Making clothes for me, lessons learned

I have to admit that reading your comments on the Orange Washi Dress post last week made me freak out, just a little bit. For one thing, it made me really excited to see how excited so many of you are for this pattern. NO PRESSURE.Β (UPDATED: the Washi Dress is now available as a print-at-home pattern in my shop)

But the other thing: I worry that some people might think that because I have spent so much time on the pattern, getting the bust darts just the way I want them, for example, that the bust darts will automatically be perfect for you as well. Knowing what I know about women’s bodies (that we are curvy and all shaped differently), I know that just simply isn’t true. And while the Washi Dress has some really awesome qualities from a fit-standpoint (like shirring in the back so that people who need back darts like me won’t need to add them (yay!) and a fair bit of cup-size flexibility), I’m afraid that people will pick up the pattern and be disappointed when it doesn’t fit them perfectly right off the bat.

So I want to talk a little bit about the things I’ve learned in the process of making clothes for myself over the years in hopes that some of these pointers will help some of you find ways to get a good fit when you make clothes for yourselves!

I started sewing clothing for myself right around junior high, and though I don’t remember much about that anymore, I’m pretty sure the first thing I ever sewed for myself garment-wise was a yellow cotton skirt. I DO remember much of the clothing I made back then was pretty baggy and big, so fit wasn’t always much of an issue. Yay 90’s!

Most people my age who started sewing when they were young share the same experience as I did: If you wanted to sew a piece of clothing for yourself, you would go to the fabric store, flip through the McCalls (or Simplicity or Butterick, Vogue was “too hard”) catalog, pick out a pattern you liked, find the fabric you liked, and then read the back of the pattern envelope to get your size and yardage. The construction process was pretty standard as well: you’d cut out the pattern pieces in “your size” from those insanely finicky tissue pattern pages, then pin the pieces to your folded fabric with a bajillion teensy pins, carefully cut out your size (right through the tissue) using sewing scissors, sew it together, and hope for the best. I think my mom taught me to do it this way because this was just the way her mom had taught her to do it, and so on. How many generations back did this go? I have no idea.

I’ve been “selfish sewing” pretty seriously for the last 5 years or so now, and I’ve discovered that this process just doesn’t really work for me anymore. For one thing, tissue paper patterns make me crazy. For another, my body is far more curvy and dynamic than it used to be when I was 15 (Having two babies did not help. I gained about 45 pounds when I was pregnant with Clementine and never lost all of it). And with current styles being much more fitted than they were back in the 1990’s, I’ve come to understand that the “hope-for-the-best” philosophy when it comes to picking a size is actually pretty delusional.

How to cope? It doesn’t make any sense to sew things for myself that are going to fit poorly. I’m just not going to wear them, and what’s the fun in that. And why go through the entire process only to discover at the *end* that it doesn’t fit? Depressing! Big SAD FACE!!!

So, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned, steps I’ve built in to my sewing process that have helped insure that when I make something, it’s not a surprise at the end how it will fit. And sure, these steps take extra time. But again, is it better just to hope for the best just so I can save a little time? Nope, nope, nope-ity nope.

Choosing size
My bust, waist, and hip measurements all put me into different sizes on most women’s patterns, commercial or independent (waaah). If I pick a dress pattern based on hip measurement, it comes out too big, if I pick based on bust measurement, it’s usually too small. So, what to do? Most of the time, I pick based on the most important measurement for that pattern. If it’s pants, I pick the size based on the waist because I can always take the hips in. If it’s a top or dress, I pick the size based on the bust to start with.

Tracing pattern pieces
I almost never cut into my pattern pieces even when I am absolutely certain that I know the pieces will fit me just the way I want them to. This means that to try out sizes, I trace them using swedish tracing paper first. I know that “takes it up a notch” for some of you home sewists, but it is seriously one of the BEST supplies in my sewing room and I don’t know how I ever lived without it.

Once I have taped together a PDF pattern, I can just trace the size I want and then fold it all up and put it into a file folder. If I need a different size later, there’s no need to print it out again, I just unfold the pattern sheet and trace again (the same is true for pattern pages from sewing project books or even tissue patterns). I’ve found the swedish tracing paper pieces last longer than paper anyway (they can be pressed, sewed together, and are really hard to tear…they are actually similar to dryer sheets when it comes to tensile strength). I talked about tracing patterns at the end of this post last year (pictured above).

