If you’ve ever made a garment from a commercial patterns, especially something that is meant to be fitted, and have been disappointed that your body doesn’t look good in the garment…you have it the wrong way around. In this post, I’m going to show the steps that I take to fit the commercial pattern to my unique body. My hope is that you can follow these same steps to make garments that flatter your own unique physique.
First things first, I’ve been working on upping my professional attire by incorporating more blazers. With summer just around the corner and DC’s infamous hot, muggy weather, I thought some dressy vests would help me transition this upgrade to the summer months. Guess what’s not in fashion at the moment? Dressy vests. The only ones I found were online, polyester, and clearly made for waiters as the only color I found was black. Well, I figured, I should go ahead and make my own.
I went through my boxes of patterns and pulled out McCall’s M5186 (it doesn’t seem to be on the McCall’s website but is available through other sources online). I also pulled out my roll of tracing paper. I get this paper at the art supply store and it’s less than $20 for a 50 yard roll. Instead of cutting my paper pattern, I trace out the pattern pieces.
Since I am short-waisted, I folded the paper pattern at the lines that are indicated right on the pattern for shortening the pattern and traced my pieces that way. I do this because I can refold the full pattern paper back along the original crease lines and neatly fit it back into the envelope without the possibility of losing a piece. Also, as I gain or lose weight, I don’t lose the other sizes available on the pattern, I simply trace off the size I need at that time. Additionally, if you have a large difference between say bust and hip, you can trace the hips to the proper size and then trace the bust to the proper size and connect the two lines somewhere in the middle. I started doing this when I was regularly costuming for theatre productions and I find it a useful habit.
A little about my unique body. I had scoliosis as a kid and ended up having a good length of my spine fused. My scoliosis caused rib rotation which makes my right scapula stick out further than my left and my right chest to be sunk back further than the left. My hips are also different heights and just generally shaped differently. I used to hate these differences and I still struggle with accepting my differently-formed body, but I’ve become more and more accepting of it as I have created more custom garments that account for my uniqueness and flatter it instead of puckering and looking wrong.
For my unique body, I can’t just fit half the pattern. In order to truly capture my complete form, I have to adjust the pattern all the way around. When I trace off the pattern pieces, I fold the paper in half and cut two copies of each piece. I then use my sewing machine to sew all of the pattern pieces together, using the 5/8″ seam allowance included in the pattern. Each commercial pattern should state the seam allowance that is included, but you can pretty safely assume the “Big Four” use 5/8″. Now the fitting begins.
Wearing the undergarments and blouse that I would wear under the vest once it is complete, I gently put on the paper garment and pin the button hole marks to the button marks. Standing in front of a mirror, I find any areas where there are creases or waves in the paper and a gently pinch them down to make darts. The darts are sometimes coming from the edge of the pattern piece and in certain areas are contained entirely within the center of the pattern piece. I tape these darts down as I work my way around my body. I start with the largest, most obvious folds and work my way around the body. Then I move on to smaller adjustments and make my way around the body. I try to trace the pattern to my largest area, but I do sometimes find that I need more room. In that case I either write on the paper how much more fabric I need in an area (where an entire seam needs to move) or I cut the area where I need more room and tape in a new piece of paper. In the end, my pattern pieces have a bunch of pleats and sometimes edges that aren’t neatly aligned. I gently take out the stitches that hold all of the pieces together and I’m ready for the muslin. I lay out my paper pieces onto muslin fabric and cut around them as they are, with all the pleats still held down by tape. This transfers the adjustments I made to the fabric. Any jagged edges are eased together so I have a continuous line.
Once I have my new pattern pieces cut out of fabric (muslin, or really any other cheap fabric that has a similar hand to the final material), I sew the pieces together and again put it on over the clothes that I’ll be wearing. Using the same process, I gather up areas of excess fabric and pinch it out to make pleats. I pin these in place as I work from big, obvious pleats to smaller pleats for smaller refinements. When I take the mock up off, I sew all these pleats flat. Because this pattern has princess seams, I don’t need a bust dart to account for fullness, the curve of the princess seam takes care of that. However, if the garment didn’t already have bust shaping, this is where I could add a pleat that I intend to actually incorporate into the final product. As it stands, I just smoothed down my pattern pieces and laid them onto my final fabric, a pair of tropical-weight wool pants that I love but didn’t fit anymore. Yup. I just recycled my pants to make a vest.
(Above) Muslin with pleats where I took out excess fabric. I smooth the piece onto my finished fabric and use the new outline to capture the adjustments I made. To be honest, I should have made one more muslin, but I got lazy. I’ll explain why this became a problem later.
(Below) You can see the difference between my final pattern piece and the original pattern piece. I am even more short-waisted than the pattern accounts for. On a fitted garment like this, the placement of the waist is so important to a good fit. If I had just folded up what the pattern said and made the garment, the waist would likely have landed at least 1/2″-3/4″ lower than my actual waist. This would have put the waist where my body is already getting wider at the hips, giving me a boxier look than I wanted.
Once I cut out my wool, I then laid out the pattern pieces onto more of the tracing paper. I traced off my new pattern pieces to use in cutting the interfacing and the lining. Had I made another mock up, I would have smoothed down the pleated muslin on top of fresh muslin and cut it out. It’s all just about transferring the new shapes onto something you can use to recreate the pattern pieces. Trying to spread out the pleated mock up the same way twice is not very feasible and an easy way to introduce errors into the design. I cut out my new tracing paper pieces and used them to cut my interlining (in this case a lovely cotton organdy) and lining (a simple cotton fabric). I pre-washed them all by hand to take up any shrinkage. I don’t wash any of the garments I make in the machine. Too much time and effort goes into them for the punishing regimen of the agitator and spin cycle to make me comfortable. I also avoid dry cleaning my garments in an effort to reduce my impact on the planet. I just fill up a tub with warm water and gentle detergent. I then gently move the garment through the water (it is the action of the water moving around and through the fibers of the fabric that cleans them), then rinse and hang or lay down to dry.
In the end, this is what the final piece looks like:
The fit across the back, where my one scapula sticks out more than the other, is perfect. Because the fit is so good, it makes the scapula less noticeable. I’m in love with the back. In the front you will see why I should have made a second mock up. Do you see that wrinkle on my shoulder holding the phone? That’s not all distortion from the way I’m posing, that’s actually in the final product. I noticed that it was a little bit ripply when I made the first mock up but assumed it would work itself out when I made the final piece. It didn’t. It’s not as noticeable when I don’t have my arm at a weird angle to my body, but it is still there. Not enough of a problem for me to not wear this vest, but I did go back and adjust the pattern piece so that future vests don’t have the same issue.