August 15, 2021
by Cynthia Anderson
This month Folkwear is featuring the 216 Schoolmistress Shirtwaist & Skirt Pattern. These garments date from around 1907, a time when women's clothing became more man-tailored which was a new and exciting twist in women's fashion.
In case you were wondering, a shirtwaist is a blouse. Shirt, but to the waist*. This type of fitted blouse appeared as early as 1890, making it one of the first fashions to originate in America. This humble beginning of men's tailoring being added to women's wear would launch an aesthetic that would make the careers of many modern designers to come.
The pieces featured in this pattern are both elegant and flattering, and deceptively easy to construct. The beautifully blended details of the blouse are varied on the front and the back, providing delightful surprises coming and going! The pattern allows for two front facings versions, one simple and one uniquely scalloped. Two sets of wide tucks extend over the shoulders framing the scalloped facing on the front and then converge in a lovely v-shape at the waist shaping tie detail, that finishes with a small gathered peplum on the back. The gored skirt included in the pattern is an elegant companion to the shirtwaist and it is worthy of more attention and will be featured in a separate blog post.
In this post I will focus on the making of the scalloped front facing of the shirtwaist. This detail is not hard to make and should not be missed! Once you give it a try you will not be able to resist adding this tailored touch to other worthy projects. Learning to make this unique detail is satisfying and enjoyable.
The turn of the century was a time of change for women and their clothes changed in tandem. As capitalism took hold in Western society, work shifted from family, home-based businesses to larger endeavors. Many women were working for pay outside the home for the very first time, and engaging in active sports like never before. Along with this new found sense of independence came the need for practical clothing that had long been the the privilege solely of men. The shirtwaist design allowed for practical mobility with tailored details adopted from men's clothing, while still retaining the feminine aesthetic.
This pattern was originally taken from a matched set made in white cotton with tiny squares woven with black thread. Using the same fabric for both a top and a bottom was popular during this time. This matching pairing was referred to as "shirtwaist suits." Unless a woman was wealthy, her wardrobe would have been limited to a few cherished pieces that were worn regularly. Making a shirtwaist and skirt out of the same fabric allowed for a coordinated look, while the separate pieces had the added benefit of practical interchangeability allowing for a more diverse wardrobe. This idea of how to build a wardrobe is one we still abide by today.
Originally the shirtwaist and skirt would have been made of cotton, linen, light weight wool, silks, taffeta, gingham, percale or organdy. Due to the tailoring details of this design, fabrics that will allow for crisp edges, while allowing for a soft drape are ideal. Look for fabrics that are fine, densely woven, and light to mid-weight. Cotton lawn, batiste, and shirting would be just as perfect now as they were at the turn of the century. Cotton flannel and light weight wool would be perfect for winter. For a dressier look silk would be amazing.
The details of this shirtwaist allow for a prefect opportunity to get creative. Cut the collar, facing, cuffs, and ties on the bias for a creative use of a fabric with a stripe or directional print. Mix solids, stripes, and prints in anyway that makes your heart sing. Even mix up the types of fabrics - just remember to make the fine details out of fabrics that will not try to unravel on you. And always launder different types of fabrics before combining them.
This shirtwaist is not difficult to make, but the goal of this blog is to give you some tips and techniques that will ensure you achieve the clean finish that the scalloped front focal point requires.
In this demonstration I am using cotton muslin with contrasting red thread to make the techniques easy to see. I am not constructing the entire blouse... just the front (View B) using the scalloped front facing on the right side only.
To make the scalloped front cut one single layer of fabric for each Front piece. Typically the front of a blouse is cut two pieces at the same time. But, this is where the pattern is a bit different and each side of the front is cut separately due to the scalloped edge of the right side. It will help to trace off a separate pattern pieces for the right side and the left side for this pattern since they are layered on top of each other. The left side is also wider than the right side as it creates its own facing.
I cut the LEFT side of the front first, with the pattern placed right side up on the right side of the fabric. For the RIGHT side I flipped the pattern over (writing side down), placing it on the right side of the fabric. This should result in mirroring Front A pieces as in the photo below.
The RIGHT side of Front A will receive the Front Facing C. Notice (as mentioned above) that the Left side is wider than the right side. This is because the Left side of Front A will fold under creating it's own built in facing. This facing goes together in nifty unexpected ways.
To reduce confusion I have labeled the right and left sides (as you wear them and according to the pattern pieces) with a bit of masking tape on the right sides of the fabric.
Working on LEFT Side of Front
As always, it is a good idea to staystitch any curve. Make a staystitch along the scalloped edge of the Left Front just within the 1/4 inch (6mm) seam allowance. This staystitch will not only provide stability to the edges, but will serve as a fast and easy guide for turning and pressing the edges under. The photo below shows the wrong side of the Left Front facing up.
Notice the drawn fold line (in the photo below) was also added to the wrong side. I will use it make a long basting stitch, to use as a folding guide and remove later. See the next photos.
Now, clip the inside of the curves to release the fabric so it will turn under smoothly. Trim the points so they will eventually be nice and crisp when turned. Notice how small the clips are in the photo below. The tighter a curve, the finer the clip should be. Remember clips are made to release the weave of the fabric so smooth curves can be achieved. If your final curve is not as smooth as you would like, simply go back and clip a bit more.
