Pattern making – easier fitting shell

An updated version of this post is in my free .pdf
e-Book on Personal basic pattern making blocks.

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I’ve already described (here) the textbook approach to pattern making : draft the pattern for a closely fitting shell, then use that as the basis for pattern alterations.

This post is about ways of getting a good-fit starting point. The ‘official’ method is to take your measurements, then draft a pattern from scratch on a blank piece of paper. But the aim is to get a well fitting basic. And there are much easier ways of achieving that.

You can :
- use simpler methods for measuring and drafting.
- take the measurements and let someone else do the drafting.
- get a fitting shell without drafting, and no more measurements than you normally take when choosing a pattern size.

Reminder : I’m using these word meanings :
‘fitting shell’ : a basic closely fitting pattern. The same shape as the person it’s for, with little movement ease and no design features. Not usable directly as a garment pattern.
‘block’ : basic starting pattern for a type of garment, with the usual ease and style elements. Such as a basic fitted blouse or casual jacket.

Yet another note :
All these simplifications make some assumptions.
Some of these methods make very simplified patterns.
All of them include some wearing ease. So they make assumptions about the clothes you want to make.

Many people, especially custom dressmakers, like to make a fitting shell which is a ‘second skin’. Enough ease to breathe, but no assumptions about how loose the garments made from it should be, how much stretch there will be in the fabric used, or how easy it should be to make various movements.

If you want a ‘second skin’ you will have to use a drafting method with no allowance for ease. Or do draping. Not one of these easier methods.

As amateurs and hobbyists, we only have to fit ourselves and our families, and please ourselves with the methods we use and the clothes we make. So we can do things in a much easier way than professional designers and dressmakers, if we want to !

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Fewer measures, easier drafting : the Casual Block

There are several books which give very simple instructions for drafting a personal fit. Thcy can do this because the modern ‘casual’ or ‘dartless’ block is simple :
- no darts.
- front and back patterns the same except for the neck line.
- as the front and back pattern armholes are the same, the sleeve cap is symmetrical.

Much easier and cheaper to manufacture. And much easier to make a basic pattern for.

Simplest of all is ‘Sew What ! – Fleece’ by Jessop and Sekora. They use 7 measurements to draw their ‘body template’. Then they add extra width to front opening, shoulders and side seams, to make tops and jackets. Easy pull-on pants from 5 measures and a similar approach. Book leads you through a sequence of projects so you learn both simple pattern making and sewing. All in fleece, so no need to neaten edges and prevent fraying.

”sewhatfleece”
Sew What ! Fleece pp.76-7
(the seventh measurement is sleeve length.)

For a less easy starting point, there’s Cal Patch’s Design-it-yourself Clothes. This simplifies block making and pattern altering. Few darts, so not for large cup sizes. Problem : the instructions are mainly in paragraphs of words. Not good for a visual person. Also the focus is on pattern making, it’s not for beginners to sewing.

She uses 24 measurements in all. For a wide range of clothes : skirt, tee, shirt/ light jacket, dress, pants. Modern styles.

I don’t know how well these methods work for larger sizes.

The simple Casual Block doesn’t fit me well. I now have my own ‘casual block’ with personal neckline and shoulder slope, back shoulder darts, and personal armholes and sleeve cap – very different front and back (post on that here). Many people with a full front look better if they add a bust dart to the casual block. Now I can apply the simple style changes which people suggest for the casual block, to my own version of it.

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You measure, someone else makes the shape : physical tools

I’ve tried several physical methods for making a basic starting point from your own measurements.

Plastic templates

Bonfit Patterners use plastic slot-together templates to get different size bodies (see my review). Probably good for a Casual Block if you don’t need an FBA. I don’t think the Bonfit book about pattern making which is with my old kit is good. Small dim print and few illustrations

There are also a couple of interesting block drafting rulers which I haven’t tried.

The Point and Pivot Pattern Ruler is from Eileen in South Africa.

”southafricanruler”

This covers personal measurements for bust, bust point and cup size, waist, hip, waist length, and could be adapted for shoulder length.
The video shows how to draft a bodice.

There are several similar rulers from Australia :
DKEMEL ruler
Pattern Drafter
Sitam square

Tracing multi-size patterns

The Sure-Fit system is a join-the-dots tracing method. She claims it can be used for any size body.

”surefit”

The Sure-Fit dress kit allows for bust, cup size, bust point position, waist, waist length, high hip and hips, shoulder and arm length.

These are all schemes for making basic blocks (simple usable patterns). Sure-Fit calls this your ‘body blueprint’. You then use standard pattern making methods to get other styles. I think the Sure-Fit booklets, more visual, are very good. And the instructions can be used to make new styles whatever your source of basic blocks.

