Home Sewing with Patterns (part 4)

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This is the four part of the series on sewing. In part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. In part 3, we looked at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do. This time, we’ll look into using sewing patterns.

Any piece of clothing much more complex than a poncho requires a pattern. But, you can learn to make your own patterns if you don’t want to use the ones from Simplicity or Vogue. Making your own patterns is really empowering, and it lets you see how you can more easily adapt commercial sewing patterns. Homemade patterns tend to be for simpler, less tailored garments but when you are learning to sew a garment from scratch, that’s what you will be making anyway. I don’t recommend that you start out by making a complex three-piece suit from Vogue. Start small with a pullover-style top or an elastic waist skirt.

So you get a very basic book like “Design It, Sew It, and Wear It” by Duane Bradley and work your way through all the variations. When you’re finished, you have a small wardrobe, some sewing chops, a much better understanding of fit and making two-dimensional pieces of cloth shape themselves around a three dimensional body. Moreover, all these garments were made with fabric you liked as opposed to what the clothing factory thought was cheapest and would sell.

Then you move up to a slightly harder book like the “The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book” by Bordow and Rosenberg. Overcome your distaste for the hippy-dippy text and the very dated fashions and see that underneath those distractions is how to make skirts, pants, tops, dresses, etc using your own body measurements and copying clothes you already have.

From "DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection"

From “DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection”

If you then work your way through the modern books like “DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection” by Rosie Martin or “Dressmaking: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Making your Own Clothes” by Alison Smith, you’ll end up with quite a selection of clothes. Consider your fabric choices carefully. You can make the exact same pattern several times in different fabrics and get different looking garments. The illustrations for clothes tend to all be drawn as though everything is made of lightweight cotton and the garments will only be worn in the summer. Use a heavier fabric such as fleece, make the sleeves long and raise the neckline and the pattern you learned to make for a summer-weight top becomes a winter-weight garment. The models in the books all tend to look like 24-year-old coathangers but don’t let this stop you. Since you are making the patterns yourself to fit your body and you are choosing your fabrics that suit your taste, the end results don’t have to be teenager wear.

Before you purchase any of the books I recommend, get them from the library and read them over to see if you can use them. If you really like a book, you may want to buy it, particularly if it comes with patterns, either paper or on CD. The library won’t thank you if you cut up the patterns. Make copies so the original patterns remain untouched. You may want to do this even if you buy the book so that the patterns can be reused by someone else of a different dress size.

Going Commercial

Commercial patterns don’t have to cost you as much as you fear. Not many of us pay full retail for commercial patterns from Vogue; we buy them when Jo-Ann Fabrics or Hancock Fabrics run a $3.99 sale. Simplicity, McCall, and Butterick go on sale regularly for $1.99 or even 99 cents each. A really good pattern sale lets you stock up on patterns that you think you might use later. The risk to this method is you end up with a filing cabinet of patterns that you never use.

To round out the talk about pattern prices, commercial patterns such as Burda or KwikSew rarely go on sale. You just have to pay full price. Independent pattern companies that advertise in the back of sewing magazines never go on sale at all, but they are often the most interesting. If you really like the pattern that an independent is offering, just pay for it and use the pattern several times over to get your money’s worth.

Other places to find patterns include the stashes of any sewing friends and relatives, thrift shops, yard sales, and eBay. The only thing to watch out for is that you have all the pieces and the instructions. I don’t buy patterns that have been cut as there is always a chance that some of the pieces never made it back into the envelope.

Fashions change, so patterns change all the time. The age of your pattern sort of matters; a Nehru jacket just has that particular look of no lapels and a high mandarin collar. You make the jacket exactly as the pattern calls for and use a modern material like fleece and suddenly, that garment doesn’t look so retro. Fabric also goes in and out of style so a vintage pattern in a modern fabric doesn’t quite look the same as if you tried to get a period appropriate fabric. Lapel shapes, collars, cuffs, pockets, plackets, yokes: they all can be style markers and they change as the fashion industry changes. Even how a sleeve is set in can change as the styles change, but the pattern is still perfectly usable. I think the real difficulty with using old patterns is that the directions may not be as thorough. Again, like old cookbooks, the old patterns, even the very easy ones, assume you already know the basics.

