My First Camisa, sort of

I have officially begun work on my first (sort of) camisa.

Camisa – (Spanish) Chemise, smock, undertunic, shift. Modern: slip, camisole. The white garment that goes under all the other garments in a medieval outfit, protecting the visible garments from sweat and body oils so that they last longer. Generally made with undyed white linen. Wealthy people’s under-linens would be white, because they could afford to have someone spread them out on the grass or over shrubbery and then spend the day watching them instead of doing some sort of active labor; less well-off people simply took their cloth straight from the weaver and made it up into skivvies, though over time these too might become bleached by hanging out to dry in the sun after a washing.

Technically, I have two others, but they don’t really count.

The first camisa I made, I made to be very fitted and supportive. You see, a woman in the High Middle Ages would wear many layers of clothing. First would be the camisa (called by other names if she wasn’t Spanish), followed by a kirtle (I wish I knew the Spanish word for this, so my persona could use it!) that was tightly fitted in order to be supportive of her “womanly attributes,” and if she was a woman of any self-respect who was not actively engaged in hard physical labor at the moment, she would also wear an over-dress of some kind so as to cover up the stains that hard work made in her kirtle.

However, I live in southern California, which is hot enough that I’m pretty sure hell won’t impress me much, so I decided at first to dispense with the idea of having three layers. Instead of a loose skin layer, a fitted working layer, and a fitted or loose dress/formal layer, I would combine the first two into a single, supportive skin layer. That was a bad idea, I realized about halfway through the project, but because the project was teaching me so much, I decided to just run with it, and ever after, I would wear the piece when I really couldn’t stand wearing more than two layers. I’m glad I did, because I really did learn a great deal from that fitted camisa — most of it, how I did and didn’t want to make decisions about future fitted/supportive garments — and because it’s actually super comfortable. Like, I can wear it as a nightgown. It’s awesome. Except the fact that it laces up the back instead of the front. WTH was I even thinking?

Anyway, that was my first “does not count” camisa. For future reference, I will probably refer to this as my fitted camisa.

My second doesn’t count because, although it is a skin layer, it has color. People in the middle ages didn’t generally waste time or dyestuffs putting color into a garment no one was going to see and admire. In my defense, I did have reasons for that decision. First of all, I had this lavender colored linen. I bought it because it was extremely cheap. $3/yard, can you believe? I bought a bunch of this stuff, figuring I could over-dye it a bolder color later, and I still might. It’d look great in fuchsia. Secondly, thanks to an amazing woman who raided her closet and gave me all the garb that no longer fit her, I have a purple Viking apron-dress. Purple, with multicolored trim featuring magenta. See how great that would look over a lavender tunic? And thirdly, that lavender fabric is my least-favorite fabric in my stash, which meant that if I made mistakes that couldn’t be corrected, I wouldn’t cry over the loss of that linen; I’d just move on and make something else out of something else. But, anyway, even though the pattern is the exact same one that I will be using for most of my camisas for the foreseeable future, this doesn’t count as a camisa because it is going to be seen out in public. Basically, making it was a dress rehearsal for the real thing — but a dress rehearsal that I’m going to actually be able to use. For future reference, I’m referring to this as my lavender Viking tunic.

Both of the above garments were constructed with the use of sewing machines, and then I did the seam finishing, placket insertion, eyelet making, and made the lacing, all by hand. If ever either one of these two pieces ever gets decorated with any sort of trim or embroidery or what-have-you, that will also be by hand. Not only is it the period way to do things, but it’s just so much easier for me. All you need are needle and thread and scissors, which makes hand sewing far more portable than machine sewing. But mostly, I like hand sewing better because it doesn’t go any faster than I am able to see and think and process. Sewing machines are awesome specifically because of their speed, but frankly, they always go too quickly for me. By the time I realize there’s an error or something needs to change in some way, I’m three or four inches past the place that needs correction. With hand sewing, I sometimes realize it even before I’ve got the needle all the way through the fabric, so there’s less frustration.

So, AAAAAANYway, now we come to my third garment, which is my first true camisa. This one is going to be really, really correct. It’s made from a kerchief-weight white linen; its pattern is a bog-standard variation on the very basic idea of the rectangular construction undergarment that was used throughout the Middle Ages and up into the Renaissance, at least for the middle-to-lower classes (the same pattern I used for the lavender Viking tunic). But more than that: it’s also going to be entirely hand-sewn. No machines involved at all.

That was actually unintentional. I fully intended to do machine construction. Then I started reading at Extreme Costuming about a thing called the Elizabethan seam. Go look at that, if you’re not familiar with the Elizabethan Seam, and then come back here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Back already? Okay! Now, where were we? Oh, right.

I decided to do my camisa using the Elizabethan seam. Accordingly, I cut out my pattern pieces, then set them aside. When I got back to them, I was about halfway through the hemming of the second piece when I realized that this process, by definition, is removing the one thing that made me want to use a machine in the first place: the fraying edges that I’d have to sew down. Everyone’s got their bugaboos, I know, and one of mine is having to construct a garment by hand while those edges are still there, fraying angrily at me like I stole something from them. The Elizabethan seam is the opposite of that. It takes care of the fraying part before the garment is constructed. Once construction begins, your worries are kind of over. Awesome!

Yes, there will be pictures of the entire process of making this garment, and of the finished garment. There will NOT be pictures of me wearing it. It’s an undergarment, and I don’t post pictures of myself in my under-frillies online.

By the way, tonight begins the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which lasts for two full days and then morphs directly into Shabbat; on none of these days does Jewish law permit me to be online. Therefore, I’m going to try to schedule this post to appear tomorrow. For those wondering, NO, I am not actually online and posting during the High Holy Days! I’m just spacing out my posts so I don’t hit people with two in the same day. Hope this works, and that this post doesn’t get eaten by the inter-webz while I’m not around to keep an eye on it.

UPDATE (6 July 2016): I made the garment. Completely forgot to photograph the process of making it. When it was done, the neck line was huge. It wouldn’t even stay on my shoulders, not for love or money. I passed it along to my local Gold Key, completely forgetting to photograph it. So, while this garment is completed, it’s not wearable (by me), so it goes into the Doesn’t Count file.

Still, I learned a fair bit from the making.

  • I don’t care for wooden buttons because they’re too hard and unforgiving.
  • Because gores don’t come to a clean, sharp point, I need to find another way of attaching them. (Update to the update: I found a method for setting gores in an Elizabethan seam! Thank you, Edyth Miller!)
  • I really, really need a new method of making a straight line. For now, I’m going to focus on a different method of washing and storing new fabric. That should decrease distortion. I hope.
  • Because I have large breasts, the standard straight-up-and-down body piece doesn’t work well for my shape. It’s better if I tilt the shoulder width inward by a few inches, starting at the halfway point (the actual point) of the under-arm gusset square), matching my actual shoulder width, while keeping the rest of the body piece quite long. This way it’s wide enough for my breasts, narrow enough for my shoulders, and the rest doesn’t actually matter.
  • The rest does actually matter. I have to be sure to put in large enough gores. 14″ is the minimum width; 18″ would be better.
  • Patterning is hard, y’all. But I really, really like the sewing part of sewing.

These are the informations* I will take into my future garments.

2 replies on “My First Camisa, sort of”

  1. pssst… incorrect link to the Elizabethan seam. Takes me to a “file not found” page on this blog.

    That being said – cool. I have instinctively done that when handsewing for a long while, but I didn’t know the name for it, LOL!

    1. When I went to correct the link, I first clicked on the link to get to either the error or the page I was trying to link. It took me right to the page in question. I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t work for you.

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