Saturday, April 4, 2015

Making an Italian Chemise

As part of the Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge 5, I decided to make an Italian chemise (plus, I need some new ones.) I have always been hesitant to make chemises the 'period' way because I am terrible with underarm gussets and find them difficult to get my head around. I have been to a chemise making workshop before, but never actually constructed one. Previously I have used a commercial pattern with a scoop neck and inset sleeves for chemises like the type pictured below.

Image from:

Extant chemises suggest that piecing together of square and rectangular panels was a popular method of construction. This makes sense, given that it is an economical way of using valuable fabric, and makes good use of the fabric selvages.

Chemise linen Italian chemise with a reticella, middle 16th century, Old Italian Lace; Ricci.
Mid-Sixteenth Century Chemise
Image from:

Linen smock with silk and metal thread embroidery. Italian, late 16th century. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. #embroidery, #smock, #renaissance.
Late Sixteenth Century Italian Chemise
Image from:

Woman's chemise. Italy, century. XVI, second half n.inv. 76.01.16. Museo del Tessuto
Italian Chemise from the second half of the Sixteenth Century
Image from:

I raided my stash and found several pieces of cotton that I could use to make the chemise. The front and back pieces were large rectangles, and the two sleeve pieces were smaller rectangles.
To try and make the gussets easier, I made the underarm square larger and then cut it in the middle to make two triangles. This worked quite well but made an extra seam under the arm. I used a zigzag stitch to edge all the raw panels first to reduce fraying.The side seams on the body pieces were on the selvage anyway, so didn't need edging.
The underarm gusset

I sewed the panels together in this way:
Image from
although I did make the back neckline higher than the front because I am terribly prone to sun damage due to my medication.

 I was hoping that I could finish the seams inside so that it would all be neat and tidy. Unfortunately, that was harder than it sounded. It is not too bad, but I think next time I would finish the edges on all the panels by hand and then whip stitch them together or use an ornamental joining stitch like a faggoting stitch.

I needed to take a little off the bottom to even up the bottom hemline, because I changed the height of the back panel to make it sit higher on my neck. I need to factor that in when I cut the panels for the next chemise.
My furry assistant always 'helps'when I am cutting out fabric

Once the panels were sewn together and tidied up, I ran a running stitch of about 5mm around the neckline to gather it up. I put ties at the front and back for ease of adjustment.

 I tried the chemise on and got someone to help me adjust the ties to get the neckline to sit where I wanted it.

Then I began the process of sewing the gathers into place with bias binding.

I went around and sewed the front of the binding down by hand, then went back and did the back (inside).

Even though I just used a cheap commercial bias binding, I was very pleased with how the neckline turned out.

I planned to make gathered sleeves for this chemise, as I always do. But when I tried the chemise on during the fitting of the neckline, I really liked the way the sleeves looked ungathered. I recently acquired a hemming foot for my sewing machine too, so I decided to play around with it.

It produced a really nice even hem, but it was a little lumpy at the join in the sleeve. I obviously need a lot more practice with it. In the end, I decided to sew the sleeve hem down by hand. 

I was disappointed to find that the fabric had a couple of little holes in it. They looked quite a lot like pinholes. Luckily one lot was on the back panel and the other was low down on the front where no-one would see them.

I darned the holes with sewing thread. If I could do it over, I would use embroidery thread.

I am extremely happy with the result of my first attempt. This style of chemise is much more comfortable than the commercial pattern styles that I have used in the past. It sits better and there is less pulling under the arms when wearing a corset. I will make this style of chemise again, and at some stage I would like to experiment with an Elizabethan style smock and a fully hand sewn Italian chemise.

The finished chemise. Please ignore the bra, jeans and sneakers; I wasn't sure how transparent the cotton would be in the sun!

No comments:

Post a Comment