A 1910s costume, part 7: the blouse

This post is the seventh 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.

And so, four months into the 1910s project, I was finally done with underwear and ready to move on to the garments which will actually be visible in this outfit! The first garment I needed to make for this part of the project is a blouse. In the research phase of my project I very quickly settled on Wearing History’s Elsie Blouse, a restoration of an original 1910s pattern. I’ve seen loads of people use this pattern and it always looks fantastic. It has lovely details like the curved cuffs but also has a lot of scope for embellishment and adaptation.

I did have a look through the contemporary sewing books I’d found for advice as to construction but I didn’t find much of use. Most of the advice was about how to draft patterns and I had deliberately avoided major drafting for my first historical costume! However, I did come across a passage in Juditha Blackburn’s ‘The Home Dressmakers’ Guide’ which gave me an insight into expectations of dress in this time period. She explains, that when choosing a waist pattern, one must consider the design as ‘what will be beautiful on one will not become another’. She advises, for instance, that ‘the short stout woman should not wear trimming and yokes that will add to the breadth of her figure and the tall thin lady should avoid lines that contribute to her height’. These kinds of suggestions remind me of their modern equivalent – such as the avoidance of horizontal stripes. However, what I have also learnt about fashionable dress in this time period and those prior is that the fashionable silhouette was less about size but proportion. This ideal proportion was achieved not only through corsetry but through padding. This particular rabbit hole is fascinating but not for this blog post… back to the blouse.

I started off with a mock-up. The fabric I used for my mock up had a previous life as a valance on my parent’s bed and has been floating around in my stash for at least 5 years – I knew it would come in handy eventually. The mock up went together pretty easily – the instructions are pretty sparse, as is common with historical patterns, but I was able to follow Wearing History’s video tutorial and Bella Mae Design’s 1918 costume video for guidance. My mock up did throw up a few things which I needed to take note of. Firstly, my collar construction was pretty shabby, I decided when making the real thing I would take the extra time to put some gathering stitches into the neck edge so that I could ease in the collar then baste it in place. I also figured out that I need to gather the sleeve head between the notches near the base of the sleeve in order to ease it in fully – I experimented with close gathers at the top of the sleeve but I didn’t like how poofy this made the sleeve. Other minor changes included adding 2″ to the bottom of the shirt, slightly lengthening the sleeve, and changing the seam allowance on the armscye, the side seams and sleeve seam to 1.5cm. I only had enough fabric to make short sleeves for the mock-up so I measured the pattern piece to gauge any alterations I needed to make for the long sleeve version. The mock up looked really promising and I was super excited to get started on the real thing.

The pieces of my mock up.
A very promising mock up.

I chose a gorgeous light floaty cotton voile for my blouse and even splashed out on delicate cotton Nottingham point lace from Penelope Textiles on Etsy. As the lace on this garment would be seen I decided it was worth spending the extra money for something a little nicer than the polyester lace I had been using up to this point and honestly I have zero regrets. When cutting out my cotton, I made sure to add the extra length I needed to all my pieces and kept the grainline as straight as I possibly could while cutting out on my bedroom carpet (the cutting table of my dreams is going to have to wait for a while!).

I added the extra length using pencil.

Before I could put together the pieces of my blouse, I first had to insert my strips of lace. I decided where to place these by laying them over the pattern piece. I settled on two panels of lace on each side, one 6cm away from the centre front and another 6cm away from the first panel. I wanted the lace to be placed fairly close to the centre and I really like the proportion of my spacing.

Figuring out lace placement.

I used the instructions for inserting lace from Butterick’s ‘The Dressmaker’ and the method used by Bernadette Banner in her 1890s combinations video as a guide for how to insert my lace. First I used my machine and a tiny stitch length to sew the lace on top of the blouse fronts. Then I cut away the cotton from the back of lace insertion leaving 1cm of seam allowance which I could fell by hand; I was very careful when cutting away the cotton so I didn’t accidentally cut into the lace. I absolutely love the effect of the insertion lace, it’s beautiful and so delicate. Also, the see through lace is no problem because of the corset cover I’ll be wearing underneath!

