Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Historical Sew Fortnightly #5: Peasants & Pioneers: 1860 Chemise Trimmed with Wavy Braid


This chemise began as a UFO from December. My whole family has been Civil War reenactors since the mid-1990s, so I made one of my new sisters-in-law some underthings to jump-start her wardrobe. Her birthday and Christmas are two days apart, so it worked out well to give a set. I passed on a corset that no longer fit me (newly washed, dyed, and flossed), and made a chemise and petticoat. Both garments were simple, and unadorned except for the "wavy braid."

Wavy braid was the mid-19th-century term for what we call rickrack.  It was used on some children's clothing, as well as on adult underthings and "linens" (collars, cuffs, and undersleeves).  Unlike dresses and outerwear, underthings were subjected to relatively frequent and tough laundering, involving bleach and boiling. Hence underthings tended to be fairly plain, or trimmed with sturdy things like self-fabric tucks and broderie anglaise.  Wavy braid is also an option.  It could be worked into lace-like designs, used as an insertion, or used as a pointed edging. (Read more about wavy braid here and other places on The Sewing Academy.)

One tiny shoulder seam, with felled seams and trim.

Some time ago, I commissioned an 1860s petticoat from Sarah Engelke, aka MsMcknittington.  She did an AMAZING job! Something like 20 tucks (I hate tucks, mostly because I'm lousy at them) in two sizes, hand gathered, and edged with wavy braid. I wore it at the DFWCG Costumers' Lost Weekend last summer, where I ended up showing it off when trying to explain my cage crinoline. ;) It's a lovely petticoat, and I definitely want more undies that match.


I still had a lot of wavy braid left.  I couldn't spend too much time on the undies for my sister-in-law, but the wavy braid with a fast, accurate, and cute way to trim them.  I fell for my own design, and went ahead and cut out a duplicate chemise for myself.  I had visions of working them in assembly line, but got in a crunch and didn't far past the cutting on mine.

After Christmas, the Historical Sew Fortnightly occurred, and I was swept into more urgent projects. I was at semi loose ends for Challenge #5, but the forlorn pile of pieces was calling and I can really use it at Gettysburg.

I am a perennial one-shoulder-chemise-wearer. I have no idea why.

This chemise is a simple design with no separate sleeve. It's more typical of post-1865 years, but the pattern was taken from an original with an 1850s date.  It is a simple flared shape with no gores or gussets. The yoke is a straight band with no shaping. The placket is a strap with a curved end, set in a slash in the front of the chemise.

I have no idea why my stitching ended up so crazy. At least it's secure!
 The seams are flat-felled to the outside to minimize any rubbing against the skin, and the wavy braid is applied as a point edging, sandwiched in the yoke, the plackets, and sleeve facings.


The fullness is controlled with stroked gathers. Stroked gathers are run by hand as in regular hand gathering, but when the threads are pulled up, each tiny gather/pleat is sewn individually to the band.

Why put a placket in a chemise? When wearing a low-necked gown, I can undo a few buttons and have a bigger neckline. Huzzah, no chemise peek!

The Challenge:  HSF #5, Peasants and Pioneers

Fabric:  Pimatex brand pima cotton; I get mine from Dharma Trading. Recommended here, among other places. It closely resembles the material used for many mid-century chemises, drawers, and petticoats. It is tightly-woven with a crisp hand, even after being washed, and takes liquid starch extremely well.

Pattern:  1850s chemise pattern diagram, from Hunnisett's Period Costume for Stage and Screen, taken from an original.

Year:  I will be wearing it in 1861-1865 settings, but it's appropriate for any time after the initial date for a decade or two. Chemise designs do not change quickly.

Notions:  100% cotton wavy braid (rickrack). White china buttons with a shiny finish.

How historically accurate is it?  Nearly 100%. All period and appropriate materials and techniques. Sewing machines were widely used in the period, particularly for visible sewing, and I adjusted the stitch length to be much shorter than modern usage.

Hours to complete:  12-15 hours. Construction was easy, and even the stroked gathers did not take long. (Of course, I also made them pretty big.) And I had already puzzled over doing the placket on my sister-in-law's chemise, so that problem was already solved.

