Here's an easy way to make a historically inspired Italian renaissance chemise or camicia. The finished fabric widths and designs are very close to the measurements of an extant garment. One size fits most because the body panels are wide and long enough to fit almost all body types.
Sewing instructions for an Italian camicia or chemise
Buy four yards of 60” wide 100% linen fabric. You can use cotton muslin for a mockup or even as the finished product. Use linen to have a more period-correct undergarment. Look for 3.5oz or less linen fabric. One of my favorite online shops for linen is fabrics-store.com.
Wash and dry your linen fabric. Use regular detergent. Do not use bleach. Dry your fabric without mercy so it shrinks as much as possible. Trust me on this. If you want to be extra careful, wash and dry the fabric again. Iron your fabric. You could iron it all out at once, or iron it out as you cut the pieces.
Cut it up
You can cut or rip the linen. I prefer to rip it as it naturally follows the grainline. To rip fabric, simply snip the fabric with scissors about 1 or 2” in, then pull the pieces of fabric apart. So satisfying!
Gussets: Mark and rip fabric 36” (one yard) in from the raw edge. Mark and rip fabric 10” in from the raw edge. Cut or rip the 10” strip to make two 10” square pieces. Cut those on the diagonal. These are your underarm gussets. Set aside the remaining 10”x16” piece in case of gusset sewing failure. :(
Sleeves: Rip the remaining 36” wide piece in half. Mark either the shorter or longer side of the sleeve to avoid the “Oh no, which side is which?” dilemma later. Can you tell I’ve done this before? :)
Trim: Cut 3” in from the selvedge (bound) side of the fabric. You’ll use this to finish the gathered neckline. You may not need the entire 3” width, but at least you’ll have it.
Body front and back: Mark and rip 54” in from the other selvedge side, or simply rip the remaining fabric in half. Notice the body side seam has the bound selvedge along it. Pin or mark the body back to identify it later.
Sew it up
I recommend using french seams. They are strong and help the raw edges from fraying in the wash. If you own a serger, then by all means use it. If you are really adventurous, you can pull long threads from the fabric and handsew the entire garment. Use a 5/8” or 1/2” seam allowance.
- Sew gussets to sleeves. Line up the edge of the gusset to the shorter edge of the sleeve fabric. Sew in all four gussets.
- Sew sleeves to body pieces. Be sure to set the edge of the sleeve 4”- 6” in on the back body piece, and 2” in on the front body piece. Offsetting the sleeves helps the garment lie higher on your back so you don’t feel the need to pull down on the front. The rounder your upper back, the deeper you’ll have to set the sleeves to the back body piece. If you like, you can pin in the sleeves and try it on before sewing it up.
- Fold garment in half at sleeves. What this means is to fold the entire garment in half at the sleeves while making sure the sleeve edges match up first. Pin the entire garment together. You’ll have 2” - 4” of fabric extra fabric at the front body hem. Leave it there for now.
- Sew side seams from sleeve edge to body hem. Run one big line of stitching from sleeve edge to hem. Cut or rip off that extra body hem fabric. Yes, another satisfying moment. :)
- Gather neckline. If you want the neckline finished with a band: Gather the neckline 1/2” in from the raw edge. If you want the neckline to have ruffles: Finish the neckline edge using a hemmer foot, a very small hem, or even a decorative stitch. Gather the fabric 1” from the top, then gather again 1 1/2” in from the top.
- How to gather the neckline: Gather the neckline in four parts. Slide the fabric together along the thread. Put a pin the fabric and tie off the thread by looping it around the pin in a figure eight. Loop it around several times because you may need the extra thread to adjust the gathers later. Gather the sleeve, body back and other sleeve. Now try the garment on and make sure the neckline falls where you want it. Adjust the neckline by undoing the looped thread end and readjusting the fabric along the thread. When everything looks right, take off the garment and tie off the thread ends with at least two knots.
- Trim the neckline. To finish neckline with a band: With edges even, pin the 3” strip of linen at the center back neckline with 1/2” of the edge folded in. Pin the strip all around the neckline and overlap the end by 1/2”. Sew the trim to the neckline just over 1/2” or sew over the gathering stiches. Fold over the band to the wrong side. Fold the excess under while making sure it is wide enough to barely cover the prior line of stitching. If there is too much fabric to fold under, then cut it off before handstitching in place. To finish neckline with ruffles: Cut the band down to 1 1/2” wide. Fold and iron down the entire length of the strip so the lengthwise edges meet in the middle. Center the wrong side of band over the two lines of gathered stitching on the right side of garment. Sew the band to the garment on either side of the band by sewing over the two lines of gathering stitches.
- Hem sleeves. You’re at the home stretch! Fold in the edge of the sleeves 1/4”, then another 1/4”. Sew in place close to the edge. Use a hemmer foot if you have one. Alternatively, you could finish the sleeves as you did the neckline. Make sure the opening is large enough to fit your hand through.
- Hem bottom edge. Fold in the bottom edge 1/2”, then another 1/2” Sew in place close to the edge.
You’re done! Now try on your fabulous creation. Look in the mirror. Imagine you are a beautiful Venetian lady longing for her lover’s embrace. Oops, sorry…did I say that with my outside voice? I should really stop watching romantic period dramas. :)
Do you have any questions? Please leave a comment.
References Wake, Annabella. "How To Sew a Venetian Camicia." Venus' Seamstress at The Realm of Venus. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/library/camiciahowto.htm.