Sunday, October 18, 2009

Drafting, Slopers and A Bit About Sewing

Warning: Very long post. And no funny parts, besides.

Here's something I've wanted to post about for a long time. The only reason I haven't yet is that I just didn't know how to approach it. It's this thing called pattern drafting - it's extremely technical compared to, say, sewing a rectangle into a gathered skirt. But it is also extremely useful if you want your sewn garments to actually fit you. As far as I understand it, there are two main ways to make a pattern to fit a person: draping fabric over a person's body and pinning and tucking and making adjustments (like what is done on Project Runway a lot) and drafting a paper pattern based on that person's dimensions and adapting it to make different garments. I have never tried draping - but drafting was something I did a lot of as a younger person.

Some preamble first. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of seamstresses. Or sewing people, whatever they're called. All the women sew. Some of the men, too. My dad, for instance, sews leather accessories for whichever sport he's into at the moment. He's made guitar straps, archery quivers, dart pouches... and I regularly raided his "notions" stash for grommets, eyelets, awls, buckles and whatever else I need for making my bags. Sadly, he and I presently live in different countries so I now have to buy my own hardware, darn it.

Grandma was a tailor. Her assignments included bridal gowns and uniforms for entire marching bands. It was completely normal to have bolt upon bolt of fabric in the house while she worked on mass-producing (see- it's genetic) garments. Auntie Laura is an accomplished quilter, and garment maker. She takes a person's measurements, drafts a basic block that fits like a glove, and then produces amazing clothes. Once when I was on a home visit and Emily was just over a year old, she produced about 10 different dresses for her in less than a week. All she needed was her nifty measuring tape to get Emily's measurements. Plain amazing. Of course she had someone else do the cooking in her house! Mum is herself a fabulous seamstress and we are alike in that we enjoy picking out the especially silly-challenging projects just for the fun of it. "Sew a dress- pah, let's reupholster the entire living room furniture and why not curtains while we're at it" is her motto. To date, my favorite See Mum Push Her Limits project is this huge tablecloth made entirely out of free-motion cutwork (i.e. it's full of holes) embroidery. And she did it simply because grandma said it couldn't be done. When I am next in Singapore I'll get photos. It looks like a huge piece of white lace and is gorgeous but completely insane.

When it came to sewing garments, we'd always draft patterns from a person's measurements. I don't think I'd ever seen a commercial pattern until I came to the US. I honestly didn't know that there was any other way to sew but by drafting a sloper (more on that later) and designing a garment from that. So we'd get our measurements taken, then unroll a huge roll of brown kraft paper, gather our colored pencils, yardsticks and curved rulers and sketch away. Mum had a simple rule for getting started with the right er... foundation - always wear a great bra, and always wear that bra when you take measurements, and wear that same bra when you wear that final completed dress. It made a world of difference.

There was always animated discussion accompanying the making of a pattern - Mum would look over my shoulder and gasp, "Too straight! Armhole needs to be more curved in the front and less in the back. Or it will pull when you wear it." Or we'd argue over why the waistline had to be more roomy (I was foolishly vain) and why we couldn't put princess lines in every garment or why those pesky waist darts had to be curved. And mum would take her pencil and smooth over my bizarre geometric corners and make me redo (oh the injustice!) some of it. When a garment was completed, the highest compliment from any of these sewing goddesses was, "Good fit." "Nice dress" was often a mere afterthought and "I love the fabric!" was hardly ever mentioned. Maybe because we had weird fabric in Singapore, I dunno. If the garment pulled or sagged or looked like it was clearly made for a different body, they would blame the basic block and say, "Throw it away and draft a new one - this one is useless." Such precious lessons. My memory of the process is so faded now, more than 10 years later that I almost have to start from the beginning and relearn drafting the way I did in Homec as a girl.

But that's the sort of sewing environment I grew up in. I thought I'd write a bit about it because some readers have emailed to ask how to learn to sew, and where I myself learnt it. I know the exposure I had is unusual and a gift so that's not very helpful for you all, sorry.

I am also learning how things are done here in the US with commercial patterns - so let's see if I am getting this right - graded patterns come in different sizes on the same sheet, and you trace out the size that's closest to yours and fold up the original carefully and put it away. Then you work with the traced pattern by changing different parts of it to fit your dimensions. That's a good starting point and a neat short cut, but you'd also need to buy different patterns for different kinds of garments. And sift through all the different sizes to find the ones closest to yours. And then alter them.

