Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Skill Ratings and Beginners Projects

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I spent a little time recently thinking back to when I first started sewing clothes in earnest. What sort of advice would I give my beginner self? I googled “beginner sewing projects” and “beginner sewing patterns”, and I realised that my thoughts around what projects I should have tackled at the beginning didn’t really coincide with the advice on the internet. I thought this was interesting and worthy of a blog post. I hope my ramblings are useful.

On the Colette blog, when it was still updated regularly a while back, I remember reading this post on skill building. Certainly, Colette aren’t the only company to use skill or difficulty ratings for their patterns, there are many others that do so. However, I thought I’d use a couple of their patterns to illustrate my thoughts because they tend to share their processes with their customers well and have written about how they rate their patterns in this skill ratings post.

The Amber dress is labelled, like many of their seamwork patterns as a beginner pattern. Their Aster shirt is labelled as intermediate. Clearly, there are more potentially fiddly details, like buttonholes, in making the Aster shirt. Sewing clothes, though is not just about sewing techniques. Sewing clothes requires considering fit. Looking at those two Colette patterns again, I’m wondering whether getting that Amber dress bodice to fit snuggly is any easier, than getting good-looking buttonholes on the Aster shirt? The Aster shirt has a more relaxed fit, will this make it an easier garment?

Colette Pattern Skill Ratings

It made me realise that difficulty ratings are usually based solely on the techniques involved in making a garment. I have found getting decent fit to be so tricky, particularly when I started sewing clothes. In fact, I could probably insert an invisible zip or sew a buttonhole without any instructions at all these days, but have much more to learn about fit. Not only that, if I should happen to make clothes for someone else with a body shape distinctly different from my own, I’d need to completely revisit what I have learned so far.

So bearing this in mind, I’ve put together a list of early makes which had fit problems and those that were successes. And I’ve looked into how fit considerations were so important for the outcome.

1. Wrap dress

Overall Assessment:

This wrap dress (Butterick 5898) was one of the first items that I made and I have long considered it less than satisfactory. The fit in the bodice is terrible and from the off I have considered it a fit disaster. I have worn it but with an extra t-shirt layer underneath to fill out the bodice and improve the fit.

What went wrong?

I was so fixated on making a garment that didn’t include closures, because I thought that they would be “difficult”. Consequently, I chose a dress that had no zips or buttonholes, but I didn’t take into account how difficult it would be to get the fit right on the wrap bodice. I don’t wear dresses much so it was probably a style mistake too.

What would I do differently?

I just wouldn’t make this dress now. Looking at the bodice, a little tinkering would not suffice to get a better fit. I would have to completely redo the bodice, these are the changes I would have to make:

  • Changing the length of the cross-over which is too long.  I have a short body, and shortening the bodice would necessitate a re-model of the cross-over and its facing (by changing its angle) so that the tie falls at waist height and across the body far enough to meet the left-hand tie in the correct place.
  • Changing the front bodice as this appears to be too large with the exception of the bust measurement. The bust darts fall at the correct place.
  • Changing the arm holes so that they do not gape.

All in all, I have reckoned that I would be better off drafting my own wrap dress instead of trying to modify this pattern. I was so disgusted by this garment I got rid of this pattern! Never again!

Wrap Dress

2. Sorbetto top

Overall Assessment:

The fit on this Sorbetto top isn’t too bad. It’s always been wearable, but then I have revisited this top and made adjustments. The subsequent Sorbettos benefitted from these amendments.

What went wrong?

I listened too much to internet opinion. The Sorbetto is a popular “beginners” pattern and it’s free. Who doesn’t like to embark on a new hobby as cheaply as possible?

What would I do differently?

I have discovered that fitted tops are a difficult area for me, particular a top such as this which needs to be close-fitting. These are the changes I would have to make:

  • Enlarge the armholes, so that they don’t cut awkwardly underneath the arm. I made this change to this top, last year to make the top a little more comfortable to wear.
  • Enlarge the bust dart a little, this would make any gaping at the arm hole, resulting from it’s enlargement less likely.
  • Widen the back at the centre back line, to accommodate my wide back.

I would be comfortable doing these pattern adjustments these days, but it has taken me a while to learn that these need to be made so that a fitted top is more comfortable. Knowing this, I probably shouldn’t have tackled this type of top in the early days. I would imagine that the Sorbetto would actually provide even more problems if you really did need to do a FBA (full bust adjustment) and didn’t know / appreciate that you needed to do one. Beginners don’t always realise that most patterns are drafted for B-cups. The recent Sorbetto top pattern has been drafted for a C-cup.

