Ten things you must do before you start sewing

The key to success in making your own clothes is to make the right styles, that fit you well, in the right fabric.

I never, ever, just pick up a pattern, pull it out and start making it up “straight out of the envelope”. The time you put into these ten steps before you even start to layout the pattern will reward you at the end.

If you want the clothes that you make to satisfy you it makes sense to put the time and trouble in before you reach for your scissors.

  1. Choose a pattern to consider
    Vogue 7133
    Vogue 7133
    • I am thinking of making the dress (having already made the jacket). The dress is described as “Slightly fitted dress has short sleeves, continuing from yoke.”
  2. Will this style suit your figure? Have a good look at the technical drawing. If not can you alter it to ensure that it does?
    Vogue 7133 Technical Drawing
    Vogue 7133 Technical Drawing
    • Strictly speaking no. There are no darts in the back of this dress, and there is minimal shaping into the waist. It is basically a shift dress. I could adapt it by putting in darts, shaping the waist more or flaring out a little at the hips. However by choosing a dress that slides over the curves rather than emphasising them I believe this dress will flatter me. The loosely arranged chain belt will show the waist in a subtle way.
    • At this stage I am think that I will need to measure the hips carefully as this pattern is drafted for a 36″ hip (and my hips are bigger than that).
    • A “slightly fitted” style will ideally suits a straight, or semi-straight figure.
    • Because I am fairly slim I can wear these shift styles with some modifications (see for example this one).
  3. Does it suit your taste and wardrobe personality?
    • Absolutely. I am a classic dresser, with a twist. The twist comes from using a vintage pattern. It has a neat silhouette, and a tailored look which is right up my street, style-wise. I like the simple look with clever details – the kimono sleeve. And the topstitching. Elegant.
  4. Choose the right size
    • This is a vintage pattern, not a modern multi-sized pattern. With second-hand, out of print patterns, you have to buy what is available.  I generally look for bust 32 or 34 because they tend to fit better at the shoulder,  and alter it to fit. You can alter any pattern to fit but there is more work if it is more than 2″ too big or small at the bust.
    • A lot of people buy a pattern based on their RTW size preference eg I am size 10, therefore I will buy a size 10 pattern. This is a risky strategy as most RTW has “vanity sizing”. You could buy RTW size 10 and have a 36″ bust. So go on your real bust and hip measurements. Don’t flatter yourself that you are smaller than you are. Big mistake. However many modern Big4 patterns have loads of ease in them – a version of vanity sizing – so you maybe OK. Tip 6 covers this point in more detail.
  5. Read the instructions to understand how it is constructed. Is this what you want?
    • With this pattern – Vogue 7133 – the dress is underlined, and that it is top stitched. It is not lined. In other words a “couture dress” construction. This means that is will look like a tailored dress with some body. It is not meant to be soft and drapey.  Is that what you want? Having asked myself this question I can say Yes, I am looking for a smart, tailored dress that I can wear with a jacket, including the one that comes with the pattern, for work or slightly formal occasions.
  6. Measure the pattern pieces to ensure correct fit and appropriate ease
    • You don’t have to make up every pattern first with a toile. Sometimes this is necessary to get the fit right. But generally if you measure the pattern carefully at all the important points and check it against your own measurements that will be good enough, most of the time. You work out the fullest part of the bust, for example, and measure the pattern (back and front), not including any seam allowances or darts. Then so  long as this measurement is the same as yours plus an inch or so you are in business. There may be other fine tuning that requires a toile, but nine times out of ten, the three main measurements will suffice to get enough girth into your garments. Most other alterations are about shortening or lengthening which is a much easier dimension to work in.
    • With this pattern I think the bust will be fine (as I have already made the jacket). I will check the hip measurement and may add a little width.
    • In terms of the length I will probably keep the length suggested – just on the knee – as this was the fashion at the time. I can wear a shorter skirt, but only with tights. If I cover the thighs then I could, if it’s really hot, wear this dress with bare legs.
  7. Make the alterations
    • Of course it is much easier to make alterations to paper before you start than trying to make them in the fabric as you go along. As well as making the pattern bigger, smaller, longer or shorter at the correct points you may have a few things that you always have to do – eg FBA. Use paper strips and paper tape to adjust or use a fine red felt tip to change the shape of darts etc.
  8. Consult pattern envelope on fabric type
    • The first fabric mentioned on the envelope – in this case Gabardine – is the one used by the pattern company or designer to make up the test garment. This is the “ideal” fabric. The others mentioned are on a list of “equivalent” types the company has taking into account relative stiffness/softness, drape, weight and suitability. This pattern also suggests Flannel, Wool Crepe, Wool Jersey, Linen, and Pique. It is useful if you know what all these fabrics are, so you can extemporise. Basically we have a list of stable, midweight fabrics, made from natural fibres – wool, linen, and cotton. Wool jersey is an interesting one as it does stretch, but not that much. Good quality wool jersey (one of Chanel’s favourites, and I remember Jean Muir talking about how she designed in it when she worked for Jaeger) will generally work well for tailored dresses and jackets and is comfortable. I use quite a lot of double wool crepe as my favourite supplier has it in a wide range of colours. I have linen in mind for my dress or a soft wool. You can always try something else but you will get better results if you stick to the sort of fabric proposed.
  9.  Choose appropriate fabric type (and buy the correct amount – which is invariably less than they state on the envelope)
    • I have chosen a heavyish linen for this project.
  10. Ensure the colour and scale of pattern are appropriate for you and the style of garment
    • I don’t think this style would look particularly good in a pattern, so I am sticking with a plain colour. However the lovely seam line across the upper chest allows the use of two colours. I have two shades of pink that I think would work well together. This also allows me to have the lighter shade close to the face (more flattering on me) and the deeper shade on the body helping to create a slim effect, despite the strong colour.
      Two shades of pink linen
      Pink Linen