When mum and I drafted a pattern for a dress, we first drew what we called a basic block, which in the US is called a sloper. It is a snugly (but not tightly)-fitting paper pattern based on a person's unique dimensions. This is not the same as a regular garment pattern. A garment pattern is adapted from the block/sloper to form a particular garment, like a puff-sleeved dress. A pattern can be made to fit different people. A sloper fits only the person it was made for.

We worked with three main kinds of blocks/slopers:
(i) a skirt sloper (like a slim pencil skirt)
(ii) an upper body sloper (like a comfortable leotard which was either sleeveless or with wrist-length fitted sleeves)
(iii) a combination of (i) and (ii) to form a full-body sloper for, say, a gown.

We also did some shorts and trousers but not enough that I remember much of it.

The final fit (after minor adjustments and a mock-up aka muslin) is always awesome - nothing sags, nothing pulls, the shoulders sit squarely, the zipper lies flat and the seams skim the body without bulging. Then we trace this sloper out, keep the original as a template, and adapt the sloper to different garments - flare out a straight skirt to make an Aline one, add sleeves, lower the neckline etc.

I dug out all my old patterns for things I made from as long ago as my teenage days. All these started out as slopers. The White Turtleneck Dress one made me laugh today when I saw it - a turtleneck in sweltering Singapore is... well.... dumb.

My most recent block/sloper is more than 15 years old! Mum drafted this slightly more recent one for me in 2001, which of course is invalid now that I've had 3 children and far too many jars of nutella.

See that curved vertical waist-dart? It fitted like a glove. Mum is a genius.

I am waiting for my post-baby body to settle into something consistent (hahahahahahaha!) before attempting to make a new one. My body has changed so much and so frequently with three children that I don't recognize it anymore, frankly. Two winters ago and in my second trimester with Kate, I needed a dress to wear to a wedding. A winter maternity formal dress! That didn't cost an arm and a leg! So I drafted a pattern and it was hilarious! I remember staring at the shape of the sloper in frustration, wondering why there was no waist. Forgot I had a huge belly! I blame it on a bad case of pregnancy stupids, but I think it was also because I was so rusty at drafting, and missing mum being at my elbow correcting my mistakes. The dress was eventually made and worn all through the pregnancy - it was stretch velvet so it accommodated my changing shape without a zipper - this was me two days before Kate was born.

Back when I was growing up, sewing clothes was synonymous with drafting. In homec textbooks, the chapter on "sewing a skirt" began with drafting a skirt block. Ugh. Those of us (and there were very few, me included) who did not fall into a coma halfway through the course ended up with skirts that fit them perfectly. I got good marks (i.e. a decent grade) for workmanship but failed the fit test - my skirt slipped right over my hips and to my ankles - yes, with the zipper closed.

Reading all the wonderful sewing blogs out there is like a breath of fresh air in many ways because people can now make clothes without rules. A skirt is a kitchen towel with elastic on one edge. A dress is a pillowcase with ribbons. Pants have no zippers. It is liberating and it has given people hope to dress their children in handmade. It has made people buy sewing machines, who had previously thought them the tool of the devil. I love it! I love this movement for what it has encouraged so many people, particularly new mothers and grandmothers, to try (and fall in love with).

And yet I can't help thinking that it's an incomplete picture if it ended there. So many people are motivated to start to sew because, secretly, they want to make clothes. Hardly any one I know claims she bought a sewing machine to get real good at making bean bags. In an ideal sewing world, enthusiastic beginners would start with quick, instant-gratification projects that resulted in beautiful clothes with a lot of ties and elastic and no paper pattern. Very effective, especially for busy folks with small children or full-time jobs, or both.

Then when they sensed a call to something more challenging (or if they spent too much time browsing Hanna Andersson catalogs like I do), they would buy a commercial pattern and try something more "tailored". And tweak it. And tweak it more. And try a different brand. And tweak it some more. And maybe decide, "hey, it doesn't fall off my body when I wear it" and be well with the world. And learn a whole lot about sewing and pattern-making and themselves -like a superhigh level of patience that not even parenting could give them - in the process.

