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working without standard seam allowances

Lelly | Posted in General Discussion on

I’ve been reading a lot lately about working without standard seam allowances, or pattern manufacturers who don’t provide them. I’ve worked on a wedding gown where I didn’t use them, and since all the sewing was hand-done, had no problem lining up the seam (stitching) lines. My question is this: when machine sewing pieces that have no standard seam allowances, how does one line up the stitching (seam) lines without the parallel edge of a 5/8″ seam allowance as a guide? This is especially confusing on pieces that don’t meet flatly together (ie:princess seams, sleeve caps). Am I missing something that’s obvious?
Thank you so much!


  1. Ralphetta | | #1

    One way is to use a double wheeled tracing wheel.  You run one wheel along the seam line and the other wheel runs parallel at what ever width you select....1/2, 5/8, etc.

    1. Lelly | | #2

      That's a great tip. Thank you.
      I'm still confused though. One must still have a parrallel seam allowance in order to machine-sew pieces together? What's the point of eliminating them on patterns then? Is it merely to select a width you want to use? I've noticed that Susan Khalje has irregular-width seam allowances in her book, "Bridal Couture". Is this because the pieces are all being hand-sewn together?

      1. ValerieJ | | #3

        I'm not sure I'm understanding your question correctly, but here's my take on this. Different pattern companies allow varying sas. Simplicity, Butterick, Voge and McCalls generally allow 5/8" although in some instances (craft patterns I've used) they use 1/4".

        The KwikSew patterns I've used had a 1/4" sa. Patterns from Cindy Taylor Oates use 1/2" with an occasional 1/4".

        I've never used a pattern that didn't have sas printed on it. My understanding was that you need a sa, but you add your own. This gives you more flexibility where you need it for fitting.

        For instance, Palmer and Pletsch suggest adding 1" to the side sas when cutting out a pair of pants. That gives you room to fit through the waist and hips. To stitch on the actual sa, you'd stitch at 1-5/8".


        1. MaGe | | #4

          I usually have patters without sa (from Burda), but they recommend one. I always use my own wich is 0.5 cm (about .2 in). It means I have to draw it myself, wich is a little work usually. Some people only mark the seam line and cut without marking sa, so they have make shure to pin the parts correctly,which I think is even more work.
          If you want to make a lot of changes to the pattern while you are sewing your sample piece you should use a big sa (maybe even one to two inch).-Maria

          1. mariadelicia | | #19

            I also use burda patterns and I use the seam allowance that I think will go best with the model and use a double wheel to mark both lines (the seam and the allowance)Some people like to use them too wide ,but I don´t think that more than1" is necesary.

          2. MaGe | | #20

            I have to admitt, that I am sometimes very lazy and my SA will be small and the same everywhere. This, you can only do on a pattern that you know and that fits good. And you can't gain any weight, of course ;-)Wide SA is good, if you intend to change the piece of cloth, e.g. if you are trying out a pattern, or your size might change.
            Otherwise a wide SA is not neccessary. Exept you want to make special seams like french seam etc.

          3. Jumala | | #21

            This thread makes sense. I can create my shirt pattern using my pattern making software and use 1/4" sa. Then manually increase the sa in certain places such as the pocket or the collar/collar stand for easier sewing. OK.


      2. mem | | #10

        Seam allowances very according to the area of the seam sleeve seams are smaller than side seam which in high end sewing are left wide bothe bor strength and support in the garment and to make the garment alterable . Wide side seams are a really good idea as you will never have a "too tight " situation when fitting.

      3. cat42 | | #22

        I understand your question about lining up SAs so that the seamlines line up. the answer is that when you cut out the fabric, add your own SA so that seams that will be sewn together will have the same amount of added SA. for example, on a straight skirt, add 5/8" SA to the front and back side seams (or if you want to leave room for fitting, add 1" SAs to the side seams). Another example: If doing a set-in sleeve, add 3/8" SA to front and back armhole and 3/8" SA to sleeve cap. I suggest 3/8 inch in this instance because it will save you from trimming a 5/8" SA to 3/8" after sewing. but you could do 1/2" or 5/8", just remember to add the same amount to both armhole and sleeve cap.Small pieces or curved pieces like pocket flaps, peter pan collars, cuffs, often use only 1'4" SA since you would trip down a wider SA to 1/4" after sewing, so it saves a step. whatever amount you add, just make sure to add the same amount to pieces that will be sewn together.Why do patterns come without SA? When you draft a pattern, you draft the seamlines not the cut lines, and when you make adjustments to a pattern, you adjust to the seamline, not the cut line. Then once you have it the way you want it, you add the SA to the pattern as the last step before cutting from your fabric.Another reason for no SA is that most European patterns put all sizes together, superimposed on each other. It is much less confusing if they only superimpose the seamlines. If they showed both seam and cut lines, you could easily get confused as to which is which for which size. the idea with these patterns is not that you cut out the pieces as printed, but that you trace the desired size onto other paper, and then add your SAs onto the other paper (or simply pin onto your fabric and then draw the cut lines on the fabric with a chalkline).Hope this helps!

