Build your wardrobe in small groups

The Vivienne Files post on building a wardrobe by fours started me on yet more thoughts about basic wardrobe building.

Perhaps it’s part of your personal style that you don’t like to plan, prefer a free-flow approach to choosing your clothes, and just use general guidelines on colour and shape so you haven’t got a closet full of orphans.

If instead you want the simplest possible scheme for wardrobe building – add small groups, rather than a whole wardrobe all at once.

What are the garment types you wear all the time : dresses or jeans ? shirts or tees ? jackets or sweaters ? If you’re not sure, look at my personal wardrobe plan post.

What clothes grouping do these items make ? Would it suit you to build your wardrobe in co-ordinated capsules of 4/ 5/ 6 items, or individual outfits of 1/ 2/ 3 items ?

Here are the common possibilities.

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Small groups which include enough clothes for you to make several outfits.

Core 4

Often 2 tops, 2 bottoms. For example, Butterick 5333. Easy to make four different outfits.


If one top can layer over the other, that adds two more outfits.


Janice of The Vivienne Files builds a basic wardrobe of 12 items by adding 4 items at a time. Here’s her original post.
– Core Four – sleeveless and sleeved tops, skirt, pants, in interesting colour.
– Expansion Four – 2 more tops and bottoms, in neutral colour.
– Mileage Four – more tops, in fabrics which combine colours.

She calls her approach ‘Four by Four’, and adds 4 accessories to the 12 clothes.

I’ve written posts on patterns for her original scheme, and on adding layers.

Janice has several other posts suggesting four-by-four wardrobes, with good illustrations of outfit combinations. See her Archive for May 2012, and here. (In that post the Core 4 is 3 tops, 1 bottom – sweater knit, shirt, tee, pants).

P.S. Janice now has a post on building up to a Project 333 wardrobe in groups of 4 items, each group in one colour. To me her later mixed version is more interesting but also more difficult to achieve.

Janice’s 4×4 clothes are rather similar to Nancy Nix-Rice’s 12 item basic wardrobe. Nancy makes nearly 100 different outfits from her 12 clothes.

– Start with one of each item needed (Nancy’s Core 4 is jacket, top, skirt, pants), in a dark neutral.
– repeat in a light neutral, using the same or more relaxed styles.
– add another 4 with fabric interest to add variety : a top and layer in an accent colour, and a 2-piece dress in a mixed colour print.

Sadly Nancy’s list of newsletters is no longer on her site, but they are still available :
21. Core 4
22. Second top and layer
23. 2 more bottoms
24. accent colour twinset
25. 2-piece print dress.
She also has a post on a 16-item travel wardrobe.

I wrote a post on patterns for Nancy’s starter 12 here. See full list of my posts about her wardrobe on Index page 4.

Or there’s Eileen Fisher‘s ‘system’ of wardrobe basics. Her ‘system’ changes from season to season. (For the current version, see the Eileen Fisher Video on “What if it were this easy”.) She makes co-ordination especially easy by having nearly everything in black ! perhaps with one cream top and one grey one. In summer 2010 the ‘system’ consisted of 3 Core 4s : 3 layers, 3 tops, 3 skirts, 3 pants. Here’s my post on patterns for that.

Vital 5

Judith Rasband recommends a basic wardrobe ‘cluster’ of 5 items. Such as : jacket/ layer, 2 tops, skirt, pants. See her Wardrobe strategies for Women book, and 5 Easy Pieces DVD.

Simplicity 1945

These particular 5 items make 10 different outfits (including layering the wrap top over the cowl one.) Add some scarves or statement jewellery, dressy and casual shoes – and there’s your wardrobe for a week’s trip !

To build on this basic group, Judith Rasband adds one item at a time. So long as each new item co-ordinates with all the items you already have, it can double the number of different outfits possible (see my power of the boring post).

My personal Vital 5 is rather different, as in winter I need 5 garments to make one outfit. I don’t own any fitted jackets or dresses, and only wear skirts on formal occasions. But I can’t get my wardrobe needs down to less than 5 different types of item : shirt, pullover layer, shirt-jacket layer, vest, pants. Simplifying, that’s shirt, pants, and 3 added layer options. In winter I wear all 3 added layers at the same time !

I could repeat this group two or three times, to make a wardrobe of 10 – 15 items.

Season’s 6

ejvc’s 6 item 6PACs are another capsule-to-wardrobe building idea. Make a 6 item capsule each season, following the colour suggestions (3 neutrals, accent), and you have a marvellous 24 item co-ordinated wardrobe by the end of the year ! Here’s the original summary of the overall concept. See comments on the current 6PAC season at Stitchers Guild. This inspiration has been running successfully for several years.


Do all those possibilities make you feel overwhelmed and confused ? If so – start with outfits rather than trying to achieve interchangeable items.

Perhaps it’s your personal style to wear a few favourite outfits, rather than wanting to look different each day. Here’s an encouraging piece from YouLookFab. And another post from her, on ways of building outfits.

Key 3

Simpler than a Core 4, if you only wear pants never skirts, or the other way round – a Key 3 : layer, top, bottom.

Butterick 4989, McCall’s 5889

Simplicity 2635

The original and long oop wardrobe planning book, “Working Wardrobe” by Janet Wallach, was written when women rarely wore pants to work. Her 12 items consist of 4 Key 3s :
– 4 layers (jackets and sweater knits),
– 4 blouses,
– 3 skirts plus either pants or dress.
A coat gives 13 items.
She uses 2-3 basic colours plus one item in an accent colour. Four pages of suggestions for colour pairs – not only used as solids but also as mixed weaves or prints.

Easiest possible wardrobe building :
Choose your Tried ‘N True patterns, for top, jacket/ layer, pants/ skirt.
Choose 3 fabrics : perhaps dark neutral, light neutral, accent print or solid.
Make your 3 patterns in each fabric.
Hey presto, 9 basic co-ordinates. . .

Nice and easy – except many of us don’t like to wear the same fabric for both tops and pants ! Perhaps make the 3 in the same colour.

One Key 3 group needn’t only make a single outfit – if they co-ordinate with other items. Make a Key 3 all from the same fabric/ colour. This gives you an ‘inner column’ of top and bottom the same.  To which you can add other layers. And an ‘outer column’ of layer and bottom the same. Add other tops. All 3 items the same gives infinite options for combining with other clothes 😀

I don’t know where this ‘column of colour’ idea started. I heard it first from Nancy Nix-Rice, Lesson 22. Imogen Lamport has several posts with good illustrations – links here. Also she and Jill Chivers have a video on styling up a basic outfit of tee and jeans.

Dress 1

Your wardrobe plan could be much simpler : 10 dresses and have done with it 😀 No co-ordination needed ! Though I voice my usual objection to “every woman should have. . .” as I’m a happy zero dresses person.

The Vivienne Files has many posts on styling a dress for different looks. They are usually sleeveless sheaths, but you can apply the same ideas to other dress shapes too.

If you prefer pants, jumpsuits are a current ‘one-item outfit’ option.

Simply 2

Or do you always and only wear two item outfits, such as:

– dress and layer, example from Butterick 5247 :


– top and bottom, perhaps tee and jeans/ blouse and skirt/ shirt and shorts, or slouchy Butterick 5651 :

Make up 5 to 7 outfits without worrying about co-ordination. If any of the items combine into other outfits that’s just a bonus 😀

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Did any of these ideas make you think – “ah, that’s right for me” or “no, not for me, I need. . .”

Do you feel it would all be too limiting ? Here’s a post from Inside-Out Style on getting variety from a capsule wardrobe.

If you decide to make a personal wardrobe plan, rather than ‘winging it’, the process can be daunting. There’s not only the basic group of clothes to pick out, but also your personal style and colours – see my post on so many choices. With all these individual variations, probably few people follow any of these schemes exactly. They can be a good guide for first thoughts. But getting flattering enjoyable outfits is the key goal.

Don’t try to do everything at once. Every little step can help. I learned a lot about what’s best for me by trying to fit myself to other people’s plans.

I’m most in tune with Judith Rasband’s ideas. Which is your preference 😀

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Links available October 2012

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Explore posts in the same categories: wardrobe planning

13 Comments on “Build your wardrobe in small groups”

  1. sara Says:

    I think for me the “6 pack” makes the most sense. Though the “pod” idea is appealing, I don’t usually like to wear tops and bottoms in the same color, so the basic principle of that plan doesn’t work for me. I prefer to begin with fabrics I love and that work well together, and let that inspire me to start sewing for a new season. Later on, I’ll add more pieces that coordinate with at least some of the tops or bottoms I already made. So far, this season, I’ve made a black and brown tweed jacket, a brown silk blouse, a brown and purple jacquard wool knit top, a black skirt and a denim skirt. These pieces all work well together even though the colors aren’t all the same. I’m making a green sweater knit top now which will also work well with the other pieces, and I’m planning on making a green skirt, which I won’t be wearing with the green top, but which will work well with a lot of other tops in my wardrobe. I think it’s nice to think about how things will coordinate before starting to sew for a new season, so you’re sure the clothes you sew will get worn regularly, but I don’t want to be too strict about planning either. Sewing is my hobby and I want to be happy doing it, so I follow my inspiration.

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks for the good comments Sara. You obviously know what you like to wear and what you like to sew. I think these specific wardrobe plans are more helpful for people who are just starting on the path to finding the right wardrobe for them.

  2. This is another great post. Your planning, links and ideas keep me thinking for a long time. Keep up the great ideas.

  3. ejvc Says:

    I usually dress bottom + top + layer, but those outfits vary. And I rarely make it as far as 12 items so the Vivienne files system is too likely to end in failure. So six is my compromise – I can get my head around it and I’m usually able to sew it. But I’ve altered a bit — now I would say the six is two bottoms, three tops and one layer. I guess if I bought more I would be more likely to try for twelve.

    My top layers also vary by season — for example heading into winter I’ll have two long-sleeved tops (one turtleneck, one high neck) and a woven long-sleeved shirt, plus a cardigan sweater. While in spring or autumn I would make one or two short-sleeved knit tops (with lower necks), a higher-neck long-sleeved knit top and/or a woven shirt, and a light jacket; and in summer I am likely to make a sleeveless top, two short-sleeved tops, and a light cardigan shirt for a jacket (my summers are not very hot).

    Funnily enough, this season I started with a colour – a dark very blue teal – and am very happy with how that has worked for me (I usually start with the neutral). So I like that aspect of the Vivienne files wardrobe. That’s the colour of the cardigan sweater and the shirt. The high neck long-sleeved top is a print mix with that colour; and the three remaining pieces are neutrals. I think I’m going to continue to try to start with colours.

    • sewingplums Says:

      Good and interesting analysis Elizabeth.
      Yes, I need different patterns for winter and summer too. In winter – thicker fabrics and more ease for wearing many layers. Example – winter : shirt/ blouse for tucking in, summer : shirt/ blouse for wearing out and covering my hips.
      I think these comments about real solutions found by real people will be very helpful to others who are starting this process.

  4. Karen Says:

    I have to tell you that I admire your ability to break all the different plans and systems down. It is an absolute pleasure to read your blog and honestly I don’t even know how to sew !

    I am a huge VFiles fan and Nancy Rice-Rix’s book is a treasured oldie! I collect style books but those along the lines of capsule wardrobes are my favorites. It’s the planning that I love!

    Oh and I really adore your Eileen Fisher breakdowns and posts. Who knows all this poring over sewing talk made lead me to learn 🙂

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks Karen. I love planning too – think it has to count as one of my hobbies. . .
      Have fun with learning – get to know your learning style and go slowly with low expectations, unless ‘slow and simple’ is not for you. There’s a surprisingly large number of different skills involved in making a garment from a pattern 😀

  5. M-C Says:

    I do like Vivienne’s concepts and look at them regularly. But as I am a zero-dress and zero-skirt person too, I have problems with the core 4 :-). I like your key 3 approach, that works better for me. The monochrome column is an 80s concept, someone thought it made you look less fat. Sigh. I actually think that it’s a bit more formal for work.

    What’s actually working best for me is related key3s, like a grey one and a black one, so I can mix them easily without getting too bored with a single one. Or extending that to a Vivienne core 4 by having 2 pairs of pants to vary the formality, wearing the same tops with wool pants for work and corduroys for weekend. Or likewise toning down the wool pants with a soft cardigan or cranking up the formality with a Real Jacket. In any case 4 is about the limit of consistency for me, to be realistic.

    I’m trying to keep cores to neutrals, and to introduce color more in a Vivienne way, ie not just an orange top but adding an orange print scarf as well, being more organized about colors coming in more than one item and folding accessories into that scheme.

    I know, I know, it’s a good thing I’ve lived this long :-). But it’s good to see all those different schemes, and interpret them as you do for your own particular style and life. Shoehorning myself into a black dress and blazer plan has just never worked, so I’m happy to realize there are more options.

  6. ejvc Says:

    So today I just want 33 dresses. It seems so simple.

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