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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

On process as well as product and how I sew shirts the relaxed way

A week or so ago when it was mental health awareness week ,many sewers spoke on social media about how sewing was good for their mental health. Myself I actually think I have a whole blog that probably expresses that.

I think we can identify with that experience, and the role our sewing plays in how we go through life in one piece.

What struck me most however was an Instagram post by someone whose work I admire. This younger sewer, and a good one, said that sewing helped her occasional depression and anxiety but that, to be honest, sometimes trying to do things right only added to her stress.

I have been thinking about this a lot. 

Sewing is of course an elective activity. (I have heard that there are folks out there who don't do it and actually buy their clothes). It should therefore be an addition to your life, not just one more thing to add to the try to achieve list.

This of course doesn't mean I am an advocate for sloppy sewing, far from it, but learning and getting more confident should also be a nice way to spend time along the way.

To my mind the value of sewing is as much about enjoying the process as the product.

If I were to put into one sentence what my philosophy of sewing would be it would be that finding the ways to create clothes that keep it stress free as well as high quality are what matter most to me.

The question we need to ask ourselves IMO is how can I make this part of the garment in a way that I will enjoy the sewing, without angst.

I am still and always trying to figure this out.

Sometimes that involves some personal go-to construction methods that I use to put together things I sew a lot. 

These personal systems are sort of a combination of my own short cuts, and the kind of fixes that I build in to deal with problems that I know from experience are lurking on the horizon.

Today I would like to talk about how I make the regular fun, print shirts that I give my sons and son-in-laws for presents.

These are not dress shirts. I have made those and have collar stayed and flat felled with the rest and the best of them but these are different - more the casual shirts that the boys wear to parties or out. 

Untucked as opposed to tucked in shirts.

I am going to go through the process for my own stress free casual shirt making but the note that this is not the way most folks might sew shirts and certainly not the classic way to do it.

However in my life this works when I want to make a fun shirt to put a smile on someone's face.

Here goes.

The collar and collar band.

One of the things I do is to interface both the collar and band pieces with a light to medium weight woven fusible, rather than using a proper crips shirt interfacing on only one collar and band.

I find that fusing tends to make fabric more rigid. So if it is only on one side of a unit, say only one side of the band, it is less mobile that the other piece. This means when you try to fit the two of them together the un-interfaced piece is just going to be a little bit stretchier, and you might find yourself struggling to fit that tiny bit extra fabric in say the neck area.

Since any kind of struggling is out in my world when I can eliminate it,  I interface all the collar and band pieces so they behave the same way and will fit together easily. And to my mind two layers of mid weight interfacing equals one layer of something stiffer.

Note I always try to cut the interfacing without seam allowances but if, after stitching, I see some fragments within the seam allowance I trim it out. Interfacing in the seam allowances makes turning a  collar and band neatly too hard.

Construction step one.

1. Make up the collar and top stitch it. 

Of course turning the corner and top stitching can be tricky because the foot is not level after the turn. 

The usual fix for this is to put a shim under the back of the foot so it won't stick at the corner and make those annoying little packed up stitches. Ideally the shim should be the same thickness as the collar. I find the quickest way to find exactly that is to swing around the other corner of the collar and put it under the back of the foot just while you do these stitches:

This little trick always give me nice corner stitching. Once made up of course baste the cut edges of the collar together:

Construction step two:

Sew both band pieces to the shirt along the neck edge, sandwiching the shirt between them:

You will notice I hope that the neck edge has been both stay stitched and clipped a lot so I was able to pull it straight. It is easy to sew a straight edge to a straight edge, so much easier than trying to sew a straight edge to a curved edge, so it is important to make that curved edge of the neckline straight - clipping will do that for you.

Once you have the bands stitched on, press them up. At this point it might be useful to also press under a seam allowance on the top edge of the outer (away from the neck) band:

Construction step three:

Sew the little curve ends of the band. 

Now this is the part that gives you palpitations so to avoid that we are going to take it slow and avoid stressful situations. This means giving yourself a chance to fix up any mistakes or crooked sewing.

Go easy on yourself.

To do this shorten your stitch length, always easier to go around a curve in little steps rather than in big steps, and don't get in involved in backstitching when you start and stop. The little stitches should hold it and in the off chance you have to unpick anything, best if you don't have to try to untangle any knotted, backstitched thread.

To set up this stage of construction fold the front edges of the shirt in a bit to get them out of the way. I don't do any "Burrito" method that involves lots of high level rolling that I find fabric and nerve fraying, just, in this method, make a little fold like this:

Once the front of the shirt is out of the way turn the ends of the band down, right sides together and lower your needle into the point where the band meets the shirt and stitch around the curve and in a bit. 

You could, if you were a different kind of person than me measure how big a space you need to leave for putting the collar in but I sort of ballpark this and make sure I stop my stitching a bit before where the collar starts. 

I do this because it is a real pain, and sort of defeating the laid back process we have going here, to have to try to wiggle an interfaced collar into a too small space. Any tiny gap between the band stitching and the collar will be fixed up and closed with the eventual topstitching anyway or even the odd minute hand stitch if no one is looking:

Hopefully you can see here how in this case my first set of stitching was a bit wobbly (watching the final episode of Outlander on Netflix while I was sewing which may have had something to do with it) so I just went back, took a run at it again along the neck stitching again, pivoted at the corner and tried to do a better job. I did just that and Jamie survived another near death experience. Maybe we both did.

Construction step number four:

From here on you are cruising.

