Posts Tagged ‘how to make an 18th Century shirt’

A man’s linen shirt, c. 1775-1800, from Victoria and Albert Museum.

I have made 18th century and Regency shirts before, for my husband and sons, but for a while I have wanted to make one entirely by hand. When my husband said that his current shirt was too short in length, I took the opportunity to make a new one.

One thing I have noticed as I sew more historical garments is that, whilst sewing with a sewing machine is lovely to do, sometimes you can discover new things by hand sewing those garments that were hand sewn during the era that they were worn.

In particular, men’s shirts, with their triangular and square gussets and the centre frill at the front opening, can be a bit tricky to sew with modern sewing machine methods. I found it much easier to flat fell those gusset seams while hand sewing than I did when I machine sewed them. In addition, roll hemming the front neckline and attaching the (already gathered and hemmed) frill with a whipstitch was a lot easier than figuring out what to do with those gathered raw edges on the inside.


I relied heavily on the 1769 instructions of Garsault, reproduced by La Couturière Parisienne. These instructions contain a very useful “translation” for all of those terms and measurements given in the original version that are not easily adaptable to modern understandings.

I also used the pattern for shirts given in Elizabeth Friendship’s book, Pattern Cutting for Men’s Costume. She had some great tips on how to calculate the sizes of different panel pieces relative to the body measurements, and also things like the placement of sleeves.

I used white linen fabric, that was 150cm wide (selvedge to selvedge).

Construction Steps

Step One: Cut out the body of the shirt. I used a 240 cm (length) of material and cut it to be 80 cm wide. I folded the fabric half widthways (the fold-line being where the shoulders would be) and shifted the fold so it was slightly longer (1-2 inches) at the back. Then I cut a slit along the fold (for the neck) and a slit down the centre front (for the opening).

The shirt has been slit along the top fold (from pin-to-pin, which you can see at the top), and the centre front has been slit and a rolled hem done to the raw edges. (The pins at the side of the shirt indicate where the sleeves will come down to.)

The centre front slit was hemmed using a rolled hem.

Step Two: Cut out the sleeves. I had material left over from the shirt body (70 cm wide and 240 cm long). I cut the sleeves to be 70 cm x 60 cm. (Sleeves are 60 cm long and can be 70 or 80 cm wide.)

The bottom edge of the sleeves (70 cm edge) was gathered with stroke stitches. For some great instructions on stroke gathers, see Sharon Burnston’s article.

The top edge of the sleeve has two rows of running stitch, sewn parallel to the raw edge. This will be pulled up to gather the edge into stroke gathers.

Once the running stitches are completed, they are pulled up to form tiny pleats. I pressed each pleat with the back of my fingernails so they sat nicely, and then sewed them with a whipstitch to the cuffs of the garment. The other end of the cuff is then folded over the raw gathered edges and whipstitched in the same way to the other side of the stroke gathers.

The edge of the cuff is folded over and then whipstitched to the stroke gathers.

In the same way, the top edge of the sleeves (other 70 cm edge) was gathered and then attached to the shoulders of the garment. (The other side of the stroke gathers will be whipstitched to the shoulder binder later on.)

Both ends of the sleeve have been gathered and attached to the cuff and shoulders.

Step Three: The gusset is then sewn in place. I fold my square gusset into a triangle and iron it. Then I place it next to the sleeve so that the two open sides face the sleeve and the body of the garment. (This helps me not to get confused!) Once all the seams are sewn, they are flat-felled.

The gusset is sewn in and the side seam sewn. The seams are then flat-felled.

The shoulder binder is a strip of material that is a few inches wide. The raw edges of the binder are folded under and then it is sewn along the seam line at the head of the sleeve. It is positioned to cover the raw edge on the shoulder and reaches down to the point of the gusset. (When stitching the section of the sleeve with stroke gathers, a small whipstitch is used, in the same way the cuffs were completed.)

The shoulder binder is pinned ready to whipstitch to the other side of the stroke gathers.

Step Four: Along the neckline, the triangular gussets are sewn in. The neckline edge is then gathered with stroke gathers, as before (although these gathers are much looser than those in the sleeves). The collar is then sewn on in the same manner as the cuffs were.

Step Five: The frill for the front opening on the shirt was a straight strip of fabric, hemmed on one long edge (and the two short edges) with a rolled hem. The remaining raw edge was gathered with a rolled-whipstitch-gather and then whipstitched to the finished edge of the front slit.

These are the instructions that I wrote on how to do a rolled whipped gather. Others do it slightly differently, but the end result is the same. If your material is not “gathering” enough, make your stitches further apart.

