January Shirts Sew-Along: 1. Picking a Pattern

The most common question I’ve been getting in the run-up to this event has been some variation on “Is this a good pattern to use?” My answer is always some variation on “If you like it, sure!” Not immediately very helpful, I suppose, even though it goes right to the core question, in my opinion. So, in hopes of being more helpful/clear, I’ll start off here with a quick summary of my basic approach to getting a “good” shirt pattern. The full story is detailed in my two shirt books, which is where the images and ideas here come from.

The first point, I think, is that YOU (and ONLY you) already have the most important info, which is exactly what you picture when you think of yourself in a shirt that you’re liking, whether that’s a memory of a favorite shirt you already have or used to have, or of somebody else looking great in a shirt in just the way you’d like to. If you’re typical, I’d guess you probably could come up with more than one such image, more than one sort of garment that could be reasonably called a shirt, and different sorts of activities and settings in which you’d like to be wearing some sort of shirt. Obvious, right? Well, that’s what I’m thinking about when I say, “…if you like it”.

Once you’re clear(ish) about what your current ideal shirt looks like, the next thing I’d ask is: What sort of body ease does the particular shirt you’re picturing for your current project have? Is it slim, body-formed, loose, boxy and relaxed, a next-to-the skin garment or an over-other-clothes one? There’s no right answer, just YOUR answer.

What I’m doing by asking this is, first, going to the core of my whole approach to shirt design, and that’s separating the body from the details, which are all the possible features your shirt could have that don’t directly impact the body ease. Here’s a drawing that perhaps will clarify how I’m asking myself—and you—to think; the concept is fairly simple, but it’s definitely hard at first to see past the details, which are most likely what attracted you to the pattern or garment in the first place.


Second, I’m separating the STYLE issue of overall ease—the tightness or looseness of the body and sleeves—from the quite different FITTING issue of how your unique body shapes are going to interact with whatever pattern you chose. It can definitely be tricky to sort ease from fit, since both are critically and simultaneously involved with how any garment looks and feels, but it’s really worth the effort for makers to try to do so. More on this to come! Right now, simply note that styles will naturally vary from project to project, pattern to pattern; but fitting issues won’t, and I think it’s also important to note that neither of these first questions has anything to do with fit.

It seems to me that variety in style-ease and details is mainly what commercial patterns offer, NOT fitting solutions, even though the main thing that many sewers naturally to want to know about patterns is how well do they “fit”, or how easy will they be to make fit. Since the details usually don’t impact the fit, and the style ease can’t really be judged for oneself without making a muslin test, unless you’re quite experienced both with your own measurements and with any given pattern line, I’ve come to regard commercial shirt patterns as a very poor place to start one’s search for a “good pattern”.

My personal preference, and my advice for most people, is to start by trying on shirts you already have (or have access to) in search of the ones that seem to feel and look the best to you, DESPITE their details, colors, fabrics, and the like, which you should be trying to overlook. You should also ignore issues easily remedied, such as necklines, collars, sleeves, cuffs or hems that aren’t just right. Note that except for a perfect neckline, all these ignore-me details are somewhere else than the upper body: the shoulders, armholes, sleeve caps, and upper back and chest. In fact, it’s precisely at the upper body and especially along the shoulders that you should be judging your try-ons.

What you’re looking for is the “Goldilocks” one that you’d pick first to wear simply on the basis of upper-body comfort and smoothness, and on conformity to your current ideal image of shirt-body style, assuming all the aspects you’re ignoring were fixed. Not the “perfect” one, but the most wearable one. In other words, try to treat these try-ons as muslins, since it’s exactly muslins that we’re trying to skip with this exercise, at least those first muslins that you’d need to make from your patterns to see what you’ve got.

In terms of real fitting issues, what you’re also looking for is the garment (which may not be the same garment you found above) that seems to already offer the least troublesome reaction to your particular challenge, be that shoulders, asymmetry, posture, bust, whatever. But this is decidely a secondary quest compared to shoulders that feel reasonably good and hopefully look good, too.

Naturally there will be those who feel certain that they’ve NEVER found anything like a favorite shirt. Some bodies certainly deserve to give themselves a full-on custom-fitted upper-body basic pattern, and to base their shirt basics on these precision instruments. And anyone who already has such a treasure, or some other fitting process that already works, should by all means stick to what they know. My try-on approach is just another option, not perfect for everyone. But if you’re a male or female who’s been able at least occasionally to find shirts to wear that aren’t an awful experience, I’ll stick to my advice to try to find an existing pretty-good garment to build upon, from the underarms up at least. It’s both efficient and effective.

Two additional points: 1. Don’t confine yourself to your existing closet. It won’t hurt the shirts to copy them (which is what we’ll do next, if you hadn’t guessed!), and it’s almost always interesting to try on a wider range of garments than you’re used to, both smaller and larger, so visit the closets of friends and family, check out thrift-shops, be adventurous! 2. Don’t confine yourself to shirts, especially if you’re thinking shirts are hard for you to wear. Look for ANY unlined, woven top that works for your upper body, including blouses and dresses, simple jackets, even vests…

Here’s my youtube video on making a quick but accurate copy from an existing shirt without taking it apart:

Up tomorrow: What IS shirt fit, and how to get it?


  1. Kelly on January 2, 2016 at 4:44 am

    I am so excited about this project!

    Should we be using the same basic blocks for the first two versions of shirt? (the Pendleton and the Norfolk)? Are you doing them in order? My plaid cotton flannel (Pendleton) is a week out from being at my doorstep, but I have the fabrics to start on the Norfolk.

    Thank you so much for your work!

    • admin on January 2, 2016 at 7:32 am

      I’m using the same block for the first two, but everybody’s free, of course, to do whatever they like. It would be a perfectly reasonable choice, I think, to have a different basic for the 49ish one, something boxy-er, more jacket like, for example. But for my shape, which is sort of boxy already, there’d not be much difference:)

      • Kelly on January 2, 2016 at 9:34 pm

        Thank you!

  2. admin on January 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

    Kelly, I was impressed with your good results using this outfit’s online custom patterns (“So far in about ten projects using them seems to remove most fitting issues entirely.”):

    There are several other sites with similar offerings to consider, including these free ones:

    Please share if you’ve had any experience with any of these or other sites that offer custom-drafted shirt patterns for men or women; thanks!

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