with the backstitches.

The under layer is normal – if you can call a 1/16 inch hem normal; it’s simply hemmed. Then the ruffle is whipped and gathered on both. The back of the cap is gathered and set in a narrow band, also with backstitching.

18th C Cap 2c
A closer view of the “plume” – and you can see the backstitched hem.

Like last cap I wrote about, this one is in remarkably fine condition and there are no vestiges of ties. Unlike many other fine linen bits, it’s lost its starch. I think the wearer would have approved. Floppy ruffles are more comfortable.

18th C Cap 2e
A back view of the cap.

18th C Cap 2d

Shiftless

Shift Full
Maybe Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless – but not Shiftless!

Shiftless no more! Pharaby can compost the fig leaves now.

To make her shift, I used some fine old linen with a silky feel, and  I scaled a pattern in Costume Close-Up (is there anyone who doesn’t use that pattern?). Then I proceeded to sew up the gores, body, and neckline. Shift Hem When it came to the sleeves, though, I was perplexed. What was typical, plain or gathered? I reeeeally wanted to do gathered.

Not being an eighteenth-century-fashionista, I pulled out costume books and scoured the internet for guidance (see this awesome study). Most of the images of extant shifts I found – there were a few exceptions – had sleeves without gathers at the armscye, or shoulder. But period art seems to imply that  shifts did have them; otherwise, how so fluffy? That means that 1) I didn’t look in the right places,  2) I couldn’t see details and misinterpreted the pictures, 3) they didn’t survive as often, or 4) some dates were wrong. Maybe all four, plus some more reasons I haven’t thought of yet.  Oh well.

Shift Left ShoulderHowever! I found two or three images of exquisite little shifts on early wooden dolls in museums, and those had sleeves that were gathered at the armscye. I think. Anyway, I love setting in gathers and it’s my toy, so that’s what I did.

Now another dilemma. To stitch or not to stitch, that was the question. I was so accustomed to seeing the stitching (now called backstitching) on the wristbands of men’s shirts, that her little cuffs looked as bare as she did.   But, duh for me, I’d already set in the gathers. Could I do it, post hoc stitching?  Why not – if there’s a harder way, I’ll find it. You don’t see any close-up photos of the cuffs here, do you? Ha.

Shift RightNext came the binders, those reinforcing strips that are a standard feature in men’s shirts. I can only guess how common they were in women’s shifts, because they don’t usually show in photos, nor are they noted in descriptions. But I’ve long speculated that originally binders were there just for “setting in” gathers – support for a stress area was just a bonus. So in they went.

Now the question you’ve been too polite to ask: did it fit? Pharaby said it would do. She’s not fussy. Any doll destined to wear fashions spanning a century or so – at the same time – can’t afford to be.

Oh, but she does expect me to mark her shift and add ties for her cuffs. She hasn’t decided about frills.

Shift Pharaby

Shift Gathers

Shift Right Shoulder

Shift Neckline

Shift Gores

Shift Sleeve

 

 

 

 

 

 

A One Stitch Wonder

Calico Full

I’ve always loved order and simplicity. That sounds awfully smug, but I shouldn’t commend myself since it’s probably because my brain can’t handle very much at one time. This craving for minimalism is getting worse as I get older. Try googling the minimalist lifestyle and maybe you’ll see the attraction! Or not.

A conversation the other day started me thinking about simplicity in plain sewing. Hmm. What was the most basic stitch? Well, anyone who uses old sewing machines knows you can do just about anything with a straight stitch, which is closest to a backstitch in hand sewing.

But backstitching wasn’t the primary stitch in 19th century sewing manuals, nor was running, as I learned when I studied plain needlework instruction. It was hemming. That’s the little slanted stitch that you would use to (surprise!) hem something. Once your hemming was neat enough, you could learn to work other stitches.

Hemming
“Simple hemming is the first step on the road to proficiency in needlework.”

By the way, I’ve noticed that most costume historians, or at least ones I’ve heard and read, call this same stitch “whip” instead of “hem.” For example, “the edge is folded back and whip stitched in place.” But then, why shouldn’t they? I understand perfectly what they mean. If you’ve seen my post on muslin you’ll know I’ve come to terms with terms!

Getting back to simplicity. I decided to go closet diving for something that used only that one stitch, hemming, to construct a garment. And I found it! A Regency era calico baby dress. Granted, it didn’t have enough pattern pieces to warrant many stitches. But the whole gown was made by hemming!

Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.
Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.

Or was it? Well, in my eagerness to find what I was looking for, I didn’t look close enough, and I didn’t think it through.

The skirt was made of one piece and hemmed, check. The casings for the strings were hemmed, check. The tiny ruffles on the sleeves were hemmed, check.

Calico Hem
Hem.
Calico Sleeve
Casings for drawstrings.
Sleeve ruffles.
Sleeve ruffles.
Calico Back
Back opening.

The bodice was hemmed to the skirt – whoa! Wait a minute. That wasn’t right. Things were unraveling. I mean my clever discovery, not the little frock.

Yes, the stitches looked the same at first glance, but any experience (or a practical mind) would tell you that you have to hold those two pieces face to face and sew them together. That makes it seaming, as they would have said, or overcasting, as we’d say today. Same thing for the ruffles attached to the sleeves.

And there was more. The tiny bodice sides, all three-quarter inch of them, were running stitch. As were the sleeves to the body – and then overcast!

So much for that, no single stitch here. I confess it doesn’t really bother me too much that it’s not pure minimalist stitching. I’m learning to slow down and look closer. And it’s still a wonder of simplicity!

The Love Shirt

Love Shirt Cuff
The Love Shirt, a replica by Yours Truly

Ta da! After ten grueling years (ok, I don’t really know how long, but it has been years) I finally finished a 19th century gentleman’s square-cut shirt of fine linen. Complete with all twenty parts, including the frill. And Dorset knob buttons.

Where did the name come from? Well, a long time ago a friend and I (I miss you, Janet!) were studying one of these shirts, one that had a heart-bit (see that blog). We reached frantically for our vinaigrettes, trying not to swoon on the artifact, as visions of Mr. Darcy flitted around the room. Somehow we started calling that handsome relic The Love Shirt. So it has been to me, ever since. And I wanted to make one myself.

That type of linen is impossible to find nowadays. However, a dear friend (thanks, Dianne!) provided the closest thing possible, and with a pattern from an 1820 book, I commenced.

Darned little gussets, all the work I did backstitching was mostly hidden when assembled.
Darned little gussets, all the work I did backstitching was mostly hidden when assembled.

Unfortunately I have a memory like Dory, so every time I put away the project for a spell, I’d have to practically learn how to do the next step all over. A 19th century seamstress would have been appalled to see me.

Love Shirt FullUm, do I sew both ends of XYZ before I ABC? Do I cut or fold first? Did I sew the sleeve on backwards? Oops. Front and back are the same before the collar goes on, right? Not if you hemmed them first. Oh right, I was supposed to check that I was putting the slit in the front. Well… I’ll just cut the back shorter and make it be the front. And my g-g-g-g-great-grandmother could make one of these in a day or so? How embarrassing.

I did learn a lot. I learned how hard it is to backstitch over two threads without going blind. I learned that there is NO not-shiny sewing thread available today. I learned that linen thread breaks, other people’s buttonholes always look nicer than mine, knots are usually unnecessary, even poor work looks better when ironed, and a drawn thread is no guarantee you’ll sew a straight line. I learned that you had to love your man, or love survival to make one of these. And I learned how to make Dorset knob buttons, my own way! Maybe I’ll write about that next time.

Love Shirt Cuff
You can see the backstitching that nearly blinded me. And you can see the gauging thread I used to hold the stroked gathers in place. I’m going to leave it there a loooong time.

A Heart-bit for St. Valentine’s Day

Heart-bit? No, I don’t mean smitten with love, phrased in a folksy sort of way. I mean a little bit, or piece, in the shape of a heart! Worn right over the heart.

Heart Bit Shirt
Heart-bit with decorative knots on an early 19th century man’s fine linen shirt. The shirt was rescued from captivity where it had been altered and abused with scissors, sewing machines, and synthetic trim!

That perfect specimen of plain sewing, The Shirt, has a romantic soul. Back in days when shirts were only slit down the front, and not buttoned closed the full length, that end of the opening was vulnerable to tearing. There were various ways to prevent it, and I came across references to this lovely way when researching early sewing instructions. For example, Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, 1789, gives a description of cutting linen for shirts:

This half overplus being a quarter of a yard in length, serves to cut out hearts for the bosoms.

 Or a sewing manual from 1833:

 HEART-BIT

Before commencing the shirt, small pieces of muslin are given to each girl, for the purpose of learning to settle in, and work the breast-gusset.

Of course not all shirts had them. Some had a triangular gussets, or a buttonholed reinforcement, or a tiny rectangular piece to prevent a tear, and some had nothing at all. But you have to love linen with a heart!

Heart Bit Shirt 2
Another early 19th century man’s fine linen shirt, with a beautifully worked heart-bit. Unlike the shirt above, this lucky gentleman spent his retirement carefully packed away.
Heart Bit Chemise
An early 19th century woman’s chemise made of muslin, showing she had a heart, too.
Heart Bit Manual
A girl’s sewing manual from the mid-19th century displays an alternative shape for the gusset, but still called in the instructions a Heart-piece.

Plain Meets Fancy

Infant Sacque
An infant’s sacque: a miniature version of Mother’s.

If I kept my attention only on plain work, I suppose I would be very limited indeed. And truly, the impulse to add ornamentation seems timeless and universal. Often the pretty pieces I study reveal high standards in the basic plain stitches, but also have considerable fancywork on them.

Infant Sacque, left
The profile reflects women’s styles of the same era.

Here is one example which just seems to shout Baby Version of Mommy’s 1870 Upholstered Look! Notice the dropped shoulders, two-piece sleeves and sort of tabbed lower edge, with its allowance for a wee bustle? I doubt baby wore one, but the cut of the sacque would have suited it! The pattern is a match for women’s garments of the late 1860s and early 1870s.

