Figure-Flattering Knit TopA surplice knit top lengthens and slims the figure.
If there’s a T-shirt style that flatters most women, it’s the surplice knit top. It features diagonal lines that curve across the body and draw the eye downward, thus lengthening and slimming the figure. If you choose a double-wrap style—with two overlapping layers of fabric across the front—it even smooths the midsection. What could be better than that?
I first discovered the wonders of the surplice top in a workshop I was teaching. I purchased a basic black surplice tee for the group to try on with other garments. Every woman who could fit into it tried it on, and to my surprise, it always looked fabulous. Although the fit wasn’t perfect and the neckline placement varied significantly, it slimmed every figure. Each of us wanted to run home and make one.
I’ve since experimented with surplice patterns and discovered that, although it’s a surefire, wear-with-everything style, most of them do not come out of the pattern envelope or off the rack that way. I’ll share my techniques for adjusting surplice patterns to get the most flattering fit, especially at the neckline. I’ll also give you my T-shirt construction tips along with some design ideas to experiment with. Be forewarned: This style is so good you may want to make a surplice tee to go with every outfit you own.
Patterns to try
Start with a surplice pattern designed for knits. Here are some suggestions:
- Vogue 8825
- Kwik Sew 4085
- StyleArc Shelly Top
- BurdaStyle 6838
- Christine Jonson Ruffle Top (cjpatterns.com)
Fit the pattern
The first step in getting a great fit is to fine-tune your pattern to fit your figure. After that, it’s easy to use the same basic pattern again and again.
Adjust the neckline
For the most flattering surplice-tee fit, the key is in the neck-edge placement. Depending on your taste and figure, the neckline may be slightly curved, and the front edge may join the side seam close to the armhole or lower on the side seam.
It is not difficult to change the shape or coverage of the wrap, but it is best to do so before cutting. Ask yourself: Does the neck give the right coverage across the bustline? Do I want the diagonal edge to go over or under the bosom? Where at the side seam does the finished neck edge end? To adjust your pattern, simply use a hip curve as a guide to draw in a new neckline where it suits you. It’s fine to add paper to do it.
Make a bulk-free hem
The trick to a bulk-free hem on a surplice top is to use a spray adhesive to hold the hem in position while stitching. Sew the hem before sewing the side seams.
1. Press the hem in place. I prefer a 1-inch to 2-inch hem depth, and I press the hem before I sew the side seams, as it is easier to work with when flat. Use an oak tag pressing template for an even hem.
2. Next, apply adhesive spray to the hem allowance. One choice is 505 Spray and Fix Temporary Fabric Spray. Use paper to mask off the hem area, spraying a section at a time with an even application of adhesive. Protect your table surface with a layer of paper, or place the garment in a shallow box.
3. Finally, stick the hem in place, and machine or hand-stitch it to finish.
Tip: Tissue-fitting is essential
Tissue-fit your pattern to make sure it fits around you well and is the length you want. To do so, pin the pattern together along its seamlines with the seams pinned to the outside, try it on, and check the circumference at the bust, waist and hips, the neck width and shape, the shoulder and sleeve placement, armhole position, and finally, the overall shape and length.
Two ways to finish the neck edge
Sew the neck edge before you sew the side seams and the sleeves so that you have less fabric to handle.
A. Simply turn and stitch
This method is the easiest and quickest way to finish the neck edge.
1. Staystich the neck edge; then press it under 1/2 to 5/8 inch along the staystitching. Press in sections over a tailor’s ham, working the fabric so that it lies smoothly.
2. Secure the edge by spraying the narrow turned-under section with an adhesive spray such as 505 Spray and Fix Temporary Fabric Spray. Mask off the area with paper, turning and securing as you go.
3. Topstitch by hand using a running stitch with pearl cotton, or machine-stitch it with a single or double needle with woolly nylon in the bobbin.
B. Bind the edge
Experiment with self or contrasting lengthwise, crosswise, or bias cut (as long as there is enough stretch) knit bindings. A woven fabric cut on the bias also works nicely.
