Little Brother’s Shirt

Every summer I end up making a bevy of folk costumes for one or other of my siblings. It’s one of those jobs that could become a chore . . . but strangely enough, it really isn’t. I don’t have to buy the fabric, I just get to exercise my creative muscles, so to speak, and make a few garments that show off my skills and make my siblings look fantastically outfitted on the dance floor.

The shoulder strap - hand stitched for flexibility

This week it was a new shirt for Little Brother. He’s an adorable 10 year old who manages to get EVERYTHING dirty and ripped, no matter what, so the challenge was to make a shirt that was sturdy, attractive, big enough for him to grow into but small enough to fit him now. The pattern of choice was Kannik’s Korner’s lovely Boy’s Shirt. It’s one of the best reproduction patterns I’ve ever found, along with the Men’s Shirt pattern. The instructions are simple to understand, but detailed enough to produce a shirt using the exact methods they have found on originals. The patterns themselves are almost exact copies of original shirts and original shirt patterns. I did make a few changes that mostly focused on the look I desired. I made the sleeves slightly shorter and narrower, and the body narrower in the shoulders and in the gathered area around the collar. The the collar was also made shorter and the shirt itself shortened to crotch level, not knee level. Normally I’d feel bad about deviating from the details provided by the OC (Original Cast) but this isn’t so much a reproduction as a folk costume.

Shoulder strap, neck gusset and collar

I didn’t finish it all quite in time for our weekend events, but what I didn’t finish wasn’t overly cosmetic – flat felling seams by hand, hemming the bottom and putting in closures. Currently I’m in the middle of the hems and flat felling – closures come next.

The bulk of the garment was sewn by machine, but I did do quite a few parts by hand. Hand sewing provides a lovely amount of flexibility and control, which is useful when you’re working with finicky gussets. This is especially true of where the shoulder strap interacts with the neck gusset, and the neck gusset itself, which is hemstitched into the neck slit, then backstitched for durability, and a matching gusset hemstitched to the underside to cover the raw edges. Doing that by machine would make the entire area bulky and stiff.

The genius of 18th century shirts is that almost all of the seams are finished in a way that provides extra strength to the garment. The finishing itself protects the garment from wear – no raw edges to fray – and the extra strength helps it wear even better. Shoulder straps and sleeve pieces provide extra material in areas that receive more wear.

Sleeve gusset - flat felled on the left and unfinished on the right

Flat felling is quick by machine, but on a smaller garment it is nigh on impossible to sew the sleeve and gusset seams. Hand sewing actually doesn’t take that long and makes it more flexible. We’ll see how it wears in the long run, but I think it’ll be a good choice. One big plus is that it is way easier to deal with the seam interactions – where the difficult gusset seams come together and converge into one. It’s taken years of practice and many garments to actually be able to machine sew gusset seams with ease, but now it’s actually pretty easy. Don’t let gussets scare you – once you figure them out it’s not that bad.

Kannik’s Korner’s directions have some bits and pieces that are specific to hand sewing – particularly how they have you offset the seams while you sew them to prevent you from having to trim one side as you are flat felling. When you sew the main seams by machine, this is pretty difficult on a 1/4 seam allowance. There isn’t that much of a difference to the total size of the garment if you don’t follow that instruction, so I just sewed it all at a 1/4″ seam allowance and trimmed one side down to 1/8th of an inch as I’m felling the seams. Tiny stitches make these seams really sturdy and invisible!

Detail of a flat felled seam

Tiny flat felled seams work best when you only catch 2-3 threads on the fabric of the garment itself, and equally tiny bites of fabric in the seam allowance. About eight stitches an inch is a good goal, though on finer fabric than this pima cotton, twelve stitches an inch would work better. On the right side of the garment, you only see little nicks every 1/8th of an inch.  The cotton lends itself really well to finger pressing – no need to iron as you hand sew. Just pinching the fabric between your fingers sets it well enough to fold under and sew without pins. The same is true on machine – finger pressing saves a your fingers and time at the ironing board.

One last detail of this shirt was actually an accident. At the first event of this weekend, one of two Scandinavian midsommer celebrations we attend, a large bonfire was lit. Too much kerosene and newspaper was used, and a hot ember landed on Little Brother and burnt a 1/4″ diameter hole in the sleeve of the shirt! At least it wasn’t his fault this time!

Patch from the right side

Patches are a long lost art, and I knew I wanted something very sturdy and long lasting. Modern instructions just wouldn’t do – I wanted something that was intended to last through the stringent laundry procedures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The HEARTH archive of the Cornell library is a perenial favorite for vintage sewing guides, and a quick search landed me at  the book American dressmaking step by step: containing complete, concise, up-to-date, and comprehensible instruction in sewing, dressmaking, and tailoring : prepared to meet the needs of the home and professional dressmaker and pupils of this branch of domestic science in our schools, colleges, and universities – published in 1917. The chapter on darning and patches proved to be exactly what I was looking for, and I followed the instructions for making an in-set patch.

The patch from the inside of the sleeve

Here was time to pull out the hand sewing big guns. I cut away the scorched and burnt hole, enlarged it to a square and then carefully trimmed each corner. I folded back the edges and basted them towards the back of the fabric with 1/8th” stitches. The patch itself is cut about 3/8″ bigger than the hole, so that when the edges are turned under it covers all of the raw edges. Folding the edges of the patch under, I basted it onto the back of the hole, covering all the raw edges. Then, using a very thin needle, I first hemstitched the right side of the patch using minute stitches about 1/16th of an inch apart. Repeating that on the back of the patch I then had myself a very sturdy, and fairly non obtrusive patch! All told the patch itself is about 3/4″ square and the hole about 1/2″ square.


Little Brother in the (almost) finished shirt


Next up on the sewing-for-family list is a new vest for Dad, a new bodice attached to an old skirt for Little(r) Sister and perhaps a new vest for Little Brother. But first – to finish the shirt! I’ve still got some hemming, flat felling and closures to do.