Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Sewists Thursdays - A Primer on Fit!

Colleen says:
I make my living fitting bodies. I’ve been doing it in some form or another for almost my entire life time. My skills have evolved into a paycheck coupled with international travel for companies that I’m sure you know of and most likely own a piece of clothing or lingerie by one of them. In short, I’m good at what I do – but here’s the secret -- people overestimate the skills needed to achieve a good fit.

Many home sewists grow to fear it, they leave fashion sewing and start crafting, or quilting or making home dec items because the ever elusive ‘fitting’ is too difficult. I’m here to tell you – it isn’t!

I’ve known Carolyn for probably 15 years and we have many shared fun moments around our families and our sewing machines. If you bribe me with chocolate, I’ll tell you how she used to fit garments before we met and I gently guided her in a more suitable direction.

Carolyn asked me to share some very general points in a first of several blog posts on what constitutes good fit and some tips to achieve it. Obviously I can’t cover everything in a blog format, but I’m hoping you can take away a few things that will enhance your future projects.

Perfect fit:

Perfect fit, does not always give you the most flattering garment. The idea is to flatter your figure, not just fit it. I’m a plus sized woman, I can make any garment for my body, but I’m steering clear of the bikinis and micromini skirts. . . they don’t flatter me.


Instead of spending time to label your perceived figure flaws, I recommend you simply embrace your figure and keep fitting and fitting and practicing!

Fabric weight and weave can make or break a garment – when you decide on a pattern, take a shoping trip and find a similar style and feel the weight of the fabric that works for the garment shape.

More than Measurements:

A perfect set of measurements isn’t going to make the pattern magically fit you because it is the relationship of those measurements sitting next to each other that is going to give you a good fitting garment.

Think of this for a moment. You are a bird, sitting in a tree, looking down on a snowman that someone built below you. What you see from above is three circles, one inside the other, perfectly nested inside each other.
If you took the measurements of the largest point around each section, you could put pencil to paper. And draw out a pattern and it would wrap around this and zip up the back without problem and Ms. Snow Fashionista would be out the door. . . However – we aren’t all built with our measurements equally distributed off of one main center column as a snow person is.

Commercial sewing pattern measurements give several key measurements to work with; however they don’t speak to how those measurements relate to one another.

What if the snow person has a middle section that is the perfect measurement, but what if it is pushed far forward, overhanging the lowest section? Would the commercial sewing pattern still fit perfectly if the measurements were exactly what they called for? Hmmmm, the answer is ‘it depends.’

(for the record, every student I’ve ever taught would sigh heavily when I uttered the words ‘it depends’ as they knew they weren’t getting a short yes/no question answered!)

First, let’s look at what she’d look like from the birds eye view. Her head and hips are in the same location – all the measurements are the same as the pattern, except this time her mid section is repositioned more forward.

The finished garment will not fit as intended because the position of the measurements in relation to the others is not the same.

I use this example over and over to illustrate if a woman has a larger than a B bust cup. Commercial patterns are under the assumption that the bust on the person wearing the garment is a B bust cup. But what if you are a “D” bust cup, and you buy a pattern based on your larger fuller bust – the pattern is still not going to fit well because the pattern assumes you are the ‘regular’ snowperson all aligned in the center or ‘normal’ position, but instead your body pulls the fabric forward to cover your bust, and you are left with drag lines (lines in the garment that pull or twist and don’t look pleasing to the eye).

My long winded point in illustrating all of this is to help you learn that the ‘relationship’ of measurements next to each other is as important as the measurement itself.


How did you learn to make your bed and smooth out the wrinkles? You put on the fitted sheet and it was nice and tight and smooth, then you snap the top sheet over and it lands in soft folds on the bed. Then what? Your eyes look at the cloth and you read the wrinkles and instinctively know which corner or edge to pull to smooth it out. Fitting garments is as easy as that – read the wrinkles and smooth them out.

While I see the merit in writing books on fitting ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’ – many many of them if learned and studied and followed thru on will give you beautiful well fitting clothing – what I don’t see is having to have a Ph.D in fitting in order to enjoy garment sewing!

So, smooth the wrinkles to the edges (seams), fold out any corners, creating tucks (darts) and soon you’ll be fitting clothing as easily as making your bed.

The secret here is to not only think of the measurement at hand, but the adjacent ones. In other words, if you want to make a dress to fit the snow woman who’s middle section is forward, you need to have a piece of cloth that will not only accommodate the lower section measurements (the hip) but also take into consideration that the abdomen extends further and that must be added (see the red line on the right is slightly longer on the snow woman than the original – EVEN THOUGH THE MEASUREMENTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL SECTIONS ARE EXACTLY THE SAME)

(Another way to think about this is to picture having to wrap the snow woman in paper like a gift. When you lay the snow woman down on the paper and pass the paper over the top of her, you need to accommodate that middle piece that extends past the larger section, so you have enough paper to wrap it all up in – if you cut the paper only long enough for the longest measurement, it won’t be long enough!)

