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Feb 3, 2011

Men's Shirt Sew-Along 3 -- Pockets, Plackets and Perfectionism

Sew-Alongers, what you are looking at is the first sleeve placket I ever made on my very first men's shirt.  Not pretty, is it?  Here's my first pocket:

I didn't know a topstitch from a topknot.  I had never read a sewing blog.  I show you these not to give you indigestion, but merely as a reminder that things gets better with practice. 

I recommend putting a lot of energy into your muslins and make as many mistakes as you can.   (I've already made a few.)  You don't have to add interfacing, pockets, plackets, or even cuffs to your muslin if you don't feel the need.  But if you're on new ground and learning new techniques, I recommend taking the opportunity to mess up with your crappy fabric.

Be gentle with yourselves.  It's great to push beyond your "comfort zone" but perfectionism can be a real hindrance.  My policy has generally been do your best in the moment and then move on.  The stakes are not high, or shouldn't be.

Today we're going to start sewing a bit.  When you're making a shirt, you can start where you want to start (though I wouldn't recommend hemming first).  I generally like to get the piddly, exacting stuff out of the way early -- though there always seems to be more piddly, exacting stuff remaining.  Some may prefer to interface what needs interfacing before the stitching starts -- we'll do that together soon.

Please note I am not following the order of the Negroni instructions exactly. 

Our goals today are:

1. Create our pocket flaps

2. Create our pockets

3. Stitch on our right and left sleeve plackets   (Moved to tomorrow)

1.  Sarai has chosen to start stitching the Negroni shirt with the pocket flaps -- why not?

BTW, now is a great time to replace your needle if you haven't in a while.  For my fabric (a quilt-weight cotton) and thread (the serger variety) I choose a #11.  I find this to be a great all-purpose size that works for most things I sew.  I use Organ brand needles -- my first brand and I stuck with it.

I have decided to do my top flap in my regular shirting and my bottom flap in contrasting gingham. This makes things easier to see, too. 

NOTE: The seam allowance for the flaps is 1/4" -- remember this when stitching.

You're sewing the top and bottom flap together - RIGHT SIDES TOGETHER - around three sides at 1/4".  You'll want to trim the seam allowance down to approximately 1/8".  You'll then turn your flap right side out and press.

Whenever I'm doing something in two, I do them both at the same time to make sure they're matched.


Some people may want to clip closer to the corners -- see how things look when you turn and press.  Are the edges sharp and thin enough?  You want to avoid visible bulk but don't drive yourself crazy.

If you're using a point turner (that little wooden tool that looks like a blunt letter opener) don't force the point into the fabric but rather form the fabric around the point.  Smaller stitches make it less likely that you'll force the turner through the seam -- he he.

My two flaps completed, I now want to topstitch on those three stitched sides at 1/4".  I'm making this entire shirt with my Singer 66 treadle -- call me crazy.

I choose not to attach these to the shirt yet.  Let's make the pockets themselves.

The Negroni pocket is rounded at the bottom, which personally I find harder to make than a rectangular pocket.  Sarai offers free downloadable pocket variations on her website here.   If you're having a lot of trouble with those curves just try a different pocket shape.

The directions are clear and you should be able to get to this point (see pic) without too much grief.

Now things get trickier.  You're going to want to stitch down those folds at 3/8" and turn them, just like you turned the pocket flaps.  I found it helpful to clip the corners before turning.

Now to shape the pocket, some people like to stitch the fold line and use their stitches as a guide.  I opted to make a cardboard template and shape the edges over that with my iron.  

I used the pattern piece to cut the cardboard and then measured off 3/8" and cut again.

Now I put the template 3/8" from the edge of my fabric, clip my rounded corners and press the edges over my template (with the steam iron).

To hold pocket edges in place before stitching them I sometimes use white school glue, which washes out.  A little dab is all it takes.

Perfect?  No, but good enough for right now.   The  most important thing is that the two pockets match each other.  If two matching pockets are too much, just add one.  Or go with no pockets -- I nearly always do, just for the aesthetics.

There are many ways to make pockets, each with its own challenges and benefits.  Whichever method you prefer, the more pockets you make the easier they'll be.

Friends, that's all we're going to do together today.  If you breezed through pockets and pocket flaps and want to move on, please do.  We'll be tackling sleeve plackets tomorrow.  You can start experimenting with these on your own if you like.  Sarai's instructions for plackets are the best I've ever seen but they can still be a bit of a mind bender.  If you're confused, looking at a RTW men's shirt sleeve can help.

