Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

COVID Couture: Designs for Lockdown Life

At this very moment, I should be writing about a project I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I should be sharing with you the colour palette and design inspiration for my Fall 2020 European Travel Capsule – a plan I have for a tightly edited group of travel-worthy clothing (including both ready-to-wear and my own design-sew plans) for an upcoming adventure to Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Sadly, however, the moment we arrived home from our winter getaway, we saw the handwriting on the wall and cancelled the fall holiday. I’m not going to be needing that capsule this year. Maybe next year. So, where did that leave my project plans?

[Yes, that’s Ines de la Fressange, my inspiration for the European capsule!]

Well, I could begin my tailoring adventure. There are two problems with the timing of this project: first, I don’t want to buy the fabric for my new blazer without actually seeing and feeling it so that’s out of the question at the moment (truthfully though, I might relent here at some point in the next two months if things don’t change); second, I have absolutely no place to wear a bespoke blazer at this time.

Taking into consideration the events that fill my days at present and the places I’m going (or to be more accurate places I’m not going) I need to rethink the whole design and sew aspect of my life. That’s where COVID Couture comes in. Let me start by reminding myself of what, exactly the term couture means.

Although the term might conjure images of models sauntering down runways in the latest Dior, Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana, it really is simpler than that. The term couture should not be confused with haute couture, the word that you would, in fact, use to describe the aforementioned Dior etc. Couture is a French word that translates into English as “sewing” in its most literal sense. Haute couture translates literally as “high sewing” and that’s what they do in those fashion houses (although the term haute couture can be legally applied to only a handful of houses that have achieved that designation).

The online dictionary defines the word couture as “…the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client’s specific requirements and measurements…fashionable made-to-measure clothes…” Okay, that’s what I do. I design and create made-to-measure clothes for myself. And the fact that we are in the middle of a COVID pandemic and require different kinds of clothes at this point in our lives, any clothes I make for use in the short term are, by definition, COVID couture. So, here’s how I’m going to define COVID Couture:

…the design and creation of fashionable, made-to-measure clothing that makes the wearer feel comfortable, relaxed and calm while still being presentable enough for a Zoom meeting…

Enter the perfect fabric. It so happened that I had bought two lengths of complementary striped bamboo knit with a brushed back. What could be more comfortable and relaxing than the softest bamboo fabric you could imagine? I wish you could reach out and feel this fabric. Then all I needed were two or three patterns to choose from.

I first created a tunic with a wide cowl neckline from Kwik Sew 4189. I liked the cowl neckline and the tunic length.


The fabric is quite fine and very stretchy so I had to first, cut it out in a single layer, and second, be very careful about not stretching it even more as I sewed. I ended up stabilizing the side seams with Knit-n-Stable™ tape which was a great decision. Putting it in the hemline might not have been such a good idea as you can see from the photos – it remains a bit wavy. In my defence, the stretchy fabric with a bias hemline is a recipe for waves under any circumstances!

I used the two different stripes for what I think is an interesting effect. The piece is beyond comfortable to wear, but now that the spring has arrived, the cowl neckline doesn’t seem right to me.

So, I looked to another pattern for a piece I can wear under a little jacket on cool spring days and at home.

I had picked up McCalls 7975 a few months ago because I liked the front twist and the sleeve variations. I thought it had possibilities. Again, I had to cut it out in a single layer which wasn’t really a stretch (sorry about the pun) in this pattern since the whole front is one piece anyway.

Leftover fabric!

Because I was using leftover material, I knew I wouldn’t have enough of either stripe to do the whole thing but not to worry: I simply put the variation on the back. I do like how it turned out.

This time, I stabilized only the shoulder seams. And rather than serge the hem before turning it, I turned it twice and this seemed to give the hem more stability. Overall, the fit is generous – I had to take in the side seams twice and probably could have done more. That being said, this is another wonderfully comfortable piece that I will certainly wear on Zoom for my next board meeting.

I also took another piece of bamboo knit – this time French terry – and made myself a new bathrobe. I think this qualifies as COVID Couture as well!

Okay, time to get serious – I only need so many comfy tops and robes (what I really need is a silk robe). I’ll have to start thinking about re-entry into a more normal life. Or at least something I can wear to the grocery store on a summery day! Stay safe out there!

Posted in sewing, Shirt-making, Style

The “Perfect Shirt” Project: Finished at Last!

There can be no doubt about it: I take longer than anyone on the face of the earth to complete a project. But, in my defence, I’d like to think that the project teaches me lots along the way and the final product is one that meets my initial objectives. Well, this one does!

I started this project in search of the perfect, perfectly-fitted shirt. My personal style runs toward the tailored and since I no longer need suits for my day-to-day life (actually, the last two decades of my career needed them less and less), tailored shirts with crisp collars are a nice, more casual alternative (sans jacket). And they look equally great with dressy pants and jeans.

I began this project in January before I left for vacation, before we all faced what is turning out to be some kind of existential challenge around the globe. But throughout it all, some things provide stability and meditative equanimity. For me, that’s a long, involved design and sewing project. This one was perfect for that.

When I first began exploring this project, I said the following:

“…A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt…”

And I hold to that. It all depends on the fabric and how the shirt is styled. Anyway, I then created a test shirt that was a kind of “frankenstyle” mash-up of fabrics that allowed me to test the fit, design lines and a few techniques, like sleeve plackets.

