What a year 2020 has been! Has it been a whole year since we first heard a minor news story about a virus in Wuhan, China? Could it possibly be that we had no idea what the year would bring? Yes, and yes. So, here we are in January 2021, and what have I accomplished this past year? What did I have to miss? What can I pick up for the coming year?
In February, just before all hell broke loose, my husband and I did a driving trip through Florida to visit places we wouldn’t usually go. No offence to anyone from Florida, but we don’t usually spend our winter vacation there, preferring more exotic (to us) locales like Hawaii or Antigua in the Caribbean, a South Pacific cruise―well, you see where that’s going! But we loved finding new places in the great state of Florida. We rented a car at the airport in Fort Lauderdale then hit the road. We visited Key Largo, Naples, Sarasota, Orlando, St. Augustine and ended up back in our old haunt, Fort Lauderdale.
Along the way, I wore a few of my own DIY wardrobe pieces…well, maybe just one. And I have to say that Key Largo is the only place in the world I’ve ever chosen to go to dinner in shorts! It was that kind of place.
…and I found a fantastic fabric store in Naples where I bought the silk charmeuse for what would become my major project of the year: the great tailored blazer project!
Then we returned to Toronto, where we immediately cancelled our Northern Europe and Scandinavia cruise scheduled for the fall―and I stopped all consideration of the capsule travel wardrobe I planned to design and make for it.
Then we had to hunker down for the duration, and out came what I have begun to refer to as my “Covid collection” sewing. These are those pieces that are comfortable and serve me well when lounging around home!
I also just had to work on my shirt-making skills. I finally now have bespoke shirt patterns for my husband and my son― and me.
These began with commercial patterns but quickly morphed into GG’s own because of all the style changes I made: simple European front plackets, one-piece sleeves, fancier cuff plackets etc. It was interesting to make shirts from the same base for two so different men―my wonderful husband, a retired physician, and our fantastic son, a ballet dancer who now teaches at Canada’s National Ballet School.
My husband prefers a buttoned-down collar, my son does not. It was interesting to learn how to redesign a collar for these purposes and how redesigning a collar can make all the difference in terms of style.
And I worked on perfecting my own personal bespoke shirt pattern…
Of course, then the pièce de resistance was the time I devoted to learning all I could about traditional tailoring. The final product was finished just before Christmas, and I’m so happy about it.
Oh, I nearly forgot (not kidding, I almost published without this) – one of my favourite “makes” of 2020…
Now, what about 2021? I plan to work on fitting pants (dear god, not again?) with a Jalie pattern, a brand I’ve never worked with before (I received the pattern for Christmas).
Then I plan to create a small collection for spring and summer, hoping that I’ll have somewhere to wear it!
And…sometime in 2021, you’ll see another thing I’ve been working on…the prequel to “The Year I Made 12 Dresses.” It all begins in 1965…
It’s hard to imagine how innocent and naïve we were back on January 1, 2020. Just imagine having plans for this year! Well, that hasn’t gone quite as we expected, has it? As I write this, I should be finishing up a few last-minute additions to the European travel capsule wardrobe I’d been planning to design and create. However, when we arrived home from Florida the first week in March, everything changed.
We thought long and hard, but in the end, decided to cancel our big Northern European and Scandinavian trip that was scheduled to begin in about two weeks. And I had to make some changes to my sewing and design projects for the year.
Apart from the travel collection project, I had two other big projects I hoped to accomplish this year – first, the great shirt-making project wherein I wanted to improve my design and construction skills for both my own shirts and for menswear shirts. The second is a tailoring project (yet to come). So, how did I do with the shirtmaking?
I started by examining all the reasons why button-front shirts are essential parts of my wardrobe and then began to search for the perfect commercial pattern. I acquired several but settled on McCall’s 7575 to create what I called my “Frankenstyle” shirt – the test shirt to be made from left-over fabrics. Through the process, I learned a couple of new things, primarily how to design and sew a beautiful sleeve placket. These plackets are rarely included in commercial patterns, so you often have to design the pattern for yourself. There is lots of online help. Now I was on to something!
Shirt fabrics are another thing I learned about this year. I have now used cotton-polyester shirtings, pure cottons, pure Italian cottons and even cotton-lycra sateen (the blue fabric in the Frankenstyle shirt was cotton with a touch of lycra in a sateen finish). My favourite fabric to work with this year was a piece I picked up while on our driving trip through Florida (pre-COVID, I must point out). It was pure heaven to work with.
