The quest for the silk shirt

Misconceptions surround the world of crafting, not the least of which being that only those who cannot afford to buy clothing resort to making their own.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In today’s global marketplace, a shirt nice enough to wear to work can be purchased, brand-new, for under $8 on almost any store clearance rack. If you are in a hurry, you can find the shirt, try it on, and be out the door in 15 minutes.

But setting out on a quest to make that same shirt is an investment of money and time that many in our society have never taken the opportunity to make.

I am not one of those people. As a fifth-generation Appalachian artisan, I was taught from childhood how to complete many crafts, textile and otherwise, which seem to have fallen by the wayside. And I can tell you that making your own shirt takes far longer than the 15 minutes it would take to buy one from a store.

Cloth is expensive. Regardless of the type of cloth you want to use, it is sold in long, continuous bolts in a by-the-yard manner. Pick the cloth you want, take it to the counter, calculate how much you will need for the pattern you are constructing, and have it cut to order for each project.

Cheap cloth, the stuff that you use for Halloween costumes that will be worn once and discarded, can easily cost $4.99 a yard. When you start dealing in cloth that is worthy of making everyday clothing, the cost can jump to $12.99 a yard or higher.

That does not seem bad, until you realize that your average short-sleeved shirt requires three or more yards of material. Suddenly, you’re dealing with a decent chunk of money for a purchase that, at that moment, more closely resembles a bed sheet than an article of clothing.

And for that financial investment, you are volunteering to spend hours of your time working on a project, knowing a single slip with a pair of scissors can result in ruin, which requires tossing the entire project in the scrap bin.

Making your own shirt is an investment. So why do it?

Sewing my own clothing allows me to know exactly what I am wearing. I know every curve of the shirt, and where every seam and string is. I know that the shirt is going to drape across me in precisely this way because I tailored it, trained it, to do so. And I know that the shirt is going to fit me better than any off-the-rack piece ever could.

When deciding on the piece to complete in order to show off my skills to the public for the first time, I knew I needed to go big, but not overly so. To that end, I decided not only to make a shirt, but to make a silk shirt.

Silk is a demonic material. Although made from the cocoons of silk worms, which have nothing more demonic going for them than any other wriggling creature of the soil, the cloth itself takes on behavioral patterns that can make a crafter swear the material itself is somehow possessed.

There are many different types of silk, all of which have their own properties. For my project, I chose to work with charmeuse, which is the traditional silk most Americans think of when they hear the word. It has a flat matte appearance on the back of the cloth, and a shiny surface on the front side of the design.

Regardless of what you try to do with this cloth, it will try to walk around on you. You fold it, it shifts. You adjust it, it shifts in the other direction. Almost like a spilled cup of water, charmeuse flows across itself, and across the hard surface it is against.

The cloth feels amazing against the skin, but that same sleekness makes both the matte and the shiny side slippery against hard surfaces, such as the crafting table you lay it out on to cut your pattern.

It is in getting this cloth to obey you and sit still that the true challenge of working with charmeuse for any reason begins.

In the next installment, I will explain the procedure needed to prevent the silk from running away on the sewing table, and the challenge of cutting a straight line on cloth that does not like to stay still.

Gretchen Richards ( is a reporter with The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She is a fifth-generation artisan, skilled in numerous art forms. She enjoys sewing her own clothing and custom purses, making quilts, and weaving. She is skilled in knitting, crochet, embroidery, counted-cross stitch, and working with cloth of all types. Gretchen also paints with acrylic, practices calligraphy, and is skilled in metal-working and book binding.