Like every other reenactress, I began with a cotton shift that had a drawstring neck with "self-ruffle", and too-long sleeves ditto. That was in 1974. As we in the hobby began to take a more rigorous look at what we wore, and at what our 18c forebears wore, we began to improve many other things, however shift patterns didn't change much. What little research I could find in print on shifts (Cunnington & Cunnington) told me that my sleeves needed to be wider and shorter, but it wasn't until I had the opportunity to examine original garments that I began to realize that our understanding of the 18c shift needed some shifting of its own.
For one thing, I realized that most of the museum objects and commercial patterns I was seeing seemed to be dated a bit earlier than they should be. In other words, objects and patterns described as "second half, 18c" or "c. 1770-1800" actually belonged to a later date than that. And the ones labeled "1780-1800" were probably post-1800.
In pre-industrial times, when the fashionable outer garment was rarely washable, and bodies rarely saw a bathtub either, it was the shift which kept the sweat and body oils from ruining the gown, while simultaneously protecting the body from the dyes and metal salts which "weighted" the gown fabrics. Therefore a shift had to cover at least as much of the body as the gown did, in order to do that job. The short-sleeved shifts I was seeing labeled as c. 1780's were highly unlikely to be that early, as they couldn't serve their proper function, being too short for the sleeves of that decade's gowns. (cf. The Dress of the People, pp. 78-79)
But shift research remained neglected territory.
Our knowledge of 18c garments comes from three general classes of sources-first, images such as portraits, caricatures and genre scenes; second, text sources such as newspaper ads, wills, account books and estate inventories; and third, surviving actual garments. For studying gowns, shoes, or most other garments, a fair number of each of these classes of sources makes the research not all that difficult. Sadly this is not the case for shifts. Artworks generally give us no more than tantalizing glimpses of the edges of shifts (if that), documents mention them only in passing, while surviving garments are very few, and nearly all of those are late, from the end of the century. There is just one 18c English-language sewing "instruction manual" I know of that discusses shifts, it dates from 1789, and all it contains are some brief cryptic directions for how to cut out shifts in quantity.
So in my visits to examine objects in museum collections, I made a concerted effort to study all the shifts I could find, including ones that seemed to fall outside the dates of my primary interest. Eventually I even acquired a small but diverse collection of my own, of American shifts which range in date from 1752 to roughly 1840. Over the past twelve years I have been gradually developing an understanding of 18c shifts, how they were made and how they changed stylistically through the course of the century.
In the process I have learned a great deal about how these original shifts were constructed. So of course I have been asked to teach workshops and classes on shift making. This article will be both a summary of what I teach in my shift making classes and an attempt to summarize what I have developed as my model for dating 18c shifts.SUITABLE MATERIALS
The eighteenth century shifts I have studied, including the ones in my own collection, have a thread count that ranges roughly from 60-75 threads per inch, each way, warp and weft. To find this today, you need to be looking for linen 4 oz. or less, "handkerchief linen". But don't neglect the thread count, as some modern "handkerchief linens" achieve their light weight by being woven of too-heavy threads too-widely spaced, with an end product more like cheese-cloth than a proper 18c "holland".
But there is more to finding a good shift-linen than that. The 18c shift was carefully cut from linen of a specific width, so that the selvedges formed an important component of its construction. And for that to be possible, the selvedge needs to be made like one on a handwoven length of fabric, a continuous-thread selvedge, where the shuttle carrying one continuous weft thread travels back and forth through the warp, so that the selvedge is hard and tight, able to be sewn along the very edge. Unfortunately for us, this form of linen stopped being made about 15 or 20 years ago. The last of it was "new old stock" that I bought for workshops maybe 5 years ago, and if anyone knows where I can get any more, please contact me! Nowadays, linen is woven with a fringy selvedge, which has to be cut off, leaving you with no selvedge at all. Sometimes you can find a linen in which each end of each weft thread has been woven back into the body of the fabric. This is called in the trade a "tucked selvedge", and if it is not too bulky or ragged, this can sometimes pass as a continuous-thread selvedge.
But wait, there is still more to it. Eighteenth century shift fabrics were woven to the exact width they needed to be. On every shift I have been able to study in detail, the selvedge-to-selvedge width is roughly 29" to 34". This allows the seamstress to make up a shift in which each sleeve has one selvedge down its side seam, and each side of the shift has a selvedge which can be used to make neat flat gores using a butted whipstitch. It also means there is no wastage of precious fabric. A fabric of this width makes up into a shift of "average" size, which will fit a woman with hips up to roughly 50" girth. If you read any 18c ads or fabric inventory lists, you will see shift fabrics sold as "3-4, 7-8 and yard wide" which means one yard wide (36" width) 7/8 yard wide (36" x 7/8 = 31.5") and ¾ yard wide (36" x ¾ = 27") .
