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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Handy sewing hint of the day #17

Before we get into the weeds of fitting there are a few important first principles we should talk about. 

These, like nearly everything I write, are primarily the result of my own observations after decades or working with sewing students and in sewing for myself and my family.

Here we go:

There is a lot made of the big three- bust, waist and hip - but IMO some of the most potent body parts, when you are working towards fit, are lesser known measurements, or shapes. 

These include:

1. Shoulder slope. I talked before about the importance of getting a good upper body fit by working with the chest/high bust measurement rather than a bustling but as important as fitting the hanger is knowing what the shape of the hanger looks like. 

Some women have your so-called average shoulder shape for which average patterns presumably fit, most of us have shoulders that are either square (like mine, boney and they just go straight across like a ruler, detected by collars that seem to ride up) or sloped (if you have always thought you have had "small shoulders" in fact your shoulders might just be sloped, think duck, not trying to be rude here but need to give you a clear image) meaning your tops seems to just hang too loose on the shoulders or even feel like they are sliding down.

Look for where the extra fabric is on your shoulders. 

If it seems to be bunching up at your neckline, particularly at the back and your collars seems to stand away from your neck you might have square shoulders - basically the pattern is providing fabric where there is no you.

If you feel you have extra fabric deposited below your shoulder line and just too much hanging off your shoulder you probably have sloping shoulders (a good look in the mirror at your bare shoulders will actually tell you everything you need to know here).

My good friend Debbie Cook at Stitches and Seams does a nice easy description here of how to do a fast easy pattern adjustment for either of this issues.

2. Arm length. Actually no human measurement IMO can vary as much as arm length which seems to have nothing to do with your height. It's easy to measure on a set-in sleeve pattern, straight down from the shoulder notch to the wrist. Many folks need sleeves shortened.

3. How high and low your fullest part. These would be the three Bs - bust, belly and butt. Bellies are often higher than patterns think and busts and butts lower. This matters because your darts- bust, front and rear- need to end about 1/2" or more bit before the fullest part and aimed right at it. 

It's pretty simple really-  the darts pick up fabric where you don't need it and release it where you do. 

If that extra fabric is released too high, too low or too early or late you are going to get an unattractive bubble sitting in the middle of nowhere. Shortening and lengthening darts is easy, just move the last dart marking in or out, in a skirt or pant waist dart this just makes a shorter or longer dart (I personally lengthen all my back waist darts about 1 1/2" which is all you need to know about gravity and me).

In the case of a bust dart you can both move the dart end in or out so it is about 1/2-3/4" from your nipple (the more fitted the garment the closer the dart end to the bust point) but you might also have to raise it, or more commonly for larger busts lower it, so it is aiming at your nipple and not some random spot on your chest. If you do this of course you will have to redraw the dart legs so the lines from the side seam are properly aimed at this new end point.

I apologize here for not offering tons of great and useful pictures for all you visual learnings out there, but that would require far more time than I have right now, hopefully my words are clear enough, and if not let me know and I will try again.

Of course too you don't need to put a dart where you don't need them. For instance if you have a full tummy and basically your waist goes straight down and right into it, you don't need a front dart at all in fitted skirts (not sewing your darts will also add greatly to the fabric available for your front waistline too) or even only a small one. 

Remember darts are for shaping and not necessary in cases like this where there is no smaller part to be released to a larger one.

All of this brings me now to the really, really important facts of pattern choices.

Because you have shape and it is an individual shape, you are going to have to add (see previous post about making larger not making smaller for the pattern size chosen). The basic rule of thumb is to compare your pattern's ideal measurements and your own and add the difference to the seams.

Classic example would be you have a 34 inch waist and your pattern bought for your smaller 40 inch hips says the waist in that size should be 30 inches. This means of course that you have 4" to add and with two side seams this would be 1" added to each (2 X 1" for the front and 2 X 1" for the back), tapering in the top of say your skirt with this addition to the pattern's hip.

The principle applies for additions everywhere in your pattern but the big trick is that the more seams you have to divide these additions among the more subtle and successful your pattern alterations will be and the more able you will be to target them.

Listen to this, it's important, the more seams you have to play with letting out here and there taking in where you might need to in areas where you have hollows like the front of your chest or at the back or your neck where it slopes forward, the easier it is to fine-tune fit.

By contrast a seemingly "easy" few pattern pieces pattern can be a fitting nightmare because there are no shaping features for you to work with - and instituting those, adding seams or introducing darts, are fairly sophisticated and very easy to mess up.

On this basis princess seams (all those places to adjust along their length, so easy to make room for a large bust exactly where the bust is larger and return to a smaller upper chest) are terrific for fitting (enlarging darts is so much harder), as are two piece sleeves (smaller armhole and bigger biceps, smaller wrists) or panel seams in skirts and pants.

Sometimes nothing is harder to fit than a "simple" to sew pattern.

Does this make sense?

Some illustrations.

The pattern below is hard to fit, only places to add anything is at the side seams and that might not be where you want it. What about a full bust or hollow chest?

In an exaggerated contrast look at all the pre-set places you have in this pattern to adjust, you could make this one fit anybody:

Or less intimidatingly, see the adjustment spots here:

See the fitting difference between view B and the others?

Far easier to get a smooth fit here than with darts

Wonderful pattern if you want to take in the back neck and upper chest but increase for the bust or hips
 And finally, I know this is a lot right now, it is useful, ending with shoulders which is where we started, to match the lines of your shoulders with the seam lines of a pattern, this allows for adjustments in synch with your shape.

Folks with sloped shoulder for example do well with raglan sleeves, and folks with square shoulders with set-in sleeves:

Enough to think about now. 

To be continued.


SuzieB said...

In my early years of sewing big 4 patterns had darts at the back shoulders over the shoulder blades. Then these darts disappeared from patterns. Any thoughts on why this happened? I was playing around with a vintage pattern recently & realized how much these darts improve garment fit on me - at least in woven fabrics.

a little sewing said...

When I returned to sewing about 10-12 years ago (I had sewn a lot in my teens) I was more interested in fit than anything else because RTW wasn't working for me anymore. I eagerly read all the books and articles, thinking I'd quickly identify my "issues" and solve them. That was wishful thinking because it took years (and years) to understand what was going on with my own frame.

What can happen is there are a few issues happening simultaneously - now it IS complicated. On top of that, my body is aging, so the fit solutions that worked 5 years ago are now insufficient.
Thanks to the availability of pattern-drafting courses online, I now have a fail-proof method to getting patterns that fit. I draft patterns for myself.

I have a feeling that there are lots of women out there who give up before they go through years of effort like I did. They go to oversized loose fitting garments and turn to quilting.

Knowing this now, if I could give advice to my younger self, I'd tell her to cough up the money and have a few things custom made. I hate to generalize, but try to find an Asian or Indian or someone like Chinelo Bally to create a truly custom fit garment. They are measuring the body and not using patterns at all.

Then I would simply make my patterns from those garments. I would have saved myself a lot of grief and money if I had done that.

I really appreciate the advice you are giving and it is proven advice - for you and for lots of women. I'm just saying it doesn't work for everyone.

Now of course, if I were reading this comment, I would click over to see 'what does this Robin person look like, anyway?' and you will find that I don't look like a mutant. My clothes fit me (because I make my own) and that helps me look proportionate.

But if I wanted to alter a commercial pattern to fit me, I would add an inch to the center back waist length - but NOT at the waist, as all books tell you to do. I need that inch in my upper back.. Then I would re-draft the armscyes because I need extra length there, too. Then I'd re-draft the sleeve cap to fit the new armscye. Then I'd get to work on the forward shoulder adjustment and the slope/straight shoulder adjustment. My shoulders aren't one or the other - they slope from the neck down half-way, and then they straighten out to be square. Moving on, I will alter the neckline which necessitates re-drafting the collar. And on it goes.

I'll stop with that, because yes, I also need a full bust adjustment after i hit my mid-fifties. For people like me, we do better with an entirely different approach, or we just give up.

Let me finish by re-emphasizing that you are CORRECT in terms of fitting for your body, and for the bodies of many many women. Some of us are "outliers" and we can feel a little discouraged when we are told, "it's not that hard!" because actually, it IS that hard! lol

If I had it all to do over again, 12 years ago I would have gone to the Asian dressmaking /alteration shop in my neighborhood where they don't use patterns. They measure (kinda like Chinelo Bally from the Great British Sewing Bee) and draft right onto the fabric (with chalk). It is not cheap to have clothing custom made, but once you have a few bascs, you can make patterns from them and sew lots of TNTs.

It would have saved me time, money and self-doubts as I struggled to understand why I couldn't seem to "get it". Well, my body is just not made for commercial patterns.

Barbara said...

Great response Robin and thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and useful post. You are absolutely right in your approach to fine and successful fitting. The clothes you make for yourself and others are a testimony to your skill and effort. To be honest I am writing this series for newer sewers, like those I teach, who are currently making things right out of the pattern envelope, often in lives that have very little time to just see at all, and don't understand at all what is going wrong and how to fix it. My aim is to help sewers who probably not going to invest the time and effort advanced pros like you do in learning to draft their own patterns, some way of moving towards clothes they can wear. If you were comparing this to cooking right now I am working on the family dinner recipes not cuisine. And who knows, maybe if some of these new sewers have enough success now they will be encouraged enough to go further. You have given us all something to think about too, and thanks for that.

LinB said...

Shoulder darts -- and elbow darts -- disappeared from commercial patterns in the mid-1970s, as being "too horribly old-fashioned" as a design feature. Ready-to-wear designers were not using them, so commercial pattern designers dropped them.
Instead, those darts were rotated over into the shoulder or neck seam/sleeve seam.

Too, knits became incredibly popular then, even for home sewists. Darts were not necessary in many knits, so designers dropped them.

Angela said...

This is making me realize I need to try the square shoulder adjustments, both for myself and my daughter. Our shoulders pretty much go straight out. My daughter especially has trouble with patterns being too tight under the arm and yet needing to take up space at the back of the neck. Maybe this adjustment will solve both those things. My only confusion with Debbie's tutorial is that she raises the shoulder but also raises the underarm seam. Is that going to help if you already feel like the armhole is too high in the armpit?

Unknown said...

Hello, I really like princess seam clothes that you suggest in this post as easy to fit but in the patterns I've tried (using my bust circumference to pick the size) I find that the princess seams are quite a long way outside the apex of my bust. If I take in the centre front to bring the princess seams closer together, would I just add the width to the side pieces to get back to the circumference required? I have been unable to find advice on how to reposition the princess seam centre front panel to be narrower. And if I change the front do I have to do something equivalent to the back? Thanks for any light you can shed on this topic.

Barbara said...

Catherine, you have it exactly right. The best thing about princess seams is you can, and should reposition them so the seam goes exactly over the high point of your bust and the fullest part of the curve is where you are fullest. Does this help?