A few people had questions about using rotary cutters and I thought this image might help.  My weight is primarily in my left arm and my right is rolling the blade.  I'm using an Olfa 60 mm. cutter, a size I find neither too big nor too small.  For places I can't get to easily with the blade, I use my shears.

If you have questions or comments, post them here or in the Flickr group, where we also have some excellent resource links shared by our participants.

Happy stitching, everybody!


  1. Wow, up early with the pockets :) This may be a stupid question, but when using the cardboard template for pockets, did you press with a iron on the cardboard or are you just pressing in place with your finger and then using the glue to keep it all in place?

  2. Maggie, I'm pressing with the steam iron on the template. I then slip the template out. If the shape looks good and the folded edges hold with just the pressing, I'll leave it. If the folds aren't holding -- usually because the fabric isn't very crisp -- I might use glue to secure them.

  3. I added a little clarification in the post -- thanks for bringing this up.

  4. You could just do a basting stitch on the curve of the pocket and gather that edge, shape and press flat. Thats how I do my curved pockets.

    Lookin' good so far! :D

  5. After attempting to create the rounded pocket and failing, even though I'd made a cardboard template and steamed my fingers off, I ended up with an octagon pocket. I thought of an easier method and blogged about it.

    Cut 4 pockets, sew 2 together right sides facing on sides and bottom leaving the top open. Trim, clip and turn inside out. Finishing the top of the pocket is a little different with this method, you can fold it over once to the inside and top stitch near the top edge or fold over twice and top stitch though this is a little bulkier.

  6. SewSister, what if instead of sewing two fabric layers together, you sewed one fabric layer and one interfacing layer, turned and then either fused or just pressed? That way you wouldn't get a double layer of fabric. Of course, you'd want to make sure the fusible didn't flatten out beyond the edges. Hmmmm.....

  7. That's a great idea too Peter! I was also thinking that if you were working with a heavier fabric like flannel, you could you batiste instead of self fabric to keep the bulk down.

  8. Here's how I've done the curved patch pockets w/interfacing trick. Most of the time, though, I just machine baste the pockets RS together, press open the seam allowances (the one thing my Tailor Board does come in handy for), trim SA's with pinking shears*, and then remove the basting. Voila! Two matching pockets already pressed. I also use dots of glue if the fabric wants to argue.

    *The curve should be notched not clipped, to reduce bulk. The pinking shears are great for this.

  9. Boo! My boyfriend hates shirt pockets so I don't get to participate in this step. But I'm definitely bookmarking it for when I make something for me.
    By the way, I think I may steal your fabrics. I love them!

  10. Oh, I LOVE the template idea! I can't wait to try it, esp on my tiny boys shirts!! I use the gathering method for curved pockets, well USED to. :)

  11. I know it works for Shelley but that gathering method sounds like a headache; it's whatever you're most comfortable with.

  12. Peter, have you tried shaving 1/8 inch off the edges of the facings before sewing them? This helps the seam scoot to the back a bit and keeps contrast facings from peeking out inadvertently. For the pocket flap, you'd trim down the 1/4 seams, not the one you leave open at the top. (Hope I'm explaining this clearly!)I use this on all collar, cuff, and pocket flap facings ... it's especially great if the fabric is heavy (like corduroy) and the facing isn't.

  13. I really prefer David Coffin's method for round pockets - which is to sew a line, trim to 1/8" and then fold up around a template. With the clipping method, one tends to get less than stellar results for a curve - the thin edge works much better - (and it works wonder for sewing curves and such for other things!)

  14. Starting with the small bits, like flaps and pockets is a very good sewing habit to get into. The patterns have you do these things as you get to them in the construction order, but it's much more efficient to have all these small things done and ready to apply when you get to that part of the construction.
    I think that Debbie's method sounds great. Two pockets that are actually the same size is hard to get when you sew them separately.

  15. Debbie, I'm not sure if you're doing it quite this way, but this makes sense to me: baste two identical pocket pieces, same fabric, right sides together at whatever seam allowance is required. The tops should be folded out (which will be "in" when the pockets are turned).

    Before turning trim or clip or pink or whatever you need to do. Turn. Then press the life out of it. Now carefully rip the seam between the two sides. You should have two pressed, equally matched pockets.

    It sounds like you're pressing the SA open, but why not just turn first and press, with all the clipped bits inside?