And then, one day, something strange happens - they get their first garment-idea. It is a horrible moment because an entire outfit appears in their minds with no happy connection to Simplicity 8072 or Ottobre 6-2007-4. It can strike a person anytime and anywhere - they see a dress on someone at a wedding and think, "cross those straps in the back and it's my dream LBD (Little Black Dress). But where to get the pattern? Argh!" Or they can be fingering a fabric in a store and they see, in their mind's eye, a cute little girl's pinafore. Or they have this bizarre pre-Halloween conversation with their children:

"Mom, can you make me a Heidi dress - you know, all alpine and lovely?"
"Er, why don't you go as Little Witch, dear? Or Snow White?"
"We've just finished "Heidi Grows Up" in reading group so please can I go as Heidi?"
"Well, if JoAnn doesn't carry a er.. Swiss Miss costume pattern, there's always ebay I guess."

Or they are pregnant and have a dinner to attend in the dead of winter.

On those days, I am thankful for slopers.

So my goal in 2010 is to do some serious drafting again. First, a trip to Singapore to hang out with Mum and Auntie Laura so that their very company will jog my memory of old lessons and old skills. Then some good reference reading (including looking at some better commercial patterns) and practice, practice, practice. And a formal class in drafting would be nice, too, if I could find one. If the opportunity presents itself to you, especially if you've been frustrated with commercial patterns or have an untraditional body shape, sign up!

And maybe I might teach other people to draft again. When they are interested, I mean. Years ago, my poor friend Sam came over to the house to learn to sew a skirt and I made her draft her own skirt block. So cruel. Should've just had her sew a wrap skirt. Maybe she wouldn't have left with her eyes glazing over.

I've sewn for many years, yes, but I don't consider myself an expert sewer by any stretch of the imagination. I've never sewed a fitted blazer. I don't know (yet) how to use a commercial pattern. I can't even name most of the parts of my sewing machine, which, incidentally has only straight and zigzag stiches. I have, however, sewn a lot of ridiculous things. And been mentored by masters. I know that many of you reading this have just begun to sew and wondering what you dare to try and make. Should you stick to beanbags? Dare you try a library tote?

If you've stayed with me this far, maybe you'll let me suggest something: assuming you know how to use your sewing machine already, pick something you really want to make, even if it doesn't seem a logical beginner's project. Something that interests you will keep you at it long enough to finish it. If it's a tote bag when you've just mastered sewing a straight line, go for it. If it's a table tent because you want to make it for your kids, go for it. If it's a dress, go for it. Find a pattern in a store and, if possible, ask someone to teach you. Or take an existing dress you love, lay it on paper and trace out a pattern. Take a class. Go to your favorite clothing store and stare at your dream skirt, turn it inside out and study the sequence of the seam construction. Don't let it be all about the designer fabric you've just spent all your grocery allowance on - start with some cloth you won't mind experimenting with. It is not about the print - it is about the fit.

If this has whetted your interest at all, here and here are some articles that explain everything better than I've just attempted to. And Vegbee at Blueprints explains how to make your own slopers from a commercial pattern if you aren't keen on drafting from scratch. Also I've read that there are sites where you can buy a personal sloper! Like you email somebody/ somecomputer your dimensions and some fancy algorithm produces a best-fit sloper. Fascinating. If anyone has tried these, I'd love to hear about it.

Well, goodnight all! This week I must, must start on the girls' halloween costumes. The eldest wants to be a fairy (of course). The middle wants to be a blue princess (of course). They both want the youngest to be a chicken. Given my appalling lack-of-progress in the poultry department, I think not.


  1. I would love to learn how to do this! I'm afraid I don't have the patience, though :P

  2. Hip, hip hooray!!! (OK - I guess in retrospect, the hip part was funny, although I didn't intend for it to be!)...

    I have been waiting for the day that you would part with these amazing secrets. Seriously - thanks SO much Lier! I'm sure that I'll have to read it no less than 42 times before any of it sinks in, but I am so thankful that you took the time to write this.


  3. Thank you very much for taking the time to share with us your "beginning to sew" I too had a mother that was a Master at the Machine...and I never was that interested in it until I had my daughter. I love the handmade pride....Hoping to step into some more complex patterns soon!

  4. Hi L, any good books to recommend on drafting ?

  5. Wonderful post!!! I have been sewing for years, but have just now started learning about slopers. I would appreciate any info you have to offer on the process. Commercial patterns are fantastic for sewing for my girls, but sewing for me is super tricky, because I don't match any particular size very well. I wish I had learned to sew by drafting my own patterns. You have a very precious heritage and your mother gave you a wonderful gift in teaching you these valuable skills.

