Friday, March 22, 2013

Ugly Pattern Party!

This past fortnight, the girls at Simple Simon and Co, who are the same masterminds behind Project Runandplay, have been hosting the You Can't Judge An Ugly Vintage Pattern By Its Cover party on their blog. If you haven't been there to party with them, you have to go catch up with what's been happening. It's hilarious! And inspiring. Let me explain. See, in the spirit of indomitable optimism, they believe that even the most hideous sewing pattern has redeeming features worth adapting into something gloriously redemptive. A sewing pattern makeover, in other words. And who doesn't love a makeover? Especially when the Befores look like this

and this:

Words fail you, right? Yeah, same here.

So, some time ago, Liz and Elizabeth picked some of their most unfortunate vintage patterns and mailed them to fellow bloggy seamstresses with the invitation to give them a new face. Then, all fortnight long, Liz, Elizabeth and their guests at Simple Simon and Co. shared their makeovers! So much fun.

Now it's my turn! The girls invited me to join the party and were soooo nice to overlook the fact that I actually know squat about commercial patterns, vintage or otherwise. My pattern arrived while I was in Singapore and when I got back home, I opened the mailer and -whoa! Demure Maiden Pastel Curtain Frock.

Stunned. Showed it to Emily, who stared at it for a long time before hesitantly and carefully saying, "I like the cloth. But I wouldn't wear the dress, Mom."

Here's the odd thing: the dress is really not vile. Yes, it's old-fashioned and pastel and stiff cotton and feminine in ways that none of the females in my house will ever be. But it isn't avert-your-eyes unfortunate like that tulip-bikini pattern in the previous picture was. It's not even ridiculous; some people might actually call it "sweet". And I'm quite sure I remember actual folks wearing similar frocks in church recently. Like just-last-month kind of recently.  It's just... not my style. And therein lay the problem: It wasn't bad to the point where I could revile it and totally dismiss it as hopeless but at the same time, I couldn't bring myself to use it because I was personally allergic to ruffles, gathers, calico and pink.

Well, man up, you wimp, I finally told myself. You've never used a commercial pattern in your life. Now's the time to at least touch one. 

So I did. 
So this is what commercial patterns look like! 
They have instructions with pictures! 
And the pattern pieces are all cut out! 

Um... they look big, though. 

Let's go get our slopers (or measure our children) and compare them. I picked Kate's.

Here goes.

SCREAM! Did I miss the fine print saying, "Life vest not included?" Because it sure looks like this dress will have to be worn over one!!!!!! 

Oh, wait a minute. 
Seam allowances. 
That's right. LiEr, you moron! Commercial patterns 
have seam allowances added in, like invisible borders!

Okay, let's try that again, with seam allowances this time. 

Am I not using this pattern correctly? 
Because that's still way too much ease.
Might still need that life vest.

Oh well, moving on- 
sleeves now.

Now, let's examine all the facts. This sleeve is a puff. Actually, the technical term is "leg-of-mutton", but let's go with "puff". What do we know about puff sleeves?
Answer: They have high and wide sleeve caps. Check.
But that sleeve pattern looks suspiciously uniform.
Let's fold it in half. 

It's completely symmetrical. The front and back are the same. That breaks drafting rules! You all know that the front of the sleeve block (see blue arrow and dashed line) has to be deeper/more slopey) than the back (black arrow), right? Because of the movement of the arm and the ball of the shoulder joint? See sleeve block drafting post here

Although... this is a puff sleeve. And a very voluminous puff sleeve, by the look of it. So maybe, just maybe, under all that extra ease, it doesn't matter whether the front and back are the same, or if they're shaped like squids or whatever. So Ding! Today's Benefit Of The Doubt goes to McCalls!

Wait... wait... what's this?

Perhaps the instructions will give us a clue.


It can't be true.
Shoulder pads. 
For toddlers.


See here - I can work with gathers. And mountainous sleeves. And even bodices to get lost in. But I might have to draw the line at shoulder pads for children. It's just cruel. This pattern is officially Not Viable.

So! Words, having now failed me on the subject, are hereafter devoted to a tutorial on how to draft your own shoulderpadless pattern for the makeover. 

Let's not make that dress, though.
Let's make this dress.

See the similarities?

Both have drop waists!
Both have full skirts!
Both have princess seam styling!
Both have puff sleeves (okay, one doesn't really)!
Both have smiling models!

Let's get started.

Here are the sloper bits - front bodice block, back bodice block, sleeve block and random bit of newspaper that was cut into a circular skirt block.

