16th Century Elizabethan Woman's Shift


completed smockSummary: I needed to make a new shift for use at SCA events and Jamestown, and wished to try out more hand sewing techniques. I used white linen cloth, 3.5 oz weight from and Londonderry 50/3 linen thread, already on hand, to create it.
This project was begun in Spring 2007, and finally completed in July 2008. (Completed pictures coming soon.)

Evidence: There are a few surviving shirts, high necked smocks or night shirts from this period. Most plain shirts were no doubt used up, or sold to second hand shops to then be passed on in the used clothing market until they were naught but scraps. Thankfully there are some that were decorated with embroidery, thus making them more likely to be kept, cared for and passed down. Such shirts are the Wadham College shift, the Warwick shirt, a man's shirt c. 1580 and a woman's smock c. 1610 in the Costume Museum of Bath, and a woman's smock dated c. 1630 in the Victoria and Albert Museum. While valuable resources to the embroider, they also give us patterns for typical shirt construction of the time, including key elements such as the underarm gussets and neck gussets, as well as pleating for the sleeves, and some of the body of the garment to the collar.

For this shift I decided to use elements from two particular extant garments. One is the woman's smock dated 1630 in the V&A, and the other was a woman's smock dated 1610 from the Costume Museum of Bath. Both of these garments were specific to women, noted by decoration and length. Neither had ruffles at the neck and wrist, but lace applied instead. Even with the lace, both neck and wrist bands are straight in nature. Both smocks have limited gathering/pleating into the neck band, as opposed to the men's shirt in the Costume Museum of Bath that has the bulk of the garment's width pleated into the collar. Both smocks have a finished neck slit that extends to below the sleeves and breast line. Both smocks are also fairly full in the skirt, but while the Bath smock uses wider fabric, the V&A smock makes use of side gores. Sadly the display of the Bath smock hides the underarm attachment, but the display of the V&A smock clearly shows the use of square underarm gussets. Both smocks also show detailed seam finishing, even though they vary from inserted bobbin lace to cross-stitch embroidery over the seams.

Materials and Construction: I used materials already in my sewing stash to create this new smock. I started by taking pre-washed white linen in a 3.5 oz weight, and cutting out the pattern pieces. 18 pattern pieces are used; 1 front, 1 back, 2 triangular neck gussets, 2 square underarm gussets, 4 triangular side gores, 2 rectangular sleeves, 2 neck bands, and 4 wrist bands. I also used the 50/3 linen sewing thread to fingerloop braid, using a flat braid of five bows, the ties for the neck and cuffs.  

Counter-intuitive to our modern methods of construction, I decided to finish or hem the edges of each pattern piece before assembling the smock using a whip stitch for the seams. An image of the inside seam of a smock is available in Tudor Tailor: reconstructing sixteenth- century dress showing the lines of the whip stitches likely used to assemble that garment. Prior to assembly, each edge of the pattern piece is finished using a combination of a whip stitch and a blind hem stitch, depending on the detail and length. In retrospect, using a running stitch for the seam finishing would have been speedier, but I was unwilling to change seam finishing techniques in the middle of the project. Mistress Isobel has assured me that on some coifs she's seen, a blind hem stitch was sometimes used to finish the edges, instead of the typical running stitch or buttonhole stitch.

The pattern pieces mostly finished, with the neck gussets applied to the front piece of the smock:
Smock pattern pieces

Whipstitching used for seaming (I learned not to use so large a needle in the end):
Smock whipstitched seaming

One of the neck gussets fully inserted and collar attached:
Smock neck gusset inserted

The three edges I didn't finish were the neck hole, and the wrist edge of each sleeve. Those edges would be gathered and concealed inside the neck and wrist bands, and the added bulk would be troublesome and unnecessary. Each neck and wrist band was created from two rectangles top-stitched together to create the double layer bands.

Neck of SmockFinishing details: I decided to forgo the decoration of lace on the collar and cuffs of this smock. Since it will primarily be used with middling to lower class outfits, especially for use at Jamestown, I figured simpler would be better. Jamestown inventories show shipments of cloth suitable for making shirts. Both Anne Burras and Jane Wright, two women at early Jamestown, were pressed into service as laundresses and seamstresses by the Virginia Company to make some of the basic items, such as shirts. Inventories of early lace import have not been found. We know that thread was at a premium as both women were beaten for stealing thread from completed shirts to make new ones, so creation of lace in Jamestown is highly unlikely in the early years.

I used integrated ties for the closures of this smock. Neither image of the women's smocks show details of the neck closure, however the men's shirt from the Costume Museum of Bath, does show a single tie on each side at the base of the collar for closing the shirt. I choose to follow this design element. The woman's smock at the V&A shows a tie closure at the center of the wrist band. Instead of sewing the ties to the wrist cuff, its seamstress made eyelets on each side to run a lace through for closure. After contemplating this method and realizing I'd loose laces faster than I could make them, I opted to sew the ties onto the center of the wrist cuff on each side

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c. 1560-1620, Drama Books, ©1985.

Gaylor, Ginger and Walls, Sharon. Clothing Production and Acquisition in the early 17th Century. 3-bay Production Care & Maint.of Clothing revised. Curatorial approval by N. Egloff. Interpretive documents for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, 2000.

Hart, Avril and North, Susan. Historical Fashion in Detail, V&A Publications, 2003

Mellin, Laura. A Reproduction of the Wadham College Shift c. 1600. [Article] ©2007. Retrieved online at:

Mellin, Laura. Patched, Scratched, and Mis-matched: Secondhand clothes in Elizabethan London. [Article] ©2000. Retrieved online at:

Mikhailya, Ninya and Malcolm-Davies, Jane. Tudor Tailor: reconstructing sixteenth- century dress. ©2006 Costume & Fashion Press

Morgan, Laura. An Elizabethan Shirt Instruction by Grace Gamble [Article], The Oak, Issue #10. Retrieved online at:

Photos of extant shirts and smocks are available online from the Elizabethan Costume Page
Elizabethan Costume at the Costume Museum of Bath:
Shirts and Smocks at the V&A Museum:

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