Sewing Circle: Sale fabric, good beginner dress patterns

This time on Sewing Circle...
The other day I got a comment from a reader about how to buy fabric for super cheap and good dress patterns to start with for a beginner who wears a small size.  Here's a crack at an answer, Alyssa!

Q: Where do you find cheap fabric and patterns? I went out looking today, thinking I would find some $2 a yard fabric, any type, and found nothing under $4 a yard! We went to Joann's. Do you have any cute dress patterns you would recommend for a pretty new sewist who wears a REALLY small size? I love everything you sew!

A: Whew, lots of good questions, Alyssa!  I have a short answer for you on shopping at JoAnn's--you'll never get great quality fabric, but when you're just learning, $1.50/yard fabric is not too shabby.

  • I often buy fabric from the red tag clearance at JoAnn's, usually $3-5 a yard on clearance, ONLY WHEN it's a weekend sale or big sale "50% off the clearance price"--so you pay $1.50-$2.50/yard.
  • I buy the basics in the front of the store at JoAnn when they're 40-50% off the regular price, or use a coupon on a full price item.  If you only need a yard or so, $7.99/yard on sale 40% off is pretty okay.  
  • And sometimes they have a "10% off your total purchase" coupon.
  • Watch for when Simplicity, Butterick, or McCall's are $0.99 each and stock up!  Vogue gets to $3.99 each on sale sometimes.
  • And if you get lucky you can get good fabric at Goodwill every once in a while! Often like $1.99 for a 2-yard piece or something.  Sometimes people give away nice pieces of wool, or even just cute cotton prints, often in weights or textures you don't find at JoAnnn.
  • Online fabric shopping--for specific things, SHOP ONLINE.  Readers, what are your favorite online fabric shops??
  • Once you get your sewing skills up, buy the nice stuff from local fabric stores if you have any, and all those great designer prints from online quilting fabric shops.  They have so much amazing stuff!  None of which is even at JoAnn's.

As for good patterns for beginners to start with... I can tell you about how I learned to sew things for myself--I really credit one pattern for helping me love sewing clothing.

I made New Look 6557, View A, shown in hot pink, when I was about 17.  Home for the summer, I was inspired to sew and made this dress all by myself.  I read the directions and followed the for the most part... and my mom put in the zipper for me.
Then I made View B, shown red and white floral, in an ivory and brown big patterned voile--I lined this one.  I put in boob pads from the notions wall at JoAnn's so I didn't have to wear a bra with it!  My mom helped me on that zipper, too.

Next I made View E out of a super cool vintage navy and white block print lightweight cotton.  I lined it, too. On that one I learned to put in invisible zippers and did it myself (and it changed my life!).

Since then I have used the pattern several more times, most recently for my summery plaid dress of vintage textured voile and lace.  I have also used parts of it to combine with other midriff panels, altered the halter pieces to be one piece instead of including a string, etc...

Anyway, once I had made those, I basically knew how a dress is constructed.  The New Look pattern is a little simpler than some since the back is one piece, but it's not a whole lot easier than similar patterns.  I don't love how the center front scoops down at the waist; I prefer straight across.  So now one of my favorite and most versatile dress patterns is this one, Butterick B4915.
It looks like formal wear but I make it in cotton and it turns out cute and summery.  It is super easy, and once you make it while reading the instructions once you'll understand how most dresses are constructed.  I have modified it before I had a pattern with the right shape strap and bust pieces to make this ModCloth copy.

Simplicity has a similar pattern, too, again I don't love the curved waist.  Simplicity 2579.

This would also be a good beginner pattern, McCall's M5806. Don't let the options fool you; it is very simple in construction once you figure out which pieces go with the dress you want to make.  Same construction as the ones mentioned above.

For a very different look, there are simple options for more shealth-ey dresses, too.  I also made Simplicity 2896 for one of my beginning dresses, this cute navy retro look one.  I used the straight sleeves from the jacket and put them on the dress, and so didn't use the armhole facings on the dress.

Or, this Cynthia Rowley pattern, Simplicity 2497.  I made a fun and easy dress out of this that I wore on my birthday once... It is super simple too, basically just the four pieces (front, back bodice, front, back skirt) and waistband.  Anyway.

As for size... this is a tricky issue.  I like fitted things (like the first several dresses I showed) to fit very snugly, and most modern patterns are often designed with more wearing ease than I would like.

