We are currently in our third level 5 lock down here in Ireland. Since I have alot of time on my hands right now I am working on making up my regency wardrobe. I started this project last year and have since fallen down the rabbit hole of historical fashions. This is mostly due to videos courtesy of Cathy Hay and Bernedette Banner. After some research I feel much more informed about how to make an historically adequate outfit. Also brave enough to actually try sewing it by hand.
I would love nothing more than to use all the same fabrics that would have historically been used in the Regency era. I unfortuately can not. For a couple of reasons anyway:
- Expense – These dresses were usually made out of silks and other expensive fabrics which are not pocket friendly.
- Brexit – As UK left the European Union, it has affected my ability to be able to purchase items that were previously unencumbered by a customs tax. This makes it no longer a viable option for me. Add in the global pandemic and it makes things very difficult to aquire.
Meaning that at the moment I am working with what I can gleam from my crafting stash and what ever else I can get my hands on.
What is a chemise?
Traditionally made out of a very soft breathable white cotton or linen fabric, the chemise would have been worn next to the skin for warmth and modesty. The chemise was also worn as a way to protect the expensive fashions from the body. In those days the chemise would have been wash more frequently than the the body ways making this necessary. It makes me thankful for the modern convenience of indoor plumbing.
To make the chemise I did not have to go looking too far to find what I needed. To begin with I am using a pattern from Sense and sensibility patterns. I purchased it last year from the Jane Austen Centre in the UK. This contains the patterns for a chemise, short stays and a chemisette. For the fabric I am using a 100% soft cotton king sized bedsheet. Yes, a bed sheet, which is actually the most perfect item in my home for this project. Re- use and upcycle where ever you can.
After spending an evening crawling around my floor cutting out the pattern and fabric, I am definitely putting a proper cutting table on my wish list. Historical patterns, I have learned, do not contain a seam allowance. You have to add on the seam allowance yourself before cutting the pattern out. Luckily for me, the seam allowance is included in this pattern.
Flat- Felled seams
As I am sewing this together by hand I measured and marked it out the seam allowance on the fabric. This will give me a guide to follow to keep my stitching and seams straight. With that done garment construction could commence. The first learning curve for me was flat felled seams which I have never sewn before. I was entirely at a loss for what to do as everything I googled had the sewing machine technique and not hand sewing. That was until Bernedette Banner (Can you tell I am fan girling hard?) came to my rescue. She has a wonderful video which you can see here if you too are unfamiliar with it.
When I finally had my flatfelled seams done the next installment was the gusset. Again this was something I have never done before but because I am making this by hand I have no problems giving it a try. Its amazing how much more in control you feel with a sewing needle and thread than with a sewing machine. Don’t get me wrong I adore my sewing machine but I don’t always feel confident and incontrol when I am dressmaking with it. More like a learner driver taking their first lesson in the city at rush hour. Its not pretty.
Morgan Donner has a wonderful video which you can see here on different gusset techniques. However, the ones that I put in to the chemise were different again to this and quite straightforward to achieve. Once the gussets are in I flat-fell all the seams and then I get to make my own bia tape. I was pretty excited about this because it helps to use up cabbage left over from cutting out the pattern and I have never done it before.
The bias tape is attached to the neck of the chemise. This will act as a channel for the drawstring/ribbon to tighten up as needed. It was a really fiddly process that caused some unladylike language to spring forth on more than one occasion and while it is not the prettiest job I have done it works quite well. I have used a piece of purple ribbon that I had in my stash to test it out. I will get something more approriate when the local stores open again.
Once I have hemmed the bottom and the sleeves, the chemise is finished. The whole process took me 13 days from start to finish as life and house work happened. However, in total cutting and sewing time it probably took me 5 days in total. I learned so much in the making of this garment just from googling the resources that I have already linked. I also discovered an appreciation for handsewing and the seamstresses who’s amazing talents created the dresses that we so admire in museums all around the world today.
Behold my very first hand sewn garment made from a cotton bedsheet and I could not be prouder. Next time wait until you see what I make out of a curtain.