I work with wovens, mainly natural fabrics without stretch. Aside from making one of those exercise belts to hold your cell phone and making existing t-shirts more fitted, I had basically never sewn anything with a knit. But I have all this knit fabric…

It had never occurred to me to try making my own t-shirt, despite the knits in my stash. I was browsing the Blank Slate website for some entirely different reason when I saw their free t-shirt pattern and remembered all the jewel tone four-way stretch knit I’ve had sitting around for years from the now defunct $1/yard windmill place. T-shirt time!

Not bad for my first try!

I decided to go extra easy on myself the first go-round and use a pattern with integrated sleeves. I found a likely looking pattern with good instructions, the Kirstin Kimono tee, a free pattern from Maria Denmark, downloaded the PDF, taped it together and measured myself against the recommendations. The only change I decided to make was to extend the length by about 3 inches. I dislike too short t-shirts and have a somewhat long torso.

Pattern traced and adjusted, the cut out was straight forward. Just two pieces! The neck binding piece is not included, but instructions on how to measure for it are. Being knit and stretchy, that piece gets cut on the straight grain, unlike the bias binding you’d make for a woven. As simple as that is, I managed to screw it up. Twice. First I miscalculated the correct length by a couple inches, then realized I didn’t cut it wide enough. The third time was the charm and when I got to the neckline step it fit perfectly.

Construction is also pretty straight forward. I learned my lesson on the belt thing about using a needle intended for knits, which is one that can part the yarns, not stab through them, getting caught in the process or missing stitches altogether.

Shoulder stabilization with grosgrain ribbon

First are the shoulder seams. I was going to use some narrow clear elastic I had to stablize the shoulders, but what I had was disintegrating. I also didn’t have any stretch or light weight interfacing so the internet suggested using a narrow grosgrain ribbon (improve #1). That I always have! The shoulders were stitched with a zigzag and ribbon applied, also with a zigzag. Not sure if that’s what your are supposed to do, but I wanted the cut edge to lay flat. Raw edges were serged. Next, the sides stitch up normally with a long zigzag and I serged those edges (with 4 different shades of blue because that’s what I had = improv #2). Since the sleeves are part of the side seams that only left the sleeve and bottom hems and the neckline.

I have a (probable) 80s/90s serger (overlocker to most everyone who isn’t from the US). It’s basic and has no manual. I can’t do rolled hems with it. It has no differential feed adjustment, blade disengagement or blade cutting width adjustment. It can use 3 or 4 threads and there are adjustments for the width of the stitch itself and it’s density. What all this means is I can’t do coverstitch like finishes as are found in modern t-shirts. I had to go old school and improvise. I needed to figure out a different way to hem and finish that would look polished. Here’s what I did.

Lurking in my closet are a couple worn old shirts I keep putting in the donation pile and taking back out. Once again I’m happy I kept them. These t-shirts are about 25 years old and they didn’t make them the same way back then. I don’t know when the coverstitch machine was invented, but those old shirts use no coverstitch! My old shirts have stitches on the right side, in the same place where you now see the parallel lines of the coverstitch, but these lines run perpendicular to the hem direction.

Hem finish on the 25 year old t-shirt. Note the direction if the stitches on the outside and the tightness of the corresponding stitches on the inside.

After some fussing I realized I could do the same thing by removing one thread and completely loosening the tension on one of the remaining ones (improve #3). I tested it on a woven because that scrap was handy. I folded the fabric correctly for the hem, stitched, then you pull the fabric flat by pulling the hem down. It looked perfect. And it didn’t work on the knit. Grrr! Something about the squishiness of my fabric allowed the threads to pull too tight (the old shirts are more stable and don’t stretch much). Whether it was the knit, fibers and/or elasticity, I couldn’t pull the fold down on the new knit, so the hem refused to lay flat once done. A new plan was needed.

The new plan (improve #4) was to serge the edge and stitch it down from the front with a very wide zigzag. I know, not sexy. Not as polished as I wanted. But it works! The bottom hem and sleeves were done in this way.

Neck binding, serged inside edge and zigzag top stitch.

See that little wrinkle in the right side of the pic? That’s a pucker. Grrr.

Next I applied the neck binding, dividing the length into even quarters and pinning, stretching to fit as I went along. I may not have been pulling quite evenly when I stitched and ended up with a little pucker in one spot. But for a first I thought I did pretty well! Last I topstitched the neck and sleeves, again with a long zigzag, ’cause that’s what I’ve got to work with. This is the part I’m most disappointed in. A zigzag top stitch definitely does not look professional if you look too close.

Overall fit is nice. The length is good. The sleeves are a little short, but that’s the pattern. Next time I’ll try a version with separate sleeves, be a little more patient when I apply the neck binding, and borrow a more modern serger.

There’s that dratted pucker again, but it doesn’t stop me from wearing it occasionally. The neck shape doesn’t quite look even, but that’s just the easy the shirt was placed on my dummy.