HSM #6: Mid-19th Century Underclothes

I finally made a garment this year that qualifies for the Historical Sew Monthly! June’s Challenge is: Favourite Technique: make an item using your favourite sewing or embellishment technique. My garment for this challenge is a pair of split drawers from the mid-19th century.

My technique of choice are French seams. These are durable, tidy, and easy to sew with a sewing machine.

A quick explantation of how to sew a French seam is to sew with wrong sides together first, press the seam allowances open (they should be on the outside of the garment at this point), then sew the seam again so that the raw edges are fully encased on the inside of the garment. A French seam starts the opposite of how you would normally sew a seam (which is with right sides together). To this with your regular seam allowance the first line of stitches is narrower than your full seam allowance (for example: my seam allowance was ½”, so I first stitched with a slightly wide ⅛” seam then stitched again with a slightly wide ¼” seam). This ensures that the seam is tidy on the right side of the garment, with no loose threads showing. To keep French seams narrow on the inside of the garment it is essential that the first line of stitching is close to the edge of the fabric–sometimes that means stitching a wider seam and then trimming it to be narrow. If this is the case then it’s worth thinking ahead when cutting to decide if the seam allowances need to be wider than normal.

Below is a closeup on one of the inseams of the drawers, showing the French seam.

On to The Facts!

Fabric:  1 ¾ yards of cotton lawn from Dharma Trading.

Pattern: My own. I think these were based on a pattern in a book over ten years ago, but I can’t remember what book and I know I’ve made changes since creating the original pattern.

Year: c. 1850.

Notions: One button and thread.

How historically accurate is it?: 98%. That missing 2% is for the machine sewing of the waistband to the inside of the drawers, as I think it was more likely that this step would have been completed by hand.

Hours to complete: 2 ¼ hours.

First worn: Not yet!

Total cost: $8.75.

These drawers are entirely machine sewn, with French seams, narrow hems, and the ‘stitch in the ditch’ method of finishing the waistband. The ‘stitch in the ditch’ replaces more time consuming hand sewing of the waistband on the inside. It leaves barely visible machine stitches just under the bottom of the waistband on the outside and nicely turned under edges on the inside of the waistband, as you can see at the point on the center front in the photo above. The buttonhole is also sewn by machine. The only hand sewing is securing the button.

These drawers are part of a set that I made for a friend. In addition to the drawers, she will also be receiving two mid-19th century chemises (also sewn with French seams!).

As these are worn without other garments underneath, it was important that the fabric is opaque. Dharma Trading’s cotton lawn is tightly woven and definitely opaque enough for this use. Plus, it’s 60″ wide and a great price! I will say that due to the tight weave of the fabric I had a much easier time sewing it with a fresh sewing needle. The old, probably blunt, needle on my sewing machine was a little struggle-y at first, but I had no problems once I changed the needle.

In total, all three garments took 5 yards of fabric, 7 hours of time, and cost $25 in supplies (the button for the drawers as well as lace and ribbon for the chemises was from the stash).

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HSM #1: Brown Silk Petticoat

While making my 1832 velvet gown at the end of last year, I decided that a generic 1830s/40s petticoat might add to the silhouette, besides being elegant and fun to own. Silk petticoats remind me of Mammy, in Gone With The Wind, who is very excited (and a bit scandalized) about a red silk petticoat gifted to her by Rhett.

I had purchased this silk taffeta a number of years ago on clearance, but it was languishing in the stash due to its unflattering shade of brown. I had 3 yards, which was just right for a petticoat. And since the garment is never seen nor worn near the face, the color was perfectly suited to the project.

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I made a tube of the yardage, then cut off the excess length and used that to make the ruffle. I had thought of making the ruffle twice as high, but realized that I needed to have more than a 1:1 ratio to gather… duh! I was sick while making this and clearly my head wasn’t working terribly well. Anyway, I cut my tall ruffle in half to make a 2:1 ratio and that was that.

The waistband is made of small bits of leftover cotton from some other project. There is evidence of quilted petticoats from the 1830s and 1840s having waistbands made of other fabrics, which was my inspiration (examples can be found here, here, and here). It was a perfect idea, as I was trying to make the best use of my fabric and I did not want to cut a waistband piece out of it.

Petticoats of this type also sometimes close with buttons (like this one), so I chose to close this petticoat in that way as well. It used up a single, random, khaki colored button from the stash and matches the fabric perfectly!

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I added tucks to the petticoat after trying it on with the 1832 dress and realizing it needed to be shorter. Those are hand sewn, but the rest of the construction was done on a machine except for the buttonhole and sewing down the inside of the waistband.

This garment fits the first HSM challenge of the year, Firsts and Lasts (create either the first item in a new ensemble, or one last piece to put the final fillip on an outfit), as it was the start of the 1830s ensemble.

Just the facts:

Fabric: 3 yards brown silk taffeta.

Pattern: None. Just rectangles and math, sort of.

Year: 1830s/40s.

Notions: Thread, a button, and a cotton scrap.

How historically accurate is it?: I’m going to go with 95% on this one. The materials are good and so is the method. The only thing off is the machine sewing and the plastic button.

Hours to complete: Not many, for me. Maybe 10? It didn’t help that I was sick  and not thinking straight.

First worn: December 10 for a ball.

Total cost: $18.