After the test shirt (which is on fall-winter rotation), and the final design that fit well, I loosened up the design a bit and created a less-fitted version from embroidered cotton. I have to say that this is the one I’ve worn the most at this point.
Then it was on to the men’s shirt. I made a bespoke shirt for my husband last year to dip my toe into the menswear pond. Then my son gave me a book on tailoring menswear for Christmas. A hint, perhaps?
Anyway, after fitting a fitted shirt for my husband last year, I created a new basic pattern for him for a loose style with an inverted back pleat. After all, when you buy shirting at the end-o-the-season Fabricville sale (3 metres for the price of one), you have to do something with it.
Of course, with the leftover, I made myself a summer shirt to wear with white jeans or shorts n the hottest of Toronto summer days. This is where I learned that the right buttons can transform a shirt from ordinary to special. In fact, I’m considering changing some of the buttons n some of my RTW shirts!
It was then time to ask my son – who is picky about his clothes, especially the fit – if he would be interested in me creating the perfect pattern for him. He was, as it turned out. So, I went back to my husband’s pattern and the very first test shirt I’d created, to use it as the muslin. I fitted it to Ian (the son) and cut it apart, using the muslin as the pattern. Ian is a 30-something former professional ballet dancer who now teaches, so his build is different from that of his dad. It wasn’t as much of a challenge to fit the same pattern as I expected it to be, though.
I made his test shirt from the second piece of sale shirting I had bought (I have yet to make something from the leftover).
It fits well except that the neckline turned out too big. I researched how to alter the neckline without changing the cross-back which was perfect, and that’s where I am now. I will create a tiny muslin of the collar and the top of the shirt to perfect the fit then finalize the pattern. I just need to find the perfect fabric. That’s proving to be a challenge.
Now that September is just about upon us, it’s time to regroup and begin another big project. I’m about to embark on learning tailoring. Come along with me if you like!
It happens twice a year. Canada’s behemoth, online fabric store has a sale. They clear out seasonal fabrics with a sale that a fabric-lover finds hard to ignore. They offer three metres (one metre is a little over a yard for my US friends) for the price of one. And they won’t sell you any fewer than three metres of these fabrics. This means that several times a year, I find myself with a three-metre length of something, and a sewing project that generally requires two metres or less. So, what to do with all that extra fabric?
Sometimes it just sits there on a shelf for quite a while. Then, when my leftover fabric pieces begin to suggest that I have a “stash” (horrors!), I begin to contemplate what can be made with that rather large remnant winking at me from the shelf. This time, I had a plan.
At the end of last summer’s fabric season, I was seized by the notion that I’d perfect my shirt-making skills over the winter – or at least come close to perfection! So, I bought three lengths of shirt-suitable material at the sale and began my adventure.
The first length was really more of an embroidered double gauze. So, naturally, that wouldn’t work for a man’s shirt. So, I made myself one.
But the second piece I had earmarked for a shirt for my husband. So, after I was able to create a wonderfully well-fitting slim-fit shirt for him, and made it out of expensive Italian cotton, I decided that a regular-style shirt that fit him well would be the kind of pattern I ought to have in my files.
I started off with a commercial pattern – as I often do. After examining several patterns, I chose McCall’s 6613, mostly because it had a buttoned-down collar. My husband much prefers these for everyday and dress-up. Most men’s shirt patterns don’t have these, and the size and shape of a collar that is to be buttoned down have to be quite different. (I learned this from sad experience.) So, if I didn’t have to redraft the collar, that would be a bonus.
The shirt also had an inverted pleat in the back instead of the usual box pleat. I liked that. Of course, once you consider this detail, even a monkey could just turn that box pleat around and have an inverted pleat. Anyway, I liked it. What I didn’t like about the pattern were the two-piece sleeves and the sleeve placket – there really wasn’t one.
I love a two-or three-piece sleeve for a jacket – this improves the sleeve fit. However, a shirt is a different animal. Shirt sleeves are generally looser-fitting, and a two-piece sleeve is just a style detail. So, I had to redraft the sleeves and draft my own sleeve placket.
In the end, I think it’s these details that make the project.
So…what about the leftover fabric?
