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.

Shirts

Readers,

Happiness is a shirt made just for you.

Happiness is a shirt made just for you.

I’ve made so many shirts in my home-sewing career, I’ve lost count. Say a couple dozen for Jack and half a dozen for myself.  There’s no other item in my sewing repertoire I refer to in dozens.

For ROI in sewing time and money, the shirts I make for Jack get the prize. I’ve used the same pattern, with lengthened front, back, and sleeves, for eight years. No fussing over altering a pattern every time; no concerns about whether shirts are “in” or “out” this year.

Shirts are beyond in and out. Shirts just are.

Whatever it takes me to cut and sew a shirt, the cost per wearing is minimal.  And Jack’s happiness per wearing is maximal.

Different fabrics, same label.

Different fabrics, but always the same label.

Occasionally a colleague or student of Jack’s at his school will say “I like your shirt.” He’ll answer “My wife made it.” Then to prove it, he’s been known to show them the label I sew into the yoke. They are awed–whether by my sewing skills, devotion, or something else, I’m not sure.

I stopped trying to make dress shirts years ago. My results were uneven, homemade-looking. I chose to make flannel and corduroy shirts for cold weather and seersucker and plaid shirts for summer.

Oops.

Oops.

My stitching inaccuracies were less conspicuous in the textures and colors of the fabrics, and the shirts were casual, anyway, so standards could be relaxed. Right?

That Jack had any custom-made shirts was good enough, wasn’t it? In a pass-fail grading system, my shirts were all passes. Granted, passes with lumpy collars and cuffs. An askew label. But hey. They were “Hand Made by Paula.”

That attitude is not making the grade any longer.  Jack deserves better, and I can do better.

Part of why I want to do better is this fabric.

Linen shirting: a souvenir from London.

Linen shirting: a souvenir from London.

It’s a linen I bought last summer at The Cloth Shop, in London, on Portobello Road.  I knew it would make up into a wonderful shirt.  But would Jack like it? On a return visit to the shop I brought him along to get his opinion. An enthusiastic “Yes!”  one second later and I was bringing the bolt to the counter for cutting.  I love fabric souvenirs of trips.

This gorgeous linen isn’t bulky like corduroy or flannel, and it’s not distracting like a plaid. Inattentive stitching and grading will show.IMG_2376 (460x345)

It’s time I applied myself to learning masterly shirtmaking techniques.

When it comes to teaching shirtmaking skills to home sewers, David Page Coffin is the champion.  His book Shirtmaking and companion video address every construction detail–in detail.IMG_2377 (460x345)

I took a shirtmaking class (actually, twice, in 2005 and 2006) at the Textile Center of Minnesota from Steve Pauling, a masterly shirtmaker himself dedicated to Coffin’s techniques. It’s because of Steve I returned to shirtmaking, but I didn’t go whole hog. I have a reputation for precision–but Coffin takes precision to a new level. I wasn’t willing to  practice sewing sample collars, bands and cuffs or using specialty presser feet to achieve superior results.IMG_2388 (460x345)

But now I’m intrigued by the possibility that I could get those results if I practiced.

On the other hand, Pati Palmer and Marta Alto have been teaching thousands of sewers for decades, and their results are good, too. I’ve taken a couple of sewing camps from them in Portland, Oregon. I used their book Jackets for Real People more than any other source for my 1930s Butterick jacket, with fine results. Pati and Marta aim for fast and easy, but that doesn’t mean slipshod. I have followed Marta’s DVD demos of setting in invisible zippers and making bound buttonholes with success.  I’m impressed.

So my question is, how hard do I have to work–or, how little can I work–to make this linen shirt better than if I just followed the notes I wrote out on index cards as I always do?

Shirtmaking shorthand: instructions boiled down to index cards.

Shirtmaking shorthand: instructions boiled down to index cards.

It’s time to go to the movies and do some research.

Shirtmaking videos face off.

Shirtmaking videos face off.

I’m going to watch David Page Coffin’s DVD Shirtmaking Techniques and Marta Alto’s DVD Learn to Sew a Shirt or Blouse and compare their approaches to sewing collars and collar bands, cuffs, plackets, flat-fell seams, hems, and more, sewing practice pieces following their directions.

Then I’ll report back.

Stay tuned.