Costuming · Sewing

McCall’s 8231 1890s shirtwaist

I was going to do two patterns in one post, and then as usual, I ended up being too verbose again. So! This post and the next one will be an exercise in compare and contrast. Both of the patterns I used are for the same ultimate end, but one of them I hated from beginning to end, and the other one I loved. Let’s dive in to the one I didn’t like.

A woman wearing an orange-and-white striped shirtwaist with an angled yoke, an orange-full length skirt, and an orange hat.

McCalls 8231 is a terrible pattern. It is a pattern designed by Angela Clayton, whose work is absolutely stunning. I’ve been a fan of hers for years. I’ll be up front that I do not blame Angela Clayton for how bad this pattern is. The design is extremely cute and I highly doubt that she drafted the pattern itself or wrote the instructions. My assumption is that McCalls’s in-house patternmakers and staff did the drafting and instruction-writing per their in-house standards. So I will be blaming them unless I hear otherwise.

For my 1890s Umbreon project, my plan was to make a shirtwaist, vest, and walking skirt. I looked at a lot of shirtwaist patterns but I decided I liked the style lines on this one the best. How cute is that angled yoke? It won’t be visible if I wear the vest over it, but I can totally wear it on its own.

I started with a mockup. (Side note: this pattern only comes as a printed tissue pattern, and I loathe pattern tissue. Give me PDFs any day.) The first and most obvious problem was the fit of the sleeve. The armscye is incredibly low, and it restricts range of motion. I could barely lift my arm. You might think that an armscye being too low, or too large, would give you more room, but it does not! (Think of hammer pants as an example of how a seam being too low restricts how well you can move.) I have no idea what kind of arms McCalls drafts for, but it sure wasn’t mine.

I did a few things to deal with the armscye. First, I took the side seam in at the top by about 1.5-2″. That helped by making the armscye smaller, but it didn’t solve everything. Then I shortened the yoke pieces by 2” by taking a straight horizontal tuck out of both front and back. This raised the bottom of the armscye. Lastly, I opened up the armscye seam and patched in a bit of extra fabric—like a gusset, except it would eventually be integrated into the flat pattern instead of being a separate piece.

Author showing mockup with fully raised arm. Underarm seam has been partially ripped to make room.
I added fabric into the area where I ripped the seam as a faux-gusset.

On my first muslin, the sleeve didn’t have enough puff, in my opinion. This was an easy fix. While I was making the armscye smaller, I did not make any changes to the sleeve. That meant the sleeve was proportionately larger to the armscye, so I could gather it significantly more in order to make it fit, and that gave me the classic 1890s poof I was looking for. I originally planned to convert the 2-piece sleeve into a 1-piece sleeve, but the seams added shaping, so I decided not to in the end.

One other issue I had with the first muslin: the button band ended up too short for the length of the front. I don’t know if that was my error or a pattern error.

Once the muslin was fitted to my satisfaction, I cut the muslin apart, trimmed off the seam allowances, and traced it off to make new pattern pieces. I find the standard ⅝” seam allowance too big, so I intended to convert it to a ½” seam allowance. Unfortunately I screwed up and ended up with a ⅜”, which was okay but made flat-felled seams feel a little bit trickier.

After my muslin, I stalled, because the next step was dyeing my fabric. I wanted a lightweight, woven-in striped fabric for this shirtwaist, but the fabrics that fit my idea of what I wanted for the weave were all white. So I bought this really nice white fabric and used Dharma Trading Co’s “hot black” dye to turn it black so it would fit the 1890s Umbreon vision. It took about 2 hours and in the end, I got what could be termed “light black” at best. Dyeing it was annoying the first time around, though, so I didn’t bother to do it a second time.

I barely squeezed the pattern out of 2 yards of 45”-wide fabric. I almost completely ignored the instructions that came with the pattern and just constructed it like a normal shirt. The pattern has very weird instructions for the button band, for example, so I had to widen the pattern piece so I could attach it like normal.

Putting in the back yoke was pretty tricky with those opposing angles. It was even trickier because I was attaching both inner and outer yoke pieces, like a typical shirt yoke, when the instructions actually tell you to hand-stitch the inner yoke pieces down after you’ve constructed the shirt. In retrospect, I’m not really happy with the point at the back. It only occurred to me later that the better way to put it in would have been to cut the back piece with a center back seam instead of on the fold, then attach the yoke pieces before seaming up the back. So I’ll have to do that next time.

Partially constructed shirt, showing front yokes coming together as an inverted V at center front.

Couple other fit notes: raising the armscye meant my final sleeve was too short. The cuff pieces were meant to be folded in half, which decreases the height by half, so I ended up keeping the cuff full-width and cutting extra cuff pieces for the inner cuffs. My armscye was also a little too tight after my adjustments, so I had to take the sleeves off, cut the armscye ½” deeper at the bottom, and reattach them.

Author with shirtwaist on, sans collar.
Mid-construction, pre-collar. I felt like this had a real Lady Gaga vibe.

Also, the collar is a completely straight rectangle, which I really did not like. A curved collar band would have fit much more nicely. Since I didn’t have enough fabric to draft a new collar and cut it from my fabric, I added some darts to my collar piece instead. It’s okay but I don’t love it.

Additional construction details: all the seams are flat-felled except for the second sleeve seam, which is done with a French seam, and the armscye, which is serged because life is short. My buttons are shell buttons from Mood. I didn’t add anything to the sleeves to help support the structur of the poof, they just do that on their own.

A note for anyone trying to install a tower placket into a two-piece sleeve: this is apparently a thing no one on the internet has ever done, but for once McCalls’s instructions helped. What you have to do is sew the sleeve seam up to the point your placket slit opens. Finish the seam above that however you like; I flat-felled mine. Cut away the seam allowance on one side. You now have a flat piece of fabric with a slit in it; put your placket piece on top and install as normal.

The back has a little section that’s gathered and held in place with a rectangular tab sewn to the inside, as per the instructions in Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques. I omitted the recommended waist ties because I didn’t want to make them.

Author wearing shirtwaist underneath fitted black vest, black leggings, and Doc Marten boots.
Apparently I just didn’t take very many pictures of the final version! I finished it at sewing camp so I was occupied with other things.

Overall verdict: the result is pretty close to what I wanted, but it took a lot more work than I expected to get there. I’ll probably make this again, with a few more tweaks as noted above.

Pattern: McCalls 8231

Fabric: “Kitty” cotton dimity from Renaissance Fabrics, dyed

Notions: Cotton organdy and black knit tricot as interfacing, buttons from Mood.

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