We all of us have a Sewing Friend at some point in our sewing days… that Kind Friend with more experience that we have at the moment, who has a broader grasp on the intricacies of historic sewing techniques and research application. The Sewing Friend who talks us out of bad purchasing choices, and encourages us to grow, expand, and try new things.
Here’s a short list of thoughtful things you can do to ensure your Sewing Friend loves hearing from you, and remains eager to be on your resource list for year to come… a Care and Feeding tipsheet, if you will!
(We’re using “Her” as the generic target pronoun, but substitute your Sewing Friend’s appropriate pronoun as needed. The concepts are universal.)
Be Considerate of Her Time
Your Sewing Friend has a Real Life, much as she might prefer to be immersed in historic pursuits full time. Being considerate of her time includes planning your projects with substantial lead-time, so your questions are not asked in crisis deadline mode, and she can plan pockets of time that fit around her real life responsibilities.
Phrasing your requests in considerate ways helps a lot, too. “Is there a good time in the next three weeks to come over for about half an hour and have you show me that thing you mentioned about fitting the waist? Or is it something we could do on video-chat at your convenience? Is there already a tutorial on-line you could recommend?” tends to be more favorably received than “I’ll be over tonight at 9:30 for you to fit my bodice for me.”
Be Willing To Work Beforehand
Ask her what portions of the project you should have prepped before you meet. Then prep those. Ask for tutorial recommendations or resource recommendations, then give them a whack yourself, even if the results are imperfect. In fact, give everything a whack, on scrap fabric! It’s far easier to give suggestions for improvement, corrections to refine the technique, or ideas on alterations when your Sewing Friend can see where you’re at with skills and applications. And, you might surprise yourself at what you figure out solo!
Working beforehand includes doing some research. It’s not your Sewing Friend’s job to do research into what’s most appropriate for your interpretive needs. You’ll want to have a firm grasp on the context of your impressions and activities, and a list of What I Need Clothing-wise To Make It Work. Doing your own research into textiles and prints, then bringing images of three choices you think could work, is far more useful than expecting her to spend hours of time researching options for you to pick among.
Be Willing To Work During
Unless you’re paying your Sewing Friend skilled-labor rates to do your project as a commissioned job, you should be the primary hands on your work. During a sewing-together session, be prepared and willing to patiently work through each step of your project, asking for help as needed. You may end up needing to pick out and re-do something; that’s normal, and part of the learning process. Asking for a confirming opinion before going ahead with a construction step is a far more useful thing than sitting on your Sewing Friend’s couch, expecting her to do the work of sewing for you.
Be Willing To Work After
Your Sewing Friend will reasonably ask you to do some work independently after your session. Give it a whack! If you’ve learned to sew a plain seam during your sewing session, you can independently sew all the plain seams before your next session. If you’ve learned to put a hem in during your session, plan to put in all your hems before the next session. Carving out time to make progress between your sessions together shows your Sewing Friend that you take her efforts to help you seriously, even if it’s in 10-minute segments each day!
Provide Your Own Stuff
It’s not reasonable to expect your Sewing Friend to provide notions, fabrics, or machines for your use. If you do not own a machine, you’ll need to expect a slower pace via hand-sewing, or else save up for a good basic machine and lessons (from the seller or user manual) in how to thread and use that machine. Ask your Sewing Friend for suggestions on where to buy good notions, then follow those suggestions. Pop your supplies into a nice tote, and bring them every time. Don’t expect your Sewing Friend to give up her own project time or machines for your use, or to loan them out to you.
If your Sewing Friend offers up a bit of fabric from her stash, be prepared and willing to reimburse her monetarily. She cannot replace the fabric using her own good looks or sparkling wit. She will probably offer you a bargain deal on it. It’s a kindness to not dicker with her over price. Your Sewing Friend’s textile expertise is not Haggle-palooza time. If the textile on offer is not in your budget right this minute, thank her kindly, and say, “No, I cannot”—or ask if you can save up over time, and take it home or cut it up when you’ve bought it fully.
Provide Some Good Stuff For Her, Too
If you’ll be working together for an afternoon, or even for an hour, it’s a considerate thing to bring along something pleasant to share, like a bouquet of fresh flowers from your garden (or a $4 bouquet from the grocery store), a box of tea you think she’ll like, some homemade (or bought!) cookies, fresh bread, a contribution toward lunch or supper, a library DVD to watch while you work, a great music playlist to listen to while you work. It doesn’t have to be expensive—free is awesome—but it’s a nice way to thank your Sewing Friend for devoting time to your needs, and enhances the companionable time you spend together.