Then I loosened up the pattern, removed the waist darts and the back yoke and whipped it up in a light-weight, summery fabric that took on the flavour of a “blouse” rather than a traditional mens-wear-inspired shirt. I really loved that one – alas, it still has no buttons since the button stores are all closed (see above our existential crisis at the moment).

Then it was on to the final design.

I brought the fabric home from my Florida vacation and I must say it was wonderful to work with and it feels extraordinary. I think that even my Brooks Brothers shirts are not as comfortable.

By the time I got to this one, I could have made it with my eyes closed. I even finished the side seams and the sleeve seams with French seams but I still find it best to serge the armhole seam. I once again tried to use the rolled hem foot to complete the hem, but I have to say that it’s a bit too tricky. I can get a few inches on the sample but more than that and it’s a hot mess. So the hem is turned twice as usual.

When it came time to do the finishing touches, it suffered from the same problem as in the last version: no buttons! Button stores closed! I have so many buttons but not the nine or so matching, navy blue ones that I so needed. That’s when I got creative.

I have a well-loved Diane von Furstenberg silk twill blouse that had developed a very nasty tear along its piped armscye. And since it had always been rather generous on me (my husband says I buy many of my clothes too big), I had decided to recycle the silk which is lovely into a smaller top. That sucker had buttons — buttons that I was not likely to use in the new project. So, of course, I cut one off and voila! I had buttons to complete this project. And don’t you love the look or pristine machine-made buttonholes before you cut them open?

The shirt is finished and ready for its first outing. The only problem is that it seems a bit much for wearing from the dining room to the living room to the kitchen, don’t you think?

Oh well, the restaurants and the shops and the offices will re-open some day and I’ll have plenty of opportunities to wear it. Stay safe everyone! Now , let’s all go wash our hands again!

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style

The Perfect Shirt: Why it isn’t a blouse

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

The good news: today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The bad news: covid-19. The less said about the latter the better. So, I’m moving toward my holy grail: the perfect shirt. I have the perfect fabric and I’ve created a pattern for a shirt that fits me perfectly. What more could I want? Isn’t it time to make that final shirt? Not quite. I have one more avenue of research to pursue. I’m making one final test shirt with the pattern edited to accommodate a finer, drapier, dare I say blousier fabric. This is in case I think my first-pass perfection isn’t quite perfect. So, is it still a shirt?

I need to back up in my research a bit. What are the characteristics of a shirt that makes it a shirt? The word shirt is used as a catch-all to describe any kind of garment one wears on top. However, this isn’t precise enough. A T-shirt, while being a kind of shirt, isn’t really a shirt. It’s, well, a T-shirt. A halter top can be described generically as a shirt, but it’s, well, a halter-top!

So back to my definition of the perfect “shirt.”

My first test shirt reviewed.
  • First, there is the design. Shirts, by definition, have a crisp, tailored style with buttons down the front. They have collars, although the style of the collar can vary. They are traditionally closely tailored (which as far as I’m concerned is a characteristic of a “perfect” shirt) but they can also be over-sized. I have room in my wardrobe for these over-sized shirts, but they’re not “perfect” shirts for me.
  • Second, there is the fabric as I discussed previously. In general terms, “shirts” are made from woven fabrics. That being said, we now find shirts made from stable knits. These are garments that are shaped like what we know as a shirt, but the fabric stretches. They’re often a bit like a hybrid between a T-shirt and a shirt.

What, then is a blouse? A blouse is a type of upper-body garment that can be rendered in a variety of styles (even styled like a shirt) but is fabricated from a softer, drapier fabric that is more forgiving to the body. It has the added characteristic of being able to “blouse” over a waistline if you choose to wear it like that. In fact, the dictionary defines a blouse as a “loose-fitting garment resembling a shirt that is usually worn by women…”

Before I settle on a final design for the pattern, I need to make a few edits and create one final test. Here are the changes I make to the pattern to turn it into more of a blouse:

  • I omit the waist darts. Taking these out is taking a chance. However, I’ll mark them and put them in at the time of the final fitting if it doesn’t work.
  • I manipulate the yoke out and into shoulder darts. Yokes scream “shirt” and are a men’s design detail that one generally does not find in a blouse that doesn’t need that extra support (unless it’s used as a design feature).
  • I should probably lengthen it an inch or two but in the end, decide to leave the length as is.

I also need different fabric. I fell I love with a gauzy cotton embroidered with turtles. Yes, turtles! I rarely wear patterns of any kind – they are so not me – but this one looked like it could make a cool, airy summer blouse/shirt.

So, I ordered it, washed and dried it (after doing a 4-inch square test piece), ironed it and laid it out. I even decided to ensure that there is one turtle at the to of each sleeve placket. Cute, no?

Without a yoke or waist darts, the sewing is quick and easy. I finish it in no time. There is just one problem. I have two sets of buttons I could use but neither one really does it for me.

neither of these buttons is really right.

So, I decide we should take a nice spring walk downtown to the fabric district where my favourite button store is located. There is only one problem: everything is closed. Can you say covid-19?

Oh well, I’m not going to be wearing it any time soon, so I’ll wait rather than using second best.

