Making an 18th Century-Inspired Nightgown
Updated: May 11
It seems I have a problem with chemise-type garments. I assume they will be an easy project, and then they end up . . . hard. Very hard. Take my 1840’s Chemise project, for instance. I thought that was my most messed up project, until this nightgown. Read on to see what I mean!
Drafting the Pattern
I drafted this pattern without the use of a bodice block. I simply created a big rectangle for the skirt pieces, a smaller rectangle for the sleeves, and a small square for the sleeve gusset. More on the gussets later, and a mistake I made which led to disaster.
Then, for the neckline pieces, I used a measuring tape on my body to measure how deep of a neckline I wanted, and therefore how long of rectangles to cut for the neckline pieces. The neckline was comprised of 8 rectangles total: two in centre front, two in centre back, and two along each shoulder. I could have simply used one wider rectangle for each section and folded it in half along the neckline edge, but I wanted to add lace edging, and needed a seam to insert it into.
I also decided to add two skirt godets, to make the skirt flare out more at the bottom. This was especially important because my nightgown was ankle length.
Sewing it Together
I used french seams for this nightgown, rather than the typical flat-felled seams. French seams for me are much quicker to sew. I attached the godets to the skirt pieces in this way, and also attached the sleeve gussets to the sleeves, and then sewed the sleeves closed. Finally, I sewed the neckline ‘yoke’, by first attaching the shoulder pieces to the centre neckline pieces, forming a square, then sandwiching them together with lace edging inside the seam.
The next step was attaching everything together: the sleeves, body, and neckline yoke. This part is tricky, at least if you are working from a self-drafted pattern like me. You have to use a degree of guess-work to determine at which height the sleeves should be attached to the body of the nightgown. I did my best, and then added a gathering stitch all along the raw neckline of the nightgown, so it could be attached to the neckline yoke. Once this was done, I tried it on for the first time, when disaster ensued . . .
A Gusset-Fitting Disaster
So, the nightgown was almost finished, and I tried it on. Or at least, tried to. I couldn’t fit into it! Something was seriously wrong. I chocked it up to the neckline yoke being too tight, and proceeded to add a centre- front slit opening with a button. I tried it on again. I still couldn’t get it on!
What was going on? I had obviously made a serious error in the pattern drafting, and *sigh hadn’t made a mock-up.
At this point I hit rock bottom. I had a queue of projects I wanted to finish, and I had made a mess of the one I’d believed to be the easiest!
My saving grace, if you want to call it that, was that at this point, late at night, I happened to be listening to the audio book, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k’. If you have read or listened to this book you will understand how it was quite helpful. I probably would have thrown this project in the garbage if it wasn’t for the rather vulgar encouragement to do the messy work which success requires.
The main problem was that the nightgown was too tight through the armpit area. I seriously considered removing my beautifully finished neckline yoke and adding a basic drawstring neckline. Thankfully, I found another solution. On a leap of intuition, I cut a slit straight through the centre of the sleeve gussets. I wanted to see if having larger gussets would solve the problem. It did! I was able to get it on, now.
I set about the painstaking work of unpicking the french seams which held the gussets in place, and replacing them with much larger gussets. Problem solved! The seams ended up much messier than they had looked previously, but I learned a good lesson. And most of all, the nightgown fit!
The Finished Nightgown
I decided to add cuffs to the sleeves as a means of gathering them in. It required learning how to add a slit at the bottom of the sleeve, as well as making an actual cuff (both things I’ve never done before). I consulted my trusted sewing reference guide and it was easier than expected!
I finished the nightgown up with a wide machine hem, and t was finished! I love this nightgown, and have been wearing it postpartum now. It was actually lucky that I added the centre-front neckline slit, or I wouldn’t have been able to nurse in it! The most valuable part of this project was learning the value of testing and making mock-ups, and of perseverance when things don’t go according to plan.
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