Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Making an 1890's Shirtwaist

I made myself an 1890s shirtwaist. I'd shared I planned to make one, when I wrote about my corset cover. Since then, I've actually finished it and it's appeared in two separate blog posts (the one about my apron, and the one about the belt), but I haven't actually told you how the shirtwaist came to be. So, I figured it was about time to share all those fun details.

Once I finished altering my 1890’s plaid wool skirt, a shirtwaist was the next logical project. A skirt can't be worn alone after all. First, I had to figure out what I wanted the shirtwaist to look like. Then I had to figure out a pattern. I already had the fabric, so once those first two steps were done, I just had to actually make the garment.

Several years ago I found a 2 yard piece of striped cotton shirting at a thrift store. It looked blue, but close up you could see the stripes were actually a rainbow of colors, and it was absolutely beautiful! I'd saved this fabric for the perfect project, and I decided the shirtwaist would be just that. In my thread stash I found 3 matching wooden spools of vintage cotton thread - in just the right shade of blue for the fabric! Pretty fabric, and strong vintage thread, I had my shirtwaist materials!

Picking the fabric was the easy part, settling on the design, however, was a bit more difficult. There were so many fun design elements to choose from! Pintucks, Cross-over bodice, or yoked bodice? Really puffed sleeves or only slightly puffed sleeves? What did I want? What was my fabric best suited to become? For a couple weeks I dithered and dathered on my design choice - at one point I even considered making two different shirtwaists so I wouldn't have to decide between so many fabulous choices - but eventually I found myself coming back to one design again and again. The yellow pin-tucked shirtwaist, in on the right side of this 1898 fashion plate, would be the basis for my shirtwaist.

With that finally decided on, it was time to figure out my pattern. I decided to drape it directly on my dress form. Pattern draping is a skill I'm not very practiced in yet, but something I'd love to become proficient in. As I had no patterns resembling this shirtwaist in my stash, I decided I might as well give draping a go. Thus, I pulled out some muslin and got to draping, pinning, tucking, and marking until I had half a shirtwaist staring back at me from the dress form. So far, so good.

I took that half a shirtwaist off my dress form, removed all the pins and tucks, and used it as a pattern to cut out a mock-up. 

The mock-up turned out quite well, and after a couple small adjustments, I felt ready to cut into my shirting fabric. Well, almost. I still had to figure out the sleeves.

I didn't feel confident draping the sleeves, so I decided to use a sleeve pattern from a 1980's Simplicity pattern instead. The pattern had close to the right look, I just altered it a bit to have a more 1890's shape, then proceeded to make 3 or 4 sleeve mock-ups until I was actually satisfied with the sleeve shape. That was a headache.

One sleeve mock-up was too puffy, another wasn't puffy enough, one had just the right amount of puff, but too high of a sleeve cap. Eventually, after a morning spent pattern drafting in my corset so I could do frequent fittings, I got the sleeves all sorted out and was ready to move on to the final project.

I cut out my fabric, then sewed the shirtwaist on the sewing machine with my vintage thread. As shirtwaists aren't lined garments, I used french seams throughout, as recommended in the book "Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques" (a wonderful Christmas present I received last year). A reprint of a 1906 dressmaking manuel, this book was a great help as I went about constructing my shirtwaist! It gave period directions for cuffs, sleeves, collars, buttons and buttonhole, among other things.

For maximum historical accuracy, I handsewed all the buttonholes. This took a couple weeks as, while not particularly hard, hand sewing buttonholes is not my favorite thing to do. Once all the button holes (18 in total, including sleeve cuffs) were done, I sewed on the buttons. In my stash I found a set of matching white china buttons - in just the perfect quantity!

With the last button sewn on, there was only one more thing I had to do to make my shirtwaist wearable - add a drawstring.

The back pleats are permanently stitched in place, but the front gathers are adjustable.

There is a casing a few inches above the hem of the shirtwaist, right about at waist level.

Through this is a threaded linen drawstring, which is pulled tight around the waist, gathering the front of the garment.

The drawstring is tied and the shirtwaist is then buttoned up. 

Thanks to the drawstring, if I ever decided to lace my corset a bit tighter or looser, the shirtwaist will still fit, no problem.

The same does not apply to skirts, however. If you lace your corset a bit too tight, you may need to employ a safety pin to hold that garment in place! Not that I know anything about that, of course. Good thing belts cover safety pins on waistbands!

So, with a wool skirt and cotton shirtwaist (and my new American Duchess button boots!) I have an excellent every day 1890's outfit!

Well, perhaps not an everyday outfit for me as I don't actually live in the 1890's. However, if I did, this would be the equivalent of jeans and a T-shirt, and I'm quite pleased with it!


  1. wow ... can't say anything else ... love it! I wish I had your skills!

    1. Thank you! The skills came to be a little at a time, and I'm always learning something new. If you're interested, I encourage you to try historical costuming. It's so much fun, not as hard as it looks, and there are new skills to learn in every project.

  2. You look stunning! Right out of a lovely novel.
    Thanks for showing the drawstring. What a brilliant technique. I am forever having troubles keeping my blouses tucked in! But if I did a drawstring, I could have the blouse a bit shorter and leave it untucked while still looking like I have a waist. Cool.
    I love the fabric. And your pattern draping is brilliant!
    Sandy in the UK

    1. Thank you! Right out of a novel is always the goal :)
      The drawstring is great! It made fitting this thing so easy, and I think wearing an untucked blouse with a drawstring waist would look really nice.

  3. Lovely shirtwaist... I need to find a pattern, as soon as I finish those corsets, and the skirt I sewed before...(I plan to get creative with some hook and eye and/or buttons on the skirt waist to make up the the difference when wearing a corset).