If you look closely, you can see that I’m wearing it with pins! Buttons to come.

My conclusion is that I now have a great pattern for a silk blouse but I’m going to stick with the yoke for the final perfect shirt – and probably the waist darts. I can’t wait to get to the final shirt. I just love the fabric!

Posted in Style

“The Perfect Shirt Project”: My “frankenstyle” test shirt

It’s always wonderful to be able to take a break from winter! I’ve just spent a couple of fantastic weeks doing a “road trip” that my husband and I took starting in Key Largo, through the everglades of Florida to the west coast then up to the northeast coast ending in our favourite Florida city, Fort Lauderdale. A few of my GG Collection pieces made their way into my suitcase and served me well but now I’m back and ready to complete my perfect shirt project. But Florida will return to the discussion since I actually visited a fantastically quirky fabric store and found the perfect fabric for the perfect shirt. But more about that later.

Now…back to the frankenstyle test shirt!

My overall plan for creating this test garment that might be able to appear in public on my back was to purchase no new fabric. And since I am not a fabric hoarder (stasher if you prefer) I have only left-overs. However, I have to admit that I do tend to buy more fabric than is really required for any given project so that I can recut if necessary. Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, I found a few pieces that I thought I could make work together.

I put a lot of thought into the placement of the fabric. This was good design practice for me and might make it wearable as I mentioned.

Layout was key to the design.

The purpose of a test garment (toile, muslin) for me is to work out fit issues in the main but I also sometimes use it to practice techniques. The fit was the most important aspect of this one.

Problem #1: the collar turned out to be two inches too large for the neckline! What the…? So I had to redraft the pattern pieces, then I recut the collar and the undercollar using a seam at the back. Remember, I have no extra fabric here so I have to use what I have. Anyway, it turned out quite well and it occurs to me that I might use this on the bias for undercollar of future designs. So I have a one-piece collar-band pattern and a two-piece collar-band pattern.

Other fitting concerns that I’ll change in the final pattern: I think that the cuffs could be a minimum of ½ inch smaller and I need to back off the bust darts a full inch for perfection.

As far as techniques are concerned, I decided to use Angela Kane’s approach to creating a sleeve placket.

The pattern looks a bit like this…

This was a new technique for me and it worked out beautifully.

She provides a terrific template on her web site and has a very useful two-part video tutorial.

Here’s part 1…

…and you’ll need part 2…

I finished off the front with a series of not-quite-matching buttons I ordered from China on eBay and in the end, I have a tailored-meets-funky kind of shirt that I actually might wear in public!

The fit in the next one should be better but I’m going to do another test in a finer fabric that could become the basis for a “blouse” because they’re not the same thing at all!

Posted in fabrics, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style

The “Perfect Shirt” Project Continues: Enter the planning of the “frankenstyle” test shirt

The quest for the perfect shirt has to be taken seriously, one step at a time, perfecting each component: style details, fabric and possibly most important of all, fit. At least that’s how I’m approaching this project.

When last we spoke (okay, I did all the talking) I had taken a trip down memory lane to view the iconic appearances of the button-up shirt on iconic twentieth-century women. From there, I reviewed the finer points of where and how a shirt like this ought to fit. Now it’s time I got started on one of my own.

As I mentioned, I had a look at the commercial patterns I already owned. On final consideration, I decided to use McCall’s 7575 as a starting point.

I begin with design details.

As I look more closely at the pattern, I realize that the first change I have to make is a basic style one: I want a clean front on my perfect shirt pattern. A clean front is more European. This means I have to get rid of the band running down the front and rework the pattern accordingly. I can always add a band for future designs.

Original line art

The next design detail I examine is those breast pockets. Can we talk about pockets for a moment? I’ve noted that many women say they love pockets but what they really mean is that they love pockets in a skirt (and trousers and jackets perhaps). The question I have is this: do they really like pockets in shirts where said pockets are essentially useless and often serve only to increase the visual aspects of one’s chest? I think not. I think that they haven’t thought their general love of pockets through. I’m not a big fan of breast pockets on women’s shirts or blouses in general. I certainly put one on my husband’s perfect shirt because he uses it to stick his glasses in and won’t actually buy a shirt that doesn’t have a left-sided breast pocket (except for the odd dress shirt). But what about me? No. Uh-uh. No breast pockets for me. So, I ditch the breast pocket – at least for this go-around.

Another design detail: Go back up and have a close look at the original line art. It shows a little bias strip as a placket thingy on the sleeves. I feel that this is a bit of a cop-out. There are so many wonderful shapes and types of plackets. I think I’ll change this.

Finally, still with those sleeves, I’m not a big fan of the one-pleat-on-one-side-of-the-placket (and the other one on the other side of the placket) design. This was the approach that I used on my man’s shirt project but it looks a bit odd to me on a women’s shirt. I could use gathering, but I think that style is more for flowing blouse fabrics rather than crisp shirting. Anyway, I prefer pleats – so much cleaner and crisper in general. I will also put both of the pleats on the front of the sleeve.

I think I’ll go with the shape of the collar for this first draft but I’ll revisit it later. And I’m keeping the yoke – for now. It’s a design feature that I like in some, but not all, shirts.

