Friday, February 12, 2010

A Uniform of the U.S. Navy

David has a particular friend, who, several months ago, asked me if I would be willing to make him a navy uniform. I was only too delighted to comply; when Judah was a baby I had the very great pleasure of conversing with a very charming gentleman portraying a U.S. sailor at a Civil War school day demonstration and ever since that time have longed to make a navy uniform. David, not being inclined to that style, has never given me the opportunity.
Ah! The gallant and gregarious Mr. Huber! Who else would ask me to make a navy uniform? Who else would give me this chance to fulfill a dream of mine? How very glad I am of David's choice of friends.

I had no idea where to begin. For, beyond seeing men in navy uniforms and having a picture of my own father in his navy uniform, I was not even sure of the overall style. I inquired about this at the Civil War Reenactors Discussion board and received many helpful replies. Here are some excerpts below:

"For frocks (also modernly called jumpers) and undershirts, Tom Apple created a pattern which can be found at the website for the Naval Landing Party or my home unit the USS Fort Henry ( - in the research section). For trousers, your best bet is to get a commercial broadfall trouser pattern and straighten the leg. They weren't bell bottomed, just one width from thigh to hem. There were many variations for naval clothing, as much of it was ship-board made, by amauteur or semi-pro tailors or by the sailors themselves. You can also use a commercial pattern for mule ear style, buttonfly civilian trousers with the same wider leg. Only a percentage of naval trousers were actually fallfront, most were button fly as deduced from viewing hundreds of images. Larger ships carried bolts of cloth for this process to occur. If you've got the Union version of Echoes of Glory, there are just a couple of styles shown which can help guide the tweaking process. With the Tom Apple frock pattern and a good commercial trouser pattern like Homespun Patterns, etc, with some tweaking you can come up with something." ~ courtesy of Mr. Ross Lamoreaux
"Naval uniforms of the day were made of anything blue the Sailors could get their hands on. Even issue uniforms were not standardized. The "Frock"(called a jumper after 1913) was generally made of a light weight flannel much like US Army contract shirts. The trousers were generally of a heavier kersey. There are surviving uniforms where the frock and trousers were made of the 8-10 oz wool flannel that Army fatigue blouses (Sack coats) were made from. This fabric actually continues in use as the standard fabric and color of US Navy uniforms until the big change in 1933 when the Navy goes to the heavy dark melton that was worn through WW2 into the 1970s.Ross is correct in that the most common style of trousers were fly front with mule ear pockets. Mostly fall front trousers survive today because they were non regulation and reserved for, again, going ashore on liberty. Some fall front trousers were worn aboard ship, but they were not the norm for daily wear, and at that time the Navy was issueing fly front mule ear pocket trousers. The sizing gussett in the rear tends to be about 5-6 inches deep. This is because the trousers are to fit snug from the waist to the top of the hips. They should fit loosely from there down to allow freedom of movement. The best way is to get a measurement at the natural waist (have him stand at attention), then subtract one inch. Once the uniform is finished, the undershirt and frock are tucked in. Then tighten up the sizing gussett. Funny story, when I was training Naval recruits, one of my favorite days was when the recruits tried on their dress blue trousers for the first time. They would pull them on and then I would tell them that bunk mates were to tighten up and tie the laces of their bunkmates Always a great bunch of expressions on the young lads faces with that one. The formula for cuff width is measure the thigh, add four inches and carry that from crotch to cuff.On the frocks. The collar (that is what that hangy down thing in the back is called) was not a standard length. 9 inches was pretty common, but photos and originals tell us they could be any whaer from standard shirt collar length to 11 inches. When you are putting the frock together, if you think of it as a collar, you will be able to work with it easier. The length of the frock should be fairly long. Again, it was to be tucked in and worn some what "blousey at then waist. When the sleeves are unbuttoned, the edge of the cuff should hang to the first knuckles on the hand. They should be a bit blousey also. This was so the Sailor could reach and stretch his arms out and not be restricted in movement by his clothing. That is not good 90 up in a mast." ~ courtesy of Mr. Steve Hesson

