Clothes · Projects

The Chemise

The most important aspect of any historical costume is, surprisingly, the underwear. The underwear gives shape and body to the clothes you put over it while keeping your costume clean. For medieval clothes, the shift does not often give a lot of shape, but it does provide a necessary layer with additional coverage. In later designs, it often was decorated at the neck and wrists, and such decoration would peak through the fabric. In the 1400’s detachable sleeves became popular, and the shift would cover the exposed areas on the shoulders. Additionally, the shift or chemise allowed for an additional layer for modesty.

The Labors of the Months: June, Les Tres Riche Heurs de Duc De Berry 1415.

In this image we see the chemise modestly covering the legs and arms and the opened lacing of the dress.

The shift is one of the easiest garments to make, because it is made almost entirely of rectangles and triangles and it was made, nearly the same way for centuries. After watching two videos on making such a garment: Bernadette Banner’s 18th C. Shift and Morgan Donner’s Medieval Shirt Tutorial, I was ready to go!

For the shift, I decided that two yards of fabric would do the trick, and it did, though it was very close. I first prepped my fabric by zig zagging the cut edges on my sewing machine and throwing it into the washing machine. The chemise is the layer that fits closest to the body, and thus is the layer most likely to be in need of a wash! And so I wanted to be sure and wash my linen so I could wash my chemise in the machine. I might love medieval things, but not enough to wash a chemise in the river.

Next I mapped out on paper my cutting diagram. After Ironing my fabric and laying it down on the floor I began to have doubts that two yards would be enough, so I knew that I had to be as precise as possible when cutting out my pieces. And it turned out that I was right, I had very little left over fabric in the end. However, my chemise turned out VERY roomy, which is good because it will fit under different shaped dresses.

In order to get the shapes of all my rectangles I measured myself, and then counted in lots of ease because I did not want to make the mistake of a too small shift! I decided to use half inch seam allowances and one inch hems turned under one half inch.

  • 2 Blocks for front and back 52″ x 21″
  • Two blocks cut diagonally for side gores 38″ x 11″
  • Two blocks for the sleeves 16″ x 22″
  • Two squares for the under arm gussets 6″ x 6″

After cutting the pieces out, I first sewed my triangle pieces to the sides of the front and back of the shift. I also made sure that I sewed the triangles bias to straight grain to prevent warping and sagging. Then I pined the pieces together for a little try on session.

This is what two trapezoids pined together look like (A sack).

Satisfied that it was going to fit, I began hand felling down my seams. This may appear to be arduous busy work, but linen frays like no tomorrow, and I want this shift to be worn for a while! I was able to take these pieces to the park and get a little bit of hand sewing work done outside.

Hand felling those seams down!

Next it was time to tackle the sleeves, the most complicated part of my shift. This is difficult because you have to sew a square to a rectangle, but so it shapes like a triangle.

The sleeve as you can imagine, is a long rectangle folded in half like a hot dog. The gusset, is a square that is folded in half so that it forms a triangle. This little rectangle is what provides all the extra room so that you can get your arms into the holes and have ease of movement. It is hard to explain, so I recommend this video if you would like to try it out.

You can see how the gussets shape the sleeve openings here.

Then, I sewed the sleeves onto my dress panels and zipped a seam along the sides and I had a shift!

Still a sack!

Next because the neckline at this point is clearly ridiculous. I wanted to cut a deep neckline, not to create an immodest gown, but so I could have more versatility in my chemise and wear it with different shaped necklines.

But wait, there was hand sewing to do. I had to hand fell down all of the sleeve seams, as well as the sides. This gave me a little trouble and the junctures of the seams are rather fussy. This involved removing and restitching some of my stitches.

Then there was hemming to do, hemming on the sleeves, and the bottom of my gown, but soon it was finished!

I chose a one inch hem with a half inch folded under and felled all my hems by hand.

Like all projects, there are things I would do different next time, first of all, I would make it smaller and more tight to the body, as it is very loose. I would also make the gusset much smaller as it is so large that it nearly hits my side gores. I also think I would taper the arms so that the wrists are smaller than the elbows. Currently, as the sleeves on my supportive kirtle are a little loose, it isn’t a problem, but with tight sleeves, the sleeves on my chemise would be quite bulky.

The Completed Chemise

One thought on “The Chemise

  1. Hi there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Wonderful blog and fantastic style and design.


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