• Sarah

Fabric usage

Hey all! I have spent my life as a bit of a fiber nerd. I seriously love everything fiber arts related. The endless textures that can be created, the endless (surprising!) uses that fiber can be put to, the art that can be created with fiber all fascinate me totally. I spent my high school years with a small group of friends immersed in all things Civil War era. I explored everything I could get my hands on about medicine and textiles in America in the 1860s. I still have several books published around that time that I use whenever I'm stumped as to how to handle a stain or wash a fiber. I even started to set up our scouring system by looking in those books!

One of the things that always stood out to me in my research is that textiles were valuable forever. Things made into textiles and fabric were expensive and labor intensive. Because of this they were used to their ultimate useful life. When you were done with a piece of fabric and you couldn't do anything else with it at all you could still use it to stuff furniture, or it could be sold as scraps that would be collected and sent to furniture makers. That fabric would be shredded and put into a whole new article ready for consumption. Nothing got thrown away unless there was no useful thing you could do with it. I read somewhere that you shouldn't throw away a piece of fabric that you can wrap a coin in. That sure is different from how we approach textiles today. The ideas for reusing textile waste and and the references are endless and easily found once you are aware of them.

But what about the beginning of textiles? There is certainly less said about that in the Little House books than what Ma could magically do with small scraps. But is that really true? Certainly there is less said about it outright but if you look at the process for making clothing that people followed before mass production of ready to wear and easily produces and easier thrown away textiles you start to see that perhaps they always were looking to extend the life of textiles.


It all begins with how you construct clothing. When first looking at clothing from times past it is tempting to say that they used so much more fabric, they were so extravagant and used up so many more resources to make such complicated items. And so many to wear at one time! But is that really so? Certainly it is true that when you read texts about clothing from times past they talk about clothing being much more costly than we view our clothing today. But to really answer this question we have to look at the clothing and system of clothing oneself, in detail.


Take a dress from the first 5 years of the 1860s. Maybe a little girl's dress. So many ruffles and flounces, so many folds and petticoats on this dress. And if you look at what else she is wearing, the ruffles and folds and fullness just keeps going doesn't it? She's wearing petticoats and a chemise and drawers and stockings and a dress and an apron. So many things to wear. But each of these is designed in a specific and very well thought out manner so that she can get as much wear out of these articles of clothing as possible.

The flounces that one first glance look so extravagant? they are really pieced together painstakingly by minute stitches and careful matching from pieces from her mother's last dress. The ruffles and pleats? Very carefully thought out and placed so that with the removal of a few stitches and seams she can wear this dress for another season or even another year! The pieces of the clothing themselves are also very carefully thought out. The skirts are made from rectangles of fabric that keep the selvedges in tact so that you can disassemble the skirt when the little girl is done and her sister is done with the skirt and use these pieces to make another item altogether. Maybe a quilt or a bag or line another dress with?

And all those layers of white cloth that she's wearing under that dress? White was the boil fast color that could be washed intensely no matter how dirty it got. When doing laundry you couldn't boil wool dresses that kept one warm in winter and cool in summer. So the aprons were made out of strong white cotton or linen that could be boiled without losing color or damage to the fabric so that no one would know how old your clothing was or how many times it had been remade into something else. This preserved the life of outer clothing by letting things that would be washed easily do the getting dirty instead of the clothing itself.

So what is the applicable point that I have? We hear from many different sources that our textile habits are destructive to the planet, to society, to ourselves and our health. and we have much easier ways to care for our clothing than by boiling them, but you still can't boil wool and have it stay the same size can you? But, I for one really enjoy how comfortable wool keeps me year round and don't want to give that up. Our soaps are better and easier on fibers, so that is something that we can take advantage of, thank goodness! Is that all we can do? Could starting on a better path be as simple as trying to cut something out a little differently than we do already?


This shirt that I make for myself and my girls is very simple. It's very flexible in fitting and style options that can be changed and modified to be an endless variety of styles. Here's a quick little picture based tutorial on drafting one yourself for whoever you might be clothing.

Start by measuring across the back of your shoulders from where you want one sleeve to end to the other. Add 1 inch to this measurement. This is how wide you will cut your rectangle.

Next measure from the top of your shoulder to where you want your shirt to end. Add 1 inch to this measurement. This is how long you will cut your rectangle.



Cut out your rectangle and separate the two layers.

Take one layer and fold it in half widthwise. On the fold at the top you will cut out a half circle that is as wide as you want the front of your shirt opening to be and as deep as you want it to be.

Take one layer and fold it in half width wise. On the fold at the top you will cut out a half circle that is as wide as you want the front of your shirt opening to be and as deep as you want it to be. necklines as wide in the front and the back. You can work around this but this tutorial isn't going to cover that. That will be put out in the future.

Now you have all the things that you need to make a shirt.

The next step is to sew the shoulder seams from the neckline edge to the end using whatever method you have chosen to finish the seams. On this shirt I used a quick and dirty method to encase the raw edges in the seams by sewing the seams wrong sides together at 1/2 the seam allowance then turning the pieces right sides together to sew the seams at half the seam allowance again encasing the raw edges in between the two seams.

Next determine how big an armhole you want to have. I do this by measuring around my arm at the place I have the sleeve end and measuring down that far from the shoulder seam. This tells me where to stop sewing the side seams.

Finish the armholes by hemming or attaching trim or bias binding.

I hemmed these sleeves by turning under the edge twice and topstitching.

Finish the neckline. Because it's generally a tight curve at the neckline and that isn't easy to simply hem I prefer to use bias binding for finishing the neckline. The easiest way to do this is as follows: measure your neckline.Cut your bias binding 1/2 less than this measurement. Sew the bias binding into a loop with a 1/4 inch seam allowance. Gently sew this loop right side of bias binding to right side of neckline in 1/4 inch seam stretching the bias binding slightly as you sew around the neckline if needed. Press the bias binding to the inside and topstitch around the outside of the neckline so that the bias binding is hidden in the inside by the fabric. Press smooth The neckline is now finished.

Hem the bottom of the shirt however you like. You have a shirt!

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