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?

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.

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.

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.


My Two Big Bodacious Costuming Goals…it’s not the destination, it’s the journey

SideWireDressformOne of the major reasons I haven’t been sewing garments, besides that elusive muse, is because I’m changing sizes. Losing weight (on purpose) is wonderful and requires a concerted effort. However, it becomes nigh on impossible to make a waist or a set of stays or anything with much of a fit when I don’t know what size I’ll end up. I know where I’d like to end up, but liking is one thing and getting there is another. (At my age my metabolism is nearly in a coma, so a little intake goes a very long way.)

But that itch to sew and create is back at long last, so what to do?

An 18th Century Gregorian Reflecting Table Telescope

18th Century Gregorian Reflecting Table Telescope

Rather than follow the HSM, I’ve decided to think in terms of dreamy costumed events I’d like to attend and set my sights accordingly. And if I’m going to chart a new course, why not lift my eyes and shoot for something grand and just a bit insane? Why not, indeed.

So, resolutely jumping in way over my head, I’ve chosen two very big Biggies – one I’ve known about for a while and one that I’ve just discovered: the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, and the 18th century evening (Les Fêtes Galantes) at the Palace of Versailles, France.

Neither of these is going to happen any time soon. 2018 sounds like a good target, although there is a slim chance (no pun intended) I could be ready for Bath by next fall. We shall see. Heaven knows I’ve done crazier things.

Here’s my current catalog of acquired and/or finished items for each event.

  • Bath: period boots, stockings, chemise, stays, petticoat, fichu. Multiple outfits required. Have patterns for gowns, caps, bonnets, turbans, overdress, redingote, spencer, cape, mitts and reticules. Lots of fabric, too.
  • Versailles: not a thing – zip, zilch, nada, rien. Single outfit required. Have pattern for chemise. Have fabric for pocket hoops.

And so, as you can see, I’ve a lot of sewing ahead of me. Fortunately, the garments on the “to do” list have quite a lot of diversity – I don’t think I’ll get bored. And I hope the enticing goal events will help keep me going when I get frustrated and/or stuck – which is likely, considering this is all new territory for me.

Since I’m currently shrinking (and, hopefully, not re-expanding) I think my best bet for now is to stick with things that don’t require a close fit or a specific size.

For the festival in Bath that means working on the cap, bonnet and reticule(s). The cap I’ve been fiddling with has become a veritable thorn in my side. The cotton organdy is way too stiff and heavy…it’s more like a bonnet than a cap. So I’m going to start over and use a fine linen this time. The former cap may actually become a white summer bonnet with some trim added to spice it up a bit.

Remember this? I do. Grrrr...

Remember this? I do. Grrrr…

For the “do” at Versailles it means starting with the chemise, since that’s the only pattern I have at the time. If I’m going to do 18th century French fashion at Versailles I want to do it right: inside-out and bottom-up. In that spirit I’ve just ordered some 3-ounce handkerchief linen (WLG119) from Wm. Booth, Draper – enough for a chemise and that pesky late Georgian cap.

Who knew my muse would come back with this? I’m really hoping I don’t have to make another set of Regency stays, although worse things could happen and likely will – I’ll need to make myself a set of 18th century stays, after all.

After that will come a set of pocket hoops. I’m planning on using the pattern from J.P. Ryan and already have fabric for them.

JP Ryan #14 - 18th Century Pocket Hoops Pattern

JP Ryan pattern #14

But first, the chemise. And so the games begin.

Your Weekend Wow!

What happened to the notion of beauty in everyday things? How nice it would  be if every layer of clothing was a wonder in and of itself.