What do you always do before you commit to making a garment?

25 Responses

  1. Super useful and looking forward to seeing the finished frock.

  2. I avoid making up a new purchased pattern in an expensive fabric without doing a toile. Luckily, I can usually pull out something I paid £1 or £1.50 a metre for to make the first garment. I like single size patterns (in a minority here). Mainly I work from self drafts, which reduces fit problems. Where do you go for your double wool crepe btw?

  3. ‘Straight out of the envelope’ is a recipe for disaster. One of the first things I do is go to Google and Sewing Pattern Review to see what the others have made of the pattern. Instructions occasionally have mistakes. I’m experienced enough not to need them so much but in the early days I would follow their every word convinced they were law, having been meticulously well combed for errors by pattern testers.

  4. I first starting sewing as a teenager ( then had a massive gap, and started again about 5 years ago). There were times then, that I can remember, buying the fabric in the morning, cutting straight out of the envelope and wearing to a party that night. How things have changed. Now, not only am I the slowest sewer ever, but I can never, ever cut straight from the envelope. Like Jay, I tend to buy cheap fabric and will cut out the size I think suits, tack together and see how it fits, before using the better fabric. Also, like Marianna, I will google the pattern (a lot) beforehand.

  5. Great blog Kate. Some really useful tips. Of course, I do all of these things as you taught me 🙂

    I also select styles that I know suit me based on what I have tried in RTW.

    I love reading all the sewing blogs for inspiration and I save away patterns that catch my eye!

  6. Just to add, I have come unstuck a few times with “some” Indie patterns. When first released, a number of bloggers will rave about them and I will then get drawn in, only to find a lot of problems with either instructions or fit.

  7. Before cutting a sample out of plain muslin fabric, I pin the paper pattern to my duct tape dummy. If it just looks like there will be way too many alterations or the seams hit me at weird places, I put it back in the envelope. If I like the look, I’ll then draw out all my dimensions on the paper pattern and make sure it has ease where I want it. I also record all the numbers on a piece of paper and put that in the envelope if I want to make it again and don’t have to remeasure.
    If I am sewing for a client, I do the same thing so everything is recorded and also compare the pattern dimensions against their listed body dimensions as their weight can fluctuate. Then all the altering is done on the paper. If you skip this part and think you can sew right out of the envelope, you will be one of the sad people who write, “I cut my usual size, but it is way too big/small/tight/long etc.” Since pattern companies have no idea what “loose fitting” means on your body, it is your responsibility to check before cutting. Great tips, Kate…the best one being deciding if the shape will fit your shape. If you don’t look good in a RTW shape, making it yourself will not automatically make it look better. Be honest and true to yourself so you can be comfortable in your clothes.

  8. Oh Kate, this is perfect for me right now! The top I just made should have been started with a muslin and should have been made from a different fabric. But I was in a hurry…………must slow down and do it right the first time. Printing this out, thank you!