Instructions on lace insertion from ‘The Dressmaker’
Teeny-tiny machine stitches.
Finishing the edges.

With the lace inserted, I could get on and start the actual construction of the blouse. After gathering the front shoulder to fit the back, I secured them together with a lot of pins and French seamed them together. I then went ahead and French seamed the side seams. French seams have been a mainstay of this project and the blouse was no exception.

Attaching the front and back shoulder seams.
The finished French-seamed shoulder seam.
Finished side and shoulder seams.
French-seamed side seams.

The next step in the making of the blouse was the placket which finished the slit in the bottom of the sleeve. I must confess that it took me reading the instructions several times and going away and thinking about it before I figured out what I was supposed to do. The breakthrough was realising that the notches on the placket corresponded to notches on the slit in the sleeve. This made me realise that I essentially had to treat the placket like a bias facing. Following this train of thought, I recut the placket on the bias so that it would have more stretch and also made the piece narrower by 1cm. This worked well but I also found that the placket was too short (almost certainly user error) so I cut another bias piece that was longer. After gathering the piece across the portion where it would have to curve around the opening in the sleeve, I sewed it down, folded it to the wrong side of the sleeve and felled it down. I got there in the end! Then – you guessed it – I French seamed the sleeve seam.

If you look very closely you can see the difference in grain between the bias (left) and straight-grain (right).
Matching the triangular notches to the pencil lines round the slit in the sleeve.
The placket folded back on itself.
Finished the sleeve seam.

Now I could move on to the cuffs. As I wasn’t using modern interfacing for this blouse (starch would’ve been used historically to stiffen cuffs and collars) I decided to double layer my cuffs and collar. This meant 8 cuff pieces and 4 collar pieces. This was such a good decision, its given these parts of the blouse more structure and more opacity – it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Constructing the cuffs was very straightforward. I faced the front and back of the cuff together, cut into the seam allowance over the curves and points and folded them right side out. Then I gather the bottom of the sleeve, pinned it into the cuff, felled the front and back of the cuff loosely to hold it into place and topstitched the cuff.

Double-layered cuff pieces.

As I had had issues with my tension throughout this project, I sewed some test zig zags on some of the scrap cotton to make sure the stitches didn’t pull over the points. I hadn’t had to contend with visible topstitching on this project up to this point and I wanted to make sure it looked good! Lucky for me it worked out just fine!

Test zig-zags.
Topstitched cuffs.

I probably over-engineered sewing my sleeves but it was worth the extra steps to get a perfect result first time round. First, I hand-sewed a line of gathering stitches between the notches. Then I pinned (with many pins) the sleeve into the armhole and basted the sleeve in place. Then I sewed the sleeve into the armhole using the machine. I set in one sleeve before trying the blouse on to make sure I was happy with how the blouse fit before sewing in the other one.

Setting in the sleeve.
Checking the sleeve was just right.

With the sleeves set in, I could move on to the lapels and collar. I finished the edge of the lapels with a felled double-folded hem before sewing them to the blouse right sides together. Then I pressed this seam open from the inside then flat on the outside so that the curves of the lapels would sit properly.

Felled the edges of the lapels.
Neatly pressed lapels.

Now on to the collar. As with the cuffs, I double-layered the collar and collar facing for more structure and opacity. Then I faced these together and turned it right side out.

In an attempt to attach the collar as perfectly as possible first time round, I first sewed a line of gathering stitches across the seam line of the neckband so that I could ease it into the collar. As you can see, the neckband is significantly curved and attaching it to the straight edge of the collar is pretty tricky. As I eased the neckband onto the edge of the collar, I secured it with plenty of pins then basted it in place. I finished off the lapels by folding them right sides together over the collar and sewing them down.

