• Choosing the right size pattern

    Choosing the right size pattern – the first hurdle in making great looking clothes. Not wishing to state the obvious, but I’m fanatical about fit.  (Not to be confused with fitness – most definitely not!)

    There’s pretty much always an answer to most fit issues, but making  great-fitting clothes is a whole lot easier when you start with the right size pattern.

    There I go stating the obvious again, you may think.  But what exactly is the right size? Well, first and foremost – it is not going to be the same as your ready-to-wear size.  Apart from anything else, your RTW size no doubt varies from shop to shop anyway.

    choosing the right size pattern

    Standard US pattern sizes


    The good news is that pattern sizing is pretty much standard throughout the major brands, such as Vogue Butterick & McCall’s (actually all the same company), Simplicity and New Look.  (The indy companies, like Colette for example, are a law unto themselves).  The bad news is, the sizing will almost certainly be at least a couple of numbers higher than RTW.  Often, to counteract the shock, I have to ply people with hot sweet tea when I tell them what size they need.

    So, according to this pattern size chart, a 38″ bust is a size 16.  And we all know how to measure our bust – right?

    Not necessarily.  You may be surprised to learn that, if you’re bigger than a ‘B’ cup, your bust may not be where you think it is. Well, your bust is obviously where you think it is,  but where to take the measurement isn’t.

    To get a really good fit, you need a pattern that fits perfectly in the neck, shoulders, upper chest and armhole areas.   This is because any alterations in those areas have a knock-on effect for sleeve caps and collars and you really don’t want to go messing about with those if you can help it.choose the right size pattern

    How to find that measurement?  Well, you pull the tape measure tight round your back (under the shoulder blades), up under your armpits and across the chest (above ‘the girls’).  By avoiding those obvious sticky-out bits you get a much more accurate measurement, known as the high bust.

    You then use that high bust measurement as the “bust” on the pattern.  So for me, my full bust comes out to size 22 but I would be swamped if I made that size.  I start with a size 18 and then do a full bust adjustment (FBA).  Perfect fit every time!  For more info, check out my Perfect Pattern Fitting course.

    As a general rule-of-thumb, for patterns that start above the waist go by the high bust measurement, and use the hip measurement for patterns that start below the waist.

    Hope this helps!



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  • Why don't commercial patterns fit properly?

    How many times have you been excited about starting a new dressmaking project, raided your stash for the perfect fabric, carefully cut the pattern out and faithfully followed the sewing instructions – only to be disappointed with the result?  More times than you care to remember, if you’re anything like me.

    Loads of people I speak to say they’ve simply stopped bothering to sew for themselves because nothing ever fits.

    So why is that? Why do so many of us get such disheartening results when we’ve taken so much care over our sewing?

    Well, it’s because commercial pattern companies – whether big American ones like Vogue, European like Burda or even small independent ones like Colette, all work their own standard set of measurements.  People, on the other hand, don’t come in standard sizes.  An even bigger factor is that tops, dresses and jackets are all drafted for a ‘B’ cup bust.

    It would be so great if we could just buy a pattern and whip up a fabulous garment that fits perfectly straight out of the envelope. For the vast majority of us though that’s just not the reality. In fact, guaranteed if you’re bigger than a ‘B’ cup.

    You can’t blame the pattern companies. It would be impossible for them to produce every design in a myriad of size variations.  Even if they did, it would just be totally bewildering trying to work out which one we needed.  The only way to guarantee a perfect fit from a commercial pattern is to think of it as your starting point, rather than the finished article.

    As Pati Palmer of Palmer/Pletsch often says “The pattern is your manuscript and you are the editor”.

    Once you learn how to customise patterns to fit your shape, the world of fashion is your oyster!

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  • Top sewing tools

    One of my lovely ladies at a recent Beginners Sewing class asked me a great question – ‘what’s your favourite sewing tool?’ I have to admit I was speechless for a few moments (and that doesn’t happen very often!).

    Like with most hobbies, there are loads of sewing gadgets and bits & bobs out there begging for us to buy them. Go to any sewing show or exhibition and you’ll see all sorts of weird and wonderful things designed to make your sewing experience easier / more rewarding / orgasmic (well, maybe not the last one … unless I’ve been missing something all these years).

    Especially tempting are the gadgets you see being demonstrated. Let’s face it, in the hands of the person who’s had who knows how many hours training on it, anything would look easy to use and indispensable (take pasta makers, for example). But in the cold light of day when you’ve got it back home and struggling to even get it out of the box or packet, how many times have you thought to yourself – what possessed me to buy that?  Bit like a bicycle for a fish.

    Anyway, putting aside my what was I thinkings, I settled on three things in no particular order: (good scissors and fine sharp pins are a given)

    Magnetic pin holder

    This is the thing that gets the most “that’s clever!” comments.  Really, really useful.  I’ve got three from Prym, Clover and Grabbit and they’re all much of a muchness to be honest.  The Clover one is the most expensive (no surprises there) and has a cover.  Sounds like a good idea, but the pins are not going to fall off, are they – it’s magnetic.

    Seam gauge

    These are great for accurately marking seam allowances, turning up hems, marking buttonholes and loads of other things.  Dritz is a good brand and easily available from Amazon – just be aware that they usually ship from the US and so take a week or two to arrive.  Worth the wait though.  Hemline make one as well but I find them quite flimsy and easily bent.  I prefer this one of theirs although it can be confusing, especially for a beginner.

    Ergonomic rotary cutter

    I have mixed feelings about rotary cutters.  Great for long straight lines, like in quilting for example, but not too sure when it comes to more complicated shapes.  That is, until I had to cut out 5 bridesmaids’ dresses in chiffon! This Martelli cutter was recommended to me and it worked like a dream.  It looks a bit weird, but it is really easy and comfortable to use.  There’s a left-handed version too.

    So those are my choices – how about you?


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  • Hemming a full-circle skirt

    Are you watching the new series of GBSB? Love Esme, the new judge!

    In the first episode, many of the skirts in the final round were marked down for having uneven hems. I sympathise!

    A little while ago I made the dresses for my daughter’s bridesmaids.  The younger ones (three of them!) had full circle skirts with a chiffon overlay and so I got loads of experience hemming and working with slippery fabric.

    The secret to an even hem on a circle skirt is to hang it for a good 24 hours before marking the level. Obviously the GBSB contestants don’t have that luxury!

    The hem ends up uneven because, although the CB & CF are usually cut on the straight grain, the side seams are on the cross-grain and everywhere else is on the bias which has natural stretch.  The poor fabric doesn’t know if it’s coming or going!

    full circle skirtYou can see from the white heads of my pins just how unevenly the skirt dropped.  Although it’s pinned up out of the way in the pic, the chiffon overlay is even more wiggly-woggly.  I was really surprised by that.  I’d imagined that, being more lightweight, it wouldn’t have dropped as much.  Maybe it’s just naturally more unstable or something?

    Anyway, to get the hem level I measured the finished length down from the waist first at the CB & CF, then the sides and then points in between.  I did this while it was still hanging up.

    dress hemI didn’t add any hem allowance because I was going to do a rolled hem on the overlocker, but I wouldn’t add more than 1/2 inch (or 12mm) if I was going to hem it on the sewing machine.

    bridesmaid dress

    Tah – dah! The finished dress 🙂

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  • Buying Fabric Online

    Buying fabric online is pretty much a necessity these days. Probably the most common question I’m asked at my classes is “Where do you get your fabric?”. A lot of my stash has been built up whenever I’ve been to America (at Palmer/Pletsch courses or on holiday), otherwise I have to buy online.

    There are so few fabric shops here in the South East these days. When I was young London’s Oxford Street had three huge department stores – John Lewis, Marshall & Snelgrove and Bourne & Hollingsworth – each with its own extensive dress fabric department. In those days I remember the department in John Lewis was absolutely enormous with pride of place on the ground floor. Fabrics were displayed according to type in one area and by colour in another. There was always a queue at the cutting counters. Okay, admittedly this was probably 40 years ago.

    But over the years I’ve seen the department not only shrink in size, but also being moved from pillar to post – third floor, basement etc. I think the last time I was there dress fabrics were on the first floor, hidden amongst the quilting cottons. (Not that I’ve got anything against quilting. I truly think that without the interest in quilting and patchwork, there probably wouldn’t be any fabric shops at all any more.) In the Kingston store, last time I looked, it was in the basement hidden amongst the knitting yarns. What seems daft to me is that they have quite a large selection of sewing machines, but then no fabrics to sew with!

    Anyway, the upshot of all this is I increasingly rely on online shops and eBay sellers with excellent feedback for my fabric. My favourite is probably Calico Laine. They have a really good selection, reasonable prices and excellent customer service.

    V1381_full_1One of my other favourites used to be the Truro Fabrics website. Not any more. Last weekend I ordered, what appeared to be, some gorgeous linen & cotton blend fabric to make this lovely Ralph Rucci dress from Vogue.  The colour looked great on my monitor and their description of it was ‘bright red’ so I ordered 2.7m of it.

    I did all my pattern alterations to the tissue (FBA, sway back, lengthening), which was no mean feat I have to say – there are sooo many pieces! It arrived after just a couple of days and I opened it excitedly.  Imagine my disappointment when the ‘bright red’ turned out to be more like red wine.

    Now, it could be argued that I ought to have got a swatch first to test the colour.  But I’ve never had a problem with colours on my iMac and they did say it was ‘bright red’.  And anyway, they charge £1.20 or more for a swatch that’s only 10cm x 5cm (4 x 2 ins in old money) and then only give you half its value towards any future order.

    So I complained.  They replied promptly, agreeing with me that the description was ‘misleading’ and stating that they have now changed it.  They don’t give refunds on cut lengths (how many people buy an entire bolt, I wonder?) but as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ they offered me 400 of their swatch points.  Wow – how generous you might think, until you realise that each point is worth a mere 1p.  So, goodwill is worth £4 (on a order totalling over £30) according to Truro Fabrics.

    Well, sorry guys.  My goodwill is worth more than that, so I shan’t be doing business with you any more.

    Rant over.

    If you have a favourite fabric shop – or one you wouldn’t touch again with a barge pole – please let me know.

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  • 5 tips for flattering clothes

    When we sew our own clothes we all have a vision of how we want to look, don’t we?  I happily put my hands up to wanting to look younger, but certainly flattered by what I’m wearing, This is especially true when I’ve put time, money and effort into fitting and sewing it myself! Here are 5 great tips I picked up from Fit for Real People:

    Create ‘essence of waist’

    No, this is not a bizarre new perfume.  It’s a great way to give an illusion of a waist if, like me, you’re fairly straight up and down.

    There are a two easy ways you can do it. When you’re sewing something new, taper the side seams in at the waist just a little bit (especially effective if you’re using a check, stripe or plaid) or else sew thin little darts. This will create vertical lines that visually divide your waist into smaller sections.  The way to do it with clothes already in your wardrobe is to tuck your top in to your trousers or skirt, add a belt and wear an unbuttoned cardigan or jacket over the top. The eyes will be drawn to the little bit of belt on show and give the illusion that that’s how small your waist is!

    Taper at the hemline

    This is a great tip for straight skirts or dresses that works with ready-to-wear too!  Taper the side seams in so that the hemlline is 2″-6″ narrower than your hips. When you wear a jacket with the skirt or dress it gives the impression that your hips are the width of the hem.

    Well-fitting trousers

    Properly fitting trousers can make you look 20 pounds slimmer! Fit and sew your trousers to accentuate your good points and skim over any lumps and bumps. Wear them with a fitted top or tucked-in blouse for a more youthful look and don’t hide your figure under a loose baggy top!

    Avoid front darts

    If you have a bit of a tummy, avoid front darts – they will probably pucker at the bottom and emphasise the fullness. Use ease, pleats or soft gathers instead.

    Don’t cut yourself in half

    If you’re sewing an outfit that has a waistline, make the skirt part longer if you want to create the impression of long legs. I am 6′ tall and my height comes from my legs, so I do the reverse and make the top longer to balance out my long legs.

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