Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Dressing Girls Sew-Along: Chemises

DressingGirlsEvery 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!

DryingSession One & Two:

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.)

Style Alterations

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.

PiecedBackA “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

InsideRun-FellOnce 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

HemStackYou 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…

Hen Help

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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