Pro Tip: Don’t toss bags of castoff stuff at her, though. While your neighbor’s mother-in-law’s cousin’s stash of 1970s crochet lace might have some value somewhere, your Sewing Friend doesn’t usually need or want it. Ask, with photos attached, before hauling anything over to her house for “sharing.” Be aware that when she says, “Oh, that’s cool, but it doesn’t really suit my current needs,” that’s a firm NOPE NO WAY, and find somewhere else to fob the stuff. And home dec “faux silk” is not even suited for burning, due to the off-gassing. Just don’t even ask about that.
In addition to doing considerate things, use your words! It’s amazing what simple expressions of genuine thanks can do. “Thanks for being willing to help!” “Thanks for setting aside time for me!” “Thanks for opening your home to me!” “Thanks for encouraging me through this step!” More than just a generic “Thanks, bye!” tossed over your departing shoulder, these specific and focused Thank You Words let your Sewing Friend know you recognize the value of her efforts. You don’t have to be excessive or effusive. Sewing Friends do want to help, and don’t expect trophies or press conferences in reward. Just remember to add a pleasant, sincere “Thank you for this!” when you’ve worked together, and at any point you feel grateful during a working session. .
Look for Reciprocity
Do you have a historic skill your Sewing Friend might like to learn? Offer reciprocal lessons or guidance! Do you have a Real Life Skill (versus historic life skill) that would enhance her Real Life? Offer it up! If your Sewing Friend is spending a chunk of time away from her Real Life Responsibilities in order to help you, look for ways you could help restore her time.
No one is required to become an Expert Historic Sewist. And truthfully, you don’t need to be expert to do some really solid mid-century sewing for yourself, sewing that holds up under the demands of interpretive use, is consistent with history, and highly functional. With some diligent effort on your part, and the kind assistance of your Sewing Friend, you can do good, useful work, without ever needing to put in the thousands of hours your Sewing Friend has in pursuit of mastery. It’s okay if you don’t hit that point. Diligent effort over time is perfectly useful!
This is not an unwitting duplicate. Really. Express gratitude verbally, in actions, and in body language. Most of us who are Sewing Friends get a really deep and satisfying kick out of seeing others meet their goals, and the expressions of gratitude are the delicious gooey chocolate ganache on the dense fudge cake of accomplishment.
The frequent and judicious application of a sincere thank you prevents burnout, enhances friendship, and is the life-blood of Sewing Friends everywhere!
Recent events have me thinking a lot about the nature of collaborative historical research and application, living in the 21st century (Hello, George Jetson!), and a whole lot of other tangled stuff that may or may not be useful to readers.
But when has that ever stopped me sharing an opinion? Or this, a loving and loquacious look back at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could go. (Oh, what a nicely-paved road! Why are we in this handbasket?)
Pre-reading Apology To Those Reading On Mobile Devices: this, like so many of my posts, will be an endlessly-scrolling Wall O’ Text that every coherent internet writer is told to Never Ever Do. I added capricious line breaks. But its still Many Words. So I put up a pretty and historic image of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, so the Lords of the Internet won’t show up at my cottage doorstep and beat me with ethernet cables.
Let us Proceed With The Novella, after the jump. Continue reading
A response from the editor of Citizen’s Companion:
I appreciate your message, and am sorry you feel as if we have done something egregiously wrong. We have our lawyers looking at the issue now. As I’m sure you know, the material re-published was submitted to The Citizens’ Companion prior to the year 2000 when Lakeway Publishers legally purchased the publication and all its content. It is my understanding that agreement stated all purchased content fell under the copyright of the former TCC publishers and therefore, we can reproduce as we see fit. Out of respect for you, and also Carolann Schmitt (a graduate student contacted me about her content), I will not reprint your articles without permission. Your legal issue, I believe is with the entity that sold the publications to us with the rights to republish all material previously submitted to and used by them. We would appreciate no further libel, public or private, concerning our company. Again, I apologize for the misunderstanding and hope you can appreciate our position. Thank You, Jessie Greene
So, there’s that.
Here’s the thing about libel: statements have to be untrue. And at no point have I made untrue statements.
I’m glad the editor is going to not continue to trample my legal rights in the future.
The article is still up on their website, however.
Basic upshot from my perspective: research moves forward. Why anyone would want to republish un-updated information from nearly TWO DECADES ago is beyond me–even with permission!
If you want the most updated information I can share, check here. We’ll update for free.
If you are pleased with the historical accuracy of your overall silhouette and foundation, please consider being part of a Modeling Project for The Sewing Academy.
Models can be male or female, of any age and build! Your foundational impression may be from anywhere on the economic spectrum, from any portion of the focus era (1835-1865).
To participate, please email me directly with some details of your target years, accompanied by digital images of yourself in your period clothing (taken as straight-on as possible against a high-contrast background) from the front, side, and back, as well as in a “period fashionable” pose if desired.
Your participation will make the Modeling Project possible–and the Modeling Project has the potential to be of great utility to living history enthusiasts, educators, artists, writers, and more, all over the globe!
