Sewing for Others

As I’ve mentioned before, much of my sewing nowadays is done for other people. Sometimes that means costumes for the Accokeek Foundation (both historically accurate for our interpreters, and utterly ridiculous ones for special events – like trash cans and raindrops), quilts for gifts, a pile of baby bibs for the every growing cadre of children my friends and family are bringing into this world, and homemade Christmas or birthday gifts.

And sometimes, dear friends, I get to dress people.

I’ve made a few dresses for my sister, a few shirts for my mother, warm fleece pullovers for my brother and Robert, several ribbon shirts for powwow gifts, and a nightgown for Robert’s stepmother, Connie. And I’ve had the recent task of making some new items for Robert.

Last year I made two vests for Robert. The first one – red plaid and black wool – was a little larger than it needed to be. The second one – blue-on-blue plaid and beautiful ombre satin – fit much better (of course, it means having to cut exactly halfway between two sizes). Each time he wears the vests he gets compliments on them, he says, which is always nice feedback for a seamstress to get.

Of course, with nice vests, one needs nice shirts as well, and Robert has a bit of a problem…his shoulders are wider than one might expect, in contrast to this waist and chest measurement. So, when he buys shirts that fit his shoulders, they inevitably don’t fit around his middle.

IMG_20160128_204632_670Which brings me to the project currently on my worktable. I had a couple of different shirt patterns to draw from, and Robert chose this one from Vogue as his first option – view C. I had a selection of shirting fabric from about a year ago, and Robert picked out a nice light gray (I think it’s chambray, but I can’t remember) and the black Irish linen. The linen was what I originally picked up for him anyway. It’s nice when he validates the choices I make.

[By the by, if you happen to be looking for a nice breakdown on the types of cloth used primarily for making dress shirts, I highly recommend this write-up by Proper Cloth.]

This isn’t, incidentally, the first men’s shirt I’ve ever made, but it is my first time with this particular pattern – which includes a fly front placket with self-facing…something I’ve never done before, but was intrigued about trying. It was a lot simpler than I expected it to be. It also has the benefit of solving one of my common problems…what type/color button to use for the closures. Since you won’t see the buttons themselves, due to the fly front on the shirt, I can use any color and style I want. Though I’ll probably not go hog wild and choose neon green.

Ironing the collar

Ironing the collar

The body of the shirt went together fairly well, even with with extra time needed to get the flat-felled seams right. Even the collar wasn’t that tricky, even with the addition of an under collar band (which conceals part of the workings for buttoning down the collar). I did forget to do the top stitching on the collar before it was sewn to the collar band, but it wasn’t that difficult to go back and do that before the collar was then sewn to the neck of the shirt.

Inside view of the cuff placket

Inside view of the cuff placket

What ended up throwing off my mojo was the dang shirt sleeves. And I’m not talking about the entire sleeve. I’m just talking about the placket that falls at the wrist. Matching up the stitching lines on the sleeves and the placket wasn’t that hard, despite the fact that I’d penciled them in on the wrong sides. What really threw me off was sewing the first placket to the wrong sleeve. Which was really my own damn fault. When I rechecked the piece against the image in the instructions, I realized my mistake (thankfully, right before I cut the required slashes in the placket), ripped the seam out, re-pinned the pieces correctly…and then realized I had caught the free edge of the placket in the stitching of one of the pieces. Damn it! So I picked out another seam, pinned the loose flap back, and re-stitched. This time, everything turned out the way it was supposed to.

The next step, after slashing the center of the placket apart, was to turn the pieces

Outside view of the finished cuff placket

Outside view of the finished cuff placket

around, press them and stitch them down. This took a little time, as I puzzled over exactly how things were supposed to look. This was, incidentally, the one place where the illustrations and written descriptions weren’t as clear as they could have been. In the end, I wound up puzzling it out on my own. When everything was pressed and stitched down, the sleeve plackets looked great. It was just getting to that point that nearly drove me mad.

Since it took me so long to get the dang plackets figured out and sewn, I wasn’t able to finish stitching the sleeves that night. I left those for the next day, when I could return to the shirt with fresh eyes. Robert came over before I finished the shirt, which gave me a chance to check the fit on the shirt. Robert’s measurements fall right between two sizes, usually, so it can be a little tricky to make sure the right size has gotten cut. While I was piecing together the body of the shirt, it looked like it would be a perfect fit…and it was! I pinned together the front and side while he was over, and the shirt looks like it’ll be the perfect size. Apart from some fiddling with the sleeves, that is. Of course, it’s hard to tell just how much I need to play with the sleeve length until I’ve got them actually sewn on. But it looks like I’ll need to make a slight adjustment on the pattern length, when cutting out future shirts.

Finished shirt, sans final ironing

Finished shirt, sans final ironing

The other aspect of the shirt design that caused some consternation was the flat-felled seams. Now, I’m actually a big fan of flat felled seams. They give a garment a lovely finished look, they don’t add the same bulk as French seams (which look nice but can sometimes be a little tricky, when it comes to making sure you’ve got all the rough edges encased in the second half of the seam), and they add strength and durability to the seams – especially in pants. I’ve been doing flat-felled seams for quite some time, and I highly recommend them.

However…doing a single flat-felled seam that runs the entire length of the side of the shirt and the underside of the shirt sleeve? Next to impossible. It’s all well and good as you stitch up the side of the shirt, where you can open the shirt up fully and lay everything flat. Once you get to the sleeve, though, you run the risk of everything getting bunched up and the top of the sleeve getting caught up under the presser foot, and stitching the underside of the sleeve to the top, and…oh my. Lots of worry as I sewed that seam, I’ll tell you. Thankfully, luck was on my side and I managed to avoid any horrible accidents involving needle and sleeve. I did, however, have to do the seam in several parts, in order to get the whole sleeve under the machine. Oh well, you can’t tell from looking at the outside.

After that, it was a matter of sewing the cuffs onto the bottom and stitching the buttonholes. Oof. So many button holes. There are seven down the front, two on the underside of the collar, one on each sleeve placket, and then four on the cuffs. Normally, I would only have to make two cuff buttonholes (one for each sleeve), but I asked Robert if he wanted to make it so he could wear his cufflinks with his new shirt, and he said yes. So, I marked where the four buttonholes would go…and stopped. And stared at the shirt cuffs, eyes narrowed. It didn’t look like a french cuff style closure would work with these cuffs, as they are. Perhaps if Robert had a different style of cufflink, it might, but the ones he has are bullet back and toggle, and that puts a slight limit on what I can do to the cuff.

[By the by, in case you didn’t already know this…I HATE sewing buttonholes. Buttons themselves are a little annoying, but buttonholes are the bane of my existence.]

Once the buttonholes were all done, I commenced the search for the buttons. Robert wanted plain white/light gray buttons for the shirt – nothing too fancy that would stand out, which I understood, as the shirt already had a sheen to it. So I emptied the giant glass jar of white buttons that I got from a friend’s grandmother and proceeded to sort through them. I needed a total of nine buttons of one size for the front and sleeve plackets, along with two fairly tiny buttons for the undercollar. Amazingly, I would up with three different button styles to choose from. Really, considering how many buttons were in that jar, and how many of them are one-of-a-kind, it’s astounding to me that I managed to find so many of the same size and style, let alone three different types to choose from.

So…with buttons located and (most of them) sewn on, buttonholes stitched and one final hem (Robert asked me to take off two inches from the bottom of the shirt, so it wouldn’t be too long), the shirt just had one thing remaining – to have Robert try on the shirt for the final cuff button placement.

This was the really nerve-wracking part. Since I was sewing for someone else, I couldn’t just try the shirt on to see if it was turning out right…especially since Robert’s measurements are so drastically different from mine. I’ve got a pretty good eye for sizing and heming and the like** and I felt like the shirt was the perfect size, but I wouldn’t know until he tried it on. And, with a fit as tailored as this one is, there was definitely room for me to have done something really wrong.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The shirt fit. Perfectly. I mean perfectly. The sleeves were great, the shoulders fit him exactly, while the body of the shirt didn’t drape and flow like a muumuu (which, again considering his measurements, is an amazing feat of pattern design), the shortened hem was just the right length.

Finished shirt with one of Robert's hand-made vests

Finished shirt with one of Robert’s hand-made vests

I breathed a sigh of relief and feel extremely happy to have found such an ideal pattern for this go around. There are some details I might change for future shirts – for one, I’m not too fond of the undercollar bit, and I want to try converting the barrel cuff to a French cuff, so he can wear his cufflinks – but it’s a great starting point for a new bespoke wardrobe.

The biggest thing that helped ensure the success of this make was a fairly simple, but often overlooked step…IRONING! I must admit that I tend not to take the time out to iron many of the pieces I make. It’s not because it’s all that hard to iron things. I’m just lazy – in order to iron, I have to set up the ironing board, and plug in the iron, and that means I can’t just breeze in and out of that corner of my sewing space (have to be careful not to knock over the iron), and my iron is weird anyway and sometimes decides not to heat up again if I’ve used it once and turned it off but left it plugged in.

However, since I didn’t bother to make a muslin of this pattern and, instead, was making the first run of it in the “fashion fabric” (a serious no-no, most of the time) I wanted to make sure I took out as many potential problems as possible. Thankfully, proper piecing, fit and finishing techniques are made much more likely and successful by simply ironing the pieces as you go along. Finish an cuff? Press. Basted a pleat? Press. Sewed the first half of the collar and are getting ready to stitch down the inner lining? PRESS IT! That, ladies and gents, is how you make sure your piece looks professional.

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