It might have been last summer when my husband came along with me on a fabric-shopping foray to Queen Street West in Toronto when he found the fabric. I was otherwise occupied in the shop while he rummaged through the myriad shirt fabrics and discovered a cotton denim-y fabric that we both thought would make him a fabulous shirt. I finally dug out one of the bespoke shirt patterns I created for him a year or two ago and got back to work on the shirt.
I like the precision required for making a really good shirt, but I have difficulty finding fabric I love. So many shirtings―the kind made specifically for shirts―are too…I don’t know…boring? I mean, there are lots of stripes, then there are more stripes, then you look again, and there are even more stripes. I’ve made a few striped shirts in my day, and it’s getting tired―not to mention how my eyes begin to cross after staring at stripes for a while. I’d love to find some nice lightweight cotton that doesn’t sport stripes (or worse, the dreaded florals) for a shirt for myself, but I digress. I have the denim. And I’m cutting it out for my husband’s shirt.
While we were in the fabric store, I pulled him over to the thread rack. I picked out a few possible contrasting threads for topstitching and asked him which one he preferred. He chose a kind of taupey-grey. It turns out that this is a great colour for topstitching denim. Anyway, let the sewing begin.
Whenever I haven’t made a shirt for a while, I pull out (the late) David Page Coffin’s book, Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing, for a bit of inspiration. I particularly like his description of attaching a sleeve placket because I tend to forget how it goes. (Wrong sides to wrong sides, wrong sides to wrong sides…my mantra―god knows I’ve done it wrong enough times and had to unpick it *sigh*).
The other aspect of shirt-making I always review is attaching the collar stand. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know how to do it because I was taught that method whereby the inside of the collar stand is done entirely by hand. The results are good, but there can be funkiness at the centre front. Most shirt-making sewists who teach things online swear by what they call “the burrito method.” The only problem is that each of them has its own burrito method. I’ve tried two of the three main ones, and they work okay, but there can be frustrations.
As I searched for the best videos on this burrito method, I stumbled across instructions for using a similar approach for attaching the yoke. It was like a lightning bolt went off. What? This is how to do it without resorting to slip-stitching the inside. Well, it was too late for me since I’d already done the yoke (and it turned out quite well, even if I do say so myself), but next time―let’s just say there will be burritos even if they’re not for the collar (which they may be).
How to Sew a Shirt Yoke – the Burrito Machine Sewn Method
I must admit that by the time I found this video, I had already attached the yoke to the men’s shirt, so I put it on the back burner until I started a new blouse for myself.
I found an interesting blouse pattern among the discards I like to peruse whenever I’m in a big-box fabric store. Last summer, I stumbled on McCall’s 8014 at Fabricland somewhere here in Ontario. I love these expeditions―as a downtown urbanite with access to the best fabric stores in the country a forty-five-minute walk away, I still like to have an adventure at a suburban Fabricland/Fabricville (depending upon where in the country you live) whenever we’re on a road trip. I also had some sale fabric―a rayon with a very soft hand.
I applied this burrito method to attaching the yoke, and wow! What fun! It worked beautifully. I wonder what new things I’ll learn in 2023. (Umm…it’s not quite finished…those cuffs are pinned and, no buttons- as you can plainly see!)
As 2020 draws to a close, I’m tempted to write a recap of my favourite design and sewing projects of 2019 just to see what I’ve learned. I’ve never done that before, but I think that I learned a few important things this year and need that recap for myself. But that will have to wait. I need to finish the story of the bespoke shirt adventure – my last sewing adventure for 2019.
After fiddling with a commercial pattern (Vogue 8759) and making the design changes required by my client (my husband!) it was time to consider fabric selection. The first thing I did was find some cotton shirting fabric in the buy-1-get-2-free sale online at fabricville.com.
This would give me enough fabric to create a complete muslin for fitting and a bit more to do the neckline and collar again if needed. But there was more to the fun of fabric selection than letting my fingers do the shopping. I discovered a new fabric store. But let’s go back a bit…
What are the two most important aspects of a bespoke shirt? As far as I’m concerned, they are the perfect fit and the perfect fabric. The perfect fit is a matter of careful measurements of both the body and the patterns and continuing on-model fitting throughout the process of making the test shirt. The perfect fabric is an altogether different story.
