Making a T-Shirt Pattern

08 Nov
Shirt Front

Shirt Front

I have decided to try to make a t-shirt (again). My first attempt, using a store bought sewing pattern, was bad.

Later, I tried drafting my own pattern, but that didn’t end so well. My self-made pattern for a shirt didn’t fit. Also, at the time I only had muslin fabric to test it with, so it was a failure in two different ways. A prototype in a woven fabric isn’t going to work when the final shirt is supposed to be in a knit fabric (due to knit fabric’s stretchiness). I didn’t write a blog post about that one because it looked ridiculous.

What I’ve decided to do different this time is to trace a pattern off of one of my old shirts. I found the oldest, worst t-shirt I had and took apart all the seams. (I didn’t want to ruin a good, newer shirt.) I am now tracing a pattern around each piece which I will use to cut a new shirt.

Shirt Back

Shirt Back

Interestingly, the back and front of a store bought t-shirt is in one piece. I had to cut the side-seams with my scissors to make it into two pieces. At the factory, the shirt must come on a tube of some sort, to make this possible. As a home tailor, though, I am stuck with using flat fabric pieces.

Another thing I noticed is that no matter how I try to make the shirt lie flat, there are a few folds around the arm holes. In the photos above, it is more obvious in the front, but you can see it in the back too. I am guessing this is for guys with a bigger chest – to give more room in the shirt, like a dart. But for me, being flat chested, I think I can get away without having this particular “feature.” Also, I am not sure how I would cut a shirt that way, without a dart.

Detached Sleeve

Detached Sleeve

The main reason I chose to take apart an existing shirt to make a pattern, rather than drafting my own from scratch, is for the sleeve. As you can see from above, the way a sleeve attaches to an armhole is really odd. The sleeve is not a simple horizontal or vertical piece because your arm is curved. So, this makes for an unusual shape in the sleeve piece.

Shirt Sleeve

Shirt Sleeve

Here is what the sleeve looks like when it is unrolled. I wonder how one comes up with a shape like this when drafting a new pattern to make it fit into the armhole? I don’t like “fitting” and prefer just to have it right the first time. The sleeve/armhole pattern seems like it would be difficult to draft from measurements alone. Luckily, I can just copy someone else’s work for now.

You may notice that the two sleeve pieces look a bit different. I was thinking maybe the right sleeve is opposite of the left because the front of the shirt is bigger than the back (or something like that). However, after spending a lot of time measuring and comparing the two, I think these sleeves are actually supposed to be identical and the reason they look different in the photo is just due to sloppy cutting at the factory.

Armhole Size

Armhole Size

The reason I believe the back and front curves of the sleeve piece are supposed to match is because when I compared the back and front armhole length on the shirt, the length was the same. To me, this indicates that the total length of the sleeve-armhole seam should be the same length on the back and front.

Sleeve Pattern

Sleeve Pattern (click to zoom)

With this in mind I drew a matching curve by folding my pattern paper in half. The other lines are from measurements of the sleeve piece.

I haven’t finished copying the shirt pattern yet, but the sleeve was the hardest part – the rest of it should be simple tracing.

You might wonder what fabric I will use to make my new shirt. Well, here it is…

Shirt Size

Shirt Size

Other shirts are going to be the source of my knit fabric. These shirts were donated to me and are all too big for me to wear. I am going to cut them up and use the big shirt fabric pieces to make smaller pieces to test my pattern (and also practice my knit-sewing skills).

Shirt Tags

Shirt Tags

Here is something strange I found while looking at these shirts. Despite being different sizes (XL through M), the shirts from different manufacturers have completely different sizing. One manufacturer’s “Medium” is the same as another manufacturer’s “Large.” XL is the largest shirt (as expected). However, Hanes Large is the identical size as Fruit of the Loom Medium. The orange shirt is a size Small I was using for comparison.


Posted in Clothing


Leave a Reply


  1. Phyllis

    November 9, 2013 at 04:30

    Yes, it’s from sloppy cutting. Use the sleeve with the LOWER top bump. It will fit into the shirt better. I’ve made literally hundreds of tee shirts, so trust me on this.

    • Matt

      November 9, 2013 at 12:43

      Okay I’ll lower it. There is about a 3/8″ inch difference between the height of the two sleeves

      • jane

        November 10, 2013 at 16:54

        I’ve done this in children’s tee shirts. My machine hates knits so I do a zig zag over turned back edges. Primitive I know but better than the best RTW. Even the best name brands have wonky side seams and crooked sleeves.

        • Matt

          November 11, 2013 at 09:31

          Jane, I think I am going to try serging the seams when I’m done, although I think it might be a bit difficult to use the serger on a 1/4″ seam allowances, so I might just do it with the sewing machine instead like you’re saying.

  2. Phyllis

    November 9, 2013 at 04:34

    Cut the sides STRAIGHT down the sides, so that the seams are perpendicular to the hem. No curving at the sides. The old shirt has probably stretched out of shape, especially at the neckline, which you will want to make 1/4″ higher/tighter all around. It stretche a lot with sewing the band on, and I can tell right now that the neck opening is going to be too wide and loose.

    • Matt

      November 9, 2013 at 12:45

      The whole shirt is a little too big. This is just to get started with a pattern that somewhat fits, then I will improve it.

      My guess was that the bottom of the shirt being wider was on purpose, to make it easier for chubby guys to wear.


  3. Susan Partlan

    November 9, 2013 at 12:26

    I think it’s a really good idea to start with a tee that fit you. I’m doing the same thing myself — hope to finish hemming in a day or two.

    I don’t like RTW tee hems so I’m doing an old fashioned blind hem at the cuffs and sleeves. For the neckline, the back is faced and the front is a cowl drape. I guess guys don’t wear cowl necklines but I love them :) .

    • Matt

      November 9, 2013 at 12:48

      Sounds good… I might try a blind hem as well, since I have never done one before.


  4. scooter

    November 11, 2013 at 08:48

    I’ve done this as well, many, many times, so I feel ok about saying if anything looks wonky in your cut-apart t, it’s probably some sad combination of stretching, shrinking in the wash, and poor cutting/construction to start with. :) This is an excellent way to get the fit you want though.
    I concur with Phyllis, the flatter-curve sleeve is the way to go. You’ll also want to watch the stretch/recovery of the fabric you’re recycling, so you can understand how the pattern works with different fabrics. I have two t-shirt patterns, one for knits with lycra and one for those without.

    • Matt

      November 11, 2013 at 09:42

      I am sure the shirt factory workers are just trying to work as quickly as possible, so they don’t really care about getting things right.

      Hmmm, yeah good point about the stretch of my recycled fabric. I just checked and the shirts seem to be all about the same, I think.


  5. Anne

    November 22, 2013 at 21:08

    Fashion Incubator had a post about sizing standards. She said that basically the company figures out the “average” of their target market, and will label that a Medium. That’s why if I buy a sweater from the juniors (aka teen girl) department I would take a medium, but if I buy one from LL Bean (a more mature/middle age brand) I usually take an extra small.

    • Matt

      November 25, 2013 at 08:57

      I have been reading the Patternmaking for Menswear book and it is basically about how the clothes are made commercially.

      In this book they take a medium fit model and then grade up or down from that for all the other sizes. But yeah they also say you should design your clothes for whatever the target demographic is for your product.