1. Because the stretch of knit fabrics varies, you’ll have to make samples to determine the ideal binding length and width. Make the strips long enough to go around the neck edge and wide enough to sew, wrap, and trim before you stitch in the ditch.
2. With right sides together and the binding on top, sew along the neckline edgge, using a 1/2-inch-wide seam allowance with even tension so the edge doesn’t stretch. Stretch the binding slightly as you sew. If the neckline edge is too big or the fabric is drapey, apply more tension to the binding.
3. With a rotary cutter, trim the seam allowance to an even width to smooth out any irregularities, but do not clip.
4. From the right side, press the seam allowances flat. Wrap the binding around the edge, pressing a few inches at a time and placing pins in the ditch to secure it. Position the pins so you can pull them out as you sew.
5. By machine or by hand, stitch in the ditch. If you sew by hand, make a knot every couple of inches to prevent the thread from popping.
Discover secret construction tips
For the best results when working with T-shirt knits, keep these time-tested tips in mind:
No special stretch stitches are required, and you do not need a serger, but it does finish edges nicely. Use a 2.0 to 2.5mm stitch length, a straight stitch, a size 80/12 universal needle, and good-quality polyester thread. If stitches are skipping, try a stretch needle, ballpoint needle, or a smaller needle.
Design and fit as you go
For a precise fit, try the garment on at every step. After you’ve sewn the shoulder seam, pin the side seams pointing out, checking neck shape, armhole placement, and shoulder width; then make adjustments accordingly. Try it on again before you sew the side seams, to add waist darts or shaping at the side seams.
Check the ease
For the most flattering look, allow enough ease in your T-shirt so that the fabric skims the body but isn’t skintight.
1. Staystitch the neckline edge
Staystitch the neckline edge to stabilize it and prevent it from stretching as you sew and fit. The stitching line also serves as a pressing guide.
2. Stablilize the shoulder seams
Stabilize the shoulder using a 1-inch-wide strip of fusible tricot such as So Sheer along the back shoulder seam. Be sure to cut the tricot in the least stretchy direction. Sew the shoulder seam, press both seam allowances to the back, and topstitch to keep the seam smooth and flat.
3. Sew with the sleeve on the bottom
Most of us learned to set a sleeve with the sleeve on top, but sewing the sleeve in flat (before sewing the side seams or sleeve seam) with the garment on top allows the feed dogs to work with the give of the knit, so the ease just disappears.
4. Hem the back and front separately
To reduce bulk, stitch the front and back hems separately (rather than as one hem) before you sew the side seams.
Be creative with your hem and neck edges for a unique top. Here are some ideas to spark your imagination.
Six great details from the design gallery
1. Go beyond knits. Try a woven bias binding for your neck edge. For this sleeveless top, I chose a silk organza binding.
2. Experiment with fabrics. In this example, sheer netting was used for the sleeves and the neck edge to give the tee a soft, ethereal look.
3. Go skinny or wide with a neck-edge binding. In this example, a narrow, contrasting print binding breaks up the busy bodice print.
4. Balance a simple turned and topstitched neckline with a wide, asymmetrical hem. Silk screening also adds interest to this solid tee.
5. Play with trim. Elastic trim at the sleeve ends and a frayed edge is unstructured. Also, collect fabric designs you love for unique neck edges.
6. For a modern look, leave the neck binding and hem edges raw, and topstitch strips of self or contrasting fabric to the body.
Marcy Tilton is a designer, frequent Threads author, and T-shirt-sewing diva. See her curated collection of T-shirt fabrics, at MarcyTilton.com.
Written by Marcy Tilton and excerpted from Threads #133, pp. 30-35.
Model photos: Jack Deutsch; hair and makeup: Christy McCabe, using tarte cosmetics; stylist: Johanna Laracuente. Styling credits for first photo: halter top—Peruvian Connection (PeruvianConnection.com), pants—The Limited (The Limited stores), shoes—Etienne Aigner (Lord & Taylor stores). Styling credits for second photo: jeans—French Connection (FrenchConnection.com), shoes—Carlos Santana (Macys stores).
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