Whether you want to make a raglan or not, this secret (or not so secret) modification will make any shirt nursing friendly. This will also work for a dress, and the same steps apply whether you’re using knit or woven fabric. I’ll also describe how to add a modesty panel at the zipper seam. I hope to add some additional pictures the next time I make a top using this approach.
Modifying the pattern
If you’re using a raglan pattern, you don’t need to make any modifications. If you’re using a regular shirt pattern (with a set in sleeve), then you’ll need to add shoulder accents your pattern for nursing access. Draw a curve where you want the accents to go. I prefer the base of the zipper to be in the side seam rather than at the armpit to avoid extra bulk there. Cut at that curve, then add seam allowance to both pieces along the cut line.
Mark the top of the zipper – where the little plastic things are that stop the zipper from going up any further (one seam allowance inside the top of the neckline if you’re using bands, one seam allowance plus the width of your binding if using a binding). It will be difficult to tell where the curve of the neckline ends and the curve down along the accent begins once you cut the pieces.
The only other modification you’ll need to make is to split the neckband or binding into two parts. I’ll cover that at the end.
Assembling the top
After modifying the panel and cutting the pieces, the steps for assembling the shirt and adding the zipper will be the same for the raglan version.
*If you’re using snaps instead of zippers, add an extra 3/4″ to the main shirt seam allowance to allow for the fabric to overlap for snaps. This is true for the raglan style shirt or the shirt with set sleeves and shoulder accents.
Add a strip of interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric where the zipper or snaps will go. Make sure to use the right type of interfacing for the fabric and make sure it’s on grain if it has one (KNIT for knit fabric, stretch going across). If you’re using a lace zipper, this step is optional.
Now it’s time to add the zipper (or prepare to add snaps – don’t add snaps until the shirt is finished, though). If you’re adding a modesty panel that extends past the zipper or snaps, you won’t need it until after the entire front is complete, so don’t worry about it yet.
Lace zipper: If you’re adding a modesty panel that attaches at the lace zipper, attach it now, before putting in the zipper (see the bottom of this post for instructions). Once that’s taken care of, BASTE the seam where the zipper will go with a long straight stitch and press it open (if you have a modesty panel, the panel will be hanging out of the seam allowance). Then, then sew the zipper on top, using a straight stitch, with the teeth right along the basted seam. DO NOT sew over the modesty panel, you’ll have to hold it out of the way. Remove your basting stitches, and your shirt front is complete.
Snaps: If you’re adding a modesty panel that attaches at the snap line, attach it now, before preparing for snaps (see the bottom of this post for instructions). Once that’s taken care of, hem the remaining raw edges exactly one seam allowance (if you don’t have a modesty panel, you’ll be hemming both pieces, and if you do have a modesty panel, you’ll only be hemming the shirt front piece that will snap on top). Overlap the pieces by 3/4″ (or overlap the shirt front over the seam between the modesty panel and the shoulder accent or raglan sleeve), and topstitch for about 1″ at the bottom of the snap opening (near the armpit) to hold it in place (this stitching can be permanent). Pin or clip the neckline together to hold everything in place while you sew the side seams. Don’t add the snaps until you’ve finished the shirt, as they can get in the way of your presser foot.
Regular/invisible zipper: If you’re doing a regular or invisible zipper, sew it in, making sure the zipper teeth are right at the seam allowance. The pictures show the invisible zipper. If you’re adding a modesty panel that attaches at the zipper, you’ll add it AFTER sewing in the zipper. See the bottom of this post for how to do that.
Now, if you’re going to add a modesty panel, you’ll do so now. If the panel does not attach at the zipper, you’ll layer it below the completed shirt front now and treat everything as a single layer (see below for more details). If it does need to attach at the zipper, there are instructions for that too.
If you’re not adding a modesty panel, just zip up the zippers and assemble the pattern according to the instructions, treating the front as a single piece.
When you sew your side seams/any seams that go over the zipper base, you’ll want to trim the zippers before running them through a serger. Trim all the way down to the width of the serged stitch (don’t run the zipper through the serger knife – it will dull it considerably and may get stuck). Baste the seam around the zipper with the sewing machine before serging. Hand crank over the zipper, and go slow to make sure your needles don’t hit the zipper teeth and break. You may also want to reinforce the seam at the zipper on a sewing machine.
Now, all that’s left is to add is the band or binding, assuming you’re using a stretch knit. Measure the two halves of your neckline up to the zipper or hemmed fabric edge. Calculate the length of band or binding by multiplying that length by 0.85 (depending on how stretchy the fabric is, multiply by anywhere from 0.80-0.90). Add seam allowance to that number (twice – once for each end). Hem the bands exactly one seam allowance. Apply the band or binding. I prefer binding when using a zipper because it allows the zipper to reach the top of the neckline without having the pointy, raw edges of the zipper tape touching the skin.
The modesty panel
There are two ways to insert the optional modesty panel – at the zippers or reaching all the way across to the armsyce/another seam if there is one further out toward the arms from your access point (such as with set in sleeves). For either approach, you need to prepare your pattern piece and fabric first (see each option below for how to do that).
Then, to prepare your modesty panel, finish the top and bottom. I like to sew 1/4″ elastic to the top (right at the edge) and then fold over the edge and topstitch the elastic, like you would to apply elastic to a swimsuit. This helps the neckline lay flat without a band or binding. You can also add a band or binding like you normally would if that part of the top were exposed. For the bottom, you could leave it unhemmed, hem it, or add elastic. Make sure it reaches your underbust before adding elastic to the bottom – you don’t want elastic digging into your boobs – I am awful at estimating how far down to make it go, so ignore my panel heights here, they are not right!
All the way across: To make the modesty panel pattern piece, trace the front of your original pattern (before you drew in the shoulder accent pieces) down to a few inches below the bust (the bust is usually a few inches below the base of the armsyce). Now, cut off about 1″ along the neckline curve, so your panel is a bit lower than your visible neckline.
To insert your modesty panel at the armsyces (only an option if you’re using the set in sleeve version), just lay the outer layer (after installing the zippers) on top of the modesty panel, lining up along the neckline and armsyce, and treat them as a single piece to sew the shoulder seams and to attach the sleeve. Remember that your shoulder width will be slightly smaller on your modesty panel since you trimmed down the neckline – line it up at the shoulder, not along the neck. You may want to baste the pieces together so they don’t shift while sewing.
At the zippers/snaps: If you’re making the modesty panel reach to the zippers only, trace your modified pattern front (the front piece after you removed the shoulder accents and added seam allowance) down to a few inches below the bust (the bust is usually a few inches below the base of the armsyce). Now, scoop down your traced pattern piece about 1″ below the original neckline.
To insert the modesty panel at the zippers/snaps, you’ll follow a few different approaches depending on what type of closure you’re using.
At a regular/invisible zipper: To insert your modesty panel at the zippers, you’ll install your zippers first. Then, fold the seam allowance on the zippers open toward the sleeve side. Sandwich the zipper between the shirt front (already sewn to the zipper) and the modesty panel, right sides facing and lining up the raw edges. Sew just inside your original stitching line (not quite as close to the zipper teeth). Repeat on the other side. Flip the entire piece rightside out and treat it as a single piece. This method will work regardless of what style shirt you’re making.
This is what it should look like when you’re finished (shown from all angles):
Now you’re ready to finish the shirt by sewing the rest of the seams and adding the binding or band. Scroll back up to the zipper installation section for tips on this part.
At a lace zipper or snaps: These are the easiest approaches to attach the modesty panel in the same place as your opening – instead of doing the basted seam or hemming over the piece closest to the sleeve for snaps, just sew it directly to the modesty panel, using the usual seam allowance. Basically, just pretend the modesty panel is the shirt front and make a seam there as if you’re not adding nursing access. Then proceed as you normally would to add the snaps or lace zipper there.