Here’s my cleaned-up line art:

So, now it’s on to the fit issues!

Still with those sleeves. Dear god – why do commercial pattern companies (and the indie pattern-makers are no better) seem to think we all need sleeve bicep measurement that would fit a Sumo wrestler? So, it’s onto the drawing board to recut the sleeve pattern to more suit my style – and size.

With the sleeve pattern recut, I just need to tweak the waist darts and I’m ready to move onto consideration #3: fabric.

Let’s face it, the term “wearable muslin” is a bit of an oxymoron – either it’s a muslin that you’re willing to cut apart and use for the final pattern, or it’s a wearable shirt that you construct from some kind of fabric you’re willing to be seen in in public. That’s my usual approach. So I’m going to call this a “test garment” rather than a toile or muslin. That gets me off the hook in case it is actually wearable. But I’m not willing to spend any money on this kind of test. Enter the remnant box.

I’m not a fabric stasher (*shudder*) but I don’t throw out reasonably-sized pieces of leftover fabric – that is, of course, unless it’s hideous to work with like the scuba fabric top that I never even wrote about in this space. I should since there’s much for me to learn, but I probably won’t because then I’d have to think about it again and that would seriously hurt my head. I digress. I need fabric for my test shirt.

So, as I examine the remnants I have I’m looking for pieces that have some kind of compatible aesthetic and that have compatible fabric content. I have to find a few pieces that are cotton or at the very least cotton with a touch of spandex (I happen to know that I have only one such piece). This is the fun part of the test shirt.

I love the idea of creatively putting the pieces together. This is the perfect opportunity to practice this kind of aesthetic exercise as I look for pieces of fabric for the body, the collar, yoke, undercollar, sleeves, cuffs and placket.

Remember Frankenstein’s monster? This is not to be confused with dear Dr. Frankenstein himself. He created the monster that was composed of pieces of other bodies. So, I plan to create “frankenstyle” garment.

I decide to use the following pieces:

I have a largish piece of cotton sateen that has a touch of lycra for a soupcon of cross-body stretch. It’s little enough that it passes for a non-stretch woven.

Blue cotton sateen from the sloper in progress

I have a very small piece of leftover Italian cotton from my husband’s shirt and since it cost $80 a metre, I kept it anyway. I will use this for small parts.

I also have some black and white-black striped shirting from a previous shirt-type project.

It’s a very interesting exercise to think about which fabric will be the body – front and/or back. Which one the sleeves, which one would look best as the collar? Undercollar?

Old line art!

Well, I figured it out and proceeded to cut and sew. I’ll reveal the final result next time! Now I’m off to warmer climes for a few weeks!

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style, Stylish Books

The “Perfect Shirt” Project Begins

There’s not a single style manual on the planet that doesn’t suggest to all of us that among the essential wardrobe staples we should have in our closets is the button-up shirt (as opposed to the button-down shirt which I’ve discussed before!).

American “style expert” Lloyd Boston lists “the white shirt” number one in his book The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You. He specifically suggests that this fashion must-have should be white. And I’m sure that we all have a few white button-up shirts in our fashion arsenal, but I think it’s safe to say that we also need other colours.

Dearer to our hearts perhaps (at least for those of us who create some of our own fashion pieces) Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr authors of the recent book A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing include the shirt among their 30 timeless garments and they include both styling tips and sewing tips. They also don’t confine this classic to white and consider that we ought to have a few in different colours in our wardrobes.

Why is the shirt such a universally appealing wardrobe piece? I think because it is endlessly versatile.

A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt. And throughout the twentieth century, a variety of iconic women made the shirt an icon all on its own.

Who wouldn’t swoon over Lauren Bacall in Key Largo in her ever-present button-up?

See the yoke and the men’s styling features? Wonderful! And so versatile

Or the ever-chic Audrey Hepburn? Sexy and buttoned-up all at the same time!

More recently, remember Uma  Thurman in Pulp Fiction? Even if you didn’t see the movie, I’m sure you saw the stills where she is smouldering in her white button-up with French cuffs.

Then, if you still think a button-up shirt is too prissy for you, may I reintroduce you to Marilyn? You can never see a classic shirt the same way again once you’ve seen one on Marilyn.

Unmistakably Marilyn!

There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on precisely when women started wearing button-up shirts. Some sources suggest it was in the 1950s when women in movies would wear their partner’s shirt (i.e. a men’s shirt) after the suggestion that they had just had sex. But that can’t be right because women in the armed services wore shirts long before that and we’ve seen photos of women in the late 1800s wearing what appear to be collared shirts with ankle-grazing skirts.  

In the 19th century, these early women’s “shirts” were often referred to as “shirtwaists.” This is the term we now use when referring to shirt-dresses.

The problem with many of the shirts on offer to women in ready-to-wear these days is that they don’t fit very well. The darts are often in the wrong places. The fit over the bust is often a problem in general. Enter the gape! They are often too wide across the shoulders and nip in too much at the waist. Or they look like bags all over. A smart button-up shirt ought to fit perfectly, n’est ce pas?

I enjoyed Justine Leconte’s tips on how a shirt should fit and found it very useful so I’ll use her approach when I check on the fit of my own perfect shirt…

This is right up my alley, although I often wonder what women whose foundational style is artistic boho think about this. In any case, who am I to argue with the wardrobe police? I agree: everyone looks terrific in a shirt. But it has to be perfect. Enter my new project.

