Shirt-making on Island Time

(or, alternatively: That Tropical Monstrosity & Co.)

It’s been a good while since I sewed for someone else, and I didn’t really imagine the spell would be broken in this particular way, but… well. Here we are, one terribly excellent polyester tropical shirt (and its linen friend) later.

As many projects do, this one starts with a story.

Way back in 2014: Christmas, to be exact. I was flying to New Zealand to spend the summer (or winter, depending on your hemispheric perspective) with Jon and his family. I arrived in November, armed with a suitcase full of Christmas presents. Jon’s gift was a pile of lovely plaid flannel, some buttons, and the promise that this would soon become his very own custom sewn plaid flannel ~lumberjack~ shirt.


The eagle-eyed readers among you will note that this, although it is a shirt, is neither plaid nor flannel. It’s also not Jon.

Over two years later and Jon’s plaid flannel shirt does not exist. The fabric sat unused, returned with me to Illinois after my holiday, and is now in one of four boxes of other fabric that was left behind when I made my transition back to New Zealand at the end of 2015. I get teased about it on nearly every gift giving occasion, and also whenever I drop everything else to follow a new obsession (bra making, hand lettering, etc.) of my own.  *cough* plaid shirt *cough cough* happens pretty frequently in these parts.


You’ll note that this is also neither plaid nor flannel…

I’ve been slowly working my way up to this project, and in my {very weak} defense Jon really doesn’t want anything to do with pins ever, which makes fitting difficult. I’d been kind of fussing at drafting a block for the shirt, but grew frustrated because I haven’t drafted for the male body since my drafting class, and apparently it’s really hard to fit clothes on someone else? Like I do most of the fitting by feeling how things fit? Anyone? Anyways. A few weeks later, Jon urgently required a button up shirt for an event the following day, so we hustled off to the mall to find something suitable. (hah. suitable.)


(another appearance of our house’s shoulder-level doorknobs…)

Ah, the terror! Between his broad, muscular shoulders and forearms, slim torso, and his desire for very, very slim fitted shirts, the mall was a struggle comparable to my experiences with RTW bra fitting. Yikes. All that, plus the remnants of an old sports injury meant that each shoulder was more comfortable in a different sized shirt. After trying on an endless sea of shirts, we settled on one that fit….okayish.

That trip renewed my energy in trying to sew him the perfect collared shirt – seeing the fitting struggle firsthand certainly lights a fire, I think. Interestingly, the last time we were at this mall resulted in my vow to learn to sew bras so that I never needed to experience that again. Sensing a pattern here?


A few days later, he mentioned maybe possibly wanting to make a few wardrobe changes to include more than just his ironic T-shirts, so I got to work. I spent every available moment reading about shirt fitting, found as many ‘sewing blogger makes boyfriend a shirt’ posts as I could (now I’m contributing, see!), made my list, and – given that my attempts to draft his shirt from scratch were not going well at all, I made a pinprick copy pattern of the shirt we found at the mall. It had some design elements he liked and fit in some places, so I figured at the very least it was a good place to start. (Do Not even talk to me about how I felt when I realized the stupid sleeve armscye was stupid symmetrical. The same for the front and back! Who does that?!!  We way overpaid for that shirt. I’m fixing the curve obviously.) I almost broke down and bought a pattern. Almost.

Before breaking into the good stuff (or even the budget stuff for that matter), I made a quick and dirty mockup using some $2/m polyester I use for early muslins. I didn’t attach cuffs or a collar, because I knew we were a few attempts away from two fitted shoulders anyways.


The first attempt was nearly perfect in the torso: Just need to slim it up (he kept saying ‘there’s too much fabric here’ and I kept saying ‘yes but you’re going to want to be able to breathe’…), and do a better job of walking the side seam lengths (oops). The yoke fit well, but the shoulder seams needed to be moved forward. The sleeves, as expected, need a bit of work. I decided to make the first wearable muslin with the original armscye curve for testing purposes, so a redraft will account for some of those wrinkles, and a sloped shoulder adjustment will help us out with that wrinkle at the front of his right shoulder. The shoulder seam also needs to be moved forward on his larger shoulder so that they both hit at the right point. Next step, a wearable muslin!

Now, to tie this in with current events, It’s coming up on summer in New Zealand and plaid flannel didn’t seem terribly appropriate. We were leaving for Hawaii soon, so I found something with the vacation theme in mind… the Very Worst and Most Gaudy Tropical Print Fabric Available. (1.5 meters at $5/m, if you’re curious.)