Massachusetts Spy, June 10, 1773 ad for linen
In actual fact, each handwoven length of fabric may or may not have been precisely the nominal width it was sold as, but that probably mattered little, as the shift is a forgiving garment. While I have never seen an extant original shift made from a fabric either 36" wide or 27" wide, I believe that these fabrics would have been used to make shifts for unusually stout or petite women while still preserving the benefits of having the selvedges where they are most useful.
I am just now wearing out a shift which I made from a wonderful linen I bought at Jo-Ann Fabrics about 15 years ago, which was everything I wanted, a fine crisp hanky-weight with a great selvedge and 40" wide. I also recently found in my stash some shift weight fabric from Ulster Linen which has that good-old hard selvedge and is 36" wide. These fabrics made up into excellent shifts, so I do not believe that the width is too terribly critical, as long as it isn't too narrow. However fabrics like these are now impossible to find.
In late 2011 I called Ulster Linen and had several long conversations with their VP in charge of yard goods. I also contacted all my other favorite suppliers. The linens they were able to find for me were each a compromise, one way or the other. Most linen available nowadays has that fringy selvedge which is utterly useless and needs to be cut off, leaving you with more edges that will require flat-felling. The best compromise I could find is a 4 oz white linen from Ulster which has a "tucked selvedge" in which the fringy edges have been woven back into the fabric, so that the selvedge is firm and sew-able, and there is no raggedness. The problem with it is that it is 62" wide, and would cost you approximately $20/yd if purchased in wholesale quantities. A shift-length, 3 ½ yds long, would therefore come at a cost of ~ $70, out of which however you will be able to make yourself *two* shifts by splitting the 3 ½ yd length the long way. And then each shift-length will be 31" wide, but it will have selvedge along only one side. But this was the best fabric I could find to offer to the participants in the class I taught in March 2012, and at that only because the gentleman went to a great deal of trouble to understand what I needed, root around amongst his bolts for me, send me swatches etc. It's their #1140, it was 62" wide, and it wasn't on their price list, so if you want it, you will probably have to ask for it specifically and tell them I sent you. http://www.ulsterlinen.com/1140WT_big.jpg
THE CUT OF A SHIFT
The cut of an 18c shift is a marvel of simplicity and economy, a clever arrangement of squares and triangles, a winning combination so successful that it remained unchanged for nearly a thousand years. From roughly 1000 AD to c. 1810, this basic cut for an undergarment remained in use with only minor variations in sleeve shape, neckline shape and seaming-techniques.
tunic of St Louis c. 1000 A.D. as seen in "Cut My Cote"
Every 18c shift I have been able to study was cut virtually the same, except for variations in the shape of the sleeves and the neckline. It was this observation that allowed me to first begin to see that it might be possible to develop a chronology whereby shifts could be dated. Since many of the garments I have studied I do not have permission to publish, I am simply going to offer here my conclusions.
You need only look at 18c portraiture to recognize that stylistic elements of clothing tend to get narrower as the century progresses. Among these elements are gown sleeves, and with them, shift sleeves. Having looked at enough shifts, including some which have specific dates associated with them, I observed more specifically that earlier in the century, shift sleeves are wider than they are long. By the end of the century, shift sleeves are longer than they are wide. But 18c shift sleeves are square (the cut piece of fabric for each sleeve measuring as long as it is wide) at just about the mid 1770's. So if you are making a RevWar shift, you would want to determine how long your sleeve needs to be in order to just cover your elbow, add 1" for two seam allowances of ½" each, and then cut your sleeve as a square of that dimension. If this seems huge or bulky to you, then you are probably using a fabric that isn't fine enough.
These full sleeves are gathered into a narrow band cuff, as will be discussed under "Sewing the Shift". I will state here that without exception, I have never seen any 18c shift which did not have its sleeves gathered into a cuff, except for shifts from the very end of the 18c, when shift sleeves become so narrow that they don't need to be gathered, and the cuff is dispensed with. Drawstrings in the sleeves were simply never used. And over the years I have come to understand the logic of this-a drawstring wears out the sleeve fabric; a cuffed sleeve lasts longer.
As far as I have been able to determine, the date at which shifts begin to be made with sleeves so narrow that they do not need to be gathered to a cuff, and only a simple hem at the bottom, is somewhere c. 1790. The 1789 sewing manual Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor says:
"The sleeves with wristbands. Half a yard and a nail is the length of the two sleeves, the width of the Irish [Irish is a linen fabric, previously stated as 35" wide] makes one pair, (a quarter and half, and a nail wide) taking the wristbands out of the middle of the breadth… wristbands an inch and a half wide… a quarter of a yard and an inch long each." (p. 29)
Translating the archaic length terminology (quarter = 9", half-quarter = 4.5", nail = 2.25"), this means that as late as 1789, standard shifts for the poor were to have sleeves which were to be cut 20 ¼" long x 17 ½" wide, and gathered into wristbands, or cuffs, which were themselves to be cut 10" x 1 ½". Narrower sleeves without cuffs are not mentioned.
