Well, I never thought I’d ever write or even utter these words: this is the beginning of my man’s shirt project. It’s the last “project” of 2019 and it was unexpected, to say the least.
Anyone who knows me knows that my design and sewing projects are pretty well confined to me, me, me. My love of female dress and design always nudges me away from any other kinds of projects I might consider – or those I would never consider. For example, I have yet to think of a single reason why I would make a handbag or tote bag. Blecch! I really hate those wildly-printed monstrosities that the pattern companies seem to foist on avid sewers. (I apologize if you love these; but my blog, my views. You are perfectly entitled to make or wear whatever you want.) And just lately I saw a sewing blogger I follow encouraging people to sew their own shoes. Joke, right? For me, it would be. I love shoes or to be more specific, I love high-quality shoes. Ergo I wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of shoes I made myself. If you’re a cobbler and into bespoke shoes, well, that’s a different thing. But feel free to make your own espadrilles. But I digress…
Why in the world did I start a man’s shirt project? Well, my own personal style runs to the classic, tailored look so I do love a collared, buttoned-up look for myself. I really love a Brooks Brothers women’s shirt, for example.
And I have also made shirt-like pieces in the past and enjoy the process. Add this to the fact that I always like to have a project on the go but I don’t always need a new piece myself.
So, I was feeling magnanimous one day and asked my husband if he ever thought he might like me to make him a shirt. He respectfully declined. This is a man who already owns sufficient shirts for his lifestyle.Ya think? And besides, I really think he harboured the feeling that a home-made shirt might, well, look homemade in spite of the fact that he often marvels at the pieces I make for myself. Anyway, I moved on. Then, a few months later, we happened to be talking about bespoke shirts and other things and he said something to the effect that I had never made anything for him. I reminded him of our previous conversation of which he claimed no memory. In any case, it seems that the idea of selecting his own fabric and having a bespoke shirt crafted for him now had an appeal. I jumped on the chance to create a well-fitting, truly unique shirt for my very best friend in the world – my husband. And so, we were off.
I don’t know about anyone else, but whenever I start thinking about a new design and creation project, I start to do some research. Mine started in my husband’s closet, examining the fine details of the shirts he already has. I looked at yokes, cuffs, cuff plackets, front plackets, buttons and buttonholes, counted buttons (did you know that there are eleven buttons on a regular shirt and that doesn’t count the collar buttons if you use them which I would have to since that’s the kind of shirt he likes). I examined the top-stitching on a number of his shirts and scrutinized the seam finishes. I noted that the more he paid for a shirt (a Robert Graham versus a Landsend shirt), the more likely it was to have not only French seams but also to have the armscye seam bound. So many things to think about! I even started doing this kind of research as we browsed through the men’s department at various local stores: Hudson’s Bay, Nordstrom and Saks in particular.
All this hands-on research got me wondering about the provenance of many of the details. Why do men’s shirts have the kind of construction details that are so important?
When I made my own button-front shirt-like piece over two years ago, I did some research on these shirts. At the time, I wrote the following:
“… I need to clarify a bit of terminology. My well-dressed son who loves his Armani tux (which he bought on sale ten years ago and still wears) as much as he loves his jeans and sneakers, loves a button-front shirt. However, he and his friends all call them “button-down” shirts. This had always bugged me since my understanding was that only shirts whose collars actually button-down were correctly called this. It turns out that I am, indeed, right. So much for the millennials and their terminology! It seems that collared shirts have been a part of men’s wardrobes for centuries. In fact, the terms “white collar” and “blue-collar” actually do originate in the difference between the colours of the collars worn by men who worked in more clerical, office-type and executive-type positions versus those who toiled as labourers. As you may be aware, before the early 1900’s men’s shirt collars were not, in fact, attached to the shirts at all. It was only after laundry became more accessible and clothing manufacturing became more sophisticated that different fabrics and colours and attached collars became a fashion item for men… The actual button-down collar has an equally interesting history. In 1896 Brooks Brothers started producing soft button-down collar shirts inspired by the shirts worn by polo players at the time. These days we tend to think of the polo shirt as having a collar that flops around, but it seems that polo players back at the end of the nineteenth century didn’t’ like those floppy collars and began buttoning them down. Still these days the buttoned-down collar is considered to be more casual than one that is not: a button-down is likely to be considered to be a sports shirt while the non-buttoned collar may be on a dress shirt – but as you know, everything is changing in our casual world!”
I noted this and recognized that casualness notwithstanding, my husband is not a lover of the floppy collar. He prefers it to be buttoned down either where it can be seen or on the underside. Check.
Okay, so that reviewed for me the history of the button-front shirt but since I wasn’t making a man’s shirt at the time, I didn’t research those other details.
It seems that yokes first appeared in the 1880s or 90s and although I can’t find details about this, I’m guessing that it was in the Wild, Wild West in the U.S. Think: cowboy shirt. But the yoke does have a more practical purpose.
According to David Page Coffin writing in his wonderful book Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing, “A yoke is vital to a shirt. It provides extra strength in the area bearing the weight of the shirt…conceals seams at the shoulder…” where they might otherwise “rub uncomfortably.” [page 21]. I forgot to mention that when I decided to embark on this project, I thought I better get myself some professional help so immediately surfed over to Amazon and purchased his book. He’s a bit of a shirtmaking guru and the book is a must for anyone wanting to up their shirtmaking game.
As far as front bands are concerned, according to Coffin, the use of the front band is actually an American standard with the cleaner front more European. Duly noted. My husband’s style would skew more European than American if we had to judge.
And what about cuffs? I do love a French cuff – the ones that are folded back and fastened with a cuff-link. But they always say “formal” to me. What I didn’t know was that the non-French cuff is actually called a barrel cuff. So, since this is to be a less formal shirt, a barrel cuff with its simple button closure it will be.
As for silhouette, my husband prefers a trim fit rather than a big box, but he also doesn’t want a shirt that is too tight. And that goes for the sleeves as well. Have you noticed how balloon some shirt sleeves are these days? I knew I’d have to be careful about the sleeve volume.
With all of this in mind, I began searching for the perfect commercial pattern for this shirt. Well, naturally, the perfect pattern does not exist. So, I ordered a Vogue 8759 measured my husband and began fiddling with the details of this pattern.
What I liked about it was the fact that rather than a pleat or two at the yoke, it has a three-panel back and you know that the more seams there are, the better fit you can accomplish. I also liked the two-piece sleeve, not that common on everyday shirts. And as for the front placket? None, so it has that clean European look. But what of the collar? Not what he really wanted so I knew that in the first-draft of the project, I would have to redesign it.
Then all I needed was fabric…or should I say fabrics. We were going to need to do one or two trial runs of this sucker before landing on the right size and design. In that process, I found a new fabric store far from the usual Toronto fabric district. Its divineness has to be experienced. I’ll share that experience with you in the next installment.
Cuff illustration: https://georgehahn.com/essentials-the-great-white-dress-shirt/