The Look, c1870
Pretty fussy back! But I love it.
The Look, c1870
The Look, c1870

It’s made of a very fine muslin – a previous owner must have bleached it white again – and uses basic hemming, running, and stitching (called backstitching today).  It shows some of the earliest use of (what we call today) a french seam on the sides and shoulders. The sleeve seams are overcast.

Infant sacque, right
I’d love to see this with a poofy baby bustle! Not likely, sigh.

The sacque has a high collar with hand-embroidered trim and fastens with a single mother of pearl button and thread loop. There’s a buttonhole hiding under the trim on the collar, but Mother must have decided it was too tight or difficult to fasten. The same trim edges the front, hem, and cuffs. There’s even a bit of piping.

Infant sacque collar
Close up of the collar & fastening.

The cuffs were taken up with a hidden tuck to fit shorter arms, and they also have tiny thread tassels. I thought at first the threads were drawstrings for the cuffs, but closer examination shows them to be attached separately and knotted around… a bit of wool? …held with glue? I can’t see it well enough to tell, but it has yellowed over time.

Infant sacque, cuffs
Close-up of the little cuffs – you can just see the tassels.
Infant sacque, back view
A view of the back, showing the pattern.

The trim down the front is turned toward the center, the opening.  This is typical of 19th century clothing, although my modern expectation is to see tucks or trims folded or facing outward (toward the arms).

In all, it’s plain made fancy. And enough to make me swoon over the tiny confection!

Worn Out

Sewing a shirt
Fortunately my garret has a window.

In spite of my plain shirt obsession, it took me forever to finally reproduce one myself. I have a tendency to procrastinate, and it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s something I really love or not.

I’ll start with enthusiasm, and then the motivation fizzles and the project goes on the UFO shelf. So it’s been with the fine linen shirt I’ve been playing with for the proverbial seven years.

But then last year I had to make one for a local history event, and a Deadline With People Waiting On Me provided the necessary spark.

This square-cut shirt wasn’t made of fine fabric, but of worn-out linen, since it was to dress an interpreter at a historic slave cabin. It was easier to do since I was replicating an old and tattered garment: all my stitches didn’t have to be perfect, thread could be mismatched, patches were expected.

The hard part was working on a heavier material that still contained prehistoric starch, as well as making the shabby parts fit the pattern in the right places. Working over two threads on lumpy and uneven material made the finished product look a bit coarse. Um, not my fault… right. However, I made the deadline although both the shirt and I were worn out!

Cabin Shirt

All’s Fair

S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860
S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860

Once upon a time, folks from all over would gather, bringing their best work to show off, to compete for prizes, and to sell. These were the agricultural fairs, a tradition whose roots go back many centuries and places. Nineteenth century America saw their development as a way to encourage innovation. By mid-century, agricultural societies were flourishing.

Today their records are a rich source of information on agricultural and domestic history of the era.  The premiums, which ranged from a few cents (female enterprise) to substantial sums (men’s categories!) must have been the source of great pride, outrage, bickering and boasting – oh to have been there to hear the drama! I spent a happy afternoon several years ago in a university library poring over the books full of juicy details. Yes, that was before google books.

“An embroidered map of Savannah… best collection of fall peaches … beautiful specimens of sewing silk … second best profane landscape … woolen counterpane, maker’s name unknown … from the crowded state of the room, and the great number of articles present, several paintings could not be found …  second best cow “Eloise” … the committee exhibited a marked partiality for apple pies, and awarded with singular unanimity fifty cents each to Mrs. … a basket of superb wax flowers, which the chairman of the committee on flowers pronounced superior to any in his department of natural ones … S. D., 7 years of age, worsted work executed while lying on his back with a broken thigh, .50 … worsted quilt, said to contain 9765 pieces; ingenuity and labor … lemons of enormous size, preserved in alcohol…” – the list fills volumes.

Crackers, lightning rods, stoves, plows, false teeth, butter, Muscovy ducks, headstones, cologne, down tippets, dog’s hair socks, essays, fishing boots, parsnips, daguerreotypes, golden pippins, rocking chairs, canaries, grain bags, gold pens, baby-tender. Was there anything they didn’t show?

To paraphrase one report, I am greatly embarrassed on account of the limited means placed at my disposal to mention such a large number of exhibits, and I wish to say, that I doubt not there are many articles not noticed which are as well worthy of premium or gratuity as some which have been thus honored. I am reluctantly compelled to pass them over.

Fair Chemise 2
Hand Sewn Chemise

One category is especially interesting to me: plain sewing (surprise!). Here are some examples from the Sandy Creek, Richland, Orwell, & Boylston Agricultural Society of New York, c1860.

The chemises are exquisite, and it’s easy to see why their maker entered them in competition. I regret to say that I don’t know if they won a prize or not. There was no record of one with them. Nonetheless, they are fine work and perhaps the maker would be even more pleased if she knew how much, and how long, they would be admired!

By the way, check the calendar and visit your own state or local fair. If you’ve never toured the exhibits before, you’ll be amazed!