How to Convert a Modern Shirt to Costume

[size=150]Convert a Modern Shirt into Medieval Costume[/size]

By Hannah Jackson

Do you find it hard to make button holes, insert zips, set sleeves, sew collars? Get confused with pinning paper patterns and cutting out material? These are the daunting aspects of sewing a shirt that put off many novice sewers. This document gives an easy alternative that doesn’t have any of that, just straight sewing on a machine. (This doesn’t address how to sew - search you tube). If you are particular about creating authentic, period specific costumes, then look away now. This is founded on my larping convention that it needs to just look good and be practical.

Selecting the shirt
[ul][li] Material[/li]
[li] Style[/li]
[li] Size[/li][/ul]
Adapting the shirt
[ul] [li] Cut off sleeve cuff & hem wrist opening
[/li][li] Cut off collar & hem neck edge
[/li][li] Remove buttons & sew close the centre front[/li][/ul]
Decorating the Shirt
[ul] [li] Where to place Braid
[/li][li] Selecting Braid
[/li][li] Applying Braid
[/li][li] Decorative Stitching[/li][/ul]

[color=#008000][size=150]Selecting the Shirt[/size][/color]
There are three main factors to bear in mind when choosing which shirt to start with. Each will impact on the final look of your costume. The material, the style and the size.

[size=120]Material: [/size]
This will have the biggest impact on the overall look of your shirt, and the colour & what it is made of cannot be changed.
[ul][li]Choose medieval looking type of fabric, something you can imagine being made by hand without modern dyes & machines. Generally, plain colours, or textured woven material. [/li]
[li]Muted colours are better for a general peasant shirt. Ask yourself does it look like the dyes came from plants or the earth? [/li]
[li]Patterned materials could work in some instances, though they should be made by being woven into the material rather than patterns printed onto the material.[/li]
[li]Cotton or linen are material which are more comfortable to wear are more authentic material however they need more care. That is the edges fray more whilst sewing, and they need a hot iron after each washing. Polyester-cotton is perfectly adequate, and very common material. [/li]
[li]Rayon or polyester, which are non-crease (and quick drying), may suit noble styling shirts – they often have a shiny look that is inappropriate for peasants, but simulate rich silk. However these synthetic materials will feel hotter to wear as sweat won’t evaporate. [/li]
[li]Avoid stretchy T-shirt material (interlock). Sorry, it will always look like modern T-shirt material.[/li][/ul]
Some examples of materials:

[size=120]Style: [/size]
The more of these features that you find in the shirt, the less work there is for you.
[ul][li]Sleeves - Ensure it is long sleeve. Cuffs around the wrists are OK, as they will be cut off. Short sleeves (above the elbow) look too modern, avoid these.[/li]
[li]Bottom edge – try to get shirts that go for straight along the bottom. These style shirts usually come with short slits at the side of about 10 cm. Avoid the style designed to be tucked in at the waist which have a with curved bottom edge, dipping down at the back & front.[/li]
[li]Collar - if possible, avoid collars, though cutting them off is dealt with here. Try looking in Women’s section of the shop for scoop necked shirts without a collar.

[li]Button up front - the standard design in shirts. Shirts with lots of little buttons with loops instead of buttonholes are period enough looking, so these can be used. Otherwise the buttons are removed. This photos shows what used to be a short sleeve shirt, with the sleeves removed to make it a serviceable jerkin/waistcoat.

[li]Pockets on the front - usually these are just sewn on the front, so are easily removed. However check how much the fabric may have faded, as there may be a distinctive square of darker colour on the shirt when the pockets are removed.


You may want to choose a bigger size than you would normally have. Check by doing up the buttons, except for the top button, and then pull it on over your head like a T-shirt. However remember the material won’t stretch like T-shirts do, so take some care in this.

[size=150]Adapting the Shirt[/size][/color]
There are three areas that need adaption to a more medieval style - sleeves, neck and shirt front.

Cut off the cuff and discard. Most long sleeve shirts have a slit along the seam near the wrist (usually about 5-10cm) This needs to be pinned and sewn shut.

Sew closed the slit along the sleeve . Take care not to sew the sleeve.
Hem sleeve by turning over edge a couple of times about half a centimetre each time.

[ul][li]Cut off collar and discard. [/li]
[li]Re-shape the neckline you will probably want to scoop the neck a bit lower at the front, especially if it removes a buttonhole just below the collar. You can try sketching the new line with chalk (or pencil or pen, though these won’t come off, so don’t draw on the neck area where it won’t be cut off). Also try pinning the material down to test out the scoop. It is harder to try on and test the neckline while the front isn’t sewn shut, however it is much easier to sew the neckline with the front still opening, so I have put this step first.[/li]
[li]Cutting the neck hole – remember that you can cut more off, but can’t really put it back on. So if you’re unsure, cut a smaller piece off and then check and then cut more if required. The neck hole will get bigger when you hem it by about a centimetre all edges. Ensure both sides of the neck are cut the same, by cutting both sides at the same time, or cutting one side and using this as the pattern for cutting the other side.[/li]
[li]Sew a wide zig-zag seam or overlock along the raw neck edge. This helps keep the curved shape of the neck, and I find makes it easier to fold over consistently to hem the edge. If you overlock the edge, ensure that you hem it as well. Exposed overlocking seams screams modern and is really not acceptable in any garment. [/li]
[li]Hem the neck edge by turning over the material twice, about half centimetre each time and sew.

[li]Apply decoration to the neck – this is more easily sewn on when the garment can be opened flat, before the front is sewn up. Refer later section.[/li][/ul]

[size=120]Shirt front[/size]
[li]Remove Front Buttons - by cutting them off or using a quick-unpick tool.

Be careful to cut the thread that sews the button on, and not the material of the garment. If using scissors, try to use the pointed tip to get between the back of the button & the material. Another option is to cut the sewn threads on the inside of the shirt. [/li]
[li]Sew up buttonholes. This is optional, but gives the garment better strength - otherwise the material will pull at the cut. It does not give a tidy look, but this can be covered with braid decoration (see later section). I did this step for the green shirt, when the fronts are butted against each other, but not the cream shirt, where the fronts are overlapped.

Pin a small piece of material on the back of the buttonhole, about 1cm bigger than the buttonhole in width & length. You could use a matching piece of material from the collar or cuff, but usually its not going to be seen. Pin each side of the hole to keep it closed, i.e. edges of the buttonhole close together. Sew with wide zigzag, at a short stitch, to replicate the buttonhole stitch. The needle should be going into the existing buttonhole stitching along each side of the buttonhole, or covering the existing stitching entirely.

[li]Sew the front closed
The front edge of shirts come in several variety of styles, so you may have to improvise about what will work best with your shirt. In all cases you will probably want to leave the top of the front seam open about 5 cm so the neck. If the neck is open much more, there should be some sort of lacing along the front, which entails more complicated sewing or using metal eyelets and is not covered here.[/li]
[li]The most common style is to have one front facing with buttonholes, and one with buttons. Overlap the button facing edge just over the line of the buttonholes do the buttonholes are covered. Sew this edge. Turn inside out and sew along the edge of the buttonhole facing. The position of the top buttonhole will generally indicate how far up the front to sew. The top buttonhole needs to be covered, and above that the two facings will splay. They will overlap which is not authentic, but is good enough to larp with.
This photo still shows the collar, I recommend doing the neck-edge conversion (described above) first as to is easier to sew.

[li]If the shirt has an extra facing to cover the row of buttons, then this facing can butt against the facing that the buttons were fixed to. This gives a more authentic neck finish. With right sides together, sew along the facing edge as close as possible. The facing edges are all finished/folded over so you don’t have to worry about the material fraying away from the stitching.
[li]Try to get the neck and bottom edges to line up. I think the bottom edge is more important to line up because when a garment is normally sewn the front seams are made first, and then hemming will tidy up the edges, however we don’t have that luxury. However you may think that since more attention is drawn to your face and hence neckline that the bottom is not as important.[/li][/ul]

The finished garment, perfectly adequate for peasant costume.

[color=#008000][size=150]Decorating the Shirt[/size][/color]
Having a plain shirt is good for peasant class characters and for wearing underneath tunic or bodices. However if your character has a bit of wealth to flaunt, some decoration will instantly lift a plain shirt into something worthy of the upper classes.

[size=120]Where to put braid – [/size]
[ul][li]The place with the most impact is around the neckline and the front, as this where it will be noticed when people talk to you. Careful use of braids along the front edge can cover the buttonholes and the seams where the fronts join.

[li]The sleeve edge.[/li]
[li]Along the bottom edge of the garment, which can be seen by people behind you. It is better to take the braid up the slits at the side seams, however just along the bottom edge is adequate if you’re short on braid.[/li][/ul]

[size=120]Applying the Braid[/size]
[ul][li]Generally the braid should be applied equidistant from the edge of the garment. Leaving about 1cm gap, though this can vary depending on the braid width - do what looks good. [/li]
[li]Ideally aim to trim all of these edges, however if you find you don’t have enough, be symmetrical in your application. For example do both sleeves, but not the bottom, rather than left sleeve, bottom front and back and then realise you don’t have enough for the right sleeve.[/li]
[li]If you just have small amounts of braid, consider just some decoration along the front around the neck, and point the ends of the braid or make a symmetrical pattern.[/li][/ul]

[size=120]Choosing Braid [/size]
Braid selection can make or break the garment. Here are some things to consider:
[ul][li]Usually a contrasting braid is more effective than something of the same colour as the shirt. [/li]
[li]Try to get woven braids, rather than printed braids. They are much more authentic, however are more expensive than the printed on type. [/li]
[li]For the wealthy characters, choose silver or gold threaded braids. Also red/maroon and purple traditionally denotes wealth.[/li]
[li]Measure the length of the edges where you want to put the braid, it may surprise you by how much you need. [/li]
[li]Thin braids about 1cm wide are easier to work with to curve around the neck of a garment. However wider braids look richer, though you may have to fold them at corners or pleat them to turn the curve around the neck to make them lie flat.

Two (or more) rows of thinner ribbon may look just as effective. Try to keep the gap between the ribbons consistent width, about the same width or slightly thinner than the ribbon width. [/li]
[li]Try shopping at emporium shops. Also Indian clothing/materials stores, as they favour patterned metallic ribbons. [/li][/ul]

[size=120]Sewing Braid [/size]
[ul][li]Unless it is very thin (5mm) braid, this needs to be sewn along both edges of the braid. [/li]
[li]Close to the edge is good, though consistent needle position is more important. [/li]
[li]Choose a thread similar to the background colour of the braid. [/li]
[li]Tuck under the ends of the braids to stop them from fraying. [/li]
[li]When closing a circuit of braid overlap the ends and tuck under the top edge. [/li]
[li]For woven braids, that have a reversible pattern (one side as the positive and one side as the negative) be careful that each piece is applied the same side up.[/li][/ul]

[size=120]Decorative stitching [/size]
Sometimes when I don’t have the thread matching the colour of the garment material I use a contrasting thread to make it a feature. This does use quite a lot of thread.

[ul][li]Most sewing machines come with a decorative stitch option.

[li]Experiment on a scrap (such as the discarded collar or cuff) with a stitch that suits, and what colour thread to use. [/li]
[li]Contrast threads are more effective. Dark on light, and vice versa. Red or yellow are often effective as they are bright colours that attract the eye.[/li][/ul]