Thanks to all who came out for the Old Sacramento Sewing Academy series this last weekend! We had a total of 32 people for the three days, got a lot of good work done, and shared the excitement of living history in the West with friends old and new. Sponsored by the Sacramento History Museum and Old Sacramento Living History program, we were in a great space in the heart of Old Sacramento, with lovely staff and volunteers who made sure arrangements and all were easy, and as comfortable as can be.
I really do think that history people are just the *best* people. Thanks, all, for making it possible to associate with you, and to share with you!
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the Sewing Academy Planner for 2017—if you know you’d like to have workshops in your local area, look for that update, get a wishlist together with your interested core, and let’s make it happen!
Watch the site as we work through November… we have some *very* exciting things going on right now, and will have nifty announcements as we reach Thanksgiving!
My, oh, my! What a great weekend! Just got back from the Hunt Hill Sewing Academy Retreat, hosted by the Living History Society of Minnesota, and already looking for a future date to do it all again!
Do you remember watching Hailey Mills in “The Parent Trap”, and feeling a bit more than pea-green with envy over that classic sleep-away camp? Hunt Hill was full of Hailey Moments for me. And when I have Hailey Moments, I get parenthetical, so be fore-warned…
We were lodged comfortably in Long Dorm–which was far better than any dorm I’ve slept in! Rooms with two twin beds (cute-and-sturdy vintage metal bedsteads, comfy modern mattress), desk and chair, dresser and mirror, and plentiful closet space… real hardwood floors throughout, charming tongue-and-groove ceilings, and the style of window that made me dredge up my How To Wind Rope On A Cleat training, from back when I was The Worst Campfire Girl in the History of Ever. (Seriously. I was very bad at it. But I remember the ropes thing!)
Shared modern cold-water bathrooms inside the dorm, plus a spacious shower house (with great hot water! Midnight cell-phone-“candle”-lit shower bliss!), verdant green spaces outdoors (ten miles of hiking trails! botany! wildlife!), a gorgeous lake, classic camp dining hall (cloth napkin cubbies! endless lemonade! oilcloth on the tables! real chairs!), fantastic meals catered in (just… unnph… good), and loads of time to work and visit… it was a grand weekend.
In among telling scandalous stories and terrible jokes and some pretty high-quality harmonized singing to our working soundtrack (seriously, we were very good!) and full-moon canoe tours and late night campfires (with s’mores, of course!) we also got a lot of work done:
- SEVEN corsets fitted, cut, and constructed, plus boning schemes plotted and grommets set, and almost all by ladies with no previous corset-making experiences
- SIX bodice drapings and testing, plus sleeve style testing–and the difference between a made-for-you pattern and a generic pattern is simply delightful!
- TWO sets slippers patterned, tested, and started (choosing the embellishments was the hard part!)
- TWO chemises drafted, cut, and constructed
- ONE pair drawers ditto
- ONE ballgown bertha designed, draped, and constructed (gorgeous bias pleats in silk… yum!)
- Multiple small UFOs finished up and checked off the project list (with accompanying applause!)
- Copious belly-rubs and ear-scritches for the resident Canine Sewing Academy Mascot, Idgie (who is a sweetie, and had nice things to say about everyone there).
The opportunity to brainstorm with so many like-minded living history enthusiasts was a delight, and with a few newbies in the mix, too, off to a grand start in their history adventures.
As one who was indeed The Worst Campfire Girl in the History of Ever, I have to say it was my best camp experience of my life, so far… to be topped only by the next Retreat at Hunt Hill!
We’ll be back to the stays posts in the Sew-Along shortly, but today, I wanted to share with you a lovely review of our Great Auntie Maude’s Favorite Cloth Doll pattern, from a delightful history enthusiast and blogger, Elizabeth K (I do have a fondness for fellow Elizabeths…)
Click through to read her thoughts on the pattern, see her lovely doll, and then read her other great posts!
Don’t forget to subscribe to site updates; once the girls are all dressed, I’d say it’s time for some doll projects, wouldn’t you?
In the midst of kitting up with chemises, drawers, petticoats, dresses, and all the other pretty things of a functional living history wardrobe, one element often overlooked or skipped “in the interests of time” is a stay or corset for a dress-wearing child.
That category of person-to-be-clothed includes tiny toddlers, through middle childhood, through the tween years, and into the teens, so it’s a significant population, and there are some good reasons to add stays or corsets to a child’s wardrobe.
First, though: definitions and functions.
A child’s corset (or stays; the two terms are used quite interchangeably in primary sources, and there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation as to one being stabilized with cording, the other with steel, etc) is designed for support, light control, and a platform. By that, I mean this: children are quite often “Eggs on Legs” (to borrow from Karen Crocker), and a child’s stay or corset provides some firming up to the squidgy torso, a way to move support of garments to the shoulder (through the use of straps) rather than trying to find a waist point, and also gives a spot upon which to button skirt supports and fullness.
