The 18th Century Chemise – Update

Well, I got a bit sidetracked for a few days and didn’t get much sewing done. Poor little chemise, just sitting there in pieces, waiting for some attention. But now all of the main body seams are done, except for the side seams which go in after the sleeves are set. I’ve got the marking, sewing and trimming for the hand sewn French seams down to a science so my speed is definitely picking up while the results look better than ever. I’d show photos, but they’d only be of more straight seams and you’ve already seen those.

So now it’s time for the sleeves and their square BFFs, the gussets.

I originally intended to put in a plain sleeve: gathered at the cap, full and flat through the body, then gathered into a banded cuff at the hem. However I don’t like the feeling of bulk under layers of clothing and I’m not sure how a full sleeve on a chemise would feel under a more streamlined sleeve of an 18th century bodice. And then I found this:

A woman's shift of linen, England, 1740 - 1780. VandA Museum Number T.25-1969.

A woman’s shift of linen, England, 1740 – 1780. V and A Museum Number T.25-1969.

It’s a sleeve of a chemise from the time period I’m trying to recreate. I like the notion of having the fullness pulled in by all of those pleats and then sewn flat, but I’m not about to make myself crazy trying to wrestle a zillion teeny, tiny pleats around the entire width of the sleeve. Nope, not gonna happen. But perhaps I can modify the sleeve I do have into something similar.

That’s the experiment for the upcoming week. I don’t have any more linen, so whatever I come up with has to work without ruining the sleeves I’ve already cut. No pressure, right?


Your Weekend Wow!

It’s summertime and the livin’ in a lot of places is hot or humid or both. So what’s to be done if you need a sweet little dress that won’t leave you feeling as if you’re melting? Think vintage!

I first found this on Pinterest and immediately wanted to know more. I traced it back to its origins and discovered it was originally posted on a blog that’s no longer active and was offered in auction on eBay back in 2011. But it struck me as the perfect party dress for summer. I love the smocking detail – especially the surprise block on the back neck. The openwork/pulled thread leaves are wonderful.

I’m not sure about the date. It looks to me like it could well be later than the ’20s, but I don’t care. I’d wear it in a heartbeat.

Here it is, along with the original description by blogger Mmmost, who seems to have last posted in 2013. The photos are hers.

I found this beautiful vintage 1920s dress at an estate sale in Colorado Springs last week. I looks like a typical cotton day frock of the era until you get up close and inspect the hand work. It is completely hand embroidered and smocked. But what really impressed me was the openwork stitches in the fabric to form the leaves. Whoever made this dress had an enormous amount of time and really good eyes to create this masterpiece!







Your Weekend Wow!

Who’s up for a little fun and a lot of color? This Italian jacket (casaquin) and petticoat, ca. 1725-1740, is a riot of crewel embroidery in fanciful shapes and images. It’s all linen, both fabric and embroidery. Isn’t it wonderful the colors have remained so vibrant? All photos from The Met Museum ( Accession number: 1993.17a, b.



The site description reads as follows:

This informal dress is transformed by the fanciful crewelwork, or wool embroidery, on a linen ground depicting exotic figures representing the Four Continents amid exuberant flowers, fruits, and birds. Among the architectural elements are small pagodas, which came to symbolize the Far East in the European decorative arts. The exotic structures became part of the European design vocabulary after Johan Nieuhoff published his illustrated catalogue of observations on Peking in 1665. The theatrical character of the embroidery may indicate that this dress was meant to be worn to a masquerade, a European social event in which exotic and idiosyncratic costume reigned supreme.

Your Weekend Wow!

I almost passed over this simple-looking piece until I realized what it was. What it is, as you probably recognize, is a stomacher. This one is from the Met Museum. It’s British and made of cotton ca. 1700. Accession number: 1974.194.1.

But what I at first thought was a lovely, faint fabric design turns out to be very fine quilting done in a mirror-image design. To give you an idea of how small these stitches are, the entire piece is only 16 inches (40.6 cm) tall.

I wish the Met had photographed it with side lighting so the stitch definition would stand out better. It must have been both subtle and eye-catching.

Here is another example of a quilted stomacher, this one from a later time – 1730-1750. It also is from England, made of linen, linen thread, silk thread, hand-sewn and hand embroidered. Museum number: T.209-1929


The V&A Collections

The V&A website offers an excellent description of stomachers:

A stomacher is a decorative panel of fabric, usually triangular in shape, worn to fill the space between the front edges of a woman’s open gown. The stomacher formed part of the ensemble of fashionable women’s dress from the 1680s to the 1780s. This example incorporates whitework embroidery, quilting and cording. In the latter technique, parallel lines of stitching have been filled with short lengths of linen cord, inserted from the back of the fabric. The bold design includes flowers, leaves, pomegranates and shells. As quilting and cording were popular techniques for petticoats and informal jackets, this stomacher may well have been part of a matching ensemble.

