Let me be the first to tell you that there are plenty of articles out there on how to make a 1920s envelope chemise. And plenty of these articles have been done by fingers with far superior skill than mine. So I am not here to reinvent the wheel or even to design the most beautiful wheel. My hope in writing this, as with almost all of my sewing related writing, is to make the process fun, understandable, and practical.
For this article I am going back to Ms. Conover’s Dressmaker series for more of her sensible, simple, practicality. The more I work from her series the more I love this woman. She is strict and firm, but reassuring and encouraging, all at the same time.
If you would like to follow along from the exact text you can access it through the Antique Pattern Library website. I will be using Lesson III – How to Make Underwear and Lesson IV – Blouses. I am working from my own personal copy of these texts so please let me know if you are unable to access the online version of Lesson III. My edition is a year later than the APL version and my blouse lesson is much more in depth than the older version that APL has. Lesson III is identical in both additions.
Confession number one: I have been sewing for 30 years and I am not even 40 yet (I will leave you to guess how close to 40 I may be), but sometimes I am still a sewing chicken. I have picked apart and reconstructed beautiful, expensive wedding gowns, and designed and made beautiful gowns myself. I have worked from patterns, altered patterns, and drafted my own patterns but I am still a chicken when it comes to something new.
So I have been dancing around this chemise pattern like a big old 'fraidy cat'. I seriously read though the lesson no less than 10 times, because, you know what? I was looking for someone to hold my hand and tell me I was doing everything just right. But I am not one to give into my fears so eventually I took the plunge and jumped in. And guess what I discovered? Ms. Conover was there to hold my hand and reassure me.
“You will pick up needed practice, too, in working on undermuslins. You won’t be afraid to test the pattern which you have made for yourself in inexpensive muslin. You won’t hesitate to turn a seam a new way, or apply a new hand touch or finish the edge differently, if the cost of the material is only a few cents. Underwear offers one of the best opportunities to become an efficient sewer.”
I know I quoted this in my Circular Drawers article but apparently it didn’t really stick in my own mind. I have this bent toward perfectionism that can be paralyzing to my craft at times. I get this idea in my head that whatever I am attempting should turn out perfect the very first time I try it, and when it doesn’t I get discouraged and frustrated. These articles seem to be a sort of therapy for me to work through my sewing anxieties and hopefully my personal process can help any of you who struggle with these same issues too. I have found that many of my fellow sewists have this internal voice of perfectionism which can produce amazing results on one hand, or prevent us from even attempting something on the other. I am attempting to be the master of my perfectionism and not allow it to master and paralyze me.
Anyway, back to the Envelope Chemise. You aren’t reading this for my sewing psychoanalysis; you are here to learn how to sew something!
Items you will need:
- Tracing paper, butcher paper, or any paper you prefer for pattern drafting.
- Ruler - 24” or longer will be handy.
- Tape measure.
- Muslin (yardage will depend on the width of your fabric and how long you make your chemise, 2-3 yards).
- Block waist pattern (I will explain how this is obtained if you do not already have one).
These are the items you will need for working up a basic envelope chemise. Once you have a basic pattern that fits to your liking then you can go crazy with fancier fabrics and embellishments.
“Making a pattern for an envelope chemise: The regulation envelope chemise shown in Figure 50 can be copied easily with your block waist pattern as a foundation.”
I admit that I laughed out loud at the 'regulation' bit, imagining the underwear police doing a uniform check. Underwear in the 1920s was no laughing matter, apparently.
But the part that stumped me was the 'block waist pattern'. Not because I didn’t know what it was. A block waist pattern is a draft of your basic measurements. If you have a good block waist pattern of yourself, in theory you could use that pattern to make any other pattern or style out there to specifically fit you. They are also referred to as a waist, basic, flat, or sloper patterns
The first block waist I ever made was in college. In this particular class we did not draft our own but used a commercial pattern. I am not sure if the commercial pattern companies still make 'basic' patterns or not and in retrospect I am very curious as to why a pattern-drafting class would use a commercial pattern rather than teach us the measuring techniques, but oh well, that money was long ago lost and wasted. But the thing I remember most about the process was the numerous fittings we each went through to tweak our block waists until they were just right. We used 1” checked gingham so grain lines could be kept straight and true. Once everything passed the fit inspection we carefully cut the garment apart and backed it with a fusible interfacing to make the fabric more stable for long term use.