        1. Lelly | | #23

          What a concise explanation! Do you write sewing articles? Thank you! I really appreciate everyone's input on this. I understand now.
          Thank you,

          1. cat42 | | #24

            Well, I am a writer, but do technical writing for telephone industry and am working on a memoir. but I love writing and teaching. I'm glad this was helpful for you.My Mom taught me how to sew when I was 4. I had a tiny hand-crank Singer machine that I used to make doll clothes. I'm now 58 and have been sewing all these years. I have an odd body and always have to alter ready-to-wear, so I just sew instead. Now I'm learning to draft patterns for myself. That's a challenge.

          2. Lelly | | #25

            Thank you.
            I feel compelled to comment on your "odd body" reference. I don't intend to sound didactic here, it's just a note of support from someone who grew up believing my legs were shorter than they "should be" (they do their job: they reach the ground!).
            Until the 20th century advent of mass-produced clothing in this country: women's clothing fit their unique bodies. Some theorize that this development spawned the prevalence of eating disorders. I don't believe anyone has an "odd body". I think we're trying to make our bodies fit our clothing (and therefore, an arbitrary "ideal"). While sewing our own clothing helps, we still need to customize patterns to fit all the ways our bodies aren't "average". This seems to reinforce the idea that we deviate physically from this insidious standard.
            I find tweaking every pattern tedious and frustrating. I fantasize about an affordable, custom, easy to obtain sloper to work with. Sigh.
            Thanks again,

          3. cat42 | | #26

            Thanks for calling me on my own put-down. I just am frustrated because I cannot wear ready-to-wear unless I make so many alterations I might as well have made the whole thing myself. And I have to make so many alterations to a pattern that I'm tired of it before I even get my fabric cut out. but when I do finally get a pattern to fit, I feel so lucky! And I also feel proud that it looks good on me.

          4. Lelly | | #27

            I understand your well warranted frustration, it just pained me (and felt VERY familiar) to hear you blame it on your body, and not the clothing and patterns. Have you ever looked into having a personal sloper made for you, and then modifying it for different styles? I'm considering it. I would make up half a dozen slacks in different colors/fabrics. I'm modifiying a pattern for my son right now, and I agree with you: it does feel easier to start from scratch. I've been tempted to purchase one of those "Bonfit" sloper makers. Have you heard of them? Hmmmm.... perhaps that's another question to through out to the group.

          5. cat42 | | #28

            No, I've not tried Bonfit, but I've heard of them. My Mom tried something like that (perhaps that very one) when I was a kid. She had the same "odd-bod" that I have: short waist, long arms and legs, narrow, high hips and protruding buttocks, and puffy abdomen.Anyway, with the help of Threads fitting articles, I've been trying to make my own slopers. I have a great one for a bodice and have made several different blouses/shirt patterns from it: western style shirt, camp shirt, man-style shirt, dressy blouse, and two different "big shirts." Now I'm trying to make a fitted jacket with from-the-shoulder princess seams.And I made a straight skirt sloper, and then used it to make a pant sloper. That's where I ran into the problem that I posted yesterday (see "pants fitting"). I've also had the same problem with commercial patterns, so I know its not just my sloper.Here's url for the pants fitting thread:

          6. onequarter | | #32

            I think I am directing this to cat42 and to Lelly whose tennis match is teaching me a lot.Thanks for the "odd body" discussion. I am short in the torso with a developed bosom, long from the waist to the bottom of the hip and short, in proportion in the legs. I can remember looking in a huge mirror at myself in a deep green leotard and tights as if I were seeing myself for the first time. I thought if I exercised enough and got to the right weight I would end up looking like Verushka (dating myself here) or a ballerina. When I looked at that woman in the mirror who was short and sturdy, it was like lining things up with the prism in a single lens reflex camera. What a shock; but I'm better off in reality. I don't wear green anymore, ha, ha.I made out great in Judo where a low