The Kohler Chemise (or, Because I need more Mediaeval underwear…)

I’m on vacation! Ten glorious days away from BOTH jobs—ten days that are already shaping up to be way busier than I would ever have wanted—but anyway. One of my goals was to take the kids to my mom’s family farm.

One of the things I like doing down there is hand-sewing. It lets me scratch the creative itch while still socializing with the relatives. But my ongoing project (sewing miles of trim on a Victorian skirt) is a bit bulky. So, I wanted something else. And, because I’m on a linen tear, I wanted to make a stab at a simple Mediaeval chemise (or shift, if you prefer.)

The Karl Kohler chemise, in fact.

Anyway, using a particular historical item as the basis for what you want to create is great because it cuts down a LOT of the uncertainty. But not all of it, nor does it stop you screwing up. 😉

Anyway, I first ran across the rather grainy images above on Pinterest; they derive from this site, which identified the source of the image and said the shift was from the 14th century. (1300s)

Some more digging turned up a study on 14th century shifts that by Barefoot Sewing included a version of this same shift. It looks as if Reconstructing History has a pattern for it as well.

The most complete info I could find about it, though, comes from Medieval Baltic. This little PDF digs into the history of the image and the find a bit more, and has what seem to be pretty good citations although as I don’t read German I can’t confirm that. Anyway, according to her translation:

 “It was made from very coarse linen and the doubled-seams are sewn together with thick stitches. There is evidence the bottom of the shirt of inserted wedges on both sides – so-called ‘Spiele’[lit. games?]. It is 68 cm long and, between the shoulders, 29 cm wide. Of interest are the narrow shoulder-straps.”

She also says:

Qaantz (1907; 188) then goes on to describe the chemise, as being made from very coarse linen, hemmed by folding over the edge of the fabric twice, and sewn together with “thick” stitches. At the bottom of the shift, there is evidence for wedges being inserted on both sides – ie. gores. He then goes on to give it’s measurements as 68 cm long, and 29 cm wide at the shoulders.

Now, based on the translated quote I was inclined to think “double seams” refers to felled seams (typical for finishing chemises in the much later periods with which I am more acquainted) but her description seems to be talking about the hemming of the garment. I can’t comment, again, as to which is correct—I did both.

Unfortunately, I found this great PDF after I had already made my pattern and disregarded the alleged gores since you basically can’t see them at all in the photo. Ah, well.



Wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen.

I did not use the commercial pattern above; I opened the diagram picture up in Inkscape, resized it to match the scale, and then traced over the lines to make a digital half-pattern. Some flipping determined that yes, indeed, the diagram suggested the same piece would work for front and back. I did a tiny bit more tweaking, widening the whole (based on the diagram scale the bust only looks about 32″, and I needed at least a couple more than that.) but otherwise didn’t change anything.

Mediaeval shift pattern from diagram

Click the link above to see a non-tiled PDF (Adobe reader is pretty good at printing tiled versions these days, though.) There are no markings and no seam allowances, and I’m pretty sure there are some issues with the diagram anyway, so use at your own risk. The finished bust is about 34″ on my version.

From the word descriptions and the gores on the diagram, if I were to draft this up again I would probably make the main fabric a rectangle about 16-17″ wide (note—this is wider than the 29cm at the shoulder the text describes. That measurement doesn’t really make sense looking at the diagram, but there’s no scale on the photo and I’m not sure how the measurement was taken) and add the gores at the centre front and back. (Though the text seems to indicate they should be at the sides.) the text also says the whole length should be about 70cm, while mine is more like 110 cm based on the diagram. And that’s not including the long straps. All things being equal, I suspect the diagram is more likely incorrect than the text, but anyway. I was working with the diagram first.

So here’s a couple more thoughts.

Those straps are whack.

DSC08569I mean, if they are made by just hemming the edges, that’s a method prone to stretching, and they do look stretched out in the picture to me. (Apparently it was found wrapped around a wooden plate, and I almost wonder if the straps had been stretched around the plate to secure it in place) anyway. WAY whack long.

I had to cut off about 3″ from each side to get it to KINDA sit right, but it’s still a little long (low under the arm). And wide. Again, I wonder if the original was stretched, and also how accurate the diagram was. Maybe this wide angle is an artifact of stretching exaggerated by the diagram. Super wide, and I don’t have narrow shoulders. I do have a slightly short torso, but we’re talking 1/2″ shorter, not 3″ shorter. And the scoop under the arm is still rather uncomfortably low. If I had kept the full strap length, my boobs would fall out the side. Even looking at the photo, the straps would easily go wider than the chest circumference.

Oh, my version has a back seam. Pure fabric conservation. I took it in a bit to reduce some of the crazy folding my swayback was generating.

DSC08573Anyway, fun experiment, and successfully completed in about a day and a half of lackadaisical hand-stitching. People who make historical costumes seem to be fond of grading themselves on their accuracy, but I’m never clear on how you would do this. So what do you think? Fabric is reasonable but not accurate—linen-cotton blend, not pure linen; thread is cotton. Completely hand-stitched, possibly with period techniques although I haven’t done extensive research into mediaeval hand-stitching (they would work for the Victorian stuff I have read, except that my stitch lengths are way huge by those standards. On the other hand the original apparently had “thick stitches” so I’m not too fussed.) I feel like overall that’s pretty good, except for the weirdness of the pattern.

Also, is it weird that I love flat felling as a hand-stitch finish, but I hate doing it by machine? I really hate it by machine. But I kinda just want to sit and pet those hand-felled seams.



Filed under Sewing

13 responses to “The Kohler Chemise (or, Because I need more Mediaeval underwear…)

  1. Molly Nichol

    i love hand-finishing a flat-felled seam too! also hand-finishing a quilt binding, and even stranger….hand-quilting!

  2. Jeff Laskowski

    I am very impressed and happy to see someone get so much enjoyment working with their hands. I look forward to your posts every week and they are always interesting. Keep up the sewing and blogging!

  3. ellegeemakes

    I love hand sewing when I have the time to really do it right. If I don’t, it frustrates me. I love your attention to detail!

  4. sewitorthrowit

    This is really pretty. How do you plan on wearing it? Like a sundress, or more of a lounge-at-home kind of thing?

    • If it does get worn (other than as a costume piece, assuming I come up with an excuse to wear a mediaeval costume) it will be as a lounge-at-home kind of thing. Although I think I might shorten it if I want to actually wear it—the length is a bit awkward for my personal tastes. 🙂

  5. That’s a pretty cool shift, “pattern” issues and all 🙂 I head tilted a little at the straps in the diagram, they are weird. But the whole off the shoulder thing looks great! Every summer I fall in love with linen again.

    • I fear I am blowing through my linen at an alarming pace this summer! 😉 Although that’s better than it sitting in stash, I suppose.

      They are weird straps—something is going on. Sadly the original seems to be lost now, so I’m not sure we’ll ever know what. 🙂 Ah, well, it keeps life interesting. 😉

  6. weeza

    My years-ago German suggests to me that Spiele might mean ‘play’, as in ‘a bit of wiggle room’? But that does sound like a very short word for German 😉

  7. Abbey sews

    Hi, am just catching up- this was a very interesting post esp with your historical references (not my period). I took a look at them and noticed two things I wanted to mention. The original source to which you refer mentions that the straps are sewn not cut on. Also, there seems to be a translation error somewhere in the various sources, because one of the sources refers to the seaming (being turned under twice) as thick, rather than the stitches. Really enjoyed this post and rather a nice shift 🙂


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