sewing workshop


Do you ever make samples before starting on your actual garment?

I know, you’re probably thinking “Really, Casey?! Not another thing I’m supposed to do before I start the fun sewing!” I get it, I really do! (Especially now that I have a wiggly baby who vies for my sewing time.) I promise this kind of sample making isn’t like making a muslin (though those are still a good idea for certain designs). But these quick little trial-run pieces might just save you a headache further down the road and can really help improve your technique and accuracy as each fabric behaves differently. After years of sewing samples, it has become second nature and in some ways a lot of fun!

Case in point: this dress I made last summer which featured bound buttonholes. While I usually just pull out my Dritz Bound Buttonhole Tool, the fabric was linen and a loose enough weave that it shifted around easily–making using the Dritz jig a little too indefinite for me. I decided to go ahead and make the buttonholes the old fashioned way, which I hadn’t done in awhile and needed a refresher. I tried a couple different methods (including Gertie’s–which I love, but produced a buttohole that was just a tiny bit bulkier than worked with the linen) and also used the method that the vintage pattern I was working with outlined (worked, but I could improve it!). I used scraps of fabrics for making the test buttonholes–which proved just as well because I managed to mess up one of the samples. Like sewing the buttonhole lips on the wrong way messed up. But imagine if I hadn’t taken the time to make up those buttonhole samples and instead sewn, cut and then discovered my backwards buttonhole on the fashion fabric! I don’t even want to think about how heartbroken I would have been.

Samples can be useful for so much more than just a reminder on working bound buttonholes:

  • Help determine the correct tension, stitch length and needle size for your fabric.
  • Make sure the tension is balanced for your serger and is correctly forming along the edge of your fabric.
  • Double check the correctness of the interfacing weight you’re using: is it too heavy or too light for the application?
  • Work out a new (or not often used!) technique like bound or corded buttonholes, eyelets, etc.
  • Assist in choosing the correct seam finishing technique for your garment by testing the compatibility with the fabric weight and whether it prevents raveling.

So before you toss that pile of odd scraps after you cut out your next project, remember to keep a few for working a sample or two!

July 19, 2013 · 48 lovely thoughts
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Welcome to part two of this series! In this post I’ll be covering the basics of grading up–or enlarging a pattern. This is perhaps the most often requested, since a lot of vintage patterns in smaller sizes survive. But if you need to grade down, then never fear–that is the next installment!

One thing I want to say before I get started is that this is my own method for pattern grading and this is by no means comprehensive. If you want to learn more indepth methods to grading, there are a lot of textbooks available that I’m sure get into more nitty gritty details and techniques than I have time to cover. But for grading up a few sizes, this is a good option for the home sewist.

That brings me to another thing I want to point out: this is a method that is best suited to grading up a few sizes at a time. Any more than 3 sizes, and you risk distorting the pattern edges. If you need to go from say a vintage size 10 (30″ bust) to a vintage size 20 (40″ bust), I’d suggest grading first up to a size 14 (34″ bust) and then to a size 20. Trust me: the larger the gaps between the pieces, the greater the risk you accidentally loose the edge integrity and throw off placement for things like darts. (Don’t forget you’ll also need to lengthen the pieces during the grading process, which I’ve touched on at the end.)

Final point (and then we’ll get started, I promise!): As I said in my previous post, grading does not negate the need for a fitting muslin. Grading is simply enlarging (or reducing) the pattern. It does not magically make it fit your body perfectly (unless, of course, you are one of those lucky people who can fit a pattern straight out of the envelope–how I envy you! hehe!). So grade, make a muslin, and fit. ‘Nuff said.

Begin by tracing your pattern–I never cut my original pattern to grade (especially vintage patterns), as I want to keep the original intact. I went over what I use in the previous post for tracing my patterns. Essentially, I lay the piece on my cardboard cutting mat (I usually iron it gently and on the lowest, non-steam setting first), and the transparent paper over top. I trace all the edges, markings and grainlines. Be sure to label each piece too! Cut them out once they’re traced.

For the example pattern, I’m going to say that we’re grading from a 32″ bust/24″ waist/34″ hip to a 36″ bust–a 4″ difference. We’re going to be doing an even grade (I’ll go over some of the basics of uneven grading later on in the series), so the overall grade will be 4″ resulting in a 36″ bust/28″ waist/38″ hip. Here’s where you’ll need to do a little math!

