Sewing Pattern Instructions – Why so Confusing?

March 23, 2016

My favorite pattern drafting books.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about how I became a sewist.  Basically, it happened out of necessity and a lot of trial and error.  I am self-taught, owing my start to books and the internet.  A huge shout-out to all the sewing bloggers out there who have posted tutorials.  I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you!

The biggest block I faced in the early days was simply finding patterns.  I didn’t know about PDF patterns, and I had no luck finding any “Big 4” patterns, either here or in Italy.  While back in the States visiting family, I bought a collection of patterns from a fabric store, but of course, being a closet diva, I chose inappropriate designs; cocktail dresses and tailored jackets, all way beyond my skill level at the time, and pieces that required luxury (dry clean only) fabrics.  Not such a clever choice for African-village-life and a brand-new sewist, but a girl can dream.

When I got back to Africa with my precious patterns, I carefully opened the first one and ironed the tissue sheets.  My mother was a very gifted sewist, but we never got beyond a couple of lessons when I was growing up.  The few things I learned from her, I considered sacred sewing practices, and ironing the tissue was certainly one of those.  There’s something very satisfying about ironing a new pattern – it gives a sense of accomplishment and order.  One might say, the “calm before the storm”.

After carefully ironing my pattern, I estimated the amount I should shorten the torso, and folded along the “shorten/lengthen here” line, as instructed.  Beyond that, I just hoped that things would fit my 5’2″ pear-shaped frame when I was finished.

Thanks to my mom, I knew about the “sacred” grain line, and I knew how to properly pin my tissue pieces to the fabric.  I even knew how to make a tailor’s tack.  But once the pieces were all cut out and marked, I was thrown out to sea without a compass.  Facing those paper instructions was like trying to read a foreign language.  Nothing made sense.  And the more I tried to understand, the more I got confused.  The whole process made me feel depressed and frustrated.

And so it went, one pattern after another. Eventually I’d just stick the fabric under my machine and sew.  Things would go horribly wrong, and I’d abandon the project about half way through, feeling sick with the waste of pretty fabric and my inability to follow (what looked like) simple instructions.

It was around this time that I ordered a bunch of pattern drafting books.  I gave up on my stash of fancy “Big 4” patterns and decided I would learn the art of sewing from the ground up.  I spent a good part of the year learning how to make and fit a sloper to my body.  I didn’t use a computer in those days, just paper and pencil.  The process was endless.  It didn’t help that I believed I had to “thread trace” everything.  The perfectionist in me became seduced by couture techniques and hand-sewing.  Maybe I was hoping for a closet full of Chanel and Dior-inspired gowns in contrast to my reality of mud-stained cargo pants and T-shirts.

The early days: drafting my first sloper.Learning to draft patterns and sew at the same time was a challenge, but it was a very natural way to develop my skills.   Once I had a perfect sloper, my first project was to take apart a store-bought jacket from my closet.  I tried to re-create each fabric section of the deconstructed jacket as a paper pattern piece, which corresponded to the measurements of my sloper.

Ripping apart a jacket to learn its sewing secrets.After I had all my pattern pieces, I consulted my books and the web to learn each new sewing task; epaulets, flap pockets, collar and stand, princess seams, and bound buttonholes were on my first project’s to-learn list.  I had never attempted to sew any of these things, but taking each task, one at a time, made the learning process simple.  In less than a week I had finished my first jacket.  It fit, and I was hooked on pattern making.

Making my first bound buttonholes.

Re-creating a store-bought item of clothing is a great way to get started in pattern making.  You’ll have to rip that baby apart to really understand how things are cut out and sewn together, but it’s well-worth the effort.  It’s a good idea to get your hands dirty making a sloper, too.  This is the basis of all designs, and having one that fits you perfectly is the first step in designing your own patterns, which is much more rewarding than knocking-off another designer’s idea.

I arrived at my custom-fit sloper using a variety of books; Patternmaking for Fashion Design (4th edition) by Helen Joseph-Armstrong, Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear (5th edition) by Winifred Aldrich, and Pattern Magic (English edition) by Tomoko Nakamichi.  It wasn’t easy starting at zero and fitting myself without an assistant – but I got there eventually.   I highly recommend all these books if you are interested in making your own custom sloper.  Don’t give up – it is possible to do it by yourself, it just takes some time.  Once you nail your first sloper, you’ll be well on your way to designing your own wardrobe.

My favorite pattern drafting books.Of course, sometimes all we want to do is sew.  Making a pattern is a lot of work, and it takes many trials to get it just right.  Having designed and drafted dozens of patterns for myself, I can appreciate the ease and pleasure of having someone do all that work for me.  The only thing is, I still get lost trying to follow traditional pattern instructions.  I believe that less-than-clear diagrams and instructions, combined with the assumption that people already know how to sew, has turned many people off of making their own clothes before they even start.  That’s too bad.  Luckily, the friendly and supportive indie sewing community is out to change that.

I’ve been teasing everyone on social media about the release of my first PDF pattern.  I had a few designs in the running for the big debut, but have decided the Zoona Nova Travel Bag is the best one to launch as a first pattern.  Over the next few weeks, I will be posting tutorials on the techniques needed to sew-up the bag.  Just as I first learned to sew, I will take you step by step, explaining each task individually.  If you’re making the bag, you can refer to the in-depth tutorials (with lots of images) to guide you through any new techniques.

Zoona Nova Travel Bag PDF patternIn the next post, I’ll be showing you how to shorten a zipper, make an exposed zipper pocket, and a few other tricks to kick-off the Zoona Nova Travel Bag tutorial series.  Until then, Happy sewing!

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