A chemise is a long shirt (or shift) worn as the innermost layer of 18th century women's costume. The best fabric for it is white (not brilliantly white, if possible) linen, the second-best is cotton unless your persona lives in a region where cotton was forbidden during the 18th century (see 18th century fabrics). The higher up the social ladder, the finer and whiter the linen should be. If you're going for a lower class impression, coarser and half-bleached linen is better, but don't choose too coarse a fabric: Although linen can be remarkably soft even though it's called coarse due to thick threads, your nipples may think otherwise and complain. I've overcome that with what may well be a period technique by making the top as far down as the end of the underarm gores out of medium fine linen and the rest out of coarse fabric, a technique I've seen in a number of 19th century shifts. Such a chemise is suitable for bathing in public as it neither becomes transparent nor clings as its finer counterparts are wont to do, so having one may be a good idea for the upperclass lady as well, if she has the prospect of "taking the waters". Sleeves made of a different fabric han the rest of the shift (presumably finer linen) are documented for the 18th century, e.g. by Garsault.
If you consider silk as shift fabric, please read the remarks at the end of
the men's shirt page to put you off it.
Please read all of the instructions before you start.
I think it's obvious that the pattern is only a sketch to show you the general make-up. As the chemise consists only of oblong and triangular pieces and doesn't have to fit exactly, making your own is fairly straightforward.
There are various ways of making up a chemise - this is mine. First I attach one underarm gusset to each of the sleeves, on one end of the side that's going to be the seam running down it. Then I fold the gore diagonally so that one tip points towards the elbow end, and fold the sleeve down its length. That way, the side of the now triangular gusset meets the other side of the sleeve seam. Stitch them together and continue down the sleeve towards the elbow end.
Then attach the four long gores, one to each side of the body, going from the hem up. When that is done, fold the whole thing along the shoulder line and close the side seams down the slanted sides of the side gores. Put the sleeves in the usual way, then close the side seam the rest of the way between the underarm and side gores. Make up the hem - it helps if you cut the lower ends of the side gores to slightly slant up towards the side, otherwise you'll have problems turning the hem at the corners. Also makes for a straighter hemline. But don't go as far as cutting the hem completely rounded.
The sleeve ends can be made up by simply turning a hem, or by gathering/pleating them into a narrow cuff (preferable).
Now it's time to see to the neckline. The best method is to first cut a relatively small hole into the shoulder line fold and a short slit into the front, just big enough to stick your head through. Put on the stays, straighten the chemise under them, then put on the robe or jacket and have someone mark the neckline as outlined by the corset and robe together. Now you can cut along those markings to achieve a neckline that won't peek out from under your upper garments. If the markings are angular anywhere, cut the angle rounded. If that means to cut away more than was marked, do it. In fact, it's always preferable to cut the neckline larger rather than smaller. Either turn the neckline edge very narrowly or attach a bias strip that is then folded to the inside to neaten up. Make sure you leave a small tunnel into which you'll insert a drawstring that goes from the shoulders to the centre front, where it surfaces. The drawstring isn't mandatory, but it allows you to adjust the size of the neck opening.
This is it for a plain chemise. But in the 18th century, for upper-middle and upper class, there was more...
Decorate the neck line with narrow (1-3 cm) lace trim that faces up and the sleeve ends with wide (15-20 cm) engageantes. The neck lace should be twice as long as the circumference of the neck opening and gathered to fit if the available metrage allows. The engageantes should be three times as long as the circumference of the sleeve cuffs. As the shift is worn directly on the skin, it will need washing often, so the engageantes should be removable. The narrow lace at the neck, unless it's very delicate and/or precious, can be washed together with the shift. The engageantes, however, would at best crumple up and be hell to iron, at worst be destroyed. After gathering the engageantes, fold a strip of fabric or tape in half and attach it over the gathered edge as you would a skirt waistband. Lightly baste that band to the sleeves so that you can easily remove the lace for washing.
What kind of lace is suitable, anyway? It's hard to find suitable modern lace that doesn't look completely artificial, plastic-ish. Embroidered tulle lace made of cotton is not really authentic, but it looks halfway OK. Plain or embroidered linen or cotton lawn (as fine as possible) is authentic, whereas so-called cotton lace (i.e. batiste with round, ebroidered holes) is not. You might also be able to find machine-made bobbin lace in the Valenciennes or Mechlin style which looks very authentic to anyone but a lace fancier who leans really close. The best option is of course real handmade bobbin lace, and depending on the ebb and flow of the antique lace market, it's not necessarily the most expensive one. See also: the lace page.
This basic chemise pattern can also be used, but with different necklines and sleeve lengths and different or no lace trim, for anything from Elizabethan through Baroque and right up to Empire.
There are other, slight variations among the patterns I know - mainly in how the body and gores are cut - that are mainly due to differences in the fabric widths available. One always tried to make as much of the fabric as was possible, wasting as little as possible. I would therefore choose the pattern so that it makes the most of my 140 or 150 cm wide fabric, rather than according to whether it's documented for the region/period I'm aiming at. It's simply true to the economical spirit of the age - and better for my wallet, what with the linen prices today. As for silk as chemise material, please read the remarks at the end of the men's shirt page.
The above patterns are taken from Garsault's
"L'art de la lingère".
Variation B is called à la française and requires a 120 cm wide fabric which is cut in half lengthwise to form the 60 cm wide body, so there is a shoulder seam. The gores are rather wide at the seam end.
The left one (A) is called à l'anglaise and requires a 80-90 cm wide fabric. The body is 60 cm wide at the shoulders and cut diagonally up to a point halfway between shoulder and seam. The wedges thus removed are attached to the lower half of the body to form the gores.
Variation C is also à l'anglaise, but in this case, the body is cut straight (or rather, the selvedge is left straight) on one side, whereas the other side is cut straight from shoulder to below the arm, and then diagonally all the way to the other selvedge. The wedge thus cut away is attached to the straight edge.
All these shifts are 60 cm wide at the shoulders. This means that variation A is best suited for large-breasted figures, B for middling and C, with its narrow gores, for petite figures.
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