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I am a mother, a new 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 first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pre-fitting thoughts: a radical view

It was not my intention when I said we needed to talk about fit to go into a complete discussion of all the how-tos of fitting and pattern adjustment strategies.

There are lots of brilliant resources out there, and there are a few of my favourite techniques in my book, but before we get out the paper and scotch tape I think it is worth zooming out.

Zooming out to why we fit our patterns, and subsequently our clothes at all, what our expectations are, and what the general principles might be.

Here are my own thoughts on these issues. I need to hear what you think too about fit. I'm already looking forward to the discussion.

So here are a few core concepts with comments sort of mixed in too.

Idea #1: Fitting and adjusting a pattern, either before or after you try on a garment or a trial garment, and in reality probably a combination of the two, is primarily about comfort and then about appearance. 

It has to be big enough to move in and yet small enough to look smooth with lines that somehow flow over your own personal shape.

So to my mind any fitting project needs to flow with the construction lines of the garment and not fight against them.

Translated this means if you know your pattern needs some fitting work over the bust, choose a pattern with seam lines over that bust as in a princess seam, or, second choice a dart. Note seams are longer than darts and therefore have room for more fitting. 

If you have bust fitting to do avoid plain patterns like your regular old T shirt shape. 

They don't have the required construction spots you are going to need to stand on to do your work.

So look for seams where you need adjustments and you will reduce your fitting angst by about 90%.

Idea #2: Look for pattern shapes that mimic your body shape. If you have square shoulders look for set-in sleeves. If you have sloped shoulders look for raglan sleeves. Go with the flow not against the current. Another 90% reduction in fitter's meltdown potential. 

Forcing something to go in a direction it doesn't want to is always going to hurt and look it too.

A good example of this is a woman with sloped shoulders, a short neck, and a big bust struggling with fit  in a "classic" shirt style (classic often being designer speak for menswear garments put on women) and consequently opening herself up to a huge amount of work trying to bend those straight lines to her not straight body. 

So much easier if she begins from a starting place of a more feminine blouse with convertible collar and a princess seam bodice.

Idea #3: Fitting won't change your body, it will only help your clothes reflect your body. In fact a really good fit may not produce the look you want.

Examples are helpful here again.

I have a mini pot belly although I prefer to regard it as a badge of honour for three big babies and a C-section. When I make a straight skirt, an item that works over my straight hips, the front of that skirt can hang right down from the little cantilever of my stomach, creating "extra fabric" under it.

Now I can "fit" the skirt more closely with front darts and by taking in the front side seams but this will articulate that belly more closely. 

Understanding that fit reshapes clothes, and not me, leads to what I would call intelligent compromises in fit- in this case living with the loss of some body con shape in the fabric under the belly.

The same can also be said of a woman with say a 42" waist and slim legs who sees the extra fabric under her rear in tailored slacks as a "fitting" issue. 

Do we really want to fit it entirely to the point of egg cup shape or is there a compromise here too? 

Maybe leggings or slim pants with a tunic top or the selection of a wider style of pant leg that would blend in the discrepancy within its own flow?

Idea #4: Some pattern companies are better at naturally reflecting your shape than others. 

To my mind, and after working with many, many women on fit I have decided that rather than starting from a position that great fitting skills will eventually enable you to fit any pattern, you might be better to work your way through a few companies before you work your way through too many muslins.

Another example. 

Stylearc patterns fit me like a glove, with a little added in the waist. It has taken me a while to find them (had to wait about 30 years before those patterns went into production) but as long as I stick to Stylearc pants I am fine - to get the same end result in say a Vogue pattern would take me about five muslins.

However that said as much as I would like to love Stylearc tops they are just too generous in the shoulders for me. I am just too bony up top. 

Now I could use a smaller than my measurements Stylearc pattern to start, and make adjustments to add to the bust and waist so they might fit me, but I find it just so much easier to make tops in Jalies instead. The Jalie draft starts from a point much more like my own shoulder/upper chest shape and I have to make minimal fitting adjustments when I use those patterns.

Idea #5: Do one adjustment at a time. 

It is amazing that extent to which a change on one place can affect the behaviour of another part of a garment. Be wary about fooling around trying to fit too many places all at the same time - if it doesn't give you the result you want right away you will never know why or how to find your way back.

So those are my initial fitting thoughts.

Now what are yours?


Barb said...

Wow, this information may be well-ingrained to experienced sewists, but to slowly-gaining-confidence me, this is gold. Lightbulb post, Barbara thank you.

Fiona Vincent said...

Wow! Your post gave me a lightbulb moment. How right you are - it is so easy to have a fixed idea of what you want to achieve and end up struggling to force a fit that was never meant to be (square pegs and round holes spring to mind) or 'reinventing the wheel' and getting so far from the original idea that you could have started with a different pattern in the first place. Compromise is sometimes necessary - it took me a number of years to realise that much as I disliked darts in my clothing (particularly bust darts) they are vital to create items that fit my body - these days I'll even put them in a T-shirt.

SewRuthie said...

Very good thoughts indeed thank you.

SuzieB said...

To Fiona-
Have you tried gathering the dart fullness into the side seam instead of making a pointed dart when you are making knit garments? I stole this idea from Chico’s rtw years ago. It gets the job done for me and is less obtrusive in knits than having the “point”. Just an idea.

Linda Evans said...

I just LOVE reading your blog, such good conversation and you're very witty, too. Is there a list somewhere of what pattern company is best suited to a particular body type?

Lyndle said...

Thanks Barbara, I think those are all really great points and I wish I had been able to read this years ago and save myself lots of pain. On your point about the belly, I'd also add that you need to be able to move in your clothes. Generally I want to have the ease that allow me to reach behind me, bend over, squat down and get up again. Sometimes I see people asking for help (especially with pants) trying to get rid of every skerrick of "extra" fabric, but unless it's a stretch fabric, that's the movement ease.

Helen Marshall said...

I'm still learning about fit, so these are great ideas, especially the point about not over-fitting. My experience has been that if I can get the garment’s shoulders and high bust fitting my shoulders and upper chest, any dress/shirt/top/jacket /coat will look better on me than if there is a mismatch in the shoulder area .

Sis said...

I agree with almost all of your post and these points have taken me half a lifetime to get to - sadly never found a pattern company that makes patterns for trousers that will fit me until I made a pair of PJs and bingo the trousers fitted me so well I now use that pattern and don't care the least bit that they had elasticated waist because I could change that.
I am a bit surprised that you recommend using a set in sleeve for square shoulders as I have never managed to get that to fit me no matter how much fiddling I have done. However a raglan sleeve gives me the ease and comfort I need whether I do the cleaning or haul a big bag unto a train without splitting my sleeves but as with everything in life we all have to find what works for us and fitting is one point where I am all for the ME, ME, ME culture - this is why I sew my own clothes. Thanks for another great blog post

Anne said...

Oh my goodness. As the others above me have said "lightbulb moment"! As "a woman with sloped shoulders, a short neck, and a big bust struggling with fit in a "classic" shirt style", my lightbulb moment is that I've spent years - decades - trying to get that style of shirt to fit me (and failing miserably). I'm off to search for "a more feminine blouse with convertible collar and a princess seam bodice". Thank you so much for this!

sewingkm said...

As a professional dressmaker I totally agree with all five of your ideas! They are particularly pertinent to mature women as aging women have difficulty recognizing that they can no longer successfully wear the latest trend. My big thing is to KNOW your body and what flatters. I live by my TNTs as I know I'll have success. Sometimes I try a new silhouette but the results are varied. With failures I know it's just fabric but it's also my time and energy. Barb, you always bring up such interesting posts. Thanks. Karen

Les and Carolyn said...

Awesome post! Thanks for the insights.

tmd said...

This is the kind of information that needs to be in a sewing wiki somewhere—which indie pattern companies design for which shapes. Is there one??? I know, for instance, that Grainline, Colette, and Tilly&theButtons patterns won’t ever fit me (from painful & sometimes expensive experience; occasionally I succumb to cute branding), but I’ve looked at loads of StyleArc patterns (never made one), and the “big shoulder” tendency never ever occurred to me. It’s gotten to the point that I look at the person running the pattern company, assume they design for their own shape, and then (usually) don’t buy because we have little in common physically.

Jane M said...

When I learned to sew decades ago I don't remember a word about fit except for the circumference factor....does it go around me and can I zip it or button it up? If the answer was yes, then good enough, it fits. So when I returned to the garment sewing world I spent a lot of time mystified and frustrated by fit and all the systems and resources. Over time I discovered that yes certain patterns, Burda in particular, are "easier" for me to start with and often have the seams or darts that you so widely explain helps us get a nicely fitted garment. I still have to tackle a mock up and sometimes two (or three!!) for a close fitting garment. But once I get that done, then sewing is fun and creative and exciting.

runlexlou said...

Amen to all you have said. I realized a wile back that I was buying patterns because I loved the way they looked on the pattern envelope, but not loving the way the finished product looked on me. So yes to woven garments with bust darts or princess seams. And yes to pattern companies that seem to fit my body type. As much as I love the look of Grainline Studio patterns, I know that the lack of bust darts is just not going to be flattering on me. So instead of buying patterns I know won't work for me, I've taken to adding images on Pinterest so I can figure out how to closely minic that look with the patterns that I know work for me. The upside is that I'm not spending so much money on new pattern releases!

Jean said...

How interesting! Honestly, I am the short-necked, large busted woman with sloping shoulders who insists on a menswear style shirt. I hate how I look in princess seams. I have found a Katherine Tilton pattern that fits me very well, with my usual FBA. So, it is the basis for all tops. I rarely wear tee shirts in public, as they are not flattering, but I recently found a raglan sleeve v-neck tee pattern that I am currently working on-it may take 5 muslins but I will get there.
Just ordered my first two Style Arc top patterns, I look forward to trying them. They are very stylish patterns.

LinB said...

Yep. I have a "Burda body." I rarely need to alter anything in their drafts.

Your point about choosing styles that work with your body is a lesson that ought to be hammered into people's skulls with a ball peen hammer (metaphorically). My short, wide neck means that I need never ever muck about with turtleneck collars. Fitted waistlines went away when my waist decided to leave, some decades ago.

Some limits confine us. Other limits free us. The freedom to ignore what does not work, in favor of the millions of options that DO work, is a gift of great value.

Brenda said...

I echo that sentiment that after getting a good fit, sewing is fun!

Excellent tips, Barbara!

Sasha said...

I agree with most of your points, though of course I think there are exceptions! I find knit t-shirts to be the EASIEST to fit as the knit allows some cheating for fitting even though there are few seams. It's also the mainstay for most modern wardrobes.

One valuable tip I learned in one of those giant FB sewing groups is to identify sewists in social media - FB, Instagram, blogs, sewing boards - that have a similar body type. A pattern or line of patterns that work for them has a higher chance of working for any body like theirs.

And while I clearly agree that it is very helpful to find a pattern draft that works for one's body type, I also think it is easy to embark on what I think of as the search for the Holy Grail. We've all seen it, where a sewist will try pant pattern after pant pattern in search of the one that fits straight out of the envelope. It is generally a fruitless search, and frustrating to watch as it is clear (to me anyway!) that a little alteration at the waist or hips or back crotch curve would result in lovely pants.

Lots to think about as always, Barbara. Thank you! said...

Very interesting post. Many years ago, a life time sewing teacher of 40 plus years shared with our ASG group the basic "fit model" of each pattern company, but I don't have any idea where that information is.
My advice is to try as close as you can get to a "sloper pattern" for the particular company to see if their fit model uses your shape. I know they all used to have one, and some like Burda and Vogue (I think) still have them. I'm German heritage and Burda always fit me straight out of the envelope. Now, 30 years later, I have to make some adjustments, but no where near the ones I do with other pattern companies.
But my real solution is to go to Bootstraps patterns and buy the custom fit to my measurements patterns. I have been able to get a well fitting classic shirt despite my narrow sloping shoulders, short neck, and large bust. Is it the best look on me...perhaps not, but I do love the style and have worn it for almost 60 years! Here's bootstraps page with their fitting patterns:
And I'm very delighted to see the raglan patterns as I have never been able to get them to fit my sloping shoulders! Hooray!
Love your posts always!

AnnetteAK said...

Yes a lightbulb moment. I agree with your fitting guide, I a a classic V/inverted triangle and getting fit has been a struggle. I finally went with my gut and now by different sizes for my top half and bottom half. I use my bust measurement because I get the correct fit for my wide back and shoulders.

I am still trying various indie patterns for a good fit. The big-4 are hit and miss. I have started looking for patterns for tops that have princess seams (shoulder style) and have had better success.

Pants are still a problem, but I am making headway.

Thanks for your insights and musings, sometimes those sparks are what I need to do some exploring and finding what I need.

Anonymous said...

Spot on.

Gwen Van Kleef said...

Really useful post and, as usual, the comments are great. I would only add that it's sometimes enlightening to go and try on a ready-to-wear style to see if it's even flattering on you before sewing something similar with the alterations. I have tried sewing many dress/top patterns only to find that the style really doesn't suit me and could have been avoided had I tried that type of outfit on in a shop.

Jodie said...

Excellent post! My one add would be start from the top down when doing multiple alterations - I learned this when pattern drafting. So start at the shoulders/neck or waist/hips depending on the garment and fit going down. And it's often easier to add space rather than take it away as is sometimes thought. For example, narrow shoulders but broader bust/waist. In a top/shirt, choose the pattern size to fit your shoulders (as that impacts the neckline on down) and then add (judiciously) to fit bust/waist etc.
Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's just me or if perhaps everybody
else encountering problems with your site. It appears
as if some of the text on your content are running off the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well?
This could be a problem with my browser because I've had
this happen before. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Its so hard to learn/remember/apply your 3rd point: fitting doesn't change your body. I have to re-learn that every 6 months, evidently.


Barbara said...

I am not seeing that issue with viewing the full text myself, perhaps this is happening to someone else?

Galica said...

I find Burda to be a pretty consistant fit for me. Not sure if it's just my Germanic body. But I also find that the magazines have arange of styles which I suspect use different blocks so I would suggest them as a good starting point for many body shapes. Plus you know what height the patterns are drafted for. Might not be your proportions but a good starting point.

The raglan comment was interesting. I love raglans - but they never do fit right. Square,forward shoulders!

It's really important not to overfit. It looks weird to the eye accustomed to rtw. You risk falling into an 'uncanny valley'where you look like a storm trooper. Or worse, Nancy Reagan.

& never forget the power of elastane. RTW sure doesn't.

becstar said...

Thank you Barbara! I too have a tum due to 2 big babies and caesarean birth so I understand where you are coming from. I used to be a size 8 and now size 18!! I will keep a look out for Stylearc patterns too, they sound like what I'm looking for!

redcedar said...

This is some fabulous advice on fitting. Thanks so much!

Liese Sadler said...

As a near 60 yo woman coming back to garment sewing learning to fit has been both frustration and fun. I bought a used dress form and now think of myself as a sculpture!

The wealth of info around like this blog is wonderful. One resource that has helped me is Peggy Sager's Silhoutte Patterns site. She has great videos/webcasts. From her I've to make a toile and be fearless about playing with L(ength), C(ircumference), D(depth).

Pattern Review has been a great resource too, when I want to buy a pattern the reviews are often quite helpful and I look for women who have a similar body shape. I don't browse PW tho, that leads to over consumption!

AJW said...

I love this column, especially, and agree with all the points. Which is why I have found that Burda patterns work best for my apple-shaped, full-busted frame. And that was wonderful when I worked and wore sheath dresses, or some variation on the straight dress look.

But now I am retired (working part-time in a different field) and I need pants. Which I have always been too nervous to sew (see description of frame above). Few pants have princess seams, and despite the fact that I have yards of bottom-weight fabrics (because I am ever the optimist), I've sewn very few pants. I guess I need to dig in and start making muslins.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom--we are so lucky to have you and your blog!

BeccaA said...

I love your explanations of fit. I mostly follow this advice but I didn't know that raglan sleeves would be best for my narrow sloping shoulders full bust. I'm afraid of looking like I'm all neck and no shoulders at all with a raglan style. Maybe this is why I have so much trouble making set in sleeves and being able to raise my arms. Thank you for the insight.

Karen said...

My tip would be not to start from scratch on every new garment. If you have put work into a pattern to make it fit you well than reuse it! You can change the look by adding seams, collars, pockets and many other details. Tops can often easily be changed into dresses, slim fit pants into pants with a wider leg, pencil skirts into A-line skirts or even pleated skirts etc etc.

Angela said...

I am viewing full text also.

Margaret Delong said...

Great post!
I found that Sewaholic tips fit me very welll, so I’ve started just using those, and I’ll add in a different neckline, etc to change the style instead of refitting a new shirt. I like drafting more than fitting!

Kathleen Meadows said...

I found your post so comforting Barbara because you're so right that we are often reaching for that perfect fit and when we achieve it, we're often not too happy with what we see reflected in the mirror! Wisely seek that "sweet spot" where there is ease in places that's flattering and comfortable but not too much that we're swimming in fabric. No one wants to look like we're wearing a tent/poorly fitted garment or have lost a ton of weight recently :)But we don't want to look like a tightly parceled sausage either. I've found it the most challenging aspect of sewing as I'm sure many others have too. When I was sewing as a teen 40 years ago I never even considered it that much. In those days you bought a pattern in your size and sewed it up! Now everything is so different with scaled patterns, online photos and stories galore, advice - it can get confusing and terribly discouraging.

Patricia Ferrito said...

We were told at an ASG meeting to look at the pattern designer. (I know you can't do that with the big 4.) If their body shape is like yours, their patterns will fit you. Or look at the shapes of the models they put the samples on in photos. Many use real people now. And I've had a lot of success with that. I use a lot of Fit for Art patterns because one of the designers, Rae, is built like me. In fact I have tried to "borrow" her samples when she teaches because they fit so well. I have no luck with designers who are taller and thinner. My short curves don't work with their patterns.

Erika Otter said...

I have just arrived at this knowledge - a good fit just articulates your body - after FINALLY making a sweater that REALLY FITS. Top-down construction was the game changer ... also OMG learning comes so much more slowly in knitting since the process is so slow. Anyway - this sweater hugs my bust and my waist and ends at my high hip and really fits me perfectly - and therefore shows clearly my short waist and full bust. It's a fine body, no complaints, but I would have made the sweater just a BIT less curvy if I had pictured this from the start. Now how many knit shirts have I made? A bunch ... but never arrived at this issue. Maybe because I was really fitting the sweater row by row ... learning! It never ends!
What's the point - when fitting I want to have in mind where I am headed, not just the distance between my skin and my fabric.

Nancy JC said...

Please...I miss you! Are you home yet?