Beyond those aspects, a stay also provides bust support for developing figures, and functions in the same way as an adult corset, distributing the wearing stress and weight of increasingly-full skirts around the entire body, rather than hanging from pinchy points on the back hip.
For my own two girls, stays do this:
1: For the younger one, age 8, who is build like a very thin noodle, and has some very mild sensory challenges: we’ll get a place to tack clothing onto her body, and prevent her skirts always sliding down to her knees in front, without having a narrow band of pressure from waistbands that will drive her to tears. She does very well with all-over pressure, so the stays not only function well from a historic-dressing standpoint, they ameliorate some modern challenges in a period-appropriate way! She also likes complex dress-up, so it’s satisfying all the way around.
2: For the older one, who is getting her early-teen curves at 11, the stays will simply firm up her torso for a tidy look in period clothing that matches what she’s seeing in original images. It doesn’t take much to notice that those 40s and 50s images of girls are showing some well-stabilized torsos, and she has a deep desire to present an identical look. Her stays will also accommodate her bust development, while giving her another layer between her own self and the world (which helps the very body-modest girl a great deal.)
What About Growth?
I’m not actually too worried about growth measures in either stay, and here’s why:
1: Noodly-girl has, at 8, a waist that is more slender than her own waist at age 2. Her waist has been a constant 21″ since she was about 4 years old. She’s healthy, but very reedy, and tends to do quick jumps up in height, without getting much wider at all. I need her to get the summer out of these stays—I anticipate two interpretive seasons at the very most before she’s 3″ taller and needs a new shape—, and then I can pass them along to other families. So, I’m fitting them to her needs now, with a slight bit of overlap for her buttons in the back, and about 1″ extra length in the straps for some growth room. She won’t be happy if they’re not comfortably snug.
2: My older girl is on the petite end of things, but is hitting her growth, and for her, that tends to be very little upward, and we’ve been seeing a refinement of curves in the last year. Her waist is lengthening a bit, and narrowing a lot; her hips are getting a little width, and her bust is developing. I can accommodate all of her needs by adding a lacing placket at the back, and keeping buttons in the front to aid self-dressing. Having dressed girls through their teens before, I’m comfortable with the idea that new stays are going to be an item every single year from now to about 18 or 19, when her figure starts to stabilize. Because she already has a good hip-to-waist ratio, I can make her stays without straps; she has enough hip to move to adult-style support without a problem.
As for adult supportive undergarments, I need 100% natural fabrics that are firmly woven, with good body and stability, but without being heavy or bulky. I’ll be using a combination of cotton twill and cotton sateen (a satin-weave cotton) for the corded stays my youngest will use. It’s a light-weight, low-bulk combination that does very well stabilized with close cording, and because she will not have a lacing adjustment, there’s no problem with the corded areas trying to squash to the waist.
My older daughter gets a more stabilized garment, suited to her support needs. I’ll be using a layer of coutil with some steel stays and German artificial whalebone (a high-grade product harvested from artificial whales of the inland lakes in Germany) in casings, to keep the garment as light and breathable as possible for a child who turns pink in the heat like her Mother. She’ll still have a buttoning front, but we’ll have a lacing placket in back, with metal grommets (not eyelets–size 00 two-piece metal grommets for durability).
I’m using the stays pattern from our Girl’s Linens pattern for each; it’s a simple one to cut for different lengths and circumferences, and I’ll be customizing the fit at the side seams for the younger one, and by creating some curving seamlines at the bust as well, for the older one. As she gets a bit older, I’ll switch to doing custom-draped corsets for her, following the methods in The Dressmaker’s Guide. Since the pattern accommodates her largest body measurement (bust), I can simply adjust things for now.
Remember, we’re doing the sewing sessions in 20-minute increments, to show how progress can be made even when time is tight for a modern family.
My first work session is actually just pre-washing my fabrics; there’s about 20 minutes of labor involved, with tossing it into the wash and hanging on the line later. We don’t have to stare at the cloth while it dries.
The majority of chemises with fullness at mid-century seem to be handled with gathering to fit a yoke or band. Since that seems to be the most common, that’s how I’ll be handling the fullness at the neckline.
In reproducing chemises, you could opt to machine sew gathering stitches. Keep your machine’s settings at a regular straight stitch, rather than a longer basting stitch. Run one row of stitches about 1/8″ away from the edge of the fabric, and another about 1/4″ away from that, stopping and starting to avoid the run-and-fell seams. They will be a bit bulky to try and pull gathers through, otherwise.
When dealing with the relative minimal fullness involved for a chemise neckline that I’ve already scaled down to suit my girls, machined gathers will work well enough, and they will be a bit faster than the option I’m choosing: hand gathering.
