Victorian Era Undergarments: The Chemise Sewing (Stage 1)

Project 7, part 3 – Linen Closet (Part 1, part 2 here)

My Featherweight got a tune-up recently and she’s flying now! ❤

Welcome back to the Victorian Era Undergarments project! It may have been…six months since the last installment of this project? 😬 Yikes! My push to get back to this was twofold. The first is all of you! The most-liked type of post on my poll was historical reproductions (followed closely by restorations, remakes, and spotlights) – so thank you so much to everyone who responded! ❤ The second push is that I acquired The Victorian Dressmaker vol. 2 and I’m really enthused to sew a dress out of it! Which means finishing up my undergarments so I can get on to the meat and potatoes! 😀

This week I was pretty busy prepping for my Iaido rank test (I passed, thanks to all the help I received from Sensei and my senpai!), so I didn’t have time to do much more than get the chemise in motion. I have a “current projects” shelf in my sewing room and it took me a hot minute to unearth it from under various fabrics and trims!

Don’t judge me haha! Space is limited, so I work with what I’ve got! 😀

Once I did, though I was ready to get to work. The first step was sewing the side seams, and I decided to use French seams because linen – particularly loose-woven linen like what I’m using – is quite prone to fraying. Enclosing the seams would ensure that an undergarment like this that requires a good deal of frequent washing would stay intact over the long haul. Flat felling was more common in the period, but French seams were seen in undergarments, and are actually less annoying to me than flat felling. Plus, I’m not as big a fan of the second seam line on the finished side of the garment!

This is currently a Parker chemise.

I did try the chemise on with just pins holding in the side seams before I sewed it, and it’s a little hard to envision how it’s going to look finished, honestly. As best as I can tell, the armscyes are the correct size for me, but the neckline looks awfully low. This latter point can be fixed in post with lace or ruffles, if need be, or just left alone as no one will be seeing this undergarment once I’m dressed! The width from the bust downward also seems loose, but from looking at extant garments this is more than likely correct. I’m just more used to modern foundation garments like slips that are meant to be quite form-fitting. Basically, I’m not entirely sure how this is supposed to fit other than conjecture and comparison with extant images (many of which are drawn rather than photographed, and thus may bear little relation to reality), so as long as it isn’t too small for me I’m just going to go with it and see how it turns out. At a later date, I could always return to this and make a new one, armed with additional knowledge about how it works under future garments I’ve sewn/worn!

Detail from Bath of the Nymphs by Francesco Hayez, 1831.

As I was sewing, I actually started wondering about the fabric itself – I know linen is period-accurate, but I wasn’t particularly clear on the details! It turns out that “[t]he world’s oldest woven garment is made of linen. The Tarkhan Dress a long-sleeved shift with a pale grey stripe was unearthed from an Egyptian tomb in 1913 and has been radiocarbon-dated at over 5,000 years old.” (Source.) Linen’s history stretches back at least 36,000 years, however, based on archaeological fragments! Flax, the plant that is the source for linen, is part of a family of plants that produce bast fibers (in Japan, another one – hemp/asa – was utilized rather than flax), but it is quite labor-intensive to process and a mechanized flax spinning machine wasn’t invented until 1810.

I’m not a huge fan of the Industrial Revolution in general, but I do appreciate machine-woven textiles.

Linen has higher conductivity than cotton (which is why it feels cool to the touch) but less elasticity (which is why it wrinkles so much). It also gets stronger when wet rather than weaker, making it ideal for things like sails/rope, and also undergarments that might be subjected to sweat! By the mid-Victorian era due to the decreased price and increased availability of cotton, linen was no longer used as often for outer garments, but continued to be preferred for undergarments. It was also loved for things such as tablecloths, napkins, towels, and other things that are still referred to as “linens” today! And, increasingly, the finer linens (particularly Irish linen) became a luxury textile rather than a homespun one.

Maybe one day I’ll spin and weave my own fabric, but I’ll need a LOT more free time lol.

I’m not quite sure that my chemise is up to the standards of a “luxury garment,” but as it comes together I’m hopeful that it will at least be utilitarian! 🙂 So join me in the next installment of this project here on Mukashi no Sewing where I will be finishing up the chemise and maybe even getting started on the drawers! ❤

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6 thoughts on “Victorian Era Undergarments: The Chemise Sewing (Stage 1)

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