I don’t know about you but I want to be comfortable when wearing my historical clothing. Right? And it all starts with what kind of fabric you have closest to your skin.
Whenever beginning a wardrobe for a new time period, or even if you are just starting to make historical costumes, having a comfy set of undergarments is significant for a good foundation. They protect the main garments from body oils as well as keep the skin cool or warm (depending on season).
Think of what you wear under your everyday modern clothes. The idea of bras and panties isn’t new. However, our modern fabrics of Lycra, spandex, and nylon are not what our Victorian ancestors used for their most intimate wear.
Yeah… I would rather have a soft fabric against the skin than some horrible man-made chemical crap. (sorry)
In the 19th Century women wore a chemise (still called a shift in the first decade or so) which is like a long nightdress. Underpants called drawers (NOT bloomers or pantalets – those are different garments) were created from two fabric tubes tied at the waist. They began this way in the 1820s but as the years passed they became much more comfortable.
Both chemise and drawers were made from cotton or linen textiles. Silk, although worn, is not as breathable for undergarments, i.e. it makes you hot. Wool, a versatile fabric, could be used but was not as common in later Victorian years.
General Tips to Remember:
- Go for cottons for ease in both buying and sewing
- Select soft fabrics
- Pre-wash before cutting – two or three times if needed
- Stick with 100% cotton or linen, or cotton/linen blends
- It’s real easy to buy fabric that’s too heavy; keep to lightweight materials
Fabric Suggestions for Undergarments:
Muslin – good starter fabric but be sure to feel the piece before buying. Muslin (known as calico in the UK) is produced rather quickly as a cheap textile. You’ll find the hand (feel) is different on bolts sitting right next to each other in the store. Select the lightest weight you can.
Broadcloth – watch out for poly/cotton blends! They are everywhere and do not deserve to be used for a precious chemise or drawers. One hundred percent cotton broadcloth can be heavy so make sure you can feel the material before purchasing. A wool broadcloth is too heavy – keep that for a petticoat.
Batiste – perfect for undergarments. It can have a slight sheen to it but is thin and opaque – a good choice.
Voile – very sheer cotton that will work well for late Victorian and Edwardian chemise & drawers. Early 19th C. chemises should be made with thicker fabrics. Voile is simply too sheer.
Lawn fabrics are beautiful. Unfortunately for us they are mainly sold as prints today. However, I’ve seen solid colors at a couple online vendors. Lawn is a soft cotton between a voile and batiste that has a stiffer drape like a shirting but sheer. Although mainly used for dresses, the stiff hand shouldn’t be too detrimental to undergarments if you want to use it.
Shirtings – although cotton and can be used for undergarments, shirting fabrics work best for dresses and petticoats. Look for something else if you can.
Kona cottons and other quilting cotton solid basics – although 100% cotton, these textiles are rather heavy and don’t drape well for chemises. But quilting cottons will work for drawers.
Cotton or wool flannel is wonderful for drawers for cold weather if you need something heavy. I wouldn’t recommend flannel for a chemise as it’s just too heavy and with all the other dress layers is not necessary for the chemise. Be cautious though: wool drawers around the legs may be irritating.
Linen – I have fallen in love with my linen undergarments! It’s simply beautiful to wear, breathes well, and is opaque. Stick with a lightweight linen between 3 and 5 ounces.
Fabrics to avoid for undergarment use as they just don’t wear well:
Poplin, organdy, sateen, polished cottons, chintz, dotted Swiss, all-over eyelet (although can be used for trim).
For colors, stick to white and off-white for historical accuracy. Undergarments were washed frequently and colors were costly and faded quickly.
Or be wild and make up unmentionables in black, red, striped or any color you want! 🙂
Now that you know which fabrics to look for when making a new set of undergarments, take a look at these vendors to purchase. And after you have fabric in hand, these patterns will get you off and running.
What has been your favorite fabric to make undergarments out of?