The Essentials: The shell / tee / cami

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*** This post is part of the 'The Essentials' series. See the index for the full list of posts, or the introduction to understand the concept of the workwear capsule pattern stash. ***
A well-fitting basic shell, tee or cami top pattern is indispensable when it comes to fleshing out a handmade working wardrobe. These unsung heroes are great for layering and allow you to let beautiful fabrics shine in a way that makes you look polished and professional, even though the style of the top might be quite basic.
Because they don’t require as much fabric as long sleeved shirts or blouses, you may find that these tops are good projects for more expensive fabric or for remnants.

These tops look great in warm weather with a pencil skirt or cigarette pants, but equally with a flared skirt and wide legged trousers. Let’s not forget how easily you can wear them with jeans and more casual separates. And they can also be put to work when it’s colder by layering them under a jacket or cardigan. Serious versatility!

    There are so many elements of good fit that we could discuss here, but we've focused on a few thoughts which might be helpful.
    • A woven shell or tee might typically have roughly 2” of ease through the bust, and more through the waist and hip - but ease is a personal preference. Of course, boxy styles of tee will have more ease than fitted tops, and the same is true for tops which are intended to look loose and blousy when tucked in. If you have a basic shell or tee top you like the fit of, measure it and see how much ease there is, and then you can use that in your own dressmaking. Compare the body measurements to the finished garment measurements on your pattern, to work out how much ease has been built into the pattern and whether you want to adjust it. 
    • If you intend to wear the top tucked in, you might aim for a finished length around the high hip (roughly 4” below the waistline) or lower, but if you want to wear it loose you have some wiggle room to shorten the top.
    • If you are drafting or amending a neckline for a pull-on top (without zips or buttons), you’ll want to make sure that the total length of the neckline on the pattern will clear your head circumference easily. Typically 24” is one standard for the total neckline measurement of a pull-on top, but you can always measure your head circumference to be sure, and add a little wiggle room. Notched necklines, or those with slit or keyhole openings, can also help you to get a wide enough neckline opening without the neckline looking very wide when worn. 
    • While we're talking about necklines, if you’re likely to layer these tops, take some time before you start making them to think about the necklines of the garments you’re most likely to wear them with. If you’re a fan of collarless jackets with wide or deep scoop necklines, you probably don’t want to pair that with a v-neck top that comes right up to the base of your neck. You might choose instead to make a slightly wider scoop neckline for your base layer top. The beauty of making your own clothes is that you have full control of details like that! If you have a sloper, you could perhaps use it to determine where you like your necklines to sit on a blouse versus a collarless jacket, etc, so that they overlap nicely when worn.
    • Lastly - think about your bra straps! Making your own tops also gives you full control over how wide your shoulder straps are and where they sit on your shoulder - no more searching for the right bra to wear with those skinny cami straps!
    Tees and camis are versatile patterns that can be made from a wide range of fabrics. Think drapey fabrics like silk, crepe, viscose and rayon, but also slightly heavier ones like certain tweeds/boucle. Cotton, linen, and their blends are always an option, too.
    A well-fitting shell, tee or cami in a classy plain ivory fabric is bound to be an every day staple in your wardrobe. Equally, these tops are perfect for plaids and prints to mix and match with your plain trousers and skirts.
    You can of course also make stretch tees from knit fabrics like jersey. I have a set of (RTW) plain knit tees in ivory, navy and black that are on constant rotation, and have some lovely printed jerseys ready to use to make more. I find that they work particularly well with more voluminous skirts and trousers such as circle skirts, midi skirts, culottes and pleated/paper bag waist trousers.

    On plain tops, consider the use of trim to add visual interest. A basic tee can be glammed up with careful use of embellishments - think scraps of lace, sequins, quilting, appliqué and other embellishments. Choose the colour, style and placement which is most appropriate for your office environment. A little goes a long way - you could focus on short sleeves, or add the detail to the yoke, or around the neckline.

    Adding a simple collar to a tee or shell top is another great way to get more mileage from your TNT basic pattern.

    Contrast binding at the neckline or sleeve edges, and piped pocket seams are great tools for adding a little something extra to basic style lines, and look great on both plain and patterned fabrics. I love the clean contrast lines of our Martha blouse for example.

     Pattern Inspiration

    The Big 4 pattern companies offer 'basic top' options with a variety of necklines, which therefore offer great value for money and save you the effort of drafting all those neckline options yourself.

    In my stash, I found Simplicity 8061 and Butterick 5948, for example:

    Independent companies have some great options, including:

    For easy options with collars, you could also try:

    This style of collared shell is particularly great for layering under knitwear because you don't have a row of buttons showing through the front!

      Well, that’s been a bit of a canter through some thoughts on this wardrobe essential! Hopefully it has been useful and we’ll see you soon for the next instalment of the Essentials series. Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts and any other patterns you'd recommend!
      general / opinion

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