Project #1 - The Undershirt: Wow, I Hate This

May 15th, 2021

So… it’s been about three months since my last update. Have I made any progress? Haha, nope.

Allow me to regale you with a tale of my sewing ineptitude.

After finishing up the second toile, I was gung-ho to finally wrap up the undershirt. I set out to the thrift store, hoping to find a white cotton bedsheet. I’d decided I really couldn’t afford any fancy supplies. I figured I could muster through with bed linens and whatever thread was in my stash. I ended up visiting not one, but three thrift shops, without finding a single white sheet. I was flummoxed. White sheets seem like the most ubiquitous kind of sheet. I did, however, find a sheet in a dusty rose colour. The hue was shockingly close to the pink found in women’s underwear and slips from the 1920’s. I had a lightbulb moment. ‘How fabulous would it be,’ I mused, ‘if I made a men’s undershirt in a quintessential 1920’s women’s colour?’

I decided on the pink.

The thrifted cotton bedsheet, freshly laundered and ready to go.

Comparing the sheet against a 1920’s silk nightgown in a very similar colour.

Image 3

The new pattern adjustment.

Before cutting my fabric, I made some last-minute adjustments to the pattern. I’d been wearing my mock-up around the home, testing it for wearability, and noticed some minor gaping at the front when I pulled back my shoulders. I simply added an extra ¼” at the centre of each front piece, making sure to also adjust the facing pieces this time. I also sorted out the issue with the wonky centre placket. I scooted back the placket by ¼” so it would align with the bottom hem when finished. This was such a simple fix, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.

One side of the cotton had a slight sheen, and since it reminded me of the pink silk, I chose it for the outside of the garment, marking it as the “good side” with a handy bit of tape (not historically accurate, but I was leaving nothing to chance). All the sewing videos I’d been watching had finally clued me into the wonders of basting, and I happily basted my bottom hems instead of pinning them down, which meant my thread didn’t get snagged every five seconds. I also ditched my knots in favour of backstitching at the start of a new length of thread, and specifically sought out my quilting needle, which I’d seen recommended by Bernadette Banner for historical hand sewing. (Is it any surprise that I’m Costube trash? Last summer was awful, but at least I had weird sewing ladies to keep me company in my empty apartment.)

All seemed to be going well. However, when I rounded the tightest part of the curve on the bottom hem, my fabric simply wouldn’t fold over nicely. It was too bulky. I had to make two small folds on the curve to accommodate the bulk, and it still didn’t round out. I disliked the way it looked, but persevered. My optimism was instantly dashed when I moved to the side seams. I’d managed to smooth the seams into the bottom hem in my mock-ups, but I really wrestled with them this time. Although I eventually figure it out, I discovered a tutorial from Handmade by Carolyn on how to actually execute a lapped, flat-felled, split side seam.

I woefully threw down my undershirt. All that fuss had been for nothing, since I wasn’t even doing the sides properly. This is the most frustrating part of teaching myself to sew: I don’t even know what I don’t know. Issues will crop up, and I often don’t even have the vocabulary to Google them. The fabric was too bulky for the fine hemming, the sides were all wrong, and truth be told, the fabric was just too heavy for an undershirt.

One of the bulky corners of the bottom hem.

Underpants, 1920-1940, textile, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London,

I returned to my research for some clarity. But even my notes proved unhelpful. The New Dressmaker, which gives fabric suggestions, was published in 1921, and the fashions it describes belong more to the Edwardian period than what I was going for. In addition, it focuses on womenswear, so the suggestions wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for men’s underwear.  I haven’t yet found any photos of extant examples of 1920’s men’s undershirts, but since the undershirt and boxers are often made in a set, I figured the Victoria and Albert Museum’s pair of underpants might be helpful. This garment is made from lightweight linen, which is clear from the way the reinforcing fabric at the crotch is visible through the semi-sheer upper layer.

So lightweight linen was my best guess. But… linen ain’t cheap. Now that I knew there was no inexpensive way to make this thing properly, I determined I’d just have to bite the bullet. Fabric selections are severely limited in my city (and the pandemic doesn’t help), so I turned to ordering from Burnley & Trowbridge Company, a favourite in the historical costuming community. I’ve just ordered a sample pack of white linens, so hopefully, hopefully, I can actually get back to this project sometime this side of winter.

There are times I just… really hate sewing.