Petticoat. New England, mid 18th century. Linen and cotton with wool embroidery. Petticoat; white linen and cotton ground woven with vertical ribbing (plied linen warps regularly form ribs); bottom edge bound with green wool tape; border design of vine bearing grapes, thistles, berries, and a variety of flowers, embroidered in polychrome crewels. (


Two Regency Surprises: The “Other” Lazy Lacing Corset and Stockings Tied to Pantalettes

One thing that seriously impacts/inspires/limits/challenges my sewing is the fact that I have to dress myself. No spouse, significant other, understanding neighbor or eternally patient lady’s maid…I must get in and out of these undergarments and clothing on my own, or risk getting my 15 minutes of fame by appearing on the front page in the midst of arrest for indecent exposure. (Frankly, not my first choice.)

This is especially problematic with my Regency long stays. I have to put them on over my head and wriggle in like an armless tube worm donning a spandex sheath dress. By the time it’s on I’ve worked up a sweat. It’s particularly annoying when I’m sewing and fitting as I go. Each stop to fit takes up an hour or so when you count getting into and out of the stays. Sure, I could just leave the silly things on…but have you ever tried spending the day sewing while wearing Regency long stays that keep you firmly lashed to a ginormous wooden busk? I tried it once and didn’t last long.

This has made it to the front of things in my mind because there are a mere six weeks left in the year (no, I don’t know how that happened either) and I have promised myself I will finally finish a somewhere-around-1800 dress for myself before New Year’s Eve. I’m not demanding a certain color or style…I just want one that fits my uneven sloping shoulders and doesn’t leave the girls served up like an all-you-can-eat buffet. However, the thought of wrestling those stays on and off a dozen or so times does not exactly bring to mind hours of joyful sewing.

But there’s more than one way to support the girls, Regency style. I ran across this on Pinterest. It’s not new, but it’s new to me and perhaps it’s new to you, too. In any case, it’s worth sharing. The French term for this method is “lazy” lacing which would indicate it’s perfect for the single costumer who must manage on her own. It looks positively simple and lightning fast. (You may have to adjust the sound, as the recorded volume is rather low and her son is “helping” with background mommy chatter.)

According to the videographer, this method and style was patented in 1796 and used throughout the early 19th century. She made hers based on one in an 1810 fashion plate and I can see a center busk sewn in place.

This looks like the perfect short stays for me. It’s long enough that it comes to the wearer’s high hip, instead of mid-ribcage. The shoulder straps attach in the front and cross in the back so they won’t fall off the first time I reach for something, which is currently a problem. They are wide and flat, so they won’t dig. Best of all, because they cross independently of each other, my uneven shoulders would be easily accommodated. I don’t know if a pattern already exists, but I’m on the hunt. If anyone knows of a pattern for short stays just like these, please let me know. It may take a number of trial muslins to get the right fit, but I think it would be worth it to have a set of stays that I can whip on in about five minutes without assistance.


The other surprise discovery is this Walpole cartoon, published in London in 1799.

"The Virgin Shape Warehouse", satirical drawing, London 1799. Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection - London. Publish'd Sepr. 1st, 1799, by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly, [1799]

“The Virgin Shape Warehouse”, satirical drawing, London 1799. Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection – London. Publish’d Sepr. 1st, 1799, by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly, [1799]

Look at those stockings – they caught my eye immediately because they are supported by the pantalettes – I think it’s too early to call them “drawers” – seemingly attached (buttoned or tied) at the outside edge. No less than three of the caricatures are wearing stockings in this manner. Only the seated figure appears to have her stockings supported with garters secured above the knee. The skinny woman’s stockings are simply falling down. In addition, the four pairs of pantalettes hanging up on pegs all have ties dangling from the outside edge of the hems.

This is new to me and it’s a much bigger surprise than the alternative corset. Social satirists keep their metaphoric fingers on the pulse of society’s practices and trends so I have no reason to disregard the stocking treatments as a figment of Mr. Walpole’s imagination. Although holding my stocking up in this manner would probably feel less secure and even a bit less comfortable, varicose veins run in my family and being able to wear stockings without a tight band around my knee, whether above or below, is a fantastic option.

This also belies the notion that women didn’t really start really wearing pantalettes until the 1820’s or 30’s.

So there you have it: two new ways to look at Regency dress. Speaking as one who is more than happy to color outside the lines, I love it.