Like most people, I am in between sizes on patterns.  I circled my measurements in pencil for bust, waist, and hip, and in pen showed the average size that the pattern companies would recommend I go by.  The star shows, on this pattern I would cut a 10 or 12.  12 if I used the 5/8" seam allowances as recommended, but I always use smaller ones!  I hate wasting the fabric.  At the bottom, you can see where I circled the finished garment measurements that I would want.  Even with their large seam allowances, the 14 that they suggest I cut out would have more wearing ease than I would want.
As you can see, if you're very small for modern sizes, there is plenty of room on a modern pattern to accommodate you because pattern sizes haven't changed in decades.  I wear a 2 in modern dresses and suits, sometimes a 4, and would be told by Simplicity to cut out a 14 in their patterns.  If you like your clothes loose or use excessively large seam allowances or something, go with their recommendations.  

You can always make something smaller, but it's messier to make it bigger.  The exception to this is on something cut on the fold--if you cut out a center front piece that's just too big, you can take it in on the sides, but may end up with a super wide neck and tight armholes.  If you want the center front smaller, you'd have to make a seam down it!  Not what you want; you'd probably just have to re-cut the center front piece.

**Disclaimer!**  Many of you may disagree with me on this sizing advice, and I totally respect that--we have all had different experiences with cutting and sewing and we ALL do it differently.  That's why Sewing Circle is so fun--please chime in with your experience to help a beginning sewist!

I hope those help, Alyssa!  This has been a very fun blog post to write.  I like reminiscing through past projects and successes.  Let us know how it goes!

Readers, please chime in if you have more ideas for Alyssa, and please email me if you ever have a specific or general question for Sewing Circle!

27 comments

  1. If you live near a Wal-Mart, they often have certain fabrics for $1-$2 a yard, and usually some clearance fabrics too. Also, used bedsheets in good condition can be found at thrift stores and make excellent fabric for skirts and other lightweight projects.

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  2. I also watch our for BMV pattern sales online. Also, fabric.com has great prices and pretty good shipping on fabric.

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  3. I second the Wal-mart comment. I have one that sells fabric by me and I've actually found some really cute and modern prints there for $2-$3 a yard. My other recommendation would be Hobby Lobby. Their broadcloth goes on sale often for $1 a yard. It's not really great quality, but it's great if you're learning like me!

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  4. Oh I have that Cynthia Rowley pattern too and I'm excited to try it. I'm very, very new to clothes sewing (I'm a quilter) but I'll probably give it a go eventually. Great post - thanks!

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  5. OMG! I just made my first dress last week and I used that exact new look pattern! the directions where a little confusing for a newbe like me but with help from my mom, we put together the cutest sundress ive ever own!!

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  6. I "heart" fabric.com!!

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  7. I'm a devotee of Fashion Fabrics Club online. In real life, I find haunting the local discount fabric stores to be much more productive than going to JoAnn's.

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  8. Once you start sewing "for good", those 2.00 a yard fabrics will probably not appeal to you much. You will notice the quality of them after a few wash and wears.
    That being said, I love discounted fabric. Like mentioned, sign up for Joanns coupons. I never buy ANYTHING full price there anymore. They send you so many coupons! I wait for 40-50% off fabric coupons from Joanns and get some good deals.
    But my first favorite is Goodwill stores and the Goodwill outlet. I have gotten awesome fabrics from there.
    Fabric. com has very good prices compared to local fabric stores, and free shipping over $35.00.
    As far as stretch knits, The Fabric Fairy (online) and Gil Charlee have great selections. Just do your research about what type of knit is what, as you won't be able to feel them.
    If you live around the PDX area, Fabric Depot is like Prozac. Wait for their 35% off days.

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  9. sandoz183/16/2011

    There are a few junior-sized lines in the big pattern companies that would be a good starting point for a petite sewist concerned about fit, and they tend to be easy (sorry, can't remember specific names of the lines!). I'm a 0-1 in ready-to-wear and between a 4-6 in patterns, although my measurements have me at an 6-8 in most patterns. If it's an unfitted style, I have to usually scale down even smaller or things hang, shapelessly. For simple patterns, I generally cut a 6 and scale down from there pinning, basting, taking up seam allowances, etc. Also, if you're short as well as slender, make sure you pay attention to the "shorten here" lines so that you change the length at the right proportions. Hope that helps!