Press under the edges using the 1/4-inch (6mm) staystich as a guide. Since the turned under edge is small, use your fingers to help get the folds started and to crease the fabric before pressing. It is not necessary that your staystitch guide line be absolutely perfect. The idea is to give yourself enough of a guide to allow you to keep the curves smooth. Adjust the folding and pressing until you are satisfied with the results.
In the photo below the pressed curve is seen from the right side facing up. Even though this edge will be turned to the inside of the Shirtwaist front and will be hidden from view, it is nice to have it neat.
Using the straight basting stitch as a guide, fold the Left Front under to the inside. Pin and stitch close to the edge of the pressed scallop edges. Continue stitching along the straight portion to the bottom edge of the the shirtwaist as well.
Note that using shorter stitches when stitching curves is beneficial, because the smaller stitches are easier to control, they make a sturdier and more stable stitch line and hold, and generally look nice and neat.
When stitching the scallops, try to pivot at the tip of each point for a smooth finish. Small or short stitches will make this easier.
The photo below shows the stitching is visible on the right side of Left side of Front A for a beautiful finish. Even though this finish will not be seen from the outside of the garment, it is a delightful secret touch for the wearer!
Working on the RIGHT Side of Front
Now, orient the Front Facing C as shown below. Take notice that the points to the scallops face right, with the right side facing up. Staystich along the smooth scalloped curves on the left side of the Front Facing. Clip the curves as seen below and as indicated on the pattern. The idea is to clip up to the curve cleavage, staying inside the staystitch.
Reorient the facing again. Working with the WRONG side of Front Facing C facing up, use the staystitching as a folding guide, being sure to fold and press the edge towards the pointed edge of the scallops (similar to what we did with the left side front).
Pin and stitch RIGHT side of Front Facing to WRONG side of the Right Front, using a 1/4-inch (6mm) seam allowance (NOT the usual 1/2-inch seam allowance). You should be stitching the pointy edge of the scallop edge. Remember the facing will be turned to the right side of the Right Front... not the wrong side as you normally would.
Clip inside the curves and trim off the points as before. Be sure to carefully trim the points as seen in the third photo below. A clean and close trim will ensure the point turns cleanly, resulting in a sharp point.
Now this is the exciting part! Turn the facing to the outside (right side) of the Right Front. Working with the right side facing up, press the curved edges with a slight roll towards the inside of the garment. The idea is to roll the edge just enough that the stitched seam is not visible on the right side of the garment. Use your fingers to make a sharp tip on the points before pressing. Try to avoid any turning tools on the points because you are likely to stretch them in an unfortunate manner. If you made your curve clips small enough and point trims close to the stitching, then the crisp edge should easily be achieved. This is a craft detail that will make the shirtwaist scalloped front a delight to wear and behold!
One last bit of stitching to go. Pin the facing to securely hold it in place for stitching. You may or may not want to hand or machine baste the facing in place before making the final top-stitching. The final top-stitching serves as a construction element, holding the facing in place and it can also be a final decorative detail if you like.
Top-stitching is typically made with a longer stitch than a construction stitch. However, longer stitches can be tricky on curves and at pivoting points. Luckily, this final bit of stitching is done on the smooth side of the curve and points are not an issue. I recommend cutting a second Front Facing C piece out of the fabric you are using and experiment with the top-stitch length before attempting the final curves. This will enable you to gage the best stitching length. Once you have decided on your top-stitch length, consider whether you want your stitching to blend in with your fabric or stand out as a design detail.
Even though this demonstration was just made out of muslin, you can see how delightful the details are on the front of the Folkwear 216 Schoolmistress Shirtwaist and how a bit of top-stitching can make a project special. Don't forget about how good the buttons are going to look! Of course, if your stitching is especially fine, use hidden snaps to keep the front clean and simple.
Below are the final photos of the muslin demonstration. I hope this blog post will encourage you to try the scalloped front facing for this truly lovely shirtwaist blouse. If you like the front detailing... just have a look at the back. This is a special piece, so prepare yourself for all the compliments to come.
Purchase your pattern early so you will be ready to enjoy wearing the 216 Schoolmistress Shirtwaist come fall. Pair with your favorite jeans or make it's companion skirt. This shirtwaist blouse and its unique details will surly be a welcomed addition to anyone yearning for a touch of feminine romanticism when the temperatures turn cool and crisp... no mater whether you head back to school or just because.
Don't forget the 216 Schoolmistress Shirtwaist Pattern also comes with a beautifully constructed gored skirt. The skirt design is a perfect romantic companion piece to the shirtwaist and a must to make just because it is so versatile and stunning. In a separate post we will show you how to grade this gored skirt between sizes to help you achieve a perfect fit.
*We try not to get too intense on the interesting etymology of garment words but this is hard. Suffice to say that the word 'shirt' was once used for a garment that continued down below the waist. We would now use the word 'shift' or 'slip' or 'chemise' for this type of garment. Adding 'waist' to the word, 'shirtwaist', denoted a garment that ended at the waist. Shorter, waist-length 'shirts' are a relatively modern invention.
This is much like the word 'waistcoat' which we would now just call a 'vest'. It was the word 'coat' (coat/cloak) which was a long garment worn on the outer layer, with the word 'waist' to identify that you stopped the garment at the waist. We are not going to go on and on with the extra geeky-info that waist/vest are related words.