Sewing Circle: How to cut out the right pattern size

Welcome to another Q and A from Sewing Circle!!

I recently got this great question from Jo, from To a Pretty Life:

Q: I loved your plaid dress so much that I went out to buy the same pattern. I'm making view E in a red and white ticking stripe. I have the bodice made now, and discovered that it will be 3-4 inches too big! It's way too much work to take it in at the side, so I'll just be taking it in at the back. But it bothers me that it is not perfect.
Here's the thing. I cut out a size 14, and worried that it might be too small, since my bust and waist are size 16 and 18 according to the measurements on the back of the pattern. My hips are the only size 14 measurement. So why is size 14 so big?
I have had this problem before with both a New Look pattern and a free Burda pattern. So my question is: How do I know what size I should make when the pattern envelope measurements are so wrong? Do you have this problem with patterns?

A: These are really great questions, Jo.  I have long been faced with modern patterns fitting like sacks, which is very frustrating when you've spent so much time sewing them together!  Better too big than too small, but still...

I will answer your questions, but first let me give you a few pointers on cutting and sewing clothes that fit.  And, so everyone following along knows what we're talking about, here's the dress Jo was referencing:

Okay, now to my suggestions on cutting out this and pretty much any other pattern:
  1. Starting at the beginning: Kudos for reading the sizes on the back of the pattern!  I think a lot of people just cut out their dress size, which is never the same as the pattern size!  Sewing patterns use standard body measurements developed by the US Department of Standards (researched, as I understand it, based on young women's bodies during WWII).  These are fairly outdated now, and people are better-nourished now, and size is different as we age, so many of us feel a little self-conscious cutting out a size 3-5 sizes bigger than our current ready-to-wear dress size!
    The other thing is, most people don't wear exactly a 10 or 16 or whatever the size on the pattern.  When cutting out a dress or top, the bust measurement is probably most important.  Use the size that matches your bust measurement, and taper at the waist (angle in or out when cutting after measuring) to fit.  On the New Look 6557 dress, if you use a gathered skirt like I did, the hips measurement doesn't matter at all, and even for the a-line skirts like the pattern has, it's not as important as waist and bust, so I'd say unless you're way off, just ignore the discrepancy.  For pants or skirts, use the pattern that matches your hip measurement and make the waist fit.  I'll talk more about measuring pattern pieces later.  Or, if the numbers are pretty close, I usually use the average size.  If your bust is an 8, your waist a 12, and your hips a 10, for example, use the size 10 pattern as a base.  (For more info on choosing a pattern size, check out this Threads article).
  2. Now that I've talked about cutting out the "right" size, let me rant a little--modern patterns DO NOT FIT!  Urgh!  No, sorry, they sometimes do, but so often if I cut out the right size and make it up it is huge and awful, and usually you can just take in side seams, but sometimes the shoulders are too wide, or the bust darts in the wrong place.  The reasons for this are usually, primarily, that modern pattern companies have a lot of wearing ease in mind--if you look at the models in the pictures, so often the clothes are baggy and loose on them, even!  I don't know why they do that; often you really have to go beyond the pattern model when imagining how a style will look in your fabric.  My only guess for this is that most of today's sewists are older women who probably don't want their clothes to fit as snugly as the things at, say, ModCloth--these are made for younger people who like things snug to show off their figures.  The other reason things may come out big is: check your seam allowance.  Modern patterns use a 5/8" seam allowance, and depending how you sew, you may just go along with a 1/2" without thinking, and then the garment will be a little bigger all over.  ("Do as I say, not as I do" in this case: I usually cut out a size or two smaller than my average measurement, since I hate to waste the extra fabric with those HUGE seam allowances, so I use 1/2" and cut a smaller size.  But that's not the best way to do it... heh).  Also note: patterns will usually tell you the "finished garment" measurements as well as the bust, waist, etc. to use when picking out your size.  If your bust is 36", the dress's bust may be 38" or 39" to allow for movement and wearing ease.  If you see these measurements and want something snugger, check the finished garment measurements for the smaller size down--maybe you should cut out that one.
  3. So that's some of why patterns fit so horribly, but let's talk about fixing it.  The first thing you should do when cutting out a new pattern (when you don't know how tightly or loosely it will fit) is measure the pieces and how large it will be when you sew them together.  To do this, you need to lay them out taking into account the seam allowances (if you use 5/8", overlap them 1 1/4" at each seam) and measure across the bust and waist.  Here's a pic of me doing this when I made a custom collar band to fit a dress in this tutorial:

    You'd move the center front piece down to line up with the others at the waist when measuring the waist, of course.  If you want it to fit skin-tight, make the pattern match your waist measurement or give it 1/2"-1" extra for ease.  *Don't forget to add 5/8" at the center back for putting in the zipper!!!  If you're using a side zipper and cutting the center back on the fold, fold over the 5/8" that's allowed at the back on that pattern piece and take that into account on your measurement.
  4. Measuring the pattern pieces before you cut is really the surest thing you can do to make sure something will fit.  If you want, you can make a "muslin"--cut out the pattern, just one of each piece rather than one of fashion fabric and one of lining, and make an unlined version of the bodice out of some cheap fabric, any old thing you have a lot of.  If it fits, great!  If not, make alterations (it's really easy on a simple shell like this) and make note before you cut out the real version.  Some people make a muslin for every garment they make; I myself never make them.  It's just whatever you're most comfortable with!
  5. You definitely want to try on the garment before you assemble to fashion fabric to the lining--it's way easier to take in seams before you have two layers and a join at the top edge, for example.  Pin the bodice closed where the zipper will be and look in the mirror.  Use pins and a fabric marker if you like to pinch in where it's too big or mark where it's too small.
  6. If all that fails and the garment is still too big (like Jo's New Look 6557), I encourage you to take it in some at the sides as well as the back—you don’t want your side seams to be so far off your sides. It’ll look kind of funky if anyone sees, and it may pull weirdly at the waist since the bodice is curved for the smallest part. You don’t have to take the bodice all the way apart, just 3-4" or so on each side at the top, then go in and take it in.
Whew!!  That's a lot of words.  I hope I haven't just confused you more... Jo, I'm so glad I inspired you to make a new dress, and thank you so much for your Sewing Circle questions!!  Readers, do you have any more tips for Jo and others about cutting out the right size?  We all learn by doing and we all do it differently, so it's great to hear more folks' techniques!

If any of you have a Sewing Circle question for me, I'd love to hear it--just email me!

    27 comments

    1. Might want to discuss the option of prewashing fabric to shrink it first.

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    2. This is so helpful - thanks for posting on it!

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    3. This was very helpful. I have only used a pattern once, for this dress (http://silverrosesewing.blogspot.com/2010/06/my-first-dress-and-little-stress.html) and the bodice looked too short when I tried it on before sewing, but after adding the skirt it was WAY too big....I think the fabric matters a lot too.

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    4. Clarissa8/04/2010

      This is all such great advice. I definitely always check the finished measurements. Sometimes, these aren't listed on the back but on the pieces themselves (frustrating). I usually have the opposite problem. I have a larger chest and I don't think a lot of patterns are designed to accommodate this. I find that the bust darts provided leave an awful effect, often flatter in the front and a little gaping on the sides. Terrible and very frustrating. I have discovered that if I ignore the dart all together and instead gather at the bottom of the dart and a little past it, that works best. It also gives a more natural look. I've also found that specific brands fit specific ways, i.e. "Insert Pattern Brand Name" always fits bigger, smaller, or perfect and then you can avoid the bad ones. Anyway...that's my two cents.

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    5. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has this problem! I thought it was just me! Last week I put gussets in the side of a skirt that was going to be too small, and once it was all done, I ended up taking it back in a couple of inches. No wonder tailors charge so much!

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    6. Yep, I've had this problem. Have i ever had this problem!

      Two suggestions. 1) Check out the reviews on Pattern Review, and 2) Compare the pattern pieces to a similar garment you know fits well. Tip #2 has saved me wasted pieces of clothing.

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    7. Thanks for posting my question! I think the tip to measure the pattern pieces will be most helpful! I decided to take your advice and take apart the bodice at the sides to make it fit properly. I can't believe they worked in so much ease in a sundress that is supposed to be form-fitting.

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    8. The best thing that I have learned since starting to sew clothing is not to go by the bust measurement, but the high bust measurement. And the fact that patterns are all based on a B cup was an important fact. So for me, I need to learn how to do a full bust adjustment to account for a larger bust with small shoulders. I haven't figured it out yet.

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    9. Oh my.

