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Threads eLetter

From the pages of Threads Magazine

Stop! Are You Sure That Pattern Will Work?

Not all patterns produce equally good results. Here's how to tell the wheat from the chaff.

by Barbara Emodi

Some sewing patterns are a dream to sew. The pieces fit together smoothly, the instructions are intelligent, the process is satisfying, and you look great in the finished garment. Other patterns...well, other patterns seem to be a battle, from the minute they come out of the envelope to the moment the unfinished garment -- a monument to necklines that gape, sleeve caps that refuse to be eased, and wasted hours -- lands in a bag at the back of the closet.

I wish the solution were as simple as avoiding certain brands of patterns, but every brand that I've tried has rewarded me with a few stinkers among the jewels (or vice versa). So it seems necessary to evaluate each pattern on its own merits, and I won't be singling out any of the major providers for either censure or praise. (See Have you considered...? for a few less-well-known but potentially very useful pattern resources.)

But wouldn't it be great to have a checklist of design principles that you could use to help identify those patterns that are worth further attention before you buy them? As a sewing teacher, I need to make sure that my students choose patterns that will give them a satisfactory sewing experience, and as a result I've developed just such a checklist (see Pattern report card). I encourage you to photocopy it and keep a copy handy whenever you're shopping for patterns. Let's go over the principles behind the checklist and look at a few examples of good and not-so-good patternmaking so that you'll know what you're looking for, and why.

If possible, open the pattern in the store
Barring mail-order patterns and the occasional brand sold in sealed envelopes, in most cases it's possible to pull out and examine the guide sheet before you buy the pattern. Some stores will even allow you to unfold the pattern itself, but usually the guide sheet layout and pattern-summary drawings are accurate enough to tell the story. A quick reading of the directions can also be quite revealing, as I'll describe later.

If it's not possible to open up the patterns that you're interested in, it may be necessary to buy and examine two or three contenders before you make your final decision. Remember that the relatively small price of a pattern is far outweighed by the impact it has on the success of the garment. (I hate to think of all the times I've seen $100 worth of fabric ruined by the wrong $5 pattern!) You're likely to reuse a really terrific pattern many times, which will more than compensate for a few others abandoned during the process of elimination.

Of course, all my checkpoints apply equally to patterns that you already own, and may help explain why you've been less than delighted with some of them. Perhaps this will inspire you to edit your collection down to winners only.

Bodies are round -- is the pattern?
Patterns with curved darts are much more likely than those with ruler-straight darts to fit the female figure gracefully.
Look for pants patterns with noticeably shorter front crotch curves than back curves.
A good pattern recognizes the complex, nongeometric shapes that make up the human body, and is drafted to allow flat fabric to wrap round bodies gracefully. As you examine the shape of the pattern pieces on the guide sheet, look for evidence of grace: beware of too many lines that look like they're drawn with a ruler; too few pattern pieces; and too much symmetry between front and back. In particular, consider the following body facts and the ways in which the pattern may react to them:
  • Real shoulders slope, from the crook of the neck to the end of the shoulder. Do the shoulder seams in the pattern follow a similar line?
    Collars won't sit up straight without a stand. For the smoothest roll, choose a pattern that has a stand and an undercollar rather than one with a cut-in-one collar.
    You can't shape a sleeve with only one seam. For the most graceful and comfortable fit, choose a jacket pattern with a two-piece sleeve that matches the curve of the arm.
  • Necks bend forward far more than they bend back. Is the front neck curve in the pattern obvious? Is it much more pronounced than the back neck curve? If a collar is meant to sit up and hug the neck, is there a collar stand included to do this job?
  • The small of the back curves. Does your fitted garment or swimwear pattern have a center-back seam or other seams that have been cut to fit this curve?
  • A relaxed arm isn't straight, it bends significantly at the elbow as it hangs at your side. Does your fitted or tailored, long-sleeved pattern have a two-piece sleeve, shaping the fabric to accommodate this curve?
  • Bodies bend forward, not backward (knees excepted), and expand in certain areas as they bend. Is extra fabric or ease allowed in the pattern pieces for the elbow, or for the seat of pants or skirts? In other words, are the pattern pieces bigger in these areas?
  • Legs aren't cylindrical. Unless the style is for very wide (more than 20-in.) pants, have the pants been cut with a slight curve in the hip and side seams?

Bodies move
Graceful garments accommodate body shapes that change as the wearer moves. Just as darts and seams are used to shape fabric around the body, pleats, gussets, ease, and vents are designed to sneak in room to move. If you spot these details in your pattern, it's a good sign that it has been well designed.

Comfort and modesty, particularly in the neckline and shoulder areas, are also affected by movement. Reading these factors from paper can be difficult, but a few easy-to-measure rules apply. Look for the following features:

Balanced shoulders -- Most women have a shoulder length between 4-3/4 and 5-3/4 in. A jewel-neck, set-in-sleeve garment has a shoulder seam at least this long, sometimes a little longer, depending on the style. In some designs this minimum length is reduced, all cases, to remain stable on a moving shoulder, the bulk of the shoulder seam length must be centered on the body's shoulder. The center point can be easily measured on a pattern and typically lies between 2-3/8 and 2-7/8 in. from the nape of the neck or the end of the shoulder. If your pattern's shoulder center is offset from the body's center, you can expect to have a shifting, unstable neckline.

Nonshifting straps -- Most of us are familiar with spaghetti straps and their tendency to slide down the arm. A smart pattern will place all types of straps on the back of the garment well inside the movement of the shoulder blades, sometimes as close as 3 in. from the center back. Less-thoughtful patterns often place straps the same distance from the side seam on the front and back; don't hesitate to reposition them in back.

Nongapping necklines -- "Gaposis" in a V-neckline can be the result of poor neckline fit or construction techniques that have stretched the fabric. It can also result from a neckline that's been cut too low. My experience is that a V-neck can be cut with the point of the V up to 5 in. below the base of the hollow at the bottom of the throat without compromising modesty, no matter how much the wearer leans over. I admit this sounds pretty arbitrary, but 5 in. really is the magic number. I've asked hundreds of women to lean over in order to test it.

The fabric matters!
The fabric recommendations on the pattern envelope are usually invaluable, either directly because they offer useful, well-considered advice or indirectly because they tip you off to a poorly conceived pattern. Useful fabric lists give not only fabric types but also a brief description of the characteristics important to the success of the design. Here's an example of a useful fabric specification: "Smooth fabrics made of cotton or linen, in combination with fine ribbed jersey. Use only stretch fabrics for the back and sleeves."

Because fabric characteristics differ so widely, I'm suspicious of any pattern with too wide a range of recommended fabrics. I'm much happier with patterns that use the word "only" in their fabric descriptions -- as in "suitable only for fabrics that drape well" -- and I always follow the advice, invariably with good results. I especially distrust any very-fitted patterns that suggest "either knits or wovens." Any pattern that stipulates a "stable knit" also turns me off. Not only is a "stable knit" an oxymoron, or at most a description of a very limited number of fabrics, but I know from experience that these patterns invariably produce garments that are sized accurately for neither knits nor wovens.

When I sew with knits, I look for patterns designed expressly for these fabrics and, ideally, also for patterns that provide a "should stretch from here to here" bar for testing the fabric I plan to use against the designer's fabric. I'm also wary of patterns that try to simplify the construction process despite the fabric. I wouldn't choose a pattern that suggested a bulky dolman sleeve could be made up in a melton or other coating, for example. Check to see that the instructions acknowledge the inherent characteristics of the fabric specified.

Take a close look at the garment's details to see if they're appropriate for the recommended fabrics. Be particularly careful when choosing a pattern for knits. Look for details that you've seen on ready-to-wear knits that make the most of the fabric's stretch, such as ribbed necklines, self-fabric bound openings, and elastic waists. Details that suggest a knit pattern is just a repackaged woven pattern include buttoned back plackets, neckline zippers, or interfaced facings on T-shirts. Pull-on knit pants are too often originally drafted for woven fabrics and still include the extra room around the waist and ankles that woven fabrics need to fit over the hips and around the foot.

Tools and techniques evolve -- has the pattern?
A really useful instruction sheet acknowledges and recommends new notions, materials, and machines, such as sergers. Too many patterns rely on dated techniques and ignore contemporary methods used to produce the best ready-to-wear. I absolutely fail to see why so many patterns still suggest techniques that haven't been used in the industry for decades. As an example, I'm disappointed in any pattern that advises sewers to slipstitch in a lining, leaving them ignorant of how effectively a lining can be inserted by machine. Several major pattern companies have recently attempted to bring their guide sheets into closer touch with reality. Look for patterns that offer special sewing tips (often contributed by sewing celebrities), and make note of useful techniques.

In fact, I would suggest you work on assembling a personal repertoire of favorite techniques from good patterns, books, articles, and classes. Feel absolutely confident and free to substitute an updated technique for an archaic one whenever you can.

Read the fine print!
To be fair, most of us don't take full advantage of the information provided by the pattern companies, probably because they put it in such obscure places. The very back of the Vogue pattern catalog, for example, contains the following little gem of information that could have prevented many abandoned garments: "For dresses, blouses, tops, vests, jackets, and coats, select size to correspond with your Bust/ Chest measurement. Adjust the Waist and/or Hip, if necessary. If there is more than 2-in. difference between your Bust and Chest (upper bust) measurements, select pattern size by your Chest measurement, because you will achieve a better fit--through your shoulders, chest and upper back; adjust the Bust, if necessary."

Not all of us realize that the descriptive words on the back of some pattern envelopes--"very fitted," "fitted," and so on--represent the actual amount of wearing ease (movement space as opposed to room in the garment created by the style itself) included in the pattern. These descriptions represent very specific dimensions, and their meanings should be considered before a final pattern choice is made. Use the information in the Ease Chart (Deciphering the fine print: ease allowances) and a tape measure around your body to help you get a preview of the finished garment's fit. Do you really want a "very fitted" bodice with 1 in. or less ease?

Quick and easy?

Prefer "quick-and-easy" to a shapely result? Only until you try to wear it! Darts may take a few extra minutes, but if you have a bust, you won't regret choosing patterns that include them.
Most sewers I've met have minds that operate at least five projects ahead of their hands. The words "Make it today and wear it tonight" are hard to resist. It's tempting to choose fewer pattern pieces, fewer darts, straighter seams, and omitted linings. But be aware that easy-to-sew doesn't always translate to easy-to-wear. A pillowcase with slits for your arms and a hole cut in the top for your head would be a snap to make, but consider how it would feel and look to wear the unshaped one. Linings make it easier for an outer garment to slip on and off and can reduce wrinkling. Those intimidating extra pattern pieces and seams often contribute as much to garment comfort as they do to style.

Notice, for example, how frequently designers opt for molded, faced, and raised waistlines on their skirts rather than conventional straight-grain waistbands. The shaped band has a few more pattern pieces and seams, to be sure, but it provides a much more sensitive response to the curves of the female waist and it's so much easier to wear.

In the end, a good pattern is a thoughtful pattern. In scouting for perfection, be on the lookout for evidence of thoughtfulness. In my experience, even small indications that the pattern designer has considered the points I've just outlined suggest a pattern that will show the same intelligence throughout. Detecting the ideas that created a smart pattern is an enjoyable process, and your reward will be a finished garment that satisfies. Your time and effort deserve nothing less.

Barbara Emodi teaches sewing and makes patterns in Halifax, NS, Canada. E-mail her at Prices were current at the time of publication (January 1998).

Photos: Sloan Howard; drawings: Kim Jaeckel

From Threads #74, pp. 42-47
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