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TUTORIAL- Refine the Lines...Making a Shirt look "Custom" - REVISED

In this tutorial I am going to demonstrate how to refine the shape of a typical "straight-line" Yoke and Back of a commercial Shirt pattern. 

The differences between shirts made from most commercial sewing patterns and my custom-made shirts are often quite subtle, but deliver a big impact on how the shirts look when worn.  The shirts I draft by hand have yokes that lay smoothly along the upper back and shoulders with no bunching or ripples. The seam that joins the yoke to the back is contoured...allowing the fabric below to flow over the body gently, rather than just fall from it.

 ^Click any of the photos to enlarge^

Two of the many subtleties that I incorporate into my shirt designs are curved (shaped) yokes and backs. The pattern pieces shown above are examples of a  "pattern-in-progress" that I am hand-drafting for one of my clients. It is based on a draping session done to achieve a truly custom fit and will be fine-tuned  before the final pattern is drafted and the fabric cut. 

Of course, I cannot possibly teach you my custom shirt pattern "Drafting by Hand from Measurements" methods in a blog post.

But I can demonstrate how to refine the lines of a commercial pattern that has been drafted with a "straight-line" Yoke and a "straight-line" Back. The commercial pattern used to make these changes should be one that has regular ease, rather than a "fitted" style.

Let me add here that if you have a shirt pattern with a straight Yoke and Back that you like, that's fine. I am not saying that one draft is "better" than the other. This is just an example of how to do another draft...one that I just happen to prefer  :)

The first step in this process is to make a copy of the pattern that you want to change ( NOTE--it is best to make these changes to a pattern you have already sewn "out of the envelope" in the correct size and with which you are fairly satisfied, because I will not be addressing fitting issues.)  

You will need a copy of Yoke, the Back (without the Center-back pleat...fold it out of the way before making the copy), and the Sleeve...ALL OF THEM WITHOUT THEIR SEAM ALLOWANCES.  Please note that with the exception of the sleeve, working with 1/2-width pieces is easier when making these changes, and will take less time and paper than making full-width copies of the pattern pieces.

The brown paper pattern pieces that you see in this demonstration purposely do NOT have notch markings...because I want you to see how the SHAPES change without extraneous marks.

Let's begin with refining the YOKE.

As shown below, Mark a point that is approximately at the mid-point along the bottom of the yoke pattern piece. Make a second mark at the side that is a very scant 1/4-inch up above the corner. Then using a ruler with a gentle curve, draw a line connecting the marks.  If my written directions are not clear, the photo below should be.  Please remember this is not rocket science, I have just drawn a gently curved line on the Yoke piece. The key to this entire process is to make small  gentle changes to the existing pattern. The goal is to "refine" the pattern in a subtle way, not to make big design changes...we'll do that another time.

Next, cut along the curved line that was drawn, trimming off the excess, to finish making the new Curved Yoke--

Now we will refine the BACK Pattern Piece of the shirt to match its newly curved Yoke--

Lay the New Curved Yoke piece onto the the Shirt Back as shown below....the yoke will be "pointing" down, and center backs are matched.  You can see how the straight part of the Shirt-Back extends beyond the new curved Yoke. Now, transfer the curved shape of the Yoke onto the straight part of the back by tracing along the edge of the yoke with a pencil as shown.

After you trace the shape of the Curved Yoke onto the Shirt-back, it will look something like this--

Next, just as we did with the Yoke...trim off the excess (by cutting along the curved line that was drawn) to finish making the new Curved Back.

And there we have it!  Two pattern pieces that once were straight are now curved--

BUT WAIT!   There has been a total of a scant 1/2" removed from the pattern pieces at the armscye edge...making the Back armscye a little smaller. You may be thinking, "OMGosh! What about the SLEEVE ?"   Luckily it is as easy an adjustment as the others.

Here is how to change the SLEEVE pattern to fit the new Back-armscye--

Take the copy of the sleeve pattern that you prepared (I am showing you a shortened version for this demonstration), and mark the shoulder dot by comparing it to the original pattern.  Then draw a straight  line from the shoulder dot to the bottom (hem or cuff-edge), as shown below.

