I do love a nice dress. Endless variations and interesting details; beautiful and unique fabrics with different weights and drapes. I could wax lyrical for some time about my favourite dresses. Most of the dresses I make are from woven fabrics which require fitting to be flattering – we add darts here there and everywhere, and then zip, button or tie ourselves in! But some of my most worn dresses are sewn up in jersey/knit fabrics without the use of any kind of sewing pattern.
The grey dress below is made from a super comfy grey-marl sweatshirt fabric. Inspired by a dress I saw on Pinterest I simply lay out my fabric on the fold and placed a fitted t-shirt on top (also folded) and just started cutting, finishing at the natural waist (put the t-shirt on and mark with chalk or pins). You can add the seam allowance by eye as you cut, or chalk the lines onto your fabric. When you get to the sleeve just mark the seam points, lift up the sleeve (of the garment you are tracing) and mimic the curve of the armscye on your bodice (remember to add the seam allowance!). Front and back pieces are the same, apart from the neckline, and the sleeve is similarly cut on the fold.
The skirt section of this dress is just two rectangles – one pinched into pleats and the back section is gathered. The jersey infinity scarf is also me-made: Find my tutorial here.
The sweatshirt dress below is so comfy it’s a sin: wearing this with leggings I feel like I’m leaving the house in my pjs! It’s even more simple than the grey one above. This organic sweat-shirting was bought from The Village Haberdashery a couple of years ago and I bought the matching ribbing – added to the cuffs, hem and neckline it eliminated the need for ‘proper’ hemming.
Generally with knit garments the shoulder seams are sewn first, and then the sleeve head (the curve at the top) is sewn flat to the open curve of the armscye before sewing back and front together all the way from the sleeve hem to the hem of the garment. The image below shows this long seam pinned together, ready to stitch.
There is no denying that it helps to have an overlocker as the seams are sewn, trimmed and finished in one fell swoop and they stretch with the fabric. It’s also a whizz to re-sew the seam to take it in a pinch or change the curve of the seam. I have often erred too far on the side of caution and sewn that side seam several times in order to get the fit I want. Better safe than sorry though eh?!
When I bought my overlocker a few years ago I promised myself that I would never buy a jersey dress or top again if it was something I could make. Sadly, for quite some time I did not manage to stick to this. Although sewing your own t-shirts is quicker than sewing a woven dress, it still takes time and buying t-shirts is a pretty cheap (and instant!) option.
However, although buying your own jersey fabric might be a similar price to buying a ready-to-wear t-shirt, you will notice a difference in the quality. I was shopping recently in a high street shop looking out for some t-shirts for my seven year old son. I found one or two grey marl types which were a reasonably nice weighty quality. Unfortunately they were the pick of a bad bunch of thin and cheap-looking offerings. They weren’t even cut on the grain and I suspected they would lose their shape in the first wash. Little boys don’t care about such things and they grow so fast it would take some serious effort to make all their t-shirts! However, I don’t want to wear ill-fitting or badly cut clothes.
2016 is the year of not buying clothes for me, and I realised my wardrobe definitely lacks a few staple t-shirts. The method of cutting around the shape of an existing tee is ok for a one-off, but I decided that I would like a really perfect fitting t-shirt pattern that I could just grab when needed and sew up something simple, flattering (hopefully!) and well-fitted.
I started with a little sketch and plenty of measurements…
I then needed to add ‘ease’ to these measurements (ease is the space between your body and the garment). To the bust I added just 1 cm as generally in t-shirts this is a fitted area. You can of course add nothing here as jersey stretches, but I have a fear of tight clothing! To the waist I added something like 15-17cm ease as I wanted a relaxed fit. To the hip, which is roughly where my hem sits I added 6cm. And to the sleeves I added 4cm.
It’s important to add the ease to the full measurement. For example my waist measures 75cm, to which I added 15cm ease, before quartering that measurement because I was drafting what is essentially only a quarter of the t-shirt. Likewise, (after adding ease) I quartered the hem/hip measurement and the bust measurement. I drafted the sleeve on the fold so I halved that measurement (after adding ease).
Armed with these measurements I drafted half a tee as it would be cut on the fold and that way you can start with a central vertical line to begin measuring from. It’s all maths from there: for example, my measurement from shoulder to shoulder is 38 cm, so from the centre I measured out 19cm and drew a horizontal line as a starting point. The width I wanted for the shoulder is 8cm, but my shoulder slopes up towards my neck so I drew an 8cm line which finishes 1cm above the horizontal shoulder line. Maths was by far my worst subject at school and still today I have an awful head for numbers. But pattern drafting is just maths and somehow I rub along ok with this! If a t-shirt has to fit your body, get out a tape measure and measure your body. On the right is a little diagram which shows how I got started. From there I continued measuring from point to point, using the tape measure on myself and transferring points to my pattern.
Below is the pattern I drafted from my measurements. I lay one of my t-shirts over it at one point to reassure myself I was on the right track and I made a few adjustments. You can see I have drafted one body piece, but with both front and back necklines drawn in. This is what I’d call a ‘block’ as it is without seam allowance and needs to be traced into separate pieces to make a pattern ready for sewing. I’ll keep it and can use it in the future to trace off different styles of t-shirt by altering as I go. I drafted a simple sleeve by measuring the curve of the armscye on the bodice and pretty much drawing a freehand sleeve curve to match that measurement. Hmmm, very technical.
With this stage complete, I traced front and back pieces, adding seam allowance and ‘style lines’ e.g. a curved hem, with the back hem being slightly lower (I’m all about the bum coverage!). Here’s a shot of the finished pattern, all cut out, and some cutting and sewing progress…
The trickiest part of t-shirt sewing is definitely the neckline, but there’s no big mystery and if you take your time you can make a very neat job of it.
I use the 10% rule: once you have sewn the t-shirt, measure around the full neckline. Then remove 10% from this measurement before adding in your preferred seam allowance.
Cut a strip of fabric with this measurement by your preferred width, which would be the finished depth x 2 plus a seam allowance.
Sew the short ends right sides together and fold in half. Find the quarter points and mark these (I used pins in the same colour). Next, mark the quarter points on the neckline as well, before pinning the neckband to the t-shirt, matching the points.
Between each pinned point there will more fabric on the neckline than the neckband. Stretch the neckband evenly and pin to the neckline. At this point I just get on the overlocker and sew: you need to gently stretch the neckband as you go, to match the neckline. If you want to be a little more cautious, then baste the neckband to the t-shirt first. Make sure the raw edges meet evenly so nothing escapes during sewing.
On this t-shirt I sewed bands onto the sleeve hems using the reverse side of the fabric (which is from Girl Charlee btw). I’m not actually a big fan of prints on my t-shirts so it’s nice to distract with a little detail or two: I kind of wish I’d used the flipside on the neckband too.
Overall I’m happy with my new t-shirt pattern. It was worth taking the time to draft my own as I think it turned out pretty nicely and with a few tweaks here and there maybe I really will have my perfect tee! I think I’m ridiculously fussy about t-shirts as I often don’t find them flattering on me, but at least I now have a simple starting point for other jersey patterns.
In fact, I’ve already made my first adaptation! I had a very narrow 1.3m of a gorgeous Nani Iro jersey which has been in my stash for a while. There wasn’t even enough for separate sleeves so I just drew in some nicely curved ‘kimono’ lines et voila! :
I currently feel compelled to try everything on with my new Morris blazer because I can’t wait until Spring!
Congratulations on reaching the end of my epic t-shirt drafting missive! Not a tutorial as such, but one sewist’s adventure beyond the world of free-style knit-cutting. I hope maybe you’ll be tempted to have a go yourself.
2 thoughts on “Freestyling with tees and knits”
Hi Jenny. I’ve just found your blog through a link on Did You Make That. You’re so clever, your makes are great. I can’t believe you’re self taught. I have been sewing for years following lessons at school but never achieve such good results, I lack the vision and can never find good fabrics (no fabric shops near us). You’ve inspired me to keep going!
Hi Jenny, thanks for your lovely comment. Although I’ve been sewing for a lot of years, I must say it’s only the last few where it’s really all clicked for me. A lot of has been down to my realisation that there’s no gain in rushing things and skipping the important stuff. And also knowing that there really is a lot you can do to other people’s patterns to really make them work for you! R.e. Fabric, I buy every single scrap online! I know you’re meant to go and feel it but although I’m not too far from Brighton, it still feels like an expedition!