Trying on clothes in fitting rooms tends to be a less than inspiring experience. Puckering, pulling, shifting, and stretching — the garment quickly becomes an obstacle in itself. Cal Patch‘s book, Design-It-Yourself Clothes, is built on an inherently sensible premise: perfect fit comes from custom patterns. Cal’s approach that every sewer deserves to empower herself through learning the craft of patternmaking, is both encouraging and liberating. Each project in this foundational manual builds upon the previous one, so a basic shirt turns into a jacket turns into a dress.
For this week’s How-Tuesday, we’re sharing the button-down shirt; I hope the skills you learn in creating this pattern will equip you for exploring the next frontier in your designs. Since this project is rich with information, I’ve included an excerpt below, but you can download the full how-to (for free!) as a PDF here.
Picture this: You’re out shopping, maybe at your favorite vintage shop, maybe at a fancy designer boutique, and you see something familiar. Hmm. Where have you seen that dress before, you wonder. In a magazine? A movie? Oh wait, you remember! You’ve seen it in your dreams!
You try it on, and for a moment, you are enraptured: Life is complete! You will forevermore be the one envied at every party for what you are wearing. But then you do a reality check. The color, now that you are thinking clearly, doesn’t suit you at all. The fabric is a little more synthetic than you’d like. The waist is actually too small, and wouldn’t it be way dreamier with a wider, kimono-esque sleeve? And a different neckline? Not to mention longer, with more flare at the hemline, and some shirring at the bust? And again, you realize, this scenario is all too familiar: You know exactly what you want and you’ve got the sewing skills to pull it off, if only there weren’t that one, teensy-weensy recurring problem: the pattern. Even the best seamstress needs one, but a pattern for the vision in your head just plain does not exist. Yet.
It’s no secret that sewing is the new hot craft — more people are sewing now than ever before. Sooner or later, most stitchers want to tackle more advanced projects, namely clothing. This is where the trouble sets in. The problem isn’t in the sewing, but in the pattern. Unfortunately, finding the perfect pattern for what you want to make can be anywhere from difficult to impossible. The sewing pattern industry, with a few noteworthy exceptions, doesn’t seem to be quite in sync with the surge in modern sewers — sewers who want to make clothes that look like what they might buy at their favorite retailers.
The new generation of indie seamstresses is watching Project Runway, reading ReadyMade and Selvedge, and shopping at small boutiques selling one-offs by local designers. You know what you want to wear but can’t always find it on a rack. You know how to sew but don’t see patterns that resemble what you want to make. You do want to make a unique look based on your own personal taste, influences, and body type. And you need the freedom to create patterns as your taste evolves over time. What’s an intrepid stitcher to do?
Well, the obvious answer is to learn how to make your own sewing patterns! Patternmaking is an age-old art form, which, at its core, is extremely simple. The clothing we currently wear tends to be relatively simple from a patternmaker’s point of view. We don’t wear finely tailored suits or dresses with princess seams, darts, and gussets. We wear simple knit tops, skirts, loose dresses, basic woven shirts, and pants. Their style tends to come from details, as opposed to dramatic or complicated cut and construction. Thus, it’s quite possible to teach today’s sewers how to make their own patterns. And this book does just that in a fun, concise volume for the modern girl.
There are other reasons, besides the lack of selection, to learn how to make patterns. For example, three little letters: F-I-T. Fit can make or break a look. Whether shopping for clothing or patterns, finding ones that fit is frequently a struggle. This is because clothing manufacturers can’t possibly make clothes to fit every conceivable body height, width, shape, and every combination of those factors. So they aim for the middle ground and hope for the best. Commercial sewing patterns have the same problem, though they do offer the possibility of simple adjustments, like altering length or combining two sizes in different areas to approximate your body. But only building a pattern from scratch, around your own personal set of numbers, can ultimately result in a garment that fits like it was made for you. Because it was!
There’s nothing more classic than a woven collared shirt. Whether it’s a menswear-style button-down, a Western cowboy-inspired number, or a girly, ruffly blouse, woven shirts are infinitely versatile and wearable. Feel like making one? You’ve got lots of options for fabric: cotton shirtings, quilting prints, eyelet, voile, chambray, pinwale cord, really almost any light- to medium-weight woven will do!
Let’s talk for just a minute about functional ease. Whereas a knit shirt can be exactly the same measurements as (or even smaller than) your body, woven shirts require a bit of breathing room. Because they don’t stretch, woven fabrics can’t move and bend with you the way knits do. So giving yourself a little space between your skin and the garment will allow you to reach, twist, laugh, and dance without fear of busting a stitch! Functional ease subsequently will be referred to as FE.
Bust circumference + FE* (at the fullest point)
Waist circumference + FE*
Distance from HSP (High shoulder point) down to waist
Hip circumference + FE* (where you want the bottom of the shirt to be)
Length of shirt (HSP to hem)
Shoulder width + 1/4″ FE**
Front neck drop
Bicep circumference + 1/4″ FE**
Wrist circumference + 1/4″ FE**
*For each of these horizontal measurements, divide by four. These quarter measurements will be the ones you use for drafting the pattern. They will be referred to as quarter-bust, quarter-waist, and quarter-hip.
**Divide these measurements by two. These will be referred to as half-shoulder, half-neck, etc.
Determining your armhole measurement
When measuring the armhole of a garment, we usually just measure a straight line (even though the actual armhole is a curve) from the point where the shoulder seam intersects the sleeve, down to the point where the underarm seam meets the side seam. A standard armhole measurement for a medium-sized fitted T-shirt is about 7″ to 7 1/2″. To figure out what will be best for you, grab some favorite tops from your closet and measure the armholes. If they tend toward 6 1/2-7″, go with 6 3/4″, and likewise if they’re bigger. Or if you know your shirts always feel as if they’re pinching at the pits, or conversely if you usually feel as if you’re swimming in them, add or subtract an inch accordingly. You’ll fine-tune this once you make a muslin and try it on, so for now just take your best guess.
Determining your front neck drop and neck width
For this woven shirt we will be making a collar, and your neck drop and width will determine the placement of the seam where the collar is attached to the shirt. Therefore, the drop should be a fairly traditional placement, right at the base of your neck where your two clavicle bones meet. On me, that’s at about 3 1/2″ down from my high shoulder point (HSP). The width should be the distance between your two HSPs. On me, that’s about 7″. You can play around with more adventurous collars and seams when you’ve got a little more experience, but for now let’s just keep it simple!
For the rest of this how-to, download the PDF here.
Looking for more patternmaking inspiration? Check out a copy of Design-It-Yourself Clothes to kick-start your new wardrobe. Thanks to Cal Patch and the good folks at Potter Craft for sharing this project with us.