Variations on a (T-Shirt) Theme

Variation Number One: the fitted hand stitched corset tee

Summer is a short season here so summertime sewing projects are typically all about quick and easy and are often simple things like t-shirts. Can't take too long to finish a project or you'll run out of summer in which wear it, which is what happened a while back with my first project from the Alabama Stitch Book. This re-purposed t-shirt corset looks simple enough, right? Well, simple maybe, but not quick. It took what felt like forever as it's completely sewn by hand. There are eight vertical seams along with two shoulder seams that are all stitched twice, meaning 20 seams! Plus the neck and armhole bindings. But it was extremely satisfying to make and a perfect way to re-purpose this treasured XL concert t-shirt from the nineties that I couldn't possibly part with due to personal reasons.

T-Shirt Corset; corset pattern design from Alabama Stitch Book

T-Shirt Corset; corset pattern design from Alabama Stitch Book

If you aren't familiar with Alabama Chanin, check out their website and you will be blown away by the stunning garments, all made of organic cotton jersey, sewn and embellished by hand, along with a more recently added "machine made" line called A. Chanin. If you are handy with a needle and thread however, the company founder Natalie Chanin has published three books that include many garment patterns as well as all of the how-to details for stitching and embellishing your own lovely "Alabama Chanin" style garments. The aesthetic of the styles, the hand sewing techniques and embellishments really tic all of my boxes. It's folk art and couture all at once, a bit down home yet still elegant and modern. I plan to try an appliqued and beaded style next.

Felled seam on the right side, wrapped stitched seams with visible knots

Felled seam on the right side, wrapped stitched seams with visible knots

Detail of  chain stitch binding

Detail of  chain stitch binding

T-Shirt Corset, back (the front of the original t-shirt)

T-Shirt Corset, back (the front of the original t-shirt)

Variations Two, Three and Four: the dropped shoulder tee

Since I am on the short side, I usually wear fitted or semi-fitted clothing. Otherwise, I look like a schlump. But one cannot live on a diet of fitted tees alone, and my radar keeps honing in on looser silhouettes. The first example I've recently made calls itself a dolman sleeve, but it's a very modified and flattering dolman shape with an attached sleeve. It's roomy but I could still wear it under a jacket. The next, full-on summer version I'm making is the same top but without the added sleeve. A nice, loose cap sleeve top; quick, easy and it's already cut-out, waiting for me to sew it up.

Jalie pattern 3352; dolman sleeve knit top

Jalie pattern 3352; dolman sleeve knit top

Longer curved back hem

Longer curved back hem

Earlier this Spring, otherwise known as our Winter Extension, I whipped up these tees while waiting for the temperatures to rise. The Sunny Top (below) pattern's description is that it's a "cocoon" shape. I would agree, and it also features an extremely dropped shoulder, nearly 5 inches or so down my arm. Cozy and stylish, but it needs the skinny sleeves to offset any possible schlumpiness. This is a fun top to make and very easy to wear, as any tee should be.

StyleArc patterns "Sunny" knit top pattern; lightweight merino wool

StyleArc patterns "Sunny" knit top pattern; lightweight merino wool

"Sunny" knit top; test version in a lycra blend printed knit crepe

"Sunny" knit top; test version in a lycra blend printed knit crepe

Nearly every shirt that calls itself a tee is made with knit fabric. A friend of mine recently said to me, "It's supposedly so easy to sew with knits, but I don't always think it is!" This friend also happens to be a very talented and experienced seamstress and former owner of a sewing business. And she's right, sometimes knits are easy to work with, sometimes not. I think the main reason is that just as all woven fabrics aren't the same, all knits are not created equal. You wouldn't expect chiffon to behave like denim, or wool crepe to act like charmeuse. Interlocks, double knits, and ponte knits are also very different (often easier) to handle than many jerseys or tricot. The fiber content can change things up too. Wool, silk and cotton jerseys are all very different, with silk being the most difficult, as it's the most slippery! Lighter weight and drapier knits are often more fussy to cut and sew than heavier, more stable knits. Really, it's a lot to think about when you're just wanting to make a "quick and easy" tee shirt.

If you're starting out with sewing knits, try using cotton jersey (as in the corset tee) or even better, cotton lycra jersey (as in the Breton tee, below). These knits are relatively stable, and the cotton lycra will have good recovery, which means it likes to snap back to it's original shape after handling. They won't drape like some other knits, but they will behave pretty well. Other, even more stable knits to work with are the double knits, like interlock and ponte. They are often too heavy for tops, unless you can find a really lightweight version. They are very good for pants, skirts, leggings, jackets and cardigans. Then you could move on to the slightly more fiddly to work with drapey knits, usually rayon or polyester blends. Most any fiber and type of knit will have better recovery if it contains lycra or spandex. Lycra content helps the fabric stretch and still retain it's shape and snap back after handling or wearing. It doesn't necessarily make it easier to handle.

Breton Tee pattern by HotPatterns.com, using a yarn-dyed striped cotton jersey

Breton Tee pattern by HotPatterns.com, using a yarn-dyed striped cotton jersey

The most important thing to remember about sewing knits (or sewing anything, really) is just that it takes a little practice. After talking with my friend about sewing with knits, I thought about learning to make pie. I'm no pie expert, but people who are great at making pies always say "It's easy!" Well, it's easy to overdo it, easy to over work the dough, easy to feel unsure of how much to knead, and then you end up with a tough ol' crust and a big lumpy mess. But the second time around, it's a little more familiar and it is easier to sense whether you're OK or not. And with every pie you make, it just keeps getting easier. That is how sewing is, especially when it comes to handling different fabrics, like knits. It just takes getting used to and a little practice.

Breton Tee pattern by HotPatterns.com, detail of inside contrast neck binding

Breton Tee pattern by HotPatterns.com, detail of inside contrast neck binding

This last tee is a classic Breton tee, slight dropped shoulder, three-quarter length sleeves and slight shaping through the body. Super easy to fit and make, this particular pattern also has a great technique for the neck binding that completely finishes the neckline and shoulder seams all at once. I love a pattern that includes little tricks and details like this that finish the inside of a garment, even if it is just a t-shirt.