Linen Shift

The linen shift was a ubiquitous wardrobe staple from long before the 18th century and for quite some time after it.  This was underwear for both men and women and was used to protect one’s clothing from bodily secretions and one’s body from itchy, scratchy textiles or chafing from stays.  But you probably knew that already.

The amount of linen in people’s wardrobes increased dramatically over the course of the 18th century such that by the end of it even quite poor people could boast of owning at least 2 shifts so that they could always wear a (comparatively) clean one.  Amongst more prosperous people the number of shifts could reach into the hundreds (usually amongst men though, who were particularly obsessed with sporting clean, crisp linen on their persons).  The finer the linen, the more expensive the shift and the more genteel and refined the person (it was believed).


I started by plotting out the cutting pattern.  I drew it directly onto the linen in pencil.  I cut out the body of the shift with the front and back cut as one using a fold in the fabric for the should line – thus no shoulder seams.

I then cut out the neckline.

Next I cut the sleeves, which just look like boring rectangles at the moment.

I then sewed the triangular pieces to the lower sides of the shift using tiny slip stitches (16-20 per inch) in a felled seam.  The back of the seam still needs to be sewn.  I have to admit that tiny slip stitches are not as difficult as I had thought they would be.  There is a knack to it: stitches need to be tiny in width as well as in length.  Mostly, though, they seem to be really time-consuming.

The backs of these seams have slightly different stitches: they are still tiny in width, but a little longer in length so that they are more subtle on the right side of the garment.

There were 4 triangles to sew onto the body of the shift, and it took me the day to do them.


I started today by cutting out the gussets.

Then I re-cut them because I’d done it wrong the first time – they’re supposed to be squares (I so would have been fired if actually working in the 18th century).

I sewed one gusset to one side of a sleeve using the same stitches and method as I did for the triangles yesterday.

Then sewed another side of the gusset to another side of the sleeve.

Here is what it looks like from the underside.

Then sewed up the sleeve.


After lunch I sewed up the other sleeve with its gusset.

After this I gathered the sleeveheads…

and attached the sleeves to the body of the shift.



Today I managed to sew the side seams.

The rest of the day was spent ripping out the first sleeve I’d set in, re-gathering the sleevehead and sewing it all back into the shift because I apparently did something wrong (fired again).  However, I’m afraid I didn’t detail in my notes what I did wrong, so I can’t describe that for you.  Sorry!


I did lots of things today!

I started by hemming the shift.  This involved turning up the fabric edge twice in a narrow (approx 1/4″) hem and stitching it with small-ish running stitches.

I then hemmed the sleeves, in the same manner as the shift hem.

Next I made (less than perfect) buttonholes (using buttonhole stitch) in the shift sleeves for the drawstring.


Then came preparing the neck binding strip…

and preparing the neck edge for binding.

I then bound/faced/finished (however you want to say it) the neck edge by sewing the binding to the neck edge wrong sides together and using small-ish running stitches.  Oh, I should probably mention my cheat here, since it shows up so much in this photo.  I used a disappearing ink fabric pen to draw the binding piece – and make markings in several other areas.  I guess I was getting a little lazy with it at this point!


I then prepared the sleeve bands and stitched them into the sleeves in essentially the same manner as the neck band.

I finished off the day by preparing the armhole/shoulder reinforcement bands (which also serve to cover up the raw edges of the sleevehead seam)…


And sewing them into the armholes at the shoulders.  These are also sewn to the inside of the shift with wrong sides together using running stitch.  They do create a ‘shadow’ at the shoulders of the shift, but are much cleaner looking than if they’d been sewn to the outside.  Unfortunately I neglected to take any photos of this part.  Here is one showing the shoulder from the right side, I hope you can get an idea of it from this.

I threaded some ivory silk satin ribbon through the casing at the neck edge and the ones on the sleeves and was done!

Now, because I’m a silly person I somehow didn’t think to photograph the finished shift on its own.  So I’m afraid you’ll have to get the idea from these photos of it put together with the stays and the hooped petticoat.


  1. lovinlocks Said:

    Bravooo and thank you for posting this. One day I hope to be so bold as to tackle a hand sewn anything.

  2. mijnparool Said:

    Is this the shift you wear beneath your Robe Francaise?

  3. I found your blog in 2020 and I’m just in awe of how you sewed everything by hand. It’s such a pleasure to go through it and marvel at the tiny stitches. Also makes it less daunting and encouraging to try to do the same in my sewing. Love the stays post too!

{ RSS feed for comments on this post} · { TrackBack URI }

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: