Clothing & Accoutrements

The Shirt
by Beth Gilgun from her book Tidings from the 18th Century

A man's shirt, like a woman's shift, is his underwear. It is rarely worn without a waistcoat or jacket over it. Unlike many of a man's garments that are made by skilled tailors, shirts are easily constructed at home. The shirt is cut from rectangles and squares, with as little waste of fabric as possible. The shirt of a laborer and the shirt of a fine gentleman are cut in the same manner-the difference lies in the quality of the fabric and perhaps the quality of the stitching. The gentleman's shirt may have ruffles added, also.

Shirts are made from many different fabrics and even different colors. Of course, the gentleman wears a shirt of fine linen that has been bleached white, but laborer's shirts are much more varied. A look at some of the newspaper advertisements for runaway servants and slaves gives a clue to this variety. In New York a man servant ran away wearing a checked shirt. A chimney sweeper was wearing an osnabrigs shirt, while a joiner had on a speckled shirt and another man servant wore a white linen shirt. In Boston we find a Negro slave with two shirts, one checked woolen and the other white holland. (Holland is a fine linen). An Irish servant had a speckled cotton and wool shirt, as well as a blue and white homespun checked flannel shirt. (Flannel was a wool cloth in the 18th century.) Another Negro slave had one white cotton and linen and one woolen checked shirt. Although striped shirts aren't mentioned in these runaway reports, they are seen in several paintings and show up in at least two inventories from Pennsylvania (Schiffer).

As we see from the runaway reports, not all shirts are made from linen. Of course, fine and coarse sorts of linen are quite common but also used are cotton and wool of different sorts, blends of cotton and linen, and blends of wool with either cotton or linen. While a cotton or linen shirt is most suitable in the summer, any man who must be out-of-doors in the winter would welcome a shirt made from wool. All shirts are not white either. The checked shirts are often blue and white, but green, red and brown are also used. Wool shirts are nice in colors, especially since wool cannot be bleached and the colors keep the shirts from looking too dirty. A white linen or cotton shirt can be dyed if it gets too stained.

Shirts are quite long. They come to mid-thigh or knee length, depending on the man's preference. This length is necessary because the shirt is also used as a night shirt and is the only form of underwear worn by most men. Because of the straight cut, the shirt is made quite wide and full, so that the wearer has freedom of movement. This shirt is a pullover style with one button at the neck. It was not until after 1850 that men's shirts were made with an opening all the way down the front to be closed by buttons, and even then, this style was not common until the end of the century. Buttons did appear on the front slit of the shirt during the first half of the 19th century, and plackets started appearing by 1840 to 1850. However, in general, the cut of the shirt up through 1840 remains unchanged from the shirt made in the early 1700's.

Patterns for the shirt are available through the various merchants but can easily be made without the paper pattern by simply following the cutting diagrams in books such as Tidings from the 18th Century. When determining the length of the shirt it would be wise to go a little longer than you think as cottons and linens tend to shrink up in length in their second and third washings. You might consider a length of 40"-42" for a man who is 6' tall and estimate from there. Finding 100% cotton checked fabric is possible but seldom if ever do we find checked cotton and linen, cotton and wool or linen and wool. (If you do however, write to this list!) With Heart & Hand in Norfolk, MA usually has checked cottons, just don't be tempted by all the plaids


A New England Example  
by Rhonda McConnon

A white cotton shirt,

but first a story….

From a quiet corner of New England comes a most remarkable story about an 18th century shirt, a house with a falling ceiling and the foresight of a women who just happens to be an 18th century seamstress. 



The story begins with the Perry-Thrasher House, a quaint c.1740 Gambrel, set in the beautiful rural town of Rehoboth, MA.  The master of the house decides its time to repair a crumbling ceiling and sets to work.  Sometime later his mistress comes 'round to check on his progress and sees him kicking around some old rags that fell from the ceiling along the contents of a rats, yes I said rat's nest, and a large one at that.  All of which came tumbling down in the demolition.  Being the seamstress that she is, the woman examines the dirt-caked items before tossing them out as the husband had suggested.   “Husband,” she declares, “it's a  piece of clothing!”  Examining it further, she discovers it's an 18th century shirt---"just like the ones in colonial clothing books".  As restoration of the house continues the ceiling of the buttery yields a great rats nest with treasures that fill the whole floor when it falls.  It must have been occupied by very ambitious rats as their nest contained a pair of 'pants' of homespun linen and  pewter buttons of different patterns.  Could these 'pants' be sailors slops being this home is near the coast or possibly men's under-drawers?  Some rats they must have been to have brought such items to their nest, may they rest in peace for saving these pieces of history.  Well, the items found were great, but there was work to be done.  So, into a paper bag they went to be stored for future reference.