Sadly, none of these include all my challenges in getting neckline, shoulders, high round back, armhole, to fit. I need to do those fit alterations myself.

For people with a longer back crotch measure, the Sure-Fit pants don’t discriminate between those who need more vertical length and more angle, to accommodate a large rear, compared to people who need more horizontal crotch extensions, to accommodate a deep torso (see my note on pants wedges).

There are many helpful SFD videos about improving the fit at the SFD Learning Center.
These apply to fitting any personal blocks, not just the Sure-Fit Designs derived ones.

And you only have to make alterations once on the basic pattern. Then all patterns you make from your adjusted personal block ‘blueprint’ will include those changes ready made.

With the re-issue of Sure-Fit there has been a lot of interest, see Stitchers Guild discussion thread.

In the FitNice System you trace very simple basic shapes for knit casual-block top and elastic waist pants. Many simple ideas for pattern alterations to make new styles. Up to finished measurement at bust level of 48-1/2 inches/ 123 cm.
The conversion for wovens doesn’t work well for my body shape, as the simple unadjusted casual block isn’t good on me.
I had a lot of problems with the discs on my elderly Mac, but she did give me a quick complete refund without me asking.

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You measure, someone else makes the shape : software

What if you want a basic which allows for more of your personal measurements ?

The idea of pattern making software is that you put in your measurements, and it produces the patterns for you. All the software brands use different measurements and different ways of calculating the patterns.

In Pattern Master Boutique you enter your measurements and test fit a set of basic fitting shell patterns : bodice, skirt, pants, and sheath dress. If the fit isn’t right, you enter slightly changed measurements, print out another pattern, try that, and so on. Once you’ve got the fitting shell right, then you can choose from a huge variety of style elements to make your designs.

”pmbmeasures”
Example measurements (inches) in Pattern Master Boutique

Bernina My Label doesn’t make the two stages (fitting and styling) clearly separate. You enter your measurements (many more than for PMB), and try out simple tunic and pants styles to refine the fit, by changing the measurements again. Then there’s a range of about 25 classic styles. You’re expected to use your own pattern making knowledge to adapt these to other styles. There’s a good range of guidance about doing this on the website. Many of their pdfs give advice about pattern making which you can use with any starting point, not just BML.

Basically, the aim of BML is to produce a set of good classic blocks which you can alter to make other styles.

The fun attraction of BML is the simulation of your body shape, with the clothes on it. So you can try out different lengths, levels of ease, etc. and get an idea of what’s most flattering.

Those are the only pattern making software I have personal experience with. There are many other software companies (see list in my software post). I found this sort of fitting process is not one I enjoy at all. And I’m too far from average in too many ways for it to be very successful for me.

It’s a good idea to start small and find if using pattern software is a way of working you enjoy. And best to start by expecting ‘better’ rather than ‘ideal’ for the fit. It may take several tries to get the best fit you can. It’s not an approach which works well for me.

Wild Ginger (who produce Pattern Master Boutique) also sell Click & Sew software for fitting shells.

Pattern.stringcodes.com is an on-line company that produces personal fitting shells.

Unique Patterns provides personally fitted versions of some Simplicity and New Look designs. There are some interesting pdfs in their Education section.

As with pattern making software, both these products are more successful if you send them good measurements !

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Minimum measuring, no drafting : commercial fitting shells

Most ways of making a personal fitting shell use many measurements. And it’s difficult to take those accurately, especially on yourself. But there isn’t actually any need to do detailed measuring to get a fitting shell – if your size is within the usual pattern ranges. Well, no more than the measuring needed to choose a pattern size.

There are several bodice-skirt fitting shell patterns :
Butterick 5627 for sizes 6 to 22.
Butterick 5628 for sizes 16W to 32W.
(Connie Crawford’s patterns are a different shape.)

McCall’s 2718 (below) This has bodice fronts for 5 cup sizes. Individual patterns for sizes 6 to 22.

”m27182”

and Vogue 1004, individual patterns for sizes 6 to 22.
(Sandra Betzina’s patterns are a different shape).

These patterns include guidance about how to get them to fit well. You may get a better fit for your shoulders if you choose the pattern size by high bust/ chest, rather than full bust measurement (see my post on the FBA).

There’s also a pants fitting shell, Vogue 1003, individual patterns for sizes 6 to 22. Probably best for people who don’t protrude front or rear (see my post on pant fit).

Starting from one of these commercial patterns gives you a double payoff.
You get a fitting shell which you can use for your own pattern making.
You also know how your body differs from the average Big 4 pattern. So you know what changes you need to make, and how big, every time you use one of their patterns.