      After laboring over what should have been a simple, fitted tulip skirt recently, I ranted for nearly an hour to my mother (who is teaching me to sew) about pattern sizing and how the finished pieces [don't] fit and the info given is basically useless.

      Of course, I had the opposite problem -- anticipating more ease than I wanted based on the sizing/measurements given, I cut my fabric to a smaller size only to discover that it was too small.

      It's such a bummer.

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    10. I just finished a dress today that I sewed 1/4in side seams in, knowing it would be too small otherwise (vintage pattern with bust 32, I'm high bust 34).

      Low and behold, it is too big.

      I think your best bet is pinning the pattern pieces, and certainly go by your high bust.

      I'm about to start a sundress quite a bit like that one, will pay extra attention now to the fit!

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    11. I got that same pattern a few months or so ago and the same thing happened to me...it was like I was wearing a burlap sack, there was no fixing it either...So now it is a sad example of a waste of perfectly amazing fabric done wrong by a modern pattern sitting in my closet...

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    12. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your tips.

      Trudy
      www.sewingwithtrudy.blogspot.com

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    13. thanks Suzannah for this helpful post. I really like the idea of making clothes for myself, but I'm super picky and usually donate or give the clothes away that I make. :(

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    14. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts. I used my first pattern the other day and it was pretty off. I'm glad I used cheap fabric first as a dry run.

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    15. If you have a full bust, you need to buy per your high bust measurement and do a full bust adjustment to the pattern. This gives you a much better fit through the back and shoulders.

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    16. Suzannah! Thank you so much!!! Wonderful tips.

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    17. I enjoyed this article, thanks!

      Related question: is the sizing consistent within a pattern company? (As in, if a 14 worked once in a Simplicity pattern, will I be safe with 14s in Simplicity in the future?)

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    18. I think the muslin idea might work best if you are going to be making something out of a expensive or favorite fabric. It is a difficult thing to figure out and hope one day to feel more confident in making things for myself. I always admire everything you do on this blog. You make great dresses. Thanks for the helps.

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    19. Thanks so much for your comments, everyone!

      Taking the high bust measurement is definitely important if you're worried about cup sizes.

      I also love the idea of measuring a garment that you like and that fits the way you want your new piece to fit--that'll tell you what you want your finished garment measurements to be.

      Janice, not only are sizes consistent within pattern companies, but they're consistent across all modern patterns because they all use the standard sizes set so many years ago. But, I can't say if the fit and wearing ease will be consistent, and I imagine that it's not, except maybe across sub-lines, like the Project Runway line may fit snugger than the Khaliah Ali line, for example. But I don't know for sure--compare the finished garment measurements for a couple different ones that you're interested in, I guess!

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    20. I also love the idea of measuring a garment that you like and that fits the way you want your new piece to fit--that'll tell you what you want your finished garment measurements to be.

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    21. Thank you for info. I have found that I am making clothes 2 sizes smaller than stated, and they are still a little big in areas. (honestly, I do this with ready to wear clothes typically) I too tend to make my seams 1/2 in instead of 5/8. I didn't realize how much of a difference that makes...

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      Replies
      1. I do the exact same thing--usually 2 sizes smaller, then sometimes make extra modifications, and I always use 1/2" seam allowances. It DOES make a difference, almost a full size sometimes (for a princess seam dress, or something)!

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    22. A little late to the party but this is fantastic info on any date. Thank you for sharing, with so many people having problems with commercial patterns I wonder why the companies don't update their sizing system. JANICE. I made a blouse that fitted beautifully so I went out and bought 3 more X company blouse patterns and NONE of them have fit correctly.

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    23. Anonymous3/01/2013

      If you are atown where patterns are not sold. What do you do if you want cut and your own dress.

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    24. Good to see that I'm not the only one that has faced this issue!! Thanks for the advice

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    25. Oh I am so glad I'm not the only one! I'm normally a 12, and when I measured myself, the dress pattern said I was a size 18! I thought that maybe it was just modern patterns, so I cut out the 18, supposedly to fit my measurements, and sure enough it was WAY too big and I had to cut 2 inches off on all seams! Next time I'll just make a 12 and be done with it. Talk about confusing!!!

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    26. I was taught to look at the "finished bust size" and not the "bust size" for a true fit. I have noticed the big pattern makers start to add the finished bust size on the envelope to some of the newer patterns. Hope that helps some; It'll make a huge difference! :)

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