Fabric selection is mostly a personal choice as long as the fabrication itself is suitable for the kind of design. For example, you wouldn’t make a man’s dress shirt from flannel (if you did, it would no longer be a dress shirt by definition anyway). Or you wouldn’t make a man’s dress shirt from a knit. Just imagine how tacky that would be! And how difficult it would be if the man in question wished to wear a tie! So, how do you choose?
According to Jos. A. Bank, purveyors of dress shirts and lots more, there are three suitable fabrics. First, 100% cotton which is, according to them, “the most breathable, durable and comfortable of the three.”
Second, they suggest a blend of cotton and polyester, of which they seem to take a dim view. They suggest that most people gravitate toward these blends to save money which is why so many mass-market shirtings are this kind of blend. Polyester does reduce wrinkling (but 100% cotton is not all the same either. The cheaper it is, the more it wrinkles anyway). Their bottom line on polyester-cotton blends is this: They are “…far less breathable than other materials and less comfortable against your skin, and some people think its slight shine takes on a low-quality appearance. As a general rule, if you can afford it, steer clear of shirts with high polyester content and look for blends with 80% or more cotton.”
Their third selection is silk. I do love silk and there are so many different types of silk, many of which I know would not be suitable for my husband’s shirt. Silk charmeuse – I love it and even love to work with it – is one of my personal favourites for women’s blouses (I’ll talk about the difference between shirts and blouses in a future post since it’s one of my 2020 projects). But on my husband? Not a chance. Jos. A Banks reminds us that silk feels wonderful against the skin, but has its drawbacks for shirts namely these shirts “…tend to cost more, wrinkle easily, and they must be hand-washed (even dry cleaning can damage them) to maintain the material’s integrity.” Since neither my husband nor I have any intention of hand-washing his shirts, this one is off the table.
All of this leaves me with the conclusion: the shirt will have to be 100% cotton. But there are lots of varieties of fine 100% cotton. There is poplin/broadcloth, twill, Oxford cloth, chambray, dobby, end-on-end, seersucker etc.…they all work for the structure necessary for the shirt.
But where does the best cotton shirting come from? Some of the best shirting comes from Italy (no surprise here – they design and weave some of the finest fabrics in the world) often made from Egyptian cotton but woven Italian style. This seems like it might be a good choice for my husband’s bespoke shirt, but where to get it and what will it look like? Enter the fabric shopping adventure.
I usually buy my good fabrics on Queen Street West in Toronto where there continues to be a fabric district. But I wanted to explore a fabric store uptown in an area close to two very high-end residential districts. A bespoke shirt should be made from a fabric chosen by the eventual wearer of said shirt so my husband and I got on the subway and took the train almost as far north as it goes, got off and walked for ten minutes until we reached Maryam’s Fabrics.
A small, well-curated store, Maryam’s, which describes itself as “Toronto’s High End Imported Fabrics Store,” specializes in seriously high-end fabrics from cotton shirting, through silk knits to bouclés for Little French Jackets. We began to explore.
I first noted the “sale” fabrics in a bin near the front of the store were all over $25 a metre. This is a good way to get your head around what will come next. I lovingly caressed a few silk knits that clocked in at $40 a metre. Then I happened upon the most expensive fabric I had ever seen: marked “Chanel”, it was a bouclé that will set you back $500 a metre. Yes, five hundred dollars a metre! But it was divine.
The sales associate, an older woman who knew her fabrics, brought out three bolts of Italian shirting that they had special ordered in for a client who had all his shirts made for him. Among the three, my husband fell in love with a black fabric sporting white galaxies. A bit fun, yet tasteful.
And did it feel wonderful! Well, dear readers, are you ready for the price tag? The selected fabric was $80.00 a metre. Yes, eighty dollars. So, of course, we immediately bought two and a half metres. This was, without a doubt, the most expensive fabric I would ever cut into – which is the reason I did not one but two test shirts before even cutting anything more than my four-inch test square for laundering (and I panicked even at that!).
