18th Century · Tutorial · Underwear

Good chemise-try!

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Here we go again… Once more, I am putting pictures of myself in my underwear online. This blog should come with some kind of warning…

This is a chemise or underdress. It’s made much the same way I make most of my medieval tunics, using rectangles, squares and triangles, making the most of the fabric at your disposal. I use this general method for pretty much everything from viking tunics to early 20th century blouses.

This method works on shirts and blouses as well as dresses, and I’ll show alternative necklines as I go along. It’s nice if you already know how to sew in a somewhat straight line, and have encountered hems before, but you need no experience in drafting or using patterns.

NB! I’m not really a seamstress. There are heaps and loads of people out there who can do this much better than I can. Do you have comments, ideas, constructive criticism? Please share in the comments!

So you think you can chemise? If so, you need:

  • Fabric. Linen, cotton, something that is light, breathes, and isn’t to abrasive. The latter is mega-important if you’re going to wear a corset over it. Chafing hurts, and can happen in the weirdest places (and let me tell you, chafed nipples are no picnic!). How much you need depends on your size. I use approximately 2m for a chemise, if the fabric is 130cm wide or more. Measure yourself and make a small sketch before shopping. Oh! And wash your fabric before you sew, if it shrinks it won’t go tiny on you.
  • Needle and thread. Or a sewing machine. If you have the latter, you also need needles and thread, you just also need a sewing machine.
  • Pins.
  • Something to draw with. Tailors chalk is great (especially if you get it in pen form. DIVINE!), however, an ordinary pencil works just fine. Try to stay clear of gel pens and the like, they bleed through fabric and ruins it.
  • Good scissors. Pinking shears are wonderful if you are as lazy as I am.
  • A narrow ribbon, string or tape, if you want a drawstring around your neck.
  • Iron and ironing board, or at least somewhere to iron.

I was making two chemises, one with sleeves and one without. I had 3m linen-cotton mix fabric, 130cm wide. To make sure I made the most of my fabric and still had enough width at the bottom to move in them, I ended up folding my fabric on the middle. What you see on the sketch here, has a doppelganger on the other side of the fabric.

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The two large pieces are the main part of the dresses, they are as long as I want my dress to be (from shoulder to about mid-calf) and as wide as my chest measurement divided by 2 (plus some ease for breathing and seamallowance, between 5cm and 10cm). The triangle in the middle will make two side gores, one for each dress, the length is from my waist to the bottom of the chemise. The top rectangle will make two sleeves, each as wide as the circumference of my arms plus seam allowance, and about T-shirt sleeve length. The two squares will make four underarm gores. The only piece of fabric not used, is the one marked with grey. Maybe I’ll make hankerchiefs out of it?

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The parts to my little jigsaw puzzle cut out!

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Usually, I fold the fabric the other way, to avoid seams on my shoulders, but as that wasn’t doable here, I attached the front and back sides along the shoulders first, to have one piece to work with instead of two.

1) Attach the sleeves.

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The body of the garment is here laid out, and the sleeves stitched on to the shoulder seams. With longer sleeves, this would look like a cross.

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I’ve sewn all my seamallowance down here, to avoid chafing. However, you decide what you want to do. If you want to, you can just press them to the side or open.

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How they look inside.

2) Attach the underarm gores.

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These are a little fiddly, but very, very clever if you want to be able to lift your arms over your head without ruining your clothing. The two squares, 10cm x 10cm are sewn into the corner between the sleeve and the dress, as shown in the image above.

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Fold the garment along the shoulder line. Fold the gore to, into a triangle. Stitch to the sleeve and the dress on the other side too, as in the picture.

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With the chemise on, they look like this. So much freedom of movement from such tiny squares!

At this point in time, you have two options. For a straight sleeve like mine, it’s simple. Sew down the sleeve, hem the edge, and you’re done.

If you want more baggy sleeves with a cuff, as you might see on a shirt or a blouse, I recommend this:

a) Take a piece of fabric, four times as wide as the width you want for your finished cuff, and c. 5 cm longer than the circumference of your wrists. Fold in two, and press.

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b) Fold in the short edges, to hide the raw edges, and press.

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c) Fold the long edges inn towards the first fold, and press.

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d) Pleat or gather the sleeve until it is a little shorter than your cuff, by either folding the fabric onto itself, as in the picture, or by sewing two lines, just straight up and down, along the edge of the sleeve, and pulling the threads carefully to wrinkle the fabric up.