First worn:  Just for the pictures. (It's a bit on the long side!)

Total cost:  I bought 20 yards of Pimatex years ago, intending it for undies; this used maybe $10's worth. The wavy braid is about 4 years old; I used about 50¢'s worth. 4 buttons maybe 5¢ apiece. (I bought a pound of assorted white china buttons on ebay 10 years ago and have barely made a dent. Let me know if you need some!) Call it $10.70 altogether.

 But what makes this chemise appropriate for the challenge?The text specifies:

As wonderful as making pretty, pretty princess dresses is, the vast majority of people have always been poor commoners, whether they were peasants working the land, servants in big houses, or (later), pioneers carving their own space in new lands. This fortnight let's make something that celebrates the common man.

This chemise isn't a peasant or pioneer garment per se. That is, it would be appropriate for, oh, 75% of the adult female population of the United States.  The fabric is pretty much perfect, the sewing is a mixture of hand and machine, and the buttons and trim are widely available.   That said, it does shade more toward the economic-conscious end of the spectrum instead of the fashion-conscious end. Why?

(1) Style.  This is a very simple style of chemise, with no separate sleeve, a simple band for a yoke, and a simple placket.  It's serviceable and pretty, but nothing fancy.


(2)  Work-saving.  The simplicity of cut and lack of time-intensive styling means it's practical as a home-made garment for a women with a lot of other work to do, or as a style produced for retail.  Many chemises (and chemise patterns in the fashion magazines) have a lot of tucks and hand-done embroidery. Those things take time. I did stroked gathers, but my gathers were large instead of miniscule.


(3) Cheap. The only supplies this chemise takes are fabric, a few buttons, and less than two yards of wavy braid.  A more elaborate chemise could have expensive broderie anglaise applied on it, in a more elaborate style requiring more inches of trim.


(4) Piecing. Did you see one of the places this chemise was pieced? It's actually pieced in two places. One is on the inside of the yoke, but the other is right down the center back.  Piecing is definitely a technique used by thrifty seamstresses throughout history.


The first place I pieced is adding a center back seam instead of cutting it on the fold.  Pimatex is wide enough for one and a half chemise bodies, so I cut out three fronts/backs and two halves. Two of the solid pieces went for my sister-in-law's chemise, so mine is one piece in front and two in back.

The other place I pieced is at the very end of one of the yoke bands.  One of my strips was 5" short,  Instead of cutting a whole new piece, I added on just enough to work, and used that strip as the inside facing.  It doesn't show and doesn't even feel.


So that's it another challenge for the books! And yay for getting my post up earlier!


  1. That turned out so great! I love reading your blog - I always learn something new. I had no idea that "wavy braid" was used like this. I'll have to dig though my rick-rack stash and see if I have anything that I could use for future undies!

    1. I'm glad you learned something! I'd love to see what you do with it - just make sure it's white. ;) I think I'll post a little more about it in a few days. There are a couple of simple ways to use it, and some really crazy ways. ;)

  2. Cute! I love the simplicity of these undies. The rick rack is super cute. I had no idea it was used so far back.

    1. I was totally surprised, too! So then I just HAD to try it myself.

    2. Self made rick rack is very easy. You need to find a reproduction 1/4" flat braiding and then pull slowly and evenly on the center thread. best results are holding the center thread still at both ends and "pushing the other threads down or up to make the waves.

  3. Lovely work! You do such neat stitches- thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much! I'm doing less handsewing for these challenges because it does take longer, but I like it.

  4. I love love love the blue plaid you used for your dress. May I ask where you found it?

    1. Thank you so much! If I recall correctly, I got it at the going out of business sale of the Hancock's location in College Station, Texas, 8-10 years ago. I know that's no help at all! :( It's actually a cotton gauze. Gauze is *not* a period correct fabric, at least for dresses, but it was lightweight and super cheap and I was a college student. I've ironed it rigorously and keep it lightly starched, so it doesn't really act like gauze any more. The plaid is just a medium/dark blue and black. It's very similar to homespun fabric designs, and homespuns could be made in very light weights. I hope that helps a little bit!

