Altering/Sewing a Man's T-Shirt to Make it Fit a Woman
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Every now and then I acquire a man's t-shirt and I either think "I'll sleep in that," in which case it sits in my drawer for several years and I finally get rid of it, or I do a half-assed job of creating a more "womanly" shape by sewing a seam up the sides and down the sleeves and cutting some length off. I end up wearing the shirt a few times and then I usually discard it, too. I knew it would take a little longer, and require a little more tailoring to make a shirt I'd wear.
I am a self-taught seamstress. So when I sewed these knit t-shirts, I used a regular 'ol straight seam -- what I thought was the "right" way to sew everything. Often these seams would pop and holes would appear. I thought it was just my poor sewing skills. Beyond my poor sewing, the overall strategy wasn't great either, mostly because a man's t-shirt has much broader shoulders and less inset on the sleeves. Basically, I was creating a drop-shoulder look with the finished product, and it wasn't appealing or well-fitting.
I believe I had given up on sewing t-shirts, and knitwear in general. I thought I just couldn't do it. Then a friend introduced me to Alabama Chanin. If you have never heard of Alabama Chanin, it is a small company that sells patterns, supplies, and clothing all made from knit fabric. I couldn't afford any of the clothing, so I checked out the books from the library. Their strategy is hand-sewing, something I had never even thought about doing (I only use my machine -- I have hand pain issues and will never be able to do the embroidery on her designs, much less the actual seaming). When reading the books, I realized that knit fabric behaves differently than woven fabric, so that my sewing technique was wrong, but that there was a right way and that I could learn how to do it. I'm not sure where I got the recommendation for the Craftsy class, but I signed up for Sewing With Knits with Meg McElwee.
Sewing with Knits was revelatory, and everything I know about sewing with knit fabric comes from that class. If you're reading this, I highly recommend it. She goes into great detail about how to sew knit fabric with a regular sewing machine and without a serger (while piquing my interest on how to sew with a serger, which I don't have but would love to buy).
The number one takeaway was that a regular straight seam doesn't stretch. All knit fabric stretches. Thus the seam itself needs to stretch. She recommended a variety of different stretchy seams; I ended up doing a stitch my very basic sewing machine can do: zigzag. I used a very narrow zigzag, which looks neat enough and it stretches. The second takeaway was that as you're sewing along on two layers of knit fabric, the top layer of fabric doesn't get dragged along with the bottom layer at the same rate, so you can end up with the layers not lining up correctly. One way to fix that issue is to use a walking foot. (The link goes to a Singer walking foot -- you need to buy a walking foot that will fit your sewing machine; they are not all the same.) I bought a generic walking foot on eBay; it worked but had some issues (more on that later). I also used a stretch needle for my machine. That's all I used, but she suggested many more strategies, tools, and supplies for sewing knit fabrics, so if you're encountering difficulties, I predict she can help you solve them.
The project I chose was three men's t-shirts (these were a three for one low, low price deal). I figured it might take me all three to get one right. These were/are cheap Gildan men's size larges, that I had washed and dried. I wanted to (1) discover whether I really could sew knit fabrics, (2) alter the choking crew neck to a slight scoop (it's my preferred neckline), (3) alter the sleeves and then set the sleeves into a deeper armhole, (4) reduce the overall width of the body and add waist shaping, and (5) shorten the overall length. I probably could have free-handed cutting the fabric of the shirt, but I wanted to set myself up for success so I used a pattern.
The pattern I used was from the book Alabama Studio Sewing + Design. The Craftsy course provides patterns, so why I didn't I use that one? I probably should have. I had the Alabama Chanin pattern printed out and ready to go, so that's why I used it. I compared the pattern to a storebought t-shirt that I already own, which fits me well and I concluded (wrongly!) that the size small would work. So I cut out the pattern. While I was cutting it out, I freehanded a slightly lower neckline curve in order to get a slight scoop (the pattern had a crew neckline), just in the front (not the sides or the back). I did not want to lower the back neckline -- I prefer a high neckline in the back. This freehanding worked perfectly, but in general, be careful! Once you cut off some fabric, there's no going back.
I didn't have the book to refer to, so I didn't know how the Alabama Chanin instructions addressed the neckline. A knit shirt usually incorporates a doubled-over strip of stretchy knit fabric to finish the neckline edge. Meg McElwee talks about it in the Craftsy course, and her patterns include the strip, which is cut across the grain (the stretchiest part) of your shirt's knit fabric. The strip should be slightly smaller than the actual circumference of the neck hole. As you're sewing, you stretch the strip out a little bit as you sew it in. That finishes the raw edge, and pulls in a little bit so that the neckline lies flat against your body. I could tell that this might be a trouble spot, since I had fudged the neckline. My advice would be to use the Craftsy pattern, since she tested her strip against the neckline in the pattern. In my case, all went well, but that might have been just luck.
My original shirts' bodies are fabric tubes (no side seams). I cut straight up from the hem to where the sleeve seams cross in the underarm. Then I cut down to the sleeve hem, as close to the seam as possible. I cut the sleeves off as close to where the sleeve attached to the shirt as possible (leaving the hems of the sleeves intact). I cut the neck strip out, as close to its edge as possible. I still had the shoulders sewn together, and I thought hard about whether to cut the shoulder or not.
If you take a look at a storebought t-shirt, the shoulder is probably reinforced. The Craftsy course recommends that you sew a strip of clear elastic into that shoulder seam. My t-shirts have a completedly covered seam which is either a double layer of the knit or encloses a strip of elastic. On the right side of the shirt, the seam is nicely finished (it is weird to see how much of this cheap t-shirt is well-finished). I was tempted to leave the shoulder seam in place, and then cut my pattern out down from the shoulder. So I'd skip the step of sewing the shoulders together; I would start from a "life vest" made out of the original shirt. At that point, I had to give up on my original plan of leaving the bottom hem in place. My original shirt has a nicely finished hem on the bottom of the body and the sleeves. It would have been great to leave it alone and use it for my finished product. For two reasons, I didn't leave the bottom hem. First, since I'd decided to leave the shoulder seams, the overall length of the shirt had to be reduced and I'd have to take it off the bottom. Second, I needed fabric for my neck strip and that's the only place I could get across-the-grain yardage (I didn't use the shirt fabric for the neck strip for the second and third shirt, though).
One other issue for cutting out the pattern is the design on the front. Generally, I'm probably always altering a shirt with a design on it. First of all, don't iron that design! It is bad for the design and your iron. Do iron the rest of the shirt, though, before you cut and sew. The other issue is the placement of the design. I often see women's t-shirts where the design is too low for me (women who are more "gifted" probably don't have this problem). When you're cutting the t-shirt pieces, you want to make sure the design ends up in the right spot. That might affect whether you can keep the shoulder seams or the hem.
I folded the entire life vest in half with a vertical fold up the middle of the body/design. Then I cut the front body pattern out lined up on the center fold. I fudged the shoulder a little bit because the pattern did not line up perfectly with the shoulder seam and I did not cut the shoulder seam. Because knit fabrics are stretchy, this is hopefully not going to be a problem, but we'll see. I cut along the bottom hem, up the sides, and cut to make a real armhole. Once the front was cut out, I folded the life vest in half the other way, so that the top layer was the front of the shirt and the bottom layer was underneath it. Then I cut the back of the shirt to align with the front half.
I cut the sleeves according to the pattern, making them as long as the piece of material would allow, and leaving the existing hem intact. The length of the sleeves aren't as long as I'd prefer. My perfect sleeve length is just short of the elbow. That's a rare find for a t-shirt; cap, three-quarter, or long are much more common. I left these sleeve pieces as long as I could, but because I'm cutting in a real armhole into the body of the shirt, they'll end up being short sleeves (longer than cap but nowhere near my elbows).
In order to have enough fabric at the bottom to cut a neck strip, I had to take out the hem, which took me and my seam ripper a bit of time. I am not quick at anything, and I didn't want to nick the fabric so I tried to be careful, and it took a while. Then I had to iron it out and cut that piece of the pattern.
I ironed my pieces (not the design, though!). I "pinned" (well, I don't pin any more -- I use Clover Wonder Clips. I love a craft notion, and I find that pinning and un-pinning takes up time, so I do prefer these little guys. I think they're quicker) the sides and the sleeves, lining them up carefully. You may notice in my picture that my hems were way off, because of my shoulder fudging. I ended up trimming the hem and it worked out fine.
