Ins and outs of a dress shirt

I have been sewing for nearly two years now.

It all started with the blinds in my study breaking:  I thought it would be interesting to make some curtains, and one thing led to another. Looking back, I was also encouraged by watching the Great British Sewing Bee – and seeing one or two men – like Jamie – as role models. I now blog on a very erratic basis at the Seamster’s Apprentice, when I can pull myself way from my latest sewing project.

As I have progressed I have become more engaged in improving the quality of the garments I make – not least by trying to make the insides as good as the outsides. In my mind it gives the finished garment integrity; it is not just a flim flam facade.  This desire drove me to install black microfibre underlining and Hong Kong finished seams in a pair of tweed britches and also corduroy trousers, as well as a silk lining to a cap that I made. I also spent, more than my ability justified and my pocket permitted on a beautiful butterfly pattern Cupro Jacquard lining for a suit jacket. It was really tricky to sew in; it frayed at the drop of a hat and, being so delicate, it was difficult to control.

I was recently introduced to the joys of an overlocker. And this, of course, does a great job of providing a commercial finish to seams especially for casual wear made from stretch fabric. It has also been good to add contrast lining to a couple of scarf neck sweaters I made.

This came to a head recently when I decided to take on making a dress shirt for my DJ. It seemed like a hard challenge, requiring precision sewing to produce something with the appropriate quality and finesse. I have made quite a lot of shirts in the last year – but mainly out of patterned cotton lawn. This is the first time I have I made a shirt from fine white cotton and, of course, its slightly translucent quality means that the inside details – especially the flat felled seams on the sleeves – form an important external visual aspect of it. I was also intrigued as to how to do the “frills” on the front. My starting point was Vogue V8889 – a pattern which I had made several times before, fits me well and I like because it has side panels.

I was at a loss as to how to amend the pattern to incorporate the frills – it seemed to me that there was plenty of scope for error and it could easily result in an ill-fitting shirt as the errors accumulated with every frill sewed. In the end I did this the other way round: I sewed eleven blind tucks into the middle of the shirting fabric for each front piece, then carefully positioned the original pattern and cut out each front piece with the tucks in situ.

I love flat felled seams, their robustness aside, they look classy and, indeed, are reversible looking good inside and out. I also approach them with trepidation as I don’t like wielding sharp scissors close to the main fabric as I trim one of the seam allowances back. Apart from that I find them quite easy (albeit time consuming) to do providing that the seam is straight.  When the seam is curved it is an entirely different matter and even more challenging when easing a sleeve into an armscye. With translucent white fabric and a lot of effort invested in creating the blind tucks the stakes were very high!

My Vogue pattern blithely asks instructs you to to install the sleeves using flat felled seams. In the past it has resulted often in a mess on the inside – lumpy and ill placed seams  (as the picture below shows) – although the outside was always fine! I have also, on occasion, avoided doing them entirely by finishing seams differently and/or putting in French seams at the sides.


A horrible lumpy seam in an early attempt.

Searching the internet for advice on making curved flat felled seams yields very little. The best I could find was from CherryPix. So I spent quite some time asking for advice and experimenting – I am very grateful for advice on many aspects of this shirt from Jamie at Male Devon Sewing, Clare at Sew Creative and Julie at SewOverIt.   In the end, partly inspired by CherryPix, I settled for sewing a line of stitching in the middle of the unfelled seam allowance and then clipping the outer edge of this seam allowance up to the mid stitching line, after having eased in the sleeve. This has the advantages that the stitching line helps to fold the seam allowance accurately over the felled seam, encourages the folded seam to lie flat and stabilises it against the unsightly corners that form on a folded seam when you clip it on an outward curved edged. |It also provides a useful visual guide for neatly felling the seam on the other seam allowance. At least that is the theory! I did a couple of practice pieces which worked out quite well with this technique before committing.

My other challenge was using a stiffer interlining for the collar and cuffs. In the past I have just used standard medium weight sew in interfacing. But I felt for a formal shirt the collar needed to be a bit stiffer so I bought some Barley interlining fabric from Acorn Fabrics (indeed all the fabric came from here along with the buttons). This is quite thick and so, when turned, produces an edge that is particularly visible when in combination with fine cotton shirting. Indeed, cutting it back to say around a millimetre beyond the seam and turning makes matters worse as it does not lie flat – even with much pressing. So in the end I adopted the opposite solution and folded it over with a c. 1cm overlap and graded the adjacent cotton fabric seams. This worked quite well but is far from perfect – the interlining edge is visible on the underside of the collar.

The edge of the underlining is clearly viable on the underside of the collar.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has a better solution.

This done and some rather classy mother of pearl buttons attached, hey presto, the shirt was finished.  I always get a thrill from ironing a newly finished garment – and especially on this occasion as the crumpled fabric was transformed into snowy white pristine condition.

I have also learnt that after the initial excitement of trying on a garment it is a good idea to let it “relax” on my tailors dummy for a day or so (a bit like a roast joint!). After which I come back with fresh and critical eyes to make important finishing touches. I carefully examine it, cut back the inevitable threads that I have overlooked, make small adjustments including applying the odd dab of fray glue where necessary!


I was really pleased with the way the shirt worked out in the end – especially the blind tucks. The finished flat felled seams on the inside were much improved using my technique but need more care to improve them further to a standard that I would be really satisfied with.


12 thoughts on “Ins and outs of a dress shirt”

  1. I admire your patience and determination — necessary for great results. Especially with the trickier fabrics.

    1. Annushka – Thanks – it took me a few weeks on and off…I find it I sew for too long I get tired and start to make mistakes!

  2. A stunning shirt, well done. The mark of a good shirt are those felled seams. I notice your comments about interfacing for collars and cuffs. I use a range of different weight woven interfacing for shirts. If the collar is going to be topstitched I cut the interfacing to the finished size. I also cut the under collar slightly smaller than the top one. This helps the seam roll slightly to the wrong side and the interfacing is secured by the top stitching.
    However your collar doesn’t detract from the quality of your shirt. Happy sewing!

    1. Di – thanks, especially for the advice on the collar – just what I am looking for! I will try it out shortly on a practice piece.

  3. Beautiful shirt! For perfect felled seams, I always baste by hand, then machine. This controls the curves, and avoids ever having to go back and restitch when the folded edge sneaks out again! Your pleats/tucks are stunning.

  4. Hi Adam,
    nice to see another guy who is passionately into sewing! You did a great job on the dress shirt. Go on with the good work.
    As Jamie, I recently made turned my hobby into my profession: Hand-M-made garments
    you can have a look at my work with a lot of photos concerning the constuction process of different garments
    greetings, Martin

  5. Hei. I am trying to sew the flat seam in the Vogue 8889, but I nearly ended up cutting 6mm off the arm hole. I dont understand how is the finish result in the arm hole with the flat felled seam. The top part of the arm hole gets inside folded. Any pictures? Thanks

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