first ever successful tshirt by Lewis Wheeler (one small stitch for man)

Finally I can sew a t-shirt on an overlocker

I have wanted to make a t-shirt since I was 15 years old and embarking on GCSE Textiles. Therefore this is a milestone some 21 years in the making for me. I have also always wanted to sew a t-shirt on an overlocker. Although I know you can sew a t-shirt using a zig zag stitch, I want to be able to create a professional finish.

I don’t know why I procrastinated so long on this. Although I do vaguely remember a couple of abortive attempts along the way. There are a couple of aborted attempts In the murkiest depths of my memory. I remember a non-stretch attempt from when I was a teenager with a dodgy neck-band made from cheap light-weight cotton. I think I still carry a sense of that particular disappointment.

Finding the perfect t-shirt fabric

I remember always being obsessed with finding ‘t-shirt’ fabric when I was younger. In particular the type that feels like the nice t-shirts in the shops. It has taken me a long time to learn more about stretch fabrics, the weights, stretch percentages and fibre blends. This is still very much a process of discovery for me.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a fabric shop that has a particularly great selection of jerseys in-store. On the Isle of Wight our fabric stores primarily focus on soft-furnishings and quilting it seems. Sorry Hellerslea, I know you have a variety but the internet has spoilt me. Thankfully the internet has opened those doors up wider but I much prefer in-store shopping. I drool every time I read about someone visiting the shops in London or New York.

A quick google has led me to this guide to some of London’s stores on The Fold Line. Perhaps a (masked up) shopping trip is on the horizon.

I can’t remember where I bought the fabric for this particular t-shirt. It may have been myfabrics.co.uk

It has a 4-way stretch and very soft feel which is a big hit with my boyfriend. He said that “it feels like t-shirts that you buy in the shops”. I will take that.

Sew a t-shirt on an overlocker lesson with The Sewing Sanctuary Isle of Wight

Last year I had a 1:1 sewing lesson with Sue Pilsworth of The Sewing Sanctuary Isle of Wight. This was a birthday treat to myself. We covered how to sew a t-shirt on an overlocker and related techniques in order to help develop my confidence.

Sue had prepared a number of samples for me to practice on. These included inserting a neckband, sewing curved seams and even the placket for a Henley style neckband.

Unfortunately my note-taking wasn’t as comprehensive as I would have liked. I’m struggling now to remember much of the specifics of what we discussed. However, I did come out of the lesson more confident in using my overlocker to sew a construction seam. I also learnt about how useful it is to run tape along the shoulder seams to keep the shape. I finally felt ready to sew a t-shirt on an overlocker in full, rather than just samples.

Pay attention – the details matter when sewing t-shirt on an overlocker

The t-shirts in my wardrobe are all relatively cheap and their construction reflects that. My boyfriend has better quality clothing than me and I’ve begun to look carefully at the details. A decorative yet functional strip of 1/2″ tape across the back of the neckline is a particularly nice feature. As well the top-stitching around the sleeve-heads.

Crew clothing tshirt detail - stabilising neck tape. Although this isn't a step in sewing a t-shirt on an overlocker it really levels up the t-shirt construction
Twill tape stabilising the neckline in a crew clothing t-shirts

Not wanting to let my lesson be wasted, I cut out and made up a t-shirt in a cheap fabric. Unfortunately It was awful. The pattern itself was boxy and huge and it didn’t fit at all. I seem to remember that the neckline was gaping wide too.

Now someone with a clue about what they were doing would have learnt from that toile. Using it to figure out what was wrong with the fit and amend the pattern accordingly. Now while I know that academically, it’s not something I have put into practice since at least school.

Tracing a pattern from a t-shirt in your own wardrobe

Instead of using the internet to figure it all out, I remembered that the next course on the Sew It Academy men’s pathway was making a t-shirt. This was using the tracing technique pattern from a t-shirt in your own wardrobe. Problem solved. The course didn’t state you had to sew a t-shirt on an overlocker and I think they just demonstrate using a sewing machine in the videos. I did feel confident enough to mix and match techniques using my own knowledge and new skills, however.

The process was straight-forward but I could see the accuracy in the tracing going awry when the t-shirt was folded in half. I ended up evening up some of the measurements so that the side seams would match up properly.

The t-shirt I chose to copy has a curved hem. This is one of the features that I really like about it as it doesn’t ride up while I wear it. I was working on this project prior to buying a Fitbit, completing couch to 5k and more recently starting Slimming World so this was an important feature. It made me a bit worried about how hemming it would eventually work but I’m very glad that I kept it in.

