I’ve been super busy and will try to add stuff more often. For now…
A few tips…
If you’re already at an intermediate or advanced sewing level, you may already know these, but you should read anyway. Beginners, please read.
Unless your fabric is wool or velvet (real velvet of rayon or silk or cotton that comes on those weird hangers, not the stretchy knit kind or velveteen), preshrink it before you cut it. This means throw it in the washer on warm and a harsher cycle than you would normally wash your clothes and throw it in the dryer on high. Wool and velvet need to be dry cleaned, but your dry cleaner might be willing to dry clean the yardage to preshrink it. With silks, you can either dry clean them only or you can hand wash. Some silk, like duppioni silk, will lose their crispness when hand washed, so you might want to stick with dry cleaning. Use cold water and something like Woolite or even shampoo. Then squeeze—don’t twist it or wring it, just squeeze—all the water out. I put it on the spin cycle in the washer to get more water out. Then hang it up to air dry. With whichever method of preshrinkage, press the fabric. Not velvet, though. Unless it’s crushed, pressing it will crush the pile.
When pressing, the surface of the sole plate of the iron must touch the fabric at all times. If you hover the iron above the fabric, you’re just steaming it and you won’t bust open those seams or make a crisp fold for a hem. When fusing interfacing, place a pressing cloth between the interfacing and the iron. My pressing cloth is a half-yard piece of ivory silk organza—organza is sheer so you can see what you’re pressing and silk is really quite strong and won’t melt at higher temperatures. You can buy packaged pressing cloths, but I recommend spending the $12 or so per yard on the silk (you only need half a yard and you can probably find a coupon or a sale). Until you can get out to buy it, use a dish towel or other cloth that is cotton or linen and not terry cloth. When you press wool, you should use a pressing cloth to prevent making shiny spots on the wool.
Before you cut fabric, you lay it down flat, usually folded in half so you can cut both left and right sides of whatever it is. (Not every fabric is laid this way—there are some prints called border prints where you lay the pattern going parallel to the cut ends, or on the cross grain.) Carefully line it up straight and flat. Check to see which side is the top—at which end all the tops of the pattern pieces should go. I say that all the tops should go on the same end because some fabrics have a nap or a printed or woven pattern. If you put one piece the other way just because you think you can save fabric or it fits better, you’ll see that it is upside down or that it looks like a different shade or catches the light differently. With napped fabrics (velvet, velveteen, corduroy, some fleece, and even satin), the top seems to be the bottom. Rub your hand on the pile from cut end to cut end, parallel to the selvages. Do you feel how one way feels like you’re rubbing it “down,” along the way you would normally pet a cat or dog? Rub the other way. Do you feel how it seems to be going against the grain, the wrong way? That is the top. To further see, hold up a piece of the fabric one way then the other. The counter-intuitive way will have a richer color.
Once you figure out which end is the top, lay your pattern down and weight it. Don’t pin it. Weight it down. Layout in commercial patterns isn’t always great. You can squish things close together. Once you’ve laid it out and weighted it, trace around it with chalk, a chalk wheel, one of those felt tip fabric pens, or a china marker (you can get the first 3 at a fabric store and the last one at art supply or other stores). I use a chalk wheel AKA chakoner or I use a china marker (which is a wax pencil and you “sharpen” it by peeling the paper around it). Usually I use white but on white or ivory fabrics, I use yellow. After tracing, take away the pattern pieces and weights and set them aside. This is so you don’t cut into your pattern or cut some of it off. Cut out, preferably with sharp scissors, cutting off the lines. Yes, cut off the lines. Even if you used a ball point pen, your pattern will be 1/32 or 1/16” larger all around. It doesn’t seem like a lot but multiply that times however many pattern pieces you have.
Regarding patterns…if you don’t know how to make your own patterns, you can use commercial patterns (Vogue, Simplicity, etc.). But don’t just grab one and cut it out. Pattern sizing is different from clothing off the rack. Measure your bust/chest, waist, and hips. Your waist is NOT where you wear your pants! It’s the narrowest part of your torso. (If your torso is shaped differently, measure your waist as the place above where your hip bones are in the front and a bit above your navel.) Measure your hips at the fullest part. Take these three measurements with you. Buy the pattern size corresponding to your measurements. Go up higher if your number falls between sizes listed.
Once you have your pattern, cut out the pieces corresponding to the garment you want. Do a rough cut with paper scissors, not a specific one to whichever size. Usually they have a seam allowance of 5/8”. Pin all the front pieces together if there is more than one along the sewing line (5/8” in front the edge). If you need to mark the 5/8” all around every piece to help you, do so. Do the same for the back. Pin the sleeve seam. Pin the front and back together at the shoulder seam then at the side seam. Put this tissue half garment on. Have someone help you if you can. Line the center front (CF) up with the center of your front and the center back (CB) with the center of your back. Put on the sleeve. Wherever it is too loose or too tight, move the pins. Take a pen and mark anywhere that is narrower or wider than that 5/8” seam allowance and do the same for areas that are too short or long. Take the pattern off and unpin the sleeve and the side and shoulder seams. Wherever you had to make adjustments, mark 5/8” out from those marks and cut off or add to by taping extra paper to that area. If you have to lengthen or shorten the hem, make sure you still leave enough for the hem itself and keep it the same that the original pattern has.
I recommend making a fitting muslin/toile/mockup whether you made your own pattern or you used a commercial pattern. Most likely you will have to make more adjustments. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with only half a garment. You can use muslin, but if it’s for a knit or a fabric not at all like muslin, get extra and use that. Especially for knits since they act differently from wovens. If you made a toile for a cotton spandex T shirt out of muslin, you won’t be able to get it on.
With the commercial patterns, you can change the 5/8” seam allowance to be smaller or larger, depending on what seam finish you want to do (but I use 5/8” for French seams). And you can make your own pattern seam allowances different for whichever seam finish, not just using 3/8”.
Addition 7/29/13: When sewing buttons or trim onto a garment, use the same color thread as the buttons or the trim (unless you’re doing something like red buttons on a blue shirt with yellow thread all over, for example). If you use the same color as the fabric, it will be obvious. Now you might want it to be obvious, but if your stitching isn’t perfectly uniform, you want the thread to match the buttons and trim. This means buying more than one color of thread. Of course, if you’re putting black buttons on a black blouse, it’s one thing. I just finished some vests that are light and dark browns. The light brown is at the center front and the buttons are dark brown. So I used dark brown thread on the buttons.
When marking buttons on a pattern, or looking at the placement on a commercial pattern…to prevent gapping at the bust, put a button there then space them out as evenly as you can from that point, trying to not put the top one too high or the bottom one too low.
I know that fitting can be tricky. You might not be able to get it right away. Remember that something that fits well doesn’t feel too loose or tight anywhere and it doesn’t have any folds or drag lines. It looks smooth all over. With most garments, you start fitting at the back and work your way to the front. You can make more than one fitting muslin. Mark a few changes, make a muslin w/ these changes, fit again, then see where you might need to make additional changes.
As always, I welcome comments, questions, and suggestions, which you can leave in the comments section of this post.