The quest for the silk shirt: part two

In the last column, I spoke of how sewing any type of clothing is an investment of time and money and requires skill. I also ranted about how hard silk is to work with. But for this week, I will focus on the pattern used for creating the shirt, and preparing the none-too-cheap cloth to be carved up like a holiday turkey.

I own dozens of patterns, and had to pick which of those I wanted to use for the charmeuse material, a type of silk, I wanted to make into a shirt. The pieces needed are a front, a back, and two sleeves. Everything else is a matter of how these four pieces are going to interact with the wearer’s body and with each other. The most complicated of designs can turn these four basic pieces into ten or more sections, but the general construction style is always the same.

The pattern I chose was from the Butterick company, identified as B4684. It is designed to have long sleeves, slits up the sides at the hips and a keyhole neckline, none of which I wanted in my shirt.

Patterns come in paper envelopes, which contain six or more different designs for the same basic piece. These design elements vary slightly, giving the same basic shirt several different appearances. The skilled seamstress can look at different styles, usually lettered or numbered depending on the company, and say “I want neckline A with waistline B, and I want the sleeves to look like C, but only be as long as D.”

Because I didn’t want certain elements, all I had to do was locate them in the pattern and use a pencil to mark through them to remind myself not to make those particular elements later. I shortened the sleeves by folding the excess pattern paper under. I took out the keyhole slit in the neckline by ignoring it.

Pattern envelopes suggest the best fabrics for the pattern in a short paragraph. This pattern’s instructions did not say not to use silk, but it was not on the suggested list of fabrics, either.

The novice seamstress is often anxious to get started with what they can afford. They go for the cheapest cloth, and take it home to start cutting and sewing without preparing it in any way. But every piece of cloth should be washed before working with it. As a weaver, I can attest that the cloth is under a great amount of tension while it is on the loom. When the fabric comes off of the loom, that tension remains. I will share more about weaving in a future article, but trust me about this tension issue for now. Those who make the mistake of sewing with cloth that is still stretched out from the loom discover that it relaxes and puckers during the first wash, ruining the piece.

The biggest problem a seamstress can have is not having enough fabric. The second biggest problem is having far more fabric than she should.

When a pattern asks for fabric that is 45 inches wide, the pattern’s directions will explain how to best arrange the pieces on the fabric so that as little waste is created as possible. I, however, found myself facing 60-inch-wide fabric, and had to disregard the suggested layout description.

Charmeuse is a slippery material, and I would almost swear this particular swath of it was possessed. I folded, it slid. I adjusted it, and it shifted in the other direction. I thought I had it lined up and placed the pattern on top of it, and the charmeuse shifted under the weight of the tissue paper.

I found myself needing to weigh down the material in sections that were not destined for the scissors so that it would stay where I needed it to be. I used a package of 120 watercolor pencils in a metal tin, a plush fox from my collection, and my cat, Mari.

Yes, I put my cat on several yards of silk fabric. My cat loves to lounge on fabric I am working with, and will lay patiently for hours, twitching her tail and watching me work with pins and scissors, never bothering these items. She makes a wonderful anchor for poorly behaved fabrics.

One of the most important steps in sewing anything is the generous use of sewing pins to hold the fabric in place, and to hold the tissue paper pattern pieces to the fabric. When the cloth is slippery like silk is, I end up jabbing my finger frequently. Hand-sewn clothing demands multiple blood sacrifices when the seamstress is as clumsy as I am with sewing pins.

I am not a small woman. Although the pattern was made for larger sizes, I had to make it slightly bigger still. I placed the two main pattern pieces, the front and the back, on the fabric and scooted each in approximately one inch to give me the extra room I needed.

The pattern instructions said to place the edge of the pattern on the fold of the cloth, which would produce a doubled-over version of the pattern piece. I needed extra room, so I made it by extending the width of the cut from the center itself. I slid the pattern in by one inch from the folded center point, making the shirt’s front and back each two inches wider.

Catch my column next time as I take a pair of ten-inch scissors to the ill-behaved material and carve up $12.99-a-yard’s worth of silk into four pieces of a shirt.

Gretchen Richards ( is a fifth-generation artisan, skilled in numerous art forms.