Another thing: if I think I am between two sizes or I’m just not sure, I trace TWO sizes while I’ve got the pattern sheet spread out on my dining room table. That will save me time later!

Making muslins
This is probably the single most important thing I have learned to do when it comes to making clothes for myself. Once I have my pattern pieces traced, I cut them out of muslin FIRST before I touch my Real Fabric. And by “muslin” I literally mean the super cheap unbleached stuff you can buy by the bolt at JoAnn. Don’t wash or dry it either. I used to make “wearable muslins” (see the example shown above, which was a wearable muslin made for this final top) but I’ve since realized that it’s way faster to make a real muslin-muslin. Sometimes I will make just a partial muslin, like the one shown below that I made for the Washi Dress. In this case, I already knew that the skirt would fit, but I was worried about the bodice, so I made the muslin for just the top half of the dress.


When you make a muslin, you machine-baste the seams together instead of sewing them with a regular stitch length (learned that from Liesl Gibson at a Weekend Sewing workshop), and do absolutely NO finishing. No hemming, no facings, no bias binding, etc. If the pattern calls for darts or pleats, you definitely do those (they affect fit!) but skipping all of the more tedious construction steps is a huge timesaver. Then I try it on. If that muslin doesn’t fit, I either try the next size down/up, or make changes such as pinching the muslin together in places where it gapes to see if you can take the seam on the side somewhere to make it fit. The whole muslin process (cutting, basting together, trying on, making another muslin) usually takes me a half hour to an hour, max. The trick is to do it really really quick. And it takes time, DEFINITELY. But the time you save in the long run is irreplaceable!

Blending sizes
Unless you are fortunate enough to have a body that fits perfectly into your muslin the first time, you may have to adjust the pattern a bit at this point. If a muslin is too big on top but too small on the bottom, you can pinch the muslin along the side seams to see where to sew it to make it fit. Sometimes I need to draw a line along the side of the pattern from say, the size 8 line at the bust to the size 12 line at the hip, to “blend” the two sizes together. That is a pretty easy fix. I’ve also discovered that sometimes I fall right between the size S and M size in some patterns. When that happens, I literally (while I am tracing) draw a line *right* between those two sizes’ pattern lines to get new pattern pieces that will fit me better.

Bust adjustment
I’ve known for awhile that both my armpits and my bust apex* (the fullest part of your bust) were lower than average. Armpits always felt too high, even when everything else fit fine, and bust darts always seem to point OVER my bust…not cool! So the armpit thing was pretty easy to fix, I just cut out the armholes a little lower than normal, sometimes up to an inch. It turns out that sliding a bust dart down (or up) is actually pretty easy as well! If a bust dart doesn’t point to your bust apex*, it will look weird. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sliding it up or down the pattern a bit. See this post on i could make that! for a nice tutorial on moving a bust dart.

*This is NOT the same thing as your nipple. OK just realized that in the course of just one week I have used the words “boob” and “nipple” on this blog. Greeeeat.

Last week I finally came to terms with the fact that, being small-chested, I might have to occasionally do a small bust adjustment. For women who are more largely-endowed, I have learned that knowing how to do a Full Bust Adjustment (or FBA) on any pattern is a) pretty easy once you learn and b) TOTALLY WORTH IT because oh my goodness things finally fit properly!! A small bust adjustment and a full bust adjustment are pretty similar, in one you spread the pieces together (SBA) and the other you spread the pieces apart (FBA).

I just this month started subscribing to Creativebug — a crafty video website where for the price of your subscription you can watch as many videos as you want — and one of THE BEST videos on there which I think completely justifies the price of your subscription in one fell swoop is Liesl Gibson’s Bust Adjustment video. You can see a preview at that link as well. The way she breaks it down so clearly is a beautiful thing to behold I tell you. If a Creativebug subscription is not in the cards for you, even for one month, here are a couple of tutorials to try (although I have to say, watching it on a video is so much better in my opinion):
or just google “Full Bust Adjustment” to find oodles of links that will help you learn how (that’s what I did to get those links, y’all. The Power of the Internet). I swear, for those of you who are Big Up Top, once you learn how to do this, you will never go back. A whole new world of sewing will open before you.

