Get Shirty! Ideas for Shirtmaking

Get Shirty! Ideas for Shirtmaking

striped cotton fabrics for shirtmaking in red and blue

We’re getting shirty this summer at Loom & Stars! Just about everyone wear shirts. Many of our fabrics are perfect for shirtmaking and we love to show them off, so we’ll be teaming up with some talented sewists for a ShirtFest to explore this subject and provide inspiration for sewists of all genders. We also want to help shirtmakers — and all sewists — to think beyond the pattern when planning their sewing projects. 

For the beginning sewist, acquiring the many new skills required for garment making can be a little overwhelming, and it’s often best just to do what the pattern says. But as we become more comfortable with sewing, our creative universe expands. We also learn that we don't have to do whatever the pattern says. When I'm sewing I think of fabric as my medium, as paint is for a painter, and of the pattern as a tool which can be used and modified according to my needs. The pattern doesn't make the rules — there are no rules!

Many shirt patterns are fairly basic. That doesn’t mean that the shirts we make from them have to be simple, or that we must arrange the pattern pieces according to the suggested layout. Instead we can make something personal, something we love, by using our medium — the fabric — in a more engaging way. At the same time, we challenge ourselves to refine our skills and learn new techniques.

Where to find inspiration? “Shirtmaking” by David Page Coffin is “the Bible” for many dedicated shirtmakers. Sadly, with his recent death, the sewing world lost a beloved figure from whom we learned so much. Now others carry on the tradition. Peter of Male Pattern Boldness chronicles his adventures in shirtmaking and also has a great love of unusual and vintage sewing techniques. His class “Sew the Camp Shirt” at Craftsy is a great intro to shirtmaking, and you can read about his handloom cotton shirt pictured above here. Duane of Mainely Menswear has amazing garment-making skills, and he has a new YouTube channel, too! Vintage clothing can also provide great ideas, and it’s always worth having a look at any vintage sewing or tailoring books that you come across. 

What's next? Think about the possibilities.

Consider the elements of the shirt:

  • front, back, sleeves
  • yoke, collar, cuffs
  • details, such as collar stand, sleeve plackets, button bands, pockets or pocket trim

Consider how fabric can be cut or combined:

  • stripes running vertically or horizontally
  • on the bias
  • pieced (for example to place stripes at an angle)
  • patchwork or colorblocking

Consider textural possibilities:

  • pleats or tucks on some elements, such as the shirt front or around the cuffs
  • contrast topstitching
  • embroidery or quilting

A few more thoughts: Using contrasting fabric inside the yoke or cuffs, or for details such as plackets, is a great way to use up small fabric remnants that you discover in your stash or at the fabric store. At Loom & Stars, many of our fabrics are available in fat quarter yards in case you only need a small amount to use for these elements. Yarn-dyed striped and checked fabrics like ours are easy to keep on grain, which makes laying out the pattern easy. And because many of our fabrics have a fairly even weave, they can be cut along either the lengthwise or crosswise grain, as you prefer. That opens up even more creative possibilities.

Let’s look at some shirts! (The shirts shown here are from the closet of Mr. Loom & Stars. The white striped one was made by me; the rest were purchased.)

The shoulder yoke is the first big decision for a typical striped shirt. If you are using a striped fabric, which way should you cut the yoke? The stripes can be aligned with either the front or the back edge of the yoke; consider how the stripes will meet the body of the shirt at those places. Most patterns have the stripes running across the yoke, perpendicular to the body of the shirt. This is quick and easy — it’s one usually all in one piece — and often saves on fabric when cutting out. However, the angle of the stripes at the front of the yoke may not be aesthetically pleasing. (Shown at left above.) 

Instead, the yoke can be cut into two halves in order to make better use of the stripes. In the shirt above, the two-piece yoke was placed so the stripes meet at a right angle and create a downwards-pointing chevron at the center back. 