But wait.. Why is our blogger wearing that shirt? Aren’t we talking about men’s shirts?

A Hawaiian shirt for our Hawaiian adventure! Except, if we’re being technical, the fabric is most likely of the Fijian tropical variety, because Fiji is much closer to New Zealand, and the store at which I found this fabric caters in great part to an audience of pacific islanders. Jon says technically, it’s not a Hawaiian shirt, it’s a Bula shirt. There we go! Jon taught me a thing about this project!


(Our blogger is in all the other pictures because this is and always will be the only photo of Jon in this shirt – and it was a struggle to get this much…)

There were a few hiccups- this is the reason we make muslins though! I drafted the collar and stand from his measurements with my trusty copy of Pattern Drafting and Grading by M. Rhor (a ladies book, but collars are pretty genderless at their most basic). My book suggested a 3/8″ difference between collar and stand for the button, which when put together appears to me to be much too small. The collar fits, I just need to adjust the stand slightly. He also says it feels tight right at the top of his shoulder, but that’s an easy adjustment to the armscye curve (which I didn’t do for the hawaiian shirt… I didn’t want to change too much at once) – convenient that it will also fix the wrinkles at the front of the arm.


A) don’t trust anyone whose linen isn’t wrinkly. B) that tongue.

I left it up to Jon whether I added buttons to the Hawaiian shirt – I didn’t see the point if he wasn’t going to wear it, but he said to go for it , so here we are. They’ve been generously donated by his mom from her stash, and although they’re bigger and brighter than what I would have chosen at the store, I feel like it adds to the theme! They are the perfectly odd and mismatched finishing touch on this strange creation!


This strange, blinding creation that’s so bright it’s two steps shy of being its own light source…

Although on one occasion he put the shirt on without prompting, It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t so much want to be photographed in this thing (Which, really.. who can blame him?) so we had a little beachy photoshoot so the poor fella wouldn’t feel too left out.


There we are! the real reason I’m wearing the polyester monster 🙂 I kind of like it? The fabric is super dense, so I felt very protected from the sun. Unfortunately I didn’t think much about print placement with my body in mind (why would I?)…but once you see it…

For the linen shirt, I needed only to adjust the armscye shape to fix the wrinkling and shoulder tightness, and deepen the arm holes slightly. I still can’t get over the horror of the symmetrical curve. Look at any upper arm/shoulder from the side. Does it look the same in the front as it does in the back? No? Congratulations on having something in common with every other human ever. That’s probably the worst shortcut in RTW drafting I can think of. Moving some of the mass from the front to the back will improve mobility when he stretches his arms forward, simultaneously removing the excess fabric at the front of his arm.


The wind liked this shirt so much, it was trying to blow it off me and out to sea!

The day we found out we definitely were going to Hawaii was the day Jon not-so-subtly reminded me that I’d mentioned (he used the word ‘promised’) a linen shirt for our trip. Drat, he pays more attention when I ramble about projects than I thought! The linen shirt got added to the list of pre-travel panic-projects, and we scooted off to The Fabric Store (Yes! He actually came with me!) to pick fabric for his ‘real’ shirt.


(fyi I spent a lot of time in Hawaii chasing Jon around with a camera and it was WORTH IT)

I had been hoping for a good creamy natural color, but everything was too close to brown. The options were seafoam (which I loved and might still get for me), white, or this mousy grey. I was kind of thinking white, but we decided the grey would hide salt and sand better if it were destined for beachwear, and it was a better match with his other clothes.  Best part? I bought 2.5m and there’s totally enough leftover to make a pair of beachy shorts for me!

Construction went 90% amazingly – I was telling anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) about how nice it was to work with a natural fiber after so many swimsuits, bras, and generally synthetic projects. How well it holds as crease! Amazing. I burrito’d the yoke which turned out beautifully, and if I had just remembered that sleeve plackets are supposed to go on before the sewing the sleeve seam, we’d have been golden. I don’t remember the last time I did a placket either, so the fact that they’re straight let alone symmetrical is a small miracle.


This photo was taken at 11:30pm, when I ran out of thread with half of my buttonholes and all my buttons left 😦

The other incredibly dumb thing I did was measure to his second thumb joint instead of his first. You know how shirts are supposed to hit at the first thumb joint (the one that’s sort of lined up with your wrist) Girlfriend got her thumb joints confused, went for the second one, and plowed ahead without thinking. Shame on me.



