Style Crisis: My shirt search
I’m writing this on my birthday which might not seem like much of a treat – but really it is. I’ve cleared the whole day for one single job – which after all the upheaval of recent weeks feels very indulgent.
I’ve a long history of clothes being associated with my birthday. As a child it was a red-letter day in more ways than you might expect, since it was also Summer Dress Day. I’ve written before about being the only one at school who wore a uniform – tie and all. However my birthday each year would see the first outing of that year’s nylon gingham button-up-the-front summer dress, plus cardigan. The thrill of chilly goosebumps up my arms and legs if it was a wet birthday (they usually are – today’s no exception) was an intrinsic part of my day. I knew if I complained about the cold then it’d be back to a jumper and tie.
Leap forward to my twelfth birthday and my requested present was a daffodil-yellow tank top plus a floral shirt with a huge collar and print of tulips in purple, green and yellow. My mother made me a midi skirt in bottle green and I was in style heaven. Any pictures are locked away in my mother’s photo cupboard which is probably just as well.
Subsequent birthdays involved other longed-for style adventures from rainbow-knitted hoodies to stiletto heels and scarlet pencil skirts . All of which means that enforced seclusion on my birthday, with a blog to be written about the latest episode in my style crisis, is just as it should be. I’ve a northern soul soundtrack on the headphones and really – I’m as happy as a sandgirl.
The shirt that started it all
This one’s all about my shirt search. I had a revelation a couple of years ago that a classic cotton shirt was a style standby for me.
Just as a reminder, here’s the shirt that started it all for me. The Archer Button-Up Shirt from Grainline Studios is a popular choice across the sewing community. It’s a fairly straight-up-and-down masculine cut – no darts here and yet a clean cut. Which is something I hadn’t quite appreciated when I embarked on my latest style quest – nor the fact that my choice of a crisp cotton lawn was spot on for that particular design.
The things I liked about this shirt I still like – the easy, uncomplicated fit, the clean pocket line and details like those angled cuffs.
This is a shirt that’s had frequent wear especially in the ‘in-between’ seasons of spring and autumn despite the fact that it languishes in the ironing basket for too long, too often.
Extending my shirt repertoire
Time, I thought, to revisit that whole shirt thing; possibly using something with a bit of drape and movement. My first choice then, the ‘Olya’ Shirt from Paper Theory.
I’ve been working with Kerry on Instagram as well as our planning over the last few months. As part of this I was prompted to select pattern designs for my share of ClothSpot’s collective #makenine2020 plans at the beginning of the year. I was drawn to the pattern partly because of the very clever drafting that combines the front yoke with the top pocket line, then draws the seam right down the sleeve to the cuff. My first instinct was to try it as a dress; an plan subsequently revised as I’ll explain.
Ignoring the fact that all the examples of this shirt I’d seen were constructed using crisp lawns and linens, I decided to use it as the basis for a draping shirt – and an excuse to play with our ‘Osier’ ikat-style viscose twill fabric (since sold out, I’m afraid).
I loved (still love!) the texture and movement of this fabric and especially the colours – it seemed right up my alley. I got going on this early in the year, posting ‘on the cutting table’ updates on our social media. I did indeed enjoy the challenge of assembling a differently-structured shirt and the fabric was lovely to work with. The finished dress though? Another story. It swamped me and fell straight from my shoulders; I was at a loss with what to do with it.
I took it with me when I visited my friend Gina in London. We have a history of prompting each other to look at clothes differently. I try things with her that I’d never dream of looking at usually. In what proved to be our last pre-isolation outing, she encouraged me to try on a voluminous frock in Liberty.
I was amazed that this frock worked so well – yet the non-frilly, apparently clean lines of my ‘Olya’ weren’t working for me at all. The main issue was that there seemed to be a huge amount of fabric. Unlike the dress in the image above which at least fitted my upper torso, my Olya dress was falling straight from my (broad) shoulders, by-passing everything else on the way down. We tried belting it, but with so much fabric above the waistline – plus the fact that I have a high waistline with not a lot of in-and-out – it bunched up in a most upsetting manner.
A dress becomes a shirt
We decided the best that could be done, was to turn it into the shirt version, which I did. We also thought that metal buttons might add a bit of ‘edge’ and stand out from the pattern.
I duly cut it down when I got home and sourced some buttons. I couldn’t find the clean steel buttons I’d envisaged so went with some hammered copper ones which I sewed on in an NHS waiting room whilst my mother attended an appointment (I know I’m not alone in this kind of multi-tasking). Here’s the result.
Now – before I deconstruct this, I need to stress that the fault here lies with my misguided choices, not with the pattern itself. I should have taken my lead from all the versions I saw online and stuck with clean, plain, crisp fabrics that could hold a bit of shape. That said, we’d still be dealing with a pattern design that really couldn’t be less suited to my upside-down triangle body. It’s a classic case of being caught up in the construction of a garment and compounding that with a poor choice of fabric for the design.
And still, and still. There are other demons at work here too. The sheer amount of fabric just where I need it least – and also the fact that the shirt is actually quite short with not much in the way of hemline shaping.
