Shirts, jackets and more — Sewing with straight pieces and seams

Dear sustainable fashionistas,

The following blog post is written by my mom Silvia, a creative freethinker living in the countryside of Austria with our dad and family dog Bruno. She blogs with my sister and me (Anna) at PeterSilie&Co, but is absolutely not a digital native, which is why I have used my account for her post.


If you are interested in historical costumes, you can find two kinds of simple clothing. One is uncut cloth — like the Indian sari, the Indonesian sarong, the Scottish kilt, South American ponchos, the classical Greek chiton, or the clothes of the ancient Egyptians. This kind of dressing plays with draping, and the interaction between the moving body and fabric. It is beautiful and elegant and you can still find it inspiring evening dresses in haute couture collections today.

The other type is clothing made of very simple patterns: basically, rectangles with a hole for the head. Maybe there are sleeves, maybe not. You can find examples all over the world in traditional dress, including Russia as well as India and Africa. In English you call that kind of clothing ‘folkwear,’ I believe. I don’t think that finding the same kind of pattern all over the world is just an accident. This style of clothing is clever, economical, and really very comfortable. You can move your body and arms freely. Most men’s shirts are built on these simple patterns. In times where it could take weeks and months to get a length of wool or cotton, it was important to use the whole material in the best way. (I learnt a little bit weaving, not a lot, but enough to see how long it takes to get a nice scarf with fine wool.) Fabric was expensive, and only rich people got more than the most necessary clothes. Waste was unheard of. Aside from shirts or blouses, there are jackets and other clothes as well, such as the Japanese kimono. I am very impressed by looking at the layout for the Japanese kimono. Not one little piece of fabric is leftover! Every inch is used in a perfect way. From all these types of clothing, you can easily reuse the fabric, too, as the wearer grows or as parts of the cloth wear out.

These days, it isn’t difficult for us to get meters and meters of fabric, compared to when fabric was such a huge expense and was so time-intensive to produce. Mass-produced fabric is, at least by comparison, very cheap. But I think it is time for us to consider our lifestyle, reduce speed, slow down, get less and produce less waste. Sewing with straight patterns is one possibility for reducing waste — in the best case is nothing is left over.

Sewing with rectangular pieces of fabric is fascinating. It’s not that I am afraid of sewing curves or armholes, or Vienna seams, but I like the thousands of possibilities which the simplest pattern of a shirt gives me. Blogging is a good reason to try doing some experiments for daily clothing.

I often start with folded fabric. First I cut a hole, and then I put it on the tailor’s dummy, just to see it and think about what details would be best: a collar or a different neckline, short or long sleeves, maybe a cuff or ruffles, and so on. If I do not have enough from one fabric, then I look for matching patterns or colours in my fabric stash. Usually I decide before I start if I would like a button tape, a zip or only a slit to get in. (But I often change my opinion!) The only thing you really have to decide first is if the blouse should be oversized, or if you want to make pleats or something like that. This must be taken into account in the width of fabric from the beginning.

The short blouse

I will give you a simple pattern for a blouse. Traditionally it is worn with an Austrian Dirndl, and it is the simplest version of a blouse. (You can see a finished version based on this pattern here.) And it is very clever, planned to produce minimal waste. You need a piece of cotton 90cm x 100cm, or 35 inch x 39 inch. This is a very short blouse. You need the following measurements: bust circumference, upper arm circumference, and base of the neck circumference.


The longer blouse

You can easily vary the length or make a jacket. Finished examples include my blue blouses, an arty blouse with ruching or an upcycling project with a scarf.
If you prefer dresses, my daughter Sabine did a very nice one inspired by the 20s.

All these clothes need the hip circumference to start. Here’s a schematic, and some translations:

  • 1/4 Bw=hip circumference +1-2cm
  • Aw=sleeve width
  • vordere Mitte=centre front
  • rückwertige Mitte=centre back
  • Ssch=slit


The coat

You can make a coat too. The fabric in this example is from my mother; perhaps she planned a coat for my older daughter when she was a child, but it never happened. My now grown-up daughters did not really like the fabric so I decided to make a coat for me. It is a good quality, wool with embroidery. There was even enough fabric to make a hood too.

My sleeves were too short at first, so I decided to give them a cuff of a contrast fabric. This is very clever, as it turns out, because they do not get dirty as easily as the wool. To make the coat warmer, it is lined with a quilted lining with a modern pattern.

Now, maybe you think it’s a little bit boring to sew in this way. But this is just the beginning. There are so many variations to play with, and I like it and it works well.

Book recommendation: As a young girl I bought a very expensive book “Kostümschnitte und Gewandformen” written by Max Tilke. In this book you can see many patterns from all over the world, most of them done with straight seams.