Dawn's Costume Guide


By the 1500's the shirt had come into being as an article of clothing. Worn underneath a vest, jacket, doublet, or other piece of outerwear, the shirt was considered "underwear", and folks just didn't go out without anything else on. Ladies wore their chemise like a slip, under the good dress, where it didn't show (unless they were in the business of showing their underwear to men). But since most places you'll be likely to wear this won't care that much about historical accuracy, you can make up one of these and call it good.

This is the shirt of Shakespearian plays, swashbuckling pirates, the Three Musketeers, colonial militiamen, Scrooge's nighttime wanderings, and debonair Victorian suitors. The feminine version (chemise) makes a fine blouse or nightgown right up to modern days. In fact, ladies can wear either version, the "chemise" variant is what you want for the off-the-shoulder "wench" look.

This is a two-day project.

Take Measurements

  1. Shoulder to knee ____ (or longer for ladies).
  2. Shoulder to shoulder ____ x2 = ____.
  3. Shoulder to wrist ____ +4" = ____.
  4. Circumference of neck ____.
  5. Circumference of wrist ____.

You'll need, roughly, 3 or 4 yards of 45" wide fabric, or 4 to 5 yards of narrower goods. You can make this garment as full and puffy as you like, being aware that very full sleeves tend to drag in the soup (unless they are held by the sleeves of your doublet) and a lot of yardage around the body can be bulky to tuck into other overgarments like doublets and corsets. In general, the more upper-class the look you want, the more yardage you should plan on.

To figure approximate minimum yardage, take measurement (A), multiply it by two, and add (24") for 45" wide fabric, or (48") for narrower fabrics.

You will also need 2 yards of fine ribbon (1/8 or 1/4") or cord for ties, and some coordinating bias tape or wider ribbon (1/2 or 1") for covering raw edges.

Select your fabric

For this project I suggest a fine cotton or linen, as nice as you can afford. If you're after the really drapey romantic look, consider a cotton gauze or fine silk. Try to limit your choice to a solid color, white and off-white work best, though you may prefer solid black or red. If you want the peasant look, use a tan or brown to simulate older, coarser fabric. Since this garment will go right next to your skin, buy something you will be comfortable in. Generally, synthetics will make you too hot or too cold in outdoor situations and should be avoided here.

Get Started

Take measurement (C) and mark out two sleeve rectangles that long and 24" wide. 24" provides an ample, puffy sleeve for many people. If you think you need more, make a loop with a tape measure and hang it from the arm to measure how much you'll need to fit.

Make sure your remaining fabric meets requirements for body measurement (A) times two, and measurement (b). If it does, cut your two sleeve rectangles.

Cut your two body rectangles. It is often easiest to simply measure length (A) on a folded piece of yardage and take the width of the goods for measurement (B) if it is within a foot or so of the right size. Set any extra fabric aside for now. If you are making up the gentleman's shirt, you will use it for the collar and cuff pieces. The chemise does not need additional fabric.

For the Shirt

Along the top of what will be the front and back of your shirt (the body) mark or pin to divide the fabric into three equal parts. The center section will be gathered into a collar. The side sections will need to be gathered to fit on your shoulders. Measure the distance from the side of your neck to the end of your shoulder (where the dimple develops when you raise your arm). Arrange the gathers evenly and sew or pin them in place to keep them from moving later.

Sew the shoulders together where they are gathered. It's a good idea to reinforce the seam with extra stiching or tape sewn along the seam. If you can do French seams, this is a good place for them.

Note, this is not an historical method of construction. To do that you would gather all the fabric -- except what you need for the shoulder width -- into the neckband. Unfortunately this leaves you with all the fabric bunched up in the middle of your chest and it's kind of hard to control. Still, it's an option if you want to try it the way it was done in the 15th century.


Lay the sleeve pieces out with the length (C) running from right to left. Fold in half lengthwise to find the center, and mark it at each end. At one end of the sleeve you will attach the cuff, the other end is going on the shirt body.

If you chose to make your shirt sleeve puffier than 24", gather a few inches of the sleeve on either side of the center mark so that you take up some of the extra fabric.

Match up the center mark on the sleeves with the shoulder seam on the shirt bodies, right sides of the fabric together. Sew the sleeves on. You should have something that looks like a big X, with the two sleeves and the front and back of your shirt.

Sew the long seam from wrist, along the sleeve, and down the sides of the shirt.

On the top of each sleeve, where you made the center mark at the wrist end, cut a 2-3 inch slit perpendicular to the edge of the fabric. If you are making this for a person with very large hands you may want to cut it a little bigger so the cuff will fit. Cover the raw edges of the slit with wide ribbon folded over, or bias tape that matches your fabric.

Gather the open end of each sleeve along the raw edges to fit your wrist measurement (X). You are now ready to fit the cuff.

Collar and Cuffs

It really helps to have a hot iron at hand when making these pieces.

