I was delighted to see the results of the CSC poll that asked readers about their sewing interests for 2016. You see, shirtmaking was one of the top results, and I have just spent the last three weeks making up a variety of woven shirts in search of the perfect pattern.
I understand that the CSC editors are planning a variety of shirt-related posts in 2016. But before that series officially kicks off, I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned diving into the world of shirtmaking. (In a separate blog post coming soon, I’ll review the individual shirt patterns, looking at the pros/cons of each.)
Tip #1: Slow Down, Buddy
I am a “fast and loose” sewist – I never do fancy finishes, never baste my stripes, and have been known to cheat my way through an FBA. I have no qualms about churning out a knit shirt in under an hour, and some of my quickie self-drafted items are my favorite makes. However, when it comes to shirtmaking, it pays to slow down (a little). In particular, here are the places where your attention is most needed:
- Easing in extra fabric – whether it’s a shoulder seam or a princess seam, woven shirts are notorious for places where the sewist needs to match up fabric of different lengths. Go slowly and use LOTS of pins (or my favorite: wonder clips). Otherwise, you’re going to end up with puckers in your fabric that scream “homemade” – and not in the good way.
- Plackets – Before I started my whirlwind shirtmaking adventure three week ago, I had never sewn a placket. Now I’m a pro. I’ve followed four different tutorials (more on that later) and the key takeaway is this: go slowly, press the folds precisely (yes, get out your ruler), and make sure that your interface is cut precisely.
- Trimming seam allowances and grading your seams – I am used to doing the majority of my sewing on a serger, but shirtmaking is done mostly on a plain old sewing machine. Taking the time to trim seam allowances and grade your seams makes a huge difference in the final quality of your shirt, particularly around potentially bulky areas like collars.
And in the interest of helping my fellow lazy sewists along, here are the short-cuts that work best for my shirtmaking process:
- Sewing out of order – I found that most patterns tackle one area (the bodice, the collar, the sleeves) at a time. However, it saves a ton of time to sew in batches. (For example: I often starts with sewing the sleeve tabs together, preparing the cuffs, and sewing the button bands together. I also do a ton of top-stitching at the same time.) As a general rule, I’m looking for ways to reduce the number of trips I need to make from the sewing machine to the iron.
- Cheating on seam allowances. I often “wing it” when changing up the seam allowance along the sleeve and side seams. For example, I know that I almost always want an extra smidgen of room in the hips, so I will grade out to a tiny seam allowance a few inches below the waist. Or if I try on the in-progress shirt and find that I have too much room in the arms, I’ll run a second line of stitching down the sleeve seam – no fussing about exact measurements, no transferring marks back to my pattern, no crying into the night about the details. Heresy, I know! (I do write down a couple of notes directly onto the pattern at the end of the process with the general alterations, such as “add extra inch on both sides to hips and shorten sleeves a bit”.)
Tip #2: Think about the Silhouette
There are tons of different woven shirt styles, and I found it a little overwhelming to get started. I’ve pulled together a bunch of currently-available patterns to share for inspiration, but be aware that not all of these options come in curvy-friendly sizing. I believe that most of them run up at least to a size 18, with several going up to size 24+.
Let’s begin, shall we? For the purposes of “shirtmaking” we usually begin by thinking about the classic button-down shirt:
Traditional button-down shirt – button bands split the front in two pieces, pointy fold-over collar with separate collar stand (or collar band, depending on your pattern’s lingo), curved shirttail hemline. Example: Sewaholic Granville.
From there, we can explore key differences, including different approaches for the bust, the collar, the hemline, the sleeves, front buttons, and back yokes:
From left to right: waist darts (Burda 6849), combination bust and waist darts (New Look 6407). Note: there may be similar darts or shaping seams on the back side of the shirt. In general, more darts = more shaping.
And then there are numerous style choices that can be mixed and matched.
Each of these options will have an impact on the overall silhouette of your shirt. Consider the following when choosing your ideal silhouette:
- How do you wear button-down shirts — as part of a daily business suit, in flannel fabric over jeans, or tucked into pencil skirts? If you wear your shirts tucked in, you may want less ease through the hips (for less bunching). If you like your shirts untucked, you will likely want a bit more breathing room so the fabric doesn’t snag on your hips.
- Will you be mostly layering the shirt under a cardigan or jacket, or wearing it on top (perhaps over a camisole? How you plan to layer your shirt makes a big difference on the type of sleeve finish that you want – a puffy peasant sleeve with a banded sleeve cuff may feel bulky under a tailored jacket, whereas sleeve tabs can be a beautiful way to navigate between comfort and style in a business-casual environment.
- What kind of fashion statement do you want to make with your collar? Collar styles come in all shapes and sizes (70s style: awesomely large pointy collars spreading to your shoulder seams vs. Mandarin-style collar bands that give off a more streamlined Asian vibe, for example). Think about your neck height and circumference. Will you wear your collar buttoned up, or will you show a little cleavage? Will your short neck make you feel like a full collar with separate collar stand is creeping up your face? Do you wear a lot of necklaces – and what neckline flatters your jewelry the most?
By carefully thinking about the way you wear woven shirts, you’ll be able to choose a pattern that best suits your needs. Once you’ve got a basic silhouette in place, you can play with details and variations to your heart’s content.
Tip #3: Cup Sizes Are Your Friend
More and more pattern companies are waking up to the fact that a B Cup is no longer the norm. Proper fitting through the bust is absolutely essential for shirtmaking – especially for shirts that button down through the bust area. There are few things worse than the dreaded “shirt gape” – and here patterns with separate cup sizes are a godsend.
Note: don’t worry as much about matching the pattern cup size to your bra size (e.g. a 38 C doesn’t necessarily need the C pattern piece). Instead, look at the finished garment measurements to determine the best finished size in the bust, waist, and hips. Don’t be weirded out if you find yourself using a dramatically different pattern cup size than your bra size. Trust the process, grasshopper!
Pro tip: I like to have between 3-4 inches of ease through my bust area for button-down shirts – even that seems pretty fitted once I’m actually moving around. You know, swinging my arms when I walk and stuff.
Tip #4: Interfacing Matters
Because shirts can be made from wildly different materials (flowing rayon, crisp/sheer voile, toasty flannel, etc.), you will need to adjust your interfacing accordingly. I have made the mistake of using the wrong interfacing (either too light or too heavy) in the collars of several shirts and thrown a tantrum when I finally put it on and realized that the finished product was way too stiff, or way too sloppy. Additionally, once the shirt is sewn, there is little you can do to fix the problem if you’ve used iron-on interfacing. After several mishaps, I now make sure that I have enough fabric to sew TWO collars, just in case I need to make a last minute adjustment.
In an upcoming post, I’ll share photos and mini-pattern reviews for the shirts that I’ve made over the last three weeks, including the Hey June Cheyenne tunic, the Itch to Stitch Mila shirt, the Lisette Traveler tunic (S2246), and Butterick B5997. In that entry, I’ll focus on what I’ve learned specifically about sewing shirts for a curvy body. Until then, I’d love to know – what are the best button-down shirt patterns you’ve made, curvy sewists?