Ah, January, so full of hope and ambition and goals and all that jazz. Aren’t we all just raring to go and ready to conquer the world? Or at least our own little corner of the world. That’s how I often feel this time of year. THIS year I’m having a hard time finding motivation, if I’m honest. We’ve got some home renovation projects that are sort of sucking all my energy these days, and we were all SUPER sick and of course crazy busy in the month of December, so I’m not as filled with vigor and vim about my 2018 goals as I would like to be.
LAST year, on the other hand, I made SO many resolutions. I was gonna do ALL THE THINGS, man. In December, just a few weeks ago, I turned 30 (yay! Or…yikes? I dunno…) and at the beginning of 2017 I made a list of 30 goals I wanted to accomplish before I turned 30 years old. They ranged from house goals, to family goals, personal ones and spiritual ones, frivolous ones and meaningful ones. There were a lot of ambitious sewing goals on that list as well. I crossed a lot of big things off that list, and I’m proud to say I accomplished all but five of my 30 goals. I could spend this whole post, or several, expounding on my 30 before 30 list, but I specifically want to talk about one of those sewing goals today, which was:
SEW A BUTTON UP SHIRT
In my mind, sewing a button-up shirt is one of the major milestones in garment sewing. It seems so scary and technical but like a bridge we all must cross to be considered an accomplished sewer. This was a huge reason I wanted to learn to sew one. Another was the fact that button-ups NEVER look good on me off the rack; I’ve bought several over the years and then promptly never wore them. Another still was the fact that my husband kept begging me to make him a men’s shirt. I told him once I had a better sewing machine, I would. Well, he bought me a new sewing machine a few months ago, so I couldn’t hold on to that excuse any longer. It was go time.
So, after lots of rambling and probably unnecessary backstory here (I’m chatty, sorry guys), I want to tell you about my journey sewing not just one, but FOUR button up shirts last year, and give you some advice if sewing a button up is that scary goal on your list in 2018. Away we go!
Tip #1: Start Small (and I mean that literally)
The first button up I made this year was the Sketchbook Shirt by Oliver+S and it was the perfect introduction to shirt making. I made this for my little three-year-old son (though the pattern is unisex!) and it was a fast and incredibly satisfying project that gave me the confidence I needed to tackle this whole button up shirt thing. I let him choose the fabric for a special fashion show we did at Harmony Provo, my favorite local shop, and he picked these darling alligators in Cloud 9 organic cotton. The following photo is from the fashion show, and I think it needs no other commentary:
I mean, right? I confess I didn’t get the buttons or buttonholes on his shirt in time for the fashion show, so he wore it open, but I went back and finished them and they were not at all as scary as I’d feared. The hardest part for me was sewing the collar on this shirt, but it was the first collar I’d ever done, so I was happy with it even though it wasn’t perfect. Which brings me to…
Tip #2: Start with a one-piece collar.
This just means the collar is sewn directly to the neckline of the shirt. Traditionally tailored shirts have a collar stand. Collar stands ARE NOT that scary, but it is an addition step that intimidates some sewers, so a good way to start out is just using a pattern without one. The Sketchbook Shirt is like this, but if you’re looking for other patterns that don’t have collar stands and you’re not really interested in sewing for kids, try the Willamette Shirt by Hey June or the Penny Dress by Sew Over It. There are so many great options for shirt patterns! If you’re not sure if the pattern you want to make has a collar stand, the description might tell you, or just go ahead and ask the pattern designer!
Tip #3: Skip the cuffs and sleeve plackets!
At least, at first. I opted to make my first couple shirt-making projects short sleeved, to save on fabric and time, but also because I was a little wary of cuffs and plackets. My second button up is a pattern I’d be dying to try for over a year: the Archer Button Up by Grainline Studio. I made two Archers this year, and for my first one I was in a time crunch so I opted for short sleeves.
It’s this cute cute Spellbound fabric by my favorite Cotton and Steel, and it came together so quickly and beautifully that I almost couldn’t believe it. Going easy on the sleeves allowed me to really concentrate on getting a perfect collar (this one is the traditional two-piece collar with a collar stand) and I was really pleased with my results.
I will say that the short-sleeve Archer isn’t quite the silhouette I was hoping for; it looks a bit like a bowling shirt on me unless I wear it with a cardigan or tucked in, but I will still wear it proudly every Halloween! To get the more feminine short-sleeved collard shirt I’ve been dreaming of, I’m soon attempting both the Mélilot Shirt by Deer and Doe Patterns and the Sara Shirt from By Hand London. I’ll keep you posted on those beauties!
But I’m not finished talking about the Archer Shirt, as I made two, I’ve got more to tell you! If you want to make a traditional shirt with all the bells and whistles and you want a pattern with really great, clear instructions, then the Archer is for you. It is a relaxed, almost boyfriend-fit shirt, and it comes together really well. There are great illustrations and the pattern even links to detailed tutorials on how to get that collar on perfectly and do other cool shirt making tricks, which leads me to…
Tip #4: Slow and steady makes for beautiful shirts.