Sessions Nine thru Fourteen
Gathering by hand, using two rows of fairly small running stitch, is one of the most low-bulk ways to control fullness. I actually like the rhythm of the stitching, and I really like the fine results, so it’s satisfying and worthwhile to me to gather all four neckline edges by hand.
I do “hop the seam” with a longer stitch on the outside of the chemise at each of the run-and-fell seams. I’ll be positioning them flat when I sew the bands, and don’t want to have to drag thread through them when I gather. My smirched purple thumbnail is hovering over a “hop.”
The gathering takes me about 30 minute per chemise, which means I do need to be willing to sit down for six 20-minute sessions of work. In reality, this translated to snuggling into the corner of the couch, grabbing my needle and thread and watching three episodes of one of my favorite shows on Netflix (Supernatural, in case you wondered. It’s what I consider the modern equivalent of reading Bronte, or Shelley–Gothic horror/romance ideals in a modern setting. The nature of Man, redemption, brotherhood, all that lot.) I don’t consider that a hardship.
I’ll wait until I get everything pinned to the neck bands to decide if I’ll be sewing a regular seam, or finishing the necklines with stroked gathering; if the gathering density is sufficient, I may well choose stroked gathers, because I do like the way they look. (Spoiler Alert: I decided to do regular seams to attach the bands, and I did them by machine, too!)
Session Fifteen & Sixteen: Straight Bands
There are several ways to handle a straight, non-placketed band. I could choose to make each band a two-piece band, seamed at the bottom to the chemise, and to the band facing at the top. This is very stable, and allows me to sandwich in some nice whitework edging if I’m so inclined.
However, the particular miss I’m making these two chemises for has some mild sensory-processing quirks, and she is very likely to declare all of that “too stiff” to be worn.
Instead, I’m making the band double the width I want, seaming it to the chemise, and making a simple folded-and-stitch finish. A bit of topstitching along the upper fold gives it stability, without “stiffness” that might antagonize my particular young lady.
The basic construction process:
Seam the band at the short ends. Match quarter marks to the chemise and draw up the gathers to fit. Stitch a 1/4″ seam to join them. (This is my personal preference; you can make a deeper seam allowance if you prefer, and then trim the extra to reduce a bit of bulk inside the band.)
Press all the seam allowances toward the band, then fold the band into place on the inside, covering all the raw edges. Topstitch very close to the seam “ditch”, and again about 1/16″ to 1/8″ away from the fold at the top of the band. Done!
Session Seventeen & Eighteen: Placketed Bands
For the placketed bands, I chose to round off the upper edge of the bands. This is a lot easier to sew if each band is in two sections: the outer band, and the band facing/lining. I follow the same process for matching quarter points, drawing up the gathers, and sewing with a 1/4″ seam allowance to attach the band. However, I make sure the band extends about 1/4″ beyond the edge of the plackets, so I can attach the facing/lining easily, and have everything mate up smoothly.
Once the band is on, I can press all the allowances toward the band, then pin the band facing/lining right sides together with the outer band, and stitch from one curve, across the top edge, to the other curve.
A bit of trimming and notching to make sure the curve turns nicely, and I can press the whole facing/lining into place on the inside of the band. Again, topstitch to finish all the way around the band.
With the last bit of my final sewing session, I worked a buttonhole in the overlap end of each placketed chemise, and sewed on a neat little 4-hole white porcelain button (these are very common on undergarments at mid-century.)
Chemises: The Final Tally
Including the three side-bar sessions I spent on tucks and hemmed plackets, I’ve used twenty-one 20-minute sewing sessions to take purchased yardage to four finished chemises for my girls, using a mix of period-appropriate hand and machined construction techniques. That’s averaging out at 105 minutes per chemise… a bit more than an hour and a half each. Not too bad!
If I were only able to sew 20 minute a day, I would be done with all four chemises in 21 days. If I can carve out an hour a day, my time to complete four quite nice chemises drops to about one week of 1-hour sewing sessions. Or, I could choose to fall down a Black Hole of Making, and blitz out four chemises in one day, if I plan some meals ahead. From yardage on the laundry, to four chemises finished!
With the tucks in place, it’s time to create a center front placket in the chemise. This is an option outside of the Girls Linens pattern, so we’ll walk through step-by-step here. You can also use this technique on adult chemises, as it’s a common feature!
Side-Bar Session Three
There are several historical ways I could handle a center front placket on these chemises.
This chemise, from the MET collection, has an embellished, shaped yoke, and the placket below the yoke is a simple narrow-hemmed slit.
This one, with an interesting faggoted double band, appears to have the placket with one faced edge, and one narrow-hemmed edge.
Here is another with a faced-and-overlapped placket, where the placket forms a bit of a pleat at the base. This is the style of placket I’m leaning toward, as it will take a bit more abuse than a simple hemmed slit, and gives a functional spot for additional buttons and buttonholes if desired, if you plan the center gap wider than I did!
