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

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