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!)
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!