Make your 17th century underwear with our easy-to-use pattern!
Buy our full-size paper patterns with complete instructions and historical notes for men's and women's shirts. Variations include three different sleeves and two collar options. Wider, noble shirt options also included. Multisized to fit chests 32"-60". Embellishment suggestions included.
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Suggested Fabrics: 3 oz - 5 oz linen, white, natural or half-bleached
Medium shirt " 2¼ yards ~57" wide
Large shirt " 2¼ yards ~57" wide
Small shift " 3¼ yards ~57" wide
Large shift " 3½ yards ~57" wide
all: linen or silk sewing thread, or equivalent
optional for all: bobbin lace, needlelace, or cutwork trim, silk embroidery floss
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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
Men’s and Women’s 17th century Shirts and Shifts
In the 17th century, basic male undergarments consisted of a knee- to calf-length, voluminous shirt made of white or off-white linen that acted as a barrier between expensive outer garments and bodily oils and sweat. These linen shirts were easy to keep clean because of their superior washability and the fact that they would bleach in the sun. When body linens were too far gone to launder, they were sold to a rag seller and recycled into paper.
A man’s shirt from 16th century Italy (shown in Dorothy Burnham’s Cut My Cote) is made from a 27” wide length of linen folded in the middle and slashed for the head. A simple stand collar and tapering sleeves with long triangular underarm gores complete the garment. A shirt from the end of the 16th century and now housed in the Museum of Costume in Bath, England, is constructed similarly but the body is a whopping 38” wide and the stand collar is reinforced with triangular gussets at either side of the neck. The sleeves are simple rectangles 17½” wide by 24” long and gathered at the wrist into cuffs that match the collar. The shirt is embroidered with black silks in bands on the chest and sleeves. Men’s shirts of the 17th century appear very similar to 18th century extant shirts, but they are generally wider and longer than the 18th century specimens and have slightly longer sleeves and comparable gussets. This size difference may be attributable to class difference rather than time period. In fact most 17th century shirts that survive did so in upper class families’ private collections. In contrast, the 18th century extant shirts are of more common manufacture. So it is distinctly possible that common men’s shirts in the 17th century were no wider than those of the later periods.
Shirts or shifts, smocks or chemises? In her article on Elizabethan and Jacobean Smocks and Shirts, Janet Arnold tells us that the word “shirt” is often used interchangeably for men’s and women’s undergarments. But “smock” is the word most commonly used in the 16th century to describe shirts for women. The word “shift” comes into use in 1598, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning “a body-garment of linen, cotton, or the like; in early use applied indifferently to men's and women's underclothing; subsequently, a woman's “smock” or chemise. In the 17th century “smock” began to be displaced by “shift” as a more delicate expression; in the 19th c. the latter, from the same motive, gave place to chemise.”1
Many women’s shirts or shifts in this period don’t seem to differ significantly from men’s shirts. In the pictorial record, we see collars, sometimes edged with lace, or bound, high necklines and vertical front openings that disappear inside the bodice. Some, as worn by the old woman in Van Ostade’s “Peasants in an Interior” (1661) [right] and the mother in Pieter de Hooch’s “Mother Lacing Her Bodice beside a Cradle” (1659-60) [below right], are worn modestly closed. Others, like “Bathsheba” by Willem Drost (1654) [left] and van Honthorst’s “Granida and Daifilo” (1625) [below left], are scandalously open, exposing the breasts. In either case, it’s easy to see that the shift of this period wasn’t of the heavily-pleated, low-necked chemise type popular in Italy, but rather a simple collared shirt. Extant shifts in the Museum of London, Museum of Costume in Bath, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London support this.
It’s not surprising that this slit front shift was popular particularly among common women. As we see in the pictures of nursing mothers, the low front opening made it easy to breastfeed without removing any garments or exposing oneself to the cold. Erotic art like van Honthorst’s “Granida and Daifilo”, left, Knüpfer’s “Brothel Scene” (c1630), Rubens’ “Simon and Pero” (1625), and Moreelse’s “Vertumnus And Pomona” (c1625-30) show other benefits of such an opening.
Another element in the pictorial record that is missing in the extant upper class garments is the lack of cuffs. When the sleeve ends of commoners’ shirts are visible, they are almost never gathered into cuffs. The more common representation is finished sleeve ends, as in Cuyp’s “Dairymaid” (c1650) shown at right. These uncuffed, ungathered sleeve ends appear in pictures of men as well as women.
The few 17th century women’s shirts in the Victorian and Albert Museum in London are identical to the men’s shirts except for two elements. They are longer in the body than the men’s shirts and they have triangular gores set in each side seam below the underarm gussets. This added piece creates the width necessary to be able to walk unhindered in the longer version.
Undoubtedly there were other styles of shift worn in the 17th century. But this construction seems to have been the most popular among common women and nobles alike for the better part of the century.
Surviving Shirts and Shifts
Most of the shirts and shifts that have come down to us are the elaborately embroidered linen undergarments of the early part of the 17th century. It’s no surprise that such costly and heavily-decorated items would be the ones to survive. Plain linen shirts and shifts would quickly wear out and the linen fragments would be sold to the rag-buyer for use in paper production. However, many museums in the UK preserve collections of gorgeously embellished shirts.
In the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, accession number T.49-1934 is the designation for a boy’s white linen shirt of outstanding craftsmanship. This beautiful shirt is decorated with white silk cutwork and linen drawnwork along the seams, front opening, and shoulders. The shoulder pieces are the most impressive: a rectangular piece of linen is decorated with buttonhole insertion stitch, pulled threadwork, buttonhole eyelets, French knots and bullions in white silk thread. Every pattern piece is surrounded with pulled threadwork and attached to its neighbours with decorative insertion stitch. A 3/8” wide strip of linen reinforces the neckline and is adorned with French knots, bullions and picot-stitch edging. The front opening is similarly edged and the bottom reinforced with more insertion stitch. The sleeves are exceedingly wide and pleated across the top of the shoulder. The linen is fine enough to be called transparent. Although believed to be of Italian manufacture, this type of shirt and its embellishment are seen all over Europe in the late 16th century to mid-17th century. Pictures of this marvelous work of art can be seen in Hart and North’s Fashion in Detail.
Another V&A specimen (T.243-1959) is a woman’s smock that dates to the 1620s or 30s. Cut simply like the other shifts and smocks described, this shirt has one difference -- it is partially constructed of bobbin lace. Two alternating patterns of wide insertion bobbin lace adorn the shift in diagonal strips along the chest and fronts and backs of the sleeves. Three vertical insertions descend from the back of the neck on the reverse. Deep edging lace provides the front edge and collar. The inspiration of this pattern of bobbin lace from reticello and antique cutwork can plainly be seen. This particular shirt was probably a night smock (indicated by the longer length). It’s good condition indicates that it was hardly ever worn.
The Museum of Costume in Bath houses a lovely shirt embroidered with black silk. It dates to 1585-1600. Although blackwork embroidery is often associated with the time of Elizabeth I, the shape and construction of this shirt does not differ materially from 17th century examples. The small stand collar and cuffs are covered in blackwork and close with ties. The seams are sewn so finely that they can hardly be seen.
An item believed to be a sailor’s shirt is at the Museum of London. This brownish linen shirt is certainly the garment of a common man, yet it is similar in construction to the noble shirts of the era. It has an attached collar which is slit at the back. It also has cuffs and shoulder reinforcement. It is heavily patched.
An early shirt in the V&A is accession number T.112.72. Dating from1540-50, it is embroidered in blue silk in cross and double running stitches with overcast edges and seams worked in knotted and buttonholed insertion stitch. It also has a very narrow silk cord stitched to the top of the frill on the collar, making it curl like an early ruff.
The 16th century specimen already mentioned that is described in Burnham’s Cut My Cote was housed at People’s Museum of Zadar, Yugoslavia when her book was written in 1973.
A smock in a private collection, dating to circa 1600 and embroidered with pink silk, is described in Arnolds’ smocks and shirts article. This smock has a short stand collar, square underarm gussets and narrow sleeves gathered into cuffs that match the stand collar. The smock is embroidered in bands (vertical on the body, horizontal on the sleeves, collar and cuffs) interspersed with flower motifs in rows.
A heavy linen shirt embroidered in black silk and housed in the Museum of Costume, Bath is also described in the above-mentioned article. Dating circa 1610-20, this shirt is embroidered in diagonal bands of black silk with black silk and white bobbin lace inserted in the sleeve and body seams. The narrow stand collar and cuffs are also elaborately embroidered and the collar and front opening are edged with narrow black bobbin lace.
The Museum of London houses an early 17th century shift (A21968) embroidered with rose and honeysuckle designs in pink silk and trimmed along the collar, cuffs, and front opening with white linen and silk bobbin lace. The embroidery is confined to the top folds of the sleeves, collar, and front opening. There are no separate cuffs but rather heavily decorated ends of the narrow sleeves. The sleeve, gussets and side seams all appear to be joined with insertion stitch in pink silk.
Another Museum of London shirt is of a slightly different construction but still relevant. Accession number 28.83 is a woman’s smock from 1603-15. It is trimmed with needlelace and adorned with wide needlelace insertions. Much like V&A T.243-1959 described above, part of this shirt is constructed with lace, but not bobbin lace this time. The top front of the shirt contains needlelace insertions and collar. The sleeves are strips of linen alternating with the same pattern needlelace. A few narrower rows of insertion lace trim the bottom of the shift and the hem.
A beautiful shirt from the mid-16th century lives at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum under the designation “Inv.-Nr. T.4104”. It is embroidered in blue/silver and white silk thread along the ruffled cuffs and collar. There is a fair amount of cutwork or linen drawnwork on the cuffs and collar as well. Blue/silver embroidery and needlelace also adorn the front opening and the same colour insertion stitches trace every seam.
1 Oxford English Dictionary, unabridged.
Arnold, Janet. “Elizabethan and Jacobean Smocks and Shirts” in Waffen-und Kostumkunde, Pt. 2 (1977), pgs 89-110
Arnold, Janet. “Three Examples of Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Century Neckwear” in Waffen-und Kostumkunde, Pt. 2 (1973), pgs 109-124.
Burnham, Dorothy. Cut My Cote. 1973: The Royal Ontario Museum.
Halls, Zillah. Women’s Costumes 1600-1750. 1969: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
Hart, Avril and Susan North. Fashion in Detail. 1998: Rizzoli International Publications, New York.
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This information © 2003 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History