Project #1: The Undershirt - Making the First Toile

July 31st, 2020

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With my modified undershirt pattern complete, I set out to test my adjustments by sewing up the first toile. I hunted through my fabric stash and eventually came across the semi-sheer synthetic lining from a pair of cotton drapes I bought from the Goodwill. Although synthetic fabrics were already in use by the 1920’s, undergarments from this era tend to be made from lightweight fabrics woven from natural fibres, as exemplified by a pair of boxers in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection made from breezy, white linen. [Figure 1] Textiles made from natural fibres are much more breathable than synthetics, and more effective at soaking up sweat, meaning they help the wearer stay cool and dry. I believe this to be especially important for transmasculine folks, who often overheat from wearing binders and multiple layers. I decided on period-appropriate cotton and linen for the finished undershirt, but figured the synthetic curtain lining would suffice for the toile.

Figure 1: Underpants, 1920-1940, textile, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O366219/underpants-unknown/.

Before laying out the fabric for cutting, I had to find the grain. I only learned the grain’s importance relatively recently. When I was back making dodgy-looking costumes in my high school days, I wish I had the sober advice of Mary Brooks Picken in her 1923 book Tailored Buttonholes and Buttons, which is that “the proper grain of a material is a matter of such vital importance that it should never be ignored… Material that is incorrectly cut will actually spoil the fit… and consequently the effect of the finished garment.”[1] As there were no selvedges to reference on my curtain material, I took a page from Melissa Mora of Melly Sews and found the straight grain by determining which direction had the least give when gently pulled between my fingers.[2] Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be running along the length of the panel, but it never hurts to check.

I referenced the envelope to see which pattern pieces needed to be aligned with the fold of the fabric when cut, although all other pattern placement directions proved irrelevant since I was dealing with an irregular width of cloth. Putting aside the fact I was using a curtain, the common fabric widths of the 1920’s were 81.3 cm and 91.4 cm (32” and 36”), whereas today the standard widths are 1 m and 1.5 m (45” and 60”).

Figure 2: Yardage requirements for the antique pattern.

Figure 3: Cutting layout for the antique pattern.

Some period sewing manuals I consulted advised using weights to hold down the pattern when cutting, while others preferred pins. Since I had never used weights before, I decided to give it a go. I didn’t have the “four round iron weights weighing one or two pounds”[3] recommended by The New Dressmaker, so I substituted some heavy stones and bits of brick I had long since scooped from the nearby river. I was glad they could fulfill some purpose besides looking pretty and taking up space on my balcony. I eventually resorted, however, to using pins along the pattern’s tight corners and curves, as accurate cutting proved extremely difficult without them.

Photo 1

Figure 4: The modified pattern weighed to the fabric for cutting.

After cutting out my pieces, I had to transfer all the pattern markings onto the material. In the past, I’ve relied on tailors’ chalk and carbon paper for the job, but the manuals continually recommended tailors’ tacks. As explained in The New Dressmaker:

“Baste through both thicknesses of the cloth, alternating one long and one short stitch. Leave the long stitches long enough to form a loop under which a finger can be passed… Then cut every long stitch and separate the two pieces, cutting the threads that still hold them together as you go along. There will then be enough stitches in each piece to indicate the sewing line plainly and both pieces will be marked exactly alike.”[4]

I basted along the bottom hem and down the centre front of the main pieces, and also marked all the notches. I needed a visual aide to make sure I was doing it properly, so I consulted Erin Weisbart’s article “How to Make and Use Tailor’s Tacks” on Tuesday Stitches,[5] which is chock-full of helpful photos.

Figure 5: Making the tailors’ tacks.

Figure 6: The completed tailors’ tacks.

Although the tacks worked well enough, I found the more thread loops I made the better, as many of them inevitably fell out in the process of sewing. Also, I used red thread to show up clearly against the white fabric, but when passed over with an iron, it left irreversible stains on the cloth. For my next attempt, I’ll use beige or light grey thread to avoid ruining the project.