Then cut along the line, starting at the top (shoulder point) and ending about 3" from the bottom. You are not cutting it totally apart, just about 3/4 of the way down--

To finish, lap the Sleeve BACK over the Sleeve front...by a scant 1/2" as shown below,  and tape to hold.  (note- I have folded the Top edge of the Back ONLY so you can see how it was overlapped).

 Because we ONLY changed the BACK armsyce of the shirt Body, we ONLY need to change the BACK of the Sleeve. The front of the sleeve stays the same, and the shoulder point has NOT been moved.
Remember what I said about Small Gentle Changes?  If the Yoke and Back are changed by more than a scant 1/4" each, a total re-drafting avalanche will break loose! 

Restore the length of the Back armscye by extending it out at the side seam by a scant 1/2" -- NO SLEEVE CHANGE NEEDED. 

So we have new refined patterns, now what? 

1. Add the seam allowances and notches to your pattern pieces-- Trace them again, adding the seam allowances. Then use the original pattern piece and transfer any notches/pattern markings including "place on fold" mark, and grain lines.
About the notches on the Sleeve--the only one I care about is the shoulder point, and I also make marks indicating the front and back of the sleeve. Why don't I care about the sleeve "ease dots"? Because I do not use them. I match the Shoulder point of the Yoke to the Shoulder Point of the sleeve, then distribute whatever ease there is as I stitch and approach the rounded sleeve cap.

2. Remember, the Center Back pleat was removed from the Back when the pattern copies were made. You may choose to leave it off, or add it back on by measuring the width of the pleat on the original pattern and remembering to add it when you are tracing the final pattern with seam allowances.

3. I know some of you are wondering about the FRONT, aren't you?  We have done nothing to the front at all...so we USUALLY do not have to make any changes to it. 
OK..I hear the gasps of shock and horror from the "by-the-book" pattern drafters out there.  Relax...remember, we just made very small very gentle changes.  There is a possibility  (depending on how the front armsyce of your commercial pattern has been drafted),  that the length of side seams of the shirt might not match exactly.  So, before you set the sleeve, fold the shirt at the shoulder point on the yoke, match the unsewn side seams from the hem edge up to the armscye and trim IF there is any excess.

You may be wondering, "Good Heavens, does Pam do this to every shirt pattern she uses?"  Umm..NO.  I do prefer curved yokes and curved backs, so I draft my original shirt designs by hand, and include those features as I render the draft.  When I use commercial patterns, I usually choose vintage patterns because many of them already have shaped yokes and backs. And yes there are times when I use a vintage or other pattern that has a "straight-line" yoke and back...when I want a more casual shirt silhouette.

 Over the years I have written countless sewing tutorials and also many about Drafting Shirt Patterns, including ways to improve the patterns that you already have.  Here are the links to my Drafting Tips and Tutorials below, for your convenience--
(THE COLOR OF THE LINKS below may be light, BUT THEY DO WORK...the Blogger editor is often uncooperative...sigh)


What do you think? Please add a comment by clicking here-->


Blogger Gorgeous Things said...

What a fabulous tutorial, Pam. Thank you! I'm going to incorporate this into the next shirt I make for DH.
Of course, given how often I sew for him....


12:07 PM  
Blogger BetsyV said...

Very thorough and clear, Pam. I am going to try this, too.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Karen in Tasmania said...

Thanks for another great tutorial Pam - you are an excellent and generous teacher. I don't make shirts for my husband but all your tips can be applied to those I make for myself and my grandson.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Re's Home on the Road said...

Pam, I always enjoy your tutorials but what amazes me is the perfect top-stitching you your shirts - i.e. the blue one shown at the top of the post. How do you do that?!! My straight lines always wiggle.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Pam from South Australia said...

Thank you Pam. You are such a generous blogger.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Claire (aka Seemane) said...

Thank you once again for a great & clear tutorial Pam - it's much appreciated :)

Q: (From a newbie LOL!) Is the adding in of those 2-curved lines to the back of the shirt, some what like having the shoulder dart added-in, and then rotating it so that the dart-legs are on the armscye (and the apex is lying on the shoulder-blade along the seamline of the yoke) please? I.e. if my thinking is correct, then adding back in this 'virtual' dart would aid the shaping of the fabric over the shoulder/upper back area ? :)

7:06 PM  
Blogger Gay McDonell said...

