04 September 2017

Measuring linen

In the Western world today, we think in centimeters or inches. For sewing projects that don't involve fitting, it's easy to think in round numbers; perhaps different ones depending on if we prefer metrics or Imperial units. But European women in the 18th century and earlier probably picked other 'round numbers' than we do now.

Written texts

Preserved sewing manuals show how efficiently body linens were cut, with little or no waste. Sometimes the fabric width was simply divided into two or more equal pieces. Often the size wasn't critical, as shifts, shirts, and neckerchiefs weren't fitted garments. The measuring units of choice tended to be 1/4, 1/8, and perhaps 1/16 fractions of the larger unit, rather than inches and other smaller units:
  • Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor (1789) uses a yard (91.4 cm) subdivided in sixteen nails (2.25" or about 5.7 cm). For small measurements like wristband widths, fractions of nails are used—not inches.
  • Garsault's L'art de la lingere (1771) divides the Paris aune (118.8 cm) into quarters or thirds, and goes on to subdivide these so the final fractions are as small as twelfths or sixteenths of an aune (1/16 aune is about 7.4 cm or 2 15/16"). According to this book, the body for a French style shift (i.e. with a rectangular body) is cut half an aune wide (59.4 cm).
This suggests that at least some women cut linen for underwear based on the local measuring unit subdivided in eighths or perhaps sixteenths, with a smallest subdivision of about 5 to 7.5 cm (2" to 3"), rather than an inch or its equivalents. Note that these books were directed at women who sew for others, whether for charity or regular customers.

We can't be sure if a woman sewing for her own family had access to a measuring tool, but it does seem possible. Several European countries used an ell measurement, of a length that was defined locally and eventually nationally. E.g., the German Elle in the 18th century was usually between 55 and 65 cm depending on the location. In some towns, there was a measurement unit affixed to the facade of a church or public building, as a reference for citizens and/or merchants. A few of these still hang on Swedish church doors (Wikipedia has an example of this). With such a reference, it would be easy to cut a straight stick to the right length and mark subdivisions to produce a makeshift measuring stick.

An extant shift

My impression is that shifts in Northern Europe typically were of Garsault's "French" style, with a rectangular body that is easy to measure for width. Ideally, we'd have access to a range of 18th century shifts that we could compare with the measuring units in use—but sadly, extant North European shifts from the 18th century and earlier are few and far between.

There's a Danish shift in the French style though, dated 1775. According to a drawing of the pattern (originally published in "Moden i 1700-årene", and now on the resurrected Tidens Tøj site) it has a 62 cm wide body—and the Danish alen was 62.8 cm (defined in the late 17th century), which allows for the narrow seam allowances of the period.

Cutting out my own shift

For my own 18th century style shift I used a measuring stick that is one Swedish aln long (59.4 cm or nearly 24"), not counting the handle. It is subdivided in quarters and eighths, and I used these fractions in place of today's 'round numbers' to decide how large to cut each piece. (The measuring stick is divided in 10 cm units on another side, so it must've been made in the 1880s or later, when Sweden went metric).

Measuring with the aln stick was very convenient, especially as it helped me to get started instead of fretting over exactly how much ease I should add. Judging by antique sewing manuals, shifts were made in just one or a few sizes, so the fit shouldn't matter as long as it's large enough!

Using the quarter aln units of 15 cm or 6", it was suddenly very easy to decide how large to cut each piece. When another quarter aln would be too much, then I just added an eighth instead (7.5 cm or 3"). E.g., I cut the body 1 aln wide as per Garsault (because 1 Swedish aln equals ½ French aune), but making the shift 2 aln long seemed just a little too short, so I cut the body 4 1/4 aln long for a finished length of 2 1/8 aln, and so on.

Have you ever tried using older measuring units when cutting linen—e.g., using your local ell instead of centimeters, or nails instead of inches?


  1. I love this post ! It is fascinating to see how people prior to the 20th century used fractions in their daily life. Understanding how to divid an apple or pie comes naturally to children before developing the ability to count. So, I am not surprised that people use to use what comes more naturally to them to divid up fabric, rather than counting out units. Well articulated !

    1. Thanks, and good point about kids!

      I'm surprised how long the use of nails lived on; I noticed the other day that the 1838 sewing book "The Workwoman's Guide" mostly uses nails, but inches for the smallest measurements.