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Drafting an Elizabethan Square Necked Chemise – No Math Required!

It sounds way too good to be true, doesn’t it? I mean, making patterns without a whole bunch of math? You can do such a thing? We’re barely even going to use measurements!  We’re going to use out Basic Conic Block, and enjoy good old fashion magic of the sloper alteration. If this sounds too modern, there’s something you need to know: the idea of describing a pattern as a series of steps and measurements is less than 150 years old.

A Little History

We’re so used to patterns being all rulers and maths that we ignore something critical: the way we make patterns now (and the need we feel to make a pattern in the first place) are very modern conceits. In Patterns of Fashion 2, Janet Arnold writes

“Many books on the scientific methods of pattern construction were written from c1880 onwards.  This method of constructing patterns on paper is still used today and is known as flat pattern drafting or working on the flat.  A block pattern is constructed from a set of given measurements adapted to the lines of the required design and cut in calico.” (pg 4)

Home seamstresses, of course, weren’t expected to be making patterns. If they had the money, they had the relatively new option of buying patterns from McCalls (founded 1870, New York) or Butterick (founded 1863, Massachusetts). (Arnold, 4) Otherwise, they followed the same, time-honored methods that tailors had used for hundreds of years; the same method my mother describes my great-grandmother using to make her own corsets. She took an existing garment that she knew fit, picked it apart at the seams, and used the pieces as the basis of a new pattern. From there, she need only make minor alterations to adjust fit or style, and cut the new garment. The old garment carried within itself everything she would need to know about construction, interlinings, fabrics, etc. It was a simple matter of sewing up the newly altered version. (Well, you know, that and you now have to put your original back together. Things were a lot more work back in the day, and it sort of explains why we were so willing to give up the advantage of custom fitting for the convenience of commercial patterns…)

Now, in modern flat pattern drafting, something very similar happens: we use a sloper, or basic pattern block, that fits a specific size. We then manipulate the sloper to produce a pattern. This sounds all good and relatively orderly, until you find out that half the steps involve a scissors, tape, and the phrase, “There, that looks about right.” Aside from the intensely mathematical and precise process of making the sloper, it’s not really rocket surgery.

Fortunately, you have a sloper. It’s your basic conic block. You can use it to make a chemise with a square neck.

The Design

I’m shooting for something like the one on page 58 of Patterns of Fashion 4, currently housed at the Manchester City Galleries. It’s one of the examples discussed on the’s Elizabethan Smocks and Chemises page. (Gratuitous nostalgia link to the page I used when I made my very first chemise…) It’s the first black and white picture on the right. Pattern wise, it goes about like this:

square neck chemise - line drawing
Super-cheese-tastic sharpie drawing of the chemise.

That’s great! It’s the Elizabethan smock, and there are no cuffs to fiddle with. None that survived, at any rate. In her notes on the conjectured pattern of the chemise, Arnold states,

“There are creases from gathering at the wrist. A few tufts of stitching remain, presumably where there was a wristband and ruffle, now missings. The fullness of the hemmed edge of the sleeve would have been whipped on to the folded edge of the wristband.” (pg 115)

Oh, bother.

square neck smock sketch - adjusted to show cuffs
A minor adjustment to the sketch, done quickly with a pen.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’m eliminating a horizontal body seam which, most likely, was designed to make the area around the neck a more convenient size for embroidery. I’m working for a doll again, so none of my pieces are likely to be too large to embroider.
Next… The Process

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One Comment

  1. missa
    missa January 27, 2011

    Oh, I should mention something: you can use this method with a bodice that fits as well, in case you don’t have a conic block. (Obviously, you should skip the step where you cut the block in half!) Since a bodice usually has some compression built in, you’ll want to draw the side of the front panel out a little farther – otherwise, you’ll be asking your chemise to do the work of a bodice, and it will be very difficult to get into!

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