Sewing: men’s shirt I

Yeah. My sewing business? pretty much dead at the moment. Nobody wants costume pieces, nice vests for going out, jackets for summer music festivals. Nobody’s doing any of that. Nobody wants Renfaire clothes, or ceremonial robes for lodge meetings that can’t meet in person.

But two — well, three — things happened. First, I saw Bernadette Banner’s tutorial on how to make an 18th century “pirate shirt”, and second, a bolt of yardage I’d ordered of ‘handkerchief linen’ came in after a few months of delay.

And the third thing was that @Saul_Mondriaan said on Twitter that he thought of my astrology columns as being read to him by Walter Mercado… and then he added…

And I realized that I had to make some better pieces for my own wardrobe.

And you should always start with the shirt. I have enough of this linen, I think, to make three shirts. So the first step was to wash it and prep it, and then iron it semi-flat before starting again.

And then you have to clean up the edges, so you can pull a single weft thread out of the fabric from one side to the other, selvage to selvage, so that you know that you’re starting from a straight line.

Virtually all clothes before the invention of the machinery that drastically sped up fabric production, are composed of straight-sided squares, triangles, and rectangles. A men’s shirt of the mid-1700s is no exception to this rule, and is perhaps even an unusually-harsh example of this. So the first step in making this shirt was to produce a long rectangle of fabric that’s roughly 25″ wide by 80″ long, to be the body of the shirt. The second and third rectangles are roughly 25″ long by 23″ wide, and these will be the sleeves. The third rectangle is roughly 22″ long by 6″ high, and that’s the collar of the shirt. The fourth and fifth rectangles are roughly 5″ wide by 10.5″ long, and these are the cuffs of the sleeves. The sixth and seventh squares are the 6″x6″ gussets for under the arms; and the remaining 12 pieces are reinforcements for the places where the seams end: at the sides of the neck slit, at the bottom of the neck slit, and at the ends of the side seams.

The next step, ghastly as it is, is to draw or pull threads of warp and weft out, to ‘square up’ each of these individual components of fabric.

As I began this work, I wound up with a lot of bits that looked like I was doing gathering work (that comes later in the process)… that is, pulling on a single or double thread in order to create a rumpled or feathered look along a piece of fabric. As you begin pulling threads, selvage to selvage, you’re fighting against a good sixty inches of width of fabric in good linen…

and this is handkerchief linen. It’s a dense thread-count, more suited to table linens and bedsheets on straw mattresses in a lord’s room in a fine 18th century coaching inn, rather than a shirt. It makes a really, really nice shirt, mind you! But prepping the fabric in this way takes a long, long time.

Once the thread is pulled, though, you have a clear but very narrow channel in which to situate the point of your scissors, and cut a clean line separating one square from another. The process is done with a combination of pin, gentle pulling, and persistent cursing every time the thread snaps. Then you have to cut a part of the channel again, find the end of the snapped thread, and begin the pull again.

Gradually, the work gets easier — the largest pieces take enormous amounts of time. You have to get one long thread free that’s a full 80″ long on two sides of a piece of fabric for the shirt-body… but the tiny reinforcement squares are just 1 1/2″ square, and trim up easily to the right size and shape.

In the end, I had all my pieces cut and trimmed and squared. I put in four hours on this project yesterday, and another three and a half today. Seven and a half hours of labor to prep the shirt, and so far I’ve pulled out more thread than I’ve put in. I didn’t even plug in the iron or the sewing machine today.

And truthfully, this may take a lot longer than that. I’m tempted to go the Bernadette Banner method, and sew it by hand.

3 comments

  1. Holy synchronicity. I bookmarked the pirate shirt tutorial to watch later after stumbling into Banner’s Edwardian Cape video yesterday. Glad to add reinforcement patches to my tool kit.

    Have you see the “A Stitch In Time” series? They recreate garments based on artwork. You might enjoy episode 3, “The Hedgecutter” (https://youtu.be/wtFoYua2dQw or Prime Video) . It reminded me of your posts on visible mending.

    Looking forward to watching the project unfold.

    • I’m glad we’ve synched up! I appreciated that tutorial a lot, but the arrival of the fabric + Saul’s comment plus the chance to do the project at least 2x (maybe 3x) gave impetus to get started immediately. I’ll check out the hedge cutter video!

    • I watched the video. That was fascinating. I may have to make this sort of coat myself someday. I particularly like the marine/mariner’s sleeves treatment: the army at the time had big cuffs, but this tight-wristed treatment is much better.

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