Sewing Circle: How to cut out the right pattern size
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:
- 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 These are fairly outdated now, and people are better-nourished now, and size is different as we age, so many of us feel a little self-conscious cutting out a size 3-5 sizes bigger than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).
- 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.
- 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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
If any of you have a Sewing Circle question for me, I'd love to hear it--just email me!