How to Sew an Elizabethan Shift
Or at least, how I did so.
I made a black dress that was slightly generic; depending on what I wore with it, it could look middle-class English, Italian, Flemish, and maybe German if I make the right accessories. An all-purpose, late period, common kirtle thing. And I was very proud of it when I finished it. But then I realized that I needed a proper shift/smock/chemise to go underneath it. Oh noes! Fortunately, I had plenty of white, lightweight fabric (ewww, cotton, I know), and a free afternoon to whip something up.
So first you start out with your piece of fabric. Mine is twice my height (from shoulder to ground), and looks like it goes from elbow to elbow in this picture. I cut a long shallow hole in the top for the neck hole.
Might not be easy to see here, but I cut it down the middle in the front. It is a pretty deep cut, almost to my belly button. Making a fish face is not required, but it helps.
I sewed up the hem on the opening in the front. This is almost entirely machine sewn due to time. I can do a sexy hand sewn version later.
Next, I am about to start gathering the neckline so it can fit in the collar. I set up the machine to do long stitches, instead of the tiny stitches you might usually use.
I sewed two lines along the whole length of the collar, trying to keep them even. Make sure to leave long enough strings to hold onto on both ends.
Now find the top two, or bottom two strings. Looks like I have the bottom two in the picture. Grab them and pull! But gently or you’ll break the thread. And that would be sad and unfortunate. :( Slowly pull and awesome gathers will appear. Try to make them even across the whole neckline, you don’t want a super gathered part on one side, and the other with no gathers at all. Make the neckline small enough to match your collar piece.
Speaking of which, the top rectangle below is my collar pattern. The long strip beneath it is what’s going to be the ruffle of super awesome. It is three/four times longer than the collar.
Fold the long ruffle bit in half and iron it flat. I love ironing things as I go, it makes life easier. If you want to go for a more historically accurate ruff, you should do a tiny little hem on your ruffle piece, and gather the bottom edge into the collar. In either case, make sure you are making your strip using the width, or cross-grain of the fabric, so that if your piece is long enough, you might have selvage at both ends.
Sew two lines down the length of the ruffle, just like the neckline. Pull the strings at the end until you have gathers.
Remember that the ruffle should be just a tiny bit smaller than the collar (due to the seam allowance on each end).
I have sewed the ruffle to the collar. I tried to stitch as close to the inner row of gathered stitches as I could, without going over. The collar consists of two outer layers of white, and an inner layer of canvas. I thought that the stiff canvas would make the collar stand up better, and in retrospect, it does stand up nicely but isn’t really necessary, and I wouldn’t do it again.
It is looking pretty collar like, with the ruffle of awesomeness.
Then sew the collar to the gathered neckline! Only sew one side of it.
See how one bit is attached, and the upper part isn’t? That will be handsewn down later.
Pin the open half of the collar down if you like. It might make it easier to sew later.
Attach the sleeves! They are long enough that they go all the way to my fingertips. It is just a rectangle, no fancy shapes or anything.
The sleeves are going to be gathered into cuffs. I am leaving a little split in the sleeve where I open and close the cuff. I hemmed up the area that the split will be later.
And once again, gather the end of the sleeves like we already did.
I am trying to get an idea of how tight I want the cuffs to be. Once I find a satisfactory size, I cut it to size.
Sew the cuff to the gathered end of the sleeve.
Then fold it over in half and sew it closed on the other side of the cuff. I should have hand sewn this part two, but I wasn’t in the mood to do so here. But I might still take out the machine stitches yet, and properly handsew the seam there. Or maybe not.
Now might be a good time to sew up the long seam up the body, and down the sleeve. I did not include any gores in this shift, I didn’t really think it needed it. I did french seams on the shoulder and side, so there are no exposed edges anywhere. Very nifty.
Oh noes! Why are you so angry machine?
I fix the silly tension and hem up the bottom of the shift.
I suppose I finally get around to finishing the collar. It’s just a tiny whip stitch.
Sew hooks or buttons, or lacing holes, or whatever you want on the collar and cuffs so you can close them in some way. I didn’t really like the hooks after wearing this a few times, so I started replacing them with strings to tie. I’m not finished yet, otherwise I would have included it in here.
And done! Now you can dance around and feel pretty.
You might be wondering why I made such a huge opening in the front. I don’t know why. It just sounded like a good idea at the time.
I love the puffy cuff and the frilly collar of awesome.
(I somehow managed to sew the eye and hook on one sleeve backward. That’s why it is rolled up in the pictures, lol. Just think of it as an example of how the sleeves would look if you were one of those working-class Italian women, lots of them have rolled up sleeves.)