Read up
I can’t really take credit for any of this information. All of it is stuff I’ve learned from other places. Let me recommend a few books that I feel are easy to understand and give great information about fit and sewing for yourself. These are some books I own and consult on a regular basis:

  • Built By Wendy books. Especially her “Dresses” book goes into nice detail about adjusting fit, making muslins
  • Colette Sewing Handbook: Also some great info on making muslins and adjusting patterns to fit, including bust adjustment. Her blog, Coletterie, also has a ton of great fit tutorials, and although most are specific to her patterns, many include principles that can be adapted to other women’s patterns as well
  • Design-it-yourself clothes by Cal Patch – this is a great intro to pattern making, and although it’s really basic (no bust darts, etc), it was really a life-changer for me in terms of understanding the basic dimensions of a pattern and how to manipulate them. By the way, did you see that Cal’s also got pattern-making lessons on Creativebug too? Awesome.

OK. I could keep going but at some point this is going to stop being a blog post and turn into it’s own book instead. Hopefully I have given you a few great pointers for ways to perfect your Selfish Sewing.

I definitely feel that sewing for oneself is a process learned over time, not a single leap into couture-sewing for most to be sure. But it can be really rewarding to start to see the hard work pay off. I feel like I should know — five years ago I was sewing straight from a pattern, and now I’m making my OWN patterns! It all happens with baby steps. And If you already do these things (or have other suggestions that you feel strongly about), please suggest!!

61 thoughts on “Making clothes for me, lessons learned

  1. thanks so much! very helpful info here, I am one who needs an fba so I tend to stay away from darts altogether, you’ve encouraged me to give it a try.

  2. Great tips, thank you so much for sharing! One of my goals for the summer is to sew a dress for myself, so hopefully this will help me get a well fitted dress out of the adventure! πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks for the post and links – I’m still pretty intimidated by trying to switch things up when I sew for me, so these will be super helpful. I sewed many of my kids’ clothes straight from the patterns before starting to know how to switch them up, but now I’m comfortable with that. My dream is to have a few “straight from the pattern” adult successes before I know how and where to alter those to fit me best. Now when I do it I feel like a hack, you know? It takes practice, which is even more of a plug for selfish sewing!

    Also, a well-drafted pattern goes a long way. I simply don’t trust big pattern companies – their sizing seems crazy! The care you’re putting in will make the fit far superior right off the bat. It’s far easier to make fit adjustments from a good pattern than a wonky one. πŸ™‚

  4. Super helpful advice. I know that when I buy things to fit my hips they are far too tight in the waist and if they fit my waist they are far too loose in the hips. I imagine the same is true when buying clothing patterns. To be honest, with the exception of some fold over waist jersey skirts, I’ve not made myself much. I really want to try to make your dress so I’ll be sure to follow your advice when I do try it.

  5. Thanks for the post! I’ve tried making shirts for myself and they were always too big! I like your idea of tracing first, then making a muslin demo. I love skirts and can never find any that ‘fit’. On to making those patterns my own..thanks!

  6. Wow! Thanks for taking the time to break it all down. Your description of learning to sew cracked me up. So true!!

  7. Thanks so much for all of this info. The “learning to sew” part was definitely me in jr. high πŸ™‚ Then, I quit sewing all together…..bummer. And now have picked it up again. I’m still in the beginning stages that you describe but, this post encourages me to just do it!

  8. Great tips, Rae – thanks for spelling it out for us! We promise not to hold YOU responsible for fitting ALL of our bodies perfectly with this pattern! One thing I have learned the hard way is to be sure I choose patterns that have a style/fit that has a reasonable chance of actually fitting me and looking good on me once I’ve sewed it up. Many times in the past I’ve bought patterns because I liked the look of the garment, only to find that I ignored the fact that the style/fit of it just wasn’t right for my body to start with! Thanks for all the helpful info!

    • haha thanks Beth!! πŸ™‚

      and yes, it’s so true to pick things that you know have a chance of flattering you! So true.

  9. I have been so reluctant to sew clothes for myself because of these problems you have talked about. Patterns really don’t fit all that well. Clothes in the store often dont fit all that well! But you have motivated me to give it a go! So I shall buy some muslin fabric and pull out one of the many patterns I have and see wht I can come up with! And I will be bac to buy this Washi Pattern once it’s released! Thanks Rae!

