Wear: The humble t-shirt

O humble tee, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: I love how you let me have a protective layer under my sweater. I love how you are able to make a statement. I love how you let me sleep, unrestricted, in an oversized version of you. I love how you are wearable at almost any imaginable occasion. But most of all, I love you in plain white.

In this post I’m sharing my favorite t-shirt patterns, the history of the t-shirt and a few tips for choosing the right fabrics and equipment for making t-shirts. I have a lot to say about the subject, so excuse me for being wordy – I hope you’ll find it useful!

The history of the T-shirt

T-shirts are ubiquitous today, worn by men, women and children all over the world, but as a garment it is fairly new, at least in the history of all things manmade. It originated at the end of the 19th century, and commercial manufacturing was established early in the 20th century. At first it was used as underwear for factory workers and for soldiers in the US army. The term “T-shirt” is credited to the author F. Scott Fitzgerald who used it in his novel This Side of Paradise in 1920.

In the fifties, actors James Dean and Marlon Brando among others made the humble white t-shirt famous, and it has been a fashion icon ever since. When digital prints gradually became more easily available, the t-shirt as a medium for slogans and political statements was a fact. As the punk movement took off in the seventies the t-shirt firmly established itself as a truly versatile and democratic medium for the message. Band t-shirts and t-shirts with slogans were a simple way to express attitude and values.

Today, there are no signs of the t-shirt disappearing anytime soon. It is a great canvas in itself, and a fabulous building block for many kinds of outfits. It can be the most unassuming of garments, it can be high fashion, and it can make the loudest statement. What more can you ask for in one piece of clothing?

Equipment for sewing t-shirts

First of all: You can of course sew t-shirts on a regular home sewing machine. There are several resources for it online, and it is not difficult. The main thing to remember is to use a slightly elastic seam, like a narrow zigzag. Most of the time you don’t need to finish the edges as jersey normally don’t unravel. Remember to use a jersey or ballpoint needle to prevent holes in the fabric. That said, I personally enjoy having more specialized machines available for sewing with jersey. They do make it easier to get the results I want.

When I started sewing clothes for real around three years ago, I didn’t have an overlocker. I wasn’t particularly interested in sewing with knits either, but that was about to change. Very soon I tried my first patterns for knits with moderate success, and less than a year later I purchased my first overlocker, a Yuki MO 50e. This is an entry level machine which is easy to use, and it instantly changed my sewing practice. An overlocker makes it so much easier to sew with knits. I have used mine so much and it was definitely worth the investment. I have since upgraded to a Bernina L450 and couldn’t be happier about it. It’s a stronger machine, it makes less noise and most importantly, it sews beautiful seams. I also invested in a coverlock machine last year, a Janome CoverPro 2000CPX for hemming knits and much more. Now I have everything I need to sew good t-shirts in jersey and other knits. (For the record, I use both the overlocker and the coverlock a lot with woven fabrics, too.)

Other than a good machine, a rotary cutter and mat is handy for cutting out the fabric pieces. I find a quilter’s ruler very effective for cutting neckbands, cuffs and other rectangular pieces of fabric. A shoulder stabilizer such as an elastic band or fusible bias tape can be useful, but if the jersey is stable you probably can do without it. Most of the time I make ribs from the main fabric, but a selection of good quality ribbing is useful to have on hand, too. The problem is often to find a good color match for the main fabric, but you could try to have a few neutrals ready anyway.

My favorite t-shirt patterns

There are so many t-shirt patterns available, you can find a pattern for whatever style you want to make. I have preferred boxy tees for a while, but recently I’ve rediscovered the versatility of a fitted top with a scooped neckline. The important thing is to have a few different styles suitable for layering or for tucking into high waisted trousers or skirts and so on. I like to have a mix of sleeve lengths available, too, but some would argue that a long sleeve is not a tee. For practical purposes, they’re all included here. This is by no means an extensive list, it’s just the patterns I return to over and over.

  • Jeanne from Readytosew: This is my go-to for “boyfriend style” tees with a slightly wider, feminine neckline and dropped shoulders. I have made more of these than I can remember since the first version a couple of years ago, probably more than 10 for myself and my daughters. It comes with three views – t-shirt, long sleeved tee and a t-shirt dress.
  • Primo from Readytosew: The Primo tee was released last year, and I was lucky to be invited to test it before the release. It is fitted and comes with short and 3/4 long sleeves. It has a wide scooped neckline and is designed with negative ease. I particularly love my versions in a very stretchy tencel rib. So far I’ve made five Primos, and it is perfect for layering and for wearing with high waisted bottoms. Read more about it here.
  • The Stellan tee from French Navy Patterns: This should be familiar to many as it is among the more popular free patterns out there. I’ve made three versions so far. It has a fairly high neckline, slightly longer sleeves and a curved hem. It’s less boxy than Jeanne and a very classic shape. Read more here.
  • The Ruska tee from Named: This is a little different with its high neckline, fitted shoulders and a seam down the front. It flares slightly from the bust. I have made three versions of it plus a dress and a tunic. The pattern is available in the book Breaking the pattern which came out in 2019.
  • Juno from Mönsterfabriken: This is not a dedicated t-shirt pattern, but a multi-purpose pattern for sweaters, bomber jackets and hoodies. I’ve made several long sleeved tees in cotton and merino jersey which are indispensable basics for me. Changing the sleeve to a short version is a simple alteration. The sizing is generous because the pattern mainly is intended for sweaters, so I have sized down three sizes for my tees to achieve a moderately fitted look. Read more about Juno here.
  • Tabor v-neck from Sew House Seven: Tabor is a boxy tee with dropped shoulders and a v-neck. This was one of the first patterns I bought, and I made a couple of versions right away. One of them, in navy merino, has been a wardrobe staple ever since. I think I went with a smaller size than suggested back then, so next time I’ll size up. It is a great pattern if you are worried about getting that v-neck right as the instructions are great and you have several options for the construction.
  • Cora from Dhurata Davies: The boxy Cora tee is your not-so-basic basic. It comes with a wide v-neck or a round neck, it has dropped shoulder seams and short cuffs or slim sleeves. Its signature feature is a vertical panel in the back where you can feature a special fabric if you want. The hemline has vents and is slightly longer in the front. It has great hacking potential and can easily become a dress or tunic. I had the pleasure of testing the pattern before the release last year, and I now have two new ones ready for assembly. It is a great pattern for color blocking and using up those remnants you never get rid of. Read more here.
  • Elliot tee from Helen’s Closet: Finally, a pattern with a raglan sleeve. I don’t wear raglan that often, but it is useful when you’re wearing anything with straps, like a pinafore, and there is definitely nothing wrong with a raglan. I made two versions of this pattern when it was released, and my favorite is without doubt a tee in merino jersey. The slim, slightly narrow sleeves go really well with the more slouchy bodice, and it is a great everyday staple.

I could have mentioned several other patterns, but this compilation represents what I’m sewing and wearing the most in the t-shirt category. Together they represent all I need, from a classic wardrobe staple in a neutral color to something a little playful for making more of a statement.

Fabrics for t-shirts

Matching the right fabric with a pattern is just as important as finding the right pattern and size for you. One aspect to consider is the amount of stretch and recovery. The relation between the percentage of stretch and the size can be difficult to predict. A fabric with a lot of stretch but little recovery will grow more than one with very good recovery, and you might need to size down. If the fabric has little stretch to begin with, you might consider going up a size. Trial and error is what this is about, and I suggest experimenting with as many different qualities as possible, particularly in the beginning. This is the best way to learn about the properties of different types of jersey.

Most t-shirts are made in jersey, but the fibre content may vary greatly. I usually prefer natural fibres like cotton, linen and wool, but modern qualities like tencel are great, too. Sometimes the jersey contains some elastane (lycra) which will increase its ability to stretch out and recover. I think t-shirts look their best when the fabric has a certain amount of drape and is not too thick, but there are no exact rules. If you have access to fabric samples this is a practical and economical way to learn more about the exact quality of the different types.

When writing this post, I realized that I have made quite a few tops and t-shirts in woven or partially with woven fabrics, too. That must be a post for another day. In the meantime I’m curious to know: What is your favorite t-shirt pattern? Please share!

The goal in March for my 20/21 Challenge was to refresh my collection of jersey basics. I have managed to sew a small collection of t-shirts and tops this year, so I consider this goal as fulfilled for now. It seems to be more work to update the blog about the challenge than actually making the garments, but I’m getting there – more or less 🙂

The 20/21 Challenge themes

  1. August: Shirts
  2. September: Outerwear
  3. October: Trousers
  4. November: Loungewear
  5. December: The black dress
  6. January: Knits
  7. February: Jeans
  8. March: Basics
  9. April: Blouses and skirts
  10. May: Summer dresses
  11. June: Sleeveless tops and shorts
  12. July: Swimwear

Resources:
T-shirt history: https://www.realthread.com/blog/history-of-the-tshirt
Free patterns: https://cutonepair.com/the-cut-one-pair-list/2020/5/10/free-tshirt-sewing-patterns
Linen, cotton and tencel jersey: Metermeter (Denmark)
Silk jersey: Sysaker (Norway)
Merino wool jersey: The Fabric Store Online (New Zealand)

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