Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The "Ins" and "Outs" of "Ease"

One of the big difficulties in sewing for yourself is fitting commercial patterns.  It seems like each pattern you try is a shot in the dark with an unknown outcome.  Sometimes you make alterations to patterns and they come out fine, and sometimes the same size comes out way off.  You may wonder if the pattern companies are using any kind of standards at all when they size their patterns.  How can you have a predictable outcome when everything seems like its up for grabs?  Understanding "Ease" may help you get a better fit and reduce your frustration.

"Ease" is the difference between actual body measurements and the garment measurements.  Unless you are using a stretch fabric, you need some "ease" to be able to move in your clothing and to prevent straining at the seams and damage to the fabric.  There are two types of ease - "wearing ease" and "design ease"
The minimum difference between your body and garment is called "wearing ease".  Standard wearing ease is your body measurements plus 2-3" for bust and hips and 1-2" at the waist. Slightly more ease may be added to larger sizes or plus sizes.  If you have a full bustline or full seat you may want more wearing ease for comfort than a very slim or petite person needs.  Also, consider your fabric - some crisp fabrics hang better if they have a little looser.

A designer may add more than wearing ease to different parts of the garment to create a certain look. The difference between your body measurements and the design is called "design ease".  Gathers, tucks or pleats added to make a full skirt is a good example of design ease.  A 50's swing coat the fits nicely at the shoulders, then bells out to the hem with full sleeves also demonstrates designed ease.  Both of these examples fit closely where they need to and have added fullness where needed for the design.
Pattern envelopes use terms that tell how much ease the designer intends, as follows:
     Closely Fitted = no ease or only wearing ease
     Fitted = wearing ease + little or no design ease
     Semi-fitted = up to 4" of total ease
     Loosely Fitted = up to 8" of total ease
     Very Loosely Fitted = more than 8" of total ease

By checking the description of the garment on the pattern envelope, you can determine if this garment is suitable for your purposes before you cut.  Modern patterns also give actual garment dimensions on the pattern pieces.  Check these dimensions against your measurements to see if this is adequate ease for your body type and comfort.  If you are using a pattern that doesn't have finished size dimensions listed on the pattern, you can measure the pattern inside the seam allowances and compare this with your measurements.

It's easy to make adjustments to the side seams before you cut to allow for greater comfort and better fit.  If in doubt, make wider side seam allowances (1-2" instead of 5/8") to allow for adjustments.  

After you begin sewing, try on your garment and fine tune the fit by adjusting the side seams first.  If you have chosen a pattern that fits your neck and shoulders, then made any needed adjustments to the side seams before you cut, your garment should be close to a good fit when you come to the try-on stage.  Begin with a basic shape garment that suits your body type for your first project and learn how to fit, then go on to more difficult shapes.  Once you understand "ease", you are one step closer to a perfect fit!

"Fit For Real People"
Pati Palmer & Marta Alto, 1998
(see pgs. 46-55 on "Ease")

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Common Threads

     As I speak with others who sew, several topics come up all the time.  In the next few posts, I would like to comment on some of these topics.  I hope they may be helpful to you.
     The first problem sewers run into if they use commercial patterns is sizing.  Ready-to-Wear (RTW) sizes seem to be changing all the time, but most people can tell you about what size they usually wear.  If you don't know any better, you might go to the fabric store and buy the same size pattern as you think you usually wear.  You make the dress, try it on and scream in horror at the ill-fitting thing you have made, thinking you are a total failure.  Sometimes a few simple alterations can fix this, but often the remedy is far beyond the skills of a novice.  Now what?  You can toss the dress and never sew again, try another pattern thinking it's a bad pattern and come out with similar results, or you can look for help in a sewing resource book.  Sometimes part of the information is to be found in a book, but often you'll have to look at several books before you get your answers.  You can talk to a more experienced sewer, but often her fitting issues will be different from yours, so you'll only get a partial solution unless she's experienced in sewing for others.  You can try another pattern company - same problem.  Try another size - new problems.  On and on until you get frustrated and give up sewing for yourself.  There are a lucky few who can wear a straight size, but they are in the minority.  These miracles of nature happily go to the store, buy fabric and pattern and sew up a garment that turns out pretty good most of the time.  They wonder what's wrong with the rest of us - until after having a couple of children and somehow it's not so easy to sew anymore.  Am I right?  What is wrong with the patterns?  Less than you might think.
     The reason we have so much trouble with pattern sizing is that Ready-to-Wear clothing is on a completely different sizing scale than Commercial patterns.  Each RTW designer comes up with his/her own standards for size and proportion.  That's why one line of clothing fits you better than another.  These standards can be changed at will, any time the designer feels the need.  Ever wonder why you can wear a 6 in one brand, and wear a 10 in another?  The numbers are variable - they mean nothing outside that brand this season.  Each season's styles and amount of ease change, too.  One year the style is skin tight, so you have to get a bigger size to be comfortable and next year it will be loose, so you can wear a smaller size.  Then there's vanity sizing - a designer may change the numbers so that you think you are smaller than you are - "Oh look, I wear a size 4 now.  I'm going to keep buying this brand, because I like the smaller number and that makes me feel good."  This is not the case with pattern companies.
     Commercial pattern companies in the US (the Big Four - Simplicity, McCall's, Butterick, Vogue) comply with a standardized pattern chart that hasn't changed much since they resized in 1968.  When this was done, RTW was pretty close to the same sizes as commercial patterns - within an inch or so here and there.  This makes it easier for pattern customers to know what they are getting, so the alterations needed to fit each person are going to be pretty much the same, regardless of the company making the pattern.  There are slight variations in ease between companies, but they use the same chart.  If you compare  this standard size chart with RTW sizes, they are at least two size numbers different.  For instance, a size 10 from the Big Four is: Bust 32 1/2", Waist 25", Hip 34 1/2".  A size 10 from Land's End catalog is: Bust 37", Waist 30-31", Hip 40".  This compares with a size 16 pattern.  I use Land's End for example only - I have their catalog handy, but if you look at similar catalogs you will find a similar story.  That is a size shift of 3 sizes in the last 40 years.  Also notice that there is a shift of 4 1/2" in the bust, 5" at the waist, and a whopping 7 1/2" in the hips - so the proportions have changed, too.  People are larger and fatter, so RTW designers have adjusted, but patterns have not.
     Another reason you might have trouble choosing the right pattern size is that patterns are based on a 5'6"-5'7" young adult woman with a B-cup bustline.  Women in the military were measured and averages were established for sizes based on these young, fit women.  If you aren't average in height or bustline, or young, you will probably not fit Misses' patterns exactly.  Women's sizes are made for a more mature figure, with a larger bust and fuller torso than Misses' without adding to the shoulder width or height - the proportions are different, like a plus-size.
     So considering these things, what's a girl to do?  First, take a good look at yourself in a full-length mirror.  Get a friend to help you take good measurements and write them down.  You will need more measurements than you'll find on the pattern envelope. 
     1. Write down your vertical measurements - height, back waist length (shoulder at the nape to waist), waist to floor, inseam (crotch to floor) sleeve (shoulder joint to wrist). 
     2. Next do your circumference measurements - chest (above the bustline) full bust, waist (natural waist - around your navel), full hip, upper arm. 
     3. Last are the position measurements - bust point (shoulder to nipple with a bra on), bust point to bust point (distance between nipples), waist to fullest part of hip, shoulder width (at the shoulder), back width (across shoulder blades). 
     4. Compare your measurements with a pattern chart.  Most people will have at least a few numbers that are not on one size.  Mark where your numbers fall.  Choose your size for tops and dresses by your chest, not full bust number.  This will fit better in the shoulders and neck - which are very difficult to fix if you choose too large a size.  Also compare your shoulder width and back width, and your bust point with the pattern.  These won't be on the chart, so you'll have to look at an actual pattern, like a basic fitting pattern (I like Butterick 5746).  If your shoulders and back match the pattern as well as chest measurements, you have the right size.  You will have to add to the side seams to allow for differences between your measurements and the pattern, but this is OK.  Skirts and pants are easier - choose by the waist or hip and make changes on the sides.  Unless you are quite thin, you will have to make some alterations to a pattern to make it fit you.  Your pattern size will be different than your RTW size.

     I will talk about how to do alterations in other posts, but here are a few books that might help get you started:
"Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing" (1976 edition is better than newer ones)
"Fit for Real People" by Palmer & Alto
"Fit and Fabric" from Threads magazine
"Sewing for Plus Sizes" by Barbara Deckert

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Introductory Threads

     To begin this adventure in blogging, I will start with my introduction to the creative world of "Needles and Threads."  I say this in the plural form, because I am including many forms of needlework under this heading.  Within a very short time, I was introduced to sewing, knitting, crochet, and embroidery. 
     I do not know exactly my age, but my earliest memories are of learning to sew.  I don't know if they still make them, but someone gave me some sewing cards when I was about 3.  These were pieces of cardboard printed with simple pictures that had holes around the design.  It came with a large plastic needle and yarn to thread through the holes in the cards.  If you were inclined to be neat, you could outline the design with your yarn, or if you wanted to be spontaneous and original, you could go every which way with the yarn.  These sewing cards were fun for a while, but then I got bored.  If you said you were bored, someone put you to work, but sometimes they would teach you how to do a new thing!
     Next I remember my Grandma giving me a big needle and a long thread onto which I was told to thread buttons.  My sister and I made long rows of buttons of all different colors from Grandma's button tin.  She also showed us how to knot the ends of the thread and how to thread a real needle.  We were given scraps of fabric to sew buttons to, and shown how to go through the holes into the fabric.  The underside of the fabric was often full of knots, but that was OK because this was just for fun anyway.  I loved looking at all the different kinds of old buttons in the old tin Grandma kept them in.  At some point, we were set to work sorting the buttons and threading together those that matched. 
     Grandma also had a treadle sewing machine in a spare bedroom that we were allowed to play with - treadling away with no thread, but learning how the machine worked and trying to keep it going in a steady motion.  At some point, I was shown how to thread the machine and mess around with real thread on a scrap and sew pieces together, but we were still playing.
    When we got tired of buttons and scraps of fabric, Grandma got us started on embroidery.  The first thing I remember was going to the dime store to pick out a pillow case and thread colors to embroider.  That kept us busy for a while.  Next came out the yarn and crochet hooks.  We made long chains, until we could manage the next stitch and make a square.  I was probably about 5 when I learned embroidery and crochet. I also liked to iron.  People still ironed everything, so I was allowed to iron handerchiefs and pillow cases. This didn't seem like work to me, so I begged people to let me iron for them.
   I know I was shown how to knit by at least 3 different people over the next couple of years.  I recall making a very long, very irregular scarf, but needing help to bind off.  Each time I got the urge to knit, it was the same thing - another scarf, but the results were a little better than last time until it looked pretty good.
   Hand sewing doll clothes came next - first just cutting up scraps and sewing together with big stitches, but my mom showed me how to use a pattern to cut out the pieces when I was about 5 or 6, and the results were much improved after that.  Mom had an old black Singer machine with a knee lever, which she showed me how to use.  My first attempts at sewing were on that straight stitch machine.  We made clothes for all our dolls, even Barbie - which was tricky.  I was happier making the clothes than playing with the dolls.
   We played around with needlecrafts for the next few years, until at age 10 I told my mom "You have to show me how to make my own clothes!"  She found a simple top pattern and some fabric to get me started, then I was on my own.  I already knew how to pin and cut, follow the pattern layouts, and use the machine, so my first project required only a little help and came out wearable, if not perfect.  Once I got going, there was no stopping me!  Sewing was turning into my one obsession.
     By Junior High, I was sewing most of my own clothing as well as my 2 sisters'.  A family friend asked me to make her a dress.  The first try didn't fit well, but I remade the bodice with a few changes and the second try came out great.  We had Home Ec. classes in 7th & 8th grades - one semester of sewing each year and one semester of  cooking.  I was well past most students in sewing, and the pace was incredibly slow, but these classes added to my skills and improved the quality of my projects. 
    The summer after 9th grade was a pivotal time for me - my first tailoring classes.  The local High School offered sewing as a summer course.  The teacher allowed us to choose what we wanted to learn.  We filled out a sheet with our previous sewing experience and finished projects, and what we wanted to learn.  The teacher looked at mine and said, "Why are you taking this class?"  My response was "I want to learn tailoring!"  She was kind enough to let me do it, and I made my first blazer with hair canvas interfacing and hand-sewn padding stitches and complete lining.  I was in heaven!  In the fall, my music teacher gave me five dresses she had started and paid me to finish them for her.  After that, I never had a shortage of sewing clients.  I took 2 years of sewing classes in college, planning to be a Home Ec. teacher, but life took me in a different direction.  I did teach for a couple of years, but not as I had planned.  I continued to study all aspects of sewing as I continued to sew for clients of all kinds, filling in areas I hadn't yet mastered.  My children all learned to sew, but my older daughter was the one who caught the bug early and has stayed with it.  She now sells her creations on Etsy.com - Morningstar84 Designs. 
     I got back into knitting about 15 yrs ago and haven't stopped, but sewing is still my main obsession.  I'm thinking of taking up spinning and weaving, too.  It has been a great adventure and I have met wonderful people along the way.
     My goal with this blog is to share some of what I have learned with all who care to learn, and to help and encourage those new to the needlearts.  This may be the beginning of a book, too - who knows! 
    I'm hoping to begin regular installments of "Sewing How To's" on topics like "How to choose the right size pattern" - topics that come up all the time with sewers.  I hope you'll join me on this adventure!