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Simplicity 4139: the Blitz blouse

January 14, 2010

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.

After the French surrender, 1940

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.

The Women's Royal Naval Service (Wrens)

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.

WVS members freshen up

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.

Lessons Learned:

  • 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.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2014 11:41 am

    Hi! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my comment form?

    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

  2. August 28, 2014 8:27 am

    I do accept as true with all the concepts you’ve introduced in your post.
    They’re really convincing and will definitely work.

    Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for novices.
    May just you please lengthen them a bit from next time?
    Thanks for the post.

  3. January 29, 2012 6:44 pm

    Simplicity 4139 was produced by the Simplicity sewing pattern company in 1942. If anyone is interested in purchasing this pattern. I have it for sale at: http://www.oldpatterns.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=104_81_178&products_id=5821

    Michelle

  4. Mary permalink
    February 2, 2010 6:35 am

    Hi I too came over from Sew Retro because your beautiful blouse caught my eye – congratulations! I do just want to take you up on the ‘unaided’ part of your statement about Britain during WWII. The very cartoon you use to illustrate your point so dramatically was drawn by a New Zealander – David Low. To the British of the 1940s – ‘alone’ included, at the very least, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. All those nations fought in Europe all through WWII and in the war in Asia and the Pacific as well.

    • Susannah permalink*
      February 2, 2010 10:46 am

      I know, right? It took an hour after I hit ‘Post’ for a Canadian friend to pull me up sharp for being a moron. Kids, don’t get your history off the internet!

      Now I have to find something nice to say about Britain that is actually true.

      • Kitty permalink
        March 2, 2010 1:44 am

        I bet you’ve already learned that Even before the USA entered the war, our boys were going to Canada to enlist with them to help win the war but I thought I’d mention it, just in case it was new to you. Love, kitty

  5. Claire permalink
    January 21, 2010 5:07 am

    I bought an Australian wartime pattern for a shirt and skirt and it actually had in the front with the instructions how to make both from old mens clothing, even the different mens sizes you would have needed to make each size of the womens clothing, also a little to remeber to take out all buttons and findings from the mens clothing to use later.

  6. January 19, 2010 3:37 pm

    Love the look of that single button with the large lapels! Thanks for posting your ‘lessons learned’ – I’m learning how to sew, and I need all the insight I can get!

  7. January 18, 2010 5:00 pm

    I love this! I have the same pattern and have been on the fence about making it – so great to see it made up. Nice job!

  8. January 18, 2010 11:25 am

    I came over from Sew Retro because your shirt caught my eye – it and this entire post are wonderful!

  9. raquel permalink
    January 17, 2010 4:57 pm

    Ohh how lovely! Congratulations!

  10. January 17, 2010 1:11 am

    I have a WWII book that shows how to refashion clothes and hats for women. I actually tried to put some of it on my blog last week but it I couldn’t get it to work. When I do I’ll drop you a note.

    The book shows how to take apart men’s suits, lay them out, and place women’s patterns out on it to refashion the suit. It’s not hard as long as the suit is big enough.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 17, 2010 5:26 pm

      Ooh, do you have a title?

  11. January 15, 2010 9:57 pm

    Stunning blouse! I was drawn to your blog from Sew Retro and it turned out to be a bizarre coincidence as only a couple of hours ago I was thinking about the concept of the cargo cult (maybe for only the 2nd or 3rd time in my life) while listening to the Serge Gainsbourg song on L’Histoire de Melody Nelson. Anyway, I recently posted an item on my (new) blog about a sewing book from 1946 called ‘The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft’ – it doesn’t seem to have anything on turning trousers into a skirt but it has lots on renovating old clothes…

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 15, 2010 10:01 pm

      I’ll see your coincidence and raise you a coincidence: I recently bought The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Dressmaking.

  12. January 15, 2010 2:24 pm

    I like this very much! Thankyou for the history as well, very interesting. This blouse will be great to wear with high-waisted pants and skirts – maybe overalls like Rosie the Riveter even!

  13. January 15, 2010 1:32 pm

    Thank you for this interesting post! Your blouse is fabulous!

  14. jen t permalink
    January 15, 2010 3:22 am

    That’s fabulous!

  15. January 14, 2010 10:11 pm

    Great post! I loved reading excerpts from the book–I would love to find some similar books about life in Scotland during that time. FANTASTIC blouse. I love it! It’s inspired me to try the bishop sleeve version of the blouse pattern I own.

  16. January 14, 2010 8:34 pm

    Very nice! And you poor thing, now forced to make something to wear with it,huh ;)

  17. January 14, 2010 7:00 pm

    Interesting perspective, Susannah. I’m going to hunt down a copy of Longmate’s book.

  18. January 14, 2010 6:02 pm

    You look amazing in this blouse! Fantastic! I’d love to try something like this.

  19. January 14, 2010 5:13 pm

    Love the blouse!
    I have made several thrifted mens pants into skirts for myself… I put a tute on my blog (here: http://burkeshires.blogspot.com/2009/08/at-last.html).
    If you can draft a simple skirt, it’s pretty easy to do. (just start with BIG pants, so you have plenty of room the first time).
    a simple A-line pattern would work too…
    good luck!

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 14, 2010 6:04 pm

      Thank you for this, Ramona — it’s exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

  20. January 14, 2010 3:57 pm

    I love the blouse, and your post is great! (I confess I don’t know that much about Britain in wartime, and what I do know is probably quite skewed by movies…) Those sleeves do look comfortable, I’m going to look through my stash for something similar.

    I wonder how many women actually had new patterns during the war; perhaps many of them had to stick with their tried-and-true favorites from the 30s? But you’d think they’d still want to look fashionable.

    I’ll be looking forward to seeing the complete outfit!

  21. January 14, 2010 3:44 pm

    Your shirt is totally gorgeous. Thanks for sharing the lessons learned.

    Trudy

    http://www.sewingwithtrudy.blogspot.com

  22. January 14, 2010 3:24 pm

    I love your shirt! It came out beautifully and looks so nice on you!

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