Or, 18th-C Sewing Techniques

by Linnea M. Bass

I'm sure that many of us have, at one time or another, wondered about the construction of 18th-century clothing: did they sew with thread matched to the color of the material, did they save some of the original fabric to make patches, what did they use for drawstrings? An excellent article by noted clothing expert Claudia Kidwell answers many of these questions and provides a wealth of information about short gowns as well. (Claudia Kidwell, "Short Gowns," Dress, Vol. 4, p. 31-65, 1978.)

Kidwell examined 28 short gowns or loose, unfitted sleeved bodices which were constructed during the 18th or early 19th centuries. She was not always able to specifically date the garments, but a number of them are definitely out of our period - from the 1790's and into the 1800's.

THREAD: Most was 2 ply S-twist linen. Silk was used in 6 garments and cotton only in 1. The sewing was accomplished primarily with white thread, although in a few cases the thread color matched that of the garment.

SEAMS: A back-stitch was used, and most seams were folded over and finished with a running stitch to create a flat-felled effect.

PATCHING: Patches were either plain white linen or similar to the original material.

GRAIN AND PIECING: Most were cut with the grain running vertically. Where the grain was not wide enough, piecing was used if it would conserve fabric. This technique was used primarily at the ends of the sleeves and at the corners of the peplum.

DRAWSTRINGS: Most were tapes of cotton, linen, silk, or wool from 3/16" to 11/16" wide.

LINING: 22 garments were unlined and 6 were lined, several of those being reversible.

FABRIC: Of the 28 fabrics, 17 were small-scale block printed cottons dated from 1774 to 1811. These had primarily dark backgrounds. 10 were striped and part linen -- most were white with either indigo blue or brown. [Many checks and stripes were made of a linen and cotton combination, since cotton often took a dye more easily, but linen was stronger. This information is contained in Beverly Lemire's Fashion's Favorite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800, (NY: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1991.)]

CONCLUSIONS: Because they seem to be so universal, some of the traits found in these short gowns can be safely applied to the Revolutionary period: use of white linen thread, backstitched flat-felled seams, piecing, patches of white or a matching pattern.

The one area in which care must be taken in evaluating these short gowns for our use is the fabrics. Although the majority were prints, the earliest documented pattern was 1774, while the latest was 1811. Thus, it seems likely that many of the prints were post-war. For our period, the stripes might well have been more common.

Notes on Fitting

By Marilyn Hess

Knee Britches

Britches should be very tight in in the knee and shorter in the back and longer in the front. To do this you need to turn the britches inside-out and put them on with your stockings on. First you need to make them the proper length. Feel on the front of the leg just under the knee and find the bone that has a bump in it. Mark the britches with a dot under the bump and then bend your leg and mark the top half bend of your leg on the britches with another dot. Draw a line between these two dots by curving the line around your leg. Cut on the line. Next pull the material on both sides until it is very tight keeping the side seams in a straight line. Mark both sides and sew up one and do the button holes on the other. Add the band on the bottom and you will have britches that fit tight at the knee and will not ride up.


Remove any fullness (wrinkles) out of the back but do not remove any material from the sleeves.

Coat/Waistcoat fronts

It is a good idea to add material in the front because some patterns cut it short. This is submitted by Marilyn Hess to help other people who sew. Most of the information was learned by attending schools for living history and also schools provided by the bar. If you have any questions please call me (Marilyn) at 847-397-4805.