Friday 19 October 2012

The Early Modern Shirt (c.1530-c1660)

Left to right - A heavy weight bleached linen full shirt, a finer quality whitened linen full shirt and an unbleached half shirt 
Rather more years ago than I care to remember I produced some basic instructions in the Parliament Scoute (newsletter of the Roundhead Association of the English Civil War Society) on how to make a period shirt. This was a long time ago, well before the publication of Patterns of Fashion 4 (hereafter PoF4). (1) I based the shirt on an article by Janet Arnold, which gave a pattern for the 1585-1620 shirt in the Fashion Museum at Bath. (2) I thought I would revisit these instructions in the light of work that has been done since 1980, and add some (ok a lot of) background information.


In PoF4 there are fourteen examples of shirts dating from between the 1530s and the 1650s, the Bath shirt is item number 10. With the exception of the 1659 Swedish shirt all are either embroidered or have a lace trimming. Even the plainest shirt is upper class having been worn by an admiral when he was shot. I am not going to describe or discuss the embroidery or lace, just a simple undecorated shirt. The style of shirt described below is one that existed for centuries; the layout of the pieces required is much the same as that given for a shirt three centuries later on Plate 8 in the Workwoman’s Guide of 1838.  The instructions given below are based to a certain extent on the three later examples (1580-1620) in PoF4, which are from English collections, one in the Fashion Museum Bath, one in the Museum of London and one in Warwickshire Museum. This does not mean that we can be certain they were English, but it is more likely.

Quality (and Price)

What quality of fabric does the person you are making the shirt for want? What status of person is he portraying?  All the PoF shirts are of linen of varying qualities, one is over 100 threads to the inch, another is described as heavy and hardwearing, but the thread count is not given. The quality of the fabric was a large part of the cost. Stubbs in 1583 had much to say on the cost of shirts, “In so much as I have heard of Shirtes that have cost some ten shillynges, some twentie, some fortie, some five pound, some twentie Nobles and (which is horrible to heare) some ten pounde a peece, yea, the meanest shirt that commonly is worne of any, doest cost a crowne, or a noble at the least : and yet this is scarcestly thought fine enough for the simplest person that is.” (3) He would appear to have been exaggerating in saying the cheapest was a crown (5 shillings). A hundred years later Gregory King reckoned the average price of a shirt to be half that (2s. 6d), and textile prices had risen considerably in the interim. Spufford’s work on the accuracy of King’s prices for the late seventeenth century bears out the figure he gives. (4) A late seventeenth century publication listed over twenty five types of linens as suitable for shirts, ranging from various types of hollands for “persons of Quality and Gentry”, through osnabrucks, and dowlas for “ordinary shirts and shifts for tradespeople”, to a hempen cloth “often bought by poor people.” (5)  


All of the PoF4 shirts are white, though this does not necessarily mean all shirts are white, or even of unpatterned fabric, though most certainly where. Little is known of working class shirts. In the outfit in the Museum of London described as possibly belonging to a sailor the shirt has been described as of brown linen embossed with a pattern of diagonal lines. (6)   Both the Basque whaler found buried at Red Bay, Labrador, Canada, who is  16th century (7), and the late 17th century possibly sailor buried at Gunnister in the Shetland Islands (8) wore woollen shirts. The Basque shirt has a faint plaid pattern, which has been described as white with mid brown checks. (9)                                                                                                                           

Type of shirt

Decide whether the person you are making the shirt for wants a half shirt or a full shirt. Half shirts are usually thought to have been hip length, while full shirts could reach to the knee. Full shirts were therefore about a quarter more expensive, as shown in the Viscount Scudamore accounts for 1632, these shirts seem to have been for the servants as they are only 3d and 4d a piece, though this may well be just for the making and not include the fabric.  John Masters account for 1646 seems to indicate that a full shirt would take three ells of material, “12 ells of fine holland at 6s. an ell to make me 4 whole shirts.” (10)  

The pieces and their measurements

There are normally ten pattern pieces: 1 main body, 2 sleeves, 2 underarm gussets, 2 neck gussets, 1 neckband and 2 wristbands or cuffs. In all cases remember to make allowances for seams.

A to B    Measure your subject from where they want the shirt to come to, hip, knee, or somewhere in between, over the shoulder and back down to the same point, this gives the length of the largest piece.  The earliest English shirt and the four Italian shirts in PoF4 have a seam or seams at the shoulder, but the later English shirts are cut in one piece without a shoulder seam.

B to C    Then decide on the width of the shirt, the three English shirts are all about 36 inches (90 cm.) wide, as this is often the width of fabric it means you can work with the selvage edges which makes seaming easier, it also gives you 72 inches around the chest, so unless your subject is enormous you have plenty of material. The shirts described as boy’s are obviously much narrower being between 18 and 27 inches wide.

D to E    This is the opening for the neck. Measure from shoulder to neck, then take off from this measurement half the depth of the neck gusset. The remaining figure is how much is left uncut on either side when you cut the neck opening. For example if neck to shoulder is 8 inches and your neck gusset is 2 inches deep, then leave 7 inches uncut.

F to G    This is the centre front opening. Decide how far down you want it to come. Remember you have to be able to get your head through once the neck has been gathered onto the neckband. In the PoF4 shirts this runs from 5 inches on one of the boy’s shirts, up to twelve inches on one of the adult shirts.
Neck gusset

Neck gussets (D-H-I and E-J-K)     Most of the earlier mid 16th century shirts and some of the later ones have no neck gusset, but they do have one or two shoulder seams instead.  I once tried making a shirt without neck gussets to make it simpler. The first time he wore it my son torn the shirt out of the neckband on one side, I put in a gusset. A month later he tore it out on the other side, another gusset. It is easier to put them in to start with. Some survivals such as the 1627 shirt and one of the Italian shirts in PoF4 have tears, which would have been prevented if there had been a gusset. The gussets are triangular and about 2 to 3 inches to a side.

 L to M   Measure from shoulder to wrist over a bent elbow; this will give you the length of the sleeve.

M to N  This is the width of the sleeve. In the PoF4 shirts with straight sleeves this ranges from 15 inches to 18 inches, this means it is usually half the width of the fabric you are working with. If you feel this would be tight remember you have an underarm gusset to give you more room.

Underarm gussets (O-P-Q)            The underarm gussets are square, in PoF4 they are between 2½ and 5½ inches each side. The larger the gusset the more room there will be to move the arm.

R to S     For the neckband, measure around the neck leaving some space for comfort, and of course making allowances for seams.  Cut the neckband twice the depth you want the neckband to have. Where there is a simple neckband in PoF4 the fabric is doubled over to produce a neckband 1½ to 2 inches deep. Where the neckband also forms some kind of collar it is 4 to 6 inches deep.

T to U    Measure around the wrist and again make allowance for comfort and seaming. In the PoF4 shirts the wristbands are usually between 1 and 2 inches deep.

Making up

The making up is often done with a run and fell seam,  that is you join the two sides of the material with a running stitch, then open the seam out and fold the seam allowance so one side goes over the other. This is then felled (hemmed) to the fabric to form a flat seam with no raw edge.

The hem on the open side seam
I have found it easiest to attach the underarm gussets to the sleeve pieces, and then attach the sleeve pieces to the main body. The main body is then folded in half, and the side and sleeve seams are then completed. The side seam is usually left open from roughly hip level down to the hem, in the Bath, London and Warwick shirts this is from twelve inches below the underarm gusset. The point at which the shirt becomes open forms a weak point that often tears up, to prevent this the Bath shirt has a small strip of linen sewn across, while the Warwick shirt has a small triangular gusset. If you look at good quality modern men’s shirts you will often still find a triangular gusset at the bottom of the side seam. Remember also to leave the last two or three inches of the sleeve seam open at the bottom. The open seams on the sleeves and main body are then given narrow hems, and the body of the shirt is hemmed along the bottom.

Now work the centre front slit and neckline. The centre front slit is hemmed, again this leaves a weak point at the bottom of the slit. The 1659 shirt has a worked bar and spiders web here to stop it tearing down, the other shirts are mainly embroidered around the centre slit which gives protection against it tearing down. The neck gussets are then inserted, I find it easiest to fell and fell these seams.

Next gather the shirt neck opening evenly onto the neckband on what will be the outside of the neck. Fold the neckband in half and hem down on what will be the inside of the neckband. Decide how you wish to fasten the shirt. Ties or strings can be attached directly to the neckband as in 6 of the PoF4 examples, the two early Swedish shirts have 3 ties each side. Alternatively three of the shirts have eyelet holes for bandstrings to pass through; two of them have 2 eyelet holes on either side. Finally one of the Italian shirts has loops worked at either end of the neckband.

My son in a finished shirt - he's going to hate me for that.
Next gather the ends of the sleeves onto the wristbands and fold over as you did with the neckband. Again decide how you wish the wrist to fasten. Here there is a much wider choice of fastening among the PoF4 examples: eyelet holes, loops, ties, toggle with eyelet hole, button with loop, button with buttonhole, take your pick. Finish off your wristband with your selection.

Your shirt should now be complete.

 1. Arnold, J. Patterns of Fashion 4 : the cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women . London : Macmillan, 2008.

2. Arnold, J. Elizabethan and Jacobean Smock and Shirts. . Waffen- und Kosumkunde. 1977, Vol. 19, 89-110.

3. Stubbes, P. The anatomie of abuses. 1583.

4. Spufford, M. The cost of apparel in seventeenth century England and the accuracy of Gregory King. Economic History Review. 2000, Vol. 53, 4.

5. The merchant's warehouse laid open, or the plain dealing linnen draper. London : Sprint, 1696.

6. Halls, Zillah. Men's costume 1580-1750. London : HMSO for the London Museum, 1970.

7. Tuck, J. A. Excavations at Red Bay, Labrador - 1986. [book auth.] J.S. and Thomson, C Thomson. Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 1986, Annual Report No.7. s.l. : Historic Resource Division, Government of Newfoundland, 1989.

8. Henshall, A and Maxwell, S. Clothing and other articles from a late 17th century grave at Gunnister, Shetland. Proceedings of the Society of Anitquaries of Scotland. 1951-2, Vol. 86.

9. Walton, P. A 16th century basque seaman buried in "russets". Archaeological Textiles Newsletter. 1987, Vol. 5.

10. Cunnington, C. W. and P. The history of underclothes. London : Joseph, 1951.

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