  9. Stephanie

    K., I love your pinks! I can already visualize this beautiful dress in those fabrics. I haven’t made enough to have extensive experience in this regard, but I do a lot of measuring of the paper pattern at the key points and toile at least the parts (e.g. bust) that are likely to cause me a problem. I now have a pretty clear idea of how to alter pants to fit me, so I tend to measure those patterns and then go ahead making them right away. With dresses I still have some learning to do. You taught me something here though – I did not know that the first fabric listed is the one used for the garment! I can usually tell what the fabric of the design seems to be, but didn’t make that connection. Nice article. I also like Mrs. Mole’s idea of looking at the general design lines on a duct tape dummy to see if the lines work on her body. I have been thinking about this a great deal in regard to knitting lately, but need to do more thinking re. sewing. Good tip.

  10. Highly sensible.. xxx

  11. It’s funny – a lot of times I have the fabric first with a rough idea of what I want to make, and then try to find a pattern that suits the type of fabric as well as my body type. I have gotten used to measuring or holding up pattern pieces instead of just looking at the measurements as they often seem to be incorrect.

  12. As long as I have been sewing, I never knew that the first fabric listed was the one the manufacturer tested the pattern with! Thank you for teaching me something!!

  13. Well, it’s good to have lists. I do most of these things, and have even begun measuring the pattern before I cut. But I am thinking of posting a big sign by my cutting table: “Be sure to make all notches on the pattern.” And also one by my sewing machine: “Check the stitch before you sew.”

    • Extra useful advice – thanks Lynn. My machine always defaults to quite a small stitch (2.2) which is fine for many projects, but not all. The other mistake I make is to do a zig zag or basting stitch and then forget to return to normal.

  14. All parts of sewing require skills. These skills include choosing the appropriate pattern for your shape, selecting the right fabric for your pattern, fitting the pattern, and finally sewing the actual garment. I follow all the steps you listed in this blog so perfectly and I nearly always sew up (quickly) a muslin trial garment (especially for clients) after making necessary adjustments to the paper pattern. I teach sewing to teenagers and they are always so surprised with all the preparation needed for quality sewing.

  15. Great post. Fantastic tips. Though I only make toiles for clients, I do measure the pattern and then make adjustments as I sew. Having a dress form really does help the process.

  16. I google and search a lot before beginning a pattern. I find that a big help before I do anything else. I love seeing the design on a real person before I commit. Great post, Kate.

    • This is a great tip and I should have mentioned it. Unfortunately very few of my cheap second hand patterns have been blogged or written up, but with a modern pattern – absolutely. Invaluable advice.

  17. It’s will be lovely! I can’t wait to see it on you. Just one comment….I prefer an inset sleeve. I have made this type before, in a ponte…and it just doesn’t fit well on me. Inset sleeves, to me, are more taylored and elegant.
    Love linen, and I love your colour choice!
    Finding linen here for me (near Toronto) is tough. Is it easy for you? Good quality, that is….not Chinese….I managed to find a handkerchief white and mint green and bought lots of both about a month ago.

    • We have lots of linen here – some of it Irish, some of it French, some of it undoubtedly Chinese. I don’t mind the cheap stuff for certain garments – it seems to hold up to washing better than most fabrics. White and mint green handkerchief linen sounds delicious. What are you planning to make?

  18. Wow, I too never knew that the first suggested fabric is the ideal fabric.
    Can’t wait to see those excellent pinks and that kimono sleeve made up in real life, this looks like a great dress and I love that you’re going for two colors with it.

  19. I have not decided what to make with my handkerchief linen yet. – What I did do is buy a new linen dress last week…because I just LOVED it! Silly, I know. But…it’s made with a combination of thin linen and cotton knit….short sleeves and top half of back is knit, while rest is linen. Soft silver/grey. Dyed the same colour. Shift dress, V-neck. – I justified my purchase by promising to copy it. So I better! ~

    • That is quite funny Liz, but the dress sounds lovely. I have a bag of clothes I don’t wear that I am committed to copy. One day….

  20. Good advice. I’m not there yet. I’m still choosing patterns that I like the look of but don’t suit for some reason or another when I’ve made them up. I’m classic with a twist but the twist I chose doesn’t always work! Some of it is style but some is fabric choice. I hope I’ll improve with more experience. I look at reviews but don’t always find them helpful. I’m still struggling with getting a good fit.
    I love your pink linen fabric.

Leave a Reply