  6. When you go for drafting lessons with your mum and aunty Laura, PLEASE bring me along!!

    A fairy, a princess and Kate gets to be a chicken? LOL. Wonder what she would think when she is old enough to understand and looks back at the photos. Haha.

  7. What a timely post (for me to read, that is)! I've just spent the whole weekend working on refining the pattern and writing the sewing instructions for that black knit dress I posted about recently (all done and re-named Marilyn's LBD - how karmic, no?).

    It seems the sewing revival is more pronounced in the Western hemisphere than here. People still go to tailors and dressmakers when they want that special occasion outfit (as they did in our parents' time) but so very few are sewing at home. I honestly don't know why... clothes here aren't that cheap (not the nice ones) and factory-sewn toys are ridiculously overpriced. Bah.

    I remember you used to complain that your mum made you hand-tack (baste) everything before allowing you to run it through the machine :) I also remember how incredibly neat and precise your garments always were!

    You are right, L. Make the thing that you really want to make, regardless one's 'skill' level. Best way to learn because you are driven to get it done and figure it out one way or another. That's how I did it, and probably you too. Recently, I've discovered the pleasure in hand-sewing. I used to avoid it at all cost unless I had no other choice but now I look for spots to sew by hand and I look forward to it. Mad. But the control one has! And so strangely relaxing because it is such a QUIET activity.

    A long post warrants a long comment but I shall stop now. So nice that you get to sew stuff that YOU WANT most of the time :)

  8. Hallo all! So fun to read your comments on this. Drafting is something close to my heart and not something easy to find to read about by googling. Theresa: I don't know/own any good books on drafting other than our homec book (ha ha!) but there is one on pattern-making I've read is supposed to be good:

    To draft from scratch, the way we used to using just blank paper and our rulers and pencils, I'd say try our homec book, or ask other people who know how to do it.

    Van: sure, come! But come with fear and trembling, as I do whenever I present my "work" to Auntie Laura. She is amazing and precise and scary-excellent. But she is the best.

    Jody: Am so thrilled that you are learning about slopers, too! They are so useful for normal human bodies that don't fit into a perfect size-6, or 8, or 14 or whatever. Back home in Singapore where lots of people are silly-skinny, it's hard to find store-clothes for anyone larger than an (Asian) size L, not to mention the rest of us with sloping shoulders, rounded backs, uneven bustlines, pregnant tummies, shorter legs and womanly hips. Maybe that's why, as Jen said in her comment, people still get tailor work done.

    Jen: basting! Ick. But how young and foolish I was then. Now I see the wisdom. I cringe sometimes when I see online tutorials for garment-making that have lots of pins in them. Not because they are that less effective but more because I remember myself as a teenager trying to bargain with mum to be allowed to use pins. He he he!

    Yes, basting is the way to go. Mum used to make me baste paper patterns onto the fabric before cutting, too. Now THAT I don't do nowadays.

    And hand-sewing: I can't wait to start smocking (no, not shirring) again. Don't laugh. I must buy the pleating machine first. Oh the things we disdained as teenagers that we now see the worth in! Three cheers for mothers (and old friends like you that still practise the old arts)!

  9. I've been following you for what seems like ages (at least since the beginning of the year), but I haven't said anything yet. This post made me sneak out from my corner where I eavesdrop on your projects and say thank you.

  10. Marvellous post! I've been teaching myself to draft patterns for my daughter using Winifred Aldrich's work, and blogging the results. Children's clothes are a good place to start I reckon - much easier to fit and you use up less fabric on the mistakes. It's a long road and I'm only just starting on it, but it's great fun! Once the children are both at school, I'll be doing a course so I can actually make clothes for myself again!

  11. I had a tiny introduction to drafting the summer I turned 18, but that was so long ago now and I haven't had a chance to use it in years, first because of insane academic schedules and now because of the hecticness of life with three littles.

    There is a halfway point between drafting and Project Runway's drape style. I use commercial patterns or existing clothes, and then add darts and take it in as necessary after sewing up the basic outfit. Not a perfectionist's approach at all, but works quite well. If it's a really important garment (like, say, a wedding dress), I make it out of muslin first and make all the adjustments on that so I can cut out the end product perfectly. Although, I should say I USED to make since the last "fancy" thing I made was my own wedding dress way back in 2000. Sigh...

