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!
It’s always wonderful to be able to take a break from winter! I’ve just spent a couple of fantastic weeks doing a “road trip” that my husband and I took starting in Key Largo, through the everglades of Florida to the west coast then up to the northeast coast ending in our favourite Florida city, Fort Lauderdale. A few of my GG Collection pieces made their way into my suitcase and served me well but now I’m back and ready to complete my perfect shirt project. But Florida will return to the discussion since I actually visited a fantastically quirky fabric store and found the perfect fabric for the perfect shirt. But more about that later.
Now…back to the frankenstyle test shirt!
My overall plan for creating this test garment that might be able to appear in public on my back was to purchase no new fabric. And since I am not a fabric hoarder (stasher if you prefer) I have only left-overs. However, I have to admit that I do tend to buy more fabric than is really required for any given project so that I can recut if necessary. Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, I found a few pieces that I thought I could make work together.
I put a lot of thought into the placement of the fabric. This was good design practice for me and might make it wearable as I mentioned.
The purpose of a test garment (toile, muslin) for me is to work out fit issues in the main but I also sometimes use it to practice techniques. The fit was the most important aspect of this one.
Problem #1: the collar turned out to be two inches too large for the neckline! What the…? So I had to redraft the pattern pieces, then I recut the collar and the undercollar using a seam at the back. Remember, I have no extra fabric here so I have to use what I have. Anyway, it turned out quite well and it occurs to me that I might use this on the bias for undercollar of future designs. So I have a one-piece collar-band pattern and a two-piece collar-band pattern.
Other fitting concerns that I’ll change in the final pattern: I think that the cuffs could be a minimum of ½ inch smaller and I need to back off the bust darts a full inch for perfection.
As far as techniques are concerned, I decided to use Angela Kane’s approach to creating a sleeve placket.
This was a new technique for me and it worked out beautifully.
She provides a terrific template on her web site and has a very useful two-part video tutorial.
Here’s part 1…
…and you’ll need part 2…
I finished off the front with a series of not-quite-matching buttons I ordered from China on eBay and in the end, I have a tailored-meets-funky kind of shirt that I actually might wear in public!
The fit in the next one should be better but I’m going to do another test in a finer fabric that could become the basis for a “blouse” because they’re not the same thing at all!
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!
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!