After I finished my husband’s perfectly-fitted (and very expensive) shirt project, it occurred to me that I ought to have a perfectly-fitted pattern that I can use for both a shirt and a blouse. And there is a difference between a shirt and a blouse in my mind. The fashion police suggest that a blouse is a type of shirt (because it blouses?) but a shirt is not always a blouse. A shirt is crisp while a blouse is drapey. At least that’s how I’m going to define them. I plan to start the project by creating the perfect shirt pattern then modifying it for blouses.

So what does my perfect shirt need?

  • It needs to be fitted either with darts or princess lines. I think I’ll start with darts because princess lines are really just a variation on that and I can always manipulate darts into a princess seam if I want to do that in the future.
  • It needs to have a collar. Kind of a no-brainer since this is part of the definition of a shirt. However, there are different kinds of collars and I want this to be a collar with a stand.
  • It needs to have well-fitted sleeves. I find that commercial patterns often have sleeves that are very large around the bicep. They seem to think we are all stevedores or wrestlers.
  • It needs to have nice cuffs with a nice placket. This is a skill I will need to learn more about since I see so many different kinds of plackets around.
  • It needs to have a back yoke. Yokes support the material in the shirt. I can always manipulate this out if I choose a blouse-type approach in the future.
  • It needs to be the right length. I’ll figure that out as I fit the test shirt.
  • I don’t necessarily want the shirt to have any breast pockets, but that’s an option I’ll keep in mind for variations.

Where to begin? I decided to start with an examination of commercial patterns. I own a couple, none of which is perfect.

McCall’s 6649 (copyright marked 2012 and now out of print it seems) seems to tick all the boxes, as does McCall’s 7575 (a 2017 addition). In fact, they are so similar as to make one wonder why they got rid of one and created another one just the same. I also picked up Burda 6908 in the discards box at a Fabricville outpost in Muskoka during our fall road trip. This pattern is dated 2014 and is a bit different from the previous ones in that it is more of a tunic style – no darts, quite long and very balloony. Not quite what I’m looking for in a basic pattern, but I do think I will make it as part fo this project.

So it does seem as if I’m going to have to really work on my own pattern. I’ll start with M7575 and modify it for fit and style. And what about fabric?

Well, these classic shirts are by definition fabricated from wovens, usually 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Obviously, they have to be fairly lightweight – just imagine what these shirts would look like made from canvas. Not the image I’m going for. Eventually, I’d love to have a fine Italian cotton, but for the first go-around, I’m going to see what I have leftover from other projects. Stay tuned for my test shirt – a kind of “Frankenstyle” design while I test out my pattern details.

I’ll give LB the final word…

Posted in Fashion, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

In Love with Knit Jackets (not hand-knit!)

When I was a little girl (so many years ago!) I remember the popularity of “knit” jackets. Jackets that someone actually knit. With a pair of knitting needles. Knit jackets were a ‘thing’ back then.

The ones I remember most, though, seem to be men’s hand-knit jackets (and machine-knit jackets were the same). I remember them as being heavy, chunky, usually with a very large pattern of some sort on them, and they almost always had zippers. How times have changed!

These are the knit jackets I remember! This one is from the 1960s. Hand-knit.

There was a time in my life (back in my twenties if you can believe that) when I, too, succumbed to the lure of the hand-knit sweater. Yes, it was the years of the Lopi sweater craze.

This was the first of many Lopi sweaters that I hand-knit back in the day. Then, as quickly as the desire to make them came over me, it disappeared and I haven’t picked up a set of knitting needles in years. Perhaps that’s because my style changed.

In the years that followed grad school, I was the proud owner of a closet full of suits. Canadian designers Alfred Sung and Simon Chang, along with American designer Calvin Klein, all shared closet space with dozens of pairs of shoes. I loved the tailored style and that has evolved to be the way I prefer to dress.

Simon Chang featured in the Canadian fashion magazine Flare in the 1980s. He was a bit funkier. I think I owned the one in the centre!

But now I find that I have little use for finely tailored jackets. I have a couple that I wear regularly – my black cashmere, silk-lined Brooks Brothers one is a favourite – with jeans or when I have to give a presentation (*sigh* I still find myself behind a podium from time to time). A tailored blazer is a fantastic piece for any wardrobe (and I have a whole design and sewing project on them planned for later this year – stay tuned). The reality, though, is that a softer version of the tailored jacket actually works better for me these days. But does that mean I really want sweaters? I think not!

So, what’s the difference between a sweater and a jacket? They are both designed as garments that are worn on the upper part of the body. Sweaters can be either pull-overs or can open down the front (or even the back for that matter).

Jackets, by definition always have an opening down the front. Given the design freedom we have these days to create anything we desire and call it anything we choose, the traditional main difference between a jacket and a sweater is a function of the materials it is made of. Sweaters are made from knits while jackets are made from wovens. Or, at least they used to be. Enter the “swacket” an odd moniker if ever there was one.

I haven’t been able to find out who actually first started using this stupid word, but a “swacket” does seem to be a thing now. In 2016 the clothing company Under Armour first marketed something they called a swacket.