When you buy patterns, you need to know your real body measurements. Any decent sewing book will tell you how to do this, as do all the make your own clothes books listed below. Patterns are sized by tape measurements, not whatever the garment industry is currently calling a size 10. This means that if you have a 42 inch bust, you look at the back of the pattern envelope for that bust measurement and that is your size. Never, never, never assume that if you currently wear a size 12 from Dress Barn that your pattern size will be a size 12. It won’t be even close. Your pattern size may be an 18 or even larger. Get over yourself and buy and cut out the pattern that fits your actual body.

The most expensive part of making your own clothes is the fabric. A pretty basic long sleeved shirt with two front panels, back, collar, cuffs, yoke, and placket will use about three yards of 45-inch wide fabric. If you spend five dollars a yard, then the cloth alone will run you fifteen dollars, not including the thread, any pattern, interfacing, and buttons. Then factor in your time. That thrift shop shirt for three bucks starts looking pretty good.

So again, why sew your own clothes?

I sew many of my own clothes because I want something that no one else has. I want my clothes to fit reasonably well, not always easy with ready-to-wear, and I want my clothes to be well made and not fall apart in the wash. Clothing becomes an expression of myself, an artistic statement. My clothes also show that I know how to sew, which is useful when someone asks “who can mend my garment? sew my custom costume? rehem my prom dress? make my kitchen curtains?” My clothing can become my advertisement for my home sewing business, should I choose to start one.

M3253I got tired of wearing boring old t-shirts so I made myself an assortment of surgical scrubs using McCalls pattern 3253. A surgical scrub pattern lets you make a v-neck pull-on T-shirt type top with no buttons, zippers, snaps, collars or set-in sleeves. It is, other than the pivot point at the base of the v-neck, fast and easy to make. The first few tries took a little practice and some hand basting; fifty shirts later, I zip right through that part. And, because the garment design keeps the fashion fabric as one, uncut piece, I could take advantage of huge all over design repeats, the kind where the design motif is 18 or even 24 inches across.

surgical-scrubs-three-stoogesThe point of making the scrubs was not to replicate what dental hygienists and LPNs wear. It was to show off amazing, wow, look-at-me, fabulous fabrics. It is very showy to wear a scrub printed with a flowing stream inhabited by life size, accurately colored koi. This shirt pattern was so successful that I made fourteen of them, plus plenty more for Bill, older son, younger son, nephew r, nephew b, and friends. All unique. All one of a kind. Just like the people wearing them. This is why you sew.

Finding Fabric on the Cheap

So if you want this unique look, then how do you find affordable fabric to make it happen? The first thing is to get on the Jo-Ann mailing list. They run regular sales on all kinds of fabrics and always provide a 40% off coupon to ‘make your own sale’. Check out the weekly sales flier in the paper closely or go online to their website and then think carefully about what you want to make before you set foot in the store and spend your cash.

Then you spread the word that you will take unwanted fabric (and any other sewing notions) from relatives, friends, and neighbors. This is the fabric they can’t use, won’t use, don’t know why they bought it, someone gave it to them, they had stopped sewing for some reason; the list is endless. The important thing is that you take everything that is offered to you, no matter how repellant that orangey brown double knit polyester is to you. Why, you ask? Because the minute you say ‘I don’t want those grungy old shop rags the offering person will think ‘I guess you don’t want that 7-yard piece of Thai silk either.’ But I do want the Thai silk! I do want the 5-yard piece of brocade home-dec so suitable for tote bags! I do want the Christmas patterned cottons! Say yes to everything and the universe might deliver more than you bargained for. This is how you get the pickup truck load of material when the elderly sewing relative dies and you get her entire stash.

