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

CHOOSING SUITABLE MATERIALS

Choosing Linen
While there is documentary evidence for eighteenth century shifts in cotton and in wool flannel, I have never yet seen one which wasn't made in linen or tow. The shifts which survive to be saved in museum collections are generally the good, fine, ones, but I have been privileged to see a few coarse linen ones. Based upon these originals, I have to say that most people today in the reenacting community use linen which is much too heavy. I also have to say that finding a good shift linen, fine enough and tightly woven enough, has become virtually impossible.

The 18th c. shifts I have studied, including the ones in my own collection, have a thread count that ranges roughly from 60-75 threads per inch, each way, warp and weft. To find this today, you need to be looking for linen 4 oz. or less, "handkerchief linen". But don't neglect the thread count, as some modern "handkerchief linens" achieve their light weight by being woven of too-heavy threads too-widely spaced, with an end product more like cheese-cloth than a proper 18th c. "holland".

But there is more to finding a good shift linen than that. The 18th c. shift was carefully cut from linen of a specific width, so that the selvedges formed an important component of its construction. And for that to be possible, the selvedge needs to be made like one on a hand woven length of fabric, a continuous-thread selvedge, where the shuttle carrying one continuous weft thread travels back and forth through the warp, so that the selvedge is hard and tight, able to be sewn along the very edge. Unfortunately for us, this form of linen stopped being made about 15 or 20 years ago. The last of it was "new old stock" that I bought for workshops maybe 5 years ago, and if anyone knows where I can get any more, please contact me! Nowadays, linen is woven with a fringy selvedge, which has to be cut off, leaving you with no selvedge at all. Sometimes you can find a linen in which each end of each weft thread has been woven back into the body of the fabric. This is called in the trade a "tucked selvedge", and if it is not too bulky or ragged, this can sometimes pass as a continuous-thread selvedge.


hard selvedge tucked selvedge fringed selvedge

But wait, there is still more to it. Eighteenth century shift fabrics were woven to the exact width they needed to be. On every shift I have been able to study in detail, the selvedge-to-selvedge width is roughly 29" to 34". This allows the seamstress to make up a shift in which each sleeve has one selvedge down its side seam, and each side of the shift has a selvedge which can be used to make neat flat gores using a butted whipstitch. It also means there is no wastage of precious fabric. A fabric of this width makes up into a shift of "average" size, which will fit a woman with hips up to roughly 50" girth. If you read any 18th c. ads or fabric inventory lists, you will see shift fabrics sold as "3-4, 7-8 and yard wide" which means one yard wide (36" width) 7/8 yard wide (36" x 7/8 = 31.5") and 3/4 yard wide (36" x 3/4 = 27").



Massachusetts Spy, June 10, 1773 ad for linen

In actual fact, each hand woven length of fabric may or may not have been precisely the nominal width it was sold as, but that probably mattered little, as the shift is a forgiving garment. While I have never seen an extant original shift made from a fabric either 36" wide or 27" wide, I believe that these fabrics would have been used to make shifts for unusually stout or petite women while still preserving the benefits of having the selvedges where they are most useful.

I am just now wearing out a shift which I made from a wonderful linen I bought at Jo-Ann Fabrics about 15 years ago, which was everything I wanted, a fine crisp hanky-weight with a great selvedge and 40" wide. I also recently found in my stash some shift weight fabric from Ulster Linen which has that good-old hard selvedge and is 36" wide. These fabrics made up into excellent shifts, so I do not believe that the width is too terribly critical, as long as it isn't too narrow. However fabrics like these are now impossible to find.

In late 2011 I called Ulster Linen and had several long conversations with their VP in charge of yard goods. I also contacted all my other favorite suppliers. The linens they were able to find for me were each a compromise, one way or the other. Most linen available nowadays has that fringy selvedge which is utterly useless and needs to be cut off, leaving you with more edges that will require flat-felling. The best compromise I could find is a 4 oz white linen from Ulster which has a "tucked selvedge" in which the fringy edges have been woven back into the fabric, so that the selvedge is firm and sew-able, and there is no raggedness. The problem with it is that it is 62" wide, and would cost you approximately $20/yd if purchased in wholesale quantities. A shift-length, 3 1/2 yds long, would therefore come at a cost of $70, out of which however you will be able to make yourself *two* shifts by splitting the 3 1/2 yd length the long way. And then each shift-length will be 31" wide, but it will have selvedge along only one side. But this was the best fabric I could find to offer to the participants in the class I taught in March 2012, and at that only because the gentleman went to a great deal of trouble to understand what I needed, root around amongst his bolts for me, send me swatches etc. It's their #1140, it was 62" wide, and it wasn't on their price list, so if you want it, you will probably have to ask for it specifically and tell them I sent you.
http://www.ulsterlinen.com/1140WT_big.jpg

Choosing thread
Eighteenth century linen shifts were sewn with linen thread. There are a few options available to you today, each with its advantages and disadvantages. I have tried linen lace making thread of various brands and various sizes. These threads in sizes 80/2 and 100/2 worked well, but I was disappointed to find that they shrank slightly in the wash, leaving my beautiful hand sewn seams puckered. Londonderry linen thread 100/3 is formulated for sewing, and I have not found it to shrink, but it is more prone to fray, so it requires more careful handling, and needs to be used in shorter lengths.
hedgehoghandworks.com

Choosing needles
Whatever size needle you are using, chances are good you will be able to sew smaller, more precise stitches if you use a smaller needle.
hedgehoghandworks.com

Try a #11 or even a #12. If your fingers are short, you will probably prefer a quilter's "between". If your fingers are long, you will probably prefer an appliqué needle, or a "sharp". Experiment!


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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