Very interesting - I love yout tutorials - thanks!

9:37 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Perfect timing since I'm going to start a new shirt for my husband this weekend, and since it's going to be white (!), I need something new to keep me interested. I'm looking forward to trying this out. Thanks, Pam!

10:34 PM  
Anonymous ChristineB said...

Thanks for the post - I am just starting to draft a shirt for DH, and this will come in handy. I am a bit confused on the sleeve adjustment, though - if you aren't slashing the pattern all the way to the lower edge (but are stopping 3" or so from it), won't there be a bubble/wrinkle in it once it's taped at the top?

12:31 AM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Thank-you all very much for your comments.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Hello Christine...please see the revised version of the tutorial..specifically about the sleeve change.

To answer your specific question...the overlap is so small that if there is a "bubble", it will be miniscule and can be ignored. You can see that there is no change to the the sleeve shape at the hem/cuff edge, and there is no bubble on the sleeve pattern piece I have shown, and it was made from very heavy brown paper. If a bubble does form, slice the line further and fold it out by pinching the "sliced line" where the excess may form.

However, since you are drafting your own shirt, You do not have to make any changes to an existing pattern, which is what I am showing here...and can just draft a sleeve to fit the armscye when you get to that point. If you are changing the yoke and back of an hand-draft you have previously done, you can draft a new sleeve to fit the armscye.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Hi Claire, A classic Man's shirt is drafted without shoulder darts. And just personally, I would *only* put them there if I wanted to make a design "statement".

But yes, you could rotate the "dart" of the yoke/back curve to the "shoulder" of the yoke (which really isn't located on the body's shoulder line...it is extended to the front)

If you do rotate the dart to that area of the pattern piece...after those darts are sewn, the front parts of the shirt that join the yoke would then be longer..and have to be gathered, pleated, etc to match.

Always remember that you are "the designer", and can do anything you like, including rotating darts...but also remember that usually one change leads to another. So just think it through, and make a quick 1/2-scale sample of your draft using soft paper (like a paper towel) or scrap fabric...to see how the changes will affect the rest of the pattern :)

6:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your tutorial. Please continue to write more as they are very much appreciated as well as needed!

Thank you
Marie Roche

7:14 AM  
Blogger Valerie said...

I really enjoy your tutorials and aspire to create a great shirt for my husband using your techniques. Thank you for the time and effort you put into them.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Thank-you, Valerie and Marie!

9:37 AM  
Blogger jonrock53@mtaonline.net said...

I love your tutorials and really appreciate you sharing your expertise. They are clear and seem do-able for the basic home sewer. I love how much better vintage patterns look and fit and wish the pattern companies would just go back to what they used to do, but until then.... I vote keep them coming! Thanks so much.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Linda T said...

Pam, just left a comment on Ann's blog about your blog. Love, Love, Love that you take so much time to give us great tuts. As mentioned in that comment, I think I have all of your tutorials printed out and in my sewing techniques binder. I appreciate all your hard work and that you are always so kind enough to share with us. I have learned so much from you. I'll try to leave my comments more often and try not to be in such a hurry. Thank you so much! I'm serious when I say I'd love to buy a book of yours should you write one!

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Catherine said...

I am still very beginner, but I have always appreciated your tutorials, Pam! It is rare for very experienced sewers to take the time to post detailed tutorials on the Internet, particularly in a specialty, like shirtmaking. (Understandably so, given the effort!) Over time, I know I will be referring to your tutorials more and more, as my skills improve. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and knowledge with us, Pam!

11:47 AM  
Blogger Sewing Princess said...

Hi Pam! Thanks for this tutorial. I personally sew only for myself, but certainly your tips can be applied there too. I know it takes a lot of time and effort to write detailed tuts. So thanks for sharing. If you could remove the word verification it would make commenting faster

12:24 PM  
Blogger JDayMinis said...

What a fabulous blog!! Thank you so much for all of your hard work and terrific tutorials.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great tutorial Pam!

