This post is the third in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.
If there’s one thing my explorations into historical costuming have taught me, it’s that the foundation garments are crucial to creating a authentic silhouette. This doesn’t just mean getting the correct style of corset or structural garments – every layer of the undergarments has to be just right. Coincidentally, the foundation layer of the outfit is usually the easiest to make. For both these reasons, it seemed sensible to start my 1910s costume with the making of my combinations.
Combinations emerged in the late nineteenth century from the literal ‘combining’ of the chemise (or camisole) and drawers worn in previous decades. These garments were worn between the corset and the skin to protect the former from sweat and the latter from the stiff boning of the corset. Hollywood has been lying to you – as long as corsets and stays have been a thing, some sort of loose garment has been worn underneath it.
The pattern I chose for my combinations is the Wearing History Circa 1917 Combination Underwear & Chemise Pattern. I chose view C – it’s straight neckline and waist ties reminded me of contemporary images I had found in my research. I decided to make my combinations with white cotton and embellish it with royal blue ribbon and lace. The lace and ribbon I chose definitely lose me some historical accuracy points as they are made from synthetic fibres. However, as this is my first project, I didn’t want to spend a fortune on period appropriate lace in case it ended up being a total disaster! I had also never used lace on a project before so this was an adventure all of its own.
Before I rushed into sewing, I made sure my tension and stitch lengths were correct using some scrap fabric – there are no gauges for these like on a modern machine so it required some trial and error. I also consulted the chapter on ‘making and finishing undergarments’ in The Dressmaker before getting started and learned that it would be appropriate for me to finish the machine seams of my combinations with french seams (pp. 44-45). I used cotton thread instead of polyester in a small attempt to be more historically accurate – I figured that this was the thread the Singer was designed to be used with. I really enjoyed sewing on the 1907 machine – the gentle ticking is a refreshing change from the more aggressive electric machine and the quality of the stitching is beautiful. It was almost a shame that sewing the combinations only required three seams to be sewn on the machine.
Making the combinations was a fantastic opportunity for me to improve my hand stitching as the only seams sewn on the machine are the side seams, centre back and centre back box pleat. The long stretches of hemming meant that I had plenty of time to get used to wearing a thimble and now I don’t know how I sewed without one. I also taught myself how to sew an arrowhead at the centre of the box pleat using instructions from the The Dressmaker (pp. 22-23) but this ended up being covered by eyelet lace later on.
I wasn’t sure how to attach the lace to the combinations so I consulted a few sources. There were instructions and diagrams in The Dressmaker (pp. 10-11) but I couldn’t quite figure them out so I went back to Bernadette Banner’s video where she makes 1890s combinations. She used the same method and it was very helpful to see a practical demonstration. The first lace I tackled was the eyelet lace at the top of the combinations. First, I used a simple felling stitch to finish the edge (my thimble and I became best friends during this process), then I basted on the lace at the top and bottom edge and laced through the ribbon.
I used the same method to attach the lace to the bottom of the combinations but I drew a straight line across the flap at the bottom as a guide for where to place the lace, continuing the hem from the front so that it would create a skirt effect.
To make the waist tie, I simply basted on the lace and threaded through the ribbon. If I were making these again, I would add approximately an inch to the bodice part of the combinations as I ended up lowering the waistline from its suggested place. When looking at the corset cover instructions there is a note that garments from the 1910s tended to be shorter-waisted so I will keep that in mind when fitting future pieces for this project. If you are making this version of the combinations using the Wearing History pattern I would suggest buying an extra 1.5m of the eyelet lace and ribbon as I ran out before I got to the waist tie!
When attaching the straps (which I sewed on using a few rows of running stitch) and the lace at the bottom edge, I referred back to images I had found to make sure I was keeping with the contemporary silhouette. Combinations with straps from the late 1910s tended to sit low on the bust and be any length from mid thigh to knee.
Another skill I taught myself whilst making these combinations was how to make buttonholes. The instructions in The Dressmaker were very clear (pp. 12-14) and I’m pretty proud of the buttonholes I managed to produce given that it was my first try. They are a little big so I may shorten them if I find they don’t hold the buttons. I finished off my combinations with some pretty historically-inaccurate plastic buttons but I already had them in my collection and I figured using things I already had is in keeping with a 1910s mentality.
Overall I am absolutely delighted with how these turned out. I am hugely proud of myself that I managed to produce a garment mostly by hand and that the other part was sewn on a 113 year-old machine! The combinations were also really easy to make – I finished them within three days! I love my choices of the blue ribbon and the lace. Even though they aren’t historically accurate, they get the point across – not to mention that they’re beautiful. These are the perfect foundation garment for my 1910s costume. The next step is the corset – something tells me it might be a tad more challenging…