Figure 7: The bottom hem, sewn using tailors’ tacks.

Figure 8: Stains caused by the red tailors’ tacks.

I proceeded to hand-stitch the pieces together. Machine sewing had superseded hand stitching by the 1920’s, but I prefer the latter because it helps to sharpen my needlework skills for when I do embroidery. I also find it quite meditative, whereas the wailing of my sixty-year-old machine puts me on edge.  

Although basting everything made the toile look annoyingly clunky, it was the most practical solution, as I had to re-open and adjust seams throughout the process. I followed the instructions on the envelope and began with the bottom hem. I folded the hem over twice and clipped the curve on the innermost fold, but still found it difficult to sew in place without any puckers. A Complete Course in Dressmaking in Twelve Lessons, Lesson I advises that “hems, folds and linings are felled in place,”[6] and while felling certainly produced the most delicate effect, I found that a regular straight stitch best matched the look of the lap felled seams I would be using on the side and shoulder seams. I also determined that the usual doubled thread was too bulky for the lightweight cloth – I would only use a single thread.

I moved on to the side seams, which, as I said, I finished with a lap felled seam. This was a very important choice, as A Complete Course in Dressmaking instructs that “a lap felled seam always gives a tailored look to a garment. It is used in making men’s shirts, underwear and pajamas…”[7]

A lap felled seam is executed in the same way as a French seam, except it is made on the right side of the fabric, and the “flap” of bound edges is stitched down. The technique is more commonly called a flat felled seam in modern times, and is often used to make jeans. I used Sarah Kirsten’s blog post, “How to Sew a Flat Felled Seam and a Double Lapped Seam”[8] to visualise how to execute the technique. I also decided to change the seam allowance from the 0.95 cm (3/8”) advised on the envelope to 1.6 cm (5/8”) in order to give me ample room to “lap” the seam allowances.

Photo 7

Figure 9: A side seam sewn using a lap felled seam.

The finickiest part of the side seams turned out to be integrating them into the bottom hem. I had to lap the back piece of the undershirt over the front pieces and fold the hem in such a way as to smooth everything together. None of this is explained in the envelope instructions, although it turned out to be the same construction method used in some of my store-bought dress shirts, so I think it’s an acceptable solution. I also used a lap felled seam to sew the shoulders closed.

Figure 10: The bottom hem integrated into the side seam.

Figure 11: The same technique used on a modern dress shirt.

At this point, I tried on the toile. It was very important to wear my binder while testing for fit. The shirt was a bit baggy at the sides, so I decided to remove 3.8 cm (1½”) from each side seam. This meant that 1.9 cm (3/4”) would need to be taken from either side of the two seams, then lapped and sewn back in place. I also decided that my next toile would be 5 cm (2”) longer so the undershirt would fall a bit lower over my hips and better match the proportions in the envelope illustrations.

Photo 6

Figure 12: Testing the toile for fit.

I took in the sides of the undershirt, then went to sewing the neckline facing. The envelope provided absolutely no guidance on how to deal with this part, so I turned to A Guide to Facings by Christine Haynes.[9] Following her cues, I staystitched the neckline just inside the seam allowance, working from the shoulders inwards (I actually had to consult a separate article by Maris Olsen[10] because I had never staystitched before). I then joined the three facing pieces with a lap felled seam (just like the shoulder seams), and hemmed the bottom edge. I erroneously attempted to join the facing to the neckline using a lap felled seam, wanting all the raw edges to be safely enfolded, but the result was chunky and unattractive, especially given the semi-transparency of the cloth. This technique also prevented me from understitching the facing, which would’ve kept it from peeking out at the neckline. For the next toile, I’ll just sew a regular seam.

Figure 13: Pinning the neckline facing in place.

Figure 14: The wonky-looking neckline facing.

Next were the armscyes. I folded the raw edge over twice, clipping the innermost fold. This was a dream to hem, and was actually the easiest part of the whole garment.