Cut the collar and cuff bands shaped according to the illustrations, where the length of each piece is taken from measurement (D) plus one inch for your neck, or measurement (E) plus one inch for each wrist. Make the collar about 2 inches at it's widest point (plus an inch for seam allowance) You can round off the ends of the collar for a nicer look, trace the curve around a spool of thread. To get them even, fold the fabric in half and cut both curves at the same time.

You will need two collar pieces. Place them right sides together and sew along the ends and across the top one half inch from the edge. The straight side really is the top. The curved side is shaped so it will fit around your neck and shoulders when the shirt is assembled. Snip the curves a little bit, and turn right side out. Carefully flatten the collar and iron it. Test for fit by holding it around your neck. The ends should just meet, not overlap or gap. It's okay to re-do the collar if you didn't get it right the first time.

Fold the bottom (open, unsewn) edge of the collar up as if you were going to hem it. Keep the fold straight and even, about half an inch deep. Press it down with your fingers to hold it in place, and when you think you have it right, iron it flat.

Do the cuffs in the same way. Cut four cuff pieces the length of measurement (E) and about 2 inches (plus 1 inch for seam allowance) wide. Place them in pairs right sides together and sew half an inch from the edge. Snip the curves and turn them right sides out. Flatten each cuff and iron it. Turn under the bottom edge about half an inch and iron it, too.

If you want to add lace to your cuff, here's how to do it.
Cut a piece of lace or make a ruffle that fits along the "top" edge of the cuff piece shown at right.

Pin the lace between the two pieces of cuff, with the lace pointing inside. When you sew the "top" seam, and turn it right side out, your lace should hang from the "top" edge.

You can add lace or a ruffle to the collar the same way.

Adding the Cuffs

Open up each cuff piece like it is an envelope, and fit the gathered end of the sleeve into it. Start at the slit you cut and covered with tape, pinning it securely into one end of the cuff, and arranging the rest of the gathered sleeve so it all fits evenly. The opposite end of the cuff should hold the other side of the tape-covered slit. It should look like the sleeve on a man's dress shirt. Use pins to hold the gathers in place evenly. Make sure the cuff covers all the raw edges of the end of the sleeve.

Carefully feed the fabric into the sewing machine, with the outside of the sleeve facing up, and sew just along the edge of the cuff where it folds under and holds the sleeve fabric. Go slowly because you are sewing many layers of material and the machine will not like it. Be careful not to get hung up on any pins as you sew. Since this is a loop, you will have to stop and adjust the shirt fabric every few inches as it feeds into the sewing machine.

Try to make sure you are catching both sides of the cuff as well as the gathered sleeve. If you miss a few spots you can go back and stitch them up by hand, since they are inside the sleeve it will not show at all.

After each cuff is attached, lay out your ribbon and cut two lengths about 18" long. Center each length over the cuff, on top of the machine stitching and sew it in place over the seam. You can do this by hand or by machine. It looks better if you sew up each side of the ribbon instead of down the middle of it.

Adding the Collar

The collar goes on much the same way as the cuffs.

In the center front of the shirt body make a slit about 6 inches long down from the neckline. Cover the raw edge with a wide folded ribbon or bias tape that matches your fabric. You'll have to do some creative folding to get the tape or ribbon over the very bottom of the slit. One way is to pull the two halves of the fabric apart until they make a straight line, and then sew the tape on. When it is done it will kind of loop at the bottom, but it will look okay.

Fold the collar band in half, and make a crease where the back center will be. Fold the sides of the collar in to mark the quarter points and crease or pin them. These will mark where the shoulders should match up.

Begin by marking the center back of the shirt with a pin or chalk line.

Gather all the fabric into the neckline until it meets measurement (E).

Starting at the center back, match up the collar mark and the back of the shirt and pin securely.

Match up each shoulder seam with your quarter marks on the collar and pin.

Match up the front of the shirt on either side of the neck slit with each end of the collar band. Pin securely.

Now gather the rest of the shirt fabric into the collar band and arrange it as evenly as possible.

Carefully feed the shirt through the sewing machine, with the outside of the collar on top, and sew through all the layers, being sure to catch the inside of the collar. You're sewing through a lot of layers of material and the machine is not going to like it, so go slowly and carefully and don't break the needle on any pins. Pull the shirt from the back of the machine very gently if you need to help it through. You can always go back and hand sew up any spots that slip out.

Cut a length of your narrow ribbon or cord that is 18" longer than measurement (E). Fold it in half to get the center point, and line that up with the crease on the back of the collar. Sew the ribbon down on the seam line that holds the collar to the shirt. It looks better if you sew along each side of the ribbon, adding a few extra stitches at the end of the collar, than if you just sew down the center of the ribbon.


You may want to knot the end of the ribbon ties, or use a product like Fray-check to keep them from unravelling with use.

If you have not done it yet, hem the bottom edge of the shirt by folding the fabric up half an inch, then again another half inch so all the raw edges are tucked under, then sewing it down.

All text and artwork copyright 1990 - 2000 D. Duperault. NOTHING on this site may be reproduced or distributed by any means without my written permission. This information offered in good faith, and worth only what you paid for it.
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