    2. Thanks for the reply! I will have to keep an eye out for something similar in something period dressweight appropriate because the color with the plaid is just lovely.

      I want to definitely incorporate your suggestions on the chemise too. Your final product is wonderful. :)

    3. OH! I also meant to ask if you used a particular pattern for your blue plaid dress? Thanks again!

    4. I think your best bets for finding a similar pattern are either the "homespun" fabrics (see note below), or surprisingly, silk taffeta. There are many period textiles that aren't available anymore (like printed wool!), but silk taffeta isn't one of them. There are SO MANY checks and plaids in CDVs, it's incredible, and fortunately plaids are relatively easy to find. Of course, silk taffeta is also very expensive, and you probably don't want to wear it out in a field. ;)

      One of the biggest selections is at Pure Silks.

      It's always possible you might find something similar when the spring cottons come out, too. Try searching ebay for Indian fabric sellers - they have some amazing cottons. Pure Silks sells both silk and cotton, and their shipping is fast and reasonable. Homespun is actually a whole 'nother issue; it's not necessarily appropriate for most impressions, and it's not intended to be an "out and about" dress as I'm wearing mine. Mine almost comes across as wool; it's a very tricky one. Keep an eye on the wool suiting at and Fashion Fabrics Club.

    5. As for patterns, I didn't use a pattern as such. I started with a basic base pattern, then fitted it smoothly over my corset. This dress, and most 1860s dresses, has a lining, and it's darted to fit the waist in front - two darts on each side of the center front. Because the dress fabric is cotton, it is *not* darted. (For some reason, cotton was almost never darted during the early 1860s.) Instead, I added more fullness to the pattern between the dart placement and gathered it in. (I'm sorry the picture's too dark to show that!) The goal is to have fullness, without being "blousey" or too long. Here's an original that shows the look better:

      The sleeves are simple "bishop" sleeves, basically big wide rectangles that are gathered at both shoulder and wrist. The skirt is a regular "tube" skirt that has been gauged (period term for cartridge pleating) at the waist. It's "balanced" so it's cut slightly longer in back, allowing it to hang evenly over a crinoline that's got more fullness in back.

      For a basic pattern, I recommend Laughing Moon #111.
      The shape it gives is really good, and the pieces fit together well. I just customized it to my new corset a few months ago, and I really like it. The collar pattern is very handy, too. Just don't make it darted if you're not using silk or wool. ;)

      Do check out Elizabeth Stewart Clark's Compendium!

      There are plenty of free PDF articles that sum up an enormous amount of basic information about dressmaking (scroll further down the page). "Best Bet" Wardrobe and "Defining the Work Dress" are very good, plus are all the articles under Projects for Women's Wardrobes. There are free patterns for chemises, drawers, petticoats, aprons, and sunbonnets. The petticoat instructions are pretty much the same as for making a skirt, too.

      The Sewing Academy forum is THE place to get the most accurate information on the early 1860s and previous decades. There's an enormous amount of information in the archives, and the Search function works very well. Have fun!

    6. Thank you so much for all the wonderful suggestions. I will definitely take a look at the Sewing Academy forum and really start familiarizing myself with the proper techniques. I am very new to sewing clothes, so all of this is really helpful. Sometimes it is difficult to know where to start so thank you for helping point me in the right direction, I really appreciate it. :)

    7. You're very welcome! It's quite a challenge to learn to sew on historical stuff, but in other ways it's nice because everything is new. I like the Sewing Academy, and the entire Elizabeth Stewart Clark site, because their emphasis is on what people actually did back then, not on what other reenactors or costumers do. 100% accuracy isn't achievable for anyone, but I like to know as much as possible first. Then I can sew smarter! The people on the SA are super helpful, too. Good luck! :)

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  6. This is a very interesting hobby. Making chemise patterned from 1850 instead of making a new set for our modern year is quite unique. You did a great job here. A plain and simple chemise looks sophisticated already. I hope to see more posts from you similar to this one. Cheers!

    Ted Juhl