  10. This is so generous for you to share all this information on your blog!! I know I’ve been enjoying the process of learning to deal with my full bust rather than dealing with just making everything too big.

  11. I’ve been lurking on your blog for quite a while without having left a comment. But I just wanted to say that I so appreciate not only this post but all of your blog posts. Your knowledge is helpful, and your personality shines through and makes it all fun and accessable. ^_^ thanks!

  12. This is such an awesome post – thank you so much! I’m a really new sewist and so want to sew garments, but haven’t had a huge amount of success so far because I can’t figure out how to really tweak patterns. Just having a few tips of where to start is so fantastic!

  13. Thanks so much for this post. I occaisionally sew for my kids, but am really afraid to sew for myself…with the companion problem of being impatient. All of that equals clothes that don’t fit (or never get finished). This is really encouraging. I also like all the resources. Thanks! Maybe one day I’ll really get to it. πŸ™‚

  14. Do you have a local (SE Mi) source for Swedish Tracing Paper? I just bought some patterns.
    I fall between sizes too. For McCalls the two sizes I fall between is where they split the sizes into different packets. I never know what size to buy. I got a knit dress pattern (no darts) and I’m a 14 on the bust and a 16 on the waist. Is it easier to take in the bust or increase the waist? I haven’t cut it yet so I can still exchange it.
    Great post!

    • Hi Dayna!
      I’m pretty sure Material Girls in Dearborn carries swedish tracing paper…not sure about the other LQSs…call first? Seems like it’s more of a “garment” supply rather than a “quilting” supply, but you never know.
      And I totally hear you about the between-size thing. I am too, and it’s pretty frustrating. I usually find it’s better to go down than up though, because the smaller size will have the proportions that look better on you up top, so just add an inch (or whatever increase you need) around the waist to make it larger. Also, commercial patterns always seem to be larger than I want them to be anyway.

      • You can also get Swedish Tracing Paper on Amazon. (I got mine at Field’s Fabrics in West Michigan, if you’re ever on the other side of the state…)

  15. Wow! Thanks heaps for taking the time to write that awesome post. I’m not sewing clothes for myself yet (I’m enjoying sewing for my kids too much at the moment) but I can appreciate the massive effort put in here. I’ll be keeping this on hand for when I do though!

  16. Ok, you’ve finally convinced me of the virtues or muslins! Haha…that’s totally how I learnt to sew as a teenager. I still have some patterns that I cut to size that is no longer my size and they’re outdated…not sure why I’ve kept them.

  17. great tips…. i’m amazed by the work that can go into a good fit. i’m not always sure i’m up for the challenge!! your description of learning to sew is exactly how my mother taught me!

  18. Thanks so much for the encouragement! I’m a full busted small girl, so regular patterns never fit right and I had pretty much given up making my own clothes, but I’m definitely inspired now! (I may wait a little bit since baby #2 is due in one week!)

    I’ve never tried Swedish tracing paper, but for another cheap option I’ve been using freezer paper. Sometimes you have to piece it together, but it’s works pretty well!

  19. I started sewing for myself in junior high, too, but I started making patterns fairly soon after I learned. I still used patterns, for the most part, until about 5 years ago. Now, the majority of the patterns I do are ones I have drafted.

    A few suggestions:

    – Know what clothes fit your body and look good on it. I for one have made clothes that fit, but just look like crap on me! Go to the store and try on different styles until you can really pinpoint what you want to make that will flatter your body.

    – Once you have a pattern that fits, you can change it up. I have a pattern that I drafted for a princess seamed fitted top. I love this style on me, so I have done things like different collars, different sleeves, peplum back…etc.

    Like Rae said, muslins are very important. I forgot that last week and had a failure with a nice piece of fabric. It is still wearable, but not the fit I wanted.

  20. Nice post, I recently started making muslins and it has made such a difference in my sewing! I resisted for so long out of laziness, but it really sucks to spend all that time making something and find out in the end you don’t like it. The thing that has been challenging over the past few years has been my ever-changing body through pregnancy weight gain, post pregnancy weight loss…I feel like I can’t get a handle on my size!