Slow sewing – taking your time while sewing a t-shirt on an overlocker

There’s a part of me that wants to be able to just sew a t-shirt quickly on an overlocker in an hour but then again, what exactly is the point of that? My intention with making my own clothes is to develop the skills to have really well made and finely crafted items rather than something that looks like it came out of primark and the overlocker isn’t going to do that fancy top-stitching.

After my lesson with Sue, I came to the realisation that there is no problem with sewing some aspects of a t-shirt on the sewing machine before moving to the overlocker either as proper construction seams or as machine basting.

I put the neckband and set in the sleeves in on the sewing machine using the lightning stitch as I felt more comfortable ensuring the accuracy that way (and it not being a complete disaster if I needed to unpick). In the end I was brave enough to sew the side seams directly with the overlocker. Although I had practiced putting a neckband in on the overlocker with Sue and it worked well it just doesn’t seem worth the risk to me at that stage in the project.

Clingy fabric – when sewing with jersey isn’t so forgiving

Despite copying the pattern from a t-shirt I liked the fit of I decided not to even hem it after trying it on. The fabric I used has a 4-way stretch and was just so clingy that I hated it. I did, however, hide it in a drawer determined to fit into it one day.

Fast forward 7 months and that day actually arrived recently as I literally had nothing clean to wear in the house (unless I wanted to put on a boxy long sleeve formal shirt on a very hot summer day, no thank you). I checked out hemming techniques in The Overlocker Technique manual by Julia Hincks and decided to do mock band hems as they seemed straightforward, easy and quick to do.

I’m very happy with how this came out and how it fits now and it’s my new favourite.

First t-shirt from traced pattern by Lewis Wheeler (one small stitch for man) - how to sew a t-shirt on an overlocker
My first ever (successful) t-shirt – which also now fits

Next I’d like to try making some V-necks and Henley styles. I’ll also keep up my search for good t-shirt fabrics, with less stretch for a start.

Lessons learned – how to sew a t-shirt on an overlocker better in future

  • There is no need to rush. Sewing machines are great for helping with accuracy. Use all the tools at your disposal.
  • The details make all the difference. Always tape the shoulder seams and add tape to the neck. Find and collect decorative twill tapes for this purpose.
  • Practice the Henley placket on sample fabric to build confidence with the technique itself.
  • Investigate other hemming techniques / finishes i.e. ribbing or real bands for contrast colours.
  • Sewing a t-shirt on an overlocker isn’t the be all and end all of t-shirt construction.
  • The best way to build confidence sewing with an overlocker is just to use it like when you did miles of hemming on your “kimono” style wrap.

8 thoughts on “Finally I can sew a t-shirt on an overlocker

    • onesmallstitchforman says:

      Thank you for these brilliant tips, I’m going to check those out right now. I feel like I haven’t properly hemmed for a long time. In my mind invisible stitching (or catching stitching as I recently heard it referred to) is always required as that’s what we did at school so I’m always putting it off. I do sort of know that isn’t really necessary and it can all be done on the machine. So much to learn!

  1. tialys says:

    Love the design on that t-shirt.
    Stretch fabrics can be hard to get right. I made a skater dress from a 4-way stretch, beautifully soft jersey but it’s heavy and I can almost feel it pulling down from the waist when I wear it – so much so I don’t trust it on a clothes hanger and fold it instead. It’s easy to go speeding on an overlocker isn’t it – I often have to remind myself to slow down.

    • onesmallstitchforman says:

      Definitely. I’m subscribed to Sew it Academy and I see pictures of the people doing the womenswear course do this project where they extend their self-drafted t-shirt patterns into a dress. Some of those really struggle with the jersey pulling down too much. It is a fun type of fabric though and I’m glad I’ve started to learn how to work with it and actually put the overlocker to good use.

    • onesmallstitchforman says:

      Thank you very much. I feel like with a little more practice and now having the pattern ready to go this really could be an easy afternoon’s project. Hopefully plenty more t-shirts to come. You’ll do it too I’m sure.

  2. SewAndrew says:

    You’ve done a great job! I’m a big fan of starch at the moment and use it to stabilise T-shirt hems, pockets… all sorts!
    Jersey can be tricky to find, I’ve always been a bit hit & miss with it, yours looks great 👍

    • Lewis says:

      Thank you. I think I remember reading about your use of starch. I’m definitely going to try it for my next Jersey make. If I ever get through everyone’s masks that is!

Leave a Reply