I can tell you right now, that button up shirts are not even really difficult, so much as they involve a lot of techniques that require time and careful sewing. Sew that collar slowly and carefully. Press everything really well. Opt to take the time to top stitch. Definitely give flat-felled seams a try, maybe not on your first go, but especially do it on a shirt made with special fabric or one you know you’ll wear often. It takes a little more time and effort, but man, what a beautiful and clean result! In flat-felling my seems, I realized that shirt making is about dedicating your time and attention to detail. It wasn’t instant gratification, but the slow sewing was a really lovely and enriching process.
Tip #4: Be Mindful of Pattern Matching
I made my second Archer from the Robert Kaufman Carolina Gingham and I wear this baby ALL THE TIME. As my first shirt with cuffs, plackets, and a full-blown collar, it took me some extra time especially given that I had plaid matching to deal with. If you’ve got your heart set on a plaid button up shirt (which, why wouldn’t you? It’s an American classic, after all) then by all means, go for it! Just realize it’s going to take more time and fabric to match that pattern.
One handy tip is to cut your button placket and your yoke on the bias. This is both visually interesting, and makes it so you don’t have to match on those areas. Do make sure your plaids run nicely across both front pieces and do your best on the side seams, but also realize that it’s probably going to be impossible to get it to match perfectly everywhere.
(Warning: when cutting on the bias, the fabric will stretch! The button placket is interfaced so that will help with this, and when I cut my yoke pieces for this Archer, I cut the outside piece (the one that shows) on the bias, but I left the inside one on the grain, so that it would stabilize the one on the bias and keep it from stretching out of shape. I tried to have my cuffs on the bias, but they stretched out terribly, so I just cut new ones on the grain and let go of that idea.)
I really can’t recommend the Archer enough. If you want an intermediate pattern that will stretch your sewing, but give you the resources to succeed, then Archer is the shirt for you.
Tip #5: Put some pressure on!
My bargain with my husband to make him a shirt was pretty effective in getting me to tackle button ups. I wanted his to be really good, so I started with my son and me as practice before I dove in to his shirt. He chose this awesome Cotton and Steel Bluebird fabric, and he chose the short sleeves, which was a nice shortcut for me, but he did bug me relentlessly to finish his shirt, so that kept me going!
Agree to make a shirt for someone else, or agree to make one at the same time as a friend. The support (or the nagging, whatever) will really help you!
As for my mister’s shirt, it’s the Fairfield Button Up by Thread Theory and it is an incredibly thorough pattern! There are a few options on fitting and the instructions are really detailed and helpful. I have only used Thread Theory for the few menswear items I’ve made, and I can’t say enough about how awesome they are. Especially if the men in your life like a slim fit, like my husband does. I am really happy with how this shirt turned out, notwithstanding…wait for it….
Tip #6: Embrace the mistakes.
Picture this: I stayed up late sewing the buttons on this shirt so my husband could wear it the next morning. It’s not the most seasonally appropriate for our cold Utah winters, but he was so excited to wear it. He was getting ready for work in the morning and I, still abed, groggily told him that his shirt was finished. He was so excited and put it on right away. Then he says “Um…I don’t want to be that guy, but did you sew the buttons on the wrong side?” I’m a very rageful person in the morning, and I don’t remember exactly what I said, but basically it wasn’t nice. After he left I went to check my pattern pieces and realized that I hadn’t cut it out correctly and that indeed, the buttons were on the wrong side. So, in the style of ladies’ shirts.
I was really mad, and I was really embarrassed. This was supposed to be the crown jewel in my conquest of shirt making! How could I have failed?! It was a very depressing morning. To be fair, mornings are like poison to me in general, but this was particularly painful.
A few hours later, my husband called me and told me that everyone loved his shirt and simply could not believe that I had made it, and that nary a soul had noticed the buttons. So I decided to swallow my pride and just rejoice in the fact that I made a really awesome shirt that my husband loved. Even if I did make a mistake. He wears his lady shirt proudly, like Michael Scott in his bargain-bin lady’s suit. (I tried to find a clip of that amazing scene from the office, but I couldn’t right away and didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of Michael Scott clips.)
“This is what you do when you’re modeling, right?” Um, okay…
I know this post is long, but if you’re still reading, I just want to leave you with one last tip about making shirts, and that is:
If there’s one piece of advice I can give about sewing in general, it’s don’t be afraid to tackle something that scares you. Yes, work your way up to it, and yes, take things one step at a time, but don’t ever let yourself think the words “Oh, I could never make that.” You could. You can. AND YOU WILL. Sewing a shirt is an incredibly satisfying project that will teach you so many new skills and make you feel so proud of yourself. It’s not the easiest thing you’ll ever make, but it’s not scary, it’s not impossible, and it’s really quite fun if you immerse yourself in the process and let it take your skills to new heights. Good luck to you, aspiring shirt sewers, and may 2018 be the year you sew a shirt like a rock star!