  21. AWESOME – thank you so much for distilling such great sewing truths into an easy to understand post!

  22. Thank you for this post! I’ve only been sewing for about 1.5 years (sporadically) and my goal is to make clothes for myself, but it has been frustrating. I have tried doing tutorials online which have failed, so then I tried buying patterns at Jo-Ann; I’ve had a little more success with the patterns but I tend to get lost in some of the technical jargon and flimsy paper. I am so encouraged by your “selfish sewing” and especially by this post. I really need to try making muslins as I continue practicing my skills. I need to get over my disappointments and get out that cheap, ugly fabric to make some muslins!

    Thanks for the resources, too – I’ll check those out.

    • Thanks for a helpful post. I didn’t know there was such a thing as Swedish Tracing Paper. I’m going to look that up because it sounds wonderful. I’ve been tracing patterns with tracing paper (from the dark ages) which really is time consuming and agonizingly slow.

      The other comments were helpful as well.

  23. Great post. I bought the swedish tracing paper through Amazon and the price was very reasonable. When cutting out your muslin, I learned that you should mark your seams by tracing and then do a basting stitch over that line. In addition be generous with your seam allowances ( inch or two) when you cut out the muslin. This helps with if you need to make your outfit bigger when you fit the muslin to your body. Sew using a basting stitch along your lines and try it on. Make any adjustments and then you can take the muslin apart and use it as your pattern. I learned this on a class I took through Craftsy.

  24. Wow. Great info. Thank you so much! This will be my next sewing journey. My little ones don’t really need more clothes anyway!

  25. What a really thoughtful post. I had a very similar experience learning to sew as a teenager. I clearly remember fitting the size charts on the pattern envelopes exactly. Doesn’t that alone tell us a lot about the sizing used by the pattern companies? If they are designed to fit a skinny teenage girl. They will clearly not fit a grown up woman, especially one whose belly, hips back and bust have carried and nursed three children! I’d like to add that what finally saved me lots of anguish was choosing dress and top sizes based not on the bust, but the *high* bust. Commercial patterns are based on a Bcup, so if you wear more than a C and you pick a size based on the full bust measurement, you will get a big baggy sack. If you use your high bust measurement, you will more likely get a size that fits your shoulders and overall frame. Then you adjust the bust to fit, which is much easier than shoulders. I haven’t yet determined whether this works for other pattern companies, like Colette that draft on a C cup, but it really does work on the big 4.

  26. Wow, Rae, thanks for such a helpful and informative post! This is really timely, because I am immersed in sewing for myself. Being a full bust gal, I have found certain cuts to be much more flattering than others. Sometimes I want to wear certain styles just because they are trendy, but then I look too big in them. I am learning to adjust patterns so that they accentuate the waist, and have found that certain prints help disguise some of my fullness up top. A well-fitting garment can make all the difference in a woman’s appearance!

    Thanks for taking the time to share these tips with us. I will be referring back frequently!

  27. rae, I just want to say that you’re amazing. truly. I’m really glad you shared some of these helpful links! I think as I’ve been sewing, it’s getting easier and easier to understand things. I wouldn’t believe I’d be making stuff I do now a few years ago. It’s crazy. anyway, I’m very excited about your washi dress pattern, it’s amazing!!! thank you for being so cool and a sewing genius.

  28. Well here in Australia I’d never even heard of swedish tracing paper! {runs off to source some online} Fabric can be staggering expensive by the time it’s shipped Down Under, so thank you so much for all your useful tips!

  29. Great tips!
    Another great alternative to Swedish tracing paper is lightweight non-woven non-fusible interfacing. I usually by a big lot at a time (10m or so) and get it supplied on the roll. No creases! And often I find I don’t even need to pin it to the fabric- it just stays in place on it’s own.

  30. I definitely learned to sew the same way you did, Rae. I’m still afraid of branching away from those patterns though. I feel like when I can finally afford a dress form, that that’s when I’ll feel more comfortable breaking away from patterns and creating my own designs. Plus, I think you’ve finally convinced me that I really need to get over the wasted fabric issue of making muslins and just DO IT. It would have saved my last top from ruin, which ends up being more of a waste (money-wise) than the muslin would have been.Thanks for all the excellent pointers! Oh, and I LOVE that you use bristle blocks as your pattern weights! HA!

