Jan SAL: What IS shirt fit, and how to get it?

Here’s my modest proposal regarding the fit of shirts: It’s all in the shoulders, and everywhere else, it’s all style choices.

To be sure, that’s a tad extreme, pared down to be quoteable, as obviously when necks are too tight or loose, sleeves too long or short and buttons nearly popping off at chest or waist, these are fitting problems, too. But I make the declaration all the same because it seems that shoulder fit is the least obvious of all these potential problems, the one least likely to be even noticed, let alone acknowledged. Plus, to my eye, it’s a glaring problem that can hardly be seen as a style choice compared to an obvious mis-match between body shape and garment shape. Consider these images grabbed from my Pinterest board called Shirts Not Fitting:

Or even worse, these shots I snapped of the romantic lead in a recent TV movie:

In every case, you’ll of course note the dramatic diagonal wrinkles from neck to underarm, all symptomatic of garment shoulder slope not matching wearer shoulder slope. (And clearly in the case of the TV actor—and maybe several of the others, too—forward-leaning shoulders not matched to the garment posture.) These have nothing to do with sizing, nor with the widely current preference for men to wear very close-fitting shirts, and if at all bulked up, to be sure to be seen straining against their too-small shirts every which way—that’s all style. This is simply a very likely and not easily fixable problem when a wearer or the stylist for a model or actor contents themselves with choosing from average-shaped RTW instead of taking the time to custom-fit. Understandable, of course; time being money.

But for we sewers, time does NOT equal money, nor does RTW set the bar, right? Nor are we likely to be taken in by the apparent wish of RTW shirtmakers, that we learn to see these wrinkles as part of the natural relaxed way well-fitted shirts can happen to charmingly wrinkle on active, shapely bodies, right? We’ve all spent way too much time thinking and fretting about body shapes and garment shapes not to see the difference between a broad shoulder and a sloping one, right?

Well, at the very least, you now know how I regard these wrinkles; feel free to have a different opinion, of course. But if you’re with me here, I direct your attention to the fitting sections in all my books, my Craftsy shirt-details class, and to my previous posts spelling out my personal process for custom-fitting shoulders using a method of directly draping on the wearer’s body. Those previous posts are my most extensive, most recent, and most visually enhanced descriptions of the method, and are only a click away. Choose the posts labelled ARCHER SHIRT MUSLINS PART 1 and PART 2. And please post any questions you may have!

One question may be springing to many minds right now, and that’s “Does this apply equally to men’s and women’s shirts and bodies?” In my opinion, yes, definitely!

OK, on to another common shoulder-fitting issue: garment shoulders too narrow, as in these further grabs from my Shirts Not Fitting board.

Once again, a very likely problem with not-customized RTW garments, but not hard to manage when customizing a sewing pattern; you just widen the front and back shoulders and yoke to match the measured shoulder width, tapering to the required widths below.

There is yet another common and vexing problem in RTW and un-altered commercial patterns, and this one’s below the shoulders. It’s this:

In each case here, there are diagonal wrinkles extending downward from the wearer’s mid back to waist in front, when standing. Anyone can exhibit these wrinkles simply by slouching, rounding the back and pushing hips forward. Or by sitting down and leaning forward, as you can see in the very first image in this post, above. When standing, it comes from a natural slouch, or from rounded shoulders that increase the back length relative to the front length, compared to the supposed average posture. You can also create these wrinkles just by tucking the shirt tails in with more pulled to the front than tucked-in in back, so check that, too! But when you see this with untucked shirts, then you KNOW it’s about posture.

[LATER ADDITION, posted later after it proved helpful in a Facebook comment: Loath as I am to offer one of my own fittings as an example (since I’m in the position of posing as a fitting “expert” VERY reluctantly), here’s a shot of a pretty smooth shoulder drape that I managed on myself—NO helping hands—after quite a few trial-and-error pinnings:


Like all the above issues, this can be treated for in all garments, and especially in close-fitting basic sloper-type patterns, with a wide range of inter-related adjustments, which can be found described at length in countless books and articles. For the sake of shirts, though, with their typically very simple and relatively un-shaped bodies, I look instead to simple muslin experiments in which the entire front or the back is either lifted or lengthened at the yoke seam, or the back just shifted in relation to the front at the side seams until the body falls more perfectly straight down from the shoulders or the chest. These sort of fixes are all nicely collected and discussed in a very useful thread over at cutterandtailor.com, as well as linked to from this pin of mine on that Pinterest board mentioned twice above.

Just as with pattern selection, these approaches I’ve described as my preference, are only that: Personal preferences, based on long years struggling with shirt fit. They represent my happiest moments of discovery, and are tried and true, quick-to-apply fixes for the sort of problems I’ve encountered. They certainly don’t replace or out-do anybody else’s tried and true experience! So I present them simply as options to try if you, too, are stumped. By all means, if you’ve got other strategies that are working, carry on with them:)

Up next: Customizing your Custom Pattern with New Details

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