Just looks like a jacket with a zipper to me.

It looks just like any other athletic jacket to me. Evidently, it feels soft and lightweight (like a sweater) but looks like a jacket. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a soft, lightweight jacket. What am I missing here? Anyway, I do love a soft, lightweight jacket and that, to me, means a knit jacket – as opposed to a heavy, hand-knit jacket.

I’m talking about a jacket that is sewn together from loomed knit fabric. Obviously, it’s not likely to be made from something flimsy because a jacket by its very nature seems to need some structure. Having said that, remember Coco Chanel, the originator of knitwear for women? Here she is in one that really does look like it might be the jersey fabric that she introduced to women’s fashions around the time of the first World War.

Anyway, since my lifestyle doesn’t require Alfred Sung or Simon Chang in it anymore, knit jackets seem like a no-brainer for me.

Recently I made two – one of which doesn’t really have any sore of tailored look while the other does. They are both incredibly soft and comfortable, just what you want in a knit jacket. I used commercial patterns for both.

The first, quite unstructured piece is fully lined with stretch lining, something I’d never used before. I also added a small chain inside along the hem to help it to hang better.

I used McCall’s pattern #7332 and added flat piping to the angled waist seam. This is really the only design feature of this easy-to-create piece. I found that the open front was a bit of a problem. It just kind of hangs there, which, of course, is a function of the knit fabric itself. So, I surfed over to eBay and found myself a source for interesting closures. Naturally, that source was in China so I waited two months for them to arrive, but arrive they did!

This is such a comfortable piece – feels exactly like a sweater. But I have to say that it has been hanging in my closet for some time now and I haven’t found any occasion to wear it! Enter the second knit jacket.

I really loved the look of McCall’s pattern #7254 with its shawl collar and sleek peplum.

I liked that it’s very fitted and a bit short. I found a piece of shadow-striped ponte and combined that with plain black then added a button from my collection (this one found at a Fabricville store that I only get to visit when we are on a road trip to smaller towns outside the big smoke).

Despite the fact that these knit jackets are intended to be softer than their more tailored cousins, I loved the fact that I interfaced the shawl collar for a crisper look. This piece is still very comfortable and the truth is I’ve worn it a lot. Even on an airplane, it gives me a bit of an elevated look while still wearing comfortable knits.

All in all, I’d have to say that I’d design and make a few more if I had any use for dozens of similar wardrobe pieces. But I don’t, so I’m moving on to my perfect shirt project. Talk soon!

(As an aside, I had to look up the past participle of the verb “to knit” to discover that ‘knit’ is the traditional past tense but ‘knitted’ is also in use these days. Sorry, I’m a grammar nerd!)

Posted in Men's Designs, Shirt-making, Style

My Bespoke Shirt Project: The final product

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m tempted to write a recap of my favourite design and sewing projects of 2019 just to see what I’ve learned. I’ve never done that before, but I think that I learned a few important things this year and need that recap for myself. But that will have to wait. I need to finish the story of the bespoke shirt adventure – my last sewing adventure for 2019.

After fiddling with a commercial pattern (Vogue 8759) and making the design changes required by my client (my husband!) it was time to consider fabric selection. The first thing I did was find some cotton shirting fabric in the buy-1-get-2-free sale online at fabricville.com.

The “cheapie” fabric for the test shirts.

This would give me enough fabric to create a complete muslin for fitting and a bit more to do the neckline and collar again if needed. But there was more to the fun of fabric selection than letting my fingers do the shopping. I discovered a new fabric store. But let’s go back a bit…

What are the two most important aspects of a bespoke shirt? As far as I’m concerned, they are the perfect fit and the perfect fabric. The perfect fit is a matter of careful measurements of both the body and the patterns and continuing on-model fitting throughout the process of making the test shirt. The perfect fabric is an altogether different story.

Fabric selection is mostly a personal choice as long as the fabrication itself is suitable for the kind of design. For example, you wouldn’t make a man’s dress shirt from flannel (if you did, it would no longer be a dress shirt by definition anyway). Or you wouldn’t make a man’s dress shirt from a knit. Just imagine how tacky that would be! And how difficult it would be if the man in question wished to wear a tie! So, how do you choose?

According to Jos. A. Bank, purveyors of dress shirts and lots more, there are three suitable fabrics. First, 100% cotton which is, according to them, “the most breathable, durable and comfortable of the three.”

Second, they suggest a blend of cotton and polyester, of which they seem to take a dim view. They suggest that most people gravitate toward these blends to save money which is why so many mass-market shirtings are this kind of blend. Polyester does reduce wrinkling (but 100% cotton is not all the same either. The cheaper it is, the more it wrinkles anyway). Their bottom line on polyester-cotton blends is this: They are “…far less breathable than other materials and less comfortable against your skin, and some people think its slight shine takes on a low-quality appearance. As a general rule, if you can afford it, steer clear of shirts with high polyester content and look for blends with 80% or more cotton.”