  31. One of the best posts on “selfish sewing” I’ve read in a while. My favorite part though? That you use bristle blocks for pattern weights. I cannot wait to finish up our house so I can get back into sewing. I have a muslin cut out of a top I’d like to make, but had to put off. Maybe for next year’s spring top contest? πŸ™‚

  32. Hi Rae, this is a wonderful post, very easy to understand.
    In the latest edition of Threads magazine (# 162, sept 2012), there is an article how to get “The Ideal Slhouette” and it just gives you ideas to have a better fit for different proportions. I am lucky to have a shape that fits most commercial patterns but I often just get patterns from well-fitting garments I already own to insure the fit.
    Oh, and about tracing, the same Threads magazine edition has a really neat trick to trace patterns using wax crayons and your iron: just trace the pattern with wax crayons on the WRONG side of the sheet and iron it on a pattern paper with light blue dots. The wax just transfers to the paper !

  33. Great tips! I also use the tracing paper but don’t make muslins anymore because I find every fabric behaves differently . I recently made a dress in a stretch woven which fit perfect. When I went to make it again in another fabric, I had to make it almost a size bigger!

  34. Thanks for all of this great info. I’ve been sewing for 2.5 years (quilts mostly) and am really interested in sewing clothing so this is soooo helpful. Everyone has suggested your washi dress as a great place to start so I am looking forward to making one! Thanks for all you do to help everyone!

  35. Thanks for these. I have a (hated!) v full bust, clothes are a nightmare. I only wear loose, stretchy things, even to the office, because anything non-stretchy is either too tight or makes me look pregnant. Time to learn to make things that actually fit. Thanks again, you’re a gem!

  36. I had to post this on my site as a “helpful link”. I studied Theater Costume design and construction and this is very much the way we learned. Muslin mock up first! Thanks for a great descriptive post.

  37. Excellent blog….. I’ve been sewing for many, many years (waaay before the 90’s) and I’ve learned the most important item to have on hand is PATIENCE! Be patient & do all the steps correctly…and whether you make a muslin or not, you have to MEASURE! Not just the bust, waist & hips, but neck to waist length, stride length, inseam/outseam length, sleeve length, etc….

    I measure any part or seam of the pattern that I suspect may be a problem. And I measure once, twice, and then check it again. Doing this, I’ve avoided making muslins for most items, but I did make a muslin for my mother-of-the-bride dress last summer.

    If those of you who are just starting out can find a good basic sewing class where you live…it will help you learn how to read the basic ‘map’ of sewing.

  38. So encouraging and full of good tips! Really glad I found this post… your blog just made it into my ‘following’ feed. πŸ™‚

  39. What do you use for making a muslin for a knit garment? Or a stretch cotton garment? I like the idea of using cheap actual muslin fabric but it seems like that will only work for cotton wovens that are non-stretch? Thanks for the tips – your blog is a plethora of info!!

    • Hi Brenda,

      I use an old tee of Mr Rae’s for my knit muslins. Seems there’s always an old tee around with a hole in it or armpit stains. I hang onto these to harvest the fabric. You can also just buy cheaper knit material…the key is really to try to make your muslin out of the same *type* of knit fabric, otherwise it may not fit/behave the same!

  40. Hello, I am kirti from Pune, India, I came across your blog and I love what you do and a big thank you for all your tips, its so nice that the internet has made the world so connected, Many thanks once again and good luck.

  41. I have been making copies of the tissue paper patterns by using newsprint rolls I purchase from our local newspaper. They offer ends in different lengths, thickness and amount left on the spool. I cut to shape loosely, attach the two together with thread at the tab marks, or darts then use a window during the daytime to trace through.

  42. thank you. Thank you so much for giving suggestions on how to find paper to make patterns. I am new to this and I’m trying to find a place online to learn how to get a pattern to fit MY body.. I’ve probably been wearing clothing that has not fit MY body because that’s all that is there. Well, this year, I want to make it my mission to learn how to sew for my body so I can be happier with my sewing machines.

  43. I love your washi dress and have made 3 of them, after the first I was shown how to make a large bust adjustment and added a bit more Comfort room to the dress skirt. I am an a curvy girl size 22 – 24, 24 – 26 USA sizes and I now have a lovely comfortable and flattering dress. Next challenge to see if I cam make one in Jersey thank you so much for your pattern xxzz

Comments are closed.