I can’t imagine how stunning a matching ensemble of a quilted and corded petticoat, stomacher and jacket would have looked.

The quilting on the earlier stomacher really appeals to me. I’m working with fine linen at the moment and now I’m tempted to try quilting a small bit just to see how it behaves. Maybe a small quilted pocketbook or coin purse? I do have a few scraps lying around…

The 18th Century Chemise – lengthening and side gussets

This week’s progress on the chemise consists of two elements: a decision and a discovery.

First, the decision. Once I had the neckline hemmed, pressed and stable I popped the chemise on over my head to check the length. It came to just below my knee, which would have been acceptable, but I wanted a bit more length. The size of the neck opening was perfect so I decided to forego adding a ruffle and used the last bit of extra fabric to lengthen the chemise by adding a strip at the hem in both the front and back. I had to cut the strips from the selvage edge, which contained two holes that looked like an accident of manufacturing. I was able to bypass the largest of them, but couldn’t avoid the smaller one and it will need mending. I figure it just lends a bit of an authentic air.


Second came the discovery. The more I work with this lightweight linen, the more I like it. It’s still squirrely stuff, but I’m getting used to it. One of my biggest challenges in hand sewing with this fluid fabric has been keeping my seam lines straight. As the fabric shifts around in my hands the seams end up looking as if they’ve been sewn by someone on their fifth pint of lager while crammed into the corner of a rowdy pub. Not the look I’m trying to emulate.

I kept thinking that what I really needed was a line to follow. About two seconds later it occurred to me that if I needed a line I could add one – in chalk. I shake my head at how the simplest of solutions sometimes elude me.

In any case, the line kept the stitches straight. And once I was no longer struggling to maintain a straight line I could focus on taking smaller, even stitches.

tiny stitches

following the line

The result was french seams that look as nice as if they’d been sewn by machine and I couldn’t be more pleased. This is the front right side gusset seam, which also shows the extended length.

side gusset 2

So the side gussets are in place on the right side of the chemise. Next week, the left side gets its side gussets. Then…the sleeves.

The 18th Century Chemise – cut and underway

The chemise has been cut out and sewing is underway! Since I was a full yard short of being able to use the pattern I had, I went to The Cognitive Shift, by Sharon Ann Burston, and found the answers I needed.

The first challenge was simply drawing the pattern on my gridded pattern material – I don’t have a space large enough to lay everything out. The cutting table wasn’t sufficient for this. The fabric store where I used to live has a large sewing room with lots of tables I can use for free as long as a class isn’t in session. But it’s a 40-minute drive each way. The local fabric store also has tables, but charges $5 for the privilege. Figuring that gas and my time would be worth more than $5, I paid up and moved in.

I only had one change to get it right, so I checked and double-checked the measurements then transferred the pattern to the pattern material and cut the chemise. With a bit of math and a minimal amount of tweaking I was able to fit the entire shift on the fabric I had at hand, which surprised the stuffing out of me. I was able to get all the pieces and there’s even enough left to put a ruffle around the neck line, if I decide to do so.

Only one catch: it’s almost 2 inches too short. But I’m considering using the time-honored, and historically accurate, technique of piecing with other fabric to make up the difference along the hemline. I don’t know how much that would change how the chemise hangs, since the side gussets are from the linen. The resolution will come when I decide whether I need the full length and that won’t happen for a while.

In addition to Ms. Burston’s article, I also read other articles and posts about making 18th century chemises. One message came through loud and clear: finishing the neckline is the first priority. Cutting the neckline first and finishing the edge immediately is the best way to avoid distortion through stretching while handling. A lot of it is on the bias, after all. I took it a step further and marked the cutting line for the entire neck, but started with edging the back half of the neckline only. Handling linen is like handling water and, given that the front of the neckline is deep and long, I worried that even the small amount of handling required to finish the back edge would be enough to distort the front edge. So I left the front edge uncut while I hemmed the back edge.

neck edge2

Ms. Burston recommends 11 stitched to the inch for finishing the edge. I don’t know how close I came to that…I just used lots of tiny stitches, close together. The linen is beautiful and so easy to hand sew. A new experience for me is hand sewing with linen thread. I’ve never used it before and, even with beeswax, it’s a bit of a temperamental beast. But we’re getting to know each other and it’s getting easier.

neck edge1

And just this morning I found this post on linen thread from At the Sign of the Golden Scissors and, wouldn’t you know it, they now import fine linen thread and sell it in three weights. Since the thread I’m using is less than ideal for what’s ahead I think I’ll be ordering a spool or two.