The stripes run over the shoulders and at the front yoke/shoulder seam they are nearly parallel to the stripes on the shirt front. If you make a two-piece yoke, don’t forget to add seam allowances to the new center back seam! 

Alternatively, place the yoke stripes parallel to the front shoulder, and they will form a gentle upwards-pointing chevron at center back. (Shown at right in the D. P. Coffin illustration above.) When I made this shirt for my husband, I cut the inner yoke on the straight grain to provide support through the shoulders, as you can see below.

For a camp-style shirt like this, consider how the fabric’s stripes or print will align where the collar meets the facings, and how that will look against the body of the shirt. In this example, the collar stripes run around the neck and align visually with the shirt fronts. If instead I had cut the collar in the opposite direction (across the crosswise grain of the fabric), at the front ends of the collar the stripes would appear to be at a 90-degree angle to the shirt front stripes. That would also be a nice effect. 

To make something totally different and eye-catching, cut the body of the shirt on the bias! That can be a fun contrast to a yoke and cuffs cut on the straight grain. However, it will change the hang of the fabric through the torso, making the shirt feel slimmer, so you may wish to cut the pieces larger to provide more ease.

Functional elements such as facings, plackets and button bands don’t have to be boring; they can add interest to a shirt and be a good challenge in precision sewing. These elements are constructed in a number of different ways, but it’s easy to change the style or substitute a different kind of button band, for example, once you understand basic shirt construction. The blue pinstriped shirt shown earlier, and above, has several more fun details of this kind. The two-piece buttonhole band incorporates a contrasting fabric on the inner layer. And even though it's mostly hidden when the shirt is worn, the button band is made from a separate piece of fabric cut on the bias. Don’t forget other details like pocket trim (also on the bias here), collar stands, inner neckbands, and cuff plackets (shown below).

Cuffs can be cut on the bias, too, or with stripes running perpendicular to the sleeves. Using a contrast fabric for the inner cuff is the kind of secret detail that will make you happy when you put on your shirt. If you're making a shirt for someone else, you could embroider a secret message in there!

This band collar has an extra layer of fabric wrapped around the top edge, which adds a little subtle interest. There’s also a tiny bit of contrast trim around the inside edge where the collar is stitched to the neckline. That's an elegant touch which could be useful if your fabric is thick and you want to avoid bulk at the neckline seam: just wrap the raw edge with a bias strip instead of turning it under.

Looking at the back of the same shirt, notice how the band collar is cut so that the stripes align with the yoke, both being perpendicular to the body of the shirt. Due to the curve in the collar band piece, its stripes are thrown onto the bias at the collar front. Did you notice that in the previous photo?

To finish, here are a few details from the shirtdress which I made for our ShirtFest. The Azur Shirt/dress pattern by Atelier Scammit has an optional collar ruffle, which I made from white silk to bring out the white threads in our Wedgwood Check fabric. I wanted a tiny bit more white contrast to tie it all together, so I decided to edge the yoke seams with a flat bias piping. The piping goes around the cuffs, too — mostly. (That was an afterthought! More details on this dress coming soon.) Piping is one of my favorite ways to add a hint of color to a garment, owing to my love for vintage-style details. Contrast topstitching is another way to add subtle color and texture.

Feeling inspired and ready to get shirty? When you have found a fabric you love, think about the elements of your shirt and how the fabric can be used on each of them. Have a dig through your remnant box to find any other fabrics you might like to incorporate. Then put it all together and start designing! Sometimes it helps to make a few sketches to see how all the fabric grainlines and details will come together.

Remember that if you cut some pattern pieces on a different grain than the pattern intends, you may need more yardage than the pattern suggests (especially when cutting on the bias). In that case it's a good idea to do a test layout before buying fabric. And be sure to check out our Shirting collection, where we’ve gathered all our favorite shirting fabrics in one place.

Have we left anything out? Let us know your favorite shirtmaking details. Keep an eye our for what are ShirtFest collaborators are making on Instagram, and we'll show their shirts off here on the blog when they're all done!

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