Awhile back, I was digging through an old tub and I found the first sewing pattern that I attempted as a 12 year old. It was the 90s and I wanted a grunge flannel. It turned out pretty bad...don't know how I thought a shirt would be the best idea for a first project, that’s some pretty advanced construction. I often tell my students about the results, that after I sewed my shirts, I was so bummed out that they just didn’t look as great as what I imagined. And they were often huge! Even though I had followed the measurement charts, and measured myself properly, I could not figure out why my pattern was so ill fitting. As soon as I found this 1990's pattern, I knew I needed to sew it up from my current level of expertise and see what happens and see if I could make a better shirt. Here's a look at the pattern I found!
I know I'm not alone here, I receive emails all of the time that the main issue that sewists face as they grow in their skills is how to fit a commercial pattern.
And it's a process. I could never cover everything in one blog post, it's so personal and nuanced to each person. But what I can do, is show you some of the process I have taken in steps and how to analyze a pattern so that you have a better chance of success in your final sew.
Choosing the right pattern, and making it work for your unique proportions is really important. Today I want to share with you 6 tips to help you find the right proportions. . There are some initial measurements and alterations that will help improve the proportion of your garment before you cut your fabric.
Understanding which proportions work best for you, has learning curve to it because you will have to try on garments, and think about how they make you feel. This post assumes that you already have an idea of a garment you would like to sew, and you are wanting to make work better for your individual proportions. In this post I'm also sharing pattern alterations I have tested and applied over the years from working with lots of clients, fit models, and my own garments. Here are a few steps that I take before cutting out my project that have helped me get successful proportions for clothing that looks and feels great.
Proportion Tip #1 Watch For Gathers and Added Fullness
Oversize proportions have been on trend, the last few years. You will see them especially with Japanese patterns, or more minimalist silhouttes. I also think its because more people are interested in sewing, and entering at the beginner level, so pattern companies are offering fuller garments that you can pull over your head because it's a lot easier to sew a pattern that doesn't have a zipper, button holes, or plackets to contend with.
Unfortunately, in my personal experience, and the experience I have seen with many of my students, that while these types of patterns can seduce you because they are so quick and easy to sew, and appear so effortless to wear as modeled in the photo or sketch, a pattern without a lot of body definition tends completely hide the body. The extra fullness also adds weight, so there's that disappointment too.
It's not that you can't sew them, but check the pattern and technical sketch- are there gathers, or pleats that lead to excessive fullness? You will want to sew up a muslin and see just how much. If it doesn't have a closure like a zipper, and it's a pattern designed for woven, non stretch fabric, then the gathers are often an essential part of the design so you can actually get this garment over your body. But if you don’t want something to be too flouncy aka “Captain Hook,” I find myself cutting down the amount I gather. For example, in my 90's shirt pattern, when I saw the amount of gathers in the cuff, I cut them down like this.
Proportion Tip #2: Determine the shoulder seam
Because it's next to your face, and it's at the top of the body, when I worked as an alterations tailor, I found that the shoulders of the garment were critical to getting your proportions right. If you think about it, your shoulders are the first place that the garment hangs, so you must get them right in order to have the bodice drape on the body in a flattering way.
You should know what your shoulder measurement is- go to the worksheet and make a note what yours is. Most women's shoulder lengths are between 4 and 5.5 inches.
Back to my 90's pattern, this design is intentionally off the shoulder, and I will give this a go in the first sew up. But if my final result is not what I was hoping for, then I will shorten the the seam like this (see below) to match my shoulder length. An average shoulder seam measurement is around 5 inches, so if it's bigger than that, you will have to watch it because it may be out of proportion for your body and you will get lost in the garment.
Proportion Tip #3: Pay attention to the garment's details, like collars, cuffs, waistbands, and plackets
My husband Paul (@mr.seamster) taught me this- I was designing collars for him that were too big, and he always wanted to cut them down. Since this pattern is vintage 90s, the collar and collar stand are large, and large collars can really affect the proportion of your shirt and date your garment as well. What I do is measure center back width of the collar and carry that measurement all the way out to the top edge of the collar. You do have to keep your seam allowance in there, but this will slim out a collar and take out the big point. Now, this just happens to be a collar design I like, but you can choose to make the point look however you prefer.
I also change the collar stand, but I start by measuring the end of it and cut a little bit out of the middle. Paul was the one who came up with this. He likes a narrow, refined stand and smaller collar so that his shirt proportions look more tailored and classic.
Proportion Tip #4: Check your Lengths
Now it's time to look at all of the lengths of your pattern, the front, back, legs, and sleeves. To really get your proportions right, you are going to have to try on some clothes to know what looks best. But I can give you some tips that are helpful.
1. Make sure sleeve length and leg length are spot on. Your sleeves should end right in the middle between your wrist bone, and where your thumb begins. Any longer is going to force you to push up and roll up your sleeves, which effects the lines of the design and makes you look bigger than you are. I've seen a lot of designers have the consensus that if a pant length is the right length, then there will be no "breaks" or folds in the hang of the pant. Now I know this is personal, so do what's best for you, but avoid fabric pooling at the ankles in order to get a flattering look.
2. Shirts tend to look best when untucked if they hit right between the natural waist and the hips. This doesn't always apply, obviously if it's designed to be in a certain place there's always that nuance, but if you are making most shirts that's a good place for most people.
3. Check the skirt length. I have had a lot of my shorter and petite clients prefer a right at the knee, or above the knee final hem because anything longer tends to over whelm the body. Other wise, they preferred to wear a full length skirt. Obviously this is a personal taste preference, but a good rule of thumb to follow with skirt length is to know that it's going to call attention to whatever part of your legs that the hem hits. If you love your calves and want to show them off, then a longer skirt might work great.
Proportion Tip #5: Watch the fullness of your Sleeves
I go way more in-depth on this topic in a later post, but as I showed above, the fullness of your sleeve is really important. But it's not just about eliminating too much gathering. When I did alterations, one of the most common alterations I did was slim the sleeves. You can go to this post to check it out and the reason it's so important is that it really slims your body, and emphasizes your unique proportions when you don't have excess fabric in between the waist and the arm.
Proportion Tip #6: Honor your waistline
I know, it's a sensitive place on the body and sometimes the last place we want to call attention too. And I'm not talking about creating wasp waists by any means, but a lot of the time, even when you feel like your body is out of shape or out of proportion, by just nipping the sides, or adding back darts at the natural waist, you can make your garment a lot more flattering. I know not all styles call for it, but even those with large amounts of waistline ease look good with a slight nip to the waist, to create the hint of a bend. You might try it! It really helps garments flatter more figures regardless of size and shape.
I know proportion is a huge topic, and altering your patterns is another huge topic, but these are just a few things to look as soon as you cut out your pattern and prepare it for cutting the cloth. There are so many levels of pattern alterations and how you can make your clothing fit better.
Are you interested in depth teachings and concepts for fit and proportion?
Have you heard of my signature fashion design online courses, The Fair Fit Method? It's a series of courses designed to teach you intermediate to advanced fashion design skills like padding a form to your shape and size, fashion draping, pattern alteration, and adaptations for custom design. Enrollment happens only 3 times a year. If you would like to learn more about these courses and possibly take a class with me yourself go here to learn more: