dressing girls sew-along
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!)
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…