Shirts: Best Feet Forward

Readers,

I’ve been watching segments of David Page Coffin’s Shirtmaking Techniques DVD and practicing using the two specialty presser feet Coffin says are essential for professional-looking results: the rolled hem foot and the flat fell foot.

Feeding the fabric into the scroll of the rolled hem foot results in a tidy enclosed edge.

Feeding the fabric into the scroll of the rolled hem foot results in a tidy enclosed edge.

The rolled hem foot came with my machine, which I bought in 1986. Years ago I tried using that foot to hem an oval tablecloth, which turned out not too well. I now know that a curved edge is trickier than a straight edge to run evenly through the scroll of the rolled hem foot.

Bottom to top: a practice rolled hem using the specialty presser foot; a Lands' End shirt; a shirt I made with a pressed-in, turned and topstitched 5/8" hem.

Bottom to top: a practice rolled hem using the specialty presser foot; a Lands’ End shirt; a shirt I made with a pressed-in, turned and topstitched 5/8″ hem.

I know that now because David Page Coffin very helpfully shows what happens when you feed a curved edge, like a shirt hem, off-kilter through the foot. To achieve consistency he advises practice and familiarity with your machine and attachment. If your hem falls slightly short of perfect, he recommends shrugging it off.  And you’ll be tucking in the shirt anyway (right?) so who’s to know? This is not an option with tablecloths.

Fortunately, I managed quite a decent hem on a curved muslin sample faster than I expected. How?

A practice aid: mark a bold line at 1/4 inch for guiding a consistent amount of fabric into the rolled hem scroll.

A practice aid: mark a bold line at 1/4 inch for guiding a consistent amount of fabric into the rolled hem scroll.

I knew I had to keep feeding  1/4 inch of fabric into the spiral. On my muslin sample I drew in a bold line 1/4 inch in with a blue Sharpie. Then as I fed the fabric in, I tried to get that blue line right on the edge. It really wasn’t that hard to do. On a sewing project I would try a light pencil line rather than a Sharpie. Or eyeballing could work.

The blue Sharpie line is right on the edge, where it should be. Now I know I have a consistent 1/4 inch of fabric turned under.

The blue Sharpie line is right on the edge, where it should be. Now I know I have a consistent 1/4 inch of fabric turned under.

Maybe I’ll give that oval tablecloth hem another try.

The 1/4-inch rolled hem is so much better-looking and faster to produce than a 5/8-inch double-folded, pinned and topstitched hem, I can’t wait to use it on my next shirt project.  Once I have my shirt pieces cut out, I’ll do a practice run on scraps just to be sure I’ve got this technique down.

The 4 mm-size flat fell foot is also easy to use–now that I’ve gotten the hang of it.  There’s a little detail I had to figure out for myself.

Feeding in 1/8 inch fabric to sandwich the raw edge.

Feeding in 1/8 inch fabric to sandwich the raw edge.

If you haven’t sewn a flat-felled seam before, you should know that the bottom fabric is offset and folded over the top fabric, enclosing it. Then you stitch down that enclosing edge. That’s part 1 of a two-part process.

David Page Coffin says to press in a 1/8 inch fold for a couple of inches to start enclosing the fabric.  So I diligently pressed in exactly 1/8 inch, not more or less. And I diligently fed in a 1/8 inch fold-over and stitched just the very edge of the fabric, following the letter of the flat-fell law.  Shirtmaking rewards precision. Edith, my sewing teacher, has a saying, “Don’t be a neurotic sewer,” but sometimes precision is exactly what’s needed.

After pressing the seam open, I ran the seam through the second time to stitch down the fold, as you’re supposed to do.

Left: Seam width is 4mm--just right. Right: seam width is 1/8 inch: too narrow.

Left: Seam width is 4mm–just right.    Right: Seam width is 1/8 inch: too narrow.

The result was neat, for a first try, and narrow–incredibly narrow. Too narrow.  It looked like a seam for doll clothes, not for a man’s shirt.

I watched the video again, tried again–same thing.

But then I watched what Coffin was doing, not saying.  The width of his fold was the width of the opening in the foot–and that’s more than 1/8 inch. It’s 4 millimeters, actually

That’s enough of a difference to be significant.  I Googled “millimeters to inches” and entered 4 mm.

4 mm is a little bigger than 1/8 inch--and sometimes that matters.

4 mm is a little bigger than 1/8 inch–and sometimes that matters.

Four millimeters is .15748 inch. One-eighth inch is just .125 inch.

When I fed in the enclosing fabric so it filled the width of the flat-fell foot opening, as shown in the video, I got a handsome result that’s in keeping with the proportions of a man’s shirt. Hooray!

A properly made flat fell seam made with the 4mm foot. The groove in the bottom is the width of the seam

A properly made flat fell seam made with the 4mm foot. The groove in the bottom matches the width of the seam

Now that I’ve had success with both of these feet I look forward to using them on shirts and other garments.

I’m even looking forward to trying other presser feet. When you think about it, they are amazing little tools.

I saw this tiny Stephens Brothers shirt  on display in a shop window in Eton, England. The tiny flat fell seam I made at first would be perfect here.

I saw this tiny Stephens Brothers shirt on display in a shop window in Eton, England. The tiny flat fell seam I made on first try would be perfect here.

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One thought on “Shirts: Best Feet Forward

  1. Congratulations! You have met and conquered the first two major challenges of using your specialty feet – HOW and WHY they do what they do. This is always the first step sewers who are new to using anything but their universal zig-zag foot have to understand.

    Now that you are making flat felled seams with your specialty feet, pay close attention to how each one handles the fabric – how high and how far to the left do you need to cant the leading edge as the fabric enters the foot. This will be different for every foot and will vary with different fabrics, but if you pay close attention to this detail, you will soon master the nuances of using each foot.

    Here’s a tip for when the felled seam will go off grain, such as the curve on the bottom of your shirt, or a circular table cloth…… spray starch the fabric before you attempt to sew it with the hemmer. The starch will help to stabilize the fabric so it’s less likely to squirm as the grain changes.

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