The Cognitive Shift, or 18th Century SHIFTS,
WHAT I KNOW AND HOW I LEARNED IT
© Sharon Ann Burnston 2005, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2017

Introduction
Choosing Suitable Materials
Cut and Construction
Custom Fitting Your Shift
Shift Neckline Woes
Sewing the Shift
Stroke Gathers
Ruffles
Monogramming A Shift
FAQs
Replica Shift

CUT AND CONSTRUCTION

The cut of an 18th c. shift is a marvel of simplicity and economy, a clever arrangement of squares and triangles, a winning combination so successful that it remained unchanged for nearly a thousand years. From roughly 1000 AD to c 1810, this basic cut for an undergarment remained in use with only minor variations in sleeve shape, neckline shape and seaming-techniques.


tunic of St Louis c 1000 A.D. as seen in "Cut My Cote"

Every 18th c. shift I have been able to study was cut virtually the same, except for variations in the shape of the sleeves and the neckline. It was this observation that allowed me to first begin to see that it might be possible to develop a chronology whereby shifts could be dated. Since many of the garments I have studied I do not have permission to publish, I am simply going to offer here my conclusions.

You need only look at 18th c. portraiture to recognize that stylistic elements of clothing tend to get narrower as the century progresses. Among these elements are gown sleeves, and with them, shift sleeves. Having looked at enough shifts, including some which have specific dates associated with them, I observed more specifically that earlier in the century, shift sleeves are wider than they are long. By the end of the century, shift sleeves are longer than they are wide. But 18th c. shift sleeves are square (the cut piece of fabric for each sleeve measuring as long as it is wide) at just about the mid 1770's. So if you are making a Rev War shift, you would want to determine how long your sleeve needs to be in order to just cover your elbow, add 1" for two seam allowances of 1/2" each, and then cut your sleeve as a square of that dimension. If this seems huge or bulky to you, then you are probably using a fabric that isn't fine enough.

These full sleeves are gathered into a narrow band cuff, as will be discussed under "Sewing the Shift". I will state here that without exception, I have never seen any 18th c. shift which did not have its sleeves gathered into a cuff, except for shifts from the very end of the 18th c., when shift sleeves become so narrow that they don't need to be gathered, and the cuff is dispensed with. Drawstrings in the sleeves were simply never used. And over the years I have come to understand the logic of this: a drawstring wears out the sleeve fabric; a cuffed sleeve lasts longer.

As far as I have been able to determine, the date at which shifts begin to be made with sleeves so narrow that they do not need to be gathered to a cuff, and only a simple hem at the bottom, is somewhere c 1790. The 1789 sewing manual Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor says:

"The sleeves with wristbands. Half a yard and a nail is the length of the two sleeves, the width of the Irish [Irish is a linen fabric, previously stated as 35" wide] makes one pair, (a quarter and half, and a nail wide) taking the wristbands out of the middle of the breadth... wristbands an inch and a half wide... a quarter of a yard and an inch long each." (p. 29)

Translating the archaic length terminology (quarter = 9", half-quarter = 4.5", nail = 2.25"), this means that as late as 1789, standard shifts for the poor were to have sleeves which were to be cut 20 1/4" long x 17 1/2" wide, and gathered into wristbands, or cuffs, which were themselves to be cut 10" x 1 1/2". Narrower sleeves without cuffs are not mentioned.

After 1800, as gown sleeves shorten, shift sleeves finally do also. The Lady's Economical Assistant, or Art of Cutting Out and Making The Most Useful Articles of Wearing Apparel (1808) is the first instruction manual I know of which mentions short sleeves for shifts; it suggests they be cut 6" long (p. 20).

I realize that this assertion for the later dates for narrow shift sleeves and then for shorter shift sleeves flies against much of what is offered as dating for objects in some important museums (and from some important pattern companies), but it is consistent with all the evidence that has gone into my developing a shift chronology. It is also consistent with my understanding of the primary role of the shift as protecting the gown and the body from each other. Shift sleeves cannot get shorter until gown sleeves do, or else the shift isn't able to do its job.

The other change through time in the cut of 18th c. shifts is in the neckline. To understand why this should be so, one need only look again at American portraiture. If we look closely we can notice changes in the shape of the necklines on 18th c. gowns. As gown bodices tighten and seams are crowded towards the back, the front neckline becomes broader and more horizontal.

Early in the century, the necklines seen on gowns in American portraits are long ovals.



1708 Mary DuBose by Henrietta Johnston, detail    Source



1720 - 1725 Portrait of a Lady, by Schuyler Limner, detail    Source



1725 Evelyn Byrd, by Charles Bridges, detail     Source



1730 The Bermuda Group, by John Smibert, detail     Source



1729 Mrs. James Gooch, by John Smibert, detail     Source


See also the women of the Isaac Royall Family by Robert Feke (1741)


1741 Isaac Royal Family, by Robert Feke, detail     Source


A shift neckline that followed the contours of these gowns would also have to be something like an oval.


