Hey everyone! This post has been updated (updates in italics) with regards to the questions being asked! Also thanks so much for your questions because they bring to light things that I forgot to mention and should have.
I used to think this wasn’t that important, but it is. Picking the right size can determine how many adjustments and alterations you’re going to have to make. You will probably have to make many anyway, but this can remove a good chunk. So you need to pick the correct size. Think of this in terms of altering your clothes. It’s just as hard to alter something that is way too big – like 3 sizes too big – as it is impossible to alter something that is 3 sizes too small. Picking the pattern size that is closest to you is much easier to alter than picking one that is 2 or 3 sizes too big or small for you.
For my part, I use my upper bust measurement, waist and hip. The upper bust measurement in particular is a good measurement to go by when picking a bodice because it will insure that you pick the correct shoulder, neck and sleeve arrangement for your body. You would pick this measurement in lieu of your full bust measurement for your bust – now that was a mouthful! This, if you don’t know, is the hardest place on the body to fit. Why? Because if you think of it you are trying to fit four moving tubes – your neck, shoulders, arms and upper bust. All of these tubes have different wearing ease amounts and they all play in tandem with each other. The second place on the body that is hardest to fit – the legs and torso. You’ve got three tubes there and that’s why pants are such a pain to fit. The upper bust measurement works out well too because it removes the headache of figuring out which cup size the pattern was drafted for. Instead, you pick the upper bust measurement for the bust and either do a full bust adjustment or small bust adjustment – something that will be determined better after you take more measurements and in the muslin phase.
For your upper bust, waist and hip, you’ll want to take these measurements in your underclothes – whatever that entails – and you’ll want to do it in front of a mirror. This way you can see what’s going on with the tape measure. The upper bust goes around the upper portion of your chest, which may or may not make the tape measure fall perfectly parallel with the floor. Also the measurement doesn’t need to be skin tight, just snug like you could put a finger or two in there with your measurement (note this for all measurements). The waist is taken at the narrowest point of your middle. This may or may not be where you wear things like skirts or pants and even if that is so, you still need a reference point. I put a piece of elastic around my waist and do the hula for a minute while it settles. Then I take my measurement over that. This is crucial for a bodice, but for a skirt or pair of pants, I measure the place on my mid section where I want the waist to hit me and then measure the pattern pieces to see just how much I might need to add or subtract in order to get these types of garments to hit me where I want them to hit me. This involves thinking about ease which I’ll be covering much more in depth later. For the hip, you need to take the measurement right at your hip bone and then again at your widest area below the waist which may or may not be at your hip bone. Let me tell you why. For pants, you need the measurement that is right at your hip bone. The crucial fitting part about pants is that they have to fit those three moving tubes pretty perfectly so you need to take the measurement at this crucial area because those intersections don’t happen mid thigh or what have you. However for skirts and dresses, you’ll want to take your hip measurement at your widest point below your waist. This actually means that you might have a wider measurement just below your hip bone and for skirts, this is much easier to fit. Not impossible to fit, just less work.
I know there are other ways to determine your correct size, but truly after having tried several ways (oh so many ways!!!) I always come back to taking these three measurements this way. They’ve served me well and they’ve also served those that I teach well too. They take care of the bigger headache areas and reduce the amount of work you have to do too. Let me clarify though that these are the things that have worked for me and for others that I have fit and worked with too. But if you feel you are picking the right size and are happy with the way things are working within that size, stay with what you’ve got. Also, you don’t have to take these measurements every time you pick a new pattern. Take them once, write them down, memorize them and then a few years later take them again, just to make sure that nothing has changed or what not. Our bodies will naturally age, things will start shifting and well, you know, that’s how it goes. Just check every few years to see what size bracket you fall into.
So what do I mean by “start with a basic sewing pattern/build a collection of basic patterns?” When I think of a basic sewing pattern, I do think of the fitting shells put out by McCall’s, Butterick and Vogue. I only think of them, I don’t actually utilize them. You can of course, but I find it much more beneficial to start with something that has what I’m already looking for. Fitting shells are supposed to fit you like a second skin and really, you wouldn’t ever make one to wear. You would have to add ease into the garment so that you could wear it. Add to that the fact that when you start adding ease, you start adding fitting and drafting problems. So why not just fit something closer to what you want instead of fitting a fitting shell and then trying to make it work for what you want?
When I’m thinking about a basic fitting shell, when I pick a basic pattern, I’m looking at the same types of lines – lines that will be easy to manipulate later. Let’s dissect the fitting shell for a minute:
There is a basic bodice. The bodice is darted. The darts originate from the bust (side seam) and the waist in both the front and the back. Some fitting shells have a shoulder dart in the back bodice too. The skirt is a straight skirt style – kind of like a pencil skirt. It has darts too. Two in the front and two in the back. The sleeve is a set-in sleeve, full length and sometimes has a dart in the elbow. There’s lots of darts here. The awesome thing about darts is that they are the building blocks of manipulation, so when you are looking at new sewing patterns and you’re thinking, “hmmmm….I want something that could be manipulated,” look at where the darts are placed. Have a gander at this post for rotating a dart. Now let’s take a look at a basic pattern that I would pick.
Let’s take this NewLook pattern for example. It’s a basic shell with some variations. Very basic. The nice thing is that it has some promising neckline variations and there’s a woven t-shirt added to the mix too. What I’m especially looking at here is that its got a dart. Its a single dart – the bust dart, the one that originates from the side seam. Its semi-fitted and pulls over the head, so I shouldn’t have to deal with trying to add ease, I should just be able to fit this style and then start playing around with my own variations. It’s basic. It’s classic. You could actually wear this and make a bajillion iterations. Then you can start playing designer and fiddle around with your pattern and create a whole wardrobe of garments based off this one simple pattern. This is the part that excites me. I can see the potential in this pattern. I can see a dress, I can see myself moving the darts around, adding gathers in places, creating a cute little tulip sleeve (oh be still my heart!!), lengthening it for a tunic to wear with leggings, adding a button front, adding a collar. Do you see what I mean? Do you see the fun and creativity that you can inject into the pattern yourself? This is what I mean by a basic pattern.
If you can’t see the potential in a pattern – as in, you could change this or add that and it would make it look completely different – then I think you’ve taken half the fun out of the pattern itself. Granted there are those designs that defy logic and are worth having just because they are so amazingly different and you couldn’t possibly draft that yourself. Personally, I find those to be few and far between, but those are things you’ll have to decide for yourself.
The other thing to keep in mind when you’re picking a basic pattern is the fit factor. In fact, the whole reason I’m writing these posts! Starting with something basic will be easier to fit than starting with something complicated. There’s definitely going to be some things that are not as easy to fit as others, but this NewLook pattern (above), it looks pretty easy to fit and is something that I wouldn’t have to spend copious amounts of time doing a muslin for.
So this friends, is my “basic pattern” soapbox for the day. I’ve also put together a pinterest board of some really great basic patterns. That way if you’re still kind of not sure what you’re looking for, you can go have a gander there where I’ll be adding more patterns all the time. These are just guidelines, but definitely things to think about as you begin amassing a collection of basic patterns to fit to your body.
So what are you thinking? What’s the first pattern you’d want to try? I’ll also do a post on where I think you should start with the fitting process, but what is the ultimate garment you want to fit?
I debated whether or not to include this post in this series, but I’m becoming more and more passionate about using a basic pattern to start with than anything else – something we’ll go over more in depth later on. Knowing about how patterns come to into being will help you understand why they don’t fit some people, most people, all people, whatever. I hope you’ll find this post revealing especially as refers to demystifying how patterns are made.
You might be surprised that not all sewing patterns start from what we know as a sloper (something like the fitting shell patterns from McCall’s, Butterick or Vogue). In fact, I nearly fell off my chair when I read this passage from Fashion Incubator (also, read this post and this post if you are interested in the process, especially if you’ve ever thought about creating your own sewing patterns):
“The real meaning of sloper is a pattern without seam allowance, regardless of what it’s for. Drafting a basic fitting shell (“sloper” to home sewers) is just a whole lot of work. In real life, there’s faster ways to get there. Beginners feel as though they have to earn their stripes by doing it the hard way, that they have to put a lot of work into drafting a basic fitting shell as tho it were a rite of passage or something. It’s amazing the work they put into it and what for? They still end up with a jizillion iteration cycles. Bummer.