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e) Right side of the cuff towards the wrong side of the sleeve, sew the sleeve edge to the inner fold of the cuff. This way, there won’t be a visible seam on the right side of the cuff.

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f) Fold the cuff over onto the right side, and sew it to the sleeve.

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g) Finished!

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Knock yourself out with buttons, buttonholes, hooks and eyes, tape, ribbon or other fun stuff.

You can of course put off the sleeves until the end of the garment, but I prefer finishing them at this point. Now, we can move on to the main part of the dress.

3) Sew the sides together.

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If you’re having side gores, this is where you put them in. See here for a tutorial on how to do this. Remember, the longer your dress is, the more width you need at the bottom to be able to move propery.

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If you’re making a shirt or blouse, you probably won’t need side gores. 5-10cm long slits at the bottom should be enough to ease it comfortably over your hips, depending on the size of your hips and the length of your dress.

Now, you have a very sweet little dress, which you can’t put on, unless you’re headless. You need a neck opening.

Start small. It is oh so much easier to make it bigger than smaller. Err on the small side. Start with a hole no bigger than a CD, and gently, gently enlarge it. If you’re not careful, you might end up showing a lot more cleavage than you intended…

There are many different ways to do the neck, I’ll show you a couple of alternatives here.

You can make a very simple, rounded neckline, and bind the edges to keep them from ravelling.

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Here, I’ve bound the neckline with the same fabric I made the shirt with, but you can use a contrasting bias tape for effect, or simply just fold the entire binding to the inside, to make it invisible.

(By the way, can you see how wringly this neckline is? This is not just because I’m bad at ironing my clothes, it’s also because I made this before I learned how smart it is to cut binding on the bias of the fabric. It folds and curves ever so much nicer then.)

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This is another kind of neckline, very common on women’s medieval garments. Insted of enlarging the hole for the head, you make a slit down the mid front, as far as you have to to get your head through. The nice thing about this neckline, is it can bli closed once the garment is on!

A third type of neckline is the shirt or blouse collar variety, and a combination of the techniques above.

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You start off as with the medieval dress above.

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Then you make two small slits along the shoulder line, and insert two tiny triangular gores (5-7cm maximum). Unless you have uncommonly square shoulders, this will make the garment prettier on.

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Hem the front split, and make a collar the same way we made the cuff for the sleeve above. If the opening is too large for the collar, you can make a small pleat in the back of the neck.

The final version is a drawstring neckline, that can be gathered up to be more decent, or let out to hide the chemise under a low-cut dress. That was the version I chose for this chemise.

4) Neckline.

Undo the shoulder seam where you need your head to be. If you have no seam there, simply cut a hole in the middle, one you get your head through.

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Put the garment on, and look in the mirror. Smile! You have a dress-thingy, and it’s almost done! Dance a little! Then go back to the mirror. Gather excess fabric on your chest, draw a line where you want you neckline to go.

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Take your dress off again. Put it down. Admire the fact that you managed to mark two completely different necklines on each side of your body.

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Adjust so that it is approximately even on both sides.

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Round the corners a little. If you want the opening to be smaller or larger on the other side, now is the time to repeat the action on the backside.

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Bite down on something, say a small prayers, say sorry to your dress (just in case), and cut where you drew.

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Fold the raw edges in, and make a drawstring casing along the neckline. Mark the mid front.

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Cut two small holes, one on each side of the mid front mark. Bind them with buttonhole stitches, or just by casting over the edges a zillion times, to keep the fabric from ravelling.

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Put a ribbon or something like that through your drawstring casing. It should look something along the lines of this.

5) Lower hem.

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Cut away irregularities at the bottom, fold the raw edges in twixe, and sew down. The width of your fold is up to you, and depending on how long or short you want your dress to be. If you’re making a shirt or blouse, you do the same thing, but enforce the top of the slits with a few extra stitches.

Iron your garment (or go to bed, depending on how late it is), put it on, and go back to that mirrir. High five your reflection. You’re done. Well done you!

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Yeah, you’re allowed to be tired noe. And pleased. Take a selfie. Send a snap. Write a postcard. Make a haiku. Live your life in your new chemise/nightdress/summerdress/nun’s habit/tunic/shirt/blouse.

Oh, and one thing more: tidy your sewing supplies out of your bed before going to sleep. You’ll sleep a lot better without pins in your back.

4 thoughts on “Good chemise-try!

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