"Small portable sewing machines (the Singer 1858 seems to have been very common) turn up in lists of Bo's'un's Stores regularly. However, since the period machines could not do some of the functions of modern machines, there is a combination of machine and hand sewing in every thing. First off, the period machines could not back up. So, to end a stitch, you either have to release the presser foot and move the fabric back and run it again, or spin the garment around and then run it. Or, pull the threads to the back, tie them off (with a square knot of course) and bury the threads,. We chose this method as we could not find evidence of "Back Stitching" on any original Navy clothing we examined.Also, all seams on Naval clothing were felled. This included heavy wool trousers. They may not have been able to turn the fabric under to flat fell, but the seam allowance would be pressed to one side and sewn again. This had a practical reason. Sailors clothing was made to last. On a four year cruise across the Pacific (My personal favorite ocean), if you blow the seat out of your trousers, no wagon is going to drop off another bail in the company street, and you're not walking over to the store to get some new ones. Felling the seams reinforces the seams and makes the garment last longer. Again, we have never found an original piece of Naval clothing that did not have all sseams felled. Along the lines of reinforcememt. Naval garments had "Crows Feet" or "Sprats Head" reinforcement "tacks" placed in various stress points. In the frock, they appear at the base of the "V" of the collar and on the corners of the pockets. These of course had to be hand done. Additionally on the frock collar, there was a run of button hole or blanket stitching along the opening of the "V" up about a half inch. This was reinforced becaust when the garment is removed, it is grabbed at the neck and pulled over the head.In the trousers, there are crows feet at the base of the side slashes in fall front trousers and at the base of the opening of the rear size gussett in all of them. Of course, all eyelets (size guessett and the laundry eyelets) were all hand done. Most Naval trousers we have seen have also had a patch put over the crotch on the inside to reinforce the spot where all the crotch seams come together. If you go to the images section of our web site, you can get an idea of what I'm talking about with all of this fabrics, the biggest thing to get folks to understand is that the frocks and trousers do not need to match in color (shade of blue). Just be close. Since they were rarely made of the same fabric, the dye lots seldom match. The matching of color fabric is a 20th century thing. Actually, the Navy struggeled with getting it's blue uniforms to match until 1963! I remember my father going to get a new set of blues. He found a jumper that fit and then had to wade through stacks of trousers to find a pair that a), fit and b) were pretty close to the same shade of blue as the jumper. That was one of the reasons that Sailors back in the day got "Tailor Made Blues" of Gabardine or some other non reg fabric. Sorry, "back in the day" in this case is 1933 to 1973. So don't be afraid if the shades are a bit off. Thst is historically correct. As Ross mentioned, the Federal Blouse Flannel from Whambaugh, White and company is a fantastic fabric, and this fabris was used for both frocks and trousers in the Navy. Dark blue satinette was also a favorite, probrbly the most commonly used fabric, sadly, no one makes it any more and I don't think you will see it being made (no market for it). I have a set made from old Family Heirloom Weaver Blouse flannel and love them. I really like the fact that I am wearing a light weight uniform while all the Army guys are sweating in their 20+oz gear. Really looking forward to next year and trotting out my blue denim work uniform (same style as all other Navy uniforms, just blue denimOne thing I mentioned earlier about cuff width on the trousers. The rule is measure the thigh, add four inches and use that measurement from crotch to cuff. OK, depending on the size of the thigh, you really want to stay around the 26 inch cuff zone. Remember, these uniforms were meant for "Athletic/Runner" body styles. The last set of originals we conserved were for a Sailor who measures out at 6 feet 2 inches tall with a 37 inch chest and a 27 inch waist!" ~ courtsey of Mr. Steve Hesson

With this information to start with, I then spent a while looking at every picture of original sailors that I could find. Meanwhile, Mr. Huber was sent on the look for appropriate fabric and soon purchased several yards of a fine wool flannel. Though the trousers should be heavier, he did not mind that they would be lighterweight, since he intends this uniform only for wear during balls. (It should be noted here, that despite Mr. Huber's many excellent qualities, he is NOT a progressive, but quite happy as a "good-enough-mainstreamer".) :) The wool is of excellent quality, however, and I think will wear very well.

After Christmas Mr. Huber brought his fabric to me so that I could begin work on his uniform. He was appropriately measured and patterns decided upon. Going with the above advice, I decided to make a mule ear, buttonfly trouser using an adaption of a civilian trouser pattern. I had several patterns to choose from and ended up using Past Patterns Light Summer Trouser pattern, altered for a mule ear pocket and altered for width at the thigh and hem. I made the trousers up but forgot to add a sizing gusset at the back center seam - and made tabs and a buckle before I even thought of the sizing gusset! I don't know what I will do. I may take the tabs off, open up the seam and put the gusset in after all. I probably will end up doing that. It will bother me too much if I don't.
I was very nervous about the frock since I have never made anything like it before. I downloaded the Tom Apple Frock pattern and spent a few days reviewing it. Yesterday I sized it up, cut out the pieces and today finished the frock. It is show without the neck tie (or neckerchief, whatever the proper term may be!) since Mr. Huber has his own tie he plans to use with this, which is at his own house, of course. The seams are all felled and all the buttonholes are hand made, as usual. The decorative topstitching at the slit opening I outlined with a chain stitch in silk twist, just to give the design a bit more "oomph" and make it stand out a bit from the fabric. It was very easy to make. I added a breast pocket per Mr. Hubers request where he can store his whistle.
I lengthened the collar just a tad bit, so its finished width is about 9".
And, lastly, I sewed up a flat cap. Mr. Huber has another purchased cap that he obtained prior to his obtaining his fabric but it did not fit him quite well. This one is made with leftover scraps from the uniform and is quite plain. I do not know what sort of insignia Mr. Huber would desire for the center, so the top has no decoration. In many photos I've seen, the caps appear to have a round decoration in the top center and, based on information I've read, this was a certain defining insignia that sailors would put on their caps to indentify themselves so that, in a battle, one would not mistakenly fire upon ones own friend.
I long to make another uniform now. The first of anything is always a practice run and even though I am happy with how this came out I think I could do a better job on a second uniform. Hmm. Perhaps I can convince Mr. Huber to allow me to make him a summer frock. . .


Sarah ~ who is really ready to delve into feminine sewing once more, and is eyeing with keen anticipation a bolt of pretty blue and white calico ~ but pray! ~ which era to sew from?


  1. WOW! You did a fabulous job!!! Now I want to find someone I could make one for :D


  2. The uniform looks awesome! Great job. :) I'm sure he'll be very happy with it!

  3. That looks just perfect to me! What a great job you have done and time spent in researching it all so thoroughly.

  4. Sarah, You do beautiful work. I know this is an relatively old blog, but I read that you may be intersted in doing another Sailors uniform. Would you be interested in an 1830's blouse and pants?
    Please let me know if you're interested. I really need a quality original uniform for my interpretive programs.
    Sean J


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!