So, I began the test shirt with the grey-striped cotton fabric that had cost something like $15.
When I did the fitting, I found that the neck was a bit too big for my husband and the collar which had to button down needed to be enlarged slightly. That being said, he actually liked this shirt and wears it.
I had enough of the striped fabric to do a short-sleeve test to get the neckline right. Then it was time to cut into the main attraction. I finally had to hold my breath and just do it.
I have to say that the fabric was a dream to work with. Although most bespoke shirt-makers will tell you not to use fusible interfacing (and I bought some muslin specifically for interfacing purposes), I ended up fusing interfacing and it worked beautifully.
I referred often to David Page Coffin’s book (which I talked about in part one of this project) as well as one of his Bluprint video classes. After trying it two or three times on test pieces, I learned to use the “burrito method” for attaching the collar and stand to the neckline. This gives a finer finish to the front of the shirt and obviates the necessity for hand-sewing the inside of the collar stand to the neckline as per most of the commercial pattern instructions.
In the end, we were both very pleased with the results. Here’s a look at the finished product in action…
The festive season was the perfect time for him to wear it – and to tell everyone that I made it for him. One of my proudest moments!
Well, I never thought I’d ever write or even utter these words: this is the beginning of my man’s shirt project. It’s the last “project” of 2019 and it was unexpected, to say the least.
Anyone who knows me knows that my design and sewing projects are pretty well confined to me, me, me. My love of female dress and design always nudges me away from any other kinds of projects I might consider – or those I would never consider. For example, I have yet to think of a single reason why I would make a handbag or tote bag. Blecch! I really hate those wildly-printed monstrosities that the pattern companies seem to foist on avid sewers. (I apologize if you love these; but my blog, my views. You are perfectly entitled to make or wear whatever you want.) And just lately I saw a sewing blogger I follow encouraging people to sew their own shoes. Joke, right? For me, it would be. I love shoes or to be more specific, I love high-quality shoes. Ergo I wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of shoes I made myself. If you’re a cobbler and into bespoke shoes, well, that’s a different thing. But feel free to make your own espadrilles. But I digress…
Why in the world did I start a man’s shirt project? Well, my own personal style runs to the classic, tailored look so I do love a collared, buttoned-up look for myself. I really love a Brooks Brothers women’s shirt, for example.
And I have also made shirt-like pieces in the past and enjoy the process. Add this to the fact that I always like to have a project on the go but I don’t always need a new piece myself.
So, I was feeling magnanimous one day and asked my husband if he ever thought he might like me to make him a shirt. He respectfully declined. This is a man who already owns sufficient shirts for his lifestyle.Ya think? And besides, I really think he harboured the feeling that a home-made shirt might, well, look homemade in spite of the fact that he often marvels at the pieces I make for myself. Anyway, I moved on. Then, a few months later, we happened to be talking about bespoke shirts and other things and he said something to the effect that I had never made anything for him. I reminded him of our previous conversation of which he claimed no memory. In any case, it seems that the idea of selecting his own fabric and having a bespoke shirt crafted for him now had an appeal. I jumped on the chance to create a well-fitting, truly unique shirt for my very best friend in the world – my husband. And so, we were off.
I don’t know about anyone else, but whenever I start thinking about a new design and creation project, I start to do some research. Mine started in my husband’s closet, examining the fine details of the shirts he already has. I looked at yokes, cuffs, cuff plackets, front plackets, buttons and buttonholes, counted buttons (did you know that there are eleven buttons on a regular shirt and that doesn’t count the collar buttons if you use them which I would have to since that’s the kind of shirt he likes). I examined the top-stitching on a number of his shirts and scrutinized the seam finishes. I noted that the more he paid for a shirt (a Robert Graham versus a Landsend shirt), the more likely it was to have not only French seams but also to have the armscye seam bound. So many things to think about! I even started doing this kind of research as we browsed through the men’s department at various local stores: Hudson’s Bay, Nordstrom and Saks in particular.