It came about that a Battle Road Clothing Seminar was to be attended by this Mistress from Rehoboth and she mentions her treasures to me, apologizing for their years of grime.  “Oh, but do bring them” says I, “and treasures we shall see.”  Well, it’s now the day of the seminar, time flies by and somehow the treasures are forgotten, left in their bag, unseen, only to be traveled back home with.  “Oh, we must make a date, to get together….” and more time flies by.  Through the following year, and then comes the next seminar.  “Oh yes” says I again; “and this time we will feature them so all are sure to see.”  “But they're so dirty” says she, and I say “no matter”.  We then proceed to make arrangements with Tailor Henry (Cooke), to take a look prior to the unveiling of these treasures.  After many hours, well into the night, washing and re-washing, and washing again, possibly to the power of 6, and then adding his restoration magic, the tailor stands back and says I am done. “Voila”, the rest shall we say… is history. (I have it on good authority the tailor has recovered)        

A Detailed Study

The shirt was made of a white cotton muslin, possibly boys size.  

The body of the shirt is 38 inches long from shoulder to bottom hem, therefore using 2-1/8 yards of fabric since the body of the shirt is all of one piece folded exactly in half with the half way point being at the shoulder. The width if the shirt is 25 inches.  Lying on the body of the shirt when opened out and on the inside is the binder or re-enforcement piece that covers over the shoulder and down the front and back equally.  The total size of this piece is 19 inches by 7-1/2 inches.  The edge of the binder for both sides of the shirt is cut with the selvage edge on one side, which was then placed on the outside edge and will, once the sleeve is attached, cover over the sleeve seam.  The long side of the binder facing the center of the shirt and the bottom edges are left raw and are not turned under, but stitches in a zigzag manner.   

         View of binder, (shoulder reinforcement)

The neck opening was created by cutting a slit of 9-1/2 inches down the center front from the half-way (shoulder) fold. Then a cut was made across the shoulder fold to approximately 5 inches from each shoulder edge cutting through the binder as well.  A gusset is then attached.  The finished measurement of the gusset is 3-3/8 inches square. This gusset since folded into a triangle is stitched to the outside and inside folding the edges in by no more than a quarter inch.  

The center front opening is a rolled hem at 3/16 of an inch narrowing at the center bottom point.  At that point two thread tacks are made to keep the shirt from tearing out at this weak point.  The upper tack has come loose on one side but no other sign of wear is evident.  No additional piece of fabric was used for re-enforcements

Neck gusset

The collar appears to be cut of a piece 6-5/8” by 14-1/8” with the finished length being 13-3/4 inches. The collar is folded in half length-wise and the tiniest amount is turned in on the narrow edge and whipped stitched on the outside with 18 stitches to the inch.   The neck edge is gathered presumably with a running stitch at about a quarter of an inch from the edge.  (This gathering is done to gather the wristband edge and can be seem in an opening in the worn band.)  The front, measuring 4-1/2”from center front opening to gusset is gathered to 2-1/8”to 2-1/8”.  The gusset is gathered up to 2-3/4” and the back edge between binders is gathered to 5inches.  The collar is then stitched on folding in no more than ¼ of an inch.

Now the stitching techniques become interesting.
The sleeve pieces appear to measure 23 inches in length by 16-1/2 inches wide.  The sleeve is cut with one side of its length on a selvage.  This selvage is then used to advantage.   Working on the outside of the fabric the raw edge is folded over no more than ¼” This is laid on the other side,  ¼” from the selvage.  It is stitched from the outside with a whipped stitch 18 stitches to the inch.  Then on the inside, the loose edges are zigzag stitched down with the selvage edge upper most.  The opening at the lower sleeve edge, with selvage, is left as is on one side, and narrowly turned and stitched, on the raw edge side.  The wristband edge is gathered with a courser thread and applied to the shirt, stitching from the outside, the narrowly turned in edges of the band.  A button hole measuring -----is worked in one side of the band.

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Neck Restoration

Neck Stock or Neckerchief

The collar of the shirt should be kept buttoned, unless perhaps you are mowing hay in the fields or some similar thing. The fine white linen cravats of the 1760's were still worn by older men but the new fashion was to wear a neck stock of a fine linen, tucked or pleated and fastened around the neck with a stock buckle or tied as a simpler version. The farmer or craftsman would wear a neckerchief made of a square or triangle of fabric, rolled diagonally and knotted at the neck.

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