Category Archives: Basics of Pattern Design

Tutorial: Adjusting pattern ease

I received the following email from a friendly reader and thought that I would share it (with her permission) as a tutorial.  I shared with her that these sewing and fitting issues were all things that I had to learn the hard way!  Hopefully this tutorial will be a helpful overview of fitting issues with ease, and will help point readers in the right direction.  My best advice is to keep practicing!

Hello Professor’s Wife,

I happened along your blog a few weeks back and thought maybe you could help me with a dilemma that I’ve faced for years now and has prevented me from pursuing a lot of garment projects.

I’ve recently had more time in my life to get out my vintage Singer and whip up a few projects. I’ve always been successful with interior decor projects or bags and purses, but I’ve never had success with a garment. I visited my grandma shortly after Thanksgiving and while helping her clean out her closet, I discovered three beautiful yards of a nice wool fabric. She bought the fabric years ago and forgot what she’d purchased it from so she was quick to say I could take it home with me.

I figured out quickly that I wanted to make a simple dress from the fabric. I bought a See n Sew pattern by Butterick and began my next attempt. I took my measurements and sized myself up on the chart, discovering like always that I am in the size 14-16 range. This is always quite puzzling to me because my off the rack size is 6-8. But for the sake of knowing that sizes change over time and patterns may not, I went with it.

At the advice of my grandmother, I made the lining first to determine if the dress would fit before I started cutting. Obviously I was limited to the three yards of wool, as the fabric was purchased years ago, so there was no going back for more if I made a mistake. The lining turned out to be enormous. I had to trim off approximately 2-3″ to get the right fit, but still never really got the right fit in the top because that portion was already put together. I finished the dress, successfully and am happy with it, other than needing to reduce the size a little more.

So, with this bout of confidence, I purchased another pattern and began to press, cut and sew all over again. Size 16 as indicated by the size chart. This time I was making a jacket. I got the body of the jacket made and one sleeve on. When I tried on the sleeve, it was three times the diameter of my arm.

Can you please help me determine the best way to determine what size pattern I should be cutting? Obviously there are errors in calculating the size charts on the patterns. Is there a general rule or is the best practice to create a muslin garment first? That seems like a lot of work especially for an “easy” pattern.

I think that this is a common dilemma, and one that I have certainly struggled with as well.  The first couple of dresses and shirts that I tried to make ended up in the trashcan, so if you have something that fits you are already ahead of the game!

There is a short answer to this question and a longer explanation.  The short answer is yes, I really would recommend making a muslin garment (or two) to test the pattern before you go cut into your lovely garment fabric.  Part of the problem that you are experiencing can be attributed to the amount of “ease” that is built into the pattern. Once you know what adjustments you need to make for your body type, and your ease preference, you can easily transfer these adjustments to any pattern that you make.

Here is what I do when launching into a new garment–

Plan your pattern

I would propose that there are several steps prior to actually cutting out the newest pattern you want to try.  I would also suggest that you trace the original pattern piece, and use your copy to make any adjustments.  That way, if the adjustments fail you will always have the original pattern piece to reference.

  • Determine your size in accordance with the pattern sizing chart.
  • Determine how much ease is included in the pattern.
  • Determine if you are going to need any pattern adjustments based on your figure.  Are you tall or petite, do you need a full bust adjustment (usually sizes C or larger), do you need a sway back adjustment or forward shoulder adjustment, etc.
  • Adjust the pattern in accordance with any ease preferences and any adjustments necessary to fit your frame.

Deal with garment ease and adjustments

All patterns contain a certain amount of ease for wearability.  Woven garments tend to have more ease, while knit garments can have much less due to their stretchy nature. For example, when I made Simplicity’s 2599 pattern I found that had 4-5″ more ease than I would have preferred.  While not often printed on the back of the pattern envelope, the amount of ease will usually be listed on the pattern pieces themselves.

My bust measurement is usually around 37″, which places me at a size 16 (bust of 38″) on the Simplicity 2599 pattern.  The finished garment measurements for the shirt show that the bust area will measure 44″ once constructed.  That means that the pattern has 6″ of ease built into it.  I happen to think that this is WAY too much as I like my shirts to be fitted.

There are several methods for altering patterns to remove excess ease.

  • Regrade the pattern – i.e. redraw the seams and darts
  • Fold out the areas of excess fullness to make the pattern smaller (example, along the center fold of a bodice pattern)
  • Slash and overlap the pattern piece to make the area smaller

Sometimes you need to use multiple methods to adapt a single pattern piece.  To reduce the amount of ease in your jacket sleeves, I would suggest slashing (i.e. cutting up the length of the sleeve in multiple, parallel lines, but not cutting through the sleeve cap) and overlapping the pattern piece by a few centimeters.  Sense & Sensibility Patterns offers a pretty good tutorial on reducing ease.

I would also recommend making notes as you amend your pattern and make your muslin.  It will help you to determine fit issues and how each can be resolved.  Once I have my muslin constructed, I often mark on it in permanent ink (while wearing it!)– circling areas that need adjustment, pinning and marking out additional darts, marking out areas that still have too much excess ease, redrawing seam lines, etc.  That way, you can remember what needs to be fixed once the garment is flat.

The good news is that once you figure out what adaptations you need to make for your body shape, you can apply these adjustments to most patterns that you make. For example, I know that I will always need to add additional length in the bodice and skirt/pants, and correct for a sway back.  I make these adjustments to my pattern before I cut out the test muslin.

Refine your fit:  Sloper Pattern

Finally, you might want to add a “sloper pattern” to your sewing wish list.  A sloper is a basic pattern that fits very close to the body which allows you to perfect your personal fit.  Once adjusted, you can take your sloper (the flat adjusted pattern), and overlay it on any new pattern that you would like to make.  While the sloper doesn’t have wearing ease built into it (and you would have to take that into consideration), it would give you a great starting point with your adjustments and give you a good idea of how the new garment will fit.   ikatbag has a great overview of slopers on her blog and Threads has a tutorial as well.

I hope that this gives you an overview of pattern adjustments.  If you would like to launch into further reading, there are a number of pattern books that are quite helpful in explaining how to fit patterns and compensate for different fitting issues.

  • A Fantastic Fit for Everybody:  How to Alter Patterns to Flatter Your Figure.  This is my favorite.  Written in the late 1990s, it’s out-of-date aesthetically, but it has wonderful explanations about how to identify fit issues (by looking at the wrinkles in your clothes, etc), and then how to solve each issue.
  • Design-It Yourself Clothes:  Patternmaking Simplified gives a wonderful instructions on building garments based specially on your measurements.  Cal Patch takes readers through creating a basic shirt, and then adds more and more advanced techniques until she builds up to an advanced jacket.  There are similar tutorials for skirts, pants and dresses.

Threads Magazine also offers several great tutorial on fit issues:

And the University of New Mexico has a good overview of multiple fit issues and how each should be resolved.

Finally, SewingPatternReview is a great resource!  The website catalogs the majority of sewing patterns in print, and offers reviews from seamstresses of all abilities.  I often check out the reviews and pictures of a particular pattern before I buy it to see if the pattern is easy/difficult or what challenges might be in store for me.

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