Day Five; A T-Shirt Tutorial!

I wore the exact same outfit for today as I did yesterday because I loved it so darn much. I wore it with my unfinished cape to work in the morning and everyone seemed to notice me, which was actually kind of nice since most days I feel like I am invisible. So instead of boring you with another picture of the same outfit, I will give you my method for making t-shirts instead!

Since I posted about the three slap-dash t-shirts I have had a lot of people ask me how I make them because they all seem to think you need an overlock or surger to make it work. No sir - all you need is a regular old sewing machine and a little confidence. I just dove into making shirts with no idea what I was doing, except for the fact that I read somewhere online years ago that all you had to do was trace the shirt and sew it. But there are a couple little tips that make the process go much smoother and give you a nicer finished product that I learned from trial-and-error on my first three shirts. This is a tutorial for a very basic shirt with 3/4 length sleeves and raw edges with no hems, so here we go...

Materials Needed:

*Jersey Knit Fabric: I wear an extra large t-shirt and I can get away with about 1/2 a yard of knit fabric for a basic cap-sleeved t-shirt. If you want to make a long-sleeve or extend the hemline to tunic length I would go for 3/4 of a yard. It is always best to buy too much than too little, because you can use the scraps as sleeves for another top, or even make some undies or accessories with them. So go for 3/4 of a yard if you are not sure.

*Coordinating Thread: Regular cotton or polyester thread will work just fine. Though I recently heard that there is a stretchy thread out there that sounds like it would be great to use for hemming these kinds of things. Do not get elastic thread though, since that is a totally different ball game.

*A Properly Calibrated Sewing Machine: Make sure that your thread tension is on the lowest setting and that your stitch length is set to the longest setting. A lot of my friends say that their feed dog sucks the fabric down when they try to sew knits and I suspect that bobbin tension is to blame. I did not even know that you could adjust bobbin tension until I made the pillowcase top from Betz White. There is a tiny screw near the opening on most bobbin cases and if you find the fabric is getting eaten, just turn the screw a 1/4 to 1/2 of a turn to the left and try it again. (I find it also helps to keep a little bit of tension on the fabric, with one hand firmly guiding it as it goes in and comes out from under the needle.) The only stitches you will need to use are the zigzag and straight.

*Invisible Ink Fabric Pen: I used to think to myself, I do not need a special pen like that, and I used to just use a sharpie. But recently, since I have been stepping up my game, I decided to get one of the ones from Clover that fades after 48 hours or when you wash it. And it was a good thing I did too, since while I was making this tutorial I drew the middle line on the sleeve on the right side of the fabric. Oops... Thank goodness it washed right out; a sharpie line would have been there forever.

*Sharp Scissors: Since this shirt has no hems, use your sharpest scissors and make the cuts around the sleeves, necklines, and bottom hems as neatly as possible, but do not worry too much if they are not perfect - the hem rolls over itself and you will not be able to see tiny wiggles or sharp edges along your cut.

Alrighty. Step one is to find out which shirt you want to copy. Bust out your comfiest, most well-fitting t-shirt. Consider for a moment if there is a big difference in the stretchiness of the t-shirt versus the fabric you will be re-creating it in. This will affect the size of the seam allowance you want to leave yourself. If your new shirt will be made from a fabric that is less stretchy than the original shirt, then I would suggest increasing the seam allowance by at least 1/4 inch, maybe even a half if there is a big difference.

So take your new fabric and fold it in half with right sides facing. Jersey knit has a right side and a wrong side just like any other fabric, but it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. Look at the weave of the fabric closely. The right side will be made of little V's of thread, while the wrong side will be made of little U's. Lay the fabric on a flat surface and smooth it out as much as possible.

It is also important to determine which way the fabric stretches the most so you can lay the shirt the correct direction. Give the fabric a tug from right to left, then from top to bottom. See how one direction had a lot more give when you tried to stretch it? You need to make sure that you lay the fabric out with the stretchy direction and the sides of the t-shirt facing the same direction so the finished shirt will stretch width-wise. Otherwise you will end up with a shirt that will not stretch across to fit your chest and back.

Now take your t-shirt and turn it inside out, then lay it face-down on your fabric and smooth it out, making sure all the seams are spread flat.

Grab your fabric marker and start tracing your t-shirt, leaving at least 1/2 inch of space around the shirt. If the new fabric has less stretch thank the original shirt, increase this to 3/4 or even an inch. Remember, if it comes out a bit too big you can always make it smaller, but if you make it too small there is not much you can do. But not to worry, sewing with such stretchy fabric is very forgiving. Begin tracing at the bottom and work up to the arm holes.

When you reach the arm holes, you need to fold the sleeve back as you go so that you can trace the nice concave shape of the arm hole. Be sure to leave seam allowance as you trace:

Trace up over the shoulders and around the neckline. Now, I knew that I wanted to make this shirt into a boat-neck, so I did not trace as much seam allowance around the neckline so I would have a bigger opening. If you want a plain crew neck just trace with the same amount of room as you have been.

Okay, now take the shirt off the fabric and you should have what looks like an outline of a tank top. Cut along the outline you drew through both pieces of fabric at once. You will then need to draw a lower front neckline on the top layer of fabric so it does not choke you, and cut it out from only the top layer. I love the way jersey sticks to itself so nicely. Since these pieces already have the right sides facing you can fold them neatly and take them right over to the sewing machine. I usually do not even bother pinning the pieces together with the exception of attaching the sleeves, though feel free to pin them if you are scared of, well, whatever you might be scared of.