1:16 PM  
Blogger The Hojnackes said...

Thank you for this tutorial. I am pinning this on Pinterest so I will be able to find it when I make a shirt!

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much! I hope you do more, I read your blog every day and have learned a lot from you.


3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Pam,
Thanks for the tutorial - I have some shirts to make in the near future, this will come in handy!


3:53 PM  
Blogger Cennetta said...

Excellent tutorial, Pam. I'm bookmarking it.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent tutorial Pam - thanks

Karen in Houston

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your tutorials! Keep them coming.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam, I SO MUCH appreciate your detailed and experienced instructions. The time you spend writing and sharing photos of professional "how to" is a gift to so many (and selfish aide to my own) advancing to become more accomplished. I personally thank
you. I recently read the Georgous Fabric blog request for a new book for advanced sewing - YOU would be the best selling author of that much needed but unwritten book. Any spare time? Thank you!! for all you do, and great products, too. SRS

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam, we are all making shirts over at Stitcher's Guild and your tutorials are often referenced so yes we want more. I've got a McCall's TNT pattern, yokeless, that I'm going to be adapting for a yoke. I will be referencing this tutorial, so thank you very much.

Theresa in Tucson

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the concise tutorial! I hope to see more. As others have mentioned here, I, too, would buy a book written by you.

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your tutorials. Please continue - I learn so much. Thanks a million!!

11:58 PM  
Blogger Sewing Geek said...

Terrific tutorial. I am having trouble see how this impacts the shirt, but I will just have to play a bit.

3:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I appreciate all the time and effort you put into writing these tutorials. I always learn something from them! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us.

Kelley in NY

6:38 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca D said...

I love the tutorials and very much appreciate your time and effort. This is another fantastic one.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Sew Lady Sew! said...

I love, love, love your tutorials! You make things seem so simple. Please continue.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Coppertop said...

Pam, I always enjoy your clear and thorough tutorials! This one on the yoke change is especially helpful. Just what I have been looking for!

9:59 AM  
Anonymous nowaks nähkästchen said...

I am not leaving comments very often (because I need some time to write my own blog after reading all those other interesting blogs... ;-) ) but please don't stop your tutorials!

They are such a valuable source of information and there is not so much about menswear around.

So please keep up with your tutorials, they are excellent!

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam- thanks for another wonderful tutorial. Like some of the others who have commented, I consult your tutorials frequently and I don't comment enough. Thank you for the reminder on Ann's blog. I appreciate the quality tutorials that you produce and realize that it takes much time and effort. Thanks again for putting these together.
A book is a lot of work, but I'd be first in line to buy yours!

2:22 PM  
Blogger Claire (aka Seemane) said...

Hi Pam!
Thanks for your detailed reply re: my darts/shoulder question - it's really appreciated:)

I think I may have a play around on half-scale sometime (as per your suggestion) as I'm keen to try making my husband a shirt (a casual one first) and he has a rounded upper back - so in my beginner's mind's-eye I think playing with the yoke would yield him benefits in terms of fit.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Joan S said...

Pam, this tutorial is wonderful. I read it the other day and bookmarked it because I plan to use the guidance you provided - with wonderful photos and clear description - but also because you so kindly listed your other tips and tutorials!

At the time I did that, I didn't comment; only after reading your comment on Gorgeous Things' blog did I think to come back and express my appreciation. (I had already remarked to a couple of friends how generous it is of you and other sewists to take the time to compose a tutorial, take photos, arrange them with comments in logical, clear order, and then even to go back and revise them after getting questions! So now I'll join in with the many others who did comment immediately, and hope you read comments posted belatedly. ) Thank you so very, very much for sharing your expertise with us. And please continue.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Vibeke in Oslo said...

You are so generous in making these tutorials. they make me a bit less scared of Shirtmaking. Thank you.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

I finally had time to catch up on your blog and the tutorials that must take a huge chunk of time to do. After a lengthy sewing hiatus, I'm finally ready to jump back into shirt construction - and I blame you. ;-) My go-to patterns could definitely benefit from your refinements. Thank you for sharing your secrets.

7:23 AM  

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