Tag Archives: cotton utility muslin

Glossary: Cotton Utility Muslin

The short-staple, coarse-textured cotton fabric of modern days bears little resemblance to the range of textiles historically referred to as muslin. In order to be clear, I try to be very specific when referring to any textile which might in one century or another be called muslin. When referring to the modern fabric, I will throughout this site say “white cotton utility muslin” or “unbleached cotton utility muslin.” When referring to the fine, long-staple, sheer or semi sheer fabrics that were historically referred to as muslin, I will try to be as clear as possible, and will usually use specific a modern term for the fabric as well.

For more information on historical muslins, see the entries for cotton voile or cotton batiste. For more information on cotton in general, see the entry Glossary: Cotton Fiber.

For information on mid-weight to slightly lighter weight plain-woven cotton fabrics, including modern utility muslin, see the entry on cotton broadcloth; see also cotton calico. Note that like the term “muslin,” the terms “broadcloth” and to a lesser degree “calico” also had different meanings in the past. Also, in the UK and Australia, “calico” is the term used for the utilitarian fabric known as “muslin” in the US.

Modern utility muslin, in the bleached white version, can be useful for making inexpensive underclothing for 19th century reproduction garments, especially since it is readily available in 36″ widths, which would have been a more common width for 19th century fabrics than the 44″ and 60″ widths commonly available in fabrics today.

Online Resources:

For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post like this one, which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.

Updated January 10, 2012

Glossary: Cotton Fiber

Cotton is a natural fiber which comes from a plant. Many different fabrics are made from cotton fiber, including voile, batiste, organdy, calico, sateen, flannel, jean, and a wide variety of other fabrics.

“Cotton is a vegetable seed fiber. Botanically, the fibers are the protective covering of the seeds in the cotton plant, a shrub that grows from four to six feet high. Dry cotton fiber is from 88 percent to 96 percent cellulosic.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 62)

“Under magnification, cotton (a staple fiber) appears like a twisted ribbon. This twist is what makes cotton easy to spin. Cotton is weaker than flax, but its ease of manufacture quickly overcame that deficiency. Cotton is absorbent and thus comfortable to wear in hot weather.” (Bassett, Textiles for Regency Clothing 1800-1850, page 14)

“Extremely versatile in weight, texture, and construction. Found in fabric such as organdy, broadcloth, poplin, terry, corduroy, seersucker, denim, tweed. Used widely for summer wear, work clothes, and in heavier weights, for warm transitional garments.” (Butterick, Vogue Sewing, page 50)

“Cotton is cool, washable, appropriate to nearly all [mid 19th century living history] impressions in some way, and comes in a wide variety of colors and well-researched prints. Cottons fade with laundering and sun exposure, and tend to wear out more quickly than other fibers. It’s an economical choice for everyday or ‘wash’ garments.” (Clark, The Dressmaker’s Guide, 2nd ed., page 54)

For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.

Glossary Entries for Cotton Fabrics:

Online Resources:

Print Resources: See the article Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials for a list of print resources.

Updated January 10, 2012

1860s tucked petticoat of white cotton

Garment

1860s yoked chemise of white cotton

Garment

1830s bodiced petticoat of white cotton

Garment

1830s tucked petticoat of white cotton

Unlike many of the overly ambitious plans around here, this project did actually make it to completion! But I haven’t written up my notes or taken pictures, so there’s no evidence of it. Eep! Soon…

Until then, this basically blank post shall continue to be sad.

1830s white cotton drawers with wide tucks

Garment

1830s rectangle-cut shift of white cotton

Inspiration: The basic shift in The Workwoman’s Guide and an early 19th century shift at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, accession number 99.664.51
Pattern: Drafted almost verbatim from the directions in the WWG in the largest size, but with slight alterations, to give it the right fit and proportions on my frame and to get it closer to the sleeve style of the MFA shift, which seems common, based on my research.
Fabric: 36″ wide white cotton utility muslin from JoAnn’s, cut narrower in order to follow the WWG drafting instructions as closely as possible
Thread: Plain cotton thread in white
Construction: Entirely hand-sewn
Seam finishes: Most seams have the seam allowances folded in against one another and overcast, but the two long side seams are finished with a run-and-fell seam.
Fun fact: When I finished sewing this, it was late at night…and I proceeded to put on my very comfy-looking shift and give it a test drive: I slept in it. It was indeed very comfy! And none of the seams bothered me at all.
Current Status: Finished! At some point, I may choose to add narrow sleeve ruffles like on the MFA inspiration shift and some others, but that’s just a possibility for the future. For the moment, it is DONE! Pictures soon.

