Civilian Women’s Basics

B1977.14.5132

Paul Sandby (~1759). Two Women Holding a Basket. Yale Center for British Art, Accession Number B1977.14.5132.

A basic kit for an 18th Century woman is surprisingly easy to create. If you are in the market for your first set of clothes, the cheapest and most authentic way of going about this is to make your own.

Before you do so, set aside everything you think you may know about sewing.

If you are inexperienced understand that you CAN use very simple stitches to hand sew these garments. There is no need to learn to use a sewing machine; in fact it is discouraged that you try. Also, these garments (with the exception of the cap) are made entirely of squares and triangles! All you have to do is know approximately how large to make the pieces based on YOUR body. The bedgown as an outergarment was chosen as our recommended basic garment not only because it’s authentic but because it’s ok if it’s a little large! Although it technically should be worn over stays, a bedgown is forgiving if you do not own stays yet, even for larger women.

If you are an experienced seamstress, the best thing you can do for yourself is first understand that modern techniques and methods will make it HARDER to create proper 18th century clothing. So set aside your modern thought and assumptions and don’t assume that you know better than the directions. Really READ the instructions provided to you.

Note: If you are starting out and it’s coming on winter, you may want to make your bedgown out of wool or if you choose to make your bedgown out of linen, make a second one out of wool to allow for layering. Wool is expensive but worth it. Some of the best wool can be found at Wm. Booth Draper. Stick with the flannel, worsted, and silk/wool blends and you should be ok. A wool broadcloth cloak is another option but I have left that out of these directions. They are not very difficult to make, however they are also not as simple as the garments below.

Here’s what you need to make:

Shift, Bedgown, Petticoat (or 2), Apron, Cap, and Handkerchief

Here’s what you need to buy:

Cotton, Linen, or Wool plain color stockings, black or brown laced leather shoes, a low crowned straw hat (optional but keeps the sun off your face quite nicely. Choose the natural color rather than the black.), pins for closing bedgown 

Here’s what you need for fabric:

  • Shift: 3 yards of IL020 Bleached White Linen
  • Petticoat: 3 yards of IL019 All Purpose Linen of various colors. Avoid very bright modern looking colors. When in doubt stick with shades of blue, brown, and golden-yellow. If you want some color suggestions feel free to ask.
  • Bedgown: 2 yards of IL019 All Purpose Linen. Petticoat color suggestions apply.
  • Apron: 1 yard of IL019 All Purpose Linen. Recommend a natural colored fabric or a blue checked pattern.
  • Cap: About 0.5 yards of IL020 Bleached White Linen although you may be able to piece it out of remnants of your shift fabric.
  • Handkerchief: 1 yard of IL020 Light Weight Linen in either white or appropriate color OR a handkerchief from Burnley and Trowbridge.
  • Twill Tape. This should technically be linen; however linen tape can be expensive if you use a lot of it. Therefore cotton is perfectly acceptable. Tape should be either 1″ or 3/4″ wide. Linen can be found by the yard or in 10 yard rolls. Cotton tape can be found in 10 yard rolls, in 72 yard rolls, or in 100 yard rolls. For one petticoat you will need approximately 3 times the circumference of your waist plus 20 inches.
  • Silk Ribbon (If you have a hat): Silk ribbon  (24mm) is best for tying your hat. Hat’s tie in the back of your head and the ribbon is sewn to the INSIDE of the crown. If you want to decorate your hat a little, I recommend using the 15mm version of the same ribbon.

 What patterns should you use?

There are a lot of patterns available to reenactors but the “patterns” here are freely available on the internet and are authentic to boot! Remember how I said that the garments were almost entirely made of squares and triangles? Well that’s why these patterns work. All you need is a picture to show what the garment pieces look like, directions for putting them together, a tape measure, and your body.

  • Shift: Sharon Burnston: Shifts
  • Petticoat: Koshka-the-Cat: 18th C Petticoats (yours will not be worn over hoops so you can eliminate that portion of the instructions) also Rebecca and Ashley: 18th C Petticoats
  • Bedgown: La Couturiere Parisienne: Bedgowns. Even though this pattern is technically French, it is acceptable for the First Virginia. If this looks too complicated I recommend purchasing the 1770s English Bedgown Pattern from At the Sign of the Golden Scissors. The English pattern is slightly different than the French and more appropriate for our portrayal.
  • Apron: This one’s easy! Take an entire yard of fabric. Hem one non-selvage side. Pleat the other non-selvage side as you would the front panel of a petticoat, only use 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 your waist plus 10-15 inches. Aprons are tied by wrapping the tape around your waist and tying in the front. Aprons worn by English and American adult women did not have a bib.
  • 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 our wear. A note about the Sue Felshin instructions: do not line your cap band! She suggests you do this purely for easier sewing. It isn’t authentic.
  • Handkerchief: A handkerchief is merely a hemmed piece of linen approximately 34 inches square. You could also make a hemmed triangle of the corresponding dimensions.

I can’t stress enough, if you have ANY questions at all please ask! If you do not have my direct email, use the “Contact Us!” tab on this website. If I don’t know the answer I can at the very least point you in the right direction.