After 1800, as gown sleeves shorten, shift sleeves finally do also. The Lady's Economical Assistant, or Art of Cutting Out and Making The Most Useful Articles of Wearing Apparel (1808) is the first instruction manual I know of which mentions short sleeves for shifts; it suggests they be cut 6" long (p. 20).
I realize that this assertion for the later dates for narrow shift sleeves and then for shorter shift sleeves flies against much of what is offered as dating for objects in some important museums (and from some important pattern companies), but it is consistent with all the evidence that has gone into my developing a shift chronology. It is also consistent with my understanding of the primary role of the shift as protecting the gown and the body from each other. Shift sleeves cannot get shorter until gown sleeves do, or else the shift isn't able to do its job.
The other change through time in the cut of 18c shifts is in the neckline. To understand why this should be so, one need only look again at American portraiture. If we look closely we can notice changes in the shape of the necklines on 18c gowns. As gown bodices tighten and seams are crowded towards the back, the front neckline becomes broader and more horizontal.
Early in the century, the necklines seen on gowns in American portraits are long ovals. See for example the two women in Smibert's The Bermuda Group (1730)
The Bermuda Group, detail (1730) Source
or his portrait of Mrs. James Gooch (c. 1729) Source
See also the women of the Isaac Royall Family by Robert Feke (1741)
Isaac Royal Family, detail Source
A shift neckline that followed the contours of these gowns would also have to be something like an oval.
Mary Atkins, detail Source
... and here are three portraits by Joseph Badger which show how the gown neckline evolved from ovoid to flat:
Mrs Isaac Smith (1746), detail Source
Mrs John Haskins (1759), detail Source
Mary Croswell (1763), detail Source
Later yet in the 18c, women's gown necklines become almost horizontal, as can be seen in Copley's portraits of Mrs. Daniel Sargent (1763) or Mrs. Richard Skinner (1772)...
Mrs. Daniel Sargent, detail Source
Mrs. Richard Skinner, detail Source
... or in this 1784 Ralph Earl portrait of Sophia Drake
Sophia Drake, detail Source
And so, as I began to study enough shifts that I could notice and track differences in neckline shape, it became apparent to me that a chronology of shift dating would incorporate a gradual transition from necklines which were a long-axis ovoid, to ones which were a broader oval, to necklines which were more squared off and horizontal across the front. This conclusion was supported by the correlation, among the shifts I studied, between this evolution of neckline shape and the gradual evolution of shift sleeves from wider to narrower.Timeline of shapes, shift necklines
I should add that whatever the shape of the neckline on an 18c shift, it was finished with a narrow hem, and sized to fit without a drawstring. I have seen at least one shift with a drawstring in the neckline, so I would not say these "never" existed, but the drawstring was not there for fitting purposes. It might have been used for minor adjustments to accommodate different gowns with slightly different necklines, but in truth it isn't readily apparent what purpose it served. The vast majority of shifts don't have any drawstrings.
Except for these stylistic changes in sleeve and neckline shapes, the 18c American shifts I have been able to study show a remarkable consistency of cut and construction.
This cutting diagram gives the essential information for making a shift for the RevWar period. This pattern is a synthesis, derived from several originals I have studied.
But for those who want to replicate an actual object, here is the pattern I took from the shift in my collection. It is dated 1752, and has Connecticut provenance.
Anyone who wishes to create a late century shift can find good cutting diagrams in Fitting&Proper (p. 46) or in Costume CloseUp (p. 59).
Before you go to cut out your linen, there are a few things I would like to say about cutting out. Of course you will know to cut away a long triangle from the upper half of the shift body so that you can pivot it around and sew it to the lower half to complete the A-line of the shift body. Here is where that good selvedge is most important. By putting the selvedges together and doing a neat, small whipstitch, and then pulling the seam open, "popping" the butted selvedges flat with your thumbnail, you can create a seam so flat that you'll never feel it, and so neat that it can be difficult to find. This is how center-seam sheets were made, and this is how the gores were sewn onto the shift body. If you haven't got that precious selvedge, you cannot do this. The best you can do is to make as small and neat a flatfelled seam as you can. Sewing the flatfelled side seams of the shift will be more difficult to negotiate around the flatfelled gore-seams, but we have to do the best we can without the optimal materials.
Another observation I would like to make about cutting out has to do with economy, utilizing every scrap of linen most efficiently.