I love the idea of a more feminine style in a menswear shirting fabric. Couple that with the extraordinarily hot summer we’re having here in the “big smoke” and that’s a recipe for a new shirt for me.
I made Butterick 6324 two years ago and found it to be a blouse that is more than suitable for hot weather. It’s cropped and kind of fun.
Again, the details: I cut the front placket on the bias and then added those striped buttons. I ordered these from eBay last year and paid about $3.00 for them. I knew I’d find the perfect project.
So, the devil is in the details… and so is the styling. And about that third 3-metre-piece, I bought last year? Stay tuned! In the meantime, it’s almost time for the next sale! (PS We don’t ever wear our striped shirts at the same time!)
There can be no doubt about it: I take longer than anyone on the face of the earth to complete a project. But, in my defence, I’d like to think that the project teaches me lots along the way and the final product is one that meets my initial objectives. Well, this one does!
I started this project in search of the perfect, perfectly-fitted shirt. My personal style runs toward the tailored and since I no longer need suits for my day-to-day life (actually, the last two decades of my career needed them less and less), tailored shirts with crisp collars are a nice, more casual alternative (sans jacket). And they look equally great with dressy pants and jeans.
I began this project in January before I left for vacation, before we all faced what is turning out to be some kind of existential challenge around the globe. But throughout it all, some things provide stability and meditative equanimity. For me, that’s a long, involved design and sewing project. This one was perfect for that.
When I first began exploring this project, I said the following:
“…A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt…”
And I hold to that. It all depends on the fabric and how the shirt is styled. Anyway, I then created a test shirt that was a kind of “frankenstyle” mash-up of fabrics that allowed me to test the fit, design lines and a few techniques, like sleeve plackets.
Then I loosened up the pattern, removed the waist darts and the back yoke and whipped it up in a light-weight, summery fabric that took on the flavour of a “blouse” rather than a traditional mens-wear-inspired shirt. I really loved that one – alas, it still has no buttons since the button stores are all closed (see above our existential crisis at the moment).
Then it was on to the final design.
I brought the fabric home from my Florida vacation and I must say it was wonderful to work with and it feels extraordinary. I think that even my Brooks Brothers shirts are not as comfortable.
By the time I got to this one, I could have made it with my eyes closed. I even finished the side seams and the sleeve seams with French seams but I still find it best to serge the armhole seam. I once again tried to use the rolled hem foot to complete the hem, but I have to say that it’s a bit too tricky. I can get a few inches on the sample but more than that and it’s a hot mess. So the hem is turned twice as usual.
When it came time to do the finishing touches, it suffered from the same problem as in the last version: no buttons! Button stores closed! I have so many buttons but not the nine or so matching, navy blue ones that I so needed. That’s when I got creative.
I have a well-loved Diane von Furstenberg silk twill blouse that had developed a very nasty tear along its piped armscye. And since it had always been rather generous on me (my husband says I buy many of my clothes too big), I had decided to recycle the silk which is lovely into a smaller top. That sucker had buttons — buttons that I was not likely to use in the new project. So, of course, I cut one off and voila! I had buttons to complete this project. And don’t you love the look or pristine machine-made buttonholes before you cut them open?
The shirt is finished and ready for its first outing. The only problem is that it seems a bit much for wearing from the dining room to the living room to the kitchen, don’t you think?
Oh well, the restaurants and the shops and the offices will re-open some day and I’ll have plenty of opportunities to wear it. Stay safe everyone! Now , let’s all go wash our hands again!
The good news: today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The bad news: covid-19. The less said about the latter the better. So, I’m moving toward my holy grail: the perfect shirt. I have the perfect fabric and I’ve created a pattern for a shirt that fits me perfectly. What more could I want? Isn’t it time to make that final shirt? Not quite. I have one more avenue of research to pursue. I’m making one final test shirt with the pattern edited to accommodate a finer, drapier, dare I say blousier fabric. This is in case I think my first-pass perfection isn’t quite perfect. So, is it still a shirt?
I need to back up in my research a bit. What are the characteristics of a shirt that makes it a shirt? The word shirt is used as a catch-all to describe any kind of garment one wears on top. However, this isn’t precise enough. A T-shirt, while being a kind of shirt, isn’t really a shirt. It’s, well, a T-shirt. A halter top can be described generically as a shirt, but it’s, well, a halter-top!
So back to my definition of the perfect “shirt.”
First, there is the design. Shirts, by definition, have a crisp, tailored style with buttons down the front. They have collars, although the style of the collar can vary. They are traditionally closely tailored (which as far as I’m concerned is a characteristic of a “perfect” shirt) but they can also be over-sized. I have room in my wardrobe for these over-sized shirts, but they’re not “perfect” shirts for me.
Second, there is the fabric as I discussed previously. In general terms, “shirts” are made from woven fabrics. That being said, we now find shirts made from stable knits. These are garments that are shaped like what we know as a shirt, but the fabric stretches. They’re often a bit like a hybrid between a T-shirt and a shirt.
What, then is a blouse? A blouse is a type of upper-body garment that can be rendered in a variety of styles (even styled like a shirt) but is fabricated from a softer, drapier fabric that is more forgiving to the body. It has the added characteristic of being able to “blouse” over a waistline if you choose to wear it like that. In fact, the dictionary defines a blouse as a “loose-fitting garment resembling a shirt that is usually worn by women…”
Before I settle on a final design for the pattern, I need to make a few edits and create one final test. Here are the changes I make to the pattern to turn it into more of a blouse:
I omit the waist darts. Taking these out is taking a chance. However, I’ll mark them and put them in at the time of the final fitting if it doesn’t work.
I manipulate the yoke out and into shoulder darts. Yokes scream “shirt” and are a men’s design detail that one generally does not find in a blouse that doesn’t need that extra support (unless it’s used as a design feature).
I should probably lengthen it an inch or two but in the end, decide to leave the length as is.
I also need different fabric. I fell I love with a gauzy cotton embroidered with turtles. Yes, turtles! I rarely wear patterns of any kind – they are so not me – but this one looked like it could make a cool, airy summer blouse/shirt.
So, I ordered it, washed and dried it (after doing a 4-inch square test piece), ironed it and laid it out. I even decided to ensure that there is one turtle at the to of each sleeve placket. Cute, no?
Without a yoke or waist darts, the sewing is quick and easy. I finish it in no time. There is just one problem. I have two sets of buttons I could use but neither one really does it for me.
So, I decide we should take a nice spring walk downtown to the fabric district where my favourite button store is located. There is only one problem: everything is closed. Can you say covid-19?
Oh well, I’m not going to be wearing it any time soon, so I’ll wait rather than using second best.
My conclusion is that I now have a great pattern for a silk blouse but I’m going to stick with the yoke for the final perfect shirt – and probably the waist darts. I can’t wait to get to the final shirt. I just love the fabric!
What is the perfect fabric for the perfect shirt? That is the question. Late last year when I was searching for the perfect fabric for my husband’s shirt, the answer was “expensive”! I think my hand shook when I cut into that $80-a-metre Italian cotton shirting fabric that he had chosen for his perfect shirt. But, I wonder, is it possible to find the perfect fabric for my perfect shirt without breaking the bank? Yes, I believe it is.
Let’s start at the beginning. One of the things that makes a shirt a shirt (and not a T-shirt, sweater or blouse for example) is the kind of fabric it’s made from. When I think of men’s shirts, my mind goes immediately to plain, striped and checked cottons…
…but these days even men’s shirt-makers are branching out into wilder territory. Have you seen Robert Graham or Ted Baker shirts lately?
Then there’s the actual type of fabric. The web site Real Men Real Style is a great reference for shirting weaves. There are Oxford, poplin, twill, broadcloth and end-on-end the main (read about it here) – all 100% cotton and then there are the more modern blends of cotton with polyester (not as nice but fewer wrinkles) and cotton with a hint of stretch which sounds so much nicer. There is even linen.
Of course, shirts can also be made of flannel (no, everyone in Canada does not wear flannel shirts. My husband wouldn’t be caught dead in one).
[Bob & Doug MacKenzie aka Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas of Second City comedy fame notwithstanding, most Canadians do not wear flannel shirts!}
The theme throughout is that shirts are made from woven fabrics that have some body and a stiffer hand than, say, silk charmeuse. This crispness is part of what makes a shirt, well, a shirt. Even a woman’s shirt that is shaped and curved should have a degree of crispness or veers into blouse territory! So where does that leave me?
One of the things I don’t like about online fabric shopping is the lack of the touch factor. I’ve ordered several shirting pieces online but doing so doesn’t really let me feel the fabric. A great cotton shirting should feel silky to the touch and is probably going to set me back more than $15 a metre. In fact, I see lots of shirt fabrics online for well over $100 a metre as you can see above. I’m not going that high for this project.
