How To Make A Pair Of White Short-Shorts


Okay, so your shorts don’t have to be white. You could make them blue, red, yellow, teal, cerulean, seafoam, hyacinth, striped, spotted, dip-dyed, appliquéd with your home-made N*Sync fan art, or printed with a mosaic of stills from Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Mine just happen to be white, because something about white shorts says “summer” to me. Like white wine, white weddings, and white-cresting waves. But this is a set of directions for making shorts, period. Choose the style and the fabric that you want. This is a moderately challenging project that you can finish in about an afternoon. Even if you’ve never set a fly before. Promise.

Here’s the inspiration board for my project. Naturally — as with so many potentially ill-advised sartorial flights of fancy — it all started with Audrey Hepburn. (And yes, as soon as I finished the shorts, I copied her entire outfit and no, I’m not the least bit embarrassed about it.) The other vintage photos of fine ladies and their white shorts are from here, here and here, and I found the woman in the awesome vintage crochet shorts here. My shorts are in the middle. While I was Googling “white shorts” a lot, I also found this, which I think is a pair of white women’s shorts intended to carry a concealed weapon. Really, sometimes I am just overcome with gratitude that the Internet exists.

Here’s what you’ll need: 1. A pattern. (Here’s a cute free pattern you can download.) 2. Fabric in the length your pattern calls for. (Shorts are great because they only take like a half a yard.) I used a canvas with 1% elastane; you could use any kind of twill, denim, or suiting that strikes your fancy. 3. 12″ or so of lining fabric, for making the pocket bags. (I used a cotton muslin. You know how sometimes when you see someone on the street who’s wearing a light-colored pair of pants, you can see the outline of her pockets through the fabric? Not because of the texture, but because the areas that have two layers of light-colored fabric sandwiched together are noticeably different in color from the areas that have one layer of light-colored fabric, over skin? There’s an easy way to avoid this. My canvas fashion fabric is heavy enough that the lining will not show through, but if your fashion fabric is of a lighter weight, pick a pocket lining fabric that matches your skin tone, not that matches your fashion fabric. Then there’s no show-through.) 4. About 12″ of medium-weight fusible interfacing. (Also in a light color or a color that matches your skin, if possible.) 5. An 8″ zipper, or a zipper in the length that your pattern calls for. 5. A button or slide closure, for the waist band. 6. Matching thread. 7. Sewing scissors. 8. and 9., not pictured: A sewing machine and an iron.

I worked from a pattern that I drafted. It’s based on this pair of vintage “Hillbilly” jeans that I found at a thrift shop. I loved the high waist and the seaming on the seat, but I wanted the fit to be tighter through the ass and thighs, I wanted hip pockets rather than patch pockets, and the Hillbillies happened to have what might be called “a massive camel toe issue,” so I made some tweaks. The friend I was with when I found these pants takes a very sanguine attitude about that — “Toe happens,” she’s been known to say — and I loved the butt seams, so I obviously bought them, but when I set about making my pattern, I altered the crotch depth. That, in my opinion, is the most important thing to alter about any pants pattern, because a correct crotch depth equals comfortable, well-fitting pants. This Threads article introduced me to a really great technique for making adjustments of that nature.

Here, in case you want to take inspiration from my pattern, is a picture of it laid over a 1″x1″ grid. Click to enlarge. Note, this pattern includes no seam allowances or waist band. Also, the “tab” part of the fly needs to extend about an inch and a half longer than shown. Weird family factoid: I made a pair of jeans from this pattern last year, and when I wore them at Christmas, my dad did a double-take. He owned several pairs of Hillbillies in the ’70s. The brand’s tag line was “Be Kind To Your Behind,” which is funny and so cheesy.

Here are my pattern pieces, cut out. Note that I added seam allowances. I don’t ever cut out my waist band until I get up to that point in the pattern, but I always save a nice long strip along the selvedge for that purpose.

Next, cut out the pocket bags.

I apologize for the inconsistent coloration of these photos; I was working at night. (Night crafting is the best crafting, I find. Maybe because there’s always drinking involved.) The best tip about sewing anything is to work from the “inside” out: you actually want to take care of the things that seem like “details” first, not last. If your pattern calls for welt pockets, for example, it’s vastly easier to insert the welt pockets first than it is to sew your pants legs, and then try to do the pockets. So, the first seam I sewed was to join the two pattern pieces that together make up the back of my shorts.