Jon noticed the sleeve length as soon as he put the finished shirt on, and I spent one day insisting it was right, one day really confused about how I’d arrived at that measurement, and then had the eureka moment about the thumb joints. So. At first he asked me to shorten the cuff (it needs almost an inch lopped off) but by the end of the trip he decided he liked the look of it, and it covered his hands from the sun, so we’re still deciding if I’m going to shorten them.


Although Jon has asked me to make him things before, he’s never very specific. It’s always things like “I’d like to wear more shirts like that” or “I’d like it if you knit me a hat.” … I mean, the entire basis for this post was “Maybe potentially like to consider some wardrobe changes”… Talk about vague. He has to be bribed to set foot in the fabric store, won’t pick out fabric or colors, and he’s one of those people that can’t be shown things in a state of partial done-ness (do you know people like that? It’s like he’s never convinced that it’s going to be A Thing until it’s totally, 100% done and also ironed. Sewing is magic, yo, but you have to trust the wizard!)… What’s worse, he has more than once said “I will wear whatever you make for me” which:


A) is a recipe for a bright pink semi-sheer sparkly puffed sleeved pirate shirt with lime green sequined spandex leggings if I’ve ever heard one, and

B) leads to silently hating whatever I’ve made, while being too afraid about potentially hurting my feelings by telling me! Communication is important, and I’m not going to know what you want, and what adjustments it needs, unless you tell me! And besides… if I’m free to make whatever I want for you… see point A.


Is it weird that I’m growing a little attached?

I know firsthand that he’s picky about the clothes he buys, and I know he doesn’t like to shop for them. Hopefully after I make a few more of these shirts he’ll have a better idea of the process and be able to tell me what about them he does and doesn’t like: color, design, and fit-wise… Maybe, by the time we get to winter again, I’ll finally sew up that plaid shirt I’ve been promising for years.


Jon is Doubtful.

Before I hit the big blue ‘publish’ button, I just want to acknowledge something outside our little sewing bubble. I’ve been largely silent on the subject of the presidential election this past week, and that is partially because I don’t yet know what I can personally do to help the situation my country has found itself in (ranting on Facebook may be cathartic but ‘helpful’ isn’t a word I’d use…).

It’s also because, since I’ve been living abroad for over a year now, I find myself in an incredibly privileged position where most of what is being threatened for my country doesn’t impact me so directly. I have access to amazing public healthcare, my reproductive (and other) rights are truly protected even without citizenship, hate crimes and harassment are largely unheard of here, and I’m not afraid to go walking at night. One of the worst things I can do from this position is to speak over anyone who is being directly affected by what’s happening in our country, so instead I feel my job is to find ways to amplify the voices of those affected, and to not add my own indignant screechings to the mess – so as soon as I find a way to do that I will. I can’t help but one small indignant screech on that point though, it is as follows: agreeing to respect a difference of opinion is for things like ‘I don’t like coffee’, not for things like ‘I don’t like black people’.

At this point I can only wait, keep on sewing, and see what happens next.




6 thoughts on “Shirt-making on Island Time

  1. Emily Wrinkle says:

    I cannot tell you how pleased it made me to see you mention M. Rhor’a pattern drafting book! I just finished a pattern drafting class and I want to get my hands on one of this so bad.
    Also, I understand your pain. I’ve made my husband three or four shirts now, and none of them have been quite right. The most recent one I made was almost perfect, but then he tells me he really doesn’t like the collar that much, (which I kind of already knew) and now I have to figure out how to draft a collar with a collar stand since I don’t want to pay for a separate pattern. . . I’ve been using the Colette Patterns Negroni shirt pattern. It’s a fantastic basic with excellent instructions. Also, in case you haven’t heard of it, there is a blog called Male Pattern Boldness that has a ton of good information about men’s clothing.

    • Kat says:

      M. Rohr’s book is, such a lifesaver! If you haven’t gotten yourself a paper copy, there’s a free one online (public domain is a lovely thing) here: … it’s a different edition than mine but contains some amazing information nonetheless! I ended up with mine because my pattern drafting teacher recommended it – the styles are a bit dated but all the information you need to change that is there! Even after the linen shirt, I think I’m still just one or two steps off perfect with mine as well, so don’t get discouraged! My issues are still mostly armscye related….I have heard of the Negroni! It seems very popular, I might have to try it in the future! Also, yes, the Male Pattern Boldness blog is a great resource for new shirt ideas 🙂 I wish you the best of luck perfecting that shirt for your husband!!

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