Upskilly & Stuff 4: the Nightgown

What an educational experience! she says, with a mad glint in her eye. Turns out it was not the murders but the sewing of nightgowns that pushed Lady Macbeth over the edge.

John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist
In fact, Bertha Rochester (née Mason) also appears in a nightgown, if I recall correctly. Obviously there is a correlation, which no doubt some scholar has looked into.

It started out quite simply: turn old flannel sheet into flannel nightgown. I didn’t want to use the traditional chemise patterns (e.g the Igor Thift) because I didn’t fancy ending up with a) a wide neck or b) a drawstringy lump to lie on. So I came up with my own plan.

The design is – was – fairly simple. One piece, folded in half, goes from cuff to cuff – with an opening at the top (on the fold) for a head to go through, and a larger opening at the bottom for the gathered panels of the body to be attached to.

This middle section of Ye Greate Sleeve Piece has an extra layer (drama! needs to be hourglass-shaped) to reinforce the ‘yoke’ so it can carry the weight of the body panels.

sketch of nightdress

The process went something like this: cut/tear two body pieces, one sleeve piece, one yoke piece (trimmed to necessary hourglass shape) and two cuff pieces.

Problem: don’t know how to gather.
Solution: look up Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing; follow instructions.

Problem: yoke still has raw edges.
Solution: stop gathering body panel to the yoke; set up iron, press and pin single-fold hem, debate whether to sew or leave pinned; finally decide to tack and do so. Return to gathering.

Problem: pre-existing hem from sheet will now be on outside of nightie.
Solution: remove gathering; pin gathering other way around.

Bear in mind that this dry statement of problems and solutions omits all the melodramatic reactions from yours truly.

Hippopotamus in the Zambezi
I will simply state that my husband is a man with the patience of Job (although hopefully with a somewhat better wife).

Problem: snip-and-rip cutting out of pieces has left yoke deeper than sleeve piece. Gathered edge will thus not be encased.
Solution (suggested by the Caped Gooseberry):  gather the edges of the yoke to fit.

Problem: sleeve piece is unedged.
Solution: unpick it (I’ll spare you the saga of the Unequal Sleeves); press and tack a single-fold hem along the midsection of the sleeve piece. Pin, tack, etc.

Problem: binding round the yoke would be better done after the side seams are sewn.
Solution: unpin the binding and turn attention to the neck.

nightie without hole for head
The Headless Horseman’s nana-nightie.

Problem: T-slit neckline is difficult to bind.
Solution: use keyhole (round with slit) instead (instructions here). Experiment with mathematics (πr and all that) and newspaper with holes cut in it.

Problem: yoke is basically a bubble.
Solution (suggested by Caped Gooseberry and ungraciously received by moi): gather the neck too.
Solution (enacted by moi): pin the gathers from the shoulders flat near where the neck will be, draw the neck on the underside (the flat base of the bubble), pin, tack, sew on bias binding.

Problem: the neckline has stretched.
Solution: sew the slit part of the keyhole closed at the top, as it is no longer necessary. To (hopefully!) prevent further stretching, stay-stitch all round the neckline.

keyhole neckline

Problem: the keyhole is now a bit too far down my sternum for comfort, and the neckline seems strangely low at the back.
Solution (again, suggested by the Caped Gooseberry): turn the nightgown around. This works, except it still seems to want to be low at the back.

Problem: while the second part of a flat-fell seam is doable by machine for the body, the sleeves are too narrow.
Solution: hand-sew the second part of the sleeve seam. The arms are remarkably tight at the underarm, despite how much fabric I allowed. Don’t know what happened there…

Problem: I have never sewn a cuff before in my life.
Solution: as I am now a well-practiced gatherer, proceed as per usual. Make up the bit about how the cuff goes on and wake up in the night to think about how it could have been done better.


Problem: the nightgown is too long.
Solution: tie the cut-off hem of the sheet around it as a sort of belt.

Problem: this has taken most of three days to do, and I’ve run out of time before the post is due.
Solution: take photos of nightgown and write it up before finishing sewing on the binding. Depend on the charitable nature of your readers to accept this second instance of unfinished work.

Problem: I still haven’t finished the petticoat hem, either.
Solution: do something a bit simpler next month – a basic pair of shorts. This will allow extra time for finishing the petticoat and nightgown.

Almost finished!

Skills I practiced this month: designing, planning, gathering, not panicking, gathering, tacking, gathering, unpicking, gathering, geometry, gathering, stay-stitching, flat-fell seams, gathering, cuffs.

Sewing an old-fashioned nightgown: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

2 Replies to “Upskilly & Stuff 4: the Nightgown”

  1. Congrats on all that problem solving, which has got to be character-building.
    If only you had some aunts who have experience in doing all sorts of sewing – oh wait!…

    1. Clearly, I need a resident aunt – although possibly battling through on my own was more character-building!

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