I drafted this using the instructions in The Workwoman’s Guide, published 1838, for the “largest size” (of four), but I changed a couple of dimensions slightly in order to get the right fit and proportions on my frame, and to make it look like the inspiration shift in the MFA collection. As an exercise in taking the period approach, I kept all the measurements in nails rather than converting to similar measurements in inches. A nail is 2 ¼ inches; it’s also 1/16th of a yard.

I lengthened the front and back each 2 nails, or 4 ½ inches, (ergo, I lengthened the entire body piece by four nails), because the extant shifts I could find images of, and period illustrations of women with shifts on seemed to imply that shifts were quite long – at least mid-calf – in this period, and I’m quite tall for any time period, at 5’9″, and curvy, so that leads to additional take-up of length, especially under stays. Plus, I figured I could always cut off excess length or do a larger hem if needed, but it would be very unfortunate if my shift ended up too short.

I also changed the sleeve and sleeve gusset proportions slightly. I lengthened and widened the sleeve itself, to make it hit just above my elbow, and to make sure that there was some ease around my both-muscular-and-plump upper arms. I also made the gusset smaller, because none of the originals I could find images of seemed to have such large gussets and I didn’t need all that space. And, again, to make it look more like my inspiration image from the MFA, and other similar shifts that seem to represent common styles.

I’ll add more detail about the drafting and construction of this shift later, as well as images. For the moment, here are some resources…

A resource available both online and in print:

Also available, digitally and free of cost, via Google Books. The section on drafting this style of shift is on pages 46-47, with images on plate 6. Note that in the print version, that plate falls between the two text pages.

Print resources:

This book includes a slightly earlier shift, circa 1780-1810, that is quite similar in construction to many 1830s period shifts. The book includes written details about the shift as well as photographs, schematic drawings, and a pattern diagram. It was a helpful reference for figuring out what the WWG was referring to, and guessing how to go about construction.

There is a photograph of an extant chemise, circa 1825, with a ruffled neck edge, on page 129. This may be the same chemise shown on a model in Fabric of Society, because the same bodiced petticoat is in the photograph with this shift.

Extant garments on mannequins: a “chemise” dated 1820s can be seen on a mannequin who is also wearing stays and drawers, with puffed sleeves and ruffles around the neckline and sleeve bands, which reaches just below the knee on the mannequin, on page 200; on another mannequin, peeking out from under a “corset,” sleeve puffs, and corded petticoat, all dated 1830s, another “chemise” can be just seen, with a ruffle at the neckline and straight, slim sleeves that probably reach to just above the elbow and are finished with ruffles, on page 201.

There is some information about shifts of a similar but different style on pages 369 and 370. Additionally, the information on different “Common Stitches and Seams” was quite helpful, see pages 305-314.

An 1835 shift with a different type of construction is depicted on pages 12-13, with text, line drawings, and a detail photograph. The same shift is depicted, on a mannequin with other garments, in Four Hundred Years of Fashion, and can also be viewed on the V&A website.

Image 75, a photograph of a mannequin in 1830s underclothing, on page 35, with further information on page 143 about each individual garment: shift, circa 1835 (T.386-1960); drawers, circa 1834 (T.102-1931); corset, circa 1835 (T.3-1929). The same shift is pictured on page 12 of Underwear: Fashion in Detail, and can be viewed on the V&A website.

There is some discussion of the surviving collection of 1820s underclothing marked “Fanny Jarvis” on page 67, and a photograph of a model actually wearing a full complement of these antique undergarments, on page 68. Additionally, there is a full-color image of the four-part lithograph The Stages of the Toilette, circa 1830, on page 68. From the photograph of extant garments, the length of the shift cannot be determined, because the model is wearing other garments, including a bodiced petticoat, over the shift, but the sleeves reach to just above the elbow, and are relatively slim, cut straight. The shift in the lithograph is very long, reaching to at least mid-calf, and has full, puffed sleeves.

Online resources:

  • My inspiration shift at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, accession number 99.664.51. It has the basic cutting pattern, with straight sleeves and small-to-medium sleeve gussets, and no neckline ruffle, though it does have small sleeve ruffles, which I may add to my shift at some point.
  • A post on the mid-19th century authentic sewing forum, The Sewing Academy, in which user Beth Chamberlain posted an image of the above shift, on which she had helpfully drawn in the construction lines of the long triangles of fabric which are essentially swung from the sides at the top to the sides at the bottom in construction.
  • Another early 19th century shift at the MFA (accession number 52.1777), this one with a neckline ruffle and sleeve ruffles of a finer fabric than the body of the shift. It has straight sleeves, but they are gathered somewhat at the top of the shoulder.
  • The 1835 shift in the V&A Collection (accession number T.386-1960) that is constructed along different lines, with puffed sleeves and shoulder straps. This is the same shift that was mentioned above, as it was depicted in both Four Hundred Years of Fashion and Underwear: Fashion in Detail.