Using my stretch needle, my walking foot, and a narrow zigzag stitch, the first thing I sewed was the sleeves to the body. I was really careful to gently stretch out the fabric along the curve. If you let a gather form, it won't look good. Then I sewed up the sleeve seam and down the side seam on one side and then the other. I went and tried it on (the gray one) and whoa, it was a bit too tight. I immediately did what I always do when a knit shirt is too tight: I stretched it out by pulling it away from my body. I pulled pretty hard. At this point, if I had used a regular straight stitch, I KNOW I would have heard the seams popping. But I didn't. I pulled and pulled and pulled, and the shirt and the seams just stretched. It was awesome! I went ahead and finished the gray shirt, but when I cut the pieces for the blue one and the black one, I used the same size and pattern, but I made the sides 1/2 inch wider (adding up to an inch more on each side, so two more inches of circumference) and I reduced the sleeves' width by 1/2 inch (making the sleeves a bit more narrow). The blue one and the black one fit wonderfully; no stretching required.
Next step is the neckline. For the gray shirt, I had a strip of fabric cut from the bottom of the shirt. I eyeballed the length of the strip against the circumference of my neck hole. You want it to be a little smaller, because you want to stretch that neck piece. You may end up ripping it out, so one strategy would be to baste it in and check it for fit before you really sew it. I like to live on the edge, so I didn't. I sewed the right sides of the short edge of the strip together, creating a wide and short tube. Fold the tube in half and iron it flat. Then I pinned (clipped) my tube's right side to my shirt's right side. I clipped at the back center, then the front center, then half way and half way again. Not too many, because you want to be gently pulling on the tube to stretch it out as you sew it in. I sewed it in and tried it on. Looked great. Because the cut edge of the neck tube will tend to roll, I top-stitched (using the same stretchy narrow zigzag) another line of stitches around the shirt's neckline, to securely hold the bottom edge of the neck tube down.
For the blue and the black shirts, I cut all the pattern pieces out and realized that I didn't have enough length in the body to cut a neck strip as wide as I needed. I could have used a narrower neck strip made out of the body fabric, or I could experiment and use the neck tube that came with the shirt. If you've examined a t-shirt, you probably realize that the knit fabric on the neck edge is a slightly bigger gauge of knit, presumably to give it more stretch. But would it be enough stretch to use that neck tube again for a wider neckline? I decided to take the chance. The negative was that the tube was sewn in so thoroughly, it was a long session with my seam ripper to take out the edge of fabric that I'd cut off from the shirt body (still attached) and to get all of the other edging threads off. Once I'd removed all the extra stuff, I stretched it out really hard and sewed it into my neckline as if it was a tube I'd made. The final product looks fantastic. I think the tube made out of the shirt fabric looks good, too, but the bigger rib strip looks more like a storebought shirt (see the photo. The gray one on the left has a neckline made of the shirt fabric. The blue one on the right has the original neckline, stretched and sewn back into the larger hole). The proof, however, will be after I wash these shirts. Will the neckline shrink up so far that the neckline puckers? We shall see.
The last issue was the hem. Again, looking at a storebought knit shirt, the hem is neatly finished with what looks like a double row of stitches on the outside. To imitate that look, Meg McElwee suggested using a Twin Stretch Needle, which you thread onto any ol' sewing machine with two spools of thread on top. Mind-blowing. It was strangely easy, except that my cheapo walking foot did not fit with the twin needle. Yes, it was hitting the opening of the presser foot, which is something you don't want to experience. I switched over to my regular zigzag presser foot, and I hemmed two of the shirts successfully. From the right side, they look great. However . . . I suspect that my tension was crap. The feel of the seam just isn't right. I adjusted up and down and all around and I just couldn't get it to work. For the third shirt, I ended up hemming it with the old narrow zigzag. I suspect that it may roll, but on the other hand, I've had neatly hemmed storebought edges that roll, so who knows. I also suspect that the twin stitched hems are not going to last, but I'll report back once I've washed them.
P.S. My daughter bought a skirt from American Apparel. Cotton knit, with a fairly wide double stitch row hem. Of course, the hem blew out. I thought the twin needle would be able to imitate the hem but the needles aren't spaced widely enough. After buying thread to match, I simply stitched two narrow zigzag rows to close the un-hemmed gap. It looks fine and it stretches beautifully. Yes, I can sew knit fabric!
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