For my next trick I’ll attach this curve to a straight edge.
Finished the underlap and left with the raw edge of the collar.

Sewing the collar in this way left me with the raw edges of the collar left unfinished. In order to finish this seam, I followed Wearing History’s method from her video tutorial. I cut a length of cotton 35cm long and 4cm wide and pressed it to create double-fold tape. Ideally I would’ve cut this strip on the bias so that it would have a bit of stretch and curve more easily but I only had enough fabric to cut it on the straight grain – this didn’t make too much difference in the end. I felled one side of the double-fold tape onto the front of the raw seam and the other over the back to fully encase the seam. This left me with a nice neat edge and a complete perfect collar!

A nice neat edge.
Now it just needed topstitching.

Getting to the point at which I could sew the waist tape on to the blouse involved many steps which had to be executed in exactly the right order. At this point, I started to topstitch the lapel and collar (I decided it would look better if I did this topstitching in one continuous line rather than topstitching the collar and lapels separately) and got about a quarter of the way up before I realised that I had to finish the bottom of the lapel and hem the blouse first. So I undid my topstitching, folded the bottom of the lapel right sides together over the front of the blouse and sewed a line of stitching 2cm from the bottom. Then I hemmed the blouse with a double-fold hem, making sure to include the seam allowance under the bottom of the lapel. With this complete, I could return to topstitching.

Hemming the blouse – there’s a lot of it!
Topstitched edge.

The original instructions for the blouse indicate that you should gather the waist of the blouse to fit your waist measurement then secure it with a waist stay. However, I decided to follow the method used by Bella Mae Designs and make a drawstring waistband instead to give me adjustability. To create my waist tape, I cut a length of cotton about 4cm wide and the right length to fit the waist of the blouse, stopping before the crossover of the button closure, and pressed the edges to the middle of the tape. I had added extra length at the ends so that I could fold them underneath before topstitching the whole thing to the blouse. Then I simply threaded through my ribbon.

Attaching the waist tape.
Cinched in waist.

With only closures and some finishing left to do, I actually took a break on this project for a week so that I could fulfil a promise and make my Dad a shirt. When I came back to this blouse I knew I only had a couple of days work left to do.

I decided to use a different method for my hand-worked buttonholes than I had previously used. I had never really got on with the buttonhole method described in Butterick’s ‘The Dressmaker’, which used bar-tacks at the narrow ends of the buttonhole. This time, I decided to round the edges of my buttonholes, a method shown by Bernadette Banner in this video and similar to the tailor’s buttonhole described by the Butterick manual. I am so much happier with how these look and they were way easier to sew. I started with the cuffs and worked my way from the bottom to the top of the blouse in the hope that my neater buttonholes would the more visible ones on the front of the blouse.

Buttonholes with curved edges.

I placed the buttons on the front of my blouse in the same pattern shown on the illustration for the Elsie blouse, I really liked the spaced out pairs of buttons. ALIGNMENT – CENTRE FRONT As with my combinations and corset cover, I used these historically-inaccurate pearlised plastic buttons for my blouse. They look similar enough to contemporary buttons to not look anachronistic and better to use buttons I already have than buy new ones!

The very last step in making this blouse was encasing the raw edges of the armhole seam. I used exactly the same method as I used for the collar – felling a double-fold cotton tape over the seam to leave a nice neat edge. With the final stitch on the armhole, I was finished!

The binding.

It is no exaggeration to say that I am in love with this blouse. It turned out so well and I fully intend to wear it all the time. As the front pieces are so wide they create the perfect early 20th-century pigeon breast effect when gathered but I could also wear it less gathered if I was wearing the blouse with a modern outfit. There are so many beautiful details in this blouse – like the lace and the shaped cuffs – and I’m really glad I took my time on the construction and finishing as the overall effect is gorgeous. I really enjoyed using this pattern and I’ll definitely be making more of these. In the meantime, it’s time for a suit.

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