Tag Archives: Shirt Happens


[In the fall, Jonathan Vatner, Hue staff writer,  took an introductory menswear sewing class. He has been blogging about his experiences on Hue, Too.]

Here’s the difference between my comfort in the trimmings store (where you buy buttons) and in the fabric store: none at all.

The button section of the trimmings store I went to looked like a bank vault full of safe deposit boxes, with each drawer full of one (or two) kinds of buttons. There was definitely an order to these boxes, one which I was utterly incapable of discerning.

To understand buttons you need to know that they are sized by the unit of “ligne,” a French word pronounced in a totally un-French way: “line.” The ligne system has something to do with the diameter of the button, but it’s not an exact correlation. Men’s dress shirts generally come with size 14L or 16L buttons. (Before we go any further, decondition yourself from seeing an “L” and thinking “large.”)

Some buttons, especially those on blazers, have a built-in shank, a solid bit that separates the button from the garment, allowing for that droopy look that everybody treasures.

Some buttons have rimmed edges; those are better for dress shirts. In the store I went to, I found something to the tune of zero buttons with rimmed edges.

Some buttons have four holes for the thread; others have just two. I figured that two-hole buttons were no-nos for my class. Which is probably the reason that, whenever I found a button I liked, it had two holes.

The Wall of Buttons

Picking buttons ain't easy.

I placed my five buttons on the check-out counter and said hi. The clerk, an exhausted, rumpled middle-aged man, turned to his left, shouted, “one dollar” to the person next to him, deposited the buttons into a small ziplock bag and, without meeting my glance, reached out his hand for the money.


[In the fall, Jonathan Vatner, Hue staff writer,  took an introductory menswear sewing class. He has been blogging about his experiences on Hue, Too.]

I was doing my homework, sewing sleeve plackets—the reinforced strip on the forearm that connects to the opening on the cuff—and I found myself stuck. My notes read: “Lay down ply so it touches the TOP at the corner. Grab and hold that corner. You’ll create a straight line from that. Eyeball it, then IRON.”

Which ply? The top of what? And what was I eyeballing?

I asked Carol, the Degree-Seeker who seemed to live in the Menswear labs, but she couldn’t remember. “Why don’t you ask the undergraduates? They know it really well.”

I was terrified of the undergraduates. They were way more talented and ambitious than I. And they seemed so comfortable in their skin, a far cry from Jonathan “Gollum” Vatner, shuffling around his undergraduate alma mater.

The full-timers

Students hard at work

All that evening, they had been gossiping about the students in their program: One saw someone sleeping in her Patternmaking class. Another wanted to know what was up with the smelly guy, apparently identifiable to all without a name. Then they all wondered aloud who wasn’t gay in their program.

“Bill says he’s not gay,” said one undergrad. (I’ve changed all the names, all you Nosey Parkers out there.)

“He just doesn’t know he’s gay,” said another. “He’s only like eighteen.”

“Roger’s not gay.”

“No, I’m totally gay,” said Roger, on the other side of the room, though I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

During a lull in the conversation, I gathered the courage to ask them about my placket.

“Don’t ask me,” said one. “ I hate those things.”

But another showed me. He made it look easy.


[In the fall, Jonathan Vatner, Hue staff writer,  took an introductory menswear sewing class. He has been blogging about his experiences on Hue, Too.]

Why do people take Menswear 142? Everyone has a different reason, and though this is a beginning sewing class, not everyone is a beginner.

1. The Cruisers already work in the fashion industry and just want to pick up a few pointers. If I am missing a step in my notes or have messed up and am too embarrassed to admit it to Professor Blackman, I ask a Cruiser. Stella* is a Cruiser. She already designs for a menswear company and thought it was time to polish her sewing skills. She never betrays anxiety, even during the most delicate operations, such as sewing a collar for an earthworm. I never look at

Stella’s work, which is no doubt perfect and probably includes decorative stitches in the shape of cowboys and dragons.

