Saturday, February 23, 2013

A basic shirt, not your average pattern

One of the best reasons for seeking the services of a custom dressmaker is discovering that literally nothing in ready-to-wear comes in proportions to fit the elderly body. My client Claire could not find a shirt that would close around her hips without being giant-sized through the neck and shoulders. At 88, she also has difficulty handling buttons and zippers, so her daughters thought I might be able to help by making a shirt and some pants for her.
These were the challenges I focused on while preparing for our first meeting. The depth of the issues appeared when I took her measurements, but only became clear to me as we started to work with fitting muslins.

I anticipated a curved upper back, and the necessity of using a center-back seam on the shirt to accomodate that. I also knew the pants would need to come further up at the back waist for coverage when standing. The things that took my by surprise and challenged me in making fitting corrections had to do with the twisted torso and neck that is a result of the way Claire's right shoulder tilts downward bringing her left shoulder up, while her left hip swings toward the front. Leaving 1 inch seam allowances in the first muslin didn't cut it - I needed to pin in strips of muslin and draw the side seam where it needed to go, but later refused to believe that I truly had to add a good 2 inches to the back at the left side seam. The first muslin fit her neck beautifully on her right side, yet needed a new neckline drawn in on the left and the excess cut away, to fit the additional length up to the higher shoulder.

And how in the world should I handle a full bustline that rests just above the waist? No one is going to tell this lady that she needs to wear a bra that will hold her up higher - she's comfortable in her jersey camisole.

Kwik Sew 3660, from their website
First things first: Claire's daughter tells me she could use some new camisoles as hers are really looking ratty, and asks if I could come up with something that will be comfortable and give her a bit of support. I found a pattern for an empire-waist exercise top (photo shows the top over the sports bra). By converting the surplice bodice to a scoopneck, and adding a center back seam, we created a comfortable cami that lends a little bit of support for the bust. Doesn't raise it up to where I'd like to see it for fitting the shirt, but better than what she started with.

Darts or not? I think not, as they'd have to be horizontal at the midriff or waist, or pointing downward. So that fullness was rotated into the shoulder as gathers, allowing me to make the lower front of the shirt wide enough to comfortably "button" (close with velcro) all the way down, while keeping the shoulders and neck smaller for Claire's petite build. But could I incorporate a back yoke with a forward shoulder seam, to mimic the shirt style these clients really like?

Two muslin fittings later, I finally began to trust my instincts. The resulting pattern consists of all single-layer pieces - left and right nearly everything: back, front, sleeves, front facings. Even the collar and yoke have a left and right side. On a hanger or off the body, this shirt looks almost normal, until you look closely at the left side seam (on the right in the photo above) slanting toward the front, and the back hem hanging quite a bit further down than the front.
On the back it's hard to see, but the center back seam (which I put inside a pleat) really starts the curve that I also built into the yoke. The folds and fullness in the center back at the neck and just below the yoke are what is needed for Claire's hunched stance. Take a look at the fit on the body this was built for -
The real difficulty with fitting this garment was working around her walker -  having to be prepared for very short stints of standing time, and the changes that inevitably needed to be made when seated. This photo shows her usual stance, while walking and relaxed.

But her lovely smile tells me this was worth it - and one of the most rewarding projects I've ever worked on.

Next time - the saga continues: corduroy pants!


  1. Wow, that was quite a challenge! Your client looks pleased!

  2. You should be so very proud. The blouse hangs beautifully on her and I can see that she is happy with the blouse. Regardless of our age, we all want to look pretty.

  3. Oh, Janee, what a wonderful job! How lucky they are to have found you!

  4. Janee-
    Fascinating to read your process and see the end result on Claire. I am so glad that Claire found you!