The front frill has been gathered and is now being whipstitched to the rolled hem of the front slit.

The frill is shown attached to the centre front edge.

Once the frill is attached, it was common to sew a heart-shaped reinforcing patch at the bottom of the centre front slit. This prevents the slit tearing. I folded the raw edges under on a small piece of material and tacked it below the slit.

Step Six: The bottom edge of the shirt was hemmed, and then dorset buttons sewn on the cuffs and neck.

And then the finished product is ready to wear!

The front view of the finished shirt

The shirt, whilst it is hardly seen beneath all of the other clothing, was great in the end.

I am really pleased with how this shirt turned out. It took about 3 weeks to sew, and I did have to work quite solidly to get it done. However, there is something quite therapeutic about hand-sewing garments. It has become one of my more favourite ways to complete sewing projects.

Related Posts

MY Mr Knightley: Making a Shirt

The Making of a Midshipman: Shirt and Stock

Sources and Relevant Links

Image Source: A man’s linen shirt, c. 1775-1800, from Victoria and Albert Museum.

Making a Men’s Shirt – cutting and sewing instructions from 1760, reproduced by La Couturière Parisienne.

Pattern Cutting for Men’s Costume, by Elizabeth Friendship – buy on Amazon

Stroke Gathers – by Sharon Burnston

How to Sew a Flat-Felled Seam – by Craftsy

How to make Dorset Buttons – by Craftstylish

18th Century Men’s Shirts – a list of online collections and resources, by 18th Century Notebook

A reproduction of a man’s shirt, c. 1780, by Kannik’s Korner

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An 18th Century shirt, from the Victoria and Albert Museum. The sleeves are finely pleated to enable the tailcoat to fit over the top.

My first item of clothing in my husband’s Regency wardrobe is a white shirt.

Throughout the 18th century, men of all classes wore long white shirts with off-the-shoulder sleeves as a basic undergarment underneath their clothes. The shirts often doubled as nightwear and were usually made from linen or cotton. The only visible part of the shirt during the day was the upper edges of the collar peeking out from underneath the cravat, and maybe the frills on the cuff, which extended below the jacket sleeves in the 18th century. The tails of the shirt were also extremely long, designed to be pulled between the legs as an early type of underwear.

By Regency times, little had changed. The frills on the cuffs were beginning to be dispensed with, and by the end of the Regency the frills on the front opening of the shirt had begun disappearing as well.

The Pattern

The pattern of a man’s shirt was relatively simple. It was made from a series of squares and rectangles sewn together to form an unfitted and comfortable undergarment. Norah Waugh has a pattern in her book, The Cut of Men’s Clothes, and there are also patterns available online (from Kannik’s Korner). All of my pattern measurements below DO NOT include seam allowances.

As the garment is so loose fitting, I found it unnecessary to take oodles of body measurements, but I would suggest taking a few.

Body Measurements to take

  • Neck circumference (to make sure the collar fits)
  • Wrist circumference (to make sure the wrist cuff fits)
  • Armhole measurement around upper arm (I adjusted for this later)

My pattern pieces

The layout of the pattern pieces (not to scale).

  • Shirt front – 18″ (on fold) x 20″ – cut 1 on the fold
  • Shirt back – 18″ (on fold) x 20″ – cut 1 on the fold
  • Sleeve – 22″ (on fold) x 18″ – cut 2 on the fold
  • Sleeve binder – see below
  • Underarm gusset – 4.5″ square – cut 2
  • Shoulder gusset – 3″ square – cut 2
  • Side seam gusset – 1.5″ square – cut 2
  • Collar – 4″ x 17.5″ – cut 2
  • Cuff band – 5″ x 7.5″ – cut 2
  • Optional: Front frill
  • Optional: Cuff and sleeve opening frill
Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of my pieces all cut out before I began sewing, so I did a simple drawing of how I laid it out on the material. Using this layout, you will need 3.5 metres (3.8 yards) of material, either 115cm or 155cm wide.
I used cotton broadcloth, as it was a heavier weight cotton and much cheaper than the linen available in my local fabric store! You can use the leftover long lengths of material to make some cravats, but make sure they are at least 60 inches long or they will be difficult to tie.

Construction Steps

Step One: Sew the front and back shirt pieces together at the shoulder seams, sewing only 6 inches in from the sides. (I flat-felled – unless stated otherwise – all the internal seams to make it neater and more hard-wearing.) Make a cut 10 inches down the centre front.

Step Two: Fold the shoulder gusset in half to form a triangle and sew it in. (I actually cut it in half instead.)

