I learned to sew a long time before I learned to use a pattern. And the first few patterns I tried turned out garments I couldn’t wear. It wasn’t until I learned to make patterns that I really understood how what was on paper related to my body. You see the advantage of patterns (the ability to reproduce the same garment many times over) is limited with bought patterns by not knowing whether the original garment was really right for you to begin with. Variations in size and ease (the amount of roominess in a garment) not to mention individual shape, mean commercial patterns rarely create an ideally fitting garment. Add to that the considerable differences that individual fabrics bring to the table and patterns are not all they are cracked up to be.
For years I drafted my patterns and very much enjoyed knowing that by using my own measurements as a base the garments I made had a certain predictability. Now that my measurements have changed and I rarely apply the discipline of drafting to my sewing I often use commercially drafted patterns. I know enough about the companies I use to know most of the adaptations I will need to make for things to fit well (or how to alter them after the fact), but even then I have the occasional disaster, and times when I just can’t find a pattern for the kind of thing I want to make. Sometimes I’m not really sure what I want, or what I think the fabric really wants to be and these times I take the patternless route.
In response to the surprise and amazement I encounter when I say I make things without patterns I’m writing this post to encourage others to try it too. Not necessarily to start with your most favourite fabric, or to make a ball gown, or when you really need to make something to wear to tomorrow, but for when you want to experiment, to learn a bit more about making and fitting a garment and to take a shot at being more creative.
This is going to be quite a long post and I’ll add to it as people ask questions, but I hope it will get some people thinking about a different way to approach making their clothes. It contains a lot of information but unless you are trying to make something complicated or very fitted, a lot of it you can get wrong and still make a perfectly good garment. The first section deals with the basics of garment construction, the second section deals with how to approach a patternless project.
Basic garment making - without patterns
While I’m not using patterns here, it helps to think about how you translate your three-dimensional body into a two-dimensional outline to be able to visualise how to cut and sew fabric to make fitting clothes. Think about what happens when you put on a big boxy T-shirt. How the shoulders sag down and leave lots of excess fabric under your arms, how the ends of the sleeves tend to sit up from your arms, how the front of the fabric sits out from your body after it hits your bust and how the front tends to sit higher than the back (especially if you have a big bust).
These things happen because your body is not a tube or a box – it’s got lumps and bumps and bigger bits and smaller bits. The art and design of garments is in getting the fabric to cover you, leave enough room for you to comfortably move about but not bulk you up. In other words going from two to three dimensions. Working out where to put seams, tucks, darts and curves is about matching your body to the grain of the cloth. There are some fundamentals to how this is usually done – though I stress not how they must be done. Differences in body shapes will have an enormous impact on how you choose to shape your cloth and so will the ultimate look you want to achieve in the garment you are making.
In pattern drafting terms there are four basic building blocks to making garments – the bodice, the sleeve, the skirt and the trouser. All the other bits like collars, pockets, waistbands and cuffs are added on later. Because trousers are complicated and separate I’m not going to talk about them here. Perhaps another day when I am feeling stronger. Pattern blocks make a few assumptions like you are roughly symmetrical on your left and right, your waist is basically horizontal, the seams you make down the side of your garment will be vertical from about the middle of your armpit and your front and backs are definitely not symmetrical. For this reason most pattern pieces will have a different front and back, but with matching side seams, bodices and skirts will have a centre axis and either be cut on a fold or have a centre seam. Since sleeves cross the side of body they are not symmetrical and are cut as a single piece with a front and a back.
Now you are not drafting blocks or making patterns, but it does help to understand the rules even if you aren’t going to follow them. I recommend having a good look at your body in the mirror to get the sense of your basic outline both front and side on. Notice the width going in and out at the points of your shoulders, bust, waist and hips. Side on your back most likely curves out gently from your neck over your shoulders, in at the waist, out over the bottom and then gradually tapers down to your ankles. On the front the curve out to your bust starts lower than your shoulder and is sharper, as is the curve back under the bust. Your belly might be completely flat or slightly rounded or (as a friend once quipped) a migrated bum that might bulge out the front of the inward curve of your back or much lower. It also helps a lot of have good measurements of as much of your body as you can but certainly the important points – width from shoulder to shoulder, around your bust, waist and hips, shoulder to waist, waist to hip, hip to floor etc. Google how to take measurements if you want real precision.
