Jump Start Your Garment Sewing

Dress FormEven if you are not sewing clothes for yourself, chances are you have a stash of fabric. 

Once you are exposed to the world of buying fabric, there is no going back. Fabric stores sell fantasies:  dreams of beautiful garments and places we will go wearing them. So let’s make some of those dreams come true!

Surprisingly enough, the success or failure of garment construction has absolutely nothing to do with a sewing machine.  Garment success is dependent on a successful marriage of pattern and fabric. If these two elements are not compatible, no amount of skillful sewing can change its outcome.  Problems result from forcing marriage between a great piece of fabric and a pattern you have been dying to make without any objectivity about how these two are going to get along.

If you are new to sewing, choose patterns which do not require a lot of fit like my dress pattern Vogue 1071Vogue 1071 - Sandras Closet. Study the line drawings. Choose a pattern which has fewer seams and fewer styling details, letting the fabric do the talking. Before you get committed to a piece of fabric, go the mirror and unroll a few yards from the bolt. 

  •  If the fabric is going near your face, check to see if the color is flattering.   
  • Gather the fabric in your hands and hold at your waist or over the bust. Does the fabric fall in nice soft folds or is it standing away from the body? 
  • Drapey fabric hangs in nice soft folds.  Stiff fabric only works in a structured style, one with a boxy shape and many seams or darts so that the silhouette can be shaped to the body.
  • If the fabric is not drapey, perhaps it could work if it were cut on the bias.
  • Hold the fabric up from the corner and let it drape over the body. Is it drapey enough now or is a structured style the only style that will work?

Try not to be unduly swayed by the glamour photos in the pattern books. Look closely at the line drawings where you can see the number and placement of seams and styling details. In addition to the line drawings on the pattern, you will find some guidance to fabric choice under the heading “suitable fabrics”.  The first fabric listed under suitable fabrics is the fabric used to make the model garment on the outside of the pattern envelope.

LineDrawingsStyles with gathers and pleats need fabrics with drape to allow the details to fall softly. Patterns with few seams must rely on the drape of the fabric over the body to give shape or you will look like a chair with canvas draped over it. The more seams a pattern has, the more flexibility you have in your fabric choice. For example, a dress with princess seams, (vertical seams which shape over the bust) made in linen would give it a crisp structured look. The same dress made in rayon would give the style a softer, drapey appearance. 

Your size is also a contributing factor.  While the full princess dress in linen could work on someone slim, the same dress in a drapey fabric works better on someone larger. My favorite fabrics which drape are wool jersey, wool crepe, drapey rayons and drapey polyesters. Working with a print will be more forgiving since it will hide mistakes.  

If you love large prints, go for it, but keep in mind multiple seams will break up the design, so look for patterns which have fewer seams.

Vogue2911-Bias SkirtBias cuts let you break the rules.  For example, a bias cut skirt (like Vogue 2911) can be made in a fabric with drape or without drape. When cut on the bias, a stiff fabric will hang better and conform to the body’s curves. Bias cuts are flattering on all figures if enough ease is provided in the pattern.

If you are making a vest or a top with a cut on sleeve, you can choose a fabric with more body such as linen, fine wale corduroy or firm cotton. These fabrics are easy to cut and sew on, since they do not slip and slide around as you work on them. Slippery fabrics and knits are not great choices for the new sewer since they can be a challenge to work on from beginning to end.

Multi-sized patterns make customizing a pattern far easier since you can use different sizes for different parts of the body. A good multisized pattern will have all sizes in one pattern.  If you are making a jacket, dress, top or coat (and not using a multi-sized pattern) buy the pattern size which corresponds to your full bust measurement. If you a buying a pattern for a pant or skirt (and not using a multi-sized pattern) buy the pattern by the full hip measurement. Once you pull the pattern out of the envelope avoid confusion in cutting by highlighting the sizes you want to use with a highlighter pen.

Fitting Tips

On the bust-

  • If everything that fits your bust is big in the shoulders, highlight a size smaller than the bust size from the bottom of the armhole up. 
  • From the bottom of the armhole to 2 inches down the side seam, outline your full bust size. 

Hip MeasurementOn the hips

-Begin the transition of your hip size if it is not the same size as your bust. 

-If your hip is bigger than the biggest hip in this pattern envelope,  compare your full hip to the hip measurement for the largest size, found under hip size on the measurement chart. The difference between you and the pattern is the amount you need to add. Divide this by 4 and add this amount to each side seam.

Note: Never make alterations on the center front or center back or the neckline will be affected. 

On the sleeve-

  • Whatever size you used in the armhole, use the same size on the sleeve cap. 
  • On the sleeve underarm seam, use whatever size you used for the bust. 
  • If your arm is large in proportion to the rest of your body, simply use a size larger for the entire sleeve, both the cap and the underarm. 
  • Instead of running the easeline, between the notches over the sleeve cap, ease the larger sleeve into the smaller armhole by running the easeline from underarm seam to underarm seam over the cap, giving ease to the whole sleeve.

These fitting tips should gets you into the ball game, but as you start making more fitter garments, you will need to customize the pattern further to get the fit you want.  To get the perfect fit, refer to your copy of my book, Fast Fit, which provides you with detailed descriptions help you identify fitting problems followed by step-by-step alterations with photographs of altered pattern pieces.

Pattern Pieces

Don’t ignore the pattern markings. These help you join the cut out pieces when you are sewing. Think of garment sewing as putting together a puzzle; the dots and the notches are hints to help you join the pieces together. Before you take the pattern pieces off of the pattern, write the name of the piece on a piece of blue painter’s tape that you adhere to the back of the cut out fabric piece. This makes each piece easy to find and identify.

More Fabric SavvyNeedles and Seam Guides

  • Yes, needles make a difference! Modern sewing machines are sophisticated.
  • Puckered seams are the result of using the wrong sewing machine needle, wrong thread or wrong stitch length.
  • You could save yourself a lot of disappointments if you had my book, More Fabric Savvy, which tells you what needle to use, thread, stitch length, seam choice, interfacing, hem tips and a lot more for every different fabric.
  • Sewing accurate width seams is also important for the pieces to fit together smoothly and the garment to fit.
  • Buy yourself a magnetic seam guide which you can snap on your machine. The guide will act as fence so that you can push the raw edges of the fabric against it resulting in perfectly even seams. You can use it on any machine and if the magnet doesn’t hold tight to the bed of the machine, just tape it in place.

My last word of advice is to take your time. Enjoy the process. Don’t get frustrated if you have to rip something out. If you accept the fact that ripping is part of sewing you will feel a lot more at peace. Look for a sewing buddy. If you don’t have one, join the American Sewing Guild in your area where I am sure you will find plenty of mentors.

Once you make something you love, you will see why so many of us are totally hooked on garment sewing!