The Victorian era has always been one of my favourite periods (coming a close second behind the 18th century), particularly for fashion. It is a very diverse period for fashion, and the more I have studied it, the more I have been intrigued by the great variety of fashions that existed for women throughout Queen Victoria’s reign.
A mid-late 19th century chemise. From: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
I have particularly wanted a Victorian wardrobe for a while, and the corset and chemise were my first items to embark on.
The Victorian chemises are a different creature to those that came before it. They seem to be lacey, frilly, pin-tucked, embroidered and – generally speaking – a whole lot more feminine! The only era to outdo the Victorians in this way were the next-generation Edwardians.
I found this lovely chemise, complete with pin-tucks, a delicate vine embroidery, and dainty lace, and it took my fancy!
I began with a free pattern by Serinde, and then made a few alterations to make it a bit more like the picture above.
The pieces of my Victorian chemise: body, sleeves, yoke bands.
The extant chemise pictured above does have its own triangular-shaped shoulder straps that are cut separately to the sleeves and body of the garment, but I didn’t do that.
Step One: Sew the sleeves onto the body of the garment, following Serinde’s instructions. I then flat felled the seams.
The two sleeves attached to the body. The seams are not flat-felled yet.
Step Two: Sew the side seams, from the under arm down to the bottom of the garment. I flat felled the seams here too.
The side seams are sewn. Sleeve seams are pinned down for felling.
Step Three: Marking the centre front, create a series of pin tucks across the front, making sure that both sides look even. Press them to either side.
The 1/8″ pin-tucks, placed 1/4″ apart.
This is the point that my chemise-making went awry. I did not take into account the pintucks and allow enough material across the width of the chest, so my resulting chemise was very tight.
Step Four: I embroidered the bands that I was using on the sleeves, neckline and centre front button placket with a scrolling leaf pattern. I used two strands of white embroidery cotton, and used a very short backstitch for the stem and a fishbone stitch for the leaves.
The scrolling embroidery, with the lace attached at Step Seven.
It is helpful if this is done before attaching it to the garment, as then the self-facing can cover the back of the embroidery. Make sure you mark the seam allowance and the fold line of the strip so that your embroidery is centred on the part that will be seen on the outside.
Step Five: Make the centre front placket. Firstly, slit the centre front down the middle, ending with an inverted V-shape at the bottom. (A helpful tutorial with plenty of pictures is here on sewing a partial placket, by Make It and Love It.)
Taking two small strips of the yoke bands, sew one on each side of the slit (right sides together). (Note: It could be a good idea to think about the lace placement on the sides of the top placket here, rather than at Step Seven, as I did! I appliqued mine on top rather than putting it in the seam.) Fold the excess over to create a self facing and, tucking the raw edges under, hand sew.
At the bottom of the placket (where the two sides of the placket meet), I created a V-shape on the outer strip of the placket and hand stitched the top layer to the bottom layer.
The placket has been attached and the facing has been folded to the inside ready to handsew. The V-shaped placket can be seen at the bottom of the picture, before it is handsewn down. You can also see the mitred seams of the placket at the top of the picture (read below). I handsewed these mitred seams and tucked the excess under, as it was a bit easier to be precise.
Step Six: For the rest of the neckline, sew longer yoke band strips around it. Making mitred corners at the centre front where they meet the placket (as pictured above). For the centre back, gather the back panel to fit. I also adjusted the back of the yoke band with some angled tucks so that it would fit better over the shoulders. I moved some of the centre back fullness to the sides with two pleats on either side, as it was too small for me and this helped the fit.
The back neckband, embroidered and attached.
As before, fold the excess over to form a facing and turn the raw edges under to hand sew. Much fitting was done at the this stage to see if the neckline would fit properly under my dress.
Step Seven: Sew on sleeve bands in the same way that the neck band was sewn.
Step Seven: Trim the neckline, placket and sleeve bands with lace. Hem the bottom edge of the chemise.
Step Eight: For the centre front closure, I have seen chemises as late as 1850 with a dorset button. I decided I should utilise some skills I had developed at a previous Jane Austen Festival and so added a dorset button.
The dorset button, 5/8″ wide. The ones I have seen on extant items are teensy (about 1/4″ wide), but this was the smallest ring I could find.
The front view
The back view
Usually the plain chemises of the 18th century and Regency do not take me very long to sew, but the profusion of Victorian pin tucks, embroidery and lace meant that this project was much more time consuming than I had imagined. Victorian chemises also seem to be more fitted, particularly across the shoulders, than in previous eras, which then consumed more time in fitting and unpicking and re-fitting!
In addition, it does not fit very well! I had to add a few “extensions” under the arms so that it would fit across my chest better. It is kind of disappointing when I spent so much time on the embroidery, but I may re-make the body of it at another stage.
Look out for the next post in my Victorian wardrobe – making an 1880’s petticoat.
Making a Victorian corset
My Regency Journey: Making a Chemise
Making an 18th Century Chemise
Sources and Relevant Links
An overview of Victorian underwear
Free chemise pattern – by Serinde
Extant chemise – Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Flat-felling seams – by Coletterie
Sewing Pin Tucks – by Burdastyle
Sewing a Partial Button Placket – by Make It & Love It
Fishbone stitch – by Rocksea & Sarah
Making Dorset Buttons – by Craftstylish