I tried on the toile for a second time to figure out how to finish the front. After much fenagling, I realised that the angle at which I’d cut the bit of fabric between the shirt placket and the bottom hem prevented the two areas from nicely transitioning into each other. I would have to keep a sharp eye on this when making the second toile.

Figure 15: A finished armscye.

Figure 16: Trying on the toile to figure out the front closure.

Photo 11

Figure 17: The gap between the placket and the bottom hem.

In the meantime, I finished off the ugly placket as best I could, deciding it would need to be modified to be as wide as the neckline facing on the next toile in order to match the envelope illustrations. I simply folded under the raw edge of the placket and stitched it into place.

All that was left now were the buttons and buttonholes. The New Dressmaker specifically notes that barred buttonholes are used for underwear.[11] The cut hole is first “stranded” to prevent stretching by working one large stitch on either side of the slash. The raw edges are then overcast to prevent fraying. A buttonhole stitch is worked up one side, then a bar tack is made, which in turn is reinforced with more buttonhole stitches. The other side of the hole is worked in the same way. The book provides excellent diagrams on how to do this [Figure 18], although I had to consult the video Buttonhole Bar by Ruth Stitchery to figure out how the bars were made.[12] In the end, though, despite all this instruction, my buttonholes turned out quite ugly. I’ll need lots more practice before I make them on the finished undershirt.

Figure 18: The Butterick Publishing Company, Buttonhole with Bar at Both Ends,  Illustration, The New Dressmaker, 1921, 112, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/newdressmakerwit00butt/page/112/mode/2up.

Figure 19: My ugly barred buttonhole.

With that, my somewhat rough-and-tumble undershirt toile was complete! It was time to take everything I’d learned and translate it into a second toile.

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Figure 20: The finished first toile.

Bibliography

[1] Mary Brooks Picken, Tailored Buttonholes and Buttons (Scranton, PA: Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, 1923), 242, https://archive.org/details/pickentailoredbuttonholes1923/mode/2up.

[2] Melissa Mora, “What is Fabric Grain – Understanding Grainline,” Melly Sews (blog), September 24, 2018, https://mellysews.com/what-is-fabric-grain-understanding-grainline/.

[3] The Butterick Publishing Company, The New Dressmaker (New York: The Butterick Publishing Company, 1921), 8, https://archive.org/details/newdressmakerwit00butt/mode/2up.

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Erin Weisbart, “How to Make and Use Tailor’s Tacks,” Tuesday Stitches (blog), January 26, 2017, https://tuesdaystitches.com/make-use-tailors-tacks/.

[6] Isabel de Nyse Conover, A Complete Course in Dressmaking in Twelve Lessons, Lesson I (New York: E.J. Clode, 1922), 93,

https://archive.org/details/completecoursein01cono/mode/2up.

[7] Ibid., 104.

[8] Sarah Kirsten, “How to Sew a Flat Felled Seam and a Double Lapped Seam,” Sarah Kirsten (blog), February 13, 2019, https://sarkirsten.com/blog/2019/2/13/how-to-sew-a-flat-felled-seam-and-a-double-lapped-seam.

[9] Christine Haynes, “A Guide to Facings,” Seamwork, Colette Media LLC, accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.seamwork.com/issues/2016/03/a-guide-to-bias-binding-and-facings.

[10] Maris Olsen, “Why Staystitching is Soooo Important,” Blurprint, Sympoz, LLC, accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.mybluprint.com/article/why-staystitching-is-soooo-important.

[11] The Butterick Publishing Company, The New Dressmaker, 112.

[12] Ruth’s Stitchery, “Buttonhole Bar,” YouTube, May 18, 2017, video, 2:10, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi0wdyyDXJg.

 

Image Bibliography

Figure 1: Underpants. 1920-1940. Textile. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London.             http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O366219/underpants-unknown/.

Figure 18: The Butterick Publishing Company. Buttonhole with Bar at Both Ends. Illustration. The New Dressmaker, 1921. 112. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/newdressmakerwit00butt/page/112/mode/2up.n

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