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Western European
- Underwear
- Shirts
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Eastern European:

- Shirts
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Ancillary Arts
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- Pouch Hinges, Part 1
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Demonstrations>Accessories:Western European>Shirts


In the beginning... there was this demo. And it was made from a hastily scrawled cartoon that I made up for a friend who wanted to make a shirt for a friend of hers. Now, this was way back in 1985 - very pre-Internet and quite before this site ever thought of existing. So... when another friend of mine bought me this domain in 1999 and I came up with the idea of creating The Renaissance Tailor web site, I was in desperate need of content because, you see, there was no content in the beginning. Just a few pictures of some of my existing stuff and that poor little shirt demo. I had to scan it into the computer - my ownership of a digital camera was several years into the future.

Alas, as a reader in Sweden pointed out, the demo was not historically accurate. But I left it on this site, through many iterations and redesigns of said site, because it was the first demo and I was kind of fond of it.

Well... that's enough of that.

The Quintessential Shirt

In other parts of this web site, I go on and on about Rectangular Construction. It is a technique that is still practiced today in some parts of the world. Rectangular Construction basically takes advantage of the 'rectangular' nature of fabric. Most, if not all, pattern pieces are rectangular in shape, there is minimal fitting, and very few scraps left.

One of the reasons why there is an effort to conserve fabric in the construction of underwear is that underwear wears out much faster than outerwear. Frequent laundering, proximity to the body, and other factors lead to this. So it is necessary that underwear construction take this into consideration. Secondly, underwear needs to be somewhat easy to make. Tailors, in period, did not make underwear. This job was relegated to the ladies of the house or the silk women and, as such, was considered beneath the Tailor's Guild. Lastly, when garments are made using Rectangular Construction, it's possible to cut the pieces out in such a way that one can take total advantage of even the smallest length of material. Piecing up and the use of several different cuts of similar fabric to make underwear is not unknown in extant garments.

All in all, Rectangular Construction is a very efficient use of fabric. It is also how garments were made prior to the late Renaissance. Underwear in the late Renaissance is constructed from this vestigial technique, even though the outer garments have morphed into more complicated shapes and fitting requirements.

The following demo is for a unisex shirt. To start, you will need to obtain the following measurements: Circumference of chest, waist, neck and wrists, length of front from collar bones to natural waist, side measurement (natural waist to pit of arm or where the person feels comfortable wearing their arm hole), width of shoulder (from shoulder point to shoulder point), width of one shoulder (from shoulder point to where the neck meets the shoulder), and length of arm from shoulder point to wrist (while the arm is bent).

After I take all of these measurements, I chart out a simple rectangular pattern on a piece of paper, similar to the diagram below. This is not the final pattern; just a diagram to get things straight.

Figuring Out the Pattern

After I chart out my diagram, I then turn to the fabric that I want to use and think about how 'roomy' I want to make the shirt. Generally speaking, late period shirts have a good bit of extra fabric in the body. In other words, the body piece, represented above as the larger rectangle, is usually made wider and the extra amount is then pleated into the collar. At the very least, the width of the body piece needs to accommodate the circumference of the chest and/or waist. There is also such a thing as Too Much Fabric (shocking but true). Don't cut the body piece out of two sixty inch wide lengths of fabric and then try to pleat that 120 inches into a 14 inch collar. You will drive yourself mad. As a rule of thumb, I generally add about six to ten inches to the width of the body piece. I've found that to be a good amount that gives room but doesn't cause problems during pleating.

In order to properly cut your body piece, cut out the fabric in the width and length that you need - you can either cut a front and back, which will need shoulder seams or you can cut out both back and front together so that the fold between is on the shoulder. The diagram below shows both methods:

Notice that the neck hole is huge! This is ok. The width of the top of the shoulder is what we are more concerned with. The shoulder seam will be the length of the single shoulder measurement we obtained when measuring. This is true for the folded method as well.

The large cut of the neck takes into account the larger width of the body piece if you've added extra for room. The neck hole will be pleated into a collar that is measured for the neck. Also, please note that the neck hole is cut off center from the top of the shoulder. The human neck is actually set forward on the shoulders. If you don't cut your neck hole in this fashion, your shirt will end up trying to choke you and be quite uncomfortable.

In order to find the length of the front slit, measure around the head of the person who will be wearing the shirt. Subtract the neck measurement from this and this will leave you with the minimum length of your front slit. This makes sure that the person can get the shirt on over their head with it is finished. As a general rule, I always add two inches to this measurement just to be safe.

Be sure to clip your neck slit facing seam so that the finish is flat and smooth.   Slit facing after ironing. For more info on how to do facing, click here.


Once I have the body piece cut to the measurements I want, I then face the slit. After the slit, if I have used the two piece method, I sew in my little triangular gussets to the shoulder seam of one of the pieces (either front or back) using either flat felling or french seaming. I then sew the remaining body piece onto the gusseted one. If you've used the folded method, you'll need to cut a slit in the fold at the top and insert these gussets by hand. I've done shirts both ways and I really rather prefer the two piece method just for this reason. The triangular neck gussests are important. They give easy at a very crucial point and help angle the shoulder seam so that it fits the actual shoulder better. I sew the shoulder seams together using a french seam (or flat felled seam - both are period). At this point I add any trim to the front, around the slit, cut out my collar, and then pleat the neck into the collar.

Side seam with neck gussets and slit facing cut and read to go.   Finished neck gusset.

Next, I cut out my sleeves. I add around two to three inches of length for the sleeve to give it some poofiness at the wrist. I measure around the bicep and add about two to four inches to that for poofiness around the arm. This gives me two smaller rectangles. I then take whatever scrap is left and cut out two fairly roomy squares for the under-sleeve gusset.

I then sew the squares to the sleeves, making sure to mirror them so that all seems will be matched at the end. I cut my wrist cuffs and pleat the sleeves into those. Then I mark out my center top of each sleeve, pin it to the center top of each of my shoulders, mark out where my waist to armpit measurement needs to be (find the natural waist on your body piece and measure up the side as far as the side length measurement (as obtained above) requires. You may want to lower this a bit for even more ease of motion. The sleeve gusset is ignored for this part; the sleeve is folded in half lengthways and attached symmetrically to the body piece - this means that the sleeve gusset, while attached to the body piece will hang down below the side measurement. That's ok.

Adding the square gussets to the sleeve pieces.   Pleating the sleeve into the side of the body piece.
The finished sleeve gusset after side seam is done.
For more info on how to make gussets, click here.

Lastly, I sew up the side seams. This takes a bit of fussing to get them to work around the sleeve gussets. This is one of those instances where we get to experience how the sewing machine has changed the way we sew. If you hand sew the side seam, it's much easier to fuss all of this together.

Last Things

At this point, we are ready to add buttons or ties and hem the shirt. If you want to embroider your shirt, proceed as far as the shoulder seams and then stop. This gives you a nice flat surface to mark and embroider.

Viola! A late period shirt. Happy costuming.

The front of the shirt, with button and trim.   The back of the shirt,showing the pleating.
A dashing young gentleman in his new shirt.


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