A chemise is a white linen shirt worn to keep sweat and oils off your good fabric. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was usually the only piece of clothing that got washed regularly (because they didn’t have dry cleaners!). Chemise is the French term. Italians called it a “Camica”. The English called the same shirt a “Smock” and the Irish called it a “Léine” (pronounced LAY-na).
You have probably already seen patterns for chemises where they tell you to cut off the corners of the body and sleeve pieces, creating a raglan sleeve (a diagonal sleeve seam). In truth there is no evidence of this seam treatment for chemises in the Renaissance period. Matter of fact, such a sleeve attachment restricts the movement of the arms and makes a weak point exactly where you want your chemise to be strong.
But take heart, friends. There is a perfectly period solution! In the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there is an extant 17th century chemise from Italy. This chemise easily could have been in use as early as the 15th century.
This chemise is so easy to make, anyone can do it. The original was linen embroidered with silk, but you can dress it up or down as suits your persona and fancy. It also uses a very small amount of fabric.
First, get yourself about four yards of white handkerchief linen in 3.5 to 5 oz. weight.
Then determine your “loom width”. The original chemise was made of panels 28″ wide. Modern fabric is usually 45″ or 60″ wide. Luckily, the linen from Fabrics-store.com is close to 60″ wide. Divide this number in half and let that be your “loom width”. Remember to make the width of the body pieces, side pieces, and sleeves the same measurement. At right is an example of laying out the pieces on your linen.
Measure from your neck to the middle of your calves (this is where the chemise will end — If you make it waist-length, it will pull out of your skirt and annoy you). Call this measurement “A”. Also measure from the point of your shoulder to your wrist, around your bent elbow. Call this measurement “B”.
Cut two rectangles your loom width wide and “A” long. These are the body pieces.
Cut two rectangles your loom width wide and “B” long. These are the sleeves.
Cut two squares measuring 10″ x 10″. These are the underarm gussets.
Cut one 3″ wide band that is 40″ long. This is the neck band.
Attach a side piece to either side of the front body piece. Sew one vertical side of the 10″ squares into the slit in the side pieces. Sew the top of the squares to the bottom of the sleeve piece. You should have something that looks like the figure to the left.
Flip the garment over. Fold the side pieces in half along the slit and sew the back piece between them. Fold the sleeve pieces in half towards you. Fold the gussets along the diagonal and sew to the remaining sleeve edge. It should look like the figure at right.
If you are going to pleat the top of the body pieces, do it now. Fold the neckband in half lengthwise and press with a hot iron. Now fold the cut edges into the center crease and press again, forming two more creases in the neckband. Line the long edge (the 40″ wide) of the neck band up with the top edge of the pleats on the outside of the garment and make sure the first crease covers the stay stitches on the pleats. Attach the neckband by sewing in that crease over the stitches that hold the pleats in place. When finished, fold the neckband up widthwise so that the stitch line is inside the band. Fold it at the second crease, tucking the unsewn edge of the band back to meet the raw pleat edge. Blind stitch this third crease on the inside of the neckband. Cut off any extra length.
If you’re not pleating, roll a casing along the sleeve and neck edges and run a cord through it. But be aware, using a drawstring in this manner is not documentable for this period.
Hem the sleeve ends and bottom hem and it’s ready to wear!
Burnham, Dorothy K. Cut My Cote. 1973: The Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario, Canada.