This would be my preferred method. Except they none of them say much about how to get a comfortable armhole and sleeve cap, which I really do want to do something about. And now I have a good fit pattern, it differs so much from the commercial shapes, I find it a huge hassle to do all the changes. Easier (I think at the moment !) to start from my own basic shapes and add the style elements from patterns I like.

Using a commercial fitting shell pattern, you just need to use standard fitting techniques to get a good fit.

But if you know about fitting techniques, you don’t need the extra instructions in the commercial fitting shells. You could use those fitting techniques on any simple pattern. Then you can use that well fitting pattern as a basis for simple style changes. Like TNT (tried ‘n true) patterns, but ones delibrately chosen to be good starting points for redesign. After trying a whole lot of other possibilites, that is what I find myself doing. At least with all my lengthy struggles to get software to fit, I did learn a lot about fitting myself !

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No measuring or drafting : draping a fitting shell

If you drape your fitting shell directly on your body, you only need measure enough to cut a fabric rectangle big enough to cover the area. And do the rest by draping.

Connie Crawford has a DVD on this, called the Custom Bodice DVD. There’s an interesting sample clip at the site.

There’s one review at Pattern Review from someone who managed to do it on herself. From comments added to this review, it sounds as if this method is good if different parts of you are different sizes. Or if the 2 sides of your body are different shapes. I haven’t tried draping myself.

The price of this DVD is above the customs limit here in the UK, so expensive. There is a similar sounding DVD available here, The Art of Dress Modelling by Lisa Silberberg from Shoben Fashion Media. But that’s all I know about it.

There are written instructions and photos about draping a fitting shell in ‘Patternmaking for Fashion Designers’ womenswear by Lori Knowles.

(P.S. There’s a new class at Craftsy on this, but I haven’t tried it – Fashion draping. Not for sewing beginners.)

Draping gives you a ‘second skin’ sort of fitting shell. You will need to add ease to most measurements to get a wearable pattern.

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P.S. See the comments for some more very good suggestions about getting a well fitting starting point for pattern making.

So which do you enjoy – taking accurate measurements, doing the drafting, or fitting, or draping ?

You need to decide whether you want to work towards a personal fitting shell which is a close fit ‘second skin’ with no movement ease. Or personal blocks, which can be used as patterns for simple garments. Or the TNT equivalent. But this was getting too long, so I’ve put all that in a separate post.

There’s a wealth of methods for getting a well fitting starting point for making new styles. Obviously it’s something people have difficulty with. And have been inspired to think of solutions for. Developing a fitting shell or basic blocks may not be something we have to do often. But if we find the right method for us, it can be something we enjoy rather than keep putting off.

I am planning a post on simple style changes you can make without cutting up a fitting shell. But I’m finding I have more and more to say about the starting point for doing this, so there are several more posts to come ! Personally I find it much easier to get a personal set of basic patterns rather than blocks. But there are many other possibilities if that doesn’t suit you :D

These easy methods can be good for people who need few fit adjustments, but not for people who are far from average. None of the simplified methods do – and I spent years trying them !
Many don’t deal with different cup sizes. Let alone sloping/ square shoulders, round backs, etc. My post on Getting to know my sizes lists my differences !

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20 Comments on “Pattern making – easier fitting shell”

  1. Marie-Christine Says:

    There’s another possibility you don’t mention. Find a local seamstress (or the local theater costume person), hire her (or make her a really nice dinner, clean out her computer virus, whatever), and get her to do your basic shell. No muss, no fuss, if she’s good you’ll have something much better than what you could get with any other method.
    At some point I attempted to learn patternmaking and took FOUR separate classes, none of which went beyond getting a shell by various methods. Would have been a total loss if the last woman, a custom dressmaker, didn’t come up to me wearing the pathetic thing I’d made with her method and zip zap, I have no idea how, essentially draped a perfect shell. I’ve been using it for more than 10 years, and it’s still the best I’ve ever had. I’ve since taught myself stuff to do with a shell :-). But really, I wish I had skipped those classes and just hired the dressmaker, in a couple hours I’d have saved much time and money and gotten the same result.

    • sewingplums Says:

      Excellent advice Marie-Christine – thanks.

      I tend to forget using dressmakers as the local ones sew very much worse than I do ! I tested them by asking them to sew a dirndl skirt – I don’t think there was a single thing right. I was so upset about it I could probably still list all the mistakes my high school sewing teacher wouldn’t have allowed me to get away with. . .
      On the other hand, I have a very beautiful wool crepe suit made for me. But that was made in Toronto, 4000 miles away ! It still gives me pleasure to look at and wear.

      Moral – try dressmakers out before giving them a lot of your time, good fabric, money. There’s a wide range of skill out there.

  2. Joyce Wyld Says:

    There’s another method, which Kathleen Fasanella called the Saran wrap method, and which I documented on my blog as the Gladwrap method (http://allthewyldthings.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/custom-fit-by-glad-wrap/). You use gladwrap around your body, defining the bust area especially, cut out the wrap into left and right sides, then make slashes at the side and shoulder seams as well as the bust and shoulder darts, making sure the gladwrap is completely flat. Then you grade the whole thing up one size. A no-ease pattern that fits you EXACTLY. I draft all my patterns from this Gladwrap sloper. It would work for anybody, with no fitting or alterations required (or very minimal.)

    Joyce


  3. So I turned to patternmaking where I learned how to draft basic fitting patterns called slopers and create different styles of garments from them. I was excited about using slopers to make my own patterns as designers do. But since my students work with commercial patterns I wondered if I could use what Id learned from making slopers to speed up the alteration process.

  4. sewingplums Says:

    It is possible to combine a personal sloper with a commercial pattern.
    Basically you align the centre front and waist level of the two, and trace across.

    Here’s a CD by Linda Maynard that explains the process in full.
    I find it quite a challenging read, but very interesting.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    As a random thought…something I am actually about to pursue…you mention that using the pattern shells (Vogue, Butterick, etc.) don’t cover the armscye fit. That is why I am now following the following book (see link below) to try and fix the patterns I buy (but, I am doing each pattern individually. GAH!). SO, what an idea to combine the fitting shells with this method?? Then I will have a lovely shell for myself to draft off of, but also to alter the patterns easier!! I think it might work!! :D LINK: http://www.sewlisette.com/blog/2011/06/two-resources-to-help-you-find-your-correct-size/

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks for the interesting link Rebecca.

      Nancy Zieman’s method doesn’t work for me. I think all of us who have difficulty with fit eventually find our own selection of tweaks which get our basic fitting shell to fit well – then a whole world of possibilities opens up :D

      Whatever works for you – use it !

  6. LadyD Says:

    Found your blog when searching for information on fitting shells and slopers (I was confused wether they are the same thing or different). And I realise now what I want is a ‘casual block’. And my aim is just to get something that fits (with ease) that I can then use to make various dresses and blouses/tops etc. by changing necklines, sleeves etc.
    I don’t have a dress form or anyone who can help me with fitting so will have to do it all myself. And am quite happy with a ‘that’ll do’ approach to fitting. ;) I

    • sewingplums Says:

      LadyD – good luck with your work on fitting. At first I found fitting a very slow and dispiriting process, but now I know enough about myself to be able to get a good result, which is very rewarding. (I avoid the word ‘sloper’ as different people use it with different meanings.)

  7. Gemma Says:

    Hi all – I have always had problems making clothes that fit and gave up making clothes for myself until I discovered the Palmer/Pletsch system for making commercial patterns really fit! – unfortunately there are only 2 teachers of this system in the UK – and although I had to travel quite a way to get to her my teacher, Mandy, was so good that I am going back to have her teach me how to fit trousers – and my mum’s coming too!

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks Gemma. I’m happy to hear Palmer-Pletsch works well for you. Sadly their methods don’t work for me. I gave away all their books as they never had the answers to my questions. We are all different !

      • Gemma Says:

        I know just what you mean I couldn’t quite get it right looking at the book but when Mandy showed me how to do it and how to make those final tweaks I found it worked great. But, like you say – we are all different – be a vanilla world if we weren’t!

  8. Judy Says:

    You did not specify how to use measurement to cut out patterns.
    U just showed us what the pattern layout should look like.


  9. Hi sewingplum – actually the Sure-Fit Designs system of pattern fitting does allow for extra front bodice pattern width, relative to back, needed by people with large cup sizes. In the Dress Kit Instruction book on pg. 6 it gives instructions for increasing the front pattern by one measurement dot and decreasing the back bodice by the same amount. That way you end up with the same necessary bust circumference, just with more of the space given to the front than the back.
    I hope this helps to clarify this issue.
    Kindly,
    Glenda Sparling – President Sure-Fit Designs

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks for the clarification Glenda, I’ve removed that comment from my post. I’m jealous of people your system works for, and do I look at your booklets for easy guidance on new styles.

  10. tiff Says:

    so inspired by your site! thank you for taking the time to investigate all these options and write up a review of each. so very helpful!!!

  11. Nedre Fouche Says:

    where can i get the point and pivot template from africa here in the usa?

  12. Carol Says:

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for so generously sharing this e-book. I’m slowly working my way out of an illness during which I’ve lost a lot of weight (nice result – nasty way to get there) and am finally getting interested in sewing again. Your e-book will be a treasure trove to help me create some decently fitting garments, and I know I’ll be continuously grateful for this resource.


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