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Patterns: Guidelines, not Gospel

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistake.” I’ve had enough experience to know that there are certain unassailable truths out there, in life and in sewing. One of those unassailable truths is that you don’t have to follow pattern instructions, or even pattern pieces, exactly as presented. Sometimes, by tossing them aside, you can even get more satisfying results.

Face it? Not necessarily
Let’s start with one of my favorite targets for change: facings. On most garment patterns, sleeveless armholes and necklines have facing pieces. But if you look at ready-to-wear garments, you’ll notice they skip facings entirely. And so do I in most cases! Here’s an example that I just made recently, Vogue 8305. This pattern contains a wardrobe that includes a dress. The pattern instructions call for cutting back and neck facing pieces. Since I made this dress from a knit, I opted out of that step, instead, simply turning my neckline seam allowances in and sewing, as shown. This saved me fabric and time, and it also gives a clean finish with no chance of the facing flopping out or showing on the outside of the garment.

On another dress I made, this time from a woven fabric, I decided to forego the neckline facing of the square-necked bodice, with all its attendant understitching. Instead, I lined the bodice in self fabric, then treated the lined bodice pieces as one when stitching the bodice to the skirt and sleeves as you can see. This approach is great for light or sheer fabrics, where you want to eliminate show-through.

If one set of directions doesn’t work, try another!
Here’s a good example: Let’s say you are making a pair of pants. The style is perfect for you, and you love the lines. But the directions on how to assemble them (“Which side seam goes to which? Why does my pair of pants look like a skirt when I sew it up? Help!”) leave you confused, confounded and confuddled. Grab another pattern company’s instructions for pants and see if they make it any clearer. The quote above comes from me. I was making a pair of pants, but ended up with what looked like a long shapeless skirt. I grabbed the instructions from another company’s pant pattern, which told me to make each leg separately, then put one leg inside the other with the right sides together, matching the inseams, and stitch the crotch seam. Aha! Brilliance! Now I make all of my non-fly pants that way.

Zip it!
Another example of ignoring the directions and doing your own thing is with zippers. On many dresses, I place my zipper at the side seam instead of the back. This allows me to have a very clean line across the back of my garment, and it takes no extra skill or steps to install a zipper on the side seam. Many garment instructions call for a lapped zipper application. Often, I forego those for an invisible zipper, which gives a cleaner look in many cases. And when I am installing an invisible zipper in a garment with a faced waistband or neckline, I use my favorite technique for attaching the facing to the zipper (see the post on RTW Zipper Facings from June 6, 2007). Finally, on knits with lots of stretch (like my Vogue 8305 dress, above), I skip the zipper entirely and make the garment a pull-on. This gives a clean look, and also avoids any rippling that a zipper might cause in a knit garment.

These are just a few examples, but I think you get the gist. There are many opportunities for you to stretch your creativity. You need not follow the pattern directions to the letter. Take information and instructions wherever you can, and use them as they suit you the best. That’s how you’ll get the look and the approach that works best for you!


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