  16. Thanks for this discussion! Very good stuff here. I appreciate the wisdom. Thanks again.

  17. You think this is crazy, but I have my own method for curved pockets-- instead of going through templates and such, I simply loosely gather starting about half an inch above the curve on either side. It serves to bring in the raw edges and make for perfect curves with very little effort because I'm a lazy seamstress!

  18. "but why not just turn first and press, with all the clipped bits inside?"

    Well, first, I *always* press seams flat as sewn and then again open. It's kind of Rule #1 of sewing/pressing. ;-) Plus, pressing seams open gives me the flattest press and I can control the corner bulk better. This is what works for *me* and it's pretty fast to do.

    But I have to ask, do you really want to "press the life out of" your work? ;-)

  19. Before we get too much more bogged down on pocket techniques, I wanted to acknowledge that this:

    "I recommend putting a lot of energy into your muslins and make as many mistakes as you can."

    … is WONDERFUL advice. Muslins are great for checking fit, but also great for practicing new or rusty techniques and working through the construction.

    Taking it one step further, I've used Swedish Tracing paper (cuz it's sewable and I can more easily trace off pattern markings) to practice new-to-me techniques or especially to decipher Burda magazine instructions to be sure I got it. You don't have to cut out the whole piece - just enough for whatever area you're practicing. So much nicer than goofing on the real garment and then needing to rip it out. And less time in the long run.

  20. to add to what Debbie just said, if you work it out in the muslin, the final is less 'worked'. Sewing, pressing and ripping shows up and makes your new garment look old before it's time.

  21. I'd love to hear more about pressing Debbie! Everything I've read has said steam, steam, steam! This is the first time I've encountered the less is more school or ironing/pressing!

    I did notice that steaming some fabrics really distorts them!

  22. Like Lady Jenn, I use the David Coffin method. By trimming away the bulk in the seam allowance to around 1/4"-1/8" before pressing, you avoid forcing a bunch of fabric into a smooth curve and avoid the occasional sharp corner that appears from a clipped seam allowance.

    Before trimming or pressing though, I machine baste the curve line indicated on the pattern and use that stitching line to reinforce the curved area as I press it around my template. I leave the stitching in when sewing the pocket onto the shirt, pulling the threads out afterwards. I don't know if this is the best way but the results look nice.

  23. Yesterday I faced the collar and prepped the pockets since I was able to get everything cut out. I don't have any flaps. :-(

  24. Great tip about the rounded pockets with the cardboard (or other) template - those can be a doozie!

  25. I did basting along the seam allowance of the rounded pockets and gathered them a little, then pressed, like Shelly. Not because I think it's better, but because it was the way I was taught and it does work. That way I can gather the corners evenly so that the curve presses in a very smooth line. Less likely to result in an inadvertently octagonal shape.

    I almost never make muslins. Instead I make crappy first versions of everything. Smart, right? (*Ducking from flying projectiles.*)

  26. I wasn't planning to make a pocket for my muslin (which is made from actual muslin previously used to make a wedding train muslin!), but now I have to! Just to try out the different techniques! I, too, was taught to "gather" curved pocket corners, but I've had mixed results. Not that I make many patch pockets. And the pattern I'm using has a square pocket, though I planned to make a point at the bottom for the actual shirt. Those aren't near as challenging as that little curve!

  27. I have always been one to stitch just outside the seam line and use that reinforcement to press an even width around a curve; I've rarely used a template.

    But I'm fascinated by the idea of stitching two pockets right sides together, trimming, turning and pressing, then removing the stitching. I'm going to try it that way on this muslin -- I love learning new ways to do things. And the coolest part of that whole process is that the two pockets should be exactly matched up.

  28. I don't know if its just me, because your pictures as well as Sarai's appear to have the flaps and pockets end up the same width, but mine ended up with the flaps being half an inch wider than the pockets, (which makes sense since you use a 1/4" seam allowance on the flap and 3/8 on the pocket and the two pattern pieces start out the same width) what am I missing or doing wrong?

  29. Kami, I think the flap is 1/4 inch wider than the pocket (the difference between 2/8 (or 1/4) and 3/8). You definitely don't want the flap to be narrower than the pocket and this gives you a little breathing space.

    Half an inch is too much, however.

  30. Wow, I just found your site and love it. Just wanted to add a tip I learned years ago from a former garment industry pro... when topstitching on curves, slighty shorten your stitch length. You'll find it much easier to stitch and the change in length isn't noticeable.


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