Building the Uniform Shirt

Being the chameleon of our unit, as I like to call myself, means that I have to learn many details of many roles. It is something I thoroughly enjoy! But that also means that I have to learn the dress of each role, and since I am personally building my kit, that also means I also have to learn how to make it.

 

After successfully tackling my tea dress, altering my hoops, and making a petticoat from scratch, it was time to change my focus. Now I had to start building my kit for medical corps/soldier. I knew I would eventually have to purchase my own uniform, as I was currently borrowing one. So I started with the uniform shirt.

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Being a small-framed woman portraying a man comes with lots of challenges. First of all, all the uniforms and shirts are too big for me! So now I had to figure out how to make one according to the 1860s patterns which would fit me, and still be large enough that I could hide the curves of my feminine form.

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I’ll go ahead and confess that this journey was a lot harder and more involved than it should have been. I have spent plenty of times shaking my head (and sometimes muttering along the way), laughing at myself, drinking extra cups of tea, and many late nights up, or multitasking to complete this project!

I had finally found a fabric and buttons I loved that were the right color scheme for me, from a sutler at the battle of Olustee. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the right colors for a winter coloring skin tone in homespun or period correct cloth. I had found a plaid with a true red and a taupe, instead of yellow-brown, background. It had a gentle pewter stripe in the plaid. The sutler had genuine pewter buttons that worked beautifully with it. I purchased them and tucked them away in my gear until I could get to them.

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Since I am building my kit and doing these events on a shoestring budget, I didn’t buy my own pattern, but borrowed one with muslins from a friend. Weelllllll, here’s the thing: The pattern was from the 1860s-where they expected you to already understand how to sew with those patterns and have the basic skills of the time, so there is a lot they do not tell you, unlike patterns of the 20th century.

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The first picture is supposed to be the layout and show you the body is one piece, but cut after multiple folds!

Secondly, the muslins she had included were cut down to her husband’s size, and then cut down from there to her son’s size, and I was trying to figure out which piece was which over the phone! Talk about some head-scratching and comedic moments!

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A very good friend of mine owns her own costume shop and does lots of historic clothing (shout out to Mary!). She came over one day while I was drafting my pattern off the various pieces, and she reminded me that while I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m a woman, I am still very curvy and that means I had to take those curves into account in cutting the pattern the right size. Whew! What a lifesaver!

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Thinking I had about figured everything out, had added just a bit of ease in the hem for my hips (thankfully that would be hidden in my uniform trousers), pinned everything where the patterns would completely match, I started cutting. Feeling quite pleased with myself that now the shirt was finally underway, I began pinning the pieces together, only to realize with horror that I had flipped the pattern and put the seam down the center of the shirt and not the side seam! It was time for another cup of tea…

After a walk, a prayer, and the tea, I picked up the pieces and stared figuring out how I was going to fix this mess. Thank the good LORD I had made sure the pattern matched when I cut it out. I realized that since the pattern was a clear plaid, I could match the pattern and hopefully no one would notice (except, of course, now I’m spilling the beans on myself!). After several hours of careful folding, aligning, and pinning, I warily stitched the first seam. It worked!!! Even I could barely tell it had been matched and patched. On to the next side. This one did have to be adjusted due to some shifting during the stitching, but with a few more moments of ripping out, repining and re-sewing, it passed inspection as well.

Realizing that my mistake had been assuming the curve for the neck had been for armholes (they didn’t do that in the 1860s apparently), I had to recheck every other piece. I realized that the body of the shirt was supposed to be cut out as ONE PIECE! Oh no… Well, a few more adjustments and the shoulders came together. I finally put that piece aside and turned my attention to the other pieces. Needless to say, I did NOT want to see the body of that shirt for a day or two!

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The next logical step seemed to be the sleeves. Again, since I am a small woman, I had to do adjustments on the sleeves both in size and length. The original sleeves were huge on me! With some careful adjustments, triple checked this time, I cut out the sleeves. I got the length correct! But for some reason the sleeves still seemed to swallow me. I took about an inch and a half off both sides at the seam edge of the sleeves and they fit more smoothly to the size of my arm. I would later find out that it had been right to begin with and wish I had left it alone! The extra space in the sleeves keeps it from clinging to you, and gives more air room, and a cooling factor to the shirt. Since I would trial my shirt for the first time at the Alma living history weekend when it was 93 degrees with a heat index of 103 and very high humidity, I sure was wishing I had that room in my sleeves!

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I went through a lot of this elixir!

Gusset in place (this is a diamond shaped piece inserted at the top of the sleeve seam to give more room), and sleeves seamed, I placed them on the shirt body. I was starting to feel a little better about the project. It was actually starting to look like a shirt.