Their third selection is silk. I do love silk and there are so many different types of silk, many of which I know would not be suitable for my husband’s shirt. Silk charmeuse – I love it and even love to work with it – is one of my personal favourites for women’s blouses (I’ll talk about the difference between shirts and blouses in a future post since it’s one of my 2020 projects). But on my husband? Not a chance. Jos. A Banks reminds us that silk feels wonderful against the skin, but has its drawbacks for shirts namely these shirts “…tend to cost more, wrinkle easily, and they must be hand-washed (even dry cleaning can damage them) to maintain the material’s integrity.” Since neither my husband nor I have any intention of hand-washing his shirts, this one is off the table.

All of this leaves me with the conclusion: the shirt will have to be 100% cotton. But there are lots of varieties of fine 100% cotton. There is poplin/broadcloth, twill, Oxford cloth, chambray, dobby, end-on-end, seersucker etc.…they all work for the structure necessary for the shirt.

But where does the best cotton shirting come from? Some of the best shirting comes from Italy (no surprise here – they design and weave some of the finest fabrics in the world) often made from Egyptian cotton but woven Italian style. This seems like it might be a good choice for my husband’s bespoke shirt, but where to get it and what will it look like? Enter the fabric shopping adventure.

I usually buy my good fabrics on Queen Street West in Toronto where there continues to be a fabric district. But I wanted to explore a fabric store uptown in an area close to two very high-end residential districts. A bespoke shirt should be made from a fabric chosen by the eventual wearer of said shirt so my husband and I got on the subway and took the train almost as far north as it goes, got off and walked for ten minutes until we reached Maryam’s Fabrics.

A small, well-curated store, Maryam’s, which describes itself as “Toronto’s High End Imported Fabrics Store,” specializes in seriously high-end fabrics from cotton shirting, through silk knits to bouclés for Little French Jackets. We began to explore.

I first noted the “sale” fabrics in a bin near the front of the store were all over $25 a metre. This is a good way to get your head around what will come next. I lovingly caressed a few silk knits that clocked in at $40 a metre. Then I happened upon the most expensive fabric I had ever seen: marked “Chanel”, it was a bouclé that will set you back $500 a metre. Yes, five hundred dollars a metre! But it was divine.

Just look at those sumptuous bouclés !

The sales associate, an older woman who knew her fabrics, brought out three bolts of Italian shirting that they had special ordered in for a client who had all his shirts made for him. Among the three, my husband fell in love with a black fabric sporting white galaxies. A bit fun, yet tasteful.

My husband shopping for his Italian cotton at Maryam’s.

And did it feel wonderful! Well, dear readers, are you ready for the price tag? The selected fabric was $80.00 a metre. Yes, eighty dollars. So, of course, we immediately bought two and a half metres. This was, without a doubt, the most expensive fabric I would ever cut into – which is the reason I did not one but two test shirts before even cutting anything more than my four-inch test square for laundering (and I panicked even at that!).

Is this not extraordinary? And it feels wonderful!

So, I began the test shirt with the grey-striped cotton fabric that had cost something like $15.

When I did the fitting, I found that the neck was a bit too big for my husband and the collar which had to button down needed to be enlarged slightly. That being said, he actually liked this shirt and wears it.

I had enough of the striped fabric to do a short-sleeve test to get the neckline right. Then it was time to cut into the main attraction. I finally had to hold my breath and just do it.

I have to say that the fabric was a dream to work with. Although most bespoke shirt-makers will tell you not to use fusible interfacing (and I bought some muslin specifically for interfacing purposes), I ended up fusing interfacing and it worked beautifully.

I referred often to David Page Coffin’s book (which I talked about in part one of this project) as well as one of his Bluprint video classes. After trying it two or three times on test pieces, I learned to use the “burrito method” for attaching the collar and stand to the neckline. This gives a finer finish to the front of the shirt and obviates the necessity for hand-sewing the inside of the collar stand to the neckline as per most of the commercial pattern instructions.

In the end, we were both very pleased with the results. Here’s a look at the finished product in action…

The festive season was the perfect time for him to wear it – and to tell everyone that I made it for him. One of my proudest moments!

Happy New Year everyone!

Reference:

https://www.josbank.com/dress-shirt-materials-an-introduction

Posted in Men's Designs, Style

An Unexpected Design: The man’s shirt project

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.

Not exactly a button-up “shirt” but my last related project.

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.

My husband does have a substantial number of shirts.

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’m sure you enjoy a well-dressed son as much as I do! The Armani tux…

“… 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.

Cuff illustration: https://georgehahn.com/essentials-the-great-white-dress-shirt/

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/

Posted in fashion history, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

When a design gives me headaches, I give it…buttons!

Buttons from my collection – individual pieces just waiting for the right place to embellish something.

I’m not a fan of stashes. In fact, I truly believe that “stashing” away fabrics is akin to hoarding. I’m kind of a minimalist that way. (No judgment here – it’s just not my thing. Well, maybe a tiny bit of judgment.)  In fact, the term “stash” actually means something that you put away in a secret place for future use, so this notion of a secret implies that you are trying to hide it from someone. That leads me to wonder who everyone is hiding their stashes of fabric from – themselves? Anyway, I don’t stash fabrics, but I do have a stockpile of buttons. Isn’t that a better word? Let’s start by backing up, shall we?

Buttons are extraordinarily functional little things, aren’t they? If you went into your closet this very minute and began counting the number of buttons adorning your various pieces of clothing, I’ll bet that you’d be astonished by the number. And what would happen to all those shirts and blouses, not to mention blazers and coats if there was no such thing as a button? They’d all have zippers and that would be aesthetically boring in my view. And this brings us to the history of the button.