Take that grading measurement–4″–and divide by 2. This measurement (in the example it’s 2″) is what we’ll grade over the entire 1/2 of the pattern. (Meaning that most patterns have a half bodice front, half bodice back, etc.–it’s essentially half a dress!) Since we have a front and back piece for the bodice, we’ll divide this 2″ by 1/2 again to reach 1″. This 1″ is the total grade for the front or back. (So when you have graded your pieces and make a complete bodice, it’ll have been graded 4″ overall.)

We’re almost done with the math! Take that 1″ and divide it by 3. I never divide evenly, since it gets a little cumbersome. Generally I’ll do a 3/8″-1/4″-3/8″ division for a 1″ grade. You’ll see where these measurements go below. Write this down somewhere, since you’ll use this on each front and back piece to reach that overall 4″ grade.

This is the pattern I’ll be using as an example for the instructional portion of this post. It’s fairly simple, and I feel showcases the basic principles of pattern grading the best. Scroll to the bottom for a few more schematics of other pattern types too!

One thing I almost always do on pattern tracings prior to diving them (otherwise referred to as “slash and spread”) is make a horizontal line across the pattern. Your pattern may already have this in the form of a lengthen/shorten line, but if not, it’s a good idea to draw one now as it helps match things up once you’ve cut the pattern apart.

This shows the basic dividing lines for most bodice patterns: from neckline to waist, shoulder to waist, and underarm to waist. Note on the back pattern piece rather than going straight from the armhole down, I angled the line. This is because a straight line would have ended above the waist, which we also want to grade up. Note I also tend to avoid cutting in the middle of a waistline dart. Of course, your pattern will probably vary–but once you know the basics of where to place your lines, you’re set. I have rarely deviated from this configuration in the years I’ve been grading by hand–usually it works for the majority of styles.

To go along with our example grade (4″ increase overall), these bodice pieces have been cut along those dividing lines and spread the appropriate amount we calculated above. I tend to spread less over the shoulder to waist slash. Why? Because adding too much to that area tends to give a pattern “linebacker shoulders”. If you have to do a Full Bust Adjustment, wait to do that until after you’ve graded the pattern–don’t try to “cheat” and add it at this point!

This is how I usually set up my cutting board while I slash and spread the pattern pieces: a piece of paper underneath, and the graded piece (slashed and spread) pinned overtop. I tend to just retrace the entire piece. But you can also tape additional paper underneath if that’s easier. It really just depends on the size of the grade!

The last thing you need to do after you grade the pattern, as you’re tracing (or after you’ve taped in other paper), is to true the edges of the pattern as they’ve probably gotten a bit jagged with all this grading! This just means to connect with a smooth line one point to another as above in red (on the front piece). Cut out your new pattern piece (if you’ve traced, making sure you’ve transferred all darts, grainlines, etc.) and you’re done!

For more grading examples, click the “more” link below. { click here to continue reading this post }

June 22, 2012 · 76 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing,tutorials · tags: , ,

A common question I find in my inbox is “how to I alter the size of a pattern?”. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time I’m sure you’ve seen me discuss the idea of pattern grading. But what is pattern grading, if you’ve never run across it before (or maybe you have and it’s still just a somewhat confusing concept)? Grading is a method of sizing a pattern up or down in size. This can be done manually using paper and rulers, or is now often done on computer programs (most often by the larger companies, since these systems can be pricy for the home sewist). Because you aren’t tied to the size on an envelope, this is an especially useful skill to have if you work with vintage patterns. But it’s a good tool to have in your sewer’s bag of tricks period, as it has many uses.

Throughout this series I’ll be going over both common and basic grading techniques, as well as breaking down how to grade some more complicated styles. We’ll be using the old fashioned, paper method, since that is most available to everyone. It is my hope that this series will be a clear overview of basic grading to get you started. I’d like to be upfront and say that this is not going to be hugely comprehensive (there are textbooks for that), nor do I know every grading technique. I have been grading using this method for the past 10 years, and have picked up some tips through study and developed my own ways of approaching it. But I feel that for the home sewist, this is perhaps the easiest method to grasp.

Please note this is not a sew along—it’s just a series. You do not have to follow along as I post these (though you are welcome to!), but can refer to them in the future when needed. These posts are rather spread out because they are time intensive to put together, and I want to give myself enough time to give them some polish and cover as comprehensively as I can (within reason) the topic.

