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Hand-sewn Victorian chemise

Ever since I made my Victorian corset I have been thinking of making a proper chemise to go with it. I found this lovely white linen a while ago and decided to take the plunge and make the chemise from the wonderful book, Manual of needlework and cutting out by Agnes Walker. The whole book, that was published in 1907, can be downloaded for free here.

The pattern

The chemise was the garment Victorian ladies wore under the corset, against the skin. It protected the corset from the oils and dirt from the skin and was easy to launder.

The original pattern for the chemise can be found on page 231 in the book. It has been printed in a reduced scale on a grid where one little square resembles an inch by inch square. To help with the scaling the scale picture also had a lot of measurements.

The first dilemma for me was to figure out whether the pattern had seam allowances included. I tried browsing back and forth but couldn’t really find an answer. I decided to cut the chemise with added seam allowances that I could remove if the result was too big. (A spoiler alert: The pattern seemed to have the seam allowances included.)

The second problem was to figure out the size. I drafted the pattern and compared it to my dressform. The pattern was very wide. I determined that the size was adjusted by adjusting the gathers at the front and the back. Basically this pattern was one-size-fits-all.

The book not only had the pattern but also sewing instructions that start from page 254.

My materials

My linen fabric.

My fabric is very soft and drapey white linen. I say linen but I suspect that the fabric has a little amount of viscose in it. 100 % linen would be crispier and would crease more easily. However, I will pretend that it is just superb quality linen, so that this work will be more historically accurate!

I don’t own linen thread for sewing. Neither do I have any cotton thread so I have to do with silk thread. My white silk has been meant for machine sewing, so I believe it to be much lighter weight than the threads historically used for hand-sewn garments. Luckily silk is a very strong fibre so I figured that I could use the thread if I just waxed it very well to prevent it from tangling.

Sewing

I decided to sew all the seams by hand just to find out whether I could do it. I have never seamed a garment by hand so this was something completely new to me.

Run-and-fell seams and fitting

Felling the chemise shoulder seams.
Felling the shoulder seams.

The instructions tell that “[The side seams]… should be neatly finished with a sew-and-fell seam about 1/6 inch broad. If of muslin or fine calico, a run-and-fell seam might be substituted for the sew-and-fell one…” I decided to use the run-and-fell seam with some back-stitches after every few running stitches to enforce the seam.

The finished sew-and-fell seam.
The finished run-and-fell seam from the wrong side.

I did first the side seams and basted the shoulder seams to do the first fitting. I used my sewing machine just a bit to make temporary gathering stitches to be able to estimate the effect of the gathers. The neckline was very low and the sleeves a bit too big so I found out that the pattern indeed had seam allowances included. Thus, I chopped off the seam allowances at the shoulder seams. I left the other seams since they had little effect on the size.

Gathering by hand

I did the actual gathering by hand. The book instructed to gather from the right side and go under two threads and over four and so on. My eyes weren’t good enough to count the threads but I think I did fairly well – although I realised here that my neckline wasn’t dead straight on the grainline.

Gathering by hand.

I think that cotton or linen thread might have been easier to use, since the gathers tend to slide on the silk thread. Only when I started to stroke the gathers I realised that my chemise was the wrong way around. My felled seams look almost identical from both sides so it was very hard to see which was the right side. I decide to accept my mistake and go on.

Gathering the neckline.
The gathered neckline.

Finishing

Now how to finish the neckline? The pattern has a 34-39″ long band cut on grain but I didn’t see how it would lay flat on the curved neckline. I decided to use bias-cut strip that was 34″ long. The bias-cut binding is taught in the book but just not used in here. I sewed it on the right side and then turned and carefully finished the wrong side so that it didn’t show on the right side.

Binding the neckline.
Binding the neckline.

I pondered for a while whether or not to add lace to the neckline. I made the final decision after I realised that I had a strip of cotton lace that was exactly the right length. It was destiny! This is how the finished neckline looks:

The finished chemise neckline with lace edging.

As I still had the extra seam allowance at the sleeve-ends I used folding and hemming method to finish them. I did the same with them hem and finally, my chemise was finished. In total, it took a little less than two days and it went way quicker than I expected. My previous hand sewing experience (here, and here) was based on garments much more complicated than this even if I only used hand-sewing to fell the seams.

The finished chemise

Ok. Now more scandalous underwear images! The Victorians would probably faint about now! Here is the completed chemise:

The Victorian chemise from the front.

The back looks like this:

My chemise from the back view.

I think that if I was a real Victorian, I would reduce the amount of gathers at the back the next time I made a chemise since the chemise is quite baggy at the back. Then, the looseness gives more room for movement, or at least it would, if I’d dare to go around like this without a corset!

The sideview is quite baggy. Here you can really see the extra fabric at the back I was talking about:

The side view.

Of course, if I wanted, I could always make a cut at the centre back and take out a bit of the extra width. However, I doubt I will since I will probably only use this as a nightie unless I ever get invited to time-travel to the Victorian era!

Final thoughts

Making this chemise was an interesting project and it didn’t do anything to curb my enthusiasm for historical fashions, as unpractical they are! However, I must admit that my Finnish habit of eye-balling the seam-allowances (Generally speaking Finnish sewing patterns don’t have seam allowances included in the pattern.) won out the careful measuring and folding method in the mrs. Walker’s book. I think that also my seam allowances were quite big and my resulting seams much thicker than what was recommended. However, as it turned out that I had added seam allowances unnecessarily, I think that the result was quite close to the actual size.

I still think that my hand-sewed garment was much neater-looking than what I expected. If I were to make a blouse this way, I doubt anyone would notice the difference. Yes, the hand-sewn seams look a bit different to the trained eye, but this is how the garments really were sewn before the invention of the sewing machine. In fact, the inventors of the sewing machine had to invent a completely new way of sewing using two threads to be able to make machines that could sew a durable seam.

Thank you for reading and do subscribe to follow this blog if you haven’t already done so! Happy sewing!

Katja

I am a mother of two. I sew, knit and create and blog about it.

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