The shirt front and back sewn at shoulder seams, with shoulder gusset. I have not flat-felled the seams here yet. I also made my shirt 32 inches long (rather than 40).

Step Three: Gather the neckline.

The neckline gathered

Step Four: Sew the two collar pieces together, with one edge turned up.

The collar, with corners clipped and one edge turned up 1.5 cms (or seam allowance).

Step Five: Turn the collar right side out and attach the unturned edge of the collar to the neckline, adjusting the gathers to fit. The turned edge can then be folded under on the inside and hand sewn to the neckline.

The collar attached, ready to be hand-sewn.

Step Six: Sew the underarm gusset to the sleeve underarm. (For greater detail on how to sew square gussets, see my post on making a chemise.)

The sleeve, with sleeve seam pinned and square gusset placed at underarm region.

Step Seven: Sew the sleeve seam, leaving a 4 inch opening in the bottom end of the seam for the wrist to fit through. Gather the sleeve head and the sleeve bottom.

The sleeve, with each end gathered

Step Eight: Sew the sleeve to the body. It can be a good idea to try it on at this point to ensure the arm fits nicely. If it is too tight, you can loosen the gathers around the sleeve head which effectively makes the armhole larger.

The sleeve attached, with cuff attached wrong! Oops! I had to unpick it in the next step!

Step Nine: Fold the cuff band in half longways and sew short edges together, with one edge turned up similar to the collar. Turn inside out and attach the unturned edge to the lower sleeve edge. The other edge is folded over and hand sewed to the inside, just like the collar.

The cuff band, pinned for sewing

Step Ten: Sew the side seams down 17.5 inches from the armhole. (Adjust this amount if you made the armhole bigger.) Fold the side gusset in half to form a triangle – or if you cut in half (like me!) hem it – before setting it in the seam.

Setting the gusset

The hemmed gusset

Step Eleven: Hem the rest of the side seams by turning over the seam allowance and sewing. Hem the bottom edge. (Note: I made my tails much shorter than period examples of up to 40 inches.)

Step Twelve: Many period examples have both sleeve binders and shoulder binders, and these served to reinforce and bind the seams. For the sleeve binder, I cut a length of material 3 inches wide and long enough to go right around the sleeve seam and a little below it. It was sewn on the same line as the armhole seam and then turned to the main body of the garment, thereby covering the raw seam edge in the armhole. (This was a great way to avoid flat-felling or zig-zagging a gathered seam!) Then the remaining edge was sewn down through all thicknesses. I have seen sleeve binders reach as far inwards as the collar. I did not do a shoulder binder, choosing to flat-fell those seams instead, but it is effectively a piece of material with raw edges folded under and sewn on the inside to cover the raw shoulder seam.

The sleeve binder attached to the armhole seam, and pinned ready to sew at edge.

Step Thirteen: The raw edges at the centre front slit are turned over and sewn. (Cutting an upside-down V-cut at the bottom of the slit helps when sewing the bottom part, similar to when setting a gusset in a corset or doing a welt pocket). In order to reinforce the base of the cut, hand-sew a heart-shaped piece of material on the inside.

I thought having a heart-shape inset into a garment was so romantic that I couldn’t resist embroidering our initials inside it! Ohhhhh…! You can also see the binding that covers the raw edge of the front frill (instructions below).

Step Fourteen: Attach a frill around the front opening and/or cuff/sleeve opening, depending on the look you would like to achieve. As a general rule, gentlemen had frills and working class men had none, but this does depend on the particular era you are interested in. I only did a front frill.

The front frill, pinned and ready to sew. After sewing, the raw edge was bound with bias-binding. You can also see the heart-shaped piece visible at the bottom of the vertical slit.

Step Fifteen: Attach a button to each cuff and one to the lower edge of the collar. The collar could have as many as three buttons.

All complete! An 18th Century man’s shirt.

The next item in Mr Knightley’s wardrobe will be a cravat.

To read all my posts on MY Mr Knightley, go to My Regency Journey.

Related Posts

My Regency Journey – A group of posts about women’s Regency costumes

Sources and Relevant Links

The details of an 18th Century shirt from the picture above, in the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Cut of Men’s Clothes, by Norah Waugh – buy on Amazon

A pattern for a man’s shirt available online (as well as other men’s period clothing patterns), by Kanniks Korner

How to Flat Fell Seams

An 18th Century reproduction of a man’s shirt, by Kanniks Korner

An 18th Century extant example of a man’s shirt – at All The Pretty Dresses

Making an 18th Century shirt – cutting and sewing instructions from 1760

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