My “Make it Work” moment worked!
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in a cozy Northern California country club with idyllic views everywhere you looked, my client Kevin beamed with pleasure as he married his beautiful bride. Also not coincidentally, he was the best-dressed man at the event.
A gorgeous pair of golden cufflinks handed down to him from his grandfather, together with a black satin bowtie and suspenders, finished the look of his bespoke, one-of-a-kind tuxedo shirt. Both bride and groom were thrilled with the way our project turned out – the shirt added a personal touch to a formal outfit. And I was thrilled too.
I won’t include wedding photos here, out of respect for the bride and groom, but I’ll illustrate how the project turned out. I’m planning four installments to this series:
- reflections on the experience,
- and finally some shirt-making tips.
Part 1: Construction
In the last installment, I changed plans at the last minute after the original fabric, a beautifully textured heavyweight cotton shirting, turned out to be stiff and crinkly. I chose a cut of lighter-weight Pima broadcloth from Britex Fabrics for the final shirt. This required making a new shirt, but hopefully one everyone would be happy with.
In the comments section, David Page Coffin (DPC) suggested a compromise: Use the beautifully textured fabric for collars and cuffs, and the lightweight Pima for the body and sleeves.
In this promotional video, at the 3:10 and 3:17 marks the model wears a shirt with cuffs made from a waffled fabric that’s clearly different from the body of the shirt. The shirt body appears to be the same fabric as my shirt.
This video, together with DPC’s suggestions, provided excellent inspiration. I was happy with this new plan because the final product has a style that can’t be found in an off-the-rack shirt.
For collars in this project, I’ve migrated to DPC’s collar-making methods he demonstrates in his Craftsy course, Shirtmaking Details: Beyond the Basics. I won’t completely give away material from his books and courses. But he is spot-on in advocating the surgeon’s hemostat as the ideal tool for turning points and corners. It allows all seam allowances to be held in place. Once the collar is turned, seam allowances do not mush up into a big blob that can never be poked or pressed out. Still, it requires practice to perform this technique, and I will discuss more in the “tips and tricks” post further in this series.
I also had issues with interfacing, some self-inflicted. I originally planned to use sew-in interfacing for collar and cuffs. For the penultimate shirt, I used a fusible interfacing. I wanted a minimalist collar that did not include a row of topstitching around the collar edge, and also included no interfacing in the seam allowances to reduce bulk – an issue with this heavy fabric. Sew-in interfacing would leave me no way to anchor interfacing within the collar. Here’s a photo of a collar sample that lacks topstitching.
That was fine until I ran the shirt through the laundry. The fusible interfacing – purchased from a vendor known for their high-quality professional fusibles – bubbled anyway. The bubbles were subtle, but there.
That was enough for me. I switched to sew-in interfacings for the final shirt. Actually, I used a hybrid of fusibles and sew-ins.
I fused a light-weight fusible the shape of the finished collar to a piece of sew-in interfacing cut to include seam allowances. This allowed the sew-in interfacing to anchor in the seams while adding as little bulk as possible. Since the fusible interfacing is fused to sew-in interfacing rather than to fashion fabric, who cares if it bubbles up a bit inside the collar.
The following photo illustrates the technique. Fusible is fused to sew-in, sew-in is machine-basted to the upper collar piece within the seam allowances. (Note: the photo also contains an error – the smaller piece of fusible was placed incorrectly, and I had to redo. I didn’t reshoot the photo, but am including it anyway to convey the concept.)
After all that overthinking and careful effort, I decided at the last minute to add the row of topstitching around the collar edge in the final shirt.
Ultimately, I went with topstitching to hold in place the favoring between upper collar and undercollar at the collar’s edge. If you look at the “bubbled collar” photo above, you’ll see some of the undercollar peeking out at the edge.
I looked at two options for the front band. The first is the standard sew-on band found on the majority of men’s shirts. I put one on a fitting muslin to discuss with the client. (Careful readers will note I put the collar on upside-down on this muslin. That’s what muslins are for.)
The other was a minimalist cut-on front band that folds on itself twice, relying on the buttonholes to anchor the band in place. This produces a clean shirt front with no stitching lines visible when shirt is buttoned. After reviewing with the client, we opted for the latter approach.
In past shirtmaking projects, it has been difficult to press folds for the front band, keeping the measurements consistent all the way from collar to hem. The pressing creates enough “fudge” along the length of the fold to make it difficult to stitch a line catching all the layers. In this project, I solved the problem by making a pressing template from tagboard, the same stuff pattern drafters use for making final versions of patterns.
In the photo, clips anchor the pressing template to the shirt front; I also used pattern weights to keep the template from shifting around while folding and pressing.
Here is the finished press of the band on the Left Front piece, the side with the buttonholes on a men’s shirt.
I could have understitched the band in order to keep the folded part of the band in place. But instead I relied solely on the buttonholes, together with the collar seam and bottom hems. By the time I came up with the idea to understitch, the shirt was complete. I’ll do that next time.
For buttonholes, I used a Mettler “silk finish” thread to give the satin stitching a little bit more sheen. Likewise, a water-soluble stabilizer, normally used for embroidery, also gave a more consistent finish for the buttonhole stitching.
My Juki sewing machine has an awesome electronically guided buttonhole foot, but even so it tends to make buttonholes a bit too small if you let it automatically choose the buttonhole size based on button. So I intentionally set the buttonhole size two “clicks” longer than automatic to get a buttonhole that nicely accommodates the button.
