Ermel” or “Tschope”– sleeves
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
By Christian Robardey-Tanner
Traditionally, in Switzerland's 18th and early 19th centuries countryside, farmer and artisan women would most of the time wear a sleeveless Mieder (bodice), also called Kittelbrust, over their Vorstecker or Wessli (stomacher). Yet, attending Sunday's service or being obliged to appear before the court, they were supposed to wear what was called the Ermel or Tschope, the sleeves:
„Bräute und Gotten durften nur mit der Jacke bekleidet zum Altar treten, wie auch ein Erscheinen vor Gericht oder sonst einer Behörde nur in der Jacke statthaft war“.
"Brides and godmothers only were allowed to the altar when wearing their jackets. The same was to be observed before court or other kind of authorities".
There were different types of Ermel. Nevertheless, even over time, they kept some constant features that would make them identified as typically Swiss or Aleman.
First of all, the cut of the front of the Ermel left the stomacher visible. Therefore, it was composed of two lapels. Most of the time, these lapels weren’t even closed and would hang loosely on both sides of the stomacher. In spite of fashion changes – for instance from the low waisted 18th century fashion to the high waisted early 19th century style to the once again low waisted Victorian cut - this element lasted until its disappearance of the local Swiss fashion.
Regarding the cut of the back of the Ermel, sources are very scarce. Sometimes, one can guess a peplum. But, most of the time, its cut remains unknown. However, it seems that, in most cases, the rest of an Ermel cut followed French fashion of the time. The length of the sleeves could vary: three quarters sleeves with cuffs can still be observed on early 19th century sketches, but it seems that long sleeves became definitively common during the Empire era with its high waist, especially among young women.
From what we can deduce from Josef Reinhard's paintings, Ermel could be made of all kind of fabrics and colors depending on the wealth of the wearer. We can see woolen Ermel as well as block printed cotton ones. Of course, because they were meant to be worn at church, they were typically black or of a dark color. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether there also were silk Ermel. But this is rather likely because, as Julie Heierli – the most prominent researcher on the history of Swiss costumes – notices, the traditional fashion was, except for the aristocracy, at least in all regions governed by the city of Berne, worn by any women in the countryside.
Basically there were two different types of Ermel.
The first type of Ermel seems to have been the most common and resembled the late 1700s French Caraco or the early 1800s Spencer jacket. Indeed, as for the regions of Berne, we can find different iconographical hints showing identical construction in term of sleeves and peplum between Ermel and a Caraco or Spencer. Yet, Heierli’s books do not contain any patterns or photographs of extant Bernese Ermel. The only extant 18th century Ermel for which Heierli drew a pattern is from the Valais. This pattern is quite simple and doesn’t show any peplum. It is also very singular because of its trimmings. Though, her volume dedicated to the cantons of early Switzerland contains a pattern of a Spencer jacket dated of 1820. But, this garment doesn’t clearly identify as the specific Aleman Ermel because of its front closure that corresponds to a common Spencer jacket. This garment still belonged to a farmer’s wife from Nidwalden. What one can affirm is that there were Ermel with peplums and without. Yet, there is evidence that the forms without peplum were most likely worn in more relegated regions as in Guggisberg whereas in the vicinity of Berne, women would prefer wearing Ermel that followed the contemporary French style. There are even depictions that show Ermel with a front closure that follows the current fashion.
The second type of Ermel
The second type of Ermel was meant to be worn under boned stays, [that were normally worn] usually over a simple shift. This type of Ermel consisted of two sleeves sewn to a simple back piece cut out of a plain linen fabric. This back piece ensured that the sleeves were kept in place. Thanks to the very high neckline of the Swiss stays and the very low Göller, this back piece was not visible. This type of Ermel is documented by Reinhard’s paintings as well as by Heierli’s book where there is a picture of an 18th century original worn by a farmer woman of the Valais.
It was evident that a complete 1820 Bernese costume requires its Ermel: when the wearer needs protection from the weather or if she has to appear in a formal context, she has to put on her sleeves. Yet, nearly all the iconographical sources for early 1800s sleeves show the typical lapels but hardly any back view. Therefore, I decided to reconstruct a garment based on Heierli’s pattern of the Spencer jacket that belonged to a farmer wife from Nidwalden. Of course, I had to modify the front to obtain the typical Aleman lapels.
Since Madame Deuxchamps has a high torso, I decided to extend the center back piece and the side pieces by a few centimeters.
The photograph of the original from 1927 shows that the side pieces where sewn with English stitches to the center back piece. I love this sewing technique and since I had made excellent experience using it as the main technique, I decided to use it for all the seams.
First of all, I made a mock up that I hand sewed believing that I would use it for the future lining of the definitive version of the Ermel. Still, after the fitting and after unstitching the seams, it had become too fragile to be reused.
Once I had the definitive pattern – I had to form a completely new pattern for the sleeves because the ones from Heirli’s pattern proved to be too wide to fit into the armholes – I cut out the lining and the upper fabric. The latter was a gift of Margrit Vögtli that had been owning it for decades after inheriting it from her ancestors. It’s a 55cm-wide only black silk Jacquard. Since the antique fabric smelled quite bad, Margrit had decided to put it into the washing machine. While the bad smell had disappeared, the fabric was wrinkled by the spinning and therefore showed some whitish traces.
Luckily, after starching and ironing the fabric with steam, the damage became nearly invisible. Regarding the peplum, called Fäcken, I decided to add some width to the sidepieces so that I could enrich the silhouette with two more pleats echoing the one in the center back. Once the Ermel or Fäcketschope was finished, I decided to border all the edges with an antique French silk ribbon, another gift of Claude-Nicolas. I was quite lucky since there was just enough ribbon to finish this work. Eventually, I just had to sew two hooks on both sides of the lining of the center piece to fix the chains of the silver Ghänk.
What I personally like about my first pair of Ermel is the fact that they are 100% made out of antique European fabrics, and entirely second-hand: my first Ermel are both brand new and one hundred years old at the same time.
My thanks go to Thys Grobelnik for his soulful interpretation of the traditional "Stets i Truure mues I läbe" accompagnying the video.
HEIERLI, Julie, Die Volkstrachten von Bern, Freiburg & Wallis, Rentsch Verlag, Erlenbach-Zürich, 1928, p. 47. Also see HEIERLI, Julie, Die Volkstrachten der Innerschweiz, Rentsch Verlag, Erlenbach-Zürich, 1922, p. 87. Ibid, p. 31. Ibid, Bilderteil, illustration 165. HEIERLI, Julie, Die Volkstrachten der Innerschweiz, Rentsch Verlag, Erlenbach-Zürich, 1922, p. 87 and Bilderteil, p. 28, illustration 74. HEIERLI, Julie, Die Volkstrachten von Bern, Freiburg & Wallis, Rentsch Verlag, Erlenbach-Zürich, 1928, Bilderteil, Illustrations 172 and 173.  We use this term for our English readers. It has become popular since the publication of STOWELL, Lauren, COX, Abby, The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking, Page Street, Salem, 2017, p. 13. However, how this stitch was called in 18th and early 19th centuries Germany and France remains unknown to us. The textile restorers of Abegg Stiftung call it “beidseitiger Saumstich”, PIETSCH, Johannes, STOLLEIS, Karen, Kölner Patrizier – und Bürgerkleidung des 17. Jahrhunderts. Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Riggisberger Berichte, Abegg-Stiftung, 2008, p. 371. See HEIERLI, Julie, Die Volkstrachten der Innerschweiz, Rentsch Verlag, Erlenbach-Zürich, 1922, Bilderteil, p. 87.