Now I had read all of Lessons I, II, and III up to this point and nowhere in those three lessons did I see Ms. Conover’s directions for making a block waist pattern. Or at least nothing that looked like directions to me. I expected directions for a block waist to include multiple measurements and drafting techniques. Something like this from Patternmaking for Fashion Design;
Instead of neat equations and sets of measurements this is the description and directions given for a block waist pattern in Ms. Conover’s Lesson II (Aprons and Housedresses). This is also a good definition of a block pattern:
"Later I shall tell you how to make a complete pattern, but every dressmaker or woman who sews ought to know how to use a block pattern. It is really so very much easier than starting at the very foundation and building up a whole pattern. Block patterns are used in all the best class dressmaking establishments and every woman wants to know all the short cuts and time saving devices when she is sewing at home.
"A block waist pattern is a plain waist pattern without hem or seam allowances at any point. It is cut in high round neck style to the base of the neck. Such a pattern can be used as a foundation in making various types of garments such as smocks and blouses, undergarments, chemise dresses, afternoon costumes, and even the most décolleté evening gown as it is simply a matter of adjusting to the variations of the fashion to be copied…
"…These block patterns are copied in standard sizes on heavy paper which is stout enough to withstand much handling. If you have a plain, well-fitting blouse it would serve as a pattern from which to copy your block pattern in heavy paper. You will find all the details for making a blouse pattern given further in the course."
So I hurriedly dig out my lesson on blouses in search of the promised information and this is what I find:
"In blouse making, too, you can use a block pattern to your advantage. If you have a good foundation pattern of a plain waist, it will speed up your work in copying various styles. See to it that your foundation pattern is a good fitting one, that it is cut high in the neck and with a regulation armhole.
"Copy your foundation pattern in a stiff paper without seams or hem allowance. You can make any variation when you are copying your styles. Hem allowances and seams apt to be confusing. Figure 31 shows a foundation or block pattern."
That’s it. No equations, no measurements, one picture. I read all the way through the blouse lesson thinking there has got to be more to it than these brief couple of paragraphs. As I re-read the block pattern directions for the fiftieth time I caught the last line that says I will find details for making a blouse pattern further in the course. Not details for making the block pattern. That is when it dawns on me that she is serious when she says to use an existing shirt/blouse to make your block pattern. And panic sets in...
Confession number two. Yes, I am a skilled seamstress that makes and alters beautiful gowns. Yes, I love and have vast knowledge of wonderful fabrics, patterns and designs. Yes, I have incredible skills of construction and fitting and have made too many garments to count over the years. But do I own one, single, solitary, good fitting blouse or shirt? *hangs head in shame* Uh… no.
There is nothing like a good historical fashion revue to point out the glaring inadequacies of your modern wardrobe. Even with my knowledge and skills, I have fallen prey to the uniform of our times; the damnable t-shirt and blue jeans. But I suppose that is part of the reason I am so fascinated with historical fashion of all types.
So how am I going to come up with a basic block pattern? I cheated. With a 4½ year old child recovering from hip surgery I didn’t have the time or ability to run out to the thrift store to find a cheap blouse to use for a pattern. But I do own pattern making software, which, wonder of wonders, starts with a basic draft. I have actually used this software many times for my customers but I seldom get around to using it for myself. I did some quick and dirty measurements (neck, bust, waist, hips) and printed off the block pattern.
If you are like me and do not own or have access to a simple blouse, do not fear. There are multiple websites (including Your Wardrobe Unlock'd) that have tutorials for drafting basic pattern blocks. I even saw some YouTube videos when I did a quick Google search. (I am not going to get into the details of that here because we really want to get to the chemise.)
Now you can see that my pattern block printed off with bust and waist darts but Ms. Conover’s picture of the pattern block does not have any darts at all. This would make sense for the 1920s. Blouses in general were loose fitting garments at this time. Form, fit, and structure came from undergarments like corsets and outer garments like jackets. The blouse was a more fluid, in-between layer.
In order to match my block to Ms. Conover’s block, I left my darts in and re-drew my side seams. Once I was fairly certain my block pattern would work I traced the final version off onto some tag board. I know Ms. Conover uses this block again and again in her series so I wanted to preserve the block for future use.
Because I left in the bust dart allowances on my draft, I needed to adjust my waistline placement.
I also changed the angle of side seam of my back bodice piece to look more like Ms. Conover’s. Her back bodice piece is very narrow with the side seam almost square from the underarm seam. All of the hip allowance seems to be made on the front bodice piece. I squared my back bodice and then added what I took off the back hip/waist onto the front bodice and voilà! My block shapes suddenly looked like Ms. Conover’s.
Now the block is out of the way and we can move on to the actual chemise pattern. I grabbed some scrap fabric (you can use paper at this point if you prefer as we are just making the chemise pattern) and traced off the front and back block pieces leaving plenty of length and width to make the new draft piece.
