The Traveler’s Shirtwaist…

After I finished the skirt (as detailed in my previous post), I turned my attention to an Edwardian blouse called a shirtwaist. Webster’s defines it as “a woman’s tailored garment (such as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts.”

I had already disassembled the remains of my great grandmother Velma’s wedding skirt, which was too damaged to restore. The blouse however, was in nearly perfect condition, with a pleated front, and a stand up collar, and full sleeves gathered at both the shoulder and a lace-edged cuff. I decided not to replicate it, but instead, to lift details from it for a wool version which would match my walking skirt.

I searched for a pattern that echoed the details of this blouse, and that was simple enough to match my sewing skills since I’ve only worked in rectangular construction, and this was my first foray into a tailored garment. An Australian company called Repeated Originals had a pattern that seemed to fit the bill, so I selected their “Blouse pour dame d’un certain age” dating to 1907, which was the same year Velma wore this dress.

The pattern arrived as a 12 page pdf that you download, print and tape together, and then cut out the pattern pieces. The instructions were minimal and probably adequate for a dressmaker who was familiar with this type of garment. But it looked mostly straight forward, so I cut out the pattern pieces and started sizing them. The front was pleated, so adjusting the depth of the pleats would probably fix the sizing. The back was more fitted and was very short (41 cm) so I made it longer and wider to fit my more portly figure. The illustration showed a waistband that was not included in the pattern. A clothier friend confirmed that shirtwaists were often attached to a waistband, sometimes with a peplum, and that there were hooks on the skirt to hold the shirtwaist in place. Moving ahead, I cut a draft bodice from some linen, which seemed to fit pretty well.

I decided to replicate the embroidery from the back of Velma’s blouse onto my own shirtwaist. I don’t know if shirtwaists were embroidered for daywear, but my mission was to carry forward my family history in wearable form, with strict historical accuracy being secondary to my purpose.

I transferred the embroidery pattern by laying Velma’s blouse over a piece of Kraft paper, and used a straight pin to prick around the edges of the embroidery at 1/8″ intervals. I then ‘connected the dots” on the kraft paper with a sharpie, and then traced the design onto a piece of tissue paper which I pinned to the wool of my shirtwaist (a process I learned from Chinese embroidery technique)

My time was limited, so I appliquéd small flower-shaped lace pieces I had gleaned from a thrift store garment, instead of trying to replicate the flowers from Velma’s blouse. I applied soutache by hand for the stems, which worked fairly well and saved me hours of embroidery time. I lined the back panel with a piece of jacquard from my mother’s wedding dress, which made my shirtwaist a multi-generational heritage piece.

I didn’t have enough lace to inset into the shoulders of my shirtwaist, and decided 100 year old lace wouldn’t hold up at that stress point anyway. I did squeak out enough for the body of the collar, shown below and in comparison to Velma’s blouse.

Two lace appliques also hid a gaff I made when I lengthened the back but forgot to lengthen the front sides to match, which also created an unexpected fray point when I tried to turn the hem. Applique work has become one of my favorite “fix-it’ tools.

The sleeves posed another quandary. I had planned to cut the sleeves from the remaining panel of her skirt, to take advantage of the lace chevron detail, but there was too much damage to work around. I also couldn’t figure out how the sleeves from this pattern worked, so I gave up and disassembled something from my closet to get a pattern for a standard set-in sleeve. I turned to YouTube to learn how to convert a standard sleeve into the Bishop’s sleeve that was closer to the one in the pattern illustration.

I shouldn’t call it a Bishop’s Sleeve, for all the swearing that was involved. The YouTube tutorials said to cut the sleeve longer than your wrist, so it would blouse. But it came out too baggy, and the lace panel I had applied got lost in all the fabric. So I tore the sleeve out, moved the lace panel up about 6″, shortened and narrowed the sleeve by about 4″, and terminated it onto a shorter cuff. I reset the first sleeve three times to get the shoulder seam in its proper place. At least the second sleeve went in much faster, since I had made and corrected all of my errors on the first one…

At this point, I also realized that the ‘wool’ I had chosen for this project, was actually a wool-Lycra blend, with just enough stretch that buttonholes for the front placket became a terrifying prospect. I did consider making a placket from silk that would lay under the front placket, which would conceal the buttons and buttonholes and leave the placket unadorned (as shown on Velma’s blouse below).

But even that seemed daunting, and it left the front too plain, and I reminded myself that I wasn’t making a replica of Velma’s blouse. So I sewed non-functioning buttons onto the front of the placket, and I used hooks and eyes underneath as the actual closures. I moved those three times before I got them right.

The end result was a shirtwaist with a very pretty back, and a front I planned to let hang tunic style, after trials of mounting it onto a waistband made me look like a sack of potatoes. I ultimately added a small decorative brooch in front to cinch it in, which tricks the eye into seeing a peplum.

I have now deviated enough from the original pattern that I’m not sure I can call it a proper shirtwaist. But In spite of the trials, errors, and design deviations, I’m happy with my new traveling ensemble. I hope to get more photos aboard the Alamosa Car on the Silverton-Durango steam train in a couple of weeks…

4 Comments on “The Traveler’s Shirtwaist…

  1. You look wonderful! Patterns are like war – no plan ever remains intact as soon as you engage.

    I’ve had great luck with Folk Wear’s patterns, their documentation’s thorough and they have some lovely period patterns as well as ‘ethnic’ ones.

    One thing I figured out on their Armistice Blouse which features both a deep cuff and a generously flowing sleeve. With my short little arms the 3.5″ deep cuff will not work if I make it a rectangle, the difference in diameter between the bottom of the cuff and the top is so great it looks sloppy, slumping half way down my hand. So I take that into account with a wider upper edge. The trapezoid shaped cuff does not look odd when it’s being worn, and can be somewhat disguised with a section of embroidery. When the cuff fits properly it looks neat, stays put, and the flowing sleeve above it can blouse down without obscuring the cuff.

    • That’s really great advice on the cuff, I will have to try that on my next one. I did go to Folkwear for a pattern first, but they didn’t have the specific blouse I was looking for. It all worked out in the end.

  2. Well done historically-inspired adaptation of a shirt-waist blouse! Thank you for sharing!

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