All this hands-on research got me wondering about the provenance of many of the details. Why do men’s shirts have the kind of construction details that are so important?
When I made my own button-front shirt-like piece over two years ago, I did some research on these shirts. At the time, I wrote the following:
“… I need to clarify a bit of terminology. My well-dressed son who loves his Armani tux (which he bought on sale ten years ago and still wears) as much as he loves his jeans and sneakers, loves a button-front shirt. However, he and his friends all call them “button-down” shirts. This had always bugged me since my understanding was that only shirts whose collars actually button-down were correctly called this. It turns out that I am, indeed, right. So much for the millennials and their terminology! It seems that collared shirts have been a part of men’s wardrobes for centuries. In fact, the terms “white collar” and “blue-collar” actually do originate in the difference between the colours of the collars worn by men who worked in more clerical, office-type and executive-type positions versus those who toiled as labourers. As you may be aware, before the early 1900’s men’s shirt collars were not, in fact, attached to the shirts at all. It was only after laundry became more accessible and clothing manufacturing became more sophisticated that different fabrics and colours and attached collars became a fashion item for men… The actual button-down collar has an equally interesting history. In 1896 Brooks Brothers started producing soft button-down collar shirts inspired by the shirts worn by polo players at the time. These days we tend to think of the polo shirt as having a collar that flops around, but it seems that polo players back at the end of the nineteenth century didn’t’ like those floppy collars and began buttoning them down. Still these days the buttoned-down collar is considered to be more casual than one that is not: a button-down is likely to be considered to be a sports shirt while the non-buttoned collar may be on a dress shirt – but as you know, everything is changing in our casual world!”
I noted this and recognized that casualness notwithstanding, my husband is not a lover of the floppy collar. He prefers it to be buttoned down either where it can be seen or on the underside. Check.
Okay, so that reviewed for me the history of the button-front shirt but since I wasn’t making a man’s shirt at the time, I didn’t research those other details.
It seems that yokes first appeared in the 1880s or 90s and although I can’t find details about this, I’m guessing that it was in the Wild, Wild West in the U.S. Think: cowboy shirt. But the yoke does have a more practical purpose.
According to David Page Coffin writing in his wonderful book Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing, “A yoke is vital to a shirt. It provides extra strength in the area bearing the weight of the shirt…conceals seams at the shoulder…” where they might otherwise “rub uncomfortably.” [page 21]. I forgot to mention that when I decided to embark on this project, I thought I better get myself some professional help so immediately surfed over to Amazon and purchased his book. He’s a bit of a shirtmaking guru and the book is a must for anyone wanting to up their shirtmaking game.
As far as front bands are concerned, according to Coffin, the use of the front band is actually an American standard with the cleaner front more European. Duly noted. My husband’s style would skew more European than American if we had to judge.
And what about cuffs? I do love a French cuff – the ones that are folded back and fastened with a cuff-link. But they always say “formal” to me. What I didn’t know was that the non-French cuff is actually called a barrel cuff. So, since this is to be a less formal shirt, a barrel cuff with its simple button closure it will be.
As for silhouette, my husband prefers a trim fit rather than a big box, but he also doesn’t want a shirt that is too tight. And that goes for the sleeves as well. Have you noticed how balloon some shirt sleeves are these days? I knew I’d have to be careful about the sleeve volume.
With all of this in mind, I began searching for the perfect commercial pattern for this shirt. Well, naturally, the perfect pattern does not exist. So, I ordered a Vogue 8759 measured my husband and began fiddling with the details of this pattern.
What I liked about it was the fact that rather than a pleat or two at the yoke, it has a three-panel back and you know that the more seams there are, the better fit you can accomplish. I also liked the two-piece sleeve, not that common on everyday shirts. And as for the front placket? None, so it has that clean European look. But what of the collar? Not what he really wanted so I knew that in the first-draft of the project, I would have to redesign it.
Then all I needed was fabric…or should I say fabrics. We were going to need to do one or two trial runs of this sucker before landing on the right size and design. In that process, I found a new fabric store far from the usual Toronto fabric district. Its divineness has to be experienced. I’ll share that experience with you in the next installment.