How to Make an Historic Shirt in Lovely Linen
By Kass McGann of Reconstructing History
Hot on the heels of the flowing garments of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance ushered in the Golden Age of the tailor's art. Clothing took on impossible shapes and radical forms, all controlled by the skill of these manipulators of fabric. Doublets were padded. Bodices were boned. The human form was hidden by what can most accurately be termed "textile architecture." Western Europeans were sailing around the world and discovering unknown lands. Certainly such beings weren't going to be restricted to traditional clothing shapes. So the clothes got more and more structured as the Age of Discovery went on.
But one element of dress harked back to its medieval antecedents: the shirt. Under the slashes and bones, the pinking and brocading, the shirt was still a very simple garment. Whether embroidered with blackwork or pleated and smocked, the shirt retained a simple elegance and basic shape which changed little between the 16th and 19th centuries.
A man's shirt from 16th century Italy (shown in Dorothy Burnham's "Cut My Cote") is made from a 27" wide length of linen folded in the middle and slashed for the head. A simple stand collar and tapering sleeves with long triangular underarm gores complete the garment. A shirt from the end of the 16th century and now housed in the Museum of Costume in Bath, England, is constructed similarly but the body is a whopping 38" wide and the stand collar is reinforced with triangular gussets at either side of the neck. The sleeves are simple rectangles 17 1/2" wide by 24" long and gathered at the wrist into cuffs that match the collar. The shirt is embroidered with black silks in bands on the chest and sleeves. A number of 18th century shirts from Pennsylvania are almost identical in design despite the time and distance that separates them from these European examples. The bodices of these shirts are roughly 30" wide by 80" long and they retain the same sleeves, collars, cuffs, and gussets of the 16th century shirts. Even women's shirts got in on the act. A few 17th century women's shirts in the Victorian and Albert Museum in London are identical to the men's shirts except for two elements. They are longer in the body than the men's and they have triangular gores set in each side seam below the underarm gussets which creates the width necessary to be able to walk unhindered in the longer version.
Making one of these shirts is a matter of simple geometry. Cut out the shapes, sew them together, and you're done. All you need is a ruler, the ability to sew a straight line, and linen. I suggest 3.5 oz IL020 for a lovely, lingerie feel. If you'd like more substance and want it to be more opaque, choose 5.3 oz IL019. The man's shirt will require only 2 1/4 yards of 57"-59" wide linen. Better make it 4 yards for the women's version.
First, measure the recipient of the shirt from 6" down from the point of his shoulder on the right arm, up and across the back and down the other arm to the same point on the left arm. It's not necessary to be too precise about this measurement. As long as it's under 30", you can use the layout to the right. Cut two 3 1/2" squares for neck gussets and two 9" squares for underarm gussets. If you want to make a voluminous shirt like the one in the Costume Museum in Bath, decrease the size of the neck and underarm gussets to 2" and 5", respectively. Because the body of that shirt is 38" wide, you don't need the leeway larger gussets provide. Cut two 20" squares for the sleeves. If you want a more voluminous sleeve, increase the width but don't make the sleeve length longer than 24" or else the sleeves will drown you. The measurements that need careful attention are the collar and cuffs. The collar should be 2 1/2" longer than the wearer's neck and the cuffs 2" longer than his wrist measurement. The width of the collar and cuffs is determined by the style thereof. The small stand collar or the late 16th century shirt mentioned above was 6" wide, folded in half. The Pennsylvania 18th century shirts had 10" wide collars that folded over as was the style of that time. In both cases, the cuffs were half the width of the collars. So choose your style and cut accordingly. Any embroidery should be done before the shirt is assembled.
Most of the seams on these original shirts were flat felled. This technique encapsulates the raw edges of the fabric and prevents ravelling. If machine sewing, french seams can be used to the same end. Since these shirts were created before the invention of the sewing machine, they are entirely handsewn. They can, of course, be created by machine, but if you like handwork and love linen like I do, you might want to give yourself a treat and make one by hand. So beeswax your linen thread and let's get started.
