Patterns of Frustration

Q: I have sewn since I was a girl, starting in 4-H and continuing in home economics in high school. I used to be able to take a pattern and with very little tweaking, make it fit me. Nowadays, patterns need so much tweaking that I get frustrated and my undone garment sits dejectedly in my sewing room. Is it me? Is it the patterns? I enjoy sewing but not making the patterns fit.

~ Carrie B. Redding, CA

A: You are not alone in your frustration! Many very good seamstresses put aside the fabric when they can't make a garment fit well. After all, why spend all that time carefully crafting the seams and design details when you get a less-than-perfect look from the finished product?

I hate to say it but... it's probably you! Fitting a young body is very different from fitting a body that is post-40. Even if you are the same "size," your body has changed. You now have lumps and bumps and "gravity problems" that you didn't have when you were 20. How that translates to pattern fitting is that you need more ease and you need to make sure the pattern lines up with your body lengths.

Ease, as you may remember from sewing class, is the amount of fabric needed for movement. Every fabric and every style and every body has their own particular need for ease. What feels loose to you when you are standing may feel too tight when you sit. The same amount of ease in a close-fitting garment may not be enough in a looser-fitting one. And if you are a plus size, you will be surprised at how much ease you will need for a truly comfortable garment. Our "fluff" can really spread out!

That is why it is essential to do a muslin mock-up for each pattern. You actually make up the garment in muslin without the finishing details. This will give you an idea of how the fit will be. You can sit, stand, walk, and get a feeling for how much ease you need.

On the muslin, I use red and blue pens to mark bust line, waist line, hip line and knee line along with center back and center front. On the sleeves, I mark elbow, wrist and upper arm. These lines will give a lot of information about your body that you probably didn't know before. You may not have wanted to know, but that is another subject. Ahem.

If, for instance, the bust line on the pattern is above your natural bust, the garment can feel tight because the darts won't be in the right place. If the center back or center front lines are askew, you may have a shoulder higher than the other (very common problem) that will result in diagonal wrinkles. I suggest you find a book that gives you wrinkle charts. Reading the wrinkles will help you analyze your fit problems once and for all, especially if you find the same wrinkles in every garment.

Another problem is that a lot of people think that the size they wear in ready-to-wear clothing is the same size they wear in patterns. Not so. You could be as much as 2 sizes away from what you "normally" wear. Each pattern company fits a little bit different, so be sure to follow the measurement guide on the back of the patterns. In general, if you are between sizes, you should go by the largest measurement. For instance, if you are a 39" bust and the pattern size is 38" or 40", get the 40". It's usually easier to size a pattern down rather than up. And most people fudge a bit on measuring themselves anyway.

Once you are satisfied with the fit of the muslin and you make the adjustments on the pattern, it's time to cut your fabric. The changes you make will result in a much better fit, but say you are making the garment in wool gabardine or cotton batik. Muslin is a thin fabric with a medium tension. You must check the fit again before finishing your outfit because your fabric may have more or less ease than the muslin. The lengths will be close, and that will help tremendously with the fit, but you must still check the circumferences before finishing.

I add seam allowances so that I can let the garment out if needed. I use 1" seam allowances on the side, shoulder, and waist seams. That way, I can add as much as 2 inches around if I need to and as much as ¾ inch each to the length of the bodice and waist. I also add 3 inches to the hemlines.

Baste the main pieces of your garment together and try on. Line up center fronts on a blouse or jacket; overlap the "zipper" for pants or dresses. Check the fit again and adjust as needed.

It sounds like a lot of work before you even get to the "fun" part of sewing, but if you are going to take the time to make a one-of-a-kind outfit, isn't it worth it to get an excellent fit?

Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or [email protected]

Barbara Stone
Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or [email protected]
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1 Response

  1. zan says:

    One thing I love to do is to take a perfect fitting, well-worn and loved garment from my closet and take it apart to make a pattern from it. I've been sewing for MANY years so I have enough experience to reconstruct a garment without instructions–it's amazingly simple, and the bonus is I know it will fit. Once you have a basic shirt/pant/jacket pattern you can tweak away at customizing the look. It's pretty fun to do.

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