I could take a walk downtown to Queen Street West here in Toronto, home to my favourite independent fabric stores, but that’s usually a walking destination for better weather (but before tourist season. God help me if I find myself on Queen West at the height of tourist season in the summer!). Lucky for me though, I’ve just returned from a winter getaway in Florida.
Before we left on this holiday, I did a little bit of online research and found that there was an interesting fabric store in Sarasota that just happened to be on the route we would be taking from Naples to downtown Sarasota. So, we plugged it into our GPS and set out.
We were almost into Sarasota. I was the passenger for this segment so I was looking feverishly at the GPS map and the surrounding roads. We were getting close but the area didn’t look at all like a place you’d find a fabric store. Finally, we were right on the place and I spotted the sign. Pennie Fabrics. An unprepossessing house-plus-garage kind of arrangement, the store looked a bit odd. But we turned quickly and pulled into the small parking lot.
I gingerly opened the door to find myself in a room crammed with bolts of fabric. The proprietor who introduced himself as Nasir bade me welcome with a smile. “Please come in. Look around. There’s lots to see,” he said as he gestured around the store. And was he right!
The place was, indeed, a repurposed bungalow with every room crammed with bolts of fabrics – silks, jerseys, tweeds, cottons, knits, and yes, some shirting.
As I made my way from room to room (including the garage which doubled for a fabric room as well) touching as many of the fabrics as I could, I fell in love with two pieces.
The first one is a swath of printed silk charmeuse. The muted pastel pink and mint green are not colours that usually attract me but there was just something about this one. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with it, but I had to have a piece. I will use it for the lining of a tailored jacket, one of my planned projects for later this year. Now all I need is the outer fabric! It will be fun to move from lining to the outer fabric rather than the other way around as I usually do when creating a lined jacket.
Then I found it. The perfect piece of shirting. Many shirtings scream “menswear” to me. Now, I have no problem with wearing menswear as a style, however, for this one I wanted it to be menswear with a feminine edge. You might not agree but when I saw this fabric it said that to me. And the feel! Such a silky, fin cotton. And just look at those selvages! I have to use them but I’m not sure a tailored shirt is the place. We’ll see.
While we were at Pennie Fabrics, women started arriving for a sewing class that’s held in the light-filled back room evidently on a regular basis. A kind of local community of women, the group was gathering that day to celebrate the results of a recent challenge. They had been challenged to each use the same fabric to create different garments. They arrived that day wearing their creations. One of the most striking was this one. And she even agreed to pose for me while Nasir held up a length of the fabric behind her. What a wonderful find this was! You really must visit this store if you’re anywhere near Sarasota, Florida!
So, I’m home now and have cut my four-inch square and put it in the washing machine for its test today. I will wash and iron the fabric to prep it (probably won’t put this one in the dryer) but I have one more piece to make from my newly-created pattern before I cut out the perfect shirt. It’s yet another test. Soon to come…
The quest for the perfect shirt has to be taken seriously, one step at a time, perfecting each component: style details, fabric and possibly most important of all, fit. At least that’s how I’m approaching this project.
When last we spoke (okay, I did all the talking) I had taken a trip down memory lane to view the iconic appearances of the button-up shirt on iconic twentieth-century women. From there, I reviewed the finer points of where and how a shirt like this ought to fit. Now it’s time I got started on one of my own.
As I mentioned, I had a look at the commercial patterns I already owned. On final consideration, I decided to use McCall’s 7575 as a starting point.
I begin with design details.
As I look more closely at the pattern, I realize that the first change I have to make is a basic style one: I want a clean front on my perfect shirt pattern. A clean front is more European. This means I have to get rid of the band running down the front and rework the pattern accordingly. I can always add a band for future designs.
The next design detail I examine is those breast pockets. Can we talk about pockets for a moment? I’ve noted that many women say they love pockets but what they really mean is that they love pockets in a skirt (and trousers and jackets perhaps). The question I have is this: do they really like pockets in shirts where said pockets are essentially useless and often serve only to increase the visual aspects of one’s chest? I think not. I think that they haven’t thought their general love of pockets through. I’m not a big fan of breast pockets on women’s shirts or blouses in general. I certainly put one on my husband’s perfect shirt because he uses it to stick his glasses in and won’t actually buy a shirt that doesn’t have a left-sided breast pocket (except for the odd dress shirt). But what about me? No. Uh-uh. No breast pockets for me. So, I ditch the breast pocket – at least for this go-around.