    Someday I will REALLY sew again. In the meantime I settle for my so-very-far-from-perfect toddler creations. When I manage to turn the machine on...

  12. I would love to know how to do this. I only make clothes for my kids because they're as straight as sticks and they look good in anything, regardless of fit. But I always see patterns I want to make for myself, and then I get them home and remember, oh yeah, I could make this, but it would never fit! Argh. You've given me hope.

  13. Wow, what an awesome article. Love the description of slopers (no, I've never heard of them), and the bit of philosophy thrown in there, too...


  14. I found your site only recently, and I've found this post extremely intriguing! I'm very much a beginner, just sewing a few things for children and an occasional bag or tote. I've tried a few things for myself, skirts mostly. I have a very hard time finding a ready made dress to fit my body, and think it would be wonderful to learn to make one that would fit. Drafting my own pattern is one of those things I thought impossible, and although I still see it as very challenging, you make it sound almost doable. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  15. What a beautiful heritage. I have been sewing since I was ten years old or so. My first projects were American home ec projects, and a skirt with buttons down the front.
    These days, I make things for my girls. I rarely make things for me, and the ones I've made I've hated. I'll have to give this sloper thing some thought.

    But, my first off-pattern project was a dress for my daughter. She had a wrap dress that she loved, but wore it out quickly. I did use the dress for a pattern, but that's no easy task!

    Well, I got stuck working some lace into the edge, and gave up. It resurfaced a couple of years later and (since I'd been getting experience with other projects in the meantime) it made perfect sense. I finished it and my second daughter has worn it. My third daughter is in line. The dress isn't perfect, it's supposed to end up a v-neck and it's deeper than appropriate, but it works with a shirt underneath.

    What gets me most is that when I make up a project, I never, ever have a pattern to do it again! I guess that's where a sloper would come in handy.

  16. Hmmm... was sure I had commented here but maybe it got lost in cyberspace.

    Anyways: This is such an interesting post - and such a nice length! I had to read it in two parts (had to go to work. bah!) I would love to learn how to create my own sloper and patterns. Let me know when you'll be offering a course! What I would mostly like to do a pattern for is pants - finding ones that fit (the non-drawstring, non-elastic ones that is) is so hard.

    I'm doing a little pattern creation too right now, but for a Cabbage Patch doll. That has it's own challenges though (like those super thick ankles!) but no need to make the finished garments comfortable so that's a help!

  17. This post really hit a nerve with me. I've never done any drafting before not even in home ec. Yet you described so perfectly how things have grown for me. I started with an item I thought I might be able to do. Then upgraded to making an actual pattern of clothes and loved it, but now i see fabric or a picture and get ideas but have no way to make them. I would love to learn how to draft, what an amazing skill to make all sorts of doors to creativity be open. I'm going to have to research this more for sure! Thank you for writing about it.

  18. Fantastic post - I've been yearning for a perfect-fit draft/pattern/sloper?!? and now I'm just going to have to make one...

    Thought I'd link to this site, Weekend Designer:
    which breaks down designs and shows you how to draft a pattern for them. Very interesting too.

  19. What a great experience you had growing up! I learned to sew on commercial patterns and never even heard of slopers or blocks until a few years ago. Now I basically make patterns for my daughter and a few for me. A few weeks ago I whipped out a renaissance style shirt for my son in an hour and a half - pattern to finished product. It's not as hard as it first appears. :)

  20. A truely fabulous post! I thoroughly enjoy your thoughts on the matter and realise that after 2 or 3 years of sewing, I am still stuck on the library tote end of the spectrum. I have sewed clothes in the past, but the fitting part is what I struggle with. Thank you for givng me some food for thought!

  21. I loved reading this! Thank you for being so honest and humble. This is very inspiring!!

  22. a ribbon of a different colorFebruary 8, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    I just found this website and am really excited to learn about drafting patters. I have a 1yr old graddaughter to sew for. Thanks for posting.

  23. The most common sense tutorial relating to slopers, ever.

    I love you!!! But not in a hidding in the back seat of your car sniffy hair kind of way x

  24. hi
    I am interested in the velvet Dress
    I pay what they want.
    I offer 150 to 200 euros
    or what they want.
    please write to me


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