Vernet Project: Further Witzchoura References

Last post relating to witzchouras, we looked at basic definitions of the word, determining that the garment and its name developed from Polish and French influences, that the garment was popular c. 1808 to 1835, and that the chief qualifications are that it is an outer coat or mantle lined and trimmed in fur. But let’s not stop there: here are more references to the witzchouras from the early 19th century.

In 1817, La Belle Assembleé has multiple mentions of witzchouras. The following excerpt tells us a good amount about this style:

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Side note: A Louis d’Or is a French gold coin first struck in 1640. These were promoted by the French kings to fill the need for a large denomination coin, since the franc and livre silver coins were greatly decreasing in value. In 1726, France developed monetary stability and the Louis d’Or was established as being worth 24 livres, a value that remained static through the French Revolution. At the time of this quote in 1817, a Louis d’Or referred to a 20 franc gold piece, also called a Napoleon, so named because Napoleon coopted the idea of the French kings before him. (Sources: Merriam Webster, the OED for louis d’orNapoleon, and livre, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

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Louis d’Or from 1709

Throughout the 18th century, a franc was similar in value to a livre, and about 20 of either of these coins equalled one Louis d’Or. La Belle Assembleé tells us that a witzchoura in 1817 was worth 30-90 Louis d’Ors. What I’m driving at here is the relative value of one of these garments.

The OED gives us an idea of the value of a livre over time: in 1746 one captain was paid 120 livres a month (6 Louis d’Ors). Extrapolate that for a year, and that captain was making 72 Louis d’Ors, just enough for a witzchoura or two and nothing else! Another example from 1797 sounds outraged that an English sea officer was charged 300 livres for eight days of lodging (15 Louis d’Ors). That’s almost 60 Louis d’Ors per month, which would easily be a witzchoura, though I doubt that sea officer would need a witzchoura instead of lodgings! The takeaway message is that, as La Belle Assembleé says, witzchouras were costly and worn only by the wealthy.

It is worth noting that there are fur lined pelisses mentioned which do not qualify as witzchouras in the eyes of La Belle Assembleé. I’ll be examining these almost-witzchouras in a later post.

Moving along some years, The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine describes fashionable witzchouras in 1833 (the OED had quoted part of this in their definition of witzchoura that we looked at in my last post):

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As we established before, by the 1830s the shape of the witzchoura had changed to accommodate the changing fashions of dresses under them: becoming more cape-like, with collars and loose sleeves rather than being fitted like a pelisse as they were in the earlier years of their popularity. Again, we are reminded that witzchouras are made from expensive fur, and the more expensive the fur the more likely to see it displayed as much as possible.

Moving forward once again, C. Willet Cunnington mentions witzchouras in his book English Women’s Clothing in the 19th Century referencing a year as late as 1849: “The Witzchoura Mantle, for the carriage, lined and trimmed with fur.”

This quote from La Belle Assembleé in 1849 could be the source for Cunnington’s mention of the style, as the phrasing is quite close to Cunnington’s description:

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Here there is a mention of another garment similar to a witzchoura: in this case a burnous. According to the OED again, a burnous is a woman’s cloak or mantle from the 19th century resembling an Arabian upper garment of the same name. It is interesting to note that by the 1830s and 1840s a witzchoura is described as heavy, cumbrous, and very ample instead of the more fashionable and positive descriptions from the decades prior.

One final mention of the witzchoura is from The Outdoor Girl Of A Century Ago, published in 1922:

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This is the second mention in this post of a similar (or possibly the same) garment of Russian origin. In addition to the specific evidence of the Polish origins of the witzchoura in name and relating to Napoleon himself, I’ve also come across multiple mentions of the witzchoura style being brought back to France from Russia by Napoleon’s forces. Both of these influences fit in with the dating we’ve established and lead me to wonder if these are two separate and unique garments. Perhaps, though I suspect that if they were indeed separate styles in name they would have been variations on a similar theme, just like the fur-lined pelisse mentioned earlier in this post.

Historic Cotton Print Eye Candy

I was recently able to visit a wholesale quilt fabric company to purchase historic dress fabrics for an upcoming mid-19th century performance on behalf of me and other members in my vintage dance troupe. It was such a treat! The majority of the fabrics we found were Marcus Brothers fabrics, but RJR also had a smaller number of really lovely fabrics.

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Marcus Brothers Gettysburg Print 1840-1860. To make an1850s day dress.
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Windham Fabrics Colonies Archives Print c. 1850 and Marcus Brothers Charleston II Print. For other 1850s/60s day dresses.

There were so many lovely things, but the best part was the prices! All of the fabrics were between $2.50-$3.75 a yard! You had to buy a bolt, which varied between 7 1/2 and 15 yds, but at those prices it’s still outstanding! We came away with fabric for the 1850s/60s dresses and bit more besides… There were some things that were just so fantastic they couldn’t be left behind!

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Marcus Brothers Old Sturbridge Village Print. To eventually make an 1840s dress! It’s going to be so pretty! I love this fabric and the colors (it’s actually yellow and pinkish flowers with brownish vines).
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RJR Print. I have no idea what I will make with this, I just love it. I find it to be so striking!
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Another sample of the lovely prints. These were purchased by a friend. One will be used for an 1860s dress, eventually, and the other will possibly be used for an 1840s dress, eventually.

Don’t worry, there will be upcoming posts with more on the 1850s day dress I’ll be making as well as the other much farther in the future projects. And I’m sure I’ll also have great pictures from the mid-19th century performance as well.