Another design detail: Go back up and have a close look at the original line art. It shows a little bias strip as a placket thingy on the sleeves. I feel that this is a bit of a cop-out. There are so many wonderful shapes and types of plackets. I think I’ll change this.
Finally, still with those sleeves, I’m not a big fan of the one-pleat-on-one-side-of-the-placket (and the other one on the other side of the placket) design. This was the approach that I used on my man’s shirt project but it looks a bit odd to me on a women’s shirt. I could use gathering, but I think that style is more for flowing blouse fabrics rather than crisp shirting. Anyway, I prefer pleats – so much cleaner and crisper in general. I will also put both of the pleats on the front of the sleeve.
I think I’ll go with the shape of the collar for this first draft but I’ll revisit it later. And I’m keeping the yoke – for now. It’s a design feature that I like in some, but not all, shirts.
Here’s my cleaned-up line art:
So, now it’s on to the fit issues!
Still with those sleeves. Dear god – why do commercial pattern companies (and the indie pattern-makers are no better) seem to think we all need sleeve bicep measurement that would fit a Sumo wrestler? So, it’s onto the drawing board to recut the sleeve pattern to more suit my style – and size.
With the sleeve pattern recut, I just need to tweak the waist darts and I’m ready to move onto consideration #3: fabric.
Let’s face it, the term “wearable muslin” is a bit of an oxymoron – either it’s a muslin that you’re willing to cut apart and use for the final pattern, or it’s a wearable shirt that you construct from some kind of fabric you’re willing to be seen in in public. That’s my usual approach. So I’m going to call this a “test garment” rather than a toile or muslin. That gets me off the hook in case it is actually wearable. But I’m not willing to spend any money on this kind of test. Enter the remnant box.
I’m not a fabric stasher (*shudder*) but I don’t throw out reasonably-sized pieces of leftover fabric – that is, of course, unless it’s hideous to work with like the scuba fabric top that I never even wrote about in this space. I should since there’s much for me to learn, but I probably won’t because then I’d have to think about it again and that would seriously hurt my head. I digress. I need fabric for my test shirt.
So, as I examine the remnants I have I’m looking for pieces that have some kind of compatible aesthetic and that have compatible fabric content. I have to find a few pieces that are cotton or at the very least cotton with a touch of spandex (I happen to know that I have only one such piece). This is the fun part of the test shirt.
I love the idea of creatively putting the pieces together. This is the perfect opportunity to practice this kind of aesthetic exercise as I look for pieces of fabric for the body, the collar, yoke, undercollar, sleeves, cuffs and placket.
Remember Frankenstein’s monster? This is not to be confused with dear Dr. Frankenstein himself. He created the monster that was composed of pieces of other bodies. So, I plan to create “frankenstyle” garment.
I decide to use the following pieces:
I have a largish piece of cotton sateen that has a touch of lycra for a soupcon of cross-body stretch. It’s little enough that it passes for a non-stretch woven.
I have a very small piece of leftover Italian cotton from my husband’s shirt and since it cost $80 a metre, I kept it anyway. I will use this for small parts.
I also have some black and white-black striped shirting from a previous shirt-type project.
It’s a very interesting exercise to think about which fabric will be the body – front and/or back. Which one the sleeves, which one would look best as the collar? Undercollar?
Well, I figured it out and proceeded to cut and sew. I’ll reveal the final result next time! Now I’m off to warmer climes for a few weeks!
There’s not a single style manual on the planet that doesn’t suggest to all of us that among the essential wardrobe staples we should have in our closets is the button-up shirt (as opposed to the button-down shirt which I’ve discussed before!).
American “style expert” Lloyd Boston lists “the white shirt” number one in his book The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You. He specifically suggests that this fashion must-have should be white. And I’m sure that we all have a few white button-up shirts in our fashion arsenal, but I think it’s safe to say that we also need other colours.
Dearer to our hearts perhaps (at least for those of us who create some of our own fashion pieces) Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr authors of the recent book A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing include the shirt among their 30 timeless garments and they include both styling tips and sewing tips. They also don’t confine this classic to white and consider that we ought to have a few in different colours in our wardrobes.
Why is the shirt such a universally appealing wardrobe piece? I think because it is endlessly versatile.
A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt. And throughout the twentieth century, a variety of iconic women made the shirt an icon all on its own.
Who wouldn’t swoon over Lauren Bacall in Key Largo in her ever-present button-up?
Or the ever-chic Audrey Hepburn? Sexy and buttoned-up all at the same time!
More recently, remember Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction? Even if you didn’t see the movie, I’m sure you saw the stills where she is smouldering in her white button-up with French cuffs.
Then, if you still think a button-up shirt is too prissy for you, may I reintroduce you to Marilyn? You can never see a classic shirt the same way again once you’ve seen one on Marilyn.
There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on precisely when women started wearing button-up shirts. Some sources suggest it was in the 1950s when women in movies would wear their partner’s shirt (i.e. a men’s shirt) after the suggestion that they had just had sex. But that can’t be right because women in the armed services wore shirts long before that and we’ve seen photos of women in the late 1800s wearing what appear to be collared shirts with ankle-grazing skirts.
The problem with many of the shirts on offer to women in ready-to-wear these days is that they don’t fit very well. The darts are often in the wrong places. The fit over the bust is often a problem in general. Enter the gape! They are often too wide across the shoulders and nip in too much at the waist. Or they look like bags all over. A smart button-up shirt ought to fit perfectly, n’est ce pas?
I enjoyed Justine Leconte’s tips on how a shirt should fit and found it very useful so I’ll use her approach when I check on the fit of my own perfect shirt…
This is right up my alley, although I often wonder what women whose foundational style is artistic boho think about this. In any case, who am I to argue with the wardrobe police? I agree: everyone looks terrific in a shirt. But it has to be perfect. Enter my new project.
After I finished my husband’s perfectly-fitted (and very expensive) shirt project, it occurred to me that I ought to have a perfectly-fitted pattern that I can use for both a shirt and a blouse. And there is a difference between a shirt and a blouse in my mind. The fashion police suggest that a blouse is a type of shirt (because it blouses?) but a shirt is not always a blouse. A shirt is crisp while a blouse is drapey. At least that’s how I’m going to define them. I plan to start the project by creating the perfect shirt pattern then modifying it for blouses.
So what does my perfect shirt need?
It needs to be fitted either with darts or princess lines. I think I’ll start with darts because princess lines are really just a variation on that and I can always manipulate darts into a princess seam if I want to do that in the future.
It needs to have a collar. Kind of a no-brainer since this is part of the definition of a shirt. However, there are different kinds of collars and I want this to be a collar with a stand.
It needs to have well-fitted sleeves. I find that commercial patterns often have sleeves that are very large around the bicep. They seem to think we are all stevedores or wrestlers.
It needs to have nice cuffs with a nice placket. This is a skill I will need to learn more about since I see so many different kinds of plackets around.
It needs to have a back yoke. Yokes support the material in the shirt. I can always manipulate this out if I choose a blouse-type approach in the future.
It needs to be the right length. I’ll figure that out as I fit the test shirt.
I don’t necessarily want the shirt to have any breast pockets, but that’s an option I’ll keep in mind for variations.
Where to begin? I decided to start with an examination of commercial patterns. I own a couple, none of which is perfect.
McCall’s 6649 (copyright marked 2012 and now out of print it seems) seems to tick all the boxes, as does McCall’s 7575 (a 2017 addition). In fact, they are so similar as to make one wonder why they got rid of one and created another one just the same. I also picked up Burda 6908 in the discards box at a Fabricville outpost in Muskoka during our fall road trip. This pattern is dated 2014 and is a bit different from the previous ones in that it is more of a tunic style – no darts, quite long and very balloony. Not quite what I’m looking for in a basic pattern, but I do think I will make it as part fo this project.
So it does seem as if I’m going to have to really work on my own pattern. I’ll start with M7575 and modify it for fit and style. And what about fabric?
Well, these classic shirts are by definition fabricated from wovens, usually 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Obviously, they have to be fairly lightweight – just imagine what these shirts would look like made from canvas. Not the image I’m going for. Eventually, I’d love to have a fine Italian cotton, but for the first go-around, I’m going to see what I have leftover from other projects. Stay tuned for my test shirt – a kind of “Frankenstyle” design while I test out my pattern details.
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!