The back neck is now finished and I’m ready to start on the front. I’ve cut he edge and it’s pinned, and it’s an overcast and damp day – perfect for more sewing.

Your Weekend Wow

In the early 19th century the custom and standard was for married women to cover their hair with a light cap. Caps were worn in the house and covered with a bonnet when going out-of-doors. Fashion, location and economic status dictated shape, materials and construction so, thankfully, quite a range of surviving examples exist. But I rarely see one photographed to show clear, close-up detail. Thanks to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, one such image is available.

And for those of us who have wondered just how fine cotton mull was, this provides the answer. The net inserts look coarse in comparison.

Woman’s cap, American, about 1815. Embroidered mull cap with puffed crown and ruffled edge; circular floral pattern embroidered at top of crown with lace insertions in blossoms and eyelets; seven diamond-shaped puffed net inserts around crown; band of eyelets with leaf motifs within overall pattern of V-shaped motifs; lace ruffle at edge. Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts, United States; Place of Manufacture: (fabric) probably India. Accession number: 49.956.


A Heartfelt Thank You

I want to send out heartfelt thanks to reader Elisabeth, who pointed me in the direction of Sharon Ann Burnston’s article on 18th century chemises. I think she just may have saved me from myself.

As my lovely linen was washing yesterday, I pulled out my pattern to review the instructions and realized that it calls for 3 1/2 yards of fabric however I’d only ordered 2 1/2. Oops.

But 2 1/2 yards of 54″ wide fabric seems like it should be enough. I’m not 54 inches wide, after all. I don’t want full sleeves with cuffs and ruffles. And if it’s a bit on the short-ish side I can live with it. But there was no way I was going to get the chemise I wanted out of the pattern I had without that extra yard.

Enter Plan B – Sharon Ann Burnston’s article. I need to measure and draft it out on my pattern material (conveniently printed in a one-inch grid) but I think it will work.

So many thanks, Elisabeth – looks like I might be able to bail myself out of this one without having to buy more fabric.

Your Weekend Wow!

My personal 18th century “wowza-palooza” continues with this delightful bergère, also from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Absolutely incredible. ‘Nuff said.

Woman’s feather hat (bergère). English or French, 1750-1775. Round disk-like hat with crown only slightly elevated, foundation of linen completely covered with polychrome feathers; lined with pale pink taffeta, one pale pink silk ribbon. Silk ribbon, linen, feathers, and silk faille lining. Dimensions: 35 x 35 x 2 cm (13 3/4 x 13 3/4 x 13/16 in.). Accession number: 43.1832.



bergere underneath

Researching the 18th Century Chemise

Late yesterday I received notice that my order of handkerchief linen from Wm. Booth, Draper, has shipped. Heavens, but they are quick! This means I need to seriously settle down and decide what I’m doing. Because the 18th century covers a lot of stylistic turf and things will go easier if I choose a spot to land. Knowing what’s going to go on top will help me get what goes underneath correct…I hope.

In my French class we are currently reading “Candide” (in French, bien sûr) and I am loving Voltaire. The more I read him and read about him, the more I appreciate his esprit. “Candide” was published in 1759 (when he was two years older than I am now) so, as a personal tribute to M. François-Marie Arouet (who came to call himself M. de Voltaire and became a champion of rational thought and human rights), I’ve selected 1760s/1770s as the time frame I want to recreate.

And, because who doesn’t love being thoroughly intimidated by a creative project, I want to make a Robe à la Française. These are some of my favorite extant gowns from this period.

The necklines vary a bit in depth and width from decade to decade, as does the sleeve length. However, I can see two features the chemise will need: a low, squared neckline and slim-fitting sleeves that end above the elbow. I can do that.

Extant chemises from the time show a basic structure that changes little through many decades. This makes me very happy.

I am extremely grateful I figured out underarm gussets when I made my Regency chemise. Hopefully things will go more smoothly this time around…no more three-dimensional gusset bubbles (fingers crossed). That was a great laugh but once was enough, thank you very much.

Now I’m reading up on sewing and construction techniques while I wait for that lovely handkerchief linen to arrive. In the meantime, embroidery on the Regency reticule continues. Photos coming soon.