Here is a diagram from the groundbreaking Cut My Cote by Dorothy K. Burnham, showing how she imagined a late 18c shift would have been cut from 30" wide linen.
And this is how I always did it. Until one day it dawned on me that if I were very careful, and cut out the neckhole with barely a 1/4" seam allowance so as to turn a 1/8" hem, I would be left with a scrap from which I might be able to just manage to cut the two underarm gussets. So I tried it:
Imagine my surprise to discover, the next time I looked in Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, this:
It says "The gussets out of the bosom." Eureka, my "discovery" is documented. And now that cryptic little sentence makes sense! The text goes on to say "The piece to bind the sleeves comes out of the cutting of the back and the bottom of the bosom, when the gussets are cut out." In other words, hang onto those scraps, because there is a purpose for which you might want to use them later.
To be honest, this works only after you have made enough shifts that you know exactly what size and shape neckhole, or "bosom", you wish to cut. But once you do, it's a very period way to save fabric.
SEWING THE SHIFT
So, to make up the shift, follow the directions on the cutting diagram. Here is a slightly expanded version:
These directions contain some technical terms which may be unfamiliar to some of you.
The stroke gather technique forms a row of neat, precise gathers which look neither like regular gathers nor like pleats. They are actually more akin to smocking. Once you are familiar with the distinctive look of stroke gathers, you will begin to notice them in 18c portraiture.
Mrs Inman by Robert Feke, 1748, detail
original 1752 Connecticut shift cuff, detail
For the present, I am posting here a link to a tutorial on making stroke gathers for a 19c petticoat.
Meanwhile here also is an image of the basic technique from the Encyclopedia of Needlework by Thérèse de Dilmont
Observant readers will have noticed that all raw edges are finished with hems or flatfelled seams, except for the seam joining the gathered sleeve head to the shift body. On this seam, the raw edges are merely caught down with a slip stitch which is none too closely spaced. This is how the original c. 1752 shift in my collection is made, and I have seen other original shifts made the same way. However I have also seen original 18c shifts on which this seam is faced with a narrow strip of straight-grain self-fabric. Here is where you utilize those scraps which were left over when you cut out the underarm gussets from the "bosom", that piece which came out of the neck hole. In order to do this, you may have to adjust the gathers as you are making the shift sleeves, so that they are concentrated at the top of the sleeve, otherwise your scraps may not be long enough to cover the gathered area. But, assuming that the scrap is long enough, (or, if you wish, you can use some other scrap of linen), simply square it off at the ends, press under a small seam allowance, and apply it as a patch on the inside of the shift, so that one long edge of it aligns with the line of the seam joining the gathered sleeve to the shift body and the rest of it lies over the raw edge of the gathers. It needs to be long enough to cover the gathered area, and no wider than ~1 ½". Pin this patch, or more properly this facing, so that it lies neatly and flat, and so that it covers all the raw edges of the gathered portion of your sleevehead, and slip stitch it down around all four sides. If you choose to do this, you will not need to slipstitch the raw edge of the gathers as described in #9. Repeat for the other sleeve.
So far, no mention has been made of ruffles. The shift examples I studied, and most of the specimens I own, do not have them. I believe that ruffles were not put on work shifts, and should be used only on "dress" shifts. If you do choose to add ruffles, you should add them to both the cuffs and the neckline. The shift ruffles are nearly always made of a finer fabric than the fabric of the shift itself. To put this another way, I cannot recall ever seeing a shift on which the ruffles are not made of finer fabric.
Cut the ruffle twice as long as the edge to which you wish to sew it, and in width roughly 1½" -2" for the neck-edge, and 2"-3" for the cuff-edge. You will turn it under twice for as small a hem as you can manage, or roll the hem if you prefer, and slip stitch, around all four edges. On original ruffles, the fabric is cut across the grain, so any selvedges are at the short ends of the ruffle. Selvedges might be butted and whipstitched together if the ruffle needed to be longer than the fabric was wide. Once the edges of the ruffle are hemmed, you will gather and whipstitch them to the edge of the cuffs or neckline. The usual ruffle ratio in the period was 2:1 or maybe a little less. In the first half of the 18c, shift cuff ruffles might be deeper than this, and shaped, but that is a topic for another time.
I would like to add that in the course of my research I was surprised to see a significant number of shifts with sleeves made of finer fabric than the body of the shift. Sometimes the sleeves were made of fine bleached lawn while the body was of a distinctly heavier unbleached linen. It is not always clear whether these are replacement sleeves, but I believe that at least some of them are original to the garment, a way of using a finer fabric only in the place where it would show.
ONE LAST THOUGHT, DATING BY MONOGRAMS
~~Sharon Ann Burnston April 1, 2012