First up there's the bodice, that's your shoulders down to your waist. For most people their bust line is bigger both in front and across the back than their waist (though bigger in front than back) and the outer edge of their shoulder is lower than the inner edge near their neck. So instead of the box you’d use for a T-shirt, you would want your shoulder seams to slope down towards your arm, you’d need more fabric around your bust than you waist, though you’d need more of it in front than in back and you’d want the armhole to sit flat to your body in the arc where your arm joins your side. You’d also want that fabric that goes over your bust in front to be longer than in back and to keep a straight vertical grain, but pull up on the side to be vertical too. So a basic bodice drafting block would look a little bit like this
The waist is narrower than the bust and to create more space in the front for the boobs and to pull up the side seam, you would add in a dart - either in the side seam (left) or the bottom (right) or maybe both. You'll also see that the shoulder shapes are different front and back (the detail in the bottom right corner). You add extra height on the inner corner of the front shoulder seam because most people's shoulders slope forwards as well as down and getting this right stops your clothes from 'riding up' in front and hanging lower in the back. A little extra width across the upper back than the upper chest in front also helps with this, and allows you to reach forward for things without ripping your shirt open at the back. The armholes also curve in from the side seams because the sides of your garment need to wrap around your body to meet at the sides, while the sleeves will do the wrapping up higher so the fronts of the armholes need to be in line with where your arm meets the side of your body. A really fitted garment might also have a little dart in the back on the shoulder seam to carry the cloth over the curve of your should blades, and some darts at the waist to bring it back in to the small of your back.
If you drew this picture with your exact measurements you would have a basic pattern drafting block, but for sewing without a pattern it is enough to get the basic idea of where you would add a little extra or dart some out.
Next up you need to visualise the bottom half of your body. In fact, you need to be able to do this even if you are just making a top since most tops come down past the waist line to somewhere around the hip line. If you were pattern drafting you would add the bodice to the skirt block to get the basic outline for tops that go past the waist as well as for dresses.
Now if you made yourself a basic tube for a skirt (remember I learned to sew in the early 80s) and you made it as wide as your widest point (round the hips) you could gather in the waist with elastic or a tie so it would stay up. But you would have a lot of extra (unflattering) fabric at the waist in back and depending on the shape of your belly it might be tight across the bum and belly and baggy above the bum and under the belly, giving it a twisted feel.
So a basic skirt block has to get you from the narrow of your waist to the width of your hips with the right amount of fabric front and back and with the right amount of increase at the right height for both the belly and bum. You will end up with something that looks vaguely like this
This is for a 'regular' person if you've got big belly the front might be proportionally bigger and might have more darts, if you are ‘thick’ waisted you might have smaller or even no darts in front, if you have a big bum you might need more or bigger darts. As with the bodice you don't need to get this too precise but having an understanding of the basic shapes helps in winging it.
So to make a top to the hip you'd use the basic shapes from the bodice plus the top part of the skirt. You might do this by cutting out a shape that smoothes the two together like this,
or you might cut out two pieces and sew them together so you have a
seam or other kind of feature at the waistline. This what I did with the ink dress (more on that later).
The last building block shape you need to understand is how to make a sleeve. A sleeve consists of a tube that goes down your arm and a ‘sleeve head’.
This diagram shows the top of the sleeve head marked into two sections – the part marked A sits over the top of your shoulder and its shape determines how fitted the sleeve is. The pointier, or higher and narrower the head is makes a tighter fit across the shoulder and a sharper angle between the top of the shoulder and top of the arm. The sections marked B and C are where the sleeve turns under the arm and joins to the side of the bodice. Section C is generally a bit longer than B because of the extra fabric in the front of the bust and the side of section A that joins the back is generally a little fuller than the front. The point where section A turns into section B and C corresponds with the point on the bodice arm hole where the curve turns outwards to the side. The overall measurement of the sleeve head edge from side to side over the top must be equal to the overall measurement of the two armholes from the bodice.
A slack way of getting this about right is to lay the bodice flat, line the fold line of the sleeve fabric up with the angle of the shoulder seam and trace out the curve of the armhole to the point where it curves out, then twist this last bit of the bodice down and draw the extra section length.
Where to start
So you’ve got an idea and some fabric and no pattern. How you start depends a bit on whether you expect to be making it again and thus whether you want to make a pattern from your prototype. If this is the case then make your initial measurements/sketches on paper like a pattern, use it to cut out your fabric and then go back and mark any changes you make as you sew. If you do this with reasonable accuracy you will have a perfect pattern for next time. If you are making a one off design then you can skip the paper bit and just mark your outlines directly on the fabric. Use the wrong side of the fabric and make your markings with chalk or water soluble ink.
Generally I start with my bodice piece. To get my basic proportions right I might use measurements taken from my body, I might use an existing garment I know fits well or I might use some bits of patterns I have for other garments. I will decide how fitted I want it to be and thus whether I need darts and how many and so on. As an example when I made the ink dress I cut the bodice width and height using my measurements, but I added a bit of extra ease tot eh width because I wanted it to be loose for hot weather. I copied the armhole from a shirt pattern I like. I decided I didn’t want darts so I cut the waist edge in front with a curve downward from the side seam to give me the extra bust length and when I attached it to the waistband I added in some gathers where the front dart would have been. So instead of a bodice that looked like the one on the left, I had one that looked like the one on the right.
When I sewed the bodice up I had overestimated the amount of ease and the extra length in front. When I am sewing without a pattern I do tend to make things bigger and then trim it in as I go – better than making things too small!
I attached the bodice to the waistband, which was just a strip of straight fabric. Since I wanted the dress to slip on without a zip or buttons I had to make the waistband beg enough to fit over my bust. This was Ok because it was in keeping with the ‘super loose and cool’ dress brief. If I was going for something dressier and warmer I would have made the waistband closer to my real measurements and added a zip into the side seam.
Next I added the skirt section. Again I used two rectangles sewn together. I estimated the width I wanted by standing with my legs as far apart as I could and measuring around – I didn’t want the dress to restrict my movement. But I could have made the width less or much more depending on what I thought looked good. I measured the length from waist to mid calf and then added a heap because I had the pin tuck detail in mind but had no idea how much extra I would need. I pinned the skirt to the waist a number of times using different methods for pulling the extra fabric in – gathers, knife pleats, multiple box pleats and single box pleats and tried each one on. I went with the two box pleats front and back and pinned and sewed it all together, carefully aligning the side seams and the centre fronts and backs of both skirt and waist and then making sure the pleats were the same distance from the centre on both sides.
Since I wasn’t at all sure the horizontal pin tuck would look good, I started it low enough on the skirt that if it looked bad I could just cut it off. As it was I liked it a lot so I added more randomly around the hem with a vague eye to keeping the amount of fabric tucked about the same all around. When I was finished I hemmed it.
Next I added sleeves. Since I had copied the armholes from an existing pattern, I copied the sleeve head from the same pattern. I changed the other details of the sleeve to make it shorter and tapered, but since the armholes and sleeve heads matched this bit was a cinch.
Lastly I had to decide how to finish off the neck. The neck in front was a little gapey, something that happens often to me as a consequence of my bigger bust but also all the trying on and off tends to give the fabric a bit of a stretch. I decided to carry through the box pleat detail from the skirt and added one in on the neck edge to take up the slack. I didn’t want the bulk of a collar and considered using a bias binding around the neck, but I did want some kind of collar like detail to make the dress more interesting. I took a long strip of fabric roughly the distance around the neck edge and ironed it in half. I turned it out and sewed across each end to give it a neat finish when turned back to the right side. I then pinned this strip to the neck edge, sewed it down and ironed it flat.
When I started out on this project I didn’t have clear ideas about a lot of the detailing. Sewing without a pattern does raise lots of decision points as you go, but it also provides lots of opportunities to pin and try things on to see how you want it to look and go back and fiddle with details. Taking a little extra in here, adding an extra piece there. It helps to cut things with extra room to manoeuvre – wide seam allowances and safety margins, and also to have a generous amount of fabric, perhaps with some stand by co-ordinating inserts if you run out. Think broadly about possible notions too – matching and contrast threads, zips, buttons, snaps, bias binding, elastic, because the more things you have on hand the greater the number of possible avenues you can explore.
Be prepared to pin up and try the garment on frequently (unless you are lucky enough to have a proper and accurate dress form. I dream...) and even better if you have someone nearby whose opinion you trust to get another view on some of the steps you are unsure about. D provides me with excellent feedback when I am sewing about detailing, lengths, pleat locations etc. Also be prepared to unpick and resew seams that just aren’t right. I don’t generally bother finishing seams off as I sew since there’s a good chance they’ll be getting a second go later. I only go back and neaten and serge edges when I am really happy with them.
The example I’ve used here of the dress is a more complex one, but you’ll also get a lot of satisfaction from making simpler things without a pattern like skirts, tops, T-shirts and shift dresses. You’ll also find that what you learn from making them will greatly improve future sewing projects and help you to improve the fit of garments made from patterns.