Children’s Basics

Portrait of Two Children, Boston, ca. 1760 attributed to Joseph Badger The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Accession Number 1957.100.15

Portrait of Two Children, Boston, ca. 1760
attributed to Joseph Badger
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Accession Number 1957.100.15

Before you start on a set of children’s clothes first understand one important thing: boys and girls both wore gowns! In the picture above, the child on the left is male. The child on the right is female. Little boys could wear front opening or back opening (lacing) gowns while girls’ gowns only laced up the back. For other examples of gowns for children see also Little girl’s walking dress 1770-1780 from the Museum of Costume and Lace (extant example) as well as The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly by Thomas Gainsborough from the National Gallery. Modern boys may not want to wear a gown very long, however it is highly recommended that you stick it out until they are out of diapers. A gown is more practical for changing diapers than breeches with their buttons. If you can convince your boy to stay in a gown until he is 5 or 6 years old, this is preferable for authenticity. A fantastic page to help with boys clothing can be found on Sharon Ann Burnston’s website. Girls should be in a child’s gown until 12 or 13 years of age. Also, see below for information about clothing for infants.

Here’s what you need to make:

A gown, a petticoat, a shift, an apron (children aprons may be bibbed), a cap (for the girls).

Here’s what you need to buy:

Cotton, Linen, or Wool plain color stockings (knee socks would work well for children) and black or brown laced shoes

Here’s what you need for fabric:

A note about fabric color: avoid modern colors. When in doubt shades of brown, golden-yellow, and blue are good.

The amount of fabric needed depends a little on what size your child is.

What patterns should you use?

  • Shift: Sharon Burnston: Shifts
  • Gown: There are two child gown patterns out there. The oldest and most established is the Mill Farm pattern that was originally created by Sharon Burnston. This pattern is perfectly acceptable, however I’m not convinced that it is accurate as it should be based on research that has been conducted since that pattern was made. A better pattern is the 18th Century Girl’s Gown created by Hallie Larkin and Stephanie Smith. This pattern is a workshop in a package and gives extensive and easy to follow instructions for hand sewing the gown as well as some machine tips for internal seams. The pattern also includes optional leading strings for the younger children. The end result is truly lovely. Either of these patterns will work for boys and girls.
  • Petticoat: Koshka-the-Cat: 18th Century Petticoats also Rebecca and Ashley: 18th Century petticoats
  • Apron: This one’s easy! Take a rectangle of fabric ~0.5-1 yard in size (depending on size of child). Hem sides and bottom. Pleat the other side as you would the front panel of a petticoat using small pleats about the width of a thumbnail. Attach to a piece of twill tape (as you would a petticoat) the length of which should be 2 times the circumference of the child’s waist plus 10-15 inches. Aprons are tied by wrapping the tape around your waist and tying in the front. Aprons can also have a bib that pins just below the neckline of the child’s gown. Use straight pins or safety pins pinned from the INSIDE of the gown.
  • Cap: Sue Felshin: Caps or if you want a paper pattern I recommend the Kannick’s Korner pattern “Women’s and Girl’s Caps 1740-1820, Everyday Headwear.” View A is appropriate for wear and the pattern includes a child’s size of this view. A note about the Sue Felshin instructions: Do not line the cap band! That has not been proven to be authentic.


Gerard Anne Edwards in His Cradle by William Hogarth (1733) Retrieved from WikiArt

Gerard Anne Edwards in His Cradle by William Hogarth (1733) Retrieved from WikiArt

If you have an infant you would like to bring to events with you, you can dress them properly as well! I can tell you that a properly dressed baby can steal the show. For fabulous information about infant clothes see How to Make a Basic Essential Layette for Eighteenth Century Reenactor Infants written by Sharon Burnston. Burnley and Trowbridge also carries a Mill Farm Infant Gown pattern that is quite good.