Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Working With Patterns: What Should You Expect?

Library of Congress, Augusta Field

Library of Congress, Augusta Field.   Augusta is an Original. So are you. So should your pattern be.

Well-made historic patterns can be a big help in getting dressed for the mid-century. They can offer excellent historic geometry, useful and illustrated construction techniques, notes on extant garments with the same features, and textile suggestions to help make your wardrobe project the closest neighbor to what the Original Cast might have worn.

But, even a great historic pattern has limitations (and the lesser-quality ones can be a really stinker to work with; more on those later.) What can you expect to need to change when using a good historic pattern?

Those who have been in workshops with me can attest to this mantra: Always Make a Muslin Test. Always. Never Not Make a Muslin Test. Just Make One. You Need To. Yes, Even You. Make a Muslin. Always. Always Make a Muslin Test.

Because here’s the honest truth: you’re going to need to change things.

The human form has endless and marvelous variations. Not all women are slender in the same way; not all women are fat in the same way. Bodies are not symmetrical. People with the same circumferences will need radically different sizes. People with the same bra size will need radically different darts. No pattern-maker, no matter how amazing, can anticipate what your unique body is going to need.

So, you’re going to need to start with a good base, and then alter it to be YOUR best base, the one that meets all of your figure’s actual needs.

And the best way to do that without cussing or crying or panic attacks is to work out the changes in cheap ugly sheets from the thrift store, not your carefully-researched, saved-for, wonderful cotton, wool, or silk!

Make a muslin of your excellent historic pattern base (chosen for size by your bust or high bust measure for most patterns, or using the unique sizing instructions for Truly Victorian patterns), and expect to need to refine or alter things like:

Overall Length: a too-long bodice causes wrinkles and ripples and all manner of oddness. Sometimes taking off 1/2″ will be the perfect solution to every other fitting issue. Sometimes it’s just one piece of your unique figure puzzle. Sometimes, you need to add length to the pattern, and that’s fine, too!

Length In Specific Places: you may be shorter-than-charts or longer-than-charts from the shoulder to the bust point, or from bust to waist. You can alter your test muslin to suit. It’s allowed.

Circumferences & Widths: you will have different width needs than other people. You’re allowed, and can expect, to change a few things by altering the depth or position of seams, taking extra width out of the shoulder or front bodice, and other such changes. If you’re a very slender person, who falls below the minimum measurements for the pattern, expect that you’ll be folding out some overall width right down through the shoulder and bust of each piece, and taking deeper seams, too. It’s all fixable at the muslin stage!

Darts & Seams: anticipate changing the precise length, shape, depth, and position of darts, to mold the bodice to your actual body. And anticipate that you probably have a very distinct right and left fitting need, too; most people do, though some are symmetrical enough that they can cut a bodice “double”–that is, in a double-layer of fabric to get both fronts in the same shape, and one back on a fold. You may not be able to do that, and that’s okay, and normal.

Armscyes: you may need a different depth, width, shape, or position of armscye than the pattern lays out. This is normal, too. If you need to make significant changes, you may also have to mess with some test sleeves to correct the shape of the sleeve cape.

Necklines: depth, width, shape, and position–sensing a trend? We all wear our bones in different places. If your bodice is built to suit your bones and flesh, you’ll be comfortable and look comfortable, too.

Okay, so what if you got a stinker of a pattern?

I mentioned above that it’s easiest to start with well-drafted patterns from makers who are good at period geometry, and good at historic technique instruction. Not every pattern meets that threshold.

Even if you got a stinker of a pattern (and I’m sorry that happened… I’ll do an article soon on which meet my own threshold for use), you’re going to be making a muslin, so most of the weirdness can be fixed. It’s just going to take more work. It’s work done once, though–when you have your fitted base fine-tuned to look well on your historically-corseted body, you will use that as your permanent pattern. You can transfer it to sturdy paper, with notes and markings and dates, and make pretty much everything from it!

What if your pattern’s instructions are also stinkers?

That happens. It’s one of the reason quite a few people end up buying The Dressmaker’s Guide, actually–because they can use the techniques in conjunction with any published pattern, no matter the quality of the pattern’s notes. You can find some helps and hints in the articles in the Compendium as well.

Now, repeat after me:

Always, Always, Always Make a Muslin Test! You have official permission to make a good pattern better by fitting it to your actual, in-real-life body, and you should!

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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