So, Step One is to find a picture to copy, because we are too lazy to draw one ourselves. Look - Barbie wore a dress like that! Let's do a Barbie-vintage makeover!

Step Two is to trace the bodice slopers on our drafting paper. Notice how I'm indecisive about the waist height on the front bodice? 

That's because this sloper was drafted last October and there was this epic battle going on between the various aspects of my split personality:

Mother: She hasn't grown a nanometre since then. Leave the waistline as is.

Physics Teacher: Pfffft. I can smell denial a mile away. Look, Queen of Mush, the rules of life dictate that she's elongated at least an inch and therefore one should lower the waistline to reflect that. In fact, let's extrapolate her impending growth over the next two years and lower it even further to get more mileage on the dress.

Granddaughter of Professional Tailor: Oh, bosh. Where's the child? Measure her and be done with it. Oh, we can't. She's in school right now. We'll have to use rules-of-thumb.

Crisis Counselor: Friends! All your viewpoints are equally valid. What about a  happy consensus? Let's start with a lower waistline and cut it higher later if it's too low when we measure her after she gets home from school. How do you feel about that? 

Pre-motherhood LiEr: Shut up, all of you. My head hurts. It's too early in the morning for this.

Step 3 is to make adjustments so the sloper looks like the dress we want.
Let's work with the front bodice first (all adjustments in blue).
  1. Draw in the princess seam dividing the front bodice into two sections.
  2. Cut in the armscye so that the shoulder "strap" thing lies closer to the neck. Two reasons: one, because it looks nice in this fake-corset design and two, so that the strap stays on the shoulder more securely. Often, wide-open necklines, particularly if imprecisely drafted, may gape and shoulder straps may slide off shoulders. Scratch out the old armscye. Remember this change, because we will later have to adapt the sleeve block (next post) to accommodate it.
  3. Drop the waist at the center front and curve it along the waistline back up towards the side seam.

Whatever you do to the front shoulder has to be done to the back shoulder so the shoulder seams will meet and match. So measure the width and placement of this new shoulder strap on the front bodice (see ruler) and reproduce it on the back bodice (see pencil).

Now draw the new back bodice. Later, we will extend that vertical shoulder line downwards into a princess seam and cut the back bodice apart into two sections, just like the front bodice. I have left it as a single square-necklined piece for now because there are already too many intermediate sketching lines - again the result of my experimenting with different neckline heights and widths to see what they look like. Sorry about the mess - thought you might enjoy seeing the imperfect, undoctored version so you could see how my brain works (or doesn't) as I am drafting. If you want to keep the back darts, you should incorporate them into the back princess seam now. I didn't- I forgot. 

Notice that I didn't include any ease in the new patterns. A dress like this doesn't need it. Plus, remember: we're working with puff sleeves, right? 
Puff sleeves+well-fitted dress = stylish, whereas 
puff sleeves+loose dress = just loose.

So cut out the patterns, lay out on fabric, etc. etc., and sew up the bodice. Lots of fancy details and lining and layering and whatnot went into the construction up to this stage but that's beside the point. The point is that it all comes from that one draft - princess seams with cut-in shoulders. 

Let's do the skirt now. I thought I'd show you how to do the drop waist. I've realized, after writing this blog for a while, that some things I take for granted as being obvious are not really so for other people. So I'm trying to slow down a bit and explain some basic concepts - things that, as a beginning seamstress or drafter, a person might not even think to ask about because they might not realize it needs asking. I think this drop-waist thing might be one of them.

I'm starting with a semi-circular skirt block. I decided that a full circular skirt was too heavy for this dress and tossed out that random bit of newspaper from the earlier photo. We want it to be swirly and swishy but not ballgown-fussy. The original vintage pattern has a gathered skirt, which is full and bulky at the waist (good for those of us who are superslender and would like to add fullness to the hips) but it does not swish.
A circular skirt is wonderfully swishy and drapes beautifully but it also adds a lot of bulk to the hips. It's good for dancewear and (again) tall and  slender figures.
A semi-circular skirt is swishy and drapey and just skims the hips but does not bulk up the hips or waist as much. If you have a fuller lower body or are vertically ungifted, you might want to pick a semi-circular skirt over a circular one. Better still, pick a bias-cut Aline. Whoa! How easily I digress.  

So, semi-circular block. This new newspaper thing is the front half of the skirt (so it's a quadrant, which is half of a semi-circle). The top concave edge of the skirt matches the bottom hem of the bodice.

If the bodice had a straight lower hem (i.e. if it wasn't a drop-waisted thing), we'd just attach the skirt to the bodice as is and call it a day.

Our bodice, however, has a dropped waist. If we attached the skirt's waistline to that dropped waist, the front hem of the skirt would sag correspondingly. Wrong and, more importantly, hideous. 

So here's how we adjust the skirt pattern to accommodate that dropped waist.
First, measure how much below the side seams that dropped waist has uh... dropped.
You can measure the paper pattern directly, but this way is visually more interesting - put a ruler across the bodice and measure.

1.25", says the ruler.

Q: Why are all the edges so irregular? Did you use unmatching seam allowances for all the various sections of the bodice? 
A: Yes and no. I was working with satin (woven), jersey (knit) as well as layers of both. Satin has an unstable weave and frays like there's no tomorrow. This means that it shifts as we work with it and the shape changes. One way to avoid this is to hand-baste all layers to stabilize it (I did). Another way is to stabilize it with interfacing (I didn't, because makes it stiff). Another way is to cut the lining layers a little bigger i.e. with wider SA and trim after sewing. The light pink fabric is jersey, which also shifts and, worse, stretches. I simply cut that piece much longer than the darker pink satin in front to allow for all the fabric shape-shifting. It all gets trimmed neatly later. 

Q: So, with all those funky SAs, how do you know which is the real stitching line?
A: It's in my head. And, after all the layers and colors were patchworked together, I re-measured the bodice and re-marked the final stitching line again.

Now fold the skirt pattern in half so you get the center front fold line.

Measure that same amount - 1.25" from the top of the waistline of the skirt.

Draw a curve from that point to the side seam of the skirt.

Cut off that arc,

and open up the skirt pattern. This skirt pattern can now be attached to the dropped waist of the bodice

and the hem of the skirt will be perfectly straight.

Here is the dress on Kate, standing on the coffee table, to show you what the bottom hem looks like on the actual wearer. Note that this hem is literally the raw hem - I didn't trim it or doctor it in any way. It is perfectly even because it has been drafted to hang from a dropped waist.

Here is the completed dress - front

and back. The bottom hem of the skirt was faced with leftover satin not only because it was fun but also because velour (the skirt fabric) doesn't hem well by folding and gets all wonky with serging. A faced hem (see this post for instructions) is crisp and neat. 

I didn't add the buttons afterall!

The sleeves- I like them. They're pleated 

and drapey

and lined.

They look puffed but they're not! Ha ha ha ha! Take that, traditional puff sleeves. 

Some notes on the effect of those cut-in shoulders from Step 3 now. Remember I mentioned not wanting the neckline to gape or the straps to slide off the shoulders? Done this way (i.e. with cut-in shoulders), the back neckline and armscye are snug without being uncomfortable. And if you look at the photo below, you can see what a cut-in sleeve looks like - Kate's actual shoulder point (blue arrow) doesn't lie at the shoulder seam of sleeve and bodice. 

Here's the semi-circular skirt in motion- swirly!

Next is a photo to show you the fit of the back. I forgot the back darts, as I confessed earlier, but by the time I remembered, it was too late to alter the princess seams to include them. So I took in the sides, which is a highly inferior alternative but Kate is going to grow and fill out the dress in all kinds of ways, regardless, so I let it go. Anyway, notice the back neckline does not gape- the cut in shoulders (and the lack of superfluous ease) help with that.


No gaping.

Since we're nitpicking for the sake of sharing sewing and drafting tips, I'm going to say that I'm pleased with only one of the shoulder straps. The other one pops a bit and doesn't sit as neatly on Kate's shoulder. This was the result of manhandling the bodice in its half-finished stages for tutorial photoshoots. Satin is not the most resilient fabric and normally, I'd baste and sew and face each satin edge as soon as possible and handle it only minimally. This time, though, for the sake of the tutorial, I dragged it through mud and hell. I can tell that it is the mud and hell and not a poor draft that are to blame because it's only one shoulder strap that went astray. Poor shoulder strap. I feel so guilty. Moral of the story: do not drag your unfinished garments through mud and hell just to take photos for tutorials. Go right ahead with your bags and stuffed toys and zippered clutches and key fobs and crayon rolls but be gentle with your garments, okay? Don't be like me.

So that's my makeover! No shoulder pads! I did my best to keep as many of the original features  as possible -the dropped waist, the princess seams, the full skirt (although I swopped out the rigid gathered skirt for the swishy semi-circular one to earn Good Mother points with Kate) and the puffish sleeves. 

In the next post, I'll show you how to draft that cut-in, horizontally pleated, not-really-puff sleeve. Too long to include in this post. See you soon!


  1. You are amazing! So funny and I've learned so much! Love the skirt...and the whole thing really...I'm definitely bookmarking this for later when one of my girls wants to be a princess or someing for Halloween. Your detail and skill is so admirable! :)

  2. I came to look at your post for the Ugly Pattern Contest. I couldn't believe the difference of what you ladies who make your own patterns have, compared to the patterns from the package!!! OH MY! That was funny and very interesting to learn how your arm does not line up--but it all makes sense! And I don't even sew clothes (children's blankets, etc.)and it was neat to see the differences. Your tutorial gave me my first real close up of these homemade patterns. Great dress for your daughter!! PS. I have to note that years ago I quit the "man up". Why? Because we all know men are wimps (do they give birth? and look how they are when they get sick!) so I say "Woman up!" Makes perfect sense to me!

  3. So lovely! I learn so much from these break-downs. (And I'm glad you didn't go with the buttons.)

  4. Why didn't we have you write the intro to the series...yours is much better!!!

    And your pattern-drafting skills are pure awesome. I have been working on drafting new slopers for my ever-growing girl and am puzzling away at the sleeve. I wish you were my neighbor!

  5. i'm pretty sure that first one is the one that my mom used to make my "sailor outfit" in elementary school... complete with blue pinstripe fabric with little red anchors... i was devastated*** when i grew out of it
    (*** read "completely relieved as I'd been harassed non-stop since the first day i was guilted into wearing it)

  6. Wow! What a great make-over! I love the dress you made!! Lucky you, you can draft your own patterns, and lucky Kate for her new dress :) Happy sewing!

  7. I love your makeover and all your fine details! (Not to mention your humorous writing. ;) ) So much 'fitting' food for thought.

    One observation, though... I've never seen a commercial pattern that came already cut out. I suspect someone owning the pattern before you did you that favor. :) Normally there are numerous pieces printed on each sheet of paper, left to the buyer to do the cutting. Darn! ;)

    1. Oh - so they're not already cut out. Boo. Hiss. More proof that I'm a commercial pattern ignoramus. I guess the Elizabeths did it for me, then. In which case, thank you, Elizabeths!

    2. Or they may have acquired the pattern used. Actually, it didn't look used. Maybe someone had great intentions of using it and cut the pieces apart and that's all the farther they got. ;)

      If you're an ignoramus, that's the ONLY kind you are!! And I am definitely a drafting ignoramus then! ;)

  8. Best makeover/ dress ever. I want one in my size. And thank you for explaining the drop waist skirt. :)

  9. Absolutely amazing.

    And I must confess, not only do I read your blog for the sage sewing advice and projects, but I thoroughly enjoy the humor of your writing (ex. NO. Shoulder Pads. For Toddlers.) :P

    Fabulous makeover. :)

  10. love the dress and your little princess must be so thrilled. As for the ugly pattern...I'm pretty sure I had a dress like that when I was little. I'm in my thirties now, so I guess that's old? Oh, but I loved my (shoulder-pad free) dress when I was little

  11. I'm sad to say that I was forced to wear outfits like both the dress pattern (not your wonderful makeover) AND the pantsuit as a child. And, believe it or not, all that extra fabric on the sides was probably intentional. For some reason, US 80s fashion dictated oversized everything. It was terrible.

    That being said, I used a McCalls pattern to make Emma a dress last year, and even though I cut it out the width of a dress two sizes smaller it is still way too wide for her. Proof (combined with a miserable shopping trip this afternoon) that I desperately need to learn drafting.

  12. Impressive. I loved seeing the differences between the commercial pattern and what actually fits... love your quick, simple explanation of how to do the drop waist. And the dress you made is gorgeous, perfect for a princess.

  13. Thank you so much for taking the time to do all of your tutorials. I am learning so much. I am a self taught sewist, and now I'm trying to teach myself how to draft slopers and patterns. It is hard to find GOOD info out there, so thank you again!

  14. Like maryanne, I've worn the last dress in the Ugly Pattern! It was even a floral and I wore it to a wedding!
    I do love the princess dress!

  15. Congratulations!!! Your blog is lovely! Your just like wonder womam doing all of this sewing and taking care of you family!

  16. oh those patterns are hideous. But I think I wore some variant of that flappy-collar floral dress -- Laura Ashley was big in my childhood. Love Kate's makeover dress, because that right there is the glorification of princess seams and drop waists. Whenever I hem and haw about using knit/jersey with slippery wovens, I will look at this post and suck it up.


Thank you for talking to me! If you have a question, I might reply to it here in the comments or in an email.