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Section 4: Sewing Basics/Reading a Commercial Pattern

I was actually going to skip over this post since I know that all of you already sew a bit, but then I realized that there are lots of great links and resources to use for sewing and decided I couldn't skip over all of that!

I also might have a few things that I might be able to clear up on a commercial pattern for some of you - you never know.

We're going to go over a retro pattern - Simplicity 6959 to be exact - because that's a commercial pattern I have used most recently and am familiar with. Much of the information I'll be going over is standard for any pattern so it doesn't matter which pattern you have. Interspersed will be links for sewing tips, tricks, techniques so don't worry if you already feel like you can read a commercial pattern perfectly - there are goodies for advanced sewists too!

Alright, so here is Simplicity 6959 -

The first thing you will want to look at with a commercial pattern is the back of the pattern packet.

  • What size is the pattern? You want to take a a look at what size the pattern is, first of all. This one is a size 10. Patterns currently being sold in stores are usually graded to have multiple sizes and some PDF patterns will ask you to draw your own seam allowances.
  • Take a look at the measurements. How do you know what a size 10 is? On this pattern, a 10 is stated as a bust of 32 1/2", waist of 25" and hips of 34 1/2". (Oddly those are basically my exact measurements.)
  • How much fabric do you need? This will correspond with the size you are buying for and should show the yardage accordingly. Take special care to note the width of the fabric and the yardage they recommend. This will correspond to your pattern layout that we'll discuss later. If you don't know the width while buying, a general rule of thumb is to slightly over-buy fabric. 
  • What does with nap mean? Without? A nap refers to the type of fabric that generally has a pile to it. Have you noticed with a fur fabric, the fur naturally goes one direction and looks messed up if you go the other way on it? That's a fabric with a nap or pile. Other fabrics that have nap will be corduroy, velvet, or suede. (Why would would make this romper in a suede I do not know, but I'm not going to stop you!)
  • Pay attention to the type of fabric you need. Is this a knit pattern or a woven? Generally, knit and woven patterns are NOT interchangeable. This is because a knit pattern is designed to fit more snugly due to the stretch factor and will include minimal darts and seaming that a woven would need. Oddly, this pattern specifies that it can be for BOTH knits and wovens. Back in the 70s, stretch knits were relatively new and most people didn't know how to handle them very well.
  • Sewing notions. This part of the pattern should tell you what you will need to complete your garment including zippers, interfacing, buttons, thread, toggles, hooks and eyes, binding, or anything else to create a finished garment. 
  • Pattern Pieces Given. I really like this one because when buying secondhand patterns, you never know if all the pieces are there. You can see that I went through the pattern and checked off all the pieces included. This is also important because you need to know if you have all the pieces you need to work with on any given pattern. This illustration will also help you with different "views" of the pattern.
  • Pattern View. On this pattern, there are 2 views - a romper or a long-leg jumpsuit. On other patterns there will be multiple combinations so you may have more than 5 views! 

Decide on your view, fabric, and let's go!

First, let's talk cutting layout and cutting your fabric.

Your layout is important because it will help you conserve fabric and lay out all of your pieces according to the grainline. Normally, most patterns will have multiple fabric widths that find the most use of  the least amount of fabric. In fashion design school, a cutting layout may also be referred to as a marker. Yes, there is someone whose job is to figure out the best way to figure out pattern layouts minimizing fabric waste!

You also always want to make sure you are cutting according to your grainline. Please see this link from Collette Patterns about grainline, selvedge edge, warp and weft of fabrics. You'll find that many home sewing patterns ask you to cut on a fold, but in production you will have a full, mirrored piece to plop down on fabric to cut out. When I make patterns, I am all about conserving my paper so I won't mirror my actual pattern piece unless it's an asymmetrical pattern.

If I have a fabric I am using that is scrap yardage and don't have a selvedge edge to go by, an easy way of figuring it out as that the fabric piece will stretch more crosswise than vertically. Why is this? Crosswise stretch will fit better to the body and your garment won't bag out if there is less stretch vertically. This applies for wovens, not knit fabrics.

Pay special attention to whether pieces are flipped on the layout (ie. wrong side) and take into account what type of print you are working with, if any. Extra fabric may be needed if you have a one-way print or chevron, or plaid.

During your cutting layout, this is a good time to figure out if your pattern has seam allowances. Most commercial patterns will have a 5/8" seam allowance all around. Production patterns however, tend to have 1/2" seam allowances with 1/4" on enclosed seams. This is something we'll talk about more once we get into pattern making. I find that the reason you are given a much larger seam allowance on home sewing patterns is to allow for any adjusting you might need to do on the seams. A production pattern has already gone through all the sizing/editing it needs if it's mass-produced (or even a hundred) so there is no adjusting needed.