John Greenwood's portrait of Mary Atkins (1750) shows a neckline which is only a slightly flatter oval...


1750 Mary Atkins, by John Greenwood, detail    Source


... and here are three portraits by Joseph Badger which show how the gown neckline evolved from ovoid to flat:


1746 Mrs Isaac Smith, detail    Source



1759 Mrs John Haskins, detail    Source



1763 Mary Croswell, detail   Source


Later yet in the 18th c., women's gown necklines become almost horizontal, as can be seen in Copley's portraits of Mrs. Daniel Sargent (1763) or Mrs. Richard Skinner (1772)...


Mrs. Daniel Sargent, by Copley, detail   Source



1772 Mrs. Richard Skinner, by Copley, detail   Source


... or in this 1784 Ralph Earl portrait of Sophia Drake




1784 Sophia Drake, by Ralph Earl, detail   Source


And so, as I began to study enough shifts that I could notice and track differences in neckline shape, it became apparent to me that a chronology of shift dating would incorporate a gradual transition from necklines which were a long-axis ovoid, to ones which were a broader oval, to necklines which were more squared off and horizontal across the front. This conclusion was supported by the correlation, among the shifts I studied, between this evolution of neckline shape and the gradual evolution of shift sleeves from wider to narrower.

Time line of shapes, shift necklines
c 1730

c 1750

c 1775

c 1790

click on individual images for larger view.


Shift Neckline Woes

I should add that whatever the shape of the neckline on an 18th c. shift, it was finished with a narrow hem, and sized to fit without a drawstring. I have seen at least one shift with a drawstring in the neckline, so I would not say these "never" existed, but the drawstring was not there for fitting purposes. It might have been used for minor adjustments to accommodate different gowns with slightly different necklines, but in truth it isn't readily apparent what purpose it served. The vast majority of shifts don't have any drawstrings.

Except for these stylistic changes in sleeve and neckline shapes, the 18th c. American shifts I have been able to study show a remarkable consistency of cut and construction.

This cutting diagram gives the essential information for making a shift for the Rev War period. This pattern is a synthesis, derived from several originals I have studied.


click on individual images for larger view.


But for those who want to replicate an actual object, here is the pattern I took from the shift in my collection. It is dated 1752, and has Connecticut provenance.


click on individual images for larger view.



Anyone who wishes to create a late century shift can find good cutting diagrams in Fitting & Proper (p. 46) or in Costume CloseUp (p. 59).

Before you go to cut out your linen, there are a few things I would like to say about cutting out. Of course you will know to cut away a long triangle from the upper half of the shift body so that you can pivot it around and sew it to the lower half to complete the A-line of the shift body. Here is where that good selvedge is most important. By putting the selvedges together and doing a neat, small whipstitch, and then pulling the seam open, "popping" the butted selvedges flat with your thumbnail, you can create a seam so flat that you'll never feel it, and so neat that it can be difficult to find. This is how center seam sheets were made, and this is how the gores were sewn onto the shift body. If you haven't got that precious selvedge, you cannot do this. The best you can do is to make as small and neat a flat felled seam as you can. Sewing the flat felled side seams of the shift will be more difficult to negotiate around the flat felled gore seams, but we have to do the best we can without the optimal materials.

Another observation I would like to make about cutting out has to do with economy, utilizing every scrap of linen most efficiently.

Here is a diagram from the ground breaking Cut My Cote by Dorothy K. Burnham, showing how she imagined a late 18th c. shift would have been cut from 30" wide linen.


click on image for larger view.

And this is how I always did it. Until one day it dawned on me that if I were very careful, and cut out the neck hole with barely a 1/4" seam allowance so as to turn a 1/8" hem, I would be left with a scrap from which I might be able to just manage to cut the two underarm gussets. So I tried it:

Imagine my surprise to discover, the next time I looked in Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, this:

It says "The gussets out of the bosom." Eureka, my "discovery" is documented. And now that cryptic little sentence makes sense! The text goes on to say "The piece to bind the sleeves comes out of the cutting of the back and the bottom of the bosom, when the gussets are cut out." In other words, hang onto those scraps, because there is a purpose for which you might want to use them later.

To be honest, this works only after you have made enough shifts that you know exactly what size and shape neck hole, or "bosom", you wish to cut. But once you do, it's a very period way to save fabric.



Introduction
Choosing Suitable Materials
Cut and Construction
Custom Fitting Your Shift
Shift Neckline Woes
Sewing the Shift
Stroke Gathers
Ruffles
Monogramming A Shift
FAQs
Replica Shift

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