On rare occasions, I have found fabric being thrown away. I’ve picked up dressmaking cottons, home-dec upholsteries, and bags of scraps. I wash it and find it a home in my stash, or pass it along.

Other places to find fabric are at yard sales and thrift shops. Cloth here is sometimes yardage that someone didn’t want. More often, it is yardage already made up into something else like table-clothes, shower curtains, sheets, curtains and drapes, ball gowns, or wool coats. A rarely used table-cloth or queen size sheet will provide a lot of fabric, excellent for making a practice garment before you cut up the expensive fashion fabric. A set of draperies can sometimes offer two pieces of material for the price of one: the fashion fabric and the Roc-lon blackout lining, which costs regularly costs seven bucks a yard at Jo-Ann all by itself.

To turn a set of pinch-pleated draperies into yard goods, you need a seam ripper and some time. Rip out all the hems and the pinch pleating, iron the press marks out flat, wash it, iron the entire piece flat, and you have some seriously large yardage to work with. I don’t generally rip seams in the skirts of prom dresses and ball gowns unless I need every inch possible as the margins are too narrow to bother with. Hems and pinch pleating, however, can offer up as much as six extra inches of material to work with. I rip the hems in sheets and table-clothes for the same reason; the added fabric is worth the added labor.

It is well worth pawing through the bargain bins at Goodwill looking for draperies in fabric you like. Remember that you need never tell anyone where the material came from; just let them guess how you could have afforded that lovely ivory fabric (former shower curtain!) with the pattern of woven squares that you turned into a stylish coat.

Then you find all the other places in your area that sell fabric and notions. Wal-Mart sometimes sells fabric in addition to its selection of notions, patterns, and thread. The Wal-Marts that carry fabric usually have a bargain bin with dollar a yard fabric and up; start there. I do buy fabric on spec if the price is right and I really like it.

There are fabric stores besides Jo-Ann and Hancock, many of them locally owned and operated. Look around, ask around, and you may be rewarded. A terrific local shop in the Hershey/Harrisburg area is the Pennsylvania Fabric Outlet in LeMoyne which carries the most amazing array of home-dec, trim, and notions I have ever seen. It is very difficult to walk out of this store without buying something.

You may have a quilting shop in your area. Quilt shops don’t, as a rule, sell clothing patterns, buttons, interfacing, or anything else you need to make garments, but they do carry very nice cottons and cotton blends. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t make a shirt out of a fabric sold for quilting. If you like how the material looks and feels, then use it.

Whatever shop I am in, I always check out the bargain bins. You never know what you will find. As I said, I do buy fabric on spec if the price is right and I really like it. I don’t do this very much anymore as I really do need to use up the enormous amount of material I already have. That pickup truck load of material I got was overwhelming and it will take me years to work through it.

Many people buy their fabric online. I very rarely do this as I have real fabric stores in my area and I like to see and feel what I buy before I spend any money. There is no question that if you want a specialty item like Cordura or zippers by the foot, and you don’t live in a major city, you will have to go online. Try to get samples first if you can, so you can see before you buy, and make sure you know the return policy.

"I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins."

“I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins.”

When people give you fabric, you take whatever they give you and pass along what you don’t want or can’t use. If you are going to spend your own money on fabric then make sure you really love it. Don’t ever spend money on cloth when you are unsure of what you will make with it unless you absolutely love the fabric and can’t imagine living without it. You can fill up a lot of RubberMaid storage bins this way if you aren’t very careful about saying no to great buys. When we recarpeted our finished basement, including the sewing closet, I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins. At least half of the bins were full of fabric that had been given to me; I didn’t lay out any cash for it. But I still had 100s of yards of cloth I’d been given. Gradually, gradually, it is being used up or given away. The only control to buying more fabric is shopping your own stash first. If you have sewing friends, then shop their stash and let them shop yours before you go out shopping in the real world. This saves money and gets that fabric sewn into the beautiful garment that it wants to be.

Next Week: The Wide World of Creative Sewing