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.