When the temperature this summer hit over 100 degrees F with high humidity in Minnesota, my husband started thinking about a key characteristic of linen: it breathes in a way that polyester cannot. Cotton is also a fine choice, but my husband noted that “a shirt made of the pink linen (that he knew was in stock at Blumenkinder Heirlooms) would be great.”
This is the fourth shirt I have made for my husband, Bert, over the years. He wore them and loved them, but we noticed that the fit was not perfect. The neckline was just a touch too small, and the back shoulder line ripples just a little. He also noticed this same difficulty with high-quality, ready-made shirts. He has broad, square shoulders, which I love, but they do present a challenge.
David Paige Coffin, wrote an excellent resource called, Shirtmaking, Developing Skills for Fine Sewing. Coffin wrote this resource (first published in 1993 and reprinted in 1998) because he wanted to make top-quality shirts and saw a lack of information beyond basic pattern instructions. His goal was to make a shirt “that needed no apologies, that would not look homemade.” He devoted 15 years of his life gathering and developing the techniques needed to create a top-quality shirt.
Coffin begins with a great amount of encouragement that appeals to me. He points out that a ready-made (not even a custom-fitted) shirt from Turnball & Asser (shirtmakers to Prince Charles) at the time of this book’s printing were going for well over $100. He also notes that, “custom-made shirts, using a pattern unique to the wearer’s body and with precise details chosen the way you want, are extremely rare and can cost as much as $300.” These prices are over ten years old, but I’m sure the same is true today; and I’ll admit, I like the idea that with a little of my time, practice and quality materials, it’s possible that I could make my husband a shirt of this value.
Instead of using the same shirt pattern that I used for the first three shirts, we decided to test the classic “drape” method outlined in Coffin’s book. The process starts with shoulder draping. I used a piece of gingham which gives an excellent “graph”. The woven lines help you to see the way your fabric is laying on the person’s body. Working without an existing pattern was a little bit like walking in the dark without a flashlight. However, it was fascinating to see the difference in the angle of the shoulder line that I drew along Bert’s shoulder compared with that of the McCalls pattern used in the past. At that point, we were encouraged to continue down this path.
We worked through the draping of the front and back pieces and then sewed everything together for a series of fittings. Since this was our first experience, we had to work through several attempts at getting the lines marked and the fit correct. This is a process that will help develop your patience and ability to hang in there with a project that seems difficult. This is not a project for a stiff deadline, but for the resulting good fit, it is well worth the time and effort.
Coffin’s book is enjoyable to read. Among other things, I learned that a good fitting shirt should allow the wearer to lift his arms above his head without the shirt tail coming untucked. My husband likes this feature. He has always had difficulty in finding “long” shirts to accommodate his height. I also enjoyed getting to know my “feller” foot for the proper flat fell seams on a well-made shirt. Coffin is right in saying there is no better way to make this flat fell seam.
Coffin recommends good quality cotton shirting fabric as the best (but not the only) option for the classic shirt and lists several good sources. I chose linen to meet my husband’s request, which is one of my favorite parts of sewing for my family. One of the difficulties with linen is its “slip” characteristic. I used starch to help with this difficulty, and my husband now raves about the feel of the linen.
I’ll admit, this shirt is not 100 percent perfect. Though the shoulders are fitted well, we did overshoot the size on the neckline, getting it a touch larger than we’d like. But, trying again can be part of the fun, a new challenge. I’m thinking of Swiss Silky Solid Blue shirting fabric for the next time around.