This week, I added another item to the list of things I find really hard to do when it comes to tailoring: use the delicates sewing machine. But, I also added another skill to my skillset: tailoring shirts. Overall, it’s definitely a net positive, especially because I got to take the shirt home.
This week Carlos asked what I’d like to learn. I told him that I’d like to learn to adjust shirts. After all, one of the only concrete reasons I decided to do this project at all was because I wanted to learn how to shorten the sleeves on shirts. So, when Carlos asked, that goal immediately popped into my mind, and I asked if I could work with some shirts.
To my surprise, Carlos not only was on board with it, but he said that he also had a spare shirt that an old customer had left behind that I could adjust to fit myself. (Apparently, after it came back from being laundered, its owner denied owning it, and didn’t even want to take it for free.) He gave me another, even older shirt to practice on first.
When I say even older, I mean that the first shirt I worked with would disintegrate if you pull on it too much. That whole problem made taking the seams apart a little bit of a pain, but it didn’t really matter. Afterwards, Carlos had me do some of the finer stitching over, just for practice. Mostly, he was worried about the plackets.
Plackets are the strips of fabric (and interfacing, a stiffer, sturdier fabric) that hold buttons on shirts. Specifically, I was working with the ones on the sleeves of the shirts, because when you shorten a sleeve, you also have to move the placket up the same amount to avoid messing up the proportions. The stitching on a shirt’s placket is usually fairly precise, slightly offset from the edge, and has to turn to follow the shape of the placket. That makes them decently tricky to attach.
At first, I started working on the practice shirt. As I quickly figured out, even that was too much for me. The main reason why, is because of the sewing machine I was using. This was my first time working with the machine Carlos uses for fine stitching, and delicate fabrics. Since shirts often have fine stitches, with a lot of stitches per inch, the machine is set up to go quite quickly. Since the fabrics are thin, the presser foot doesn’t always do a great job of actually holding the fabric on the feed dogs. These two factors together meant that, when I put the shirt under the needle and pressed the pedal, the machine made a sound like starting a racecar, and immediately stitched 20-ish stitches in the space of half an inch.
The presser foot is the part of a sewing machine that keeps the fabric under the needle smooth, and in place. Feed dogs are the parts on the bottom plate that move the fabric upward between stitches.
I was holding the fabric too tightly, and not allowing it to move upward, putting all the stitches in such a short area. Turns out that this pedal is slightly more twitchy than the others I’m used to, and I’m not so great at controlling the machine’s speed either.
From here, my next step was to practice on some extra scraps of fabric. At this point, Carlos doesn’t really question what I’m up to after he gives me a task, so I just grabbed some scraps out of the scraps box, and started trying to get the hang of the pedal. By the time I had to leave monday, I had improved a little bit. Starting without going too fast remained the hardest part.
When I came back in Wednesday, I got back to it. Surprisingly, a few nights’ sleep and a fresh start helped quite a bit with my sewing-machine-controlling abilities. I finished attaching the practice plackets, and we moved on to the cuffs. After that, I started working on the actual shirt.
The shirt is a light blue gingham, made by Brooks Brothers. After I got everything apart, Carlos started showing me how to measure and cut it. The process for shirts is similar to that for pants, except applied to a different shape of garment.
After measuring and cutting everything, it was time for me to start stitching. I managed to get the plackets attached with only minor problems, and left Wednesday feeling pretty good about my abilities when it came to stitching with that machine.
Come Friday, that confidence vanished. I had to attach the side seams, which meant going down the entire sleeve and torso in six-ish inch increments. If the seam is slightly crooked, the shirt hangs weirdly. I gave it a shot, but I wasn’t able to wrangle the sewing machine to keep everything uniform, straight, and controlled. After to start a second time, I admitted defeat, in part because the longer it took, the more frustrated I would get, and the harder it would be to do it perfectly.
Carlos gave me an easy out, though: set up the other straight stitch machines to do more delicate stitches. All I had to do was change a bobbin, re-thread a machine, and decrease the stitch length, a three-minute process that ended a three-hour struggle.
Bobbins are little spools of thread that go on the bottom of a straight stitch machine to form the other half of the stitch. Changing them is really simple, just replace the old one with a different bobbin holding the thread you want.
After getting everything set up, it was waaay easier to finish the seams of the shirt. I actually managed to get everything done before the weekend.
[Picture will go here, when I get the chance to take one.]
I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out, especially because it was pretty hard to get things right when I was actually sewing everything. Also, I can’t complain about a free shirt. I doubt this will be the last shirt I alter in my life too, so I’m pretty sure I learned something that will be useful for years to come.Written on March 25th, 2018 by Eric Banisadr