Now for the sleeves. On my first few shirts I had a problem with the sleeves turning out too tight even though I did the same amount of seam allowance as the body of the shirt. So I suggest you add an extra 1/2 inch of space between the line you will draw and the sleeve template on top of whatever space you left while tracing the body of the shirt. Again, if it turns out too big you can always make it smaller. Also, do not leave any seam allowance when you trace the top of the arm hole. Just trace right along the edge of the shirt, trust me on this.

Find a nice wide area on the fabric you have left and lay your shirt sleeve out flat as you can. You want to have the armpit seam pointing away from you with the top edge of the sleeve making a nice flat line. If there is a pattern on your fabric, the fold of the sleeve should lay perpendicular to it.

Trace the arm hole seam close to the shirt, then trace the rest of the sleeve with the extra wide seam allowance. I decided to make my shirt with 3/4 length sleeves, and if you have enough fabric left to do this all you need is to take your measurement from shoulder to elbow, and then extend the sleeve. Also take your elbow measurement while your arm is bent all the way, divide it by two, and make sure that the cuff of the sleeve you just traced and extended is at least that wide. But if you want to keep it simple just trace your existing sleeve.

Pull the shirt off the fabric and you will have half a sleeve drawn. Now you have to fold the fabric in half along the straight line you traced at the fold of the sleeve.

Be sure both layers of fabric are folded, then cut along the lines you drew through all four layers of fabric, and voila! In order to sew these two pieces into sleeves, fold them longways with right sides facing, making sure the edges all line up nicely. Pin them if you need to.

Now comes the part that people seem to fear the most, even though it is really easy. Do not fear grasshopper. You can start sewing the sleeves or the body first, whichever you like. Line the edge of the fabric up with the edge of your presser foot and put your machine on the zigzag stitch setting. Something to remember when sewing these shirts so you do not accidentally close off an armhole or something of the like is that you should never have to sew around a corner. If you feel the need to turn the fabric around a sharp bend or lift the foot to turn a corner, stop! Every line you sew should be a straight or very gently curved one.

So with the zigzag stitch, sew up the long seam of the sleeves and the sides of the body, and the tops of the shoulders. You do not need to trim the seams at all.

Now go back and switch your machine to straight stitch mode and line the edge of your seams up with the 10mm mark (the one closest to the presser foot) and sew a straight stitch over all the seams you just sewed a zigzag on.

Now you just need to attach the sleeves. Pinning the sleeves right is important if you want it to look professional, because if you just start pinning from the armpit and go around you will end up with a pucker of fabric at the end. The sleeve is usually a bit bigger than the hole you are fitting it into, so to start, pin the bottom seam of the sleeve to the armpit seam of the body, making sure the seams are folded over the same direction.

Then pin the top point of the sleeve to the shoulder seam of the body. You want to place the rest of the pins at the middle points between the other pins, stretching the fabric of the armhole to be even with the sleeve:

This way the puckers will smooth out and the fabric will be even all the way around. Now all you have to do is sew the arm holes just like the rest of the shirt, with a zigzag first at the edge of the foot and then a straight stitch a little further in. Now turn your shirt out and enjoy it!

Once you have mastered this kind of shirt, go ahead and play around with different sleeves, necklines, hemlines, etc. You will be amazed at the possibilities for different shirts.

Oh, and someone asked me the other day what I do if I run out of bobbin thread in the middle of a row of stitching, which happened to me during this tutorial. First I snip the thread coming off the needle, leaving a long tail, then I use the seam ripper to pull a few stitches out until there is enough thread to tie a knot with. You need to pull the bobbin thread through the top of the material so both threads are on the same side, then just knot them a few times and trim the ends. When you start the new stitching after rewinding the bobbin, be sure to back-stitch over the little knot to secure it.


  1. Anonymous4:07 AM

    i want to make this...just need some fabric...hum? i think i will start with a fabric without a pattern it is easier.

  2. many thanks for this wonderful tutorial! i'll definitely try it. :)

  3. OMG this is an awesome tutorial! I really want to start making my own clothes ... and stretch shirts are a must. It's good to know I don't need a fancy serger to do it.

  4. Thanks for the tutorial! I'm often afraid of sewing knit fabrics. Do you have tips on hemming a knit shirt with just a regular machine?

  5. Thanks everyone! I hope you all get a chance to try this, it is so fun to make your own clothes!

    @Trisha: I find that the best way to hem the bottom and sleeves of stretchy fabric is by just folding it up once and securing it with a zig-zag stitch. A straight stitch across the part of the shirt that is supposed to stretch wide seems to come out way too tight and I am always afraid it will snap when I pull the shirt on, plus it is not very comfortable.
    If you really like the look of a straight stitch, however, there are some slightly stretchy threads out there that will do the trick, but you should read up on how to use them properly before diving in. And I am not an expert in that department... Yet...

  6. Thanks for a great tutorial! I'm really new at sewing and now I just might try a top for myself!!! Hmm, maybe after a few bags though!

  7. this is great! I totally want to try now!

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