One of the undergrads, a fixture in the Menswear rooms

2. Next are the Degree-Seekers. Some of these, such as Eitan, are full-time FIT students who work (or sleep) during the day and prefer to take their classes at night. Others—Carol, for example—are in semi-retirement and have decided to make a business of sewing. Though their stitches might not line up in week one, they take Professor Blackman seriously when he says to practice for “up to 14 hours a week.” I have never been in the sewing rooms and not seen Carol. She’s taking Menswear classes just to get better at women’s wear. It’s like taking French to get better at Spanish. The presence of the Degree-Seekers nullifies any possibility of getting an “A for effort.”

3. The final group is the Curious. These people thought, “Rad! I can save money by making my own dress shirts!” The stitches of the Curious are wobbly, their notes riddled with gaps.

Don’t ask which group I fall into.

*Names changed to protect the journalist from enraged subjects.


[In the fall, Jonathan Vatner, Hue staff writer,  took an introductory menswear sewing class. He has been blogging about his experiences on Hue, Too.]

As I mentioned in my last post, I spend a goodly portion of each class in a state of blank terror. In each class, Professor Blackman shows us, sometimes many times, how to do the stitches and then gives us fifteen minutes or so to do each set of steps. As the time ticks down, I invariably find that (a) my machine has decided to stop working or (b) I have accidentally sewn a foolish stitch. Panic sinks in, and I glance frantically about, hoping to see other people in similar straits. It helps to sit near at least one or two people with no sewing experience. But usually everyone seems to proceeding effortlessly.

Consider this malfunction. I had done all the steps with five minutes to spare, when the two pieces I had so carefully sewn together simply fell apart. My bobbin had run out of thread.

This would have been a minor setback, except that I had missed the lecture on winding the bobbin. I had walked into that class five minutes late, just in time for Professor Blackman to say, “Okay, now that everyone knows how to wind the bobbin, I need never show you again, and if you ask, I will most certainly fail you.”*

I pulled the bobbin from its case and tried to slide it onto the other end of the machine, where I remembered the winding taking place. I had to repeatedly thwack it with my palm to get it to fit. Then I wound some thread around it and pressed the pedal down. The bobbin started spinning, but a terrific noise was coming from my machine, and the thread wasn’t feeding tightly. Before I knew it, a loose mush of thread was frothing over the edge of the bobbin.


Bad bobbin! Bad!

Not the way the bobbin should look

“Lift your presser foot,” Professor Blackman, who has a way of noticing my errors from 25 feet away, advised. “And you didn’t feed your thread correctly.”

He showed me how to do it. By that time, though, the class was ready to move on.

*This might not be an exact quote, as I was panicking at the time.


[In the fall, Jonathan Vatner, Hue staff writer,  took an introductory menswear sewing class. He has been blogging about his experiences on Hue, Too.]

Let it be said that Professor Blackman is a clear and patient instructor. Anything important he repeats five times, each time a little louder and slower. Yet, much like ancient manuscripts, my notes are often indecipherable because of heartbreaking lacunae. How can that be, you ask? Shouldn’t I know how to take notes?

I hereby present my defense: all the reasons I take terrible notes.

1. I needed to go to the bathroom or eat a sandwich during the lecture.

2. I heard the instructions but got overwhelmed by the terminology.

3. I couldn’t see the demo.

4. In watching the demo, I didn’t have time to write everything down and promptly forgot it.

5. I was panicking at the time.*


A page of my anxious scrawl

*Time-Limited Panic happens when something has gone wrong – I’ve broken my thread or jammed my machine or didn’t realize I hadn’t done all the homework or I thought a classmate looked at me funny. Time-Unlimited Panic occurs without a stimulus, and follows such common internal scripts as “I’m Going to Get a D,” “What on Earth is Her Name?” “I Wonder if Everyone Can See the Stain on my Pants?” and “In What Universe is This Considered Unskilled Labor?”