Updated: Jul 10
with your host, Jacqui Blakemore
T-shirts are one of our wardrobe staples and there are 2 billion sold and bought every year. But I still struggle to buy them to fit me and so I wanted to share more about that with you and my 5 reasons why I think you should make your own so read on!
Why are t-shirts so hard to buy?
Because my hips are a couple of sizes bigger than my bust, when I try to buy t-shirts I often find that if they fit at the shoulders, they are too tight, or at least tighter than I would like around my tummy and hips and if I size up so that they fit comfortably across my hips, then they look a bit tent like at the top.
I also like to match my t-shirt to the rest of my outfit, so getting just the right colour can also be a challenge. I think my mum had a skirt in her wardrobe for about a year, trying to find just the right colour t-shirt to go with it so maybe that’s a hereditary trait!
So before I get into my solution for my t-shirt buying problems, I wanted to share some interesting facts about t-shirts with you. Now I say that these are facts but I do have to add a disclaimer that they are things I found by googling so they may or may not be true but I think they are still interesting.
Brief history of the t-shirt
The humble t-shirt has its roots back in the late 19th century when it was worn as an item of men’s underwear. It was originally made from a variety of fibres including cotton, linen and wool and then in the early 20th century brands such as Hanes and Coopers began producing the men’s underwear garments that became the t-shirts we know today.
They were originally called “bachelor undershirts” and it’s hard to believe that name didn’t catch on!?! But it seems that people preferred the name t-shirt which is attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald who coined the term in his book "This Side of Paradise".
One of the key features of the t-shirt was that it didn’t have buttons and because it was so lightweight it became popular in the first world war as part of the uniforms. Because they had spent so much time wearing them, after the war was over, men started wearing them not just as underwear but as an item in their own right.
And although t-shirts with the name Oz printed on them, appeared in the Wizard of Oz film in 1939, it was in the 1950’s when the t-shirt became more of a fashion item. The iconic role of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire brought the t-shirt back onto the big screens.
The 1960s developments in technology and inks made the printing of t-shirts on a large scale possible. The t-shirt became a way of showing our allegiances, our affiliations, our likes and dislikes. It became a representation of identity. And iconic t-shirts stick in our memories like the lips and tongue t-shirt of the Rolling Stones, the Che Guevara t-shirt, and Nike’s just do it slogan t-shirts.
It became a tool of rebellion and protest and printed t-shirts are still used in that way today. Even recently at the King’s coronation in the UK protesters used yellow t-shirts to state ‘not my king’.
But because of its role as a tool of expression in society, its often relatively low price tag and our fashion culture, two billion t-shirts are now sold globally each year.
And that is taking a toll on our environment.
The majority of t-shirts are made from cotton which is a crop that requires a lot of water and pesticides. It takes an average of 2700l of water to make one t-shirt.
I did also learn though that it takes 6 miles of yarn to make the jersey required to make a t-shirt and it takes around 40m of thread to sew up a women’s t-shirt according to the Coats Threads website - but it didn’t make any mention of how much extra to allow for unpicking!
There are two great videos about the lifecycle of a t-shirt and the resources it takes to make it.
Planet Money Makes a T-shirt video series about what goes into making a t-shirt.
TedEd talk: The life cycle of a t-shirt by Angel Chang
I’d highly recommend watching them but spoiler alert they don’t point to a happy ending for the environment I’m afraid.
Fun facts about t-shirts
But here are a few fun facts though just to lighten the mood:
According to the Guinness world records, at the time of writing the largest t-shirt ever made is 108.96m long by 73.48m wide which is the size of a rugby pitch. It was made from fabric made from 250,000 recycled plastic bottles to encourage more people to recycle. It took a month to sew. After the world record the t-shirt was broken down into 10,000 items of clothing for underprivileged children.
At the opposite end of the scale, the most expensive t-shirt is said to be a diamond studded t-shirt from Superlative Luxury for $400,000 but I couldn’t seem to find that one on Amazon?!?
I did manage to find a wool jersey t-shirt for £1900 on the Zegna.com website and I have to be honest and say for that price I’d expect it to come with a really fit man who was great at cooking and gardening.
My 5 great reasons to make a t-shirt
So why am I sharing all of this fascinating information with you? Well, it’s because I’d like to try to persuade you that there is an alternative to buying t-shirts with their high environmental impact and that’s to make your own.
So here are my 5 great reasons to make your own t-shirt:
Reason 1 - custom fit:
My primary reason for making t-shirts is that I can’t buy them to fit my uniquely-me proportions. When you make your own t-shirts you get to decide what size(s) you want it to be at the bust waist and hip and how tight you want it to be.
I did talk a lot about ease preference in episode 59 and thanks to all of you that messaged me to say how useful you found that. When I have a t-shirt that fits me I am more likely to wear it and to keep wearing it so I think that is environmentally more friendly
Reason 2 - choice:
My second reason for making t-shirts is that I get to choose exactly what fabric, colour and style I want to suit the purpose of the t-shirt or the outfit I will wear it with.
I really like more flared t-shirts with things like skinny jeans and I like more boxy t-shirts for the gym or workouts. I’m not overly fond of crew necks so I get to choose scooped or v-neck styles. I’m also quite partial to a raglan sleeve.
But the point is you get to decide what style you want and you get to mix it up to suit you and your lifestyle.
Reason 3 - quality and durability:
So this follows on closely from reason 2 in that I can choose the quality of fabric I want to use to make my t-shirt.
I can choose fabrics that comply with Eco standards such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) for textiles made from organically produced natural fibres or OEKO-TEX for fabric manufactured in sustainable processes under environmentally friendly and socially responsible working conditions.
You can choose the thickness of your fabric to ensure it will last longer so you don’t have to make as many garments.
But do remember to pre-wash it before cutting out to avoid it fitting like a crop top after you first wear and wash it!
Reason 4 - speedy make:
So if you are in the northern hemisphere (especially if you are in the UK) you might be thinking, but summer is almost over, then I have great news in that a t-shirt is a quick return project.
Once you find patterns you like, t-shirts are a relatively speedy thing to make because they usually don’t have many pieces. This means that they are quite quick to cut out.
Also, because they are made from stretchy fabric you usually don’t have to sew things like darts and because there aren’t many pieces to them, they are quick to sew.
But I am not advocating creating your own fast fashion t-shirt factory. You can still take your time to create your wonderful t-shirt, but it is likely to take less time and effort than a shirt or blouse for example.
Reason 5 - one pattern, many options:
So once you do find a pattern or style that you like and you get a fit you love, you can still quite easily customise each t-shirt you make with different options and many patterns come with different style options too.
So that might be different neckline options, different sleeve styles or sleeve lengths and you can also cut your pattern up to create your own colour-blocking versions. Simply trace off a copy of your pattern, draw on your style lines for your different colour sections, cut your pattern along your style lines and then add seam allowances to each side that you’ve cut.
And just in case 5 reasons aren’t quite enough to convince you I asked chatGPT for a bonus reason that might seal the deal and it didn’t disappoint
So your bonus reason is...
Reason 6: secret pockets!
This made me laugh so much when I read it. Here’s the actual response:
Delight your inner secret agent with hidden pockets in your homemade t-shirts!
Share the fun and practicality of adding secret pockets to store small items like keys, coins, or a snack for later.
Highlight how this quirky addition can add an element of surprise and uniqueness to your t-shirt creations.
But whether they are secret or not, it’s true that you can add pockets to your makes.
So if you are convinced and inspired then here are some ideas of patterns to get you started. There are loads of free patterns out there, lots are very similar for a standard t-shirt but there are also some really pretty variations.
In the free patterns there is the
Deer and Doe Plantain t-shirt I have made quite a few of these because I really like the scoop neckline and the flare at the hip. I still can’t believe it’s free as it is a really good pattern.
Vera Knit top from Forget-me-not patterns It’s not strictly a t-shirt as it has longer sleeves. It has a v-neck and a couple of bishop sleeve options, but you could shorten those to t-shirt sleeve length. I haven’t tried this one yet but it is on my list.
Life Sew Savoury cross-back tank This is sleeveless but has a two-piece back that overlaps.
The Tulip Tee from Patterns for Pirates This has a few style options, one of which is a cross-over front with two overlapping curved front pieces.
Elise Tee from Fine Motor Skills which is more of slouchy t-shirt style.
All of those are free.
But I also really like:
The Lark Tee by Grainline Studios a great foundational pattern as it has lots of options for necklines and sleeve lengths. It’s quite long though so I usually shorten it quite a bit.
The Merlo Field Tee by Sew House Seven this is my favourite workout t-shirt as I like the contrast band on the sleeve and the curved hem
These are paid patterns and I have made several of each. The instructions are great and they are easy to make.
The Foldline also did a great article on the not-so-basic t-shirt patterns covering patterns with some other design details:
FoldLine: Not-so-basic t-shirts patterns
These include details such as unusual yokes, elasticated sections, square necklines, balloon sleeves, gathered necklines and flutter sleeves.
My tips on making t-shirts
Pre-wash your fabric. I find that jerseys are more prone to shrinking so make sure you wash your fabric before cutting it out in the same manner you plan to wash your finished garment.
You can cut out your t-shirt fabric with scissors or a rotary cutter. Some jersey fabrics roll up at the edges once you have cut them especially if you stretch them out, so the less you handle them the better until you are ready to sew.
Be careful cutting notches in jersey fabrics as it can cause the fabric to unravel, so keep them small
Check the seam allowance on your pattern. Some patterns for stretch fabrics assume you will sew it directly on the overlocker so they only have 3/8in or 1cm seam allowance
You can sew your t-shirt on your sewing machine but I’d recommend getting a jersey or stretch needle.
Sew your seams with a narrow zig-zag stitch - I tend to use 1-1.5 width and 2.5 length
Test your stitches on a scrap first to make sure the needle type and tension are OK and that the seam has a bit of stretch without breaking the stitches
Even if I assemble my main seams directly with my overlocker I still tend to attach my neckband with the sewing machine in case it goes wrong. There is a great video by Melly Sews about neckbands: How to sew a stretchy neckline
For professional-looking hems try a twin needle. This gives two rows of straight stitches on the right side and a zig-zag on the wrong side allowing it to stretch. I’d recommend practising with these first.
Have fun with it - these are relatively easy projects to have a go so give them a try.
Here are some links to the resources used for this article:
To listen to the podcast version of this topic click on your favourite podcast app below:
In this episode you'll hear:
[00:01:01] Why are t-shirts so hard to buy?
[00:05:53] 5 Reasons to make your own t-shirt
[00:10:18] T-shirt patterns
[00:12:36] Tips for sewing t-shirts
And if you would like more help with any of the aspects mentioned in this article or this podcast episode then I would love to hear from you so do please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article and I hope you find some useful tips that you can apply.
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