One thing I’ve noticed when looking at chemises with a faced placket is that the placket is often installed, and then the neck band attached and finished. This two-step process is fairly easy to replicate.
I’ll zip through the steps, and let you view the images as a slide-show again.
I measured down about 6″ (this is fairly arbitrary, but it will expand the neckline edge a whole foot for donning/doffing, and my 11yo is not a very large person), and cut a slit in the center front. Then, perpendicular cuts at the base, half-way across the gap in the middle (about 5/8″, in this case.)
Press each flap back, tuck the raw edge under, and press well.
Remove to the machine, or hand-stitch a hem on each pressed edge. Then it’s a quick “stack-em-up”; I folded the extra fabric in the base into two layered pleats, and pinned everything neatly. One pass of stitching just at the base of the folded placket, and another about 1/4″ below that, across the folded extras, and we have a tidy little placket all done!
(Well, actually TWO little plackets, all finished in one 20-minute sewing session!)
Gathered chemises are perfectly lovely, but sometimes it’s fun to do something that’s both period-correct, and a little fun! Fine tucking across the front of a chemise is one option. It takes no more fabric than a gathered chemise, and only a bit of time.
Generally, tucks at mid-century are not the ultra-fine “pin tucks” of the later 19th century or early 20th century. When used decoratively, they’re still fine, ranging from about 1/8″ to a scant 1/4″ or so, and typically have a gap that’s about equal to the width of the finished tuck between each folded-and-sewn tuck.
I’ve yet to handle an extant tucked chemise that has visible machine back-tacking (that “reverse stitch” we have on modern machines.) Because I like to mimic originals as much as possible, I chose to skip machined back-tacking. At the end of each tuck, I simply left a bit of a thread tail, drew both threads to what would be the underside of the pressed tuck, and tied a little doubled square knot to secure the threads before trimming off the tail. The upper end of the tucks will be secured inside the neck band, so I don’t have to back-tack there, either.
The other interesting thing I’ve noted on originals is how very often the tucks are pressed to face center front! This is opposite of our modern notions of arranging vertical tucks. Pressing to the center is one of those fine details that really takes a modern repro garment back in time, and it’s no trouble at all.
Side-Bar Sessions One & Two: Tucks!
It’s easiest to make tucks if you have the aid of a hem-gauge. If you don’t have a metal one, you can mark your desired intervals or measurements on a bit of cardstock, or just use a ruler or tape measure.
Because I’m making a placket at the center front, I want to leave some room to install and overlap that area. I placed the first folding line for the tucks 1-1/2″ away from the center front line.
After that, it’s a simple repeated process of stitching, pressing to center front, measuring and pressing the next line (3/4″ distances from one stitching line to the next fold line will give me 1/4″ tucks with 1/4″ between them) and repeated that until I have the whole front of the chemise tucked down to a measurement about 4″ wider than my daughter’s finished front chest width, measured from armpit crease to armpit crease.
Two 20-minute sessions have all the tucks in, and I’m quite pleased!
We spend an awfully lot of time trying to suss out the fine details and nuances of a clothing system that vanished 150 years ago or more. We try to replicate the shapes, the techniques, the textiles.
Sometimes, we finish up a project that used all our best, most recent research… and then turn around two years later and see how much more we know, and how that old piece doesn’t quite match up.
We’re also trying to coax our bodies to use skills that take loads of repetition to really “get”–and expecting perfection from ourselves with only a few brief experiences with a needle. I know my first 100 handmade buttonholes sure looked differently from my most recent 100. In workshops, I often tell people to focus on the mechanics of a stitch or technique; the beauty and refinement both depend on frequent repetition, and it will get better!
Sometimes, though, we just want a bit of a scapegoat.
That’s why we need Helen.
Helen is the maid-of-all-sewing you fictionally hired in the past to help make your wardrobe. Helen was a nice girl. She was willing, and she meant well.
But, compared to your current level of skill and knowledge, Helen just wasn’t very good.
Is one of your skirt breadths put in upside down? Oh, Helen.
Do you have buttonholes that look a bit like a worn picket fence, with gaps and sags and pulls, and made in three different sizes from top to bottom on your old bodice? Oh, Helen.
Does the piping on your bodice start out terribly fat, then disappear entirely where she missed the cord for 2″? Oh, Helen.
Do you have a whole stack of photos showing you with your collar basted in precisely 1/2″ off center? Do your darts have puckers at the top, every single time? Oh, Helen. That’s why you fired her, clearly.
Some of “her” work is probably salvageable. You could take it out and re-do it, using your Best Current Skills & Knowledge. There’s no reason to resist. It’s a period practice, remaking and remodeling, and certainly fits into a thrifty homemaker’s habits.
