Quest for the silk shirt: part three

Carving up several yards of $12.99-a-yard charmeuse silk with a pair of scissors as if it were a holiday turkey is not for the weak of heart, especially if you are the person who paid for the material.

However, the silk shirt this material is to become will not cut itself out of said cloth.

In my past columns regarding the silk shirt quest, I have covered the behavior of silk in its normal state. I have explained the preparation of the silk I will use for the shirt, how to weigh it down using a well-behaved cat and other items and how to pin it in place prior to cutting.

Depending on where I slipped while cutting, if I slipped, I could be out the $45 the cloth had cost me. One slip of the scissors, one shift of the cloth, and the majority of my investment will become a pile of scrap. It’s no wonder I was nervous about making the first cut.

Sewing scissors are not ordinary scissors. They come in either left-handed or right-handed styles, with large bottom finger holes, and a top finger hole that contours to the thumb to make cutting easier. Mine are 10 inches long, and of the left-handed variety, which at least keeps other family members from using them.

Scissors destined to cut cloth should only ever cut cloth. Cutting paper, cardboard, or anything else will dull the blades, making it harder to cut cloth in the future.

I confess that my sewing scissors have, upon occasion, been used for cutting non-cloth materials. They could be sharper, but they are by no means dull.

Because the material was so poorly behaved, I used sewing pins to secure the two layers of the doubled-over cloth to each other every few inches for the front and back of the shirt. After I was certain the charmeuse wasn’t going anywhere, I removed the weights holding it in place: a metal tin of watercolor pencils, a plush fox, and my cat, Mari. The last in the list voiced complaints about being removed from the table.

I cut, carefully and slowly, the familiar ssshhhip! of each closure of the blades telling me that the cuts were clean and true. Any seamstress knows the sound that her scissors make, and knows when something is wrong because that sound is off.

After several minutes of careful cutting, including navigating sharp corners and closely following natural curve lines, the back portion of my shirt came free from the rest of the silky material.

This was followed promptly by the rest of the material shifting under its own weight and sliding dramatically off of my sewing table to land in a booby-trapped pile of sharp sewing pins and charmeuse on the floor.

I pricked myself four times getting the material back onto the table, and another three while attempting to lay it out flat and keep it in place. Frustrated, I employed the tin of watercolor pencils as a weight again. The cat may make a more interactive weight, but I don’t like to have her on the table while cutting.

After a 20-minute struggle, I managed to get the cloth in place and smoothed out once more. So, again, I started cutting. Soon, I had the front of the shirt free of the rest of the material as well.

Not only is charmeuse an ill-behaved material that shifts against any surface it encounters and slides around, but it unravels. Badly. Once the piece is cut free from the rest of the cloth, the seamstress has entered a race where every movement of the cloth causes additional unraveling to take place.

It was with great care that I folded the front and back of the shirts and placed them across my bed for safekeeping while I turned to the business of creating arms for the shirt.

The pattern I was using, Butterick B4684, called for long sleeves. Shortening them was not a challenge, just a matter of folding the tissue paper pattern piece back and using tape to keep it in place so both sleeves look the same.

The problem came again from the fact that I was dealing with 60-inch wide cloth, instead of 45-inch wide cloth. I examined the remaining cloth for several minutes before I realized that my attempts to enlarge the pattern so I could wear it had resulted in not enough room left for the sleeves at the end.

It was time to improvise.

I stretched what remained of my fabric across the sewing table and weighed it down. With the sleeve pattern in hand, I began searching for a place where it would fit. I placed it here, but a corner was missing. I placed it there and the cloth was two inches short.

Eventually, I found a place where the sleeve pattern would fit, and pinned it in place securely. I cut it out, careful of all of the twists and turns which would flare the sleeves just so.

When that sleeve was free, I carefully unpinned the tissue paper pattern from it, a delicate procedure where I attempted to prevent as much unraveling as I could.

I searched for a location for the second sleeve. I located it several minutes later, and repeated the process, giving me two sleeves for the shirt.

With all four pieces cut out for the shirt pattern, I removed the scraps of charmeuse from the sewing table and placed all four pieces on the table for safe-keeping. The cutting had been stressful, made worse by the sleeve problems. The sewing would have to wait until the following day.

In the next installment, I will talk about the two types of machines I use for sewing clothing, and the process of making everything come out straight and even with a machine where mistakes are permanent.

Next week and henceforth, look for me in the Living section of the Sunday edition, where my photos will be in full color for added enjoyment!

Gretchen Richards ( is a reporter at the Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She is a fifth-generation artisan, skilled in numerous art forms.