Tag Archives: Shirt Happens

SHIRT HAPPENS 5: IN WHICH I DROWN IN FABRIC

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

To many FIT students, fabric outlets are no doubt the proverbial candy store, minus the empty calories. To me, they’re the proverbial haystack, minus the manageable size of the haystack.

Death by fabric

And people LIKE this?

It’s not that I don’t like shopping. Drop me into Loehmann’s and I can find half a dozen workable outfits in an hour.

Shopping for fabric, though, I had more criteria than I could handle. It had to be lightweight enough for shirting, 100 percent cotton (so it wouldn’t burn under FIT’s industrial irons), not twill, not stretch (which would be difficult to work with), not too light a color (you can see imperfections in white shirts from across the room), with a texture or a print but not a pattern (too difficult to line up), and with a “right” side and a “wrong” side (meaning I needed to be able to see which side would face out). Also, it wasn’t supposed to look cheap—a criterion which I am clearly not qualified to judge—and it should cost less than $15 a yard.

After an hour of searching, surprise surprise, I found nothing. It was like looking for organic silk plaid dress shirts with a 22-inch neck. For less than $10. At Barneys.

Not only was the thing I was looking for seemingly absent from every fabric store I visited (in pouring rain, no less), but I suffered decision fatigue from all the choices, even though none of them were actually choices.

Did I need pink sateen? No. Did I need a white paisley damask? No. Did I need 97-percent-cotton-3-percent-lycra blue gingham? No. Did I need a heavy cotton printed with drawings of scantily clad handymen? Well… not for this class.

Alexander Henry's handymen

I bought it just to read the articles, I swear.

SHIRT HAPPENS 4: IN WHICH I BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND QUALITY

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

Near the end of the second class, after teaching us various types of seams, Professor Blackman gathered the class together for the FIT version of the fireside chat. He laid four bolts of fabric on the table: a red-and-mustard paisley; a purple gingham; a thin, orange, vaguely South Asian print; and a heavier, more colorful print.

“If your hands are clean, feel these fabrics and tell me which one you think is the most expensive. If your hands aren’t clean, don’t you dare touch them.”

Define “clean,” I asked myself, as I sniffed my fingers.

Everyone in the class gave their best guess. I figured it was anything but the paisley, which reminded me of bloody vomit. As a journalist, however, I figured it unethical to announce my guess.

The Paisley

The hideous -- I mean gorgeous -- paisley

“I bought the paisley in Milan this summer,” Professor Blackman revealed. “It’s Etro, and it cost me a little more than $100 a yard. It’s the most expensive.”

I was glad I held to my journalistic standards—and I quickly discerned the incomparable beauty of that paisley.

He then explained how men’s shirts are priced. Essentially, figure out the cost of 2.5 yards of the fabric, add the CMT cost (cut, make and trim – essentially, the production cost, which might be a few cents if made on a machine overseas or 20-plus dollars if made locally), and then “keystone” that figure twice (i.e. double it twice, once to profit the manufacturer and a second time to profit the retailer).

By my calculation, a shirt made of that luscious paisley would cost more than $1,000, significantly more than the $40 I paid for the shirt on my back. And either way, one bad stain and it’s landfill.

SHIRT HAPPENS 3: IN WHICH I DEVIATE TERRIBLY WHILE DOING LINES

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

Our first assignment was to sew in straight lines on ruled paper, without thread. We were to produce three sheets, the rows perfectly perforated by our sewing needles.

I sat down to a machine and, after some searching, found the power switch.

Success, I thought.

When I started to feed my paper into the needle, the paper was sliding all over the place. I soon realized that I was working without a presser foot. A friendly undergraduate showed me how to screw in the presser foot, and soon my lines looked much better.

Still, I kept pressing the foot pedal too hard and sending my stitch careening to one side. I decided that I would allow imperfection for the first sheet and get serious for the second.

My first line on the second sheet looked dreadful, so I figured the second would be practice, too. My third sheet: ditto.

OK, this one is for real, I thought as I tore out the fourth sheet. And again for the fifth sheet.

“What are you doing?” asked the friendly undergraduate. “Are you even a student here?”

Two hours and eight sheets later, I gave up. If you held my last few sheets at a distance and squinted, they looked OK.

Glamorous furrows, these

My best page of stitches without thread

At the start of class, I handed Professor Blackman my best three. Perusing them, he asked, “You have sewing experience prior to here?”

“Well, it was a long time ago,” I mumbled.

Smiling warmly, he handed me the sheets. “It’s coming back,” he said.

I nearly fainted.

SHIRT HAPPENS 2: IN WHICH PROFESSOR BLACKMAN BEGINS MENSWEAR 142 WITH SILENCE

[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 arrived at the classroom at 6:25, five minutes before class was scheduled to begin. A dozen students were already sitting at machines. Professor Blackman was patiently staring at a man of about 60. After a moment, he nodded and looked solicitously toward the yarmulke-clad kid behind him.

Professor Blackman

The esteemed Professor Mark-Evan Blackman

“Your name, please?” Professor Blackman asked.

The young man said his name: Eitan.* Once he got the pronunciation right, Professor Blackman stared at him for a disconcertingly long time.

“I’m Carol,” said the next student, a bubbly African-American woman in her fifties.

Professor Blackman held up two fingers. He was still on Eitan.

At the point I understood that he was memorizing our names.

“I hate when teachers say, ‘Hey, you,’ from across the room,” he explained later.

When he was finished learning and reciting all our names, he said, “In this class, you will be learning how to sew a men’s dress shirt,” he said. “You’re going to practice like crazy, so that when you wear your shirt, it’s not obvious that you sewed it yourself. I’m assuming that no one here has any sewing skills. If you have skills, that’s great.”

After that, we traced all the patterns for the shirt components and learned how to thread a sewing machine. I grasped that this would be unlike all of my classes in college and grad school. No chance were we going to sit around and theorize about minutiae and marginalia. We were on our feet, peering at Professor Blackman at his machine, then hightailing it back to our workspaces to figure it out for ourselves.

*Names changed to protect the journalist from bodily harm.

SHIRT HAPPENS 1: IN WHICH I DECIDE TO TRY MY HAND AT SEWING

[In the fall, Jonathan Vatner, Hue staff writer,  took an introductory menswear sewing class. A diary of his experiences will be posted weekly on Hue, Too.]

When I was a boy, my mother taught me how to sew. We disemboweled old pillows and stitched up the contents into cases made from Victorian-style prints, using an ancient Singer that weighed at least five tons.

In eighth-grade Home Economics, while everyone else was patching together drawstring bags, I sewed an elegant fanny pack. That, combined with my talent for the sauté, netted me the award for excellence in Home Economics—which I accepted in front of legions of snickering students and baffled parents whose daughters I had bested.

My award-winning fanny pack

But in the years since, I forgot everything except how to replace missing buttons. Recently, I lugged out the old sewing machine—which had miraculously reduced in weight to a mere half-ton—and I couldn’t even figure out how to thread it.

Maybe, then, it was nostalgia that drew me to an introductory sewing class here at FIT. Or maybe it was the course description, which promised that I would learn to sew a men’s dress shirt from start to finish. Either way, I signed up. At the very least, I’d get a nice shirt out of this.

Right?