  • Paper – I use exam table paper, since it’s both transparent and cheap. This is the most important part of grading: having transparent paper. Because you’ll be tracing your original pattern, it makes life a lot easier. Another option is to use a non-fusible, lightweight interfacing (such as the gridded interfacing sold at JoAnns). Or you could use Swedish Tracing Paper. Though because of the cost I don’t recommend that for the actual grading, but perhaps tracing your final, master pattern on to. The bonus of using this is you can also pin it together to create a sort of fitting muslin (though it does not drape quite like fabric). In a pinch, large sheets of tracing paper can be used. From personal experience: don’t try tissue paper, it will only end in tears.
  • Rulers – A variety of rulers and measuring tools is always handy for grading patterns. I generally rely on my gridded ruler (2” wide by 18” long with markings every 1/8”–commonly found in the quilting section of fabric stores) for the actual grading. A ruler that goes into even smaller increments (1/16”) would be handy too. I also keep a hip curve and yardstick on hand for tracing patterns.
  • Pens, Pencils, Markers – Fairly self-explanatory. Sometimes I find having fine-tip markers in a few colors useful when differentiating between grading lines.
  • Scotch Tape – A must for adding extra paper underneath when grading up, or overlapping when grading down. You’ll go through a lot of this, so be prepared! (I like clear tape only because you can see through it. You can use opaque tape, but it’s a personal preference.)
  • Cutting Surface – I use my trusty cardboard cutting mat, but a self-healing mat will also work. I tend to pin the pieces I cut apart into my cutting surface in order to keep them from wandering/moving. So this isn’t a must, but makes it easier.
  • Pins – Just regular, straight pins (as I referenced above, I pin the pieces into my cardboard mat).
  • Your Measurements – Having a sense of what size category you fall into is very useful when grading for yourself. (Admittedly, I tend to “cheat” on this and just grade to the pattern size that I know I fit into, and then make my personal fitting alterations. Generally I’ll be assuming you are doing the same for the majority of the series, until I get into uneven grading in the July 6 post.)

I want to note here that while grading is a wonderful, highly useful skill, it does not take away for the need to further fit your pattern to your own body or making a muslin for some more complicated designs. As with anything that involves alteration, I always recommend double checking the fit before cutting into your garment fabric.

That sums up the supply list and next we’ll be moving on to actual grading! I plan on not only showing you through photographs, but a series of illustrations as well. Grading up a pattern size is perhaps the most common request I receive, so that will be first (with grading down following shortly behind—it’s a very similar technique though!). My hope is that by sharing this technique with you, it’ll open a whole new world of sewing skills and possibilities!

June 6, 2012 · 52 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing · tags: , ,

Tilly posted last month about storing vintage patterns, and as I had been mulling over a post on this topic lately, I thought it was high time to delve a bit into this myself! I have gotten a number of questions over the years regarding how I store both my new and vintage patterns, so hopefully this post will be useful to a few readers.

Let me preface this by saying that no one method is entirely perfect or right. Just because I tend to take a more “Preservationist” viewpoint (as Tilly aptly called it), doesn’t mean that everyone must, or I somehow am looking down my nose at those that don’t follow that method (I detest Vintage Sewing Snobbery!). So if you find an aspect helpful in this post, then I couldn’t be more pleased! But if it just doesn’t work for you in any way, then I’d love to hear about your personal method of storage.

Let’s start chatting a bit about my beloved vintage pattern collection, shall we? It grew quite a bit recently thanks to my grandmother’s patterns joining the stash. Which means that once again I’m running out of storage space. But this is what method I used up until the New Year… All my patterns are stored in sturdy, cardboard banker’s boxes. For several years I used plastic boxes I picked up at Target, but the collection outgrew those quickly, and Target was no longer selling a similar size. So back to banker’s boxes it was! These are great though, because I can line up the smaller (Simplicity, Butterick) patterns side-by-side, and double stack them as demonstrated above.

The patterns themselves are currently divided up by category. Dresses, suits and outerwear, sportswear (bathing suits, shorts, etc.), children’s patterns, etc. When my collection was smaller, I had things divided up as early vintage (1920s-1940s) and later vintage (1950s-1970s), and then subdivided by style. But this became a bit of a storage nightmare, as I don’t have that much room for that many boxes.

Within the boxes there are patterns loose without plastic slips, a few in large sandwich bags, and some in archival envelopes (which I bought from Ebay so long ago I don’t have any specific link to share!). Generally the ones in the archival envelopes are older, more fragile patterns. At the moment not everything is bagged, and honestly, I’m not too worried about it. Unless I start noticing something is disintegrating or there are bugs eating away at the paper (silverfish are my enemies), it’s not too much of a bother. The only real advantage to having everything bagged is that I can take the pieces and instructions out of the envelope, which means I’m not in danger of ripping the envelope when I try to repackage the pieces!