Now, the way we do it is to buy or use something that is similar to what we want to do and we fit that. Then we use a basic body -a block or an existing pattern, the fit of which we already like- and transfer to that, whatever the distinctive features of the new style. Plus, we make our fit changes. This way our first prototype will come out looking pretty good. For example, let’s say we’re making a coat. We are not going to start with a basic fitting shell. We will start with a coat pattern that we already have, that looks closest to the style we want to develop. That’s much different than how they teach you in school where everybody starts with a basic fitting shell. Fitting shells are pretty close to useless when it comes to style development; doing that, one will end up making a lot more iterations than we do. In real life, you’d be hard pressed to find a basic fitting shell pattern in the plant of any manufacturer. Beginners go from a “sloper” to coat incrementally. That’s a lot of work. Start with a coat. Make the changes, including fit. Then, bingo, you’re there. If you want to make a blouse, start with a blouse. Develop a basic range of styles that fit you and use them over and over again.” [emphasis added]
Though Kathleen is talking about industry patterns to create garments in the ready-to-wear world, this gives you a taste of how sewing patterns – from any company, commercial or independent – are made. The number one question I’m asked when teaching is, “Why don’t sewing patterns fit me?” Let’s talk about what the pattern companies are fitting/drafting to – what/who are the models? What is the original sloper fitted to? The Big 4 fit to a dress form, or so I’ve read in many different places. Personally, I think that reveals a lot of things. Who is a dress form size and proportion? Dress forms are very helpful, but they are not real people. Still the pattern companies have to start from somewhere. The independent pattern companies? Who do they fit for? Usually, these small businesses fit their patterns to the creator of the company. For example, Tasia is the model for Sewaholic Patterns. She stated this in so many words right at the outset of her pattern company. She drafts for pear shapes and she is a pear shape and so its easier and more beneficial for her to start with something that fits her body type and create patterns from there. I think its really really important to approach fitting from this vantage point. Instead of always snatching up the latest and greatest pattern from the pattern companies, it can actually be really beneficial to just look at the latest designs and create them yourself from your own set of patterns that already fit! I realize that reinventing the wheel each time a new pattern comes out (meaning I actually have to fit that pattern) is just not something I care to waste my time doing – unless of course they fit you right out of the envelope or with very few alterations. “Develop a basic range of styles that fit you and use them over and over again.” The even better thing about this approach is you can take elements you like from a pattern that you have not fit and subtract things you don’t like. Let me give you an example.
Remember way back when I made this shirt dress. This dress has been in heavy rotation and was finally retired this year. I have worn this thing to death. I have loved this dress so much. It was awfully hard to fit, but in the end I did it and had a wonderfully fitting dress.
Then I saw the release of Colette’s Hawthorn this year. In the back of my mind I thought, “Hmmmm…I could recreate this style with my own pattern (that already fits!!!) by simply changing the neckline treatment.” No, my pattern is not the same as Colette’s but my pattern fits me and has many elements that I prefer to the Hawthorn. For those of you that are interested, I actually picked up the Colette Hawthorn and tried to fit it. For me its not worth it. There were so many things that needed fixing that in the end, it would be easier to draft my own version of the neckline using my own well fitting pattern than try to get this pattern to fit me the way I want. Additionally I could subtract the things I didn’t totally love, like the collar treatment and the absence of the sewn-on button placket for my own pattern. See how that works?
Now, what I’m not trying to do here is bag on sewing patterns. Sewing patterns are wonderful because drafting your own slopers from scratch can be a huge ordeal. I’ve done it and it is a big deal and really, I didn’t get any better results than I did when I just fit a fairly basic sewing pattern. There are exceptions – straight skirt, leggings, a t-shirt maybe, but seriously, fitting and a well drafted pattern go hand in hand. Just because you draft a pattern, to your measurements, does not mean it will fit you – ask me how I know…. This all feeds back into that same idea – “Develop a basic range of styles that fit you and use them over and over again.” What needs to be clearly understood here is that you don’t have to purchase a new sewing pattern every time you want to sew a different style. Look at the patterns that you have in your stash with similar lines/shapes, that you’ve made, that you’ve already done the fittings for and manipulate those, add in new details and such.
I know this post is getting long, but I also want to give you another idea for starting with something that fits you better than a sewing pattern ever could. A rub-off. Getting a pattern from a pre-existing garment. Remember when I did this little knit cardigan? Remember when I made this jacket? Both were rub-offs. I utilize Steffani Lincecum’s book for how to do this and I do it a lot. She also has a Craftsy class on this topic. So does Kenneth King – he uses a different method, but achieves the same end in his Jean-ius class. He also shows you how to do it in this Pattern Review class. There are many ways to do a rub-off, so don’t think that there’s only one right way. The key is, if you have a dress, skirt, blouse, jacket, etc., etc., that you bought from so-and-so and you love it and you wear it to death and it fits you just the way you want it to fit you, then get a pattern from it, asap. You will have eliminated a ton of work for yourself. If you end up purchasing Steffani’s book, it also gives you ways to change the pattern. Yes! You can create a whole wardrobe of tops from your favorite blouse. This book has completely changed the way I look at sewing patterns and fitting. I love it that much!
Alright, I’ve given you a lot to chew on here. What do you think? Does it surprise you how sewing patterns are made? Did you ever think that you could play designer instead of letting the pattern companies do it for you?
After my class at Sewing Summit, I’ve been receiving numerous requests from the ladies who attended to publish the material I presented there, here. So to catch y’all up to speed, I did a lecture style class on fit and gave some advice on how to go about the fitting process with some ideas for resources and I demonstrated a few of my favorite alterations and adjustments. I feel that the number one reason people end up never sewing again, is fit. Fitting is frustrating. Oh my gosh, it is so frustrating! What I’ve also found is that while you can get the best fit by sewing for yourself, most times this is the result of a lot of hard work. Personally, I also find (lots to find out with fit!) that ready to wear clothing actually does fit me better than just trying to recreate the look with a sewing pattern. This also usually depends on the sewing pattern in question and the particular style/garment I’m after, but goodness gracious, it can be difficult.
I think the process of fitting a garment can not only be frustrating, but intimidating. Where do I start? What is the best course of action? Do I always have to make a muslin? When I make a muslin, what do I look for? Do I make more than one muslin? What is a muslin? How do I know that what I am looking at needs to be altered and at what point do I reach crazy, and jump off that train so as not to overfit?
So I’ve decided to take you through the process that I go through when I’m looking at sewing a new sewing pattern plus we’re going to have some awesome discussions on different fitting related subjects. I’ll be showing you how to adjust a sewing pattern from a list of measurements – that you’ll take yourself – and from there how to create a proper muslin, what you’re looking and feeling for, my favorite fitting books for looking at your muslin to see what’s wrong and how to fix it and how it is possible to go through this process by yourself and fit yourself without a fitting buddy. A sewing/fitting buddy is awesome, but if you’re anything like me, and you’re fitting yourself at 11pm at night, its not like you can just call up your bestest fitting friend and tell them to get over here and help you out. Fitting is also a process. A long process when you have a fitted garment and sometimes you don’t get all the kinks out of the pattern until you’ve made it up a few times.
I’m really really excited to show you some of my tricks and I received permission to publish one of my favorite fitting tutorials here – one that came as a complete revelation to me and one that I’m pretty sure you’ll love too. Also, all the tutorials and posts for this series here on my blog are mostly finished – meaning they are practically ready to post any day! Yes! That’s means that I’ll be giving you bites every few days and you won’t have to wait and I won’t be a liar and well, you know how that goes.
To make matters even better, this is all going to lead back into my Pattern Play series that I kind of, sort of started at the beginning of this year. I’m actually getting kind of passionate about how hard it can be to fit a single pattern and then filling your closet with versions of that pattern – easy peasy changes to create a completely different look from one pattern.
So, look for fitting posts up and coming. I hope you’ll find my process not only informative, but also easy to follow and get a feel for. Fitting is not necessarily easy, but if you tackle it all one garment at a time, you will get the hang of it. It’s about practice and training. Kind of like running a marathon or playing a musical instrument – before your big debut, you have to have built up to it.
What do you think about fitting? Is it frustrating for you? What’s the most overwhelming part of the process?