I live next to WW1 fortifications that surround Helsinki. I can see cobblestone roads made to transport heavy guns through my window and my walks often take me past old trenches, machine-gun posts and bunkers. These ruins make my walks interesting as I love history. The narrow bicycle skirt I made a while ago reminded me of the narrow skirts worn by women during the teens-era when this labyrinth of defences was built. So, I decided to create a whole look by sewing a WW1-era blouse that the women would have worn during those tumultuous times. For the pattern, I chose the Wearing history #113, Elsie.
Elsie is a restored pattern from the 1910s and came originally only in bust size 38″. It is a loose-fitting blouse with gathers at the shoulders, a wide shirt collar and two different cuff options. The pattern comes in pdf format and in bust sizes 32 to 48″. I made the bust size 34″ and it fitted pretty well. However, the next time I will probably add a bit extra length to it as it is pretty short and I had to lower the waist stay position for about 2 cm due to my long back length.
Fabric for the blouse
I ordered the fabric from Pretty Mercerie. I wanted lightweight cotton with a stripe pattern and this voile fitted my description. This was a first time ordering from them and I was surprised how well I was able to navigate on a French site! It seems that my French sewing vocabulary is improving slowly! The fabric arrived quickly and I wasn’t disappointed. The picture below shows best how sheer the fabric is (the picture is from the wrong side of the fabric).
This blouse pattern doesn’t come with detailed instructions, so you need either a similar pattern with instructions or some sewing experience before tackling this pattern. There are things that you need to figure out by yourself, like how exactly attach the waist stay. However, all the pattern pieces fit well with each other and I didn’t have any difficulties in putting this together.
I sewed the whole blouse using French seams that make the inside look as nice as the outside. During the WW1 era the modern interfacings weren’t used, yet. Instead, the cuffs and collars that needed stiffness were starched after each wash. This was nice as I struggle with interfacings that sometimes start bubbling or doing crazy things after washing the garment. For now, I used spray starch but I think I want to try starching in the old-fashioned way at some point.
For the waist stay, I marked the position of my waist that was about 2 cm lower than the waistline in the pattern. I added gathering threads and gathered the waist to the right length. Then I cut a long strip of fabric and stitched it on the gathers.
A little history lesson
I took my finished WW1-era blouse on a walk along some of the ruins nearby.
The history of these ruins is fascinating. In 1914, Finland was still a Grand Duchy of imperial Russia. When Germany declared war on Russia there was a panic in Southern Finland. Russians (and Finns) were expecting German attack through Finland in order to reach the capital, St. Petersburg. Luckily for us Finns, the Germans were too busy attacking France and Russia used the time to improve defences.
Not that the Russians were interested in defending Helsinki! The only reason Russians ever occupied Finland was to create a buffer-zone to protect St. Petersburg. However, Helsinki was a big naval base and well situated to launch counterattacks against a land force heading east. Thus, three defence lines were built to circle Helsinki.
Most of the builders were Finns. Finnish men were exempt from Russian military service, as Finland had quite a unique position directly under the emperor, so there were plenty of people to employ and/or to force to labour on this effort.
As all of us know, imperial Russia didn’t last and after a few years, the revolution halted the construction work. Russians overseeing the construction project left Finland and Russians and Germans negotiated a peace agreement. When the tsar Nicholas was overthrown, Finland was left hanging in a power vacuum. Finns quickly took advantage of the situation and sent a delegation carrying the independence declaration to Lenin. Lenin was busy stabilizing Russia and granted the independence probably assuming that Finland would not stay independent for long. Thus, Finland became independent in 1917.
As with many new nations, Finland didn’t manage to build a working government without in-fighting. Early in 1918, a civil war broke out between the reds (left-wing socialists and workers) and whites (right-wing conservatives). At the start of the war, the Helsinki area was in the hands of reds. However, the whites had better-trained soldiers and German assistance and they attacked Helsinki from the north. Around this area where I live, the Red guards fired a few shots toward a German unit but then quickly retreated towards Helsinki. To my knowledge, this is the only occasion where these fortifications have seen actual fighting.
After the civil war ended, Finns didn’t see much use for the fortifications. They were harvested of all useful materials and left to crumble. During the following decades, Helsinki and thee surrounding cities have grown over the fortifications but there are still plenty of parklands filled with them. I myself love the cobble-stone paths that look charmingly romantic despite their violent original purpose.
My thoughts on the finished WW1-era blouse
The first thing I noticed is that this is a blouse that requires period undergarments. I tried it on without any and it looked just awful. It was a shapeless bag that looked like I belonged in a very conservative religious sect. However, after taking the time to add all the right layers, of which the corset was the most important one, the blouse changed.
With the corset, the bustline sits where it should be and the narrow waist balances out the volume.
I can also change the look by tying a scarf around the collar. This is also a good way to add some warmth:
My hat doesn’t really fit with the outfit but a genuine 1910s lady wouldn’t go out without it. This time I tried to add a hat, even though the closest one I own is from 1950s. I have plans to make a turn-of-the-century hat at some point but this situation with Covid-19 has closed all the flea-markets I could use to scavenge materials.
For anyone wanting to make a WW1-era or suffragette blouse, I can recommend this pattern by Wearing History. However, this is not a blouse for beginners due to the lack of detailed instructions. Also, note that you need to have proper undergarments in order for the blouse to sit right.
This is all for now. Happy sewing and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog! Happy sewing and stay safe!