Simplicity 4139: the Blitz blouse
England can be a challenging place to live sometimes, but one thing that never fails to command my awe and respect is that at one point within living memory, the people of this small, overcrowded, underresourced island were willing to stand up to Hitler and his armies… unaided.
World War 2 wasn’t a tidy modern war, outsourced to a professional army thousands of miles away so everyone back home could get on with their lives. This war happened in the street where you lived and the fields outside your town and the trains you took to work. It affected what you ate, what you wore and nearly every aspect of your day-to-day life. And the army was you — you and your family and all your friends.
What astonishes me when I read about the Home Front is the impression that the war was won not only, or even mainly, by conspicuous acts of bravery in the field but by the daily efforts of ordinary people. To assist the war effort, men and women back home — mostly women — engaged in minute, thankless, unremitting tasks day after day. How would you like to crawl around on the floor tying rags to huge nets to provide a few more square yards of camouflage for the army? Or cook for years in a single saucepan because you gave all your aluminum pots to be melted down for Spitfires? Or spend an hour and a half before sundown each night making sure every window in your house was completely blacked out?
The near-total shutdown of the civilian clothing industry in order to divert resources to the war effort forced British women back on their own ingenuity as seamstresses, even if they’d never picked up a needle before. Increasingly tight clothing and fabric rationing from 1941 onward meant that women went to lengths nearly unimaginable today to whip up clothing from nearly nothing, maintain existing clothes as long as possible and transform old garments into new ones.
Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then, the most detailed and absorbing book on the subject I’ve read so far, goes into fascinating detail about the dearth of basic clothing items due to rationing and the innovative methods women dreamed up to augment their own and their families’ clothing rations:
Black-out material [which was not rationed] was soon covering as many British women as windows; a black dirndl skirt, decorated with rows of brightly coloured tape, could, one woman found, look very attractive… Black-out material was also used for petticoats and “outsize” knickers, while curtain-net, cheese-cloth and butter-muslin, all unrationed, were employed in home-made bras.
A young Yorkshire girl started her married life in a housecoat made from furnishing velvet. … A London woman made herself “a very nice pinafore dress from a heavy plain green door curtain”, and a Paignton mother went to bed in nightdresses cut from a roll of cleaning rag, dyed pink. A shorthand-typist at a Cheltenham printing factory made a dress from two tablecloths and a Hoylake housewife one from book linen and linings.
A young girl working in a government drawing office was given an old linen map, which she boiled to remove the starch and printer’s ink. “Then I washed it, dyed it with a fourpenny dye. Ironed it. Cut it out from a much-used blouse pattern. Made it up with a fivepenny reel of cotton and used the buttons from an old dress. Result — one new wearable garment. Total cost ninepence — no coupons. I was very proud of this blouse.”
I first decided to try my hand at a 1940s pattern after reading a copy of Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 I bought in the Bletchley Park bookshop. (If you ever get a chance to visit Bletchley, GO!) I was inspired by how calmly indomitable British women seemed to be in the face of war, stepping into new roles in the military, industry and agriculture, undertaking demanding workloads at home and volunteering in the community… all while taking the time to look good too.
Original British sewing patterns from WW2 are hard to find, probably due to tight wartime restrictions on printing — the vast majority of early 1940s vintage patterns I’ve seen on the internet are American. I’m not even sure what names to look for, as I have no idea what British pattern companies operated at the time. (Suggestions very welcome!)
I bought this pattern at the sadly now-defunct VintageCat. It’s Simplicity 4139. I’m unsure of the date, but am guessing 1941 or so.
I made only one minor alteration, removing 1/2″ from the yoke at the shoulder line to compensate for the fact that I’d be wearing it without shoulder pads. I made it up in a light, drapey cotton in a small brown flower print I got on Goldhawk Road for £2 a metre. The gathered sleeve caps and cuffs made attaching the sleeves (the ruin of most of my projects) a breeze.
I discovered that I love bishop sleeves. They are feminine without being frou-frou.
The cut and fastening of this blouse is interesting. The waistline sits much higher than a modern woman’s blouse, at the natural waistline, and the hem is much shorter, barely covering my hipbone. In addition, the blouse fastens with a single button above the waist and requires a snug waistband to keep it from gaping below, so I cannot wear it with modern skirts or pants, which are all cut to sit below the natural waistline. This blouse now requires a 1940s skirt or high-waisted slacks to match. Oh shame, another project.
- Interface your buttonholes. The pattern calls for a single large button, and the long buttonhole I had to make to fit it has warped slightly because the fabric is so light and drapey. Applying a small piece of interfacing to the bodice front before I made the buttonhole would have reinforced it.
- Check hem length. I feel a little nervous about (e.g.) raising my arms in this blouse because the hem is so short and threatens to pull free, exposing my midriff. I suppose I could always lengthen the hem by adding pieces of other, discarded shirts where it doesn’t show. That would be period, actually.
- A busy print covers a multitude of sins. Any small imperfections in craftsmanship are totally masked by the ditsies, which is great if you’ve got project dysmorphia like me.
- Try not to make stuff you can’t wear with what you’ve already got. This blouse lives in limbo at the moment because I don’t have any coordinating skirts or pants with the right cut.
I’d really like my next project to be a Make Do & Mend skirt refashioned from a pair of men’s trousers. If you know of any wartime sewing books that give advice on how to do this, I’d love to hear about it.
Meanwhile, Debi and Zoe have also been taking an interest in WW2 sewing. Zoe, who’s taken the Wardrobe Refashion pledge, will be applying wartime techniques to renovate old clothes instead of buying new. I’ll be interested to see how this turns out.