Icelandic costume - 19th century Peasant Shirt

The problem with wanting to own the Icelandic national dress is that it is very expensive.  Not just the jewelry, but the dress itself.  The materials are not prohibitively expensive, wool, linen and cotton, and one would of course always want to use good quality fabrics for something that should last a lifetime or more.  But one can not buy a pattern or instructions on how to make it.  One can have it made by a professional seamstress and that costs about 2.500$ excluding materials.  The other option is to take a course in sewing it, guided by a professional seamstress.  Such a course costs 1.200$ in addition to materials.  The course does not include instructions on how to do the embroidery or lacemaking that is needed.  One can use old stuff, buy new or take separate courses in each technique.

There seems to be a consensus among those who know how to make the dress that there is only one right way to make it today (although admittedly some choices are allowed) even if there were numerous variations in the olden days.  Since I am much taller than women used to be, there is no way for me to buy an older dress, I have to make it new.  But I do not agree completely with the proportions of the dress as it is made today.  Being almost a foot taller than my forbearers, I do not think that enough attention has been paid to proportion as women have gotten taller.  There are things that are always made the same length in centimeters, no matter who it is being made for.  Additionally so many things have changed in the course of the years and the practicality of modern life must in some way influence the way we make traditional national dresses.

For example, I think the waist is too high.  In the olden days women would  sometimes have the waist very high in order to have room for a pregnant belly under the skirt.  After all they were pregnant most of the time for years and years.  This is not an issue today.  I also think that the very bulky skirt should be slightly altered in the way it is sewn, to make is less bulky without radically changing the way it looks.  I would just look a bit slimmer.  And I think the corset would be improved if it was slightly lower, longer and fabric that goes under the skirt should also be longer in my opinion.  I have seen that variation in an old costume in the National museum and I think it looks much better.

In my opinion there needs to be a clear goal in the preservation of the national dress.  Naturally it is important to preserve the overall look, but even more important is the preservation of the traditional handiwork.  Even if it was most common to make the dress out of wool, including the underware, no one would really want to do that today with central heating everywhere.  So if lighter materials are allowed and synthetic dyes (something which I'm not too crazy about) why are we stuck with making the patterns so unbecoming that the younger women do not want to wear the dress?

If one takes a sewing course, the seamstress takes measurements and makes the pattern and cuts the fabric.  No patterns are handed out, so that means it is difficult to make another one and also that there is very little room for individual preferences.

I made the shirt of linen and sewed it all by hand.  Somehow it seemed like sacrilege to make a 19th century shirt on a modern sewing machine.  The shirts were originally underclothing and most commonly made of lightweight wool, although more prosperous women would have owned underclothing made of imported cotton, linen and even silk.

I couldn't find a fine linen thread in stores here and was quite shocked to be offered polyester thread to sew my precious shirt.  I ended up importing thread from Denmark.  Since the seller didn't accept credit cards, the transfer was kind of expensive for the small amount that the thread cost, so I ordered some fabric also.  It was a small quantity of printed cotton in two 18th century patterns and a lovely linen, a bit heavier than that which I used for the shirt and I thought I would use it for a petticoat.

The shirt pattern is a very simple one, basic peasant shirt that is common throughout Europe.  All the pieces are rectangles, the largest is the main piece which is both front and back with a hole cut out for the neck opening.  The shirt is slightly longer in the back, about 5 cm (2"), with slits at the sides.

I was measured by a seamstress who then cut the pattern.  I was adamant that she would cut the shirt patterns large.  I am quite tall, 5'10" and get really annoyed with small clothing.  I prefer roomy clothes and quite frankly I wanted to control the pattern to some extent and I wouldn't be able to adjust it to my liking unless I had large pieces to work with.  She obliged me and I got to make it the way I wanted.  I am very pleased with the result.

More detailed sewing instructions to follow.


  1. So very very beautiful (at least what I can see) I don't suppose you woulds special order make one for this midlife farmwife soapmaker in Illinois would you?

  2. That is so sweet of you! I wish I could, but I still have the other petticoat to do and the skirt itself and then there is some dyeing (which is going on right now - lovely nettle and lupin). But I will write a post on making the pattern and sewing it. So you can have a go yourself. It is amazing how quickly it goes, sewing by hand. And there is no annoying "threading of the machine process" to do :)


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