Monday, November 30, 2015

Late Sixteenth Century / Early Seventeenth-Century Smock from the Tudor Tailor

For my PhD I've been given funding to reconstruct as historically as possible some of the garments that my research examines, namely, bodies and farthingales (I'm documenting this process on my separate academic blog). Of course in order to show my reconstructions to an audience during a presentation, or even when I'm using them to experiment with movement and size, I'll require a model; and in order for my model to be 'decent' in front of a number of other people she requires a smock underneath!

The Sixteenth Century Smock - An Overview. 

Smocks were the most basic undergarment of all women and men in sixteenth century Europe, and indeed had been so for hundreds of years and would remain so, in one form or another, until the twentieth century. They were made from linen and sat closest to the historical body, were worn underneath every type of clothing, and as a result even the poorest person often owned many smocks.

Throughout the sixteenth century various styles of smocks and shifts developed - from those that were intricately embroidered such as the smock dating to 1615 from the Victoria and Albert Museum below, to those that had elaborate frills around the cuffs and neckline. Interestingly, it was these frills that would eventually turn into a separate accessory in the second half of the sixteenth century - the ruff.

Women's Smock of Linen, linen thread, silk thread; hand-woven, hand-sewn, hand-embroidered, hand-made bobbin lace.England c. 1615-1630. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Smocks and shirts served two main purposes during the sixteenth century. During the early modern period outer garments, especially those made from luxurious fabrics such as silks and velvets, were rarely laundered in order to maintain their condition. It was the smock then that absorbed sweat and other body excretions, and it was this item that was regularly cleaned and laundered instead. Medical theory during this period also viewed the skin as porous and weak and the hot water from public baths or full immersion bathing was believed to create openings for disease such as plague to slip through.  Linen, as a porous fabric, therefore replaced the role of skin in bathing practices, as it was believed to absorb dangerous matter that could then be laundered and removed away from the body.   Thus, instead of cleaning the skin one would simply remove and clean their ‘second skin’ – their smock.

I didn't want to spend a lot of time of my smock, and there was no need for it to be hand sewn, as it's not one of the actual reconstructions that I'm supposed to be doing. So that lovely nineteenth-century invention came in handy: my sewing machine!

The pattern I used for the smock came from Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies wonderful book, The Tudor Tailor. The book provides patterns for two types of women's smocks, and five types of men's shirts. I decided that in order to get the most use of of my smock that I would make option g) a "smock with simple hemmed neck and sleeve." So no fancy period specific neck or wrist cuff, or embroidery.

All smocks during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century were basically the same, they were made from a collection of basic geometric shapes: rectangles, squares and triangles. Although regional differences could exist. The necklines of English and French style smocks such as the styles in the Tudor Tailor differed quite a lot from those of Italian style smocks during this period due to different countries styles, as is evident in the picture below:

Women's Chemise of white linen embroidered with lavender floss silk and gold thread.
Venice, late sixteenth century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Construction of my Sixteenth Century Smock

Because the basic shape of the smock contains no curved lines, the pattern was easy to scale up onto my chosen pattern paper (which is actually the inexpensive baking/parchment paper from the baking aisle).  I used a lightweight white linen that I bought a few years ago when I was travelling in Vietnam. It's probably not the most accurate type of linen used in smock and shirt making, I feel that it is maybe a bit too see through, but it does the job.

The smock was easy to put together and as I was already sewing it with a sewing machine, I decided not to use period specific construction techniques in regards to hemming and seams (as it would take too long) - so I just did those the same way I would do on a modern garment I was constructing. I've worked out that my favourite way to finish a seam, as I don't own an overlocker, is to leave a large allowance, trim one side down, fold the other side twice and then sew together to hide both raw edges. It ends up looking a little like a french seam.

The only difficult part of this smock were putting together the gussets in the underarm area.


I had to read the Tudor Tailor's instructions about ten times before I attempted them but I'm happy with how they eventually turned out. Then all I did was hem the bottom, the neckline and the arm cuffs and that's it!

Plain neckline

Unfortunately I don't have any photos wearing it yet, but when I finish my sixteenth century bodies I'll make sure to take one!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing!