Pattern Hall of Fame: The Basic Shell Top

The shell top is a classic pattern to sew. From the McCall Pattern Company blog.

If there was such a thing as the Pattern Hall of Fame, the basic shell top would definitely be in it. It packs a lot of style using a small amount of fabric (usually a yard, give or take) and the minimal design details means it sews up fast. The shell can be worn short and boxy, or you can make it longer and belt it or tuck it in. And with or without sleeves, the shell top has been a year-round favorite of fashion designers for years.

I usually make at least two or more shell tops a year. They’re quick to sew and once it starts getting warmer outside I prefer to keep the patterns I make on the easy side. Besides, one of my sewing mantras is “let the fabric do the heavy lifting for you.” Choose a fabric with a bold print or an appealing texture and pair it with a very simple design, like a shell top. With the Butterick B6175 shell top I made here, I used an Oscar de la Renta brocade that’s been marinating in my stash for over five years:

Butterick B6175 top made by Meg Carter of the McCall Pattern Company
When you have a gorgeous, detailed fabric like this one from Oscar de la Renta, it’s best to keep the design details to a minimum and let the fabric take the starring role. Butterick B6175 shell top pattern.
Butterick B6175 top made by Meg Carter of the McCall Pattern Company. Exposed back zipper framed in petersham ribbon.
I created a little back interest with an exposed zipper framed by a navy petersham ribbon.
Butterick B6175 top made by Meg Carter of the McCall Pattern Company. Inside view showing half lining.
Inside view of this top. Half-lining made of black silk charmeuse. I like my facings on the big and wide side, so I used one of my French curve rulers and filled in the facing to give more coverage in the front and back.

Everything for this top came from my stash and not a penny was spent. Ok, so I did pay $50/yard for the Oscar fabric in 2009 and I bought the charmeuse and the zipper and the ribbon at one time too…. But since everything has been just aging and depreciating in my stash for years now, I can claim I made it for $0, right?! Do you apply that kind of logic too when you use up stuff in your stash?

Shell top sewing inspiration:

Sewing inspiration: RTW shell tops. McCall Pattern Company blog

Shell top patterns from Butterick, McCall’s and Vogue Patterns:

Shell top sewing patterns from McCall's, Butterick and Vogue Patterns
Shell top pattern illustration from our archives:

From the McCall Pattern Company archives: 1950s Vogue Patterns illustrations
Shell top patterns from the 1950s. Vogue Patterns illustration.

Is a shell top pattern on your list to sew for the season? I just cut out another shell top last night, this time from Butterick B5948ย in lightweight denim. What other pattern styles should be in a pattern hall of fame, if there was such a thing?

Easy and chic shell top sewing patterns.


We’ve been sewing since 1863.

  1. I am absolutely in love with your fabric! And you’ve done a wonderful job of creating the half lining from the facings. You will get years of compliments from that shell, I’m sure.

    1. Thanks, Starr!

  2. Ok how about that funnel neck shell? With a 3/4 sleeve to boot! What a tease!!! Please reprint that one!!

  3. Meg, your shell is darling and truly couture with the lining and the clever petersham zipper detail in the back. Unfortunately, I’m in a dress phase these days. So no shells for me.

    1. Thanks, Mary Beth!

  4. I have a large remnant of that Oscar fabric left over from a previous project. You have inspired me!

  5. That is a magnificent top, and timeless. The shell top does indeed deserve a high ranking in the pattern Hall of Fame.

    1. Thanks, Jacquie!

  6. I love the idea of a shell top but they aren’t very flattering for big busts. I would love a simple go to top pattern, any ideas?

    1. Naomi, All patterns are created for a B bust and can be altered to fit C, D and up. It is an easy fix once you learn to do it. Just google it and I am sure you will find many references. Every pattern I sew gets shortened in the torso then a bust increase. I also take out the sleeve ease so all my patterns give me a great fit and look professionally made.

      1. Naomi’s comment didn’t relate to not know ing how to get a generous bust into a shell top, I think it related to the fact that shell tops look dreadful on large busts. I have a trim waist and somewhere that has to be seen otherwise I just look pregnant. But I do get your point.

        1. My DDD chest disagrees! ๐Ÿ™‚ I think it’s a matter of perfecting the fit and style lines. I’m going to aim for either a french dart (which will enable me to carve away more fabric below the bust line) or front and back fish-eye darts in addition to the side bust dart. I’d also recommend a V-neckline, which is always more flattering for a large bust line.
          Another option is to make a bias cut shell top which will naturally be less boxy.

          1. Grace, excellent points! Cutting on the bias…always think of that after I’ve cut my pattern!

    2. Hi Naomi! Which do you prefer to wear, knits or wovens?

      1. Hi Meg. I’ve mostly sewn with wovens but I keen to try some knits.
        Thanks Lesley that was what I meant, but I appreciate your suggestion Donna. I’ve done a couple of FBAs and I’m getting better at them.
        Love the blog and your instagram Meg especially your sewing stories, lucky I checked that, it said swing instead of sewing and that would be a different type of blog altogether!

  7. I first want to say I love your blog.. I’m 63 and been sewing all my life. I lost my passion for sewing around 2000 but I finally got tired of pants and tops that didn’t fit properly so I started going through my old patterns and checking out the new. I stumbled upon your blog and truly love your new and young ideas. THANK YOU!

    1. Thanks, Susie! Hope you stick with us as a reader!

  8. I love the partial lining as an alternative to a facing.

  9. That top is absolutely beautiful, Meg!

    And that’s exactly the kind of logic I use when I add up the cost… I pulled it from the zipper pile, it was free lol

    1. Thanks, Tasha! Great minds think alike, right?!

  10. Very nice top, I agree more is less with fabrics especially beautiful prints. That way the print of the fabric shines and the details of the pattern aren’t loss or go unoticed

    1. Thank you!

  11. That is such a pretty top and gorgeous details. I agree with our logic of the free fabric.

    1. Thanks, Lori! I love your recent top from this pattern. You look adorable in it.

  12. I love making shell tops, I’m just setting the sleeves in to my latest Liberty print version! I find they are quick to make and easy to wear. I’m totally going to steal that exposed zip and ribbon combination!

  13. Hey, could you recommend a shell pattern with a cowl neck (for knit fabrics)? I have one from Vogue, but the front is split into 3 pieces. I guess I could just join them…

    1. Hi Tracy! You could join the pattern pieces like you said. Or, you could add a cowl neck to another pattern of yours…

  14. Love the Oscar de la Renta fabric. I just bought my first vintage pattern, a suit from 1964. I bought it for the shell top. Why settle for a T-shirt when you can wear a shell.

    1. Amen to that, Denise!

  15. Every nice. I make at least 1 a year. But I am not sure how to sew the exposed zip with the ribbon. Is there a tutorial to watch? If not you could do one. Thanks.

    1. Hi! I just did a search myself and didn’t find any tutorials for something like my ribbon zipper. So I guess I should try to do one for this blog!

  16. I just made a dress with an exposed zipper bought in NY years ago. We have a paucity of exposed zipper choices here down under so the Petersham ribbon is genius. Definitely will mention this in my post about the gold dress I just made my Princess!

  17. Other items to go in the sewing pattern hall of fame: two skirts: one straight pencil skirt and one a-line with a bit of flare… oh and maybe a full circle skirt too.

  18. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I wrote this article ! I am a die hard shell girl… beautiful colors and fabrics. Iove this post !!!!!

  19. The shell top you made is absolutely beautiful and amazing. The petersham ribbon around the zipper is inspired! And that fabric!!

    1. Thank you, Bella! This one was all in the fabric.

  20. I just made a shell top last week – a Vogue 6705 pattern from 1962 – very similar to the 3/4 sleeve orange top with funnel neck. I love it – simple (well a little bit of detail at the front) and lets the fabric shine. I’m going to make it again this weekend. Have also made shell tops from lace to wear over a singlet or cami. And yes, that was definitely a free top!

  21. j’aime beaucoup ce genre de haut car ils ont l’air facilement modulable (mais pour l’instant je me contente de suivre les patrons ร  la lettre ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  22. I have been making shell tops for a long time, using two McCall’s patterns that are unfortunately now OOP – 2031 and 8405. The first one has darts, the second princess seams. Either one is worth tracking down via ebay or other reseller.

  23. Such a great way to showcase a favorite fabric! I need to make a couple of shells- they look so nice with slim pants!

    Oh, and fabric from your stash is always free! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. Lovely. I love shell tops too, but without darts. How do you delete the bust dart?

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