A Shirt for Dad

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.


12 thoughts on “A Shirt for Dad

  1. Aw, thank you, Janice and Jenny Jo. I am thankful that this project came together. I look forward to using the principles and techniques on other shirts, for my little boys, or for variations on the “classic shirt” for my girls.

  2. “Other”. It’s a good basic linen from Fabric Finders that retails for about $20/yard or so. The Queen mum wouldn’t be interested, but my husband loves it.

    We’d love to learn more about the higher end linens, though, especially as we learn about the higher quality cottons. Do you have any pointers?

    Thanks for the visit!

    • Well I don’t think the Queen Mum would’ve minded wither as long as you had her gin and tonic ready on time for her. I suppose my own viewpoint on tailoring and crafts would be that on something that you devote so much time on, the materials should be deserve that amount of handwork. I’m sure you’ll understand my viewpoint when I say I was horrified to watch a lady handsew a polyester quilt once! In the U.S. although I noticed that the local haberdashers like Joanns, Hobby Lobby etc have imo a very poor selection of trimmings or cloth you have the advantage of being able to get mail ordered stuff from anywhere in the country.

      B. Black & Sons are well-regarded cloth merchants http://www.bblackandsons.com/ but I don’t know the origin of their linen, another option is http://www.ulsterlinen.com/ in New York that sell Irish and other European linens.

      One often surprising thing about such fabrics is that they can be just a little more than Far East imports or even the same price. I’ve bought Irish handkerchief linen for $14/yard before for instance.

      Also for cotton shirtings a good source is Acorn Fabrics in the UK, particularly their end of line items http://www.acornfabrics.com/ Many sewers online tell you to avoid ‘easycare’ cotton and with good reason, its treated with formaldehyde, which inhibits its breathability and feeling on the skin, as well as making it very difficult to sew, its papery and seams pucker etc. Pamela Erny has a post about the difficulties of working with it.

  3. Well said. I have tried using inexpensive fabric, and after the dyes leaked all over the embroidery, I decided I had chosen a very expensive way to save money.

    Thank you for taking your time to share those links. It is appreciated.

    If the Queen mum ever comes to visit, I will remember your advice.

  4. Blumenkinder,

    Just so as you know my own approach to handcrafts I’ve copied something I put as a comment elsewhere:

    ”In relation to fabric choice and origin. My own first introduction to handcrafts was through an aunt of mine who knits. She agreed to knit a jumper but only on condition I buy the right wool for her, so no superwash or anything like that but 5-ply guernsey worsted, which was about £70 sterling five years ago [so $140].

    This gave me an appreciation for the time and effort of her handwork and also an awareness of the cost of quality materials.

    So my question is this (beginners aside), why do sewists(ers?) and other crafters not talk about quality fabrics that truly deserve all the hours of attention and handwork of a craftsperson? So Irish linens, Donegal tweeds, Italian cottons, English worsteds and wool flannels, American and Japanese denim?”

    I initially came across your blog through the cutterandtailor forum and there you’ll see a lot of discussion on fabrics and quality fabrics. I bring cloth to tailors myself, something that is known as cut, make and trim in the trade. Tailors will only accept this if they examine the cloth and are satisfied that it deserves the level of time and effort that goes into making a suit or other garment. As you’ve said yourself there are fewer more expensive ways to save money than by skimping on materials (obviously not talking about beginners or toiles here).


  5. Pingback: About that quality thing | Blumenkinder Heirlooms

  6. Connie…lovey shirt, great job! I have not been as active on ‘Cutter and Tailor’ over the years as I would like to be, However it was nice of Micheal to mention me in a comment here on your blog. Glad you enjoyed the Collar Point technique I demonstrated on my blog recently.

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