Buttons were largely decorative when they were first used. The earliest buttons that history offers us date from the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan from the late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age – which would make them some 5000 years old – and were made from some kind of copper alloy. These buttons had to be decorative since the buttonhole as we know it today wasn’t invented until the 13th century.

Buttons as closures really came into their own in the Middle Ages when clothing evolved to become more form-fitting. This required some kind of fastening to keep those breeches and vests closed – and close to the body.

Listen to fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi talk about buttons…

…notice he suggests that buttons are a fashion statement? Well, that’s where I come in. As far as I’m concerned, buttons are first and foremost decorative. And they are endlessly variable. They can be made of metal as the earliest ones were, plastic, resin, wood, mother of pearl, glass, crystal, leather, fabric and just about anything you could imagine.

So, when I add some buttons to my collection, I look first to their aesthetic value and second to how utilitarian they might be at some point in the future. I buy buttons regularly whether or not I have a design in mind for them. There are several avenues I use for button collection.

First, of course, there are button shops – or at least portions of shops that are devoted to buttons. Downtown Toronto in the fashion design district, there are a couple of shops that offer this vast array of oddities in the button world (of course, alongside the purely functional ones).

This is a free Pixabay image but it might as well have been taken on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto — my favourite button shop looks exactly like this!

I also keep all those little extra buttons that come along with ready-to-wear clothing. You’d be surprised how that kind of collection can enlarge over the years.

Fishing tackle boxes from Canadian tire make surprisingly good storage containers for keeping buttons organized. Most of these are ones I have collected over the years from those “extras” that come with ready-to-wear pieces.

But my favourite way to collect buttons these days is from eBay. Yes, I buy lots of buttons online. If I have a specific project that I’m seeking buttons to complete, I don’t mind paying a good sum for them. However, when I’m just collecting, I’m looking for inexpensive, funky, different. And sellers from Asia – largely mainland China and Hong Kong – offer cheap buttons and free shipping, although shipping usually takes two to three months. But these are really interesting design features

Just a small sampling of my EBay buttons. Each set of about 10-50 buttons runs me less than $2.00 (Canadian) and with free shipping that I look for, it’s a bargain! You have to admit they’re inspirational, yes?

 The fact that they are also functional is largely secondary in my “design” experience.” As a result, I tend to pull them out when I’m stumped in the final stages of the design process. And occasionally they offer me both aesthetics and functionality – buttons can cover a multitude of sins. A case in point: my recent fall/winter party top project.

I began with a commercial pattern: Vogue 9270. I love the idea of a fancy tunic-like garment for entertaining at home over the festive season and I thought that this one might fit the bill.

I  had this fabric that I bought at the beginning of the season, inspired by my design board that I created for this season. The fabric has a bit of sparkle and a really drapey quality to it. Of course, this is where it all went so very wrong.

The first change I had to make to the pattern was to widen the neckline. Why in the world do so many pattern designers insist on making necklines that creep up to the high neck points? Wider necklines are more flattering on almost everyone. So, I made that small change in the design and carried on.

The fabric. I wish you could see the tiny sparkles all over it. They’re subtle, but festive.

The fabric was a nightmare to sew. I used a titanium ballpoint needle and still had trouble at the beginning of every seam getting it to feed evenly even with the walking foot. But once I fitted the princess seams and installed the largely unnecessary 20-inch zipper (this baby pulls on over the head), I kind of liked the way the fabric fit from the bust-line up. The seaming down from the bust to the hemline was another story. I could not get it to hang properly. (I refused to even take a photo – it was that bad.)

Of course, it was my own fault since I had chosen a fabric that didn’t have nearly enough body to hand the way it was intended to hang. In addition, just as I had feared from the beginning, the tunic was far too long. Long tunics kind of cut off your legs. Not a good look. I knew that I’d have to do something to salvage it so I began cutting length off the bottom, cut a slit part-way up the centre front. I started experimenting with centre-front knots, centre-front wrap overs, off-centre knots, off-centre wraps, a blouson style. Then I cut a bit more off. I would have to make a decision before I was left with a midriff-baring piece. I finally decided that elastic on the bottom would be useful and installed it.

So, those sleeves look like they should be a nice design feature? Not so much.

That decided I had to tackle those bell sleeves. Why in the world did I think I’d like these? I did not. They were miles too long and they just kind of flapped around like bat wings that would certainly not have been functional in the least for entertaining. So, elastic to the rescue again. So, was this little number finished? No.

I looked carefully at the front “wrap-over” and decided that it looked weird. This is when I pulled out my button collection and began the fun part.

Here are two accent buttons I considered. I finally settled on the black with the gold bar.

After a significant number of failures, I finally settled on a button that would cover the little imperfection in the front and that would be an aesthetic addition to a piece I hope to wear at home over the holidays and on a cruise next year. Since I wear yellow gold jewelry almost exclusively, the black button with the gold bar would work. I think I love it just a little. 

What do you think? It doesn’t look at all like the original but I think I look ready to cook a turkey! Talk soon.

Sources:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/design/2012/06/button_history_a_visual_tour_of_button_design_through_the_ages_.html