What can you make from one top pattern ?

If you had to pick only one top pattern, to make everything except skirts and pants, what would it be ?

This question is inspired by Rusty Bensussen’s book “Making a Complete Wardrobe from 4 Basic Patterns”. It’s not a book I would recommend whole heartedly. There are some odd ideas – for example using the same top pattern without any size changes for a shirt, a jacket, and a coat – just by changing the fabric and length. I wonder if any inexperienced sewer has tried that, and found themselves with too much interfering bulk at the underarm when they tried to wear even two of the garments together, let alone shirt + jacket + coat. Well, Bensussen’s top pattern is very oversized. So perhaps that is less problem than it would be with a fitted armhole.

The same top pattern used without size changes for both an evening dress and a coat. . . aargh. This clearly illustrates the great difference of opinion about what clothes should be like, between now and the 80s when this book was written.

There are a few blind spots in Bensussen’s technique descriptions, which could confuse a beginner. But on the positive side, this book introduces simple changes which give a different garment from the same starting point. And that is something I would like to explore.

Following the book, from one top pattern I need to make patterns for : pullover top, open-front shirt, untailored unlined jacket, untailored unlined coat, vest, dress, and evening dress.

Permitted changes are necklines and sleeve cuffs, front openings, and length. And I’m going to remove one limit. I am going to use different sizes for different purposes.

As my starting point for this exercise, I choose McCall’s 5664.


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Pullover Top
closed front, collarless

Open-front Shirt
open all way down front

Going from an open to a closed style (or vice versa) needs a little pattern making knowledge. I’m planning to write a post on that.

– – –


sleeveless, collarless, open-front, add facings or full lining.

The starting point pattern isn’t a layering top. So a vest might need to be one size larger to add ease for comfort.

This wouldn’t be a good pattern to use for a fur / quilted / upholstery fabric vest. I think it would be best in a less stiff fabrication. For a rich fabric, velour might be okay.

Untailored Jacket
open front, collarless, no cuffs, add facings

As this pattern has a modern fitted armhole, I would need to make some changes so the jacket would fit comfortably over the shirt. Going up one size would be a simple answer. That isn’t an ideal solution, there are some things that need to be checked. And if you’ve altered your starting pattern for a good fit, you won’t be able just to trace off a larger size. So I’m thinking of a separate post on that.

It would be a good idea to make this jacket collarless and cuffless, to remove the problems of wearing shirt, jacket and coat together and all with the same collar and cuff style.

I think I would also break the rules a bit here, and remove the fullness at the sleeve head, so the jacket could be worn easily under a coat.

– – –


Untailored Coat
two sizes larger, knee length, full length sleeves, no cuffs

I might widen the collar by 1/2 to 1 inch, to give it more emphasis on a larger garment.

sashed, short sleeved, knee length

Evening Dress
sashed, scoop neck, floor length

This could be sleeveless. I would probably make it with long sleeves, as the places round here where formal events are held have minimal heating.

– – –

Much to my surprise, it is actually possible to do this quite easily. What an interesting exercise.

Bensussen focusses on making many different types of garment from one pattern. Burda WOF magazine takes a different approach. They don’t change the general category of garment but change its style. There’s a good example in the October 09 issue. They make 4 very different jackets from one simple straight pattern, using changes in trim and pockets.


Chanel style jacket : patch pockets, braid trim.
Party coat : bow belt, inseam pockets, trumpet sleeves.
Safari style jacket : collar and cuffs, epaulets, bellows pockets.
Sporty blouson jacket : hidden placket closure, welt pockets, knit bands.
(Another sporty option would be a hoodie with exposed zip at centre front and kangaroo pockets.)

For pocket inspiration, here are some sources (hard to find) :

Patricia Moyes’ book ‘Just Pockets : Sewing Techniques and Design Ideas’. (Detailed technique. I also like her book on general sewing techniques – ‘Sewing Basics’.)

Diane Ericson’s Revisions pattern 311 ‘Just Pockets’. (I find this a bit confusing – full of inspirational ideas, but too much information crammed into a small space, so I don’t find it helpful on technique.)

For free advice, see the Pocket Construction tutorials in Sigrid’s Sewing Tutorials – link in right side menu.

– – –

This restyling game can be played from many other starting points. Your best choice depends on your body shape and personal style. People with square shoulders might prefer raglan or drop shoulders. People who aren’t pear shaped could use a straight sided basic style, such as a classic shirt. Those who look better with some garment shaping might start from a classic darted blouse, or a basic shoulder princess style. Do you prefer a softer or a crisper effect ? Does the thought of thinking up ways of making the garments all look different fill you with glee ? Or does the prospect of having so many similar clothes make you shudder with horror 😀

But hey, once you get the hang of how to do the simplest of pattern alterations, one basic pattern can give you an amazing range of possibilities.

Pattern available October 2009 (now oop)

– – –

July 2017

Bensussen’s 4 starting-point patterns are the top, an a-line skirt starting from hip size, a full skirt starting from waist size, and pants.

15 years later, the book Easy Sewing the Kwik Sew Way had many variations on a shirt-blouse, 2 skirts and pants, plus a tee.

Another choice for modern starter patterns from which everything can be made is :
– fitted bodice and skirt, with sleeves (basic dress with waist seam),
– dartless camp shirt,
– pants.

The Sure-Fit Designs pattern kits cover these possibilities for many personal measurements, but are quite an investment.

Shoben Media have basic blocks covering a range of commercial sizes.

There are also free drafting and sewing videos for these basics in 6 standard sizes at Chic Francisco.

As drafting isn’t a route to a well fitting pattern for me (I have too many features different from average), I got my basic pattern blocks by fitting commercial patterns for these styles.

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Explore posts in the same categories: pattern making for clothes

3 Comments on “What can you make from one top pattern ?”

  1. EJVC Says:

    Very interesting! Nancy Erickson at Fashion Sewing Group has just a few patterns and then a range of tips in her newsletters for modification into different styles. Her key pattern is a jacket, which she modified to shirt and dress; she also does a skirt, trousers, a sweater-set, a coat, and a vest/jacket of a slightly different type.

    According to her:
    “The key to the entire collection is that once a pattern is constructed and fit, the redesigns supplied in the newsletter and the Jackets Workbook provide dozens and dozens of ways to recreate the patterns to keep up with current styles and silhouettes. By redesigning an existing garment, the fitting issues are eliminated and just the pure fun of fashion design remains. Now the attention is on the style and fabric and not on the tedium of fitting. It eliminates the gamble of sewing…no more, “How will it fit and work out?” but now, “I can’t wait to wear this!” The additional benefit is increased sewing confidence. The subscribers constantly evolve their sewing skills and enthusiasm with each new garment project. The fact that they are so hooked on the newsletter with more than 82% subscribing for five years or more, is true declaration of patterns that are of great value in their wardrobes. They love to keep creating something new from something they know works.”

    I was really convinced by this but have yet to make up anything but a T-shirt from the sweater set pattern!

  2. sewingplums Says:

    Thanks Elizabeth. Yes, I get Nancy Erickson’s newsletter, and I enjoy what she does. But I’m not a ‘classic’ for styling, nor have I ever worn a tailored lapel jacket, so I haven’t tried any of her patterns. I know a lot of people do base their wardrobe on them.

  3. Chris Says:

    Love your Blog!
    It gives me so much to thing about…

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