The first shift I ever had, made in about 2006, was falling apart faster than I could repair it. Between tugging on the sleeves, stays rubbing on it under the arms, and laundering, it was a complete mess. My first mistake, which I no longer make, was thinking it was acceptable to wash it in the machine as long as I hung it up to dry. Um…nope. We have a top loading machine with an agitator, and that was simply too harsh on the delicate linen fabric. At first, I patched it every time I began to see a new hole or worn place, but the fabric was so delicate that it began tearing apart from the stitches in the spots where it had been patched. I considered keeping it for my Loyalist refugee impression, thinking that a woman on the run wouldn’t be able to procure a new shift and it would look authentic, but a friend who saw its condition said it appeared to be “too worn for decency”.
I could have let my husband use it for a rag, we could have used it to start campfires, or it simply could have gone in the trash. But, I seldom throw anything out until I’ve really thought it through. It sat in a drawer for a year or two while I wore a newer shift that is now always laundered by hand and hung up to dry.
The body of the shift was in great shape…the damage was all up at the top near the bust and under the arms, and on the bottoms of the sleeves. I could have cut it up to make caps or a neck handkerchief, but I wanted to use as much of the “good” part of the fabric as possible. I looked online to see if I could find any references to shifts being repurposed, but didn’t find anything significant. However, I was convinced that it would have been done in the 18th and 19th centuries, as I remembered my grandmother talking about reusing and remaking things until they were so tattered they had to go to the “rag man”. Wool coats, skirts, and dresses were cut into strips to make braided rugs. She was born in the 20th century, but hers was probably the last generation with ties to the practices of the 19th. Ultimately, I decided on an apron.
For more on shifts, see Sharon Ann Burnston’s website. http://www.sharonburnston.com/shifts.html Sharon has published excellent, and FREE instructions on how to make a historically accurate 18th-century shift.
I cut the front and back panels of the shift off at around the bustline area, just under the arms, and I cut the gussets off the bottom of each side. Those were so nicely sewn by the seamstress who made the shift, that I put them aside and kept them.
I also put the tattered top part aside, as there are still useable pieces, one of which I cut off to use as the waistband. There might even be enough material on the sleeves to make a cap at a later date.
The front and back panels that I cut off were about 24″ wide, which is not really wide enough for an apron, so I joined them together with an enclosed/French seam on the inside.
The join in the center is rendered somewhat less noticeable by the gathering at the top when the apron is worn. The bottom was already nicely hemmed, so the only other thing I had to do was hem the sides, gather the top, then add the waistband and strings. The whole thing took maybe 2 hours total, and rather than a fancy, embroidered lawn apron (don’t worry, clothes horse has one or 2 of those too) I have a nice white linen apron for a middling to lower class impression. What do you do with your worn out 18th-century clothing?