Next turn the corners of the band and lay the collar so the top collar is right sides to the inner band and stitch the collar onto that band.  

Below you can see how this looks from the back of the shirt at this point, collar attached and only the outer band to be hand stitched to the under collar where no one will see it. 

Note: yes I know there are slick ways to just double sided tape this down and capture it all in one round of perfect topstitching, but at this point that would require a person rising to the occasion performance-wise and being fairly precise. 

I find it easier to keep watching Outlander and leisurely stitching this down by hand with little slip stitch (I believe the how-to for that is in my book and on my YouTube channel).

And here is what that hand-stitching looks like:

Construction step number five:

Taking it slow all there is to do now is topstitch around the band, and later to make the buttonholes. 

You will notice again  I do not use a big stitch to do this. I was taught to proportion the stitch length to the thickness of the fabric and with shirt fabrics a stitch length of about 2.0-2.5 seems to work, again also makes curves easier to navigate. 

Note too that since a shirt like this is never worn with a tie I will later make a button hole in the band but don't cut it open. Looks neater that way and less traumatic.

That curvy hem:

Another area that can cause stress in shirt making is the hem. 

A shirt tale hem is a fine idea but the bias nature or that dip up can go wobbly and flare out. There are of course many intelligent ways to deal with this, stay stitching and paying care to pressing etc. but when I am sewing a relaxed shirt this is how I do it. BTW this is also the same method you see in many RTW shirts.

Construction step one:

Stitch on the front bands but before you top stitch them down fold them back on themselves, right sides together, just like you would handle to bottom of a facing in a blouse.

Stitch a hem distance from the bottom edge through all layers, trim, turn, and press. 

Then topstitch the bands. This gives a nice neat edge to the bands and avoids any clunky awkward hem bumps later (remind me to go back and trim some of those thread ends):

Construction step two:

Now before you sew any side seams make a narrow hem on the back of the shirt and on both fronts. Only then sew the side seams. 

If I am continuing to sew in an easy on me way I will probably straight stitch the side seams and then serge them together.

Construction step three:

Press the seam allowances towards the back and then, and I got this trick from looking at RTW, make a little row of straight stitches to hold it down and secure the flow of the hem at the side seams. In real life this is actually flatter than it looks here in the close up, but even still might give this another press:


So there you have it, with my apologies to my friends David Coffin and Maris Olsen for violating a few rules here, but really for gift giving type casual shirts this is a pleasant way to do them.

Have I been clear enough?


Alison said...

That is so very clear and simple, Thank You!! I had been considering attempting a two piece collar on a shirt for myself, and this is just what I needed to read right now

Jacq C said...

Brilliant explanation, thank you x

Amy Bailes said...

Now that I finally have a son-in-law that thinks everything I do is the coolest thing EVER, I must sew him some shirts! What pattern do you use?

Barbara said...

I use several patterns the All Day Shirt by Leisel and company is a favourite

Vicki said...

Thank you so much! I really struggle with collars and never thought of interfacing both pieces. I also wanted to thank you for the last podcast. It was fabulous. I wrote out the whole heavy fabric deep hem matra and pinned on the bulletboard above my machine. I really appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge with us. I hope your publisher has approved a second book because I love your first one!

Sarah Wale said...

I admire your philosophy! I teach my students the 'proper' way to do something and then tell them that now they know, they need never do that again and go on to show them my tried and tested hacks. Sewing should be enjoyable and I like to see quick results but with a professional finish ... probably why I've never been a knitter; there's limited demand for grubby, misshapen, dropped-stitch dishcloths, even among my politest nearest and dearest!

Jeanneke said...

Fab(ric)ulous teaching and explanation. Only just reading it/here is always a pleasure to me; thank you, Barbara.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are clear enough :). Good advice! People really need "permission" to be non-perfectionists. Actually, I mean women. There is so much pressure to not just multitask (no thanks I can't) and to do multiple tasks, all at the same time, and all equally well. I say Poo! Who made that up?

I am a lazy sewist who loves making shirts. I have my own handful of lazy techniques culled from sewing patterns and my own lazy brain.
Two worth mentioning are the wrapped corner collar which I learned from Nancy Zieman's wonderful little OOP sewing book for busy women. It's called (she was a genius) The Busy Woman's Sewing Book.

Another favorite shirt stress saver comes from Ann Person's instructions for a classic shirt: Have a problem sewing the curved edge or you collar band? Then don't -just square the edge! This is what I always do and no one ever notices. The rounded curve is okay for someone who plans to wear a tie, as the curve adds a little space for the knot, but for the rest of us it's OK to be square.

Now I feel the need to go sew a shirt!

Pamela Erny said...

Barbara, I say *Brava* to your method! As a Shirtmaker with over 30 years of professional is my opinion that the last thing we need in our 'sewing lives' is stress. That's why I stopped blogging a few years ago. I grew weary of having to defend my often "against-the-rules" shirtmaking methods. While I just wanted to share, some others wanted to argue. Since then I have happily continued to make lovely shirts for my clients, and to develop various interfacings...from my very peaceful studio and product work-spaces. I am content :)

Amy Bailes said...

That’s why you quit blogging? I loved your posts and the info I learned from you!

Barbara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikilalaknitsandsews said...

thank you so much for this Barbara. I have your book and learned so much from it, and this post has just given me at least 3 AhHah! Moments! I’ve only recently started making shirts for my husband, but I am now planning a lot more, especially with Christmas coming up. Stress free shirt making - thanks again!