Just what is it with prints?
The other issue with my fabric choice is the print pattern. Wrong, it turns out, in more ways that one. First and easiest to analyse, is the fact that the complexity of the pattern completely obscures that lovely horizontal seam; my impetus for making the garment in the first place. Doh.
Second – the fact that the scale and complexity of the pattern just doesn’t work for this design on me. It might well have done on a garment with a more defined shape – but here, it serves only to emphasise somehow, a lack of shape as well as sheer volume.
This blog suggests that this might be down to the fact that the sparsely-distributed, high-contrast elements of the print serve to ‘slow’ the eye and emphasise the extent of the garment. Whereas my Archer shirt is a low-contrast, smaller print which has the opposite effect. If you’ve a better insight into this effect then please – feel free to share in the Comments below – because I’m in need of some guidance here and I suspect I’m not alone.
One final observation on my ‘Olya’. Those buttons. Way too large and heavy (they swept away half my desk contents when I took the shirt off earlier.)
But also, the positioning of the buttons on the pockets. Pocket buttons are optional, but I went for them to prevent the pockets gaping open which (I read) can be an issue with this design.
Can anyone spot the problem here? It took my daughter about three seconds.
“What’s with the nipple-buttons?” she enquired.
Something more fitted, Madam?
Moving on (yes, let’s) I decided to try out a more fitted pattern and having enjoyed making up their ‘Narcisse’ trousers last autumn, opted for Deer & Doe’s ‘Mélilot’ Shirt. I hoped that the curved silhouette and hemline might be more suited to my style and shape.
This time I opted for a much lighter-weight fabric choice, with a more delicate print pattern. ‘Foliole’ is a fine viscose challis with a finely-etched mid-century-inspired print design in colours that suit me. (Again it’s sold out I’m afraid – such is the delay to this post.)
Like the ‘Olya’ this is a cleverly-constructed pattern with some interesting elements. The covered button placket is an obvious plus, just in case buttonholes go awry. Less obvious yet quite lovely, is the symphony of gentle curves that echo throughout this design. The collar, the cuffs, the pocket shaping and the exaggerated curve of the hemline all make this a gently-distinctive and cohesive design.
Viscose challis can be a bit of a challenge in terms of its stability and I’ll freely admit that a bit of starch could have helped with my pattern-matching. The print on the bottom half of the shirt lines up beautifully – unlike the top front which was clearly skewed on the cutting table. Mea culpa. We posted some handy tips on working with viscose on our Instagram back in February – what can I say other than ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’?
Elsewhere the construction was a bit of a dream. The order of the construction doesn’t always make sense until later – for example the hemline is finished before the side seams. I particularly liked the instruction to use french seams throughout – and those seams are neater with the hemline completed first. I’ve learned that placing my trust in the D&D instructions is usually rewarded.
My completed Mélilot
Here’s my completed shirt. I feel much happier in it – which probably shows.
That curved hemline works for me in two ways. First, I can put my hands in my trouser pockets without overly disturbing the line of the shirt. Clever! Second, the long drop at the back lengthens my relatively short torso and even manages to suggest a curve at the hips around where my bottom usually disappears.
Compared to the Olya this is clearly a very different design of shirt. My preference is clearly for the Melilot since it gives me some much-needed shape and length in my upper body. Here’s a direct comparison.
I’m very likely to make the Mélilot again – but I might choose to lift that side curve just a fraction to my natural waistline height. I might also grade out just a tiny bit to allow the shirt to hang a little more freely around my upper hip area.
My print plight persists
I’m still not confident I’ve got my head around the print pattern issue though. When I look at this fabric next to my face, the colours work well and give me a lift. However at a distance the finely-drawn print design tends to recede, giving the impression of a much less-defined print pattern. I suspect the delicacy of this design is better suited to a more floating garment such as a dress.
Learning in progress
This stage of my shirt search has been a pretty drawn-out learning process – but so useful. Among my many learning points (and reminders!) are:
- pairing the right fabric to a garment design
- the importance of choosing the right print patterns (even if I’m not yet entirely certain what makes a pattern work on me)
- taking the time to use my knowledge (and not ignore sound advice given to others!)
- most importantly, picking a pattern design based on whether it’s likely to work for my body shape and style – and not getting seduced by processes
I’ve also been reminded of one of the reasons why I love writing my blog. Not simply because I enjoy putting it altogether and thinking of how to approach my subject – however enjoyable these are. But also because it forces me to reflect on why something worked, or didn’t work – and learn from it.
If there’s anything else you think I should have learned then please don’t hold back! Particularly though, I’d love to hear about your experiences of using print patterns. Are there useful rules-of-thumb I should know about?
I hope you’re all finding ways of coping during the current movement restrictions, wherever you are. I know that sewing clothes might seem trivial in the face of everything that’s happening. However since there may be little that most of us can do to change the circumstances, I’d like to think that staying in touch, sharing experiences and developing new and existing skills is as good a way as any of making the most of things. So here I am, doing my bit. I hope it helps!