Fold the body piece in half lengthwise and cut a 6" horizontal slash along this fold to the left and right of the center, creating a 12" slit for your head. Make a 8" to 10" vertical slit down the front of the body piece for the neck opening. Cut each neck gusset square in half diagonally, creating four triangles. Align the 90 degree corner of one of the gussets with a point 3/8" past the edge of the horizontal neck slash and sew to the body piece, right side to right side. Turn the fabric and sew the other side of the triangle to the other side of the horizonal neck slash. When finished, the triangle will cover the edge of the horizontal slash, reinforcing it. Do the same with the other side of the slash. Turn the body piece inside-out and slip-stitch or blind-stitch the remaing triangles to the underside of the place where the gussets are attached, thereby sandwiching the edges of the neck slash between two triangles each.
Fold the collar and cuff pieces in half lengthwise and sew the short ends closed.
Mark a point 1/2" down from the top of the vertical neck slit and trim the fabric from this point to the neck gusset on both sides of the vertical slit. Starting at the front opening, run a basting stitch 1/4" away from the edge all the way around the neck opening, including the neck gussets, ending at the front opening on the opposite side. Lay the long side of the collar piece along this edge. Adjust the gathers in the neck opening until the collar and the neckopening are the same size. Sew the collar to the neck opening, right sides to right sides. Turn the collar right side out, tuck the raw edges inside, and sew. Roll the edges of the vertical neck opening to the inside.
The collar can be closed with one or two buttons or fabric ties. Fabric ties should be sewn onto the collar when the ends are closed.
Fold the sleeve pieces in half lengthwise and mark the center. Sew the underarm gussets to one long side of the sleeves. Align the center of the sleeves with the top (shoulder) fold of the body piece and pin. 16th and 17th century sleeves appear to be sewn directly to the body without gathers. 18th century shirts generally have gathered sleeves. For an early shirt, simply sew from the center to the bottom of the sleeve gusset. *Turn the fabric around and sew from the center to the bottom of the sleeve. Fold the sleeve gusset in half diagonally (the only way it should be possible to fold it) and sew the gusset to the bottom of the sleeve where it meets. Close the bottom of the sleeve to within 2" to 4" of the end and roll the edges of this opening. The sleeve ends should be gathered to fit into the cuff and the cuff attached in the same manner as the collar was above. The cuff should be closed in the same manner as the collar.
To gather the sleeves like an 18th century shirt, measure from the center of the body piece to 14" down the back side. Pin the bottom corner of the gusset to this point. Continue pinning the gusset to the shirt and continue pinning the back of the shirt to the sleeve piece to a point 2" above the gusset. Gather the remaining part of the sleeve and sew to the body piece. Follow the directions from * above. Your shirt should look something like the sketch to the left.
Sew the side seam of the body piece together to within 6" to 11" of the bottom edge. If you're unsure of where to stop sewing, put the shirt on. The natural waist makes a nice stopping point for this seam. Pin the side seam to your natural waist and sew to that point.
To make a woman's collared shift, measure from the bottom of the sleeve gusset to the bottom of the body piece. Women's shifts tend to be longer than men's shirts, reaching anywhere from just below the knee to lower calf. Cut a piece of fabric 27" to 38" wide and as long as this measurement. Cut the piece as shown at right, creating one isoceles triangle and two right triangles. Join the two right triangles along their straight sides. Insert these gores into the side seams of the garment under the sleve gussets. Some shifts had multiple narrow gores rather than one large gore. If this is your aim, just cut the gores smaller and sew them together before inserting them into the side seam. Trim the bottom level and hem.
The finished woman's shift
My husband and I are historical reenactors so we have plenty of opportunity to wear our linen shirts under our clothing at events. But I have to admit that we love fine linen and handwork so much that long after the event is over, you'll still find us unable to part with these beautiful shirts. Even when we're back in our modern home, we often wear these garments to bed, just to extend the time we spend in them a little while longer. And they're delightful to wear around the house on a hot summer day (even though scandalously sheer!). I hope you love your linen shirts like we love ours.
Wear it in good health.
Further Reading on Historic Shirts and Shifts
Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790
by Linda Baumgarten, et al
Cut My Cote by Dorothy Burnham
"Elizabethan and Jacobean Smocks and Shirts" by Janet Arnold in Waffen-und Kostumkunde pgs 89-110
Fashion in Detail. by Avril Hart and Susan North
Rural Pennsylvania Clothing by Ellen J. Gehret