Some of “her” work will possibly go by the wayside, as no longer applicable to your living history needs. (Don’t perpetrate whammies… sell them off as dress-up or theatricals, not living history-appropriate!)
But don’t be discouraged when you realize you have progressed beyond Helen. Poor girl.
Just place the blame where it rightly belongs (Oh, Helen), gird up your loins, don your thimble, and allow yourself the grace to progress without regret or recrimination.
Unless you’re recriminating Helen.
Helen understands. You can tell. She holds no grudge.
Every girl needs chemises. They should be made of fine but firmly-woven white cotton for the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, and tend to sit either on the very edge of the shoulder joint, or entirely off the shoulder. Hemmed to about the knee, this base garment absorbs perspiration and is very easily laundered.
Generally, a girl will need a fresh chemise for each day of your interpretive interval (or of the week, if you were dressing in the period), plus a spare or two. And, if you have similarly-sized girls in your home, a simple initial for a laundry marking makes sisterly spats far less likely, and laundry headaches far fewer!
Our girl’s linens pattern has templates and instructions for chemises; you can take additional inspiration from original extant chemises, and diagrams and engravings from period magazines.
Remember: we’re breaking this up into 20 minute work sessions, so even families with tight schedules can see their potential progress! And, these work sessions encompass working on four to eight of the same type of garment in one go (two chemises, two drawers per girl, etc). If you’re new to historic sewing, it may take you a bit longer to do each step, but you’ll get faster with repetition. If you have someone to help with pressing, it may take you a bit less time in each session. You can and should adjust your work to suit your own schedule!
20 minutes labor saw the white cloth yardage (bought with a 50% off coupon from a chain fabric store, for a total of 10 yards, $35) into a hot water wash, and onto the line.
Another 20 minutes put a quick press on the yardage, using a hot iron and steam. It’s far easier to work with pressed fabric! The simple expedient of line drying helped remove most of the laundry wrinkling to begin with.
Session Three: Measure & Cut
Each girl gets a her own measurement card, which I keep in my sewing box during construction. These get dated, too, because most children have a disconcerting habit of growing overnight.
Since I’m starting with chemises (always work from the skin out!), the primary measurements I need for each girl are:
Circumference around the shoulders (for the fitted chemise band)
Depth of armscye (too short, and it’ll be pinchy! I can compare this to the templates in the chemise pattern, and customize the sleeve and chemise body to suit my child.)
Length of sleeve (again, I can customize! I want these chemise sleeves to be only as long as the upper bicep.)
Bicep circumference (a comfortable one, with a bit of ease; I’ll adjust the chemise sleeve template to suit our needs.)
Overall finished length (to about the knee. When stays are added, the chemise will still be about mid-thigh length.)
One of the alterations to the basic girls linen pattern that I know one of my girls wants is a chemise band that has a placket. This lets me get a nice snug fit around the shoulders, while still being easy to get off and on. So, I’ll be adding a center placket to the front of the chemise, and adding a placket there, plus buttons to close it.
The same daughter has also expressed interest in tucks to handle the fullness over the bust of the chemise. I don’t need to make any special changes to the shapes or fullness of the body of the chemise, but I will want to mark, press, and sew some fine tucks to suit her. The style differences, plus laundry marking, will help a lot when it comes to washing and storage!
Cut Versus Rip
Since the chemise requires very little actual shaping, I’ll be ripping sections to length, and using my adjusted templates from the pattern to do the bit of shaping needed in the neckline and sleeves. Ripping panels for length allows me to work quickly, and things are still on-grain, for easy pressing and sewing later.
A “thrift” measure I’m taking is to make the chemises more narrow than the full width of my fabric. I only need 30″ widths for the front and back of my slender 8yo’s chemises; I’m seaming two sections of “leftover” width into one back piece (shown in the photo), and using a third “leftover” for cutting two sleeves. The other two sleeves are cut from the “leftover” strip on the larger chemises (which are cut to 36″ widths). This bit of thrift lets me cut four chemises out of seven “drops” of yardage, rather than eight. It’s a small thrift, but significant!
Session Four, Five, Six & Seven: Run & Fell Seams
Once I’m past cutting, I’m usually very eager to get sewing! The seams attaching the sleeves, and side seams of the chemises are sewn with a run-and-fell seam, for sturdiness during laundering and low-bulk during wear.
If the underarms required extreme curves or shaping, the felling on the seams would be easiest to do by hand; with some careful pressing and a bit of care, I can finish these by machine. Great news: a lock-stitch on a modern machine is formed in the same way, and looks the same, as one formed on a mid-century lock-stitch machine!
Now, using up four sewing sessions just for the main construction seams on chemises may sound like a lot, but remember–I’m making four chemises at once, and my sessions are only 20 minute bursts. You can get quite a lot of progress if you have carved out more time.