When the seam is stitched and edge-finished (zig-zag or serger, it’s your call), press it to one side. It has taken my lazy ass years to admit it because it sounds boring as fuck, but pressing really is just as important as sewing. Your projects will look better if you pay attention to pressing, and press virtually every step of the way. And speaking of irons: before beginning a project that involves any kind of light-colored fabric is a great time to clean yours. The last thing you want is a speck of rust or a nasty mineral deposit getting coughed up in a big burst of steam and ruining your precious white shorts. Fill the tank with one part white vinegar and one part water, set it on its highest steam setting (or if it has an auto-clean setting, use that) and steam, steam, steam until the tank is totally empty. Repeat with a tank of water. You can also clean the sole plate — once it’s cool, dummy — with vinegar, water, and a soft cloth.

Top-stitch the first seam. Now you have your two back pieces. Pin, and join them. Another great pants-sewing tip: When you are sewing the seat, stretch the fabric as you run it under the machine. (This seam is essentially on the bias, so just grab it and pull. It’s got a lot of give.) The seat seam takes a lot of stress and you want it to last. I always sew it twice, stretching both times.

You’ll want to press the seat seam to one side when you’re done.

I was pretty into how neatly my top-stitching lined up.

For some reason, I always like to insert my pants flies before I do my front pockets. I know, weird, right? What follows is my particular fly-insertion method. If you have your own, by all means, use it. First, fuse the interfacing. (Again, my canvas fashion fabric is heavy enough for this not to matter, but do not follow my poor example and use black fusible with a white project. It’s generally a bad idea.)

Next, line up the two pattern pieces, right sides together. Fold back the fly to the correct depth, and press.

Place the zipper. I always like to put it fairly deep, with the tape starting about half an inch in from the edge of the fly. I’m neurotic about my zipper tape flashing while I’m wearing pants, and if the zipper is tucked away as far from the edge as possible (and the waistband is sized correctly), the chances of this happening are minimal.

When the zip is where I want it, I flip it over and sew it from behind. I always sew the zipper first to the “back” part of the fly, with the tab that extends on the inside of the garment and isn’t visible except to the wearer, and then later I sew the zipper onto the “front” of the fly, with the tab that is tucked behind itself and top-stitched.

Flip the zipper over, press. (If you’re using a plastic zip, like I am, be very careful not to iron the teeth for fear of melting them.) Then top-stitch the zipper again. See, this way the zipper tape is tucked behind by your stitching, and your fly looks fancy.

Line up the two pattern pieces, and pin the “front” of the fly, just like you pressed it, earlier. Pin where the two pattern pieces will meet, at the point just below the fly.

Stitch the crotch seam. Stretch, like you did for the seat seam.

Top-stitch along the edge of the “front” of the fly, where you pressed the pattern piece earlier.

Fold the two pattern pieces along the edge of the fly, right sides together, to expose the interfacing on the inside of the “tab” part of the “front” of the fly. Feel behind it for the zipper tape. Pin the zipper tape to the “tab.” Unfold, and run your hands over the pattern pieces to feel that everything’s lying flat. Re-pin as necessary.

Unzip the zipper all the way, and, using your zipper foot, stitch the “tab” to the zipper tape. Do not sew all the way through to the front; top-stitching comes later.

Now that the zipper is attached, we do the top-stitching. Pin through the two layers of the fabric and the zipper tape.

I find it useful at this point to use my gridded ruler to check that my pins are all even. Your fly top-stitching should be about 1.5″ in from the center front.

Sew the fly top-stitching in two sections: First, sew from the top edge straight down, through the “front” of the fly, the tab folded behind it, and through the zipper tape. At the point where the line of top-stitching begins to turn towards the center-front, stop, raise the presser foot, and cut your threads, leaving a reasonably long tail. Next, do the curved part of the top-stitching. Start at the center-front, just where your line of edge top-stitching meets the crotch seam. Sew through the “front” and the “back” parts of the fly, and across the bottom of your zipper, if applicable. When your second line of stitching almost meets your first, stop, raise the foot, and leave a long tail. Thread a needle, and hand-stitch the last couple of stitches, so that your line of top-stitching really looks perfect. Tie a knot, and trim. Last, add two bar tacks: One where the line of top-stitching meets the center-front and the crotch seam, and one at the point where the top-stitching breaks and turns toward the center front — right on top of where your two sections of top-stitching meet each other. And now you have a fly.

I spoke too soon: If your zipper, like mine, is a little too long, hand-stitch around the teeth a few times, knot, and then pink off the rest of the zip to trim.

Next, pockets. Sew the interiors of the pockets to the pocket bags. Zig-zag all around is fine, this seam will be hidden inside the pocket.

Stitch the bottoms of the pocket bags shut. I always do a French seam, ‘cus why not?

Line up the pockets with the front pattern pieces. Trim off the excess fabric on the pocket bag.

Pin and stitch to join the pocket bags to the front pattern pieces. Stretch the curved seam straight, as you stitch.

Be sure to clip the seam.

Turn the seam out, and press. Pin, then top-stitch. (Like the crotch and seat seams, your pocket edges will take a lot of stress, so be sure to stretch as you sew.) Press again, then baste through all layers along the top and the side.

All right! You now have a front and a back. Join them together, and you practically have shorts. Make sure not to get your pocket bags caught in your side seams as you sew. Add bar tacks to the edges of the pockets, for strength.

Ta-da. Check the fit. There should be no camel toe. (That, again, is one of the main reasons to always adjust a pattern for crotch depth.) I like how these fit, but I think at the waist they’re slightly too high in front, so I’m going to cut them down by about a half an inch.

Baste around the raw edge at the waist. Trim to that line of basting.

Next, cut your waist band. I always use a selvedge, but follow your pattern. Fuse interfacing.

Pin the waist band to the raw edge, right sides together, and stitch.

Press, and fold over the waist band. Stitch.


Turn the waist band and press. You can use a bone (or plastic) point turner for precision, or, you know, a pencil. Or the tip of your sewing scissors.

At the edge of the waist band, on the interior, fold up the raw edge. The rest of the way around, I don’t bother.

Top-stitch in one, long burst around the waist band. Top edge, bottom edge, and sides.

At this point — before hemming, and before adding the button closure — I always wash whatever I’m working on. Washing relaxes the fabric, gets rid of any tailor’s chalk residue, and will take care of any last bit of shrinkage. (Fabrics like denim or twill generally shrink primarily in length, not width, and they may have a little bit of shrinking left to do even if they are “pre-shrunk.” And you definitely want whatever you’re making to have finished all of its shrinking before you hem, or else hello unintentional clam-digger pants and way too teeny-tiny shorts with a wavy hem.)

These are the results. Pin the waist band to determine the placement of your button or slide closure. (I used a slide.) Once you have the placement correct, hand-stitch in place securely.

Hemming is next. Choose a shorts length that works for you. Cuffs can be cute, but you may not want a horizontal design element to hit at mid-thigh. (Or maybe you do! Seriously, cuffs can look rad. And I reject the idea that as a woman you’re supposed to be so consistently aware of the need to “camouflage” your “problem areas” that that pursuit should be the very goal of getting dressed, as opposed to the goal being wearing what you want to wear. Fuck you, magazines. I don’t have “problem areas.” I have legs.) So, do you want shorts, short-shorts, or very short shorts? It’s up to you. I went with very short shorts, because it’s summer, it’s very hot outside, and with crafts in general I’m like, go big or go home.

Pin your hem. When you think you have it just right, press lightly. Then try the shorts on, and pin again. Adjust until the hem is perfect.

Then, press heavily, and trim the hem to a depth of one inch.

Sometimes with shorts, what looks straight on your leg is actually, in two dimensions, quite curved. Clipping your hem will allow the fabric to lie flat, but it may mean that you can’t machine-sew your hem.

Which is fine by me, because I happen to think that the best, most durable, and least visible way to finish a hem is with a series of catch-stitches. Mine are loose because my shorts are made of a stretch fabric.

This concludes the making of your shorts. May you wear them with pleasure. (Audrey Hepburn dress-up time optional. Also optional is the shrine to Audrey and the Ouija board used to commune with her spirit in your living room. Wait. I’ve said too much.)

For next week, look out for a post on how to make a knitted leather clutch purse — loosely inspired by the bags Prada was selling in fall-winter 2010.

Click here for past Friday DIY columns, including how to make a custom dress form, and how to paint your nails with stripes.

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