Shifting Direction

Posted by Donna on 9:31 PM with No comments
I think I have sewing ADD.

Since starting my 1770's stays in December, I've also started a 1780 hybrid stays pattern, modified a Victorian walking skirt pattern to be wearable as 21st century office attire, am working on my English gown, the petticoat is waiting to be hemmed and I recently bought material from William Booth for my bed jacket. The 1770's stays need binding and lining, the English gown is on hold until the second half of the workshop (in March) and the petticoat can't be hemmed until I finish the gown. The 1780 hybrid stays were a test pattern, and while they are the only piece I've completed, they need adjustment in the bust and under the arms. Like I said, test pattern, but that hasn't stopped me from thinking about pulling out some material and whipping up another version.

[Whipping up, she says, as though a new pair of stays is something that can be done in a few hours!]

With a trunk full of material and several more patterns waiting in the wings (in addition to the bed gown), I decided to take a step back and shift direction. Literally.

My shift pattern kit, another offering from Larkin & Smith, came complete with pre-cut linen material, linen thread, a beeswax cake and instructions. Rather than obsess over my English gown and the growing list of patterns I've squirreled away and those I'd love to purchase, I turned to the simple shift for something close to hand sewing's version of immediate gratification.

The shift was the first of the layers garments that built the shape of 1770's feminine fashion. Loose fitting, about knee length and made of linen for durability, the shift was a utility garment worn by day under clothing and by night to sleep in. Standard construction was as simple as its use: felled seams, precise hand-stitching (8-10 stitches per inch using linen thread), underarm gussets. The pieces of the garment were rectangles or squares, except the triangular gores attached for fullness at the hem, were judiciously cut from a single piece of the precious fabric to avoid waste. In the days when fashionable outer garments were rarely washable and a bath more of a luxury than the course of daily hygiene, the shift kept sweat and body oils from ruining the expensive gowns.

Eighteenth century shifts were carefully cut from linen woven for that specific purpose; the selvedges an important part of the garment's construction. Ads or fabric inventories from the era promote Irish linen sold as "3-4, 7-8 and yard wide," meaning ¾ yard wide (27"), 7/8 yard wide (31.5") or 36" wide (yard). Robert Ruggles posted an advertisement in the June 30, 1774 edition of the Massachusetts Spy advertising "linnens" and other sundry for sale.

Because shifts were well-used, very few 18th century examples survive. Paintings and prints provide glimpse of the edges of the shifts, and documents only mention them in passing. The 1789 sewing manual, Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, provides information on sizing, materials and patterns for linen shifts, as well as aprons, petticoats, stays, cloaks, bonnets, caps, gowns and more. The manual, published in London, also provides information on the "expence of cloathing" for poor men, women, children and infants.

So, I'm stitching my shift, determined to finish it before the weekend when I'll pull out my new Tow & White striped linen, just arrived from William Booth, Draper, and start the bed gown. And I'll ignore my hubby when he tells me that if I don't start to watch the "expence of my cloathing", I'm going to put us in the poor house!
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