The shirt is a humble garment; often taken for granted but worn by men the world over day in and day out. The shirt is is an essential piece of menswear. Regular visitors to this blog will know that we’re passionate about shirts here. It’s this passion that has led to the reduced amount of posts on Good Clobber in recent times: In the last six weeks or so, I have taken this active interest in shirts to the next level; I made a shirt.
At first it seemed a very daunting and difficult task: I have never made a garment before, had no idea about commercial clothing production and only limited experience with a domestic sewing machine (helped somewhat by my mother’s profession as an art teacher with a little bit of Home Economics skill). Yet, I was keen enough to discover just how a shirt was made and determined enough to learn a new craft. After all, I’d watched enough YouTube videos on the subject and even bought ‘the bible’ of shirt construction, David Page Coffin’s intensely detailed ‘Shirtmaking’ book… how hard could it be? Right?
Before you continue reading and if you have an interest in pursuing this interest yourself, please heed the following advice: Shirtmaking is not easy. However with a little persistence, quite a lot of trial and error and some patience you may find it, as I did, incredibly rewarding and immensely satisfying. It was a difficult learning curve but as you’ll see from the results below, even your first shirt can be pretty good. Now that I have accrued this knowledge, I’ve know that the next shirt will be better, maybe even twice as good and the following better still.
I own a sewing machine. I bought a Frister and Rossman machine from a friend who knew of a fabric store that was closing down and it cost me £130. I was lucky enough to find this deal but it was a bitch of a machine to get working. It took a lot of tuning and a repair or two (thankfully for free) until it sewed properly. If you can afford it, buy a machine first hand and read the instructions. With all technology, I think it’s worthwhile getting the most expensive product you can afford; it usually pays off if you’ve done your research and shopped around.
My first attempt was fairly dismal; trying to copy an existing shirt using this tutorial. I’m sure someone’s made a success of it, but I failed.
The second attempt was more planned; I bought a sewing pattern, which is essentially a set of instructions and a paper template, from a brand that will remain nameless: It was a totally cutesy ‘bo-bo-bi-botique’ brand. It was total sh*t and cost £13. Nonetheless, it served as a good example of what to avoid.
My third attempt started with this excellent pattern from Kwick Sew (Men’s Shirt K3883) which cost about £8 from UK retailer, Jaycotts available here.
The pattern is printed in colour; meaning it was easy to follow and cut out and the instructions were clearly illustrated. It was literally head and shoulders above the previous pattern.
Buying the Fabric
The fabric was pretty easy to find; my local craft shop stocked quite range of materials. When you’re looking for fabric to make a shirt, I’ve been told that you need only consider one type of fabric; cotton. There are lots of types of cotton but most poly cotton or shirting cotton will work. I’ve also purchased some poplin, which is quite similar and I believe flannel can work too. The fabric I bought for this shirt was a small-gauge green plaid and cost about £6 a meter, although I later found that this is reasonably expensive. Green is my favourite colour and it’s quite difficult to find good green shirts… so why not make one myself?
That’s our cat, Jeeves, not really helping me out.
Cutting it all out
The most laborious part of the process was cutting out all the pattern pieces from the paper, pinning this to the fabric and then essentially repeating the same activity again; cutting it all out of the fabric. I was lucky enough to have been given a ‘rotary cutter’, or ‘cutting wheel’ which is a bit like a pizza cutter but much sharper and sped up the work. Armed with this and a large cutting mat (another gift from a kind person) I set about cutting out my pieces.
In total, the cutting out took about nine hours. This may sound like a lot of time and perhaps quite daunting but I was being very careful and didn’t really know what I was doing. The instructions helped a lot; there are properties to fabric, such as ‘warp’ and ‘weft’, and details that need to be considered, such as where the ‘selvedge’ is an how to lay your pattern pieces appropriate to this. It was worth spending some extra time making sure everything was correct.
Start putting it together
There’s a good analogy for my first-time shirtmaking experience: Following the instructions was a bit like feeling my way along a dark tunnel. I could understand what I needed to do but the end goal was very difficult to see. I did my best to stick to the directions and bit by bit, the fabric started to look like bits of a shirt.
I want to make a quick note about pockets here. The breast pocket that is suggested in my pattern was fine but I chose to make my own style of pocket. I’d seen a really good tutorial on YouTube about how to make a pocket (that I can’t find now!) and before taking on the shirt proper, I had practised making a pocket. The results are very pleasing. When you know what to do, a pocket is actually easy to make and you get an immediate result: There’s no uncertainty about what each component is or how it goes together. It looks like a pocket straight away and with a little effort it can look great. Also, it’s pretty much the first bit of sewing you can do in the shirt construction, after you’ve cut out all the fabric giving you a good morale boost right at the start.
As I mention, I’ve had a little experience with sewing and using a sewing machine. However, the only stitch that you need for a shirt is a straight stitch. If you use a fairly long stitch it’s easy enough to un-stitch if you make a mistake although on really close inspection, long stitches can look a little amateur.
Collar and cuffs
The collar is by a country mile, the hardest bit. It’s really fiddly and there’s quite a few components. It’s also quite difficult to keep try of what is the ‘wrong side’ (inside bits of the fabric) and the ‘right side’ (bits of the fabric that you see when you are wearing the shirt. The cuffs by comparison are easy and as these are late on in the whole process and help to ‘close’ the shirt, they are a satisfying and aesthetically pleasing milestone.
Adding the buttons to the shirt for me was pretty easy: My machine has a one-step buttonhole foot. Fit this to the machine and it does the rest by itself. It was a very quick process and results in a delicate and refined finish. Sewing the buttons on has to be done by hand but done carefully, it was pretty simple.
Finished / Fitting
And that was it. I had made my first shirt. Putting on my shirt was great - it fitted and looked pretty good - not amazing, but pretty good. The pattern I used was for a medium sized shirt and I think there’s a bit too much space for my taste. Nonetheless, I can improve this on the next shirt.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of mistakes in this shirt. I had to make these errors to learn how to do it properly. I misjudged the position of the back piece compared to the yoke, there’s a gap where the collar stand meets the yoke, one of the arms is on backwards, with the cuff placket at the front - I could go on, but why point to the hole in the carpet?
Changes for next time
There’s a few tweaks and changes that I’d like to make of future shirts: Simple details and finishes that I’ve seen on other shirts that I’d like to include. For example, I’d like to have a long box pleat or back placket that runs all the way down the back of the shirt. This is often found on classic Mod shirts.
The next two shirts
Since finishing the first shirt, I’ve started production on another two shirts; in fact, one is finished and it’s a total success. It is streets better than the first shirt, so much so that I can wear it to work and some colleagues didn’t believe that I’d made it! Wearing the fruits of my labour and knowing that the shirt is a one off - that there’s nothing like it on the face on the planet - is immensely rewarding. I’ve learnt a new craft and created something unique and bespoke.
I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about shirtmaking on this blog. If you’ve got any questions or thoughts about this post, let me know in the comments below. If you’ve got the slightest compunction to try your hand at making a shirt: Do it.