I posted recently about the outer-most layer of my 1920 mill worker outfit. Here’s a post about the inner-most layer. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this garment and how I made it; hopefully this will address them.
As I started my research for this project, I spent some time digitally flipping through old Sears and Roebuck catalogs (1918, 1922, 1923). Among other things, I was hoping that activity would help me get a better handle on all of the various undergarments which composed the base layers of women’s wardrobes at the time and which I frankly find to be fairly overwhelming. In doing so, I stumbled upon advertisements for Pilgrim brand union suits for women (“Pilgrim Princess” being by far my favorite heading in the entire catalog). It appeared that a one-piece wool or cotton jersey suit was one of the many options for women’s underwear at that time. As I scoured the internet for extant examples of such a garment, I became intrigued by the engineering that went into these suits and decided that I wanted to try my hand at making one.
Knit union suits were recommended by Mark Brooks Picken in her wardrobe advice for college girls. While co-eds certainly represent a different socio-economic demographic than mill workers, many female mill workers would have been around the same age as college girls, and would have benefited from comfortable underwear which didn’t hinder their movement. Plus, the union suits weren’t that expensive, so I thought it seemed like a reasonable choice of undergarment for the impression I was building.
I was able to find examples of many different styles of union suit for sale by vintage clothing dealers, which proved to be an invaluable source for reference images. Because I wanted my suit to be as versatile as possible, I decided it would be sleeveless and would have legs that ended just below the knee.
Some of the extant suits I was able to find on Etsy and Instagram, like the two modeled above, were shaped as they were knit. These all seemed to be wool though, which was fine with me because I didn’t have the technology to make my suit like that. Instead, I would cut and sew mine from cotton jersey.
The cotton suits were still knit to shape in one way, however: they were made from cloth knit in the round, and they utilized the tubular nature of the cloth to eliminate side seems on the outsides of the legs. The material that I had was also tubular, but its circumference was too large for my needs, so I started by cutting it down to a 44” tube. I decided to position the seam at center-back, where it would be least noticeable.
Next, I fitted the body of the suit by cutting out crescent shaped pieces at either side of the torso and finished the neckline and armholes. I did all of this before working on the legs or crotch because I knew that was where the real engineering challenge would lie, and I wanted to be able to try on the suit as I fitted the legs.
Because the body of the suit was made from a single tube of fabric, to make the crotch I had to add in additional material for a crotch gusset. But not only did the crotch area require extra material to go around the thighs and compensate for the seat, it also had to allow the wearer to go to the bathroom without getting fully undressed (a practical impossibility in one-piece underwear). This was facilitated by a split crotch, with two overlapping gusset panels which the wearer could pull apart to go to the bathroom.
The original garments I had found engineered this in a variety of ways (nearly every example I’ve shown here handles it differently – the one I chose to copy is shown at left). I chose to add two crotch gusset pieces on each side: one forming the rear part of the crotch (the “butt flap”) and also serving as a gusset to widen the leg for the upper thigh, and a second piece for the front portion of the crotch.
The finished garments is remarkable comfortable, as well as practical. It fits well underneath the corset I made for this outfit, and I can even go to the toilet in in, though I will admit to it being slightly complicated.