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  10. Thank you all so much! It was so nice of you to do this for me, Suzannah! I signed up for Joann's news letter, and I'm headed there soon! You all are so nice! :D I'll post my dress on my blog whenever I make it!

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  11. If I may put in my 2 cents worth, check out Hancock Fabric if there's one near you. I've found that they have a much better selection of quality fabric for $4 and less /yard at regular price (I just got a lovely spring green woven cotton boucle for less than $2/yd.).
    Unfortunately they don't get the face time that JoAnn does but they're certainly worth your time (and at least at mine, they accept JoAnn coupons.)

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  12. WOW!! You are a mind reader! I was having a sizing problem as well, and now you've helped me figure out where I fit. :) Thanks! Also it's good to know the Cynthia Rowley pattern is fairly easy. I have it in my folder to try but was a little intimidated by it. :)

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  13. Thank you so much for this post, it was very helpful!! I'm about to start a dress for me, I've only made one other so I hope it comes out well!

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  14. I've always found really great, unique fabrics at thrift stores and Goodwill. You have to dig sometimes, but they're usually extremely cheap!

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  15. Sheets are an excellent source for clothing.

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  16. I agree with A Mom's Choice: sheets at thrift stores especially come in handy. Especially jersey sheets, in my opinion, because they have such nice stretch for yoga pants or soft, casual knit dresses.

    Thanks for asking the question Alyssa! And thanks for such a thorough, helpful response Suzannah!

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  17. This post was so helpful! I'm intimidated to even buy fabric--I'm slowly working my way to actually making things. But it's good to have a guideline for prices and things...when you're a complete newbie you have no idea what a good deal is.

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  18. i heart hancock fabrics. i've found a lot of great fabric for under $4 a yard. and if you sign up for their rewards card, they send you a 40% off a single cut of fabric every month. i also love fabric.com---a lot of good sales.

    i love kwik sew patterns. the sizing works for me without much adjustment and the instructions are clear and easy to follow. i love pattern #3003, which is just a basic bias cut a-line skirt with an elastic waist. perfect for a beginner...an easy sewing win.

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  19. I'm a Fabric.com girl myself...and also Etsy shops. Etsy sellers often have destash fabrics for really good prices too, but it takes some digging.
    And sizing - yikes - I span 4 sizes, never fun. I tend to buy only large span multi-size patterns & "mix & match" to get a fit. My dress form helps a lot for sizing.

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  20. So glad this post was helpful!! I hope lots of you go out there and start sewing... the best way to learn is to try it yourself and figure out what works for you!
    There's no Hancock Fabrics near me in Portland, so I can't speak to it, but it's always good to try new places (I should explore Fabric.com more!). I need some new fabric myself...

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  21. Another JoAnn/Hancock tip: they often will honor competitor's coupons. If you get a coupon for 40% fabric for one store, but don't want to buy anything there, you can go to the other store and get something. The coupons have to be valid (in the right dates) still. JoAnn's will not accept coupons from Michael's for fabric, since Michael's doesn't sell fabric.

    I also really like fabric.com's storefront on Amazon, because I love Amazon's list feature. That way, you can put fabric on your birthday wishlist!

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  22. Also, I am a size 14 for clothes, and so I end up buying plus size patterns. That's kind of depressing, but I realize that sizes have changed a lot over the years. I think I'm more picky buying retail clothes now that I've started sewing my own clothes. I'll only buy clothes if they're super cheap, they're something I can't make yet, or if the changes I want to make are easy. I've had good results altering clothes to make them fit better.

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  23. I like Pink Chalk for fabric online. But depending on where you live, there are discount fabric stores where you can get fabric for as low as $1/yard. I have a Boston list on my website and Little Green Notebook has a post on local fabric stores w/ lots of suggestions in the comments.

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  24. Kirsty3/20/2011

    I'm not sure if anybody else is from Australia, but Spotlight is having a sale on the whole range of NEW LOOK patterns. They are $5.00 each or $4.50 for VIP members from the 23rd of March.
    By the way love your blog :D

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  25. I always cut a smaller size too. After numerous mistakes in cutting the wrong size and then attempting to fit them, I've learned what size I am and how to cut the right fit for me.
    Designrefinebemine.blogspot.com

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  26. Thank you for this post. You have some great dress patterns here. I'm getting some michael miller fabrics today so I might just get some extra to make myself a dress. Thanks again!

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  27. This is good information for a beginner.

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