I do trace many of my vintage patterns, most often because they’re either too fragile to handle (especially in the case of my 30s patterns), or I need to make fitting changes and having a tracing to work with means I don’t wreck the original lines of the pattern. But again, this often depends on the pattern. For some later vintage patterns that I know will fit or are really simple lines, I don’t bother! But once I have a tracing, I do keep it in a separate box with all my other self-drafted and fitted tracings. Storing them with my vintage patterns got too cumbersome, although I do keep a slip of paper in many of the patterns noting I do have a tracing. (Otherwise I’ll retrace it!).

But what about modern patterns? It’s a fairly similar approach–sans archival envelopes. Patterns are generally kept in boxes, but organized by pattern company. This is because many of the patterns I own that are modern are indie companies, and I like to be able to access those easily. Cut patterns are often placed in a large sandwich bag, along with any tracings I did to alter the pattern. It’s a fairly easy method, but keeps things organized enough for me to easily find what I’m looking for.

What else do I do? I’ve used a pattern organizing software in the past (full disclosure: the software was provided to me to test drive) and also scanned pattern envelopes to add to my own image files. The latter tends to work best for vintage patterns, and allows me to virtually go through my collection without having to pull all my boxes out! But it is time consuming, which is why I am still working on cataloging everything.

So that is how I store all my patterns, for the curious! I know it may sound very organized to some, but I am such a scatterbrain otherwise, it would result in Pattern Chaos (which would make me unhappy!). When I got married and moved I had no order to my pattern storage, and remember finding vintage patterns I had forgotten I had! Now that doesn’t happen very often, which means I can utilize the patterns better than I did before. Which means better sewing productivity for me! Hooray!

February 20, 2012 · 37 lovely thoughts
posted in tutorials · tags: , ,

Note: I had a finished project to show off today, but the photos weren’t turning out right (my fault for waiting until the evening to take them!), so that will come later in the week. Instead I decided to share a post on sewing failures that I had in my draft queue and had been tinkering on the past few weeks…

01.23.12 | failed projects

You all know I’m not a magical seamstress who has every project turn out perfectly, right? Good!

I, like everyone else, have had more than a fair share of projects that hit major snags or just bombed completely and were discarded in frustration. Just in the past year my two biggest sewing-disappointments were a 1940s swimsuit (above) I tried to make, which turned into a nightmare scenario of of fiddly fit and deciding I really wasn’t sure I like how the high-waist bottoms look on me with swimwear. The other was my version of Colette Pattern’s Lady Grey pattern. The latter has been a big frustration for me, and yet I can’t motivate myself to finish it. My first version used a wool I had bought online that was just too thin for tailoring, so I ripped all the horsehair canvas pieces I had handbasted and padstitched to the coat, and cut out another jacket from a boucle suiting I had in the stash. Problem is, I’m not crazy about the fabric or the style of the coat (on me–I love it on everyone else. I think I tend to gravitate towards more loose, trapeze style coats). So I’ve just kind of been dragging my heels for over a year on this one. Every time I look in my drawer of “unfinished projects”, the half-tailored pieces mock me. Maybe one day I’ll finish it, but I’m too ambivalent on the project right now to work on it. (I’d much rather sew a pretty dress, frankly.)

09.30.10 {lady grey sew-along}

But even in the midst of some of these projects that have ended up in the scrap bin (which is highly frustrating!), I have learned quite a few lessons about sewing and myself:

  • What I dream up and am super excited about, no matter how much planning I put into it, won’t always live up to my expectations. I don’t have to feel bad about it–that’s just the reality of translation from an idea to an actual garment.
  • Putting a project aside–even for a year–gives clarity as to why it’s not working or I’m not as enthusiastic about it. Sometimes this means the project ends up in the scrap pile, other times it just needs to be reworked and seen with fresh eyes.
  • In relation to the above, it is sometimes quite helpful to have a few close sewing friends who can give you honest opinions about what is going wrong, offer troubleshooting on things that have you stumped, or be the ones to agree that it’s a hopeless case.
  • No project is ever a complete “failure”. Rather, they’re learning experiences! Through the Lady Grey jacket, I learned about tailoring and discovered my love of padstitching. Sewing the failed swimsuit meant I gathered a lot of information on sewing swimwear knits and how to properly line everything. Which I’m sure will come in handy in the future!
  • The most important thing is: no matter how long you’ve been sewing, you’re constantly learning something new! I think the “failures” are a great way to keep one on their toes and searching for new techniques and stretching their skill set. Without mistakes, how would we grow?

So what is your biggest sewing disappointment? Is there a project that just frustrates you every time you look at it? What lessons have you found helpful when dealing with these “tough” projects?

January 23, 2012 · 47 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing · tags: