Improving sewing success

How can we know what we’re getting before we finish sewing ?

I recently wrote some comments at Stitchers Guild on sources of wardrobing advice for beginners. Ejvc commented it’s easy to find garments in the right colours, shapes, personal styles (all except fit !) when shopping. Because you can try before you buy. But much more difficult to get it right when sewing, because you have to wait ’til you’ve finished to know what you’ve got.

Good points. But I think there are many things we can do to increase our success rate. We haven’t got to work completely in the dark until the last moment about what we’re getting.

Incidentally, these are all things that designers do.  They don’t expect to get their designs right first time without any testing of the real life item (as opposed to the mental dream or the glamourised sketch !). They develop on from styles that have been used before, rather than starting afresh for every garment. And they test frequently during development, so they can give up quickly and without guilt on styles that don’t work out.

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Colours and fabrication

I always check colours and fabrics before cutting (preferably before buying !). Hold them up against myself in a full length mirror. Is it a flattering colour ? fabrication, texture, pattern in my style ? good on my body (too stiff or too soft) ?

Also hold the fabric up to test how it drapes.
If you have a dress form, pin the fabric on in a rough approximation of the style – does it look good ? drape right ? have the effect you were thinking of ?

There is no longer a fabric shop here. And buying fabrics on-line is a problem for me. Small differences in shade can make a big difference to whether the colour is flattering. And those small differences aren’t usually reproduced well on screen.
I have a rule not to buy without a sample. I still have problems with :
– fabrics that look different in a large piece than in a small sample.
– fabrics that I’ve bought samples of, and then a different dye lot turns out to be completely different. . .
But those problems happen less often than they would without taking any care.

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Good on your body shape

Sketching a style onto a personal croquis is a great help (if you have the skills :D ).

Even if you don’t make fit alterations to patterns : know what wearing ease you like for this sort of style, and measure the pattern to make sure it won’t be too large or too small. I remember a top in a favourite fabric that looked so fool-proof I didn’t make any measurements or trials – and it had cut-on sleeves that were too tight round the armhole.

Though measuring doesn’t save me from all disasters. I made a top from a pretty print in just the right colour. PR reviews warned about the neckline. I carefully measured, and all seemed well. But when I tried the finished garment on, it slipped off my shoulders so much it was unwearable.

If I had tried on either garment part-made, a simple alteration could have solved the problem. The neckline problem wouldn’t have shown up in tissue fitting, as it was caused by the way fabric flexed on my sloping shoulders, which made the neckline much wider in wear.

There are many good reasons to make a muslin as part of the pre-planning – check the proportions, ease levels, style element placing, etc. as well as the fit, before wasting the good fabric.

Moral – much basting and frequent try-outs needed at each possible stage of making. . .  Many problems can be rescued (let out seam allowances, add a dart, pleat, or godet :D).  If not, a UFO in the middle of construction is a better outcome than spending a lot of time finishing something that turns out to be unwearable. 

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Personal style

Go to a store and try on new styles to see if they flatter you, then look for a similar pattern.

It helps to be aware of your own style – quickly filters out a lot of options. Remember one person’s ‘faves’ can be another person’s ‘never’. I enjoy a recent post from The Vivienne Files. Several of the softer items she avoids are my everyday wear :D (my thoughts on a successful cascade jacket are here). And most of the trim-fit ‘modern classics’ she loves would look dreadful on me – not flattering for my body shape, personal style, colouring. (Try Burda Style or styleARC patterns if you want to copy.) I do agree with her about many ‘no-no’ items, but a ‘goth’ or an enthusiastic fashionista would love those spikes and skulls or designer logos. Or perhaps you enjoy casual casuals (here are my posts on sweatshirts and hoodies). Or do you feel at your best in square cut loose fitting ‘arty’ clothes and love Sewing Workshop or Cutting Line patterns.

I’m lucky I have a good visual imagination. I stand in front of a mirror holding a picture of a possible style, and imagine myself wearing it. Also while I’m around locally I imagine myself wearing the style. Has saved me from many mistakes. I now know it’s waste of time starting a project that I’m not sure about, as that will just languish as a UFO.

Or find a designer that works well for you, and stick with their patterns. Not a 100% guarantee of success, but better than random.

If I had to use only one designer, it would be a few patterns by Loes Hinse (here and here, and Textile Studio). But she designs for people with very different shoulders and hips than mine. So her main patterns are not a good starting point for me. Instead I make ‘inspired by’ versions. Or morph the style elements onto my own basic blocks. I also don’t follow her fabric choices, as black, gold, and glitter are not good on me. Hmm, I haven’t got an overlocker (serger) and never wear shoulder pads. Obviously I’m not her ideal customer :D

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Repeat successful patterns

I tend towards a repeating wardrobe because I know what has worked well in the past. (And I’m a timid learner.) But not to worry – that fits in well with most wardrobe building suggestions :D

Here’s a valuable comment from CCCouture at Stitchers Guild.

“I was just in Las Vegas for the International Textile Expo and lived a dream for a bit in the Chanel RTW Boutique in the Shops at the Bellagio.

I was quite surprised, that while the fabrics are gorgeous, there’s really not much sewing in the RTW pieces.   It’s the fabrics, trims and other findings (buttons) that make them so unique.”

Making small variations to a basic style is what some of the top designers do :D

Improving your success rate is another good reason to develop new styles by changing details of familiar patterns. Or morph style elements onto good basic personal blocks. Rather than starting from scratch with a new commercial pattern every time.

Though repeating isn’t the best strategy for people who like a lot of variety in their wardrobe. Or variety in their sewing :D

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Practice unfamiliar skills

I always do this, and it amazes me that some people don’t practise before trying a new technique for real. But I know this is another strong personality feature, and many people would not be at all happy if they had to follow my slow and careful ways :D

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The use of time

For every aspect of getting things right (colour, fabric, shape, fit, style, technique. . . ), the best tool for success is try on, try on, try on, at every stage possible.

Many people enjoy the sewing but not the testing.  And many other people like to just ‘jump in and have a go’. I think they have to accept that their emphasis is on the sewing not the result. So, much of what they make will be samples to learn from, rather than wearable items. For me, the good results are well worth the extra effort.

Part of sewing success is a recognition of the use of time – it’s not just about sewing.
Pattern preparation, fabric preparation (my biggest dislike), cutting out, marking, developing sewing skills and finding good techniques for a particular process, pressing, checking what you’ve made so far – they’re all processes which take substantial amounts of time to get right. They can’t just be rushed through (or left out altogether !).

So find a way of making them fun. Sew in a way that makes all the processes a treat for you :D

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P.S. Despite all this, it still didn’t work out as you dreamed ? Here’s a special sewer’s frustration tool from Shirley Adams at Sewing Connection :D

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Links available April 2012

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Explore posts in the same categories: sewing technique

15 Comments on “Improving sewing success”

  1. Lynn Mally Says:

    What good advice! I am one of those people who is always sewing with new patterns–but recently I have begun to ask myself why. It takes a long time to get a pattern to fit correctly, so my goal now is to find basic patterns and learn how to morph them into more styles.

  2. sara Says:

    I love your tip of imagining yourself wearing a style as you are going about your life. I feel I have an instinctively good understanding of what styles suit my body, but sewing clothes that fit my lifestyle is something that I’ve been putting a lot of thought into lately, very much thanks to you! I’m not really good at planning wardrobe capsules. I can never stick to the plan and prefer to follow my inspiration as I go along. But I do think a lot now about how the item I am about to sew will work with what I have or plan to make in the near future, and how these items will work with my lifestyle. I’ve been sewing a lot more basics (which does not exclude fun dresses. I think basics can be fun. A dress that I can wear in daytime and that will work with a simple jacket or cardigan is a basic in my book!) And I’ve been sewing a lot more from simple patterns that I keep doing over and over again because I know they suit me, work well into my closet, and sew up fast.
    I love reading your articles. Thank you for all the excellent advice!

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks Sara – I didn’t think of mentioning all the problems of wardrobe co-ordination as one of the steps to success :D

      I love making plans but never follow them. What it does is give me clear idea of my priorities. And part of that is getting a clear idea of my basics.

  3. Mary Says:

    As always, what you write makes such sense. I enjoy your writing and have learned so much. I am clear about what works for my body, but I sometimes become rebellious and venture into a style which is disastrous. Then I scurry back to the TNT. I do sew from a variety of pattern lines, but my projects are not always keepers.

  4. Chris Says:

    Great post!

    I’m with you – I’m just beginning to have a couple of TNT tops and intend to make them over and over in different fabrics, colors, etc. Because I actually WEAR them.

    In the meantime, I’m working on developing more TNT’s – jackets are my next challenge.

    • claireokc Says:

      I saw this too and thought it was excellent. The best way to make your TNT patterns is practice, practice, practice….or “just do it”. While I was in training with my mentor, I expressed concern over the quality of my lapels and notched collars, and she told me to get some corduroy in different colors and I made 6 jackets that summer and never was insecure about my notched collars & lapels ever again!

  5. Marie-Christine Says:

    I think it’d be more accurate to say that some people enjoy the testing more than the sewing, and don’t care about production. I don’t do nearly as much testing as some people, and I don’t think my clothes fit that badly :-). But I make most everything I wear, so there’s an element of urgency to my sewing production. If I had to pint-fit and muslin everything I made, I’d have a very bare closet indeed. I might even stop sewing entirely.

    On the other hand, I’ve learned to start from better patterns, which may be why I have a pretty good success rate. I notice you almost always recommend (if not use yourself) big4 patterns. I haven’t used those since the basic sloper class where I learned I needed to do 14 adjustments to a Vogue pattern (FOURTEEN!!), and a single one to Burda. And now that I have a good personal block, I can quickly ensure that Burda fits even better, it’s a 10-15mn process that involves absolutely no testing per se.

    What I really enjoy about sewing is wearing the finished product :-).

    • sewingplums Says:

      Marie-Christine – we obviously have different friends. I mostly know people who love to churn out a garment in a few hours :D

      The reason why I continuously quote the Big 4 is purely practical – their sites are much the easiest to use, both to see what styles they have, and to extract line drawings to use here.

      Lucky you to have a pattern line that fits you without difficulty. There isn’t anything similar for me. And as I like quality, that’s why I spend so much time on the fitting process and on getting a good set of basics.

      There are so many different values which drive what people find important about their sewing !

      • Marie-Christine Says:

        I don’t see what could be different with my friends? I’m perfectly happy to toss out something wearable in a couple hours, what could possibly be wrong with that :-)? But even my quick stuff is much better than rtw could ever be, because it fits me well and it’s in good fabrics and colors I love.

        And I have a personal block that fits me perfectly not because my body is standard in the least, but because I sought out a competent seamstress to produce it for me. I may be wrong but I think you live in the SF bay area, which has more good seamstresses per square mile than anywhere in the US except perhaps Manhattan :-)? So what keeps you from hiring one for a couple hours and doing the same? No matter how good you are at sewing technicalities, being fitted by someone else is always better. You can even find a sewing friend and exchange this sort of service. Of course it’s faster if you show up with something you’ve already sort of worked out yourself, and just have them do the final alterations. As long as you’re alive (and beyond actually :-)) if you have a body it can be covered to perfection without fuss.

      • sewingplums Says:

        Well, Marie-Christine – people can have very different sewing preferences. Some people like to sew fast, some people like to sew slow.

        You are very very lucky to have access to a competent professional or sewing friends who can get you a good fit without difficulty. The local professional here sews worse than I did in primary school. And many people don’t know a single other sewer face-to-face.

        And even if we do have access to competent help, it’s interesting to think about the issues.

        Also people don’t just have difficulties with fit. There’s also fabric, colour, style choices, fabric-pattern matching. . .

        We all have very different preferences and circumstances.

  6. claireokc Says:

    I just wanted permission for the link…That’s all. Being an artist, I don’t like to do this without permission, even if it sounds minor, better to ask than not. So I presume a link is OK?

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks Claire, that’s very scrupulous of you. There are over a 100 links in the side menu of my blog and I haven’t asked for permission for any of them ! I’m not infringing copyright as I’m not quoting them in any way, I’m just pointing people to a source I think interesting or useful. They’re links to well known blogs or commercial sites, and I take it for granted the original will be pleased to ‘have the word passed on’.

      I do make use of other people’s illustrations in my posts. Such as Style.com or pattern illustrations. I always provide a link to the original. I was dubious about it at first, but realised I only use images from commercial sites, so I’m giving them free advertising. I did once want to use images from another source – asked her permission, and we decided I wouldn’t be using her material with the message she wanted.

      I agree that respecting copyright is an important point.


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