 

Next, I turned to the collar. Thankfully, the collar, which had been for the son, was the right size for me. Cutting it out with nearly matching patterns, I was able to quickly stitch the two sides of the collar together. But before I could put it in place, I had to attach the plackets to the opening of the shirt. Due to my mistake earlier, I already had a clean, straight line for the opening. All I had done was leave the seam open a little bit and we were ready to go! I had stopped by my friend’s house on a trip nearby and had her look at my fiasco, and then look at the plackets with me. I did not want any more problems! After struggling with it for a while, we figured out what they wanted and I was able to go home and produce it. Once I played with it, I realized that it was actually quite easy. The pieces for the plackets incase the seam of the opening, and provide a place for the buttons and button holes, allowing the shirt to close all the way. Once each side was in place and securely stitched down, I could turn my attention to the collar.

 

 

By this time I was heading to Florida for a week-long school and I knew I was going to need the shirt shortly after that, so pattern, pieces, and a small sewing kit went with me. On a few evenings after class I sat in my hotel room and stitched away. I was so thankful I was familiar with and skilled at hand stitching, because I used it!

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The pattern stated the collar began and ended at the plackets in the front, the back being slightly pleated if need be to gather the fullness. As I worked from the ends toward the back to adjust in the fullness, I realized with a sinking heart, that the neck hole was too big for me. I had to pleat the fabric all around the back of the collar, adjusting and readjusting it several times until it was tolerable. But what I realized as I tried it on with the collar stitched in place, was that by doing so, I had caused the back of the neck to be bulky, and with the extra pleating, it had shortened the back of the shirt. I didn’t have time to change it at that time, nor the extra fabric while I was out of town, so I turned to the cuffs.

 

Thankfully, I had correctly figured out the right size for my cuffs, as those pieces are not included with the pattern! One was just supposed to “know” what size they were and cut out the rectangle to that size. A little playing and finagling, and I figured it out right. Now, sitting in my hotel room, I hand stitched the cuffs into place, leaving a little ‘V’ opening between the bottom of the cuff and the seam of the sleeve so there was room to roll up my sleeves. Seams of the cuff openings and the hem were rolled and stitched closed. Three buttons down the front and one on each sleeve and I almost had a shirt!

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I finished my school in Florida and drove back to Georgia and almost straight to the Battle of Resaca. After a few snafus, I arrived to camp early Sunday morning. Waiting for the guys to get back from morning parade, I stitched like crazy trying to complete buttonholes. After church there was a medical demonstration, and while standing outside the tent listening to the presentation, I continued to stitch the buttonholes one loop at a time. I didn’t quite finish it in time, but I had made progress.

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Just two weeks later we were heading to Alma. In the few nights before leaving I stayed up until ungodly hours throwing the last buttonholes and details in the shirt, trying to make sure it was ready for the weekend, knowing I was going to need it.

 

Once down at Alma and in the blistering, heat-exhaustion weather, I realized my many mistakes: the sleeves were too small, the collar was not right with the bulkiness from as much as it had needed to be pleated, I had not left the opening at the cuffs large enough to truly roll up my sleeves. I was STUCK. My wonderful company was very patient with me as I lifted collars, played with sleeves and saw how all of their shirts were constructed; getting all the information I needed to fix my near-fiasco.

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Can you tell how hot it was? This was in the shade under the fly!

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Drilling in the heat before battle.

 

Due to frustration and a very large workload, I took several weeks off from the shirt. It sat patiently waiting for me to come back to it. So, once the frustration had burned off, and the workload had slightly diminished, I picked up the shirt, tore the majority of the collar off and once again started matching the pattern, this time on the back side of the neck. I matched all the patterns, cut a second piece for the inside to encapsulate the raw edges, and stitched it in place, carefully checking that the patterns remained matched. Once I knew they were, I cut the excess off, and figured out the new curve for the neckline-the one that fit me.

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Matching patterns

Once that was in place, the collar quickly and easily went back in place-even stitching by hand! I also opened the seam at the wrists farther, so that there was enough room to roll up the sleeves and have mobility. I timidly put the shirt on once again to see the results of my work. For the first time in the process, the shirt FIT RIGHT! Oh how happy I was! It was just in time too, for I threw the now-finished shirt in my bag, finished packing and headed to the next reenactment, which was starting our Fall Campaign. Boy did it get a trial by fire that weekend! Two battles, multiple medical emergencies, weather so hot men were going down for real, field hospital medical demonstration, and then breaking camp in the pouring rain. I was happy to see how well it held up, and will proudly be wearing it at our next major reenactment!

 

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Thankfully, with all the problems I had with the creation of this shirt, I now know this pattern inside and out! You might be wondering if I will ever make this pattern again. The answer is yes. First of all, once I knew everything was right, I drafted a new pattern with all the RIGHT sizes, appropriate markings and notes so that I don’t repeat this fiasco a second time. Also, now that I know the problems, I can avoid them, and suspect that I could build another fairly quickly, or as quickly as one can go while stitching by hand.

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I hope you all have enjoyed this blog and all the trouble I got myself into! If you want to see the infamous shirt, be sure to come to one of our reenactments! Should you ever want to make one, be sure that if I can, even with all my 20th century sewing knowledge and all my fiascos, you can too. Especially now that you know what NOT to do! 😉

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