Per Ms. Conover’s instructions:
“Lay your foundation pattern piece on another piece of paper and trace around the outside. Remove the patterns and use the traced outline as diagrams (see Figures 51 and 52).”
“Decide how low you want the neck of the chemise in the front and mark a point at this depth on the center front line of the waist(B). A waist has more fullness in front than is needed in a chemise, so mark a point one inch back from the front edge on the lower edge of the waist as point C. Draw a line from point C to B and continue it below the lower edge of the waist. This will be the center front line of the chemise.”
At this point Ms. Conover has us determine the length we would like the chemise to hang to in the front. She does not give any guidelines as to how long this should be so I guess it is up to the individual to a certain extent. Measure from your high neck line to your determined front length and mark that G.
From G square off your bottom edge until it intersects with you side seam which has been continued down, J to H.
Mark point I 1½” up from H and draw in the curved lower edge. Now you can draw out your new neck and shoulder lines to your preferred width. That is your finished chemise front pattern.
In order to determine your back length, Ms. Conover has you measure from the floor up to your front edge and then have some one measure from the floor up this same amount to mark your back edge. You can then measure from your high back neck to the back bottom mark and this will be your back length measurement point marked C. Square off from C to the intersection of your extended side seam and that becomes D. Measure up 1½” to make E. Draw in your neck and shoulder lines making sure to measure the same distances in from the original edges as you did on the front.
“Continue the center back line to form the strap that goes between the legs. To determine how long to make the strap, pass a cord from the base of the neck in the back on the person being measured between the legs to the base of the neck in the front. Let it hang sufficiently loose so that the person can sit down comfortably. Note the measurement in inches. Now measure on the diagrams from the neck edge in the front to the lower edge and from the neck edge in the back to the lower edge. Add these two measurements and subtract the total from the amount the cord measured. This gives you the amount to make the strap from point C to B. Curve the upper part of the strap to blend into the lower edge line.”
Now the one piece of information that I found to be missing in this draft was how wide to make the strap that goes between your legs. Not having worn this type of garment before I just made a random guess, erring on the side of being too wide as I could always cut it down. I also played with some different curve line variations. I would also say to make your strap longer than you think you need it. You can always shorten this after a preliminary fit.
If you opt to use an existing shirt to make your foundation I would try to use one that does not have bust or waist darts, almost more of a men’s wear fit. As you can see from Ms. Conover’s block picture there is no indented waist. You want something that fits loosely from bust to hips.
Once you have your front and back bodices drafted cut them out and lay them with side seams together. This will help you see how well your side seams will match up and if you need to adjust your curve at all. As you can see I had some minor adjusting to do.
Ms. Conover includes a several page section at this point on how to properly add or subtract fullness through the hips or the bust depending on your need. I am not going to spend any time on those specifics, which could entail an entire article of their own. I did add some additional fullness through the hip/thigh region of my slip because that is always a problem area for me.
Cutting out the chemise is pretty simple and straight forward. Both front and back pieces are placed on the fold and an additional, small facing piece is created as reinforcement for where you will sew button holes on the center front. Remember to include seam allowances if you have not included them on your pattern.
Now you will start to feel the joy of some rather quick and easy sewing. Using French seams, stitch your shoulder and side seams together. Ta da! You can test fit at this point and if all is good, move on to trimming. I was incredibly surprised at how well my first attempt turned out. I only had minor trimming to make on the side seams to even them out and I discovered that I had cut the strap a little too short.
Trimming and embellishment are the most fun of any project I think. I was agonizing over my lack of lace and trims on hand for this project. Normally I could hit the thrift stores and fabric stores is search of just the perfect pieces but with my daughter’s surgery we have been pretty much home bound for the past month and a half so I had to make do with what I had in my stash and what I could find at the very small local craft store. It was fun anyway and just has me dreaming of making more.
I settled on some basic cotton lace. I also needed to fix the strap that was too short so I added a tab on the front.
The envelope chemise can be worn over or under a corset. This is what it looks like both ways:
To satisfy my need for something fancier than my plain white cotton chemise, I whipped together a second chemise from a piece of floral printed chiffon that I have been holding in my stash for years. These chemises really do go together incredibly fast once you have a basic pattern. I constructed the basic chemise, just like the cotton one, out of a darker blue piece I had laying around. This piece had the strap for between the legs. Then I basically cut out facing pieces for the shoulders and attached the gathered floral print. If anyone is interested, then I did take pictures and can try to explain how I did it. It was one of those projects that kind-of evolved as it went. But hey, that is exactly what Ms. Conover was trying to encourage us to do!
Take joy in your creation, use your imagination and don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Because, guess what?! It’s only underwear!