Posted in fabrics, sewing, Shirt-making

The Perfect Fabric for the Perfect Shirt (the “perfect shirt” project continues)

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…

Propercloth.com sells beautiful and very expensive shirtings. Can you see the $145-a-yard pricing?

…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…