Seam allowances and accuracy is why I advise to really only stick to using one sewing machine with your work. Why is this? Different sewing machines are well.... different. While it might make sense to have one machine set up for wovens and one for knits (accounting for tension, stitch length, needle types, etc.) it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to switch from machine to machine if you have multiple because you can't be sure you're as accurate. My general process is wovens for my sewing machine and knits on my serger. This is also typical of most designers. Lately, I've been finding a zigzag stitch on my machine for knits then enclosing with my serger makes me less panicky about knit-sewing.  My serger cannot convert to a coverstitch machine, so I tend to do a faux coverstitch on my sewing machine with a double needle.

 Pattern Markings - 

 Get to know your pattern markings! They will help you. The most basic ones are the straight grain, fold grain, stitching lines, notches, and places for adjustments. Never skip over cutting or marking your notch points! This will also help you maintain accuracy as you sew, making sure pieces match up correctly as you cannot always tell if a pattern is sewn right matched edge to edge at the end of seams.

Directions - 
As always, read your directions before you start. Most patterns have detailed illustrations, but I also find it's best to have additional resources on hand. One book that I have had since 2004 in fashion design school is The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing. I actually use my mom's copy of this book from the 70s and this is what she frequently referenced. The new edition is actually required purchasing in fashion design schools. I also own the Singer Sewing Book that has some great visual references. Many of these show up in thrift stores, so keep your eyes peeled!

Simplicity also has a great method called the Unit System of Sewing. I had been doing this for years because when you develop your own patterns, you need to have a general order of operations with sewing. I was surprised to find an image that was spelled out so succinctly a method I had been employing all along on my own.

Finishing -
One thing I do to all my garments is decide what seams are going to be exposed as in, not covered up by a lining or finished in any other way. This is mainly what I use my serger for, other than sewing knits.

Once I determine which seams will be out in the open, I serge these seams for a more finished look. In the past, this is why pinking shears were common.

Many new sewing patterns will advise you to use a binding around the edges of armholes versus armhole facings. This makes sense as lots of times I have to blind-stitch down my armhole facings so they don't get flappy and as a result, I have less of a clean look happening on the front of my garments. 

Now I am definitely not going to go through all the sewing techniques there are - this is why there are books! But I am going to provide you all with some links that I think are worth looking at for great sewing and ease of sewing. Please reference Burda for many useful sewing techniques on just about anything you might need to know!

Helpful links:  
Before you sew. 
Basics of sewing machine needles. 
Choosing the right type of fabric for your project. 
Choosing the right type of thread. 
Zipper tips and tricks. 
Sewing curves.

Pinterest also has really great tutorials and techniques as well! Don't be afraid to reference things - even pros do! It's better to reference and do it correctly versus struggle and get annoyed at something you're working on.

Learning sewing can be daunting - there are many, many things to learn and even after 10 years of sewing and holding a BFA in Fashion Design, I don't know everything. My suggestion is to get the basics down and then gradually build by adding on a new technique here and there.

Typically in a fashion design school, sewing classes are broken down into Construction 1 and Construction 2 courses, with the second being more advanced sewing projects. The main reason these classes are offered is because as a designer, you should be familiar with how a garment sews together.

If you end up working in the industry, you typically won't have to do too much sewing due to a production team (unless you're a sample-maker) but you will have to know how to relate your ideas if you are a pattern-maker and guide your team in an assistant designer position.

An independent designer is going to work much closer with sewing as they will likely be doing their own sample making for each garment as well as doing their own custom design work. There are many pathways to go down as a fashion designer.

Take your time, have fun, and practice! I didn't feel comfortable with many of my sewing skills for about 5 years after I first learned. It's ok to make many mistakes. It's ok to have to rip out multiple seams. It's ok to even have to trash a garment! The most important thing to learn is that you learn something from all your mistakes. Get good at hiding and fixing mistakes! Rarely is a home-sewn garment 100% perfect unless you've made the same piece a bunch of times. The reason a garment from a store looks so perfect is because in production facilities, usually one person will be sewing the same seam or same types of seams over and over and over again all day long.

Don't be afraid to test new things out with sewing. If you find a process to be more comfortable, then do it. Everyone sews differently. If your garment is wearable and looks finished on both outside and inside relatively, then you are doing just fine!


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