1840’s Chemise-Making: A Convoluted and Contemplative Process
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Inspiration and Drafting
I was gazing enviously at a beautiful Victorian corset on Instagram, when I noticed the stunning chemise underneath. It was an 1840’s chemise, with a neckline yoke, buttons, lace, and soft gathers. The sleeves were virtually off-shoulder, perfect for fitting inconspicuously under some of my wide neckline garments.
Several Google Image sessions later, I sat down to draft the pattern for my own 1840’s chemise. The funny thing about writing this is that I remember basically nothing of this process, as I completed the pattern a few months before actually sewing the chemise. This led to problems, as you will see below. Nonetheless, I will go over this to the best of my memory.
I started with my one piece dress block, ascertained where I would like the neckline to sit, and extended it wider than the standard shoulders. I then lopped off the neckline yoke piece, by cutting a couple inches below this neckline to form a band.
Whenever one lowers a neckline, you must also “dart-out” some excess or you will have a gaping neckline. I did this, alternately holding the neckline pattern-piece up to my body to guess and hope it would fit properly.
I then drafted the sleeve and gusset, a time where my brain must have been totally absent, as will be witnessed in the following section. These were comprised of a rectangular sleeve, and a square gusset.
For the body of the chemise I simply drew a rectangle, my desired length by the width of my (half) hip, plus ease. This rectangle served for the front and back piece. I wanted to keep the gathers up top to a minimum, as I can’t stand a bulky chemise under a corset.
Sewing the Chemise (Or, How a Sleeve Ends Up Half its Necessary Width)
To sew the neckline yoke, I sandwiched a piece of cotton lace between the two layers of fabric, sewing the right sides together, and turning and pressing. This way the lace just peeked out through this seam.
Usually chemises and shifts are made using flat-felled seams, but I find french seams quicker and easier to sew attractively without requiring hand-stitching. So, I constructed my sleeves this way, attaching the gusset, and was quite proud of my work until I realized the sleeves were much too narrow. Attempting to salvage the situation, I added a swath of extra fabric into the sleeve, but they still remained too tight. Thankfully I had enough extra fabric to cut out a second set of sleeves and gussets, this time leaving adequate space for my arms plus some extra space for gathers.
Final steps ( Or, Why Sewing Late at Night is a Bad Idea)
Next, the lower portion of the sleeves had to be attached to the body panels, before sewing up the side seams. The tricky thing about this was determining how much of the sleeve should be sewn into the body panels, and how much should be above as part of the neckline. I left too much sleeve above, meaning the neckline yoke wouldn’t have had enough circumference to go around everything. Sigh. Another late night faux-pas. After this was ripped out and re-sewn, I added two rows of gathering stitches to the top of the body panels, and to the top of the sleeves, before attaching
the neckline yoke all around the shoulders and neckline. Finally, I added two buttons and buttonholes to the centre front of the yoke, and finished the edges of a slash continuing down a few inches from there. I hemmed the sleeves and skirt with the same cotton lace from the neckline.
Despite the frustration and face-palming that this project entailed, I am in love with my pretty, lacy chemise, and plan on making more.
What About You?
Have you ever had a simple project that had many things go wrong?
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