Leading up to Christmastide 1816 at Locust Grove in December, Brandon finally got something he’s been needing for a while: a new shirt. Yes indeed, he has only had one shirt in the entire four+ years that we’ve been reenacting. Yikes. That sounds really bad when I actually think about it.
So, his old shirt, which was made in a rush out of cheap cotton, was in bad shape. Like, really bad shape. It was literally disintegrating.
It was definitely time for a new one. I had fabric ready and everything, I’d just been putting it off for a loooong time.
The new shirt is made with a lovely 4.7 oz. 100% linen from Dharma Trading Co. The Locust Grove ladies went in on a big order so that we could get a bulk discount. The lovely thing about square-cut shirts is that they are exactly that. Square cut. Every piece is a square, a rectangle, or a square cut in half corner-to-corner to make two triangles. This was done for several reasons.
- It makes fabric usage very efficient. A good housekeeper could cut several shirts out at once by filling in all the gaps like a game of tetris, with yardage wasted in the square inches. (This is trickier today with our wider fabric widths.)
- The large, gathered, square bodies make for a garment that fits even if the wearer gains or loses weight.
- Shirts were generally made at home, rather than by professionals, and the formulaic process was much easier to learn and perfect than a more demanding fitted garment.
Shirts for men functioned much like shifts for women–they were an undergarment that was less valuable and more easily laundered than a person’s outer garments. They helped protect those expensive outer garments from sweat and wear. The only parts of a man’s shirt that would generally show were the crisp white collar and cuffs.
There are period cutting guides available so that you can make a shirt as accurately as possible, but since I was in a rush (as per usual) I used the Kannik’s Korner pattern, which comes with excellent documentation and instructions. I highly recommend it if you are in the market for a shirt pattern.
Traditionally, a square cut shirt is cut by measuring out pieces, then pulling out threads of the fabric to mark where to cut. This ensures that each piece is perfectly square. I attempted it, but the threads must have been a bit too flimsy, because they would break after a couple of inches, and I eventually gave it up as a bad job. Hopefully next time I try, the fabric will be a bit more obliging.
The first step in sewing is to finish the edges of the big slit in the shirt front that allows the man enough room to get his head through (and then some). The slit edges are hemmed as narrowly as possible, and then the bottom of the slit is re-enforced with buttonhole stitch, and a bar tack. You’re going to see the word re-enforced a lot in this post. A lot of work goes into making sure it’s as difficult as possible for the wearer to destroy his shirt quickly.
Before the shirt can be put together, the side slits and bottom edge also need hemming. This happens before the side seams are sewn.
The front and back of the shirt are all one enormous rectangle, with a T-shaped slit in the center for the head. You already saw me finishing the stick part of of the T (the chest slit). Now it’s time to deal with the crossbar. The shoulders and neck slit will take the most strain when the shirt is put on, worn, and taken off, so these areas get a lot of re-enforcement.
First, each end of the neck slit gets a gusset to prevent the fabric from ripping farther.
The gussets are only the beginning. The entire shoulder line is re-enforced with shoulder straps–long rectangles of fabric that cover the gusset and go from the neck edge to should edge.
The shoulder preparation is complete at this point, and it’s time to get the collar ready.
The collar is one large rectangle. Each of the short ends is folded in, then the whole thing is folded in half and the edges are whip-stitched together, leaving the seam allowance free at the bottom.
The collar is ready to be attached! This is pretty basic–the neckline is gathered up and stitched between the layers of collar.
The collar buttons shut with clever little shirt buttons made of linen thread. I will be putting up a tutorial on how to make these next week. They quick, and simple, and make a great little demonstration!
The sleeves of the shirt are–you guessed it–rectangles! The cuffs are prepared and go on just like the collar. There is also a square gusset in the armpits, which gives the wearer plenty of extra room to move his arms. Above the gussets, the sleeves are gathered onto the shoulder of the shirt. At this point, the sides of the shirt are still open.
Each of the gusset sides is stitched and flat-felled. The gusset is oriented like a diamond, with the top point opening up the sleeve seam, and the bottom point opening up the side seam. This gives the extra room in the armpit, so that the sleeve and side of the shirt don’t just create a corner under the arm, which could be binding and lead to the shirt getting torn when the wearer strains the seam.
With the gussets in place, the sides are ready to come together. They get stitched together, then flat-felled to finish the raw edges.
There are still some raw edges left on the shoulder seam, plus the whole thing could use some extra re-enforcement, so a sleeve binder (another long rectangle like the shoulder strap) gets whipstitched all around the armscye seam and gusset, and carefully hemstitched to the shirt body. The stitches barely show on the outside, and it gives extra strength to the seam.
We’re nearly there! The side slits get their own bit of extra oomph with small gussets. These are little triangles like the neckline gussets, but only the smallest part of their point is sewn onto the top of the slit, then the rest of the triangle is folded up inside the shirt and stitched down.
There’s one last adorable step before the shirt is officially finished. Each shirt gets marked with the wearers initials and an inventory number, so that the household can keep track of a bunch of shirts that look basically identical. Since this is the first shirt I’ve properly handsewn for Brandon, it is marked with ‘BV’ and a number ‘1’. I’m excited to do another one just so I can number it ‘2’!
This kind of plain sewing may look a bit dull, but it’s incredibly satisfying. Linen is a joy to handsew in the first place, and add to that all the little details like the finish on the neck slit, the flat-fells, the gussets, and the initials, and there’s just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Here’s Brandon looking much better (and happier) in his new shirt! Good riddance to the old rag!