Scotch tape basted buttons in place during attachment – I’m surprised how well that works, and it’s a time-saver. Finally, an awl positioned over the buttons during button attachment provided some extra play in the button stitching.
In past projects, I’ve made flat-fell seams using the traditional home sewer’s method – stitch a 5/8″ seam allowance, trim one seam allowance down to 1/8″, fold the wide seam allowance over to enclose the trimmed seam, then stitch the whole thing down. On side seams and sleeve seams this sort-of works, but it’s a lot of work and it takes forever.
This time I sewed flat-fell seams as described in Janet Pray’s Craftsy class, Sew Better, Sew Faster: Advanced Industry Techniques. Pray’s method is way easier, and produces better results. Though I don’t perform the technique as carefree as she does on video – I make a point of pressing all folds before stitching – it is less work than the traditional home-sewing method. I no longer dread flat-fell seams in a sewing project.
For the yoke and shoulder seams, I used the “burrito” method of construction that rolls up the back and fronts inside the yoke, stitches the yoke pieces at shoulder seam inside out, then turns back and fronts out at the neck.
That was extremely difficult to do with this shirt because the yoke was so narrow. Despite my best efforts, parts of the shirt front would get caught in the shoulder seam and I had to take time to sort out the mess. Overall, I’m happy with the way the yoke and shoulder seams turned out.
Sleeves are by far most difficult for me, in terms of pattern making and in construction. Sleeves are even more difficult than collars in my opinion. Setting a sleeve with flat-fell seams using the traditional home-sewing method always turns out to be a mess for me.
This time, I used DPC’s method of attaching sleeves, which (a) sets in the sleeve after side seams are sewn rather than construct it in the flat and (b) presses the folds for flat-felling ahead of time using a paper template. Again, I don’t want to give away his technique, but it is described in his first book, Shirtmaking and demonstrated on video in his Craftsy class.
DPC’s technique gave a better result, but it still came out messier than I would have liked. I can improve this technique with practice, but I would love to hear a better way to handle this particular bit of shirt construction.
Finally, at the pattern drafting stage I didn’t put ease in between the sleeve cap and armscye, but I did end up with some minor pull lines in the seams in the underarm area. It’s not something I cried about since it is in the underarm area. But the pulls may have something to do with the relative shape of the sleeve cap and armscye curves.
I apologize for not having photos. Sleeves went in at the end, and I was hustling to get the project done. I forgot to snap photos of the underarm area during the photo shoot before delivering the shirt to the client.
French cuffs were a first for me. Besides the cuff shape, the placket is differently constructed. The underlap of the shirt placket is turned inward and sewed into the seam with the cuff; this allows the underlap part of the cuff to be folded outwards to accept cufflinks. This photo shows off the turned placket in the final shirt.
Initially I couldn’t wrap my head around this concept. I wasn’t sure this could be done with the traditional “tower” placket pattern used in men’s shirts. I inspected a Kenneth Cole RTW shirt from my closet with French cuffs to understand the topology involved – which confused me even more because the Kenneth Cole shirt doesn’t use a standard “tower” placket. (More on that in a moment).
The following photos are from the Kenneth Cole RTW shirt.
When I tried to make a French cuff tower shirt placket sample in muslin, the placket underlap turned out skewed.
I wrote David Coffin, sending him the above photos of my muslin sample. He told me my placket failed because the underlap piece was narrower than the overlap. I copied a pattern from Shirtmaking that intentionally economizes on fabric by making the underlap narrower than the overlap.
From Shirtmaking, here’s the pattern I used for the sample. I’ve called out the sections of the pattern which form overlap and underlap in the finished placket.
If I make underlap the same width as the overlap, both will perfectly line up atop each other in the finished placket. Furthermore, the underlap won’t skew when folded inwards to accommodate the French cuff.
DPC also informed me the placket in the Kenneth Cole shirt uses a different construction method than the standard “tower” pattern. The Kenneth Cole shirt has a “continuous-band folded on a slash” placket, catalogued as Type 2, Variation 3 in a taxonomy of placket types he includes as supplemental content to The Shirtmaking Workbook. This confused me further, because I thought I would have to adopt this type of placket to get the results I was looking for. But after studying DPC’s placket appendix carefully, I realized the traditional tower placket (Type 3, Variation 1 in his taxonomy) would do the job just fine.
I updated my tower pattern and stitched out a sample in muslin. The finished sample had no skew, and is what I went with for the final shirt.
Another aspect of French cuff construction I hadn’t considered is that the cuff facings are reversed. That is, the right side of the cuff faces inward, and the wrong side of the cuff faces outward. When the cuff is rolled and fastened, the right side presents outward.
In this photo, the outward-facing you see actually becomes the inside of the cuff when rolled.
I copied the button layout and positioning from the Kenneth Cole shirt. Smartly, it locates the buttonholes slightly off the horizontal center. When the cuff is rolled and fastened, the outer edge of the cuff overlaps the cuff-shirtsleeve seam, hiding it completely.
I’ll demonstrate here with the Kenneth Cole shirt, since my shirt is now in possession of the client.
The cuff also provides two under buttonholes to give the wearer a choice of how much cuff overlaps the sleeve seam, and also how tall the cuff will be.