Getting Started – You can be a dressmaker

McCalls 7531, a Learn to Sew for Fun pattern suitable for stretchy fabrics
McCalls 7531, a Learn to Sew for Fun pattern suitable for stretchy fabrics

I am often asked about getting started in dressmaking and am told wistfully that ‘I can’t sew or dressmake’. But of course, anyone can – and as usual, it’s easy when you know how! So I’ve put together some answers to some of the frequently asked questions.

How do I know what size pattern I am?
It is vitally important to take your measurements and compare these with the pattern measurements on the pattern envelope (also in the back of the pattern catalogues and on our website). Remember, your pattern size is unlikely to be the same as your High Street size, and indeed, can be 2 sizes larger. The good news is that unlike ready to wear high street shops, where a size 10 can be different in each shop, with our patterns, a size 10 is the same for all patterns.

Another Learn to Sew design, this time a hooded jacket McCall's 7511
Another Learn to Sew design, this time a hooded jacket McCall’s 7511

So, take bust, waist and hip measurements and compare them to the measurements on the pattern envelope. If you are over a C cup in the bust, take your high bust (around your back and above the bust at the front). Use this measurement as your ‘bust ‘ measurement and choose the size to make by this for tops, dresses and jackets. You can then alter the pattern for a full bust, without having to worry about the shoulders, chest, back and torso being too big.  There are easy steps to follow for a Full Bust Adjustment on the internet, and in many sewing books.

I am not the same size for bust, waist and hips so how do I choose a size?
Few of us are the same size for all parts of the body! Which is why the multi-size patterns are such a joy. You can cut from one size to another for bust, to waist to hip without difficulty. There are also lengthening/shortening lines on many patterns to help you increase or decrease the length to suit your height and style.

If you want to start making for a child, this is an great Learn to Sew pattern, McCall's 7111
If you want to start making for a child, this is an great Learn to Sew pattern, McCall’s 7111

How do I know how much fabric to buy and what sort of fabric I should use?
If you have a pattern in mind it is easier to know what to buy because you can look at the pattern envelope to see what is recommended. All commercial patterns show Suggested Fabrics as well as the quantities required for each of the garments included in the pack. Those suggested will definitely work well. (Even if you don’t have the pattern yet, you can check on pattern websites to see what is recommended for individual patterns – look on www.sewdirect.com).

If however you are buying a fabric you just can’t resist but don’t yet know what you will make, you just need to consider its suitability. Is it lightweight and flowing – will it gather or pleat for a full soft draping garment? Or has it got ‘body’ (stiffness) that makes it more suitable for a fitted garment such as trousers or shift dress, is it a thick material, suitable for jackets etc. The amount to buy depends on the garment and fabric width as well. Allow at least 2 metres for a top with sleeves, jacket or sleeveless dress, 3 metres for a dress with sleeves, 4-6 metres for a long dress with full skirt etc. One metre that’s 150 cm wide will make a pencil skirt or sleeveless shell top, but you will need more if it is 115cm or even 90cm wide.

I made this dress in a medium weight jersey. It's quick and easy and so lovely to wear (Butterick 6388)
I made this dress in a medium weight jersey. It’s quick and easy and so lovely to wear (Butterick 6388)

I am worried about cutting into my fabric in case the garment won’t fit properly?
It is a big step of course, so you can check whether a pattern will fit using two methods. I always ‘tissue fit’ first. To do that, cut out the pattern to the size you need. Pin out any darts, pleats etc and then pin back to front at side and shoulder, remembering to pin with a 15mm (5/8”) seam allowance. Slip this on, over underwear or light t-shirt and leggings only, and check – is the centre front and centre back seam running straight down the centre, is the side seam running down the side. If you need to add some tissue now is the time to do it.

You can then use the adjusted pattern to make a ‘toile’ which is a test garment in a lightweight cotton or calico (or if working with stretchy fabric later, use a stretchy fabric for the toile too). Use basting stitches (longest stitch length) to sew darts and seams and try on the test garment. Check it isn’t too tight across the bust, waist or hips, or too baggy at the neckline. Make any alterations by cutting up vertically and adding fabric to loosen the garment but take care you do NOT add extra to the neckline. There is a very useful booklet called How to Figure your Fit available from our website for just £3.95 – http://sewdirect.com/acatalog/copy_of_How_to_figure_your_fit.html

Unpick the seams of your test garment, if you’ve altered it, use this as your pattern or transfer the alterations to the pattern pieces. You can now confidently layout the pattern on your fabric and get started!

The instruction sheet shows you all the pieces included with diagrams showing the shapes and numbers of each piece
The instruction sheet shows you all the pieces included with diagrams showing the shapes and numbers of each piece

How do I know how to layout the fabric and pattern pieces?
Take a look at the instruction sheets that come with the pattern. In fact I recommend that you sit down with a nice cuppa and read through the instructions so you have an idea of how it all comes together. The instruction sheets really are full of so much information – number of pieces in the pack, what each section looks like. Which pieces are needed for each garment ‘view’ as well as tips on laying out fabric, what the shading and pattern markings mean.

Follow the layout for the garment you are making and the fabric width you are using.
Follow the layout for the garment you are making and the fabric width you are using.

For each garment or ‘view’ there will be a list of pattern pieces needed and a pattern layout for each fabric width. Mark the layout you are following for the ‘view’ you are making and the fabric width so you don’t inadvertently start following another if interrupted. Then place all pieces on the fabric as shown, checking placement before pinning carefully and then cutting out. Remember that the long black grain line on the pattern needs to be parallel to the selvedge of the fabric (bound edges) – this is important as failure to keep them parallel can result in fabrics being cut off-grain, which may result in twisted and sagging seams!

Cut OUT around notches, don’t be tempted to snip into the fabric as you may need that seam allowance when fitting later.

What are all the different markings on the pattern for?
These are helpful guides for where to make the darts, where and how big pleats, the position of zips, pockets and buttons etc. You transfer these marks from the pattern tissue to the wrong side of the fabric pieces using marking pens or chalk markers. I also always keep the tissue folded with the fabric piece in case I wish to refer to it again during construction. But always remove pins as soon as you can (I have left pins in a project waiting to be made for over a year, only to find they left rust marks when I removed them!)

A pencil skirt is one of the most popular styles and great for beginners (Butterick 5466)
A pencil skirt is one of the most popular styles and great for beginners (Butterick 5466)

The pattern says I need to interface some pieces, why is that?
Interfacing is an additional layer used to support specific parts of a garment, providing support and stability – in areas such as facings, collars, cuffs and button areas. You can buy fusible (iron-on) interfacing and sew-in varieties in white, black/charcoal and nude, in lightweight, medium and heavy weight. Use one that suits the fabric you are working – ie lightweight with lightweight fabric etc. Cut the interfacing from the same pattern pieces as for the fabric, but then trim the interfacing down by about 1cm all around. If using the iron-on varieties make sure you put the interfacing glue side down on the wrong side of the fabric (the glue side will be a rougher texture and slightly shiny). And to fuse properly you need to do so for at least 10 seconds – it feels like a very long time. It is very important to cover the interfacing and fabric with a press cloth and press with a hot steam iron for 10 seconds before lifting the iron, moving to the next section and repeating the action.

You are now ready to begin construction. Follow the step by step notes and it will be a breeze!

Next time I will continue with some basic sewing tips for stay stitching, darts, zips and seam finishingfor professional results

Author: Wendy

I love sewing and being Brand Ambassador for The McCall Pattern Company is a dream job for me. I've sewn all my life, edited sewing magazines, written 17 sewing books and written and starred in 10 DVDs - all on sewing! My aim is to promote sewing using the fabulous pattern ranges from Vogue, Butterick, Kwik Sew and of course McCalls - to show that is a fun and relaxing hobby which can result in stunning results.

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