Session Eight: Hems
You could finish the hems at the end if you like, but once the side seams are in, I personally like to get the hems in; it just feels like the projects finish up faster at the end when I do it that way. So I took another 20 minutes to press and machine-hem all four chemises. That involves an eye-balled 1/4″ fold and press along the edge, then a measured-with-hem-gauge 1-1/2″ fold, press, and stitch. Easy peasy!
If you are hemming by hand, a simple running stitch is all you need.
In the next Sew-Along post, I’m going to take a short detour and show you how to do a tucked front for two of the chemises, and then take a few sessions to finish up the chemises! For now, remember to take some breaks as needed. Around here, that usually involves one or more of the henfolk…
Good planning makes for far less craziness in life, and I’m very fond of a quiet, pleasant time, personally. Here’s a quick look at some of the planning that’s going into my own process of re-dressing two little girls for our living history interpretive season.
Plan For Real Life To Continue
If the head sewist falls into a Black Hole of Making, everyone gets crabby, filthy, starving, and naked. This is not conducive to positive family relations. So we make some plans that allow real life to continue! This includes some grocery shopping for foods that many members of the family can prepare, pre-cooking or batch-cooking some dishes, crock-pot meals, etc. I also plan to take work breaks and do things like push laundry. And, before sitting down to sew, I do make sure I’m dressed, and the house is reasonably tidy. It sounds odd, but I’m a lot more productive and no one hates me. So, it works!
Plan for Realistic Work Segments
If a 48- or 72-hour Black Hole of Making is not realistic for your household, then plan something else. This sew-along is broken down into 20-minute working segments. If you can do three of those in a day, wonderful! If you can only do one of those, great! You’ll still make progress, and can get quite a lot done over time!
Plan for Efficient Time Use
I know that it takes only about five minutes more to cut an extra chemise or pair of drawers, as to cut one. So, planning my work to allow enough time to cut multiples, or do just one step on multiple garments at once, allows me to use my time efficiently.
In my case, I know we’ll be volunteering 1-3 days a week. I would prefer to do only one or two big loads of washing and pressing, so planning for each girl to have two chemises, two drawers, and a full complement of 1850s petticoats, plus one or two dresses, a sunbonnet, and two or three pinafores and aprons, will let me accomplish my interpretive and laundry goals, without overrunning my realistic and efficient sewing time allotment.
It makes sense, then, to cut all four chemises in one go, and “railroad” the work, completing each step on all four garments in one session, as often as possible. My hands will work more efficiently, and the work speeds right along!
Planning for efficient time use also includes making sure I write up a measurement card for each girl, and keep them in my sewing box for easy reference. This saves me a lot of hollering, since this time of year, they’re more likely to be found out with the chickens in the coop, or up a tree, than inside our little cottage.
I am making sure to have a plentiful stock of the supplies I’ll need: a fresh packet of machine needles (the cheapest and best investment you can make in a sewing project!), a few spools of nice white 100% cotton thread, a fresh beeswax, sharp scissors, several thimbles, and the white china buttons I’ll use, all handy to my sewing space. I work at our kitchen table, so everything gets tucked into a cloth tote bag between work sessions. It’s compact, portable, and keeps everything together for easy start-up at each sewing session.
Plan for Thrift
Though my local chain stores don’t tend to have a lot of usable historic fabric, there is one grade of “premium muslin” that works very nicely as period “long cloth” for undergarments, so I planned ahead and purchased ten yards of it with a 50% off coupon, for a total expenditure of $35.
I’m also hauling out the miscellaneous pile of current petticoats, giving them all a good soak in oxygenated bleach (Oxi-clean is my drug of choice), and a nice long line-dry in the sunshine to brighten the fabric. Then we’ll evaluate them: most will need waists reset, tucks and hems adjusted, etc, but I can re-make and re-use my previous labor, saving my new fabric as much as possible. This is only realistic because the previous items were made with good period fabrics and techniques. Those initial investments pay off!
Another thrift measure is tailoring undergarments to the needs of the individual child. My current 8yo is very slender; chemises made on a full-width of 45″ would drown her tiny frame! Instead, I’ll be cutting her chemise fronts and backs on only 30″ of fabric, and using the remaining 15″ of width to cut bands, sleeves, and frills. Scraps will be used as pieced linings in bodices, too. My goal is to have only the merest scraps of white cotton left!
Plan for Style
My base pattern for the girls’ things is our SA-200 Girls Linens pattern. However, my girls have different stylistic preferences, and we’re also targeting an early-middle 1850s look for our interpretive work this year. So I’ll be modifying the base pieces from the patterns, using different trim options, and otherwise customizing the look to suit both our living history needs, and each girl’s personal style. It’s grand to be able to have a unique look that’s still 100% under the umbrella of Period, Everyday, and Common for the era!
It looks like the fabric is ready to pull off the line and give a quick press… and then it’s on to dressing my girls!