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Sewing Dresses & Apparel Tips from Suzannah: National Sewing Month 2013

It’s Day Seven of National Sewing Month! Too see the daily blog posts, projects of the day, and more National Sewing Month details, click here.

National Sewing Month 2013

Today we welcome guest blogger, Suzannah from Adventures in Dressmaking who is sharing tips on her specialty: dressmaking/apparel sewing!

For a couple years now I’ve had a feature on my blog called”Sewing Circle.” It started when a reader sent me a question about how to choose patterns to go with a few fabrics she’d collected. It’s sometimes hard to imagine how you can make a sewing pattern on your own, so we had fun talking about styles she was interested and how she could make them out of her fabrics. I posted about it on my blog and the series was born. Since then I’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers about how to copy a dress they’ve seen in a magazine or even a store window, and a lot of general questions from sewing beginners.

I thought I’d summarize a few of my favorite sewing techniques and tips based on some top Sewing Circle questions I’ve received.

How to Cut Out the Right Pattern Size

Using patterns can be confusing, but before you even cut them out, you have to choose the right size — which can be even trickier! I can lend some insight into how to choose the right size and cut out the right fit.

  • Sewing patterns use standard body measurements developed by the US Department of Standards during WWII. These are fairly outdated now, so many of us feel may need to cut out a size 3-5 sizes bigger than our current ready-to-wear dress size!
  • But, most people don’t have the exact bust, waist, and hip measurements of any particular size. When cutting out a dress or top, the bust measurement is probably most important. Use the size that matches your bust measurement, and taper at the waist (angle in or out when cutting after measuring) to fit. On a dress with a gathered skirt, for example, the hip measurement doesn’t matter at all, and even for the A-line skirts, it’s not as important as waist and bust, so you may be able to ignore that number and cut out the right size for your bust and waist. For pants or skirts, use the pattern that matches your hip measurement and make the waist fit. Or, if the numbers are pretty close, I usually use the average size. If your bust is an 8, your waist a 12, and your hips a 10, for example, use the size 10 pattern as a base.
  • Unfortunately, modern sewing patterns are not designed to fit as snugly as some of us might like for tailored garments. You may find you cut out what is supposed to be the right size in something, only to be swimming in it once you put it together. There are a couple possible reasons for this: 1) most sewing patterns are not high fashion and are not often made for trendy juniors’ sizes and snug fits. 2) most patterns are intended for a 5/8” seam allowance, and if you use a 1/2″ or smaller, it actually makes a big difference in fit.
  • Also note: patterns will usually tell you the “finished garment” measurements as well as the bust, waist, etc. to use when picking out your size. If your bust is 36″, the dress’s bust may be 38″ or 39″ to allow for movement and wearing ease. If you see these measurements and want something snugger, check the finished garment measurements for the smaller size down — maybe you should cut out that one.
  • If you want to test out a pattern, make a “muslin” out of whatever cheap fabric you can find — an old sheet, a thrift store find, or a fabric that you got on sale would be great! This way you can test out the pattern without spending too much time or expensive fabric. You don’t have to finish the edges of the muslin or add fastenings or anything.

You can custom-make patterns for your size, by measuring the pattern pieces as you cut.

  • The first thing you should do when cutting out a new pattern (when you don’t know how tightly or loosely it will fit) is measure the pieces and how large it will be when you sew them together. To do this, you need to lay them out taking into account the seam allowances (if you use 5/8″, overlap them 1 1/4″ at each seam) and measure across the bust and waist.
  • Try on the garment before you assemble to fashion fabric to the lining–it’s way easier to take in seams before you have two layers and a join at the top edge, for example. Pin the bodice closed where the zipper will be and look in the mirror. Use pins and a fabric marker if you like to pinch in where it’s too big or mark where it’s too small.
  • If all that fails and the garment is still too big, take it in some at the sides as well as the back—you don’t want your side seams to be so far off your sides. It’ll look kind of funky if anyone sees, and it may pull weirdly at the waist since the bodice is curved for the smallest part. You don’t have to take the bodice all the way apart, just 3-4″ or so on each side at the top, then go in and take it in.

It may sound like a lot, but once you get started with a muslin or simple pattern to start with, you’ll get more comfortable tailoring clothes for your shape and style!

Good Fabrics for Beginning Sewers

Some fabrics are better than others if you’re just getting comfortable with making your own clothes.

First, almost all clothing patterns will tell you on the back what the recommended fabrics are, although they’re not always helpful. Always read the back of the pattern if you’re concerned, and look at those types of fabrics while you’re in the fabric store.

The biggest differences in fabric are in weight — you can’t make a heavy coat out of a sheer chiffon. So think about fabrics in terms of the garment you’d make out of them, and stick to that. Some fabrics, like “shirtings,” are great for blouses and tops, but not great for pants or shorts. A nice linen with an embroidered pattern is good for a skirt or maybe a dress, but too heavy for a shirt. And, of course, a knit fabric is best for patterns that are meant for knits (they will tell you on the pattern). And alternatively, don’t make a pattern that’s meant for a woven fabric out of a stretchy one. It won’t work.

Generally, the fabrics that are best for apparel are in the front of the fabric store. They are often seasonal colors or named for the types of things they’re best for (“suitings,” “bottomweights,”…). You can take the recommendations of the store displays!

Quilting fabrics, often near the back of the store, come in super cute prints but are not meant for clothing. They can work for clothing, with a lining or appropriate finishing, but they are best for quilts or shower curtains or little home dec projects. I know, some of the prints are sooooo cute, but it is hard to make them durable and wearable. I don’t use them for clothing myself, although some people I know do.

The other very important thing to consider are the accessory fabrics that you’ll need to use: linings and interfacings. A very lightweight but crisp cotton is lovely for a lining, but poly/nylon linings are cheap and easy to find. I use lightweight fusible interfacing on pieces of the garment that need reinforcing. Don’t skip the lining and interfacing! As for my personal preference, I like natural fibers better than nylon, polyester, acrylic, fleece, etc. any day. I do use artificial fibers for many linings, and for some silk tops. But I love a good cotton dress!

How to Combine Patterns to Make Your Own Styles

Now that you’ve got the basics of cutting out your pattern and choosing the fabric, get creative! Some of my favorite dresses feature two different fabrics, one for the bodice and one for the skirt.

The basic idea is, combine two patterns of the same 1) size and 2) fit/shape. So, if your waist is 28″, you could combine the bodice for ANY dress that hits at the natural waistline and has a finished waist measurement of 28″ with ANY skirt pattern that also has a waist of 28″! Or, as I do, you don’t have to use a pattern for the skirt if you pleat or gather it into the waist. Or add a waistband — making sure you make the bodice above it shorter to accommodate it.  The tricky part comes when you use a skirt or bodice that has a scooped front, and you may need to adjust the skirt or bodice to match the skirt or bodice you’re pairing it with.

And, of course, you want to combine patterns of the same fit/shape. What I mean by that is: you can’t combine an empire waist bodice with a skirt that’s meant to hit at the natural waist, obviously (you’d get a weird baby-doll, and unless that’s the look you’re going for, it’s not going to work!). You can’t combine the bodice for a loose, flowy, knit dress with a pencil skirt dress pattern. So look at the finished garment measurements on the pattern package to guide you (if it has anything for the waist or wherever you’re combining) and just use common sense, and you’ll be fine. Here I combined a spaghetti strap fitted bodice with a pencil skirt (and added my own ruffle!) and got…

Sometimes with sleeves or even the waist, there’s a difference of 1/2″ or so, and you can normally stretch or pleat a little to make it fit (as long as you match your center front, back, and sides) or, try on the lining or unfinished bodice and see which pattern you want to cater to — if the armhole is too tight but the sleeve fits fine, cut the armhole a little deeper in the armpit, for example. If the waist is too big on the dress but fine on the skirt, take in the side seam on the dress a little.

These are some of my fave tips on making your own clothes and dresses! Check out my blog, Adventures in Dressmaking, for more of my fave ideas and projects for clothes, home, crafts, food, and more!


Have you ever started to make a dress for someone else and then decided to keep it for yourself?



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