I’m obviously oversimplifying this and not giving specifics on ‘how’ to accomplish this, but my main objective is to simply open your eyes to the ‘why’ your patterns aren’t fitting even when you painfully take exacting measurements and match them to the patterns you purchase.

Here is what I tell students to have fun with: Make your bed for the next week, paying attention to your natural ability to smooth out the cloth and make it nice and flat for each layer of your bed. THEN for the next few days, throw a pillow in the center of the bed and smooth out and make folds (darts) around the pillow to make a pleasing bed that way. After that, put something tall, like your bathroom trash can in the bed, and fold and dart around that. Play with it; see what fits it and what flatters it into a nice pleasing eye. Practice gift wrapping odd shaped items for fun. Paper is not forgiving – you will learn lots of things wrapping balls, or eggs, or flat bottomed bowls etc. Start analyzing the draglines and drapes in your garments, and start smoothing them out into seams and darts to fit better. that's the end of Part 1 of Fitting with Colleen. If you have any questions or need clarification on any point, please leave it in the comments section. Colleen and I will be monitoring the comments and then will do another post to answer your questions. Please realize that this is a "starter" post on fit. No one achieves fit overnight or magically. It is something that is worked on and perfected. You just have to be willing to start and press forward until you've reached your goal...not giving up when faced with obstacles...sort of like me and invisible zippers! *LOL*

If you want to see Colleen's fitting abilities in action - these pictures are from 2004 with Colleen fitting my Uniquely You Dressform to me! The pics will only be up to the enjoy!
And as always...more later!


  1. sew simple and empowering!

  2. This will be fun. Thanks for having Colleen share her experience in fitting.

  3. Such an interesting viewpoint on fitting. I hope that Colleen will give some pointers on fitting when you do not have anyone to help smooth the wrinkles.

  4. Thank you so much for this. It all makes so much more sense looking at it this way. I am going to have to step in front of the mirror. Bernice

  5. Love the photos, and poor Lulu has certainly made sacrifices for your art!
    I don't have a cover for my version of Lulu, but have stuffed her out with a bra and panties filled with plastic bags...I'm obviously going to have to do better! Thanks for the inspiration and the tips on learning to fit. I'm looking forward to more!

  6. Great post! Can't wait to see the follow up.

  7. Great information...I see why you call her the Mistress of Fit!

  8. This is just too cool. Many thanks to you both. My question would be: Colleen, have you considered doing fitting DVD's and accompanying books for the home sewer? I'd get in line for that.
    Also: What kinda chocolate? Godiva? Lindt?(my fav) Valhronna?

  9. Fantabulous post. I'm looking forward to more...

    I appreciate the approach and the clear, well-written explanations.

    My figure "flaws" are daunting, not just in fitting but also in figuring out what would be most flattering. Any and all help is appreciated.

  10. Great post, very clear and concise and easy to follow, few light bulb moments too :-)

    Looking forward to the next instalments.

    Carolyn, thank you for sharing your pics of how you made Lulu your double - you all look like you had such fun too!!

  11. Ouch! The nipplectomy photos made me laugh and cringe at the same time!

  12. Thank you for sharing your personal experience and the expertise of The Fit Mistress. The Fit Mistress is some kind of dangerous what with the seam ripper on her ear (and elsewhere) and serrated knife!--made me smile. Terrific post!

  13. Thank you Carolyn and Colleen, this post is very informative and makes me rethink they way I've been working. Thank you Carolyn for the fitting pictures.

  14. Thank you Carolyn and Colleen for a delightful, informative, and timely post. I'm fitting a jacket muslin this weekend and will think of the snowwoman and winkles. After a couple of struggling years, fitting is now a challenge rather than just a frustration. I look forward to your next post.

  15. Timely post for me since, as I wrote on my blog today, I have decided to just accept my body as is and quit wasting energy always trying to change it. Also I have been thinking about what you said over on Stitchers Guild about "wear what you want and can make." Mostly I have limited myself to very unfitted things due to lack of fitting knowledge. I am learning though and look forward to reading Part 2 of this series.

  16. This has been very interesting and has given me much to think about.It also encourages me to keep trying for that elusive perfect fit.

  17. Wonderful post Thank you!
    and Thank you for sharing your pictures....I felt the same as Shannon :)))))))

  18. Janina the MomBeastAugust 27, 2009 9:38 PM

    Wonderful post, thank you both. Seeing the snow woman from above really helps to understand the perspective.

    For years I was a very good constructer of garments. Beautiful garments, beautifully constructed-- but that didn't always look beautiful on me. My high school home ec class really did a disservice in teaching the old method of altering a pattern with a hip size 3 sizes bigger than the waist: my skirts always had a weird poking out bit at the side seams, and the seams pulled to the back even though there were enough inches to go around.

    The book that began my fitting epiphany was Fitting Finesse by Nancy Zieman. I found it at the local library. What an eye-opener! With that book I made a sheath dress. A dress cut from neck to hem-- unheard of on my pear with large booty shape. It was my acid test-- if the resulting dress fit I'd buy my own copy of the book.
    The dress fit (a success) but looked exceedingly matronly on me (not so much a success.) The same lines I'd always worn are still the most flattering on me, but now I can fit them all much better. I bought the book and have used and used it.

    Still learning, always learning.

  19. Two friends and I made duct tape dummies 4 years ago and that was similar...after stuffing the poor girl and putting her on a was a shock to see so much of her!!!
    But I still use her for even paper pattern fitting and muslins but put her away when company comes.
    Love the photos! I also try to get my students to picture oranges under their flat paper pattern pieces on the table and ask them how they would slash and spread and add fabric to contour. Well some gals have to imagine grapefruits but you know what I mean.Always so informative reading your blog, Caroline and now Colleen!

  20. Oh, very nice! This should be helpful to me- I have a small bust but a large ribcage (you would not believe how incredibly difficult it is to find a 38B bra :( ), so things with a fitted bust usually lie funny on me. Thank you for the fitting help, Colleen, and for New Sewists Thursdays, Carolyn!

  21. Excellent post, thank you! It's so true that all the information out there can be overwhelming, and make you fearful to attempt anything. This happened to me a few years ago and I am now really trying to just do it - it's the best way to learn.

  22. Wonderful post. I use to struggle with fit but have since conquered that obstacle. It's all a matter of training ourselves to use the pattern as one small piece of the pie and our individual shapes as an added ingredient. Can't wait to read the next installment.

  23. Always fabulous to hear Colleen explain about fit! Every time, I have an AH HA moment, when the lightbulb goes on and all is made clear :-) Now I just need to actively practice what she preaches and stop making bags and doll clothes and actually work to make something for me.
    Carolyn, invisible zippers are wonderful wonderful things! I've used them in bags now :-)
    Lisa K

  24. Caroly! Thank you for sharing the photos of fitting the dress form. I bought one last year and had a friend fit the cover to me but then did the "stuffing" by myself and did a very poor job of it... now I need a re-fit and have a much better idea of how to proceed. and thank you for ALL your posts... I so look forward to them each day.

  25. Carolyn, I used to use the same pre-Colleen method for fit that you used. But after hearing her chastise you about it, there was no way I was going confess to using it, too! I think, fifteen years later, I can finally 'fess up :)

    I always laugh when I think about how I argued with Colleen about bust cup adjustments. She was right, of course, but I was too stubborn to admit that I was wearing the wrong sized bra.

    As always, Colleen, beautiful job!

  26. Thank you so much for this, as a beginning sewer, this, as well as all the other segments you've had for us are so helpful!

  27. Thank you, thank you! Like I said before, because of you and your blog I started sewing for my "off-center snow woman figure" again, after not sewing for years and years. I appreciate your candor and your blog. Keep up the good work!

  28. I was one of those that quit sewing for myself and went to the craft/quilt sewing. But being an obsessive fabric collector I have decided to learn and finding such helpful blogs as this has been great.
    thanks for taking the time to teach all of us something new

  29. Holy Cow - this is great stuff. This is EXACTLY what fitting is like. Like Colleen I've been doing fitting (from dwarves to basketball stars) for almost 30 years. And Colleen is right - just read the fabric. It will tell you what to do. You have to have some basic ideas about general common seam lines (you don't have a seam line from your left shoulder to your right bust point - that's the sort of thing you won't want to do), but princess seams, side bust darts, lower bust darts, angled darts from top of center front - all those things are normal. So when you start fitting - use those lines and fit yourself.

    Most of all, like Colleen says, you don't have to be a rocket surgeon or brain scientist to do this. Practice, practice, practice. AND don't forget that there are some seams, no matter how talented, you can't fit yourself.

  30. So great of you two to colaborate... thanks for sharing! Oh, and the pic's of the breastactomy.... ouch!!! Amazing! That is soo cool that you have a form that will really "fit"!

  31. Thanks so much, Colleen, for taking the time to share your knowledge with us.

  32. Thank you, thank you, thank you for validating my fitting "method". I've always felt a bit like a hack for not exactly following one of the proscribed fitting methodologies (I just don't really get good results).


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