Sorbetto Top Annotated

3. Goth Skirt

Overall Assessment:

The fit on this skirt isn’t terrible at all. In fact, I would say it is fine, but only after I added belt loops to the skirt. (This skirt was a free pattern from the Be My Goth website, now no longer available).

What went wrong?

This was the skirt that made me realise that I do need lots of ease in the waist. My waist seems to vary quite a bit during the course of a day. This skirt would literally fall down to my hips in the morning and sit on my belly after dinner!

What would I do differently?

I have a couple of ways for reliably handling this dilemma. The first is to build extra ease into the waist measurement to make sure it isn’t tight after dinner and then put belt loops on the skirt or trousers. A belt can be adjusted and make the skirt or trousers fit snuggly whatever the time of day.

Madelaine Skirt

Apart from belt loops I also find that wide yokes on my skirts and trousers are a good way to “mould” a garment more to my shape and I look for trousers and skirts with this design. I also find that graded (curved) yokes are generally better fitting and don’t gape at the back (more of a problem for trousers).

Here are a list of my early successes and why they fit so well. I’ve also included a pick of patterns that are similar to my “successful” make for reference.

1. Boho top

Overall Assessment:

I loved this top (Butterick 5357) from the moment I made it. I have made two versions of this top and I really must make some more.

Why was it a good choice of pattern?

The top is very loose-fitting and the “tighter” areas are fitted with elastic. I can imagine that just picking the size based on bust measurement and making up the garment with no alterations is a real possibility for this pattern.

Boho top

Boho top

Patterns that use a loose silhouette:

Clockwise from the top left:

Mccalls M6843 – loose fitting trousers. I know a lot of beginner project lists recommend making pajama trousers, but not everyone wants to wear those. I like these trousers as they would make excellent summer trousers and have some cute pockets

Wiksten Kimono Jacket – a fairly new pattern, but seems to be a firm favourite on Instagram.

Butterick 6575 – The pattern I used is out of print, but here’s a similar loose fitting Butterick pattern

Loose-Fitting Woven Projects

Why restrict yourself to woven fabrics? I was very intimidated by knit fabrics in the beginning, but are they so difficult? A stable knit fabric, in my opinion is just as easy as a woven.

From the left:

Inari Dress – This uses a firm jersey, such as ponte roma.

Hudson Pants – Joggers in a medium-weight jersey, such as sweatshirting or French terry.


Loose Fitting Knit Projects

2. Goth shirt

Overall Assessment:

Blouses and shirts were a no-go RTW area for me as those in the shops never fitted. I couldn’t have been more pleased when I finally made a this fitted shirt that …… well, actually fitted.

Why was it a good choice of pattern?

This shirt has princess seams and princess seams are your friend! Any design that incorporates them is a great choice for getting a shirt or dress to fit. You can always choose a size or two larger than that which will fit based on the bust/ waist / hip measurements and then tack the garment together. You can try the garment on and make tweaks to the seams so that it fits as snugly as you wish. Finally you can sew it up knowing that the adjustments you have made will work.

Patterns that use princess seams:

From the top:

Butterick B5526 – A great pattern with various shirt choices including a princess seamed variation

Style Arc Sussex cape dress – A dress with princess seams

Princess Seams Projects

3. Custom-drafted skirt

Overall Assessment:

This fits like a glove as it should! Interestingly, I found I had to diverge a little from the instructions to take into account my body shape, but it highlighted for me why it has been so difficult to find RTW clothes that fit.

Custom pencil skirt

Custom pencil skirt

Why was it a good choice of pattern?

Learning about pattern cutting, even in such a limited capacity has helped me appreciate considerations about fit that I wouldn’t otherwise have contemplated. Making a skirt from a custom sloper is probably the easiest garment to draft from scratch. There are many good tutorials on line and also Craftsy classes that can guide you through the process for trousers and bodice fitting.

Tutorials and classes about pattern cutting / drafting online:

Custom skirt sloper tutorial from So Sew Easy. This is the tutorial I used for this skirt.

A trouser fitting guide from Sew Over It

Leena’s bodice sloper

A search on Craftsy for all patternmaking courses

Of course, it takes time to build up your sewing skills, and making well-fitting garments in particular takes time. One of the most disheartening things as a newbie is making a garment that you don’t feel proud to wear. Who wants to wear a top you can’t move your arms in or a garment so loose that wardrobe malfunction is inevitable? I hope this post is useful for highlighting a few options for maximising fitting success or alternatively with the looser garments, making that illusive perfect fit not so necessary. As with other skills just taking small steps along the learning curve with each project can lead to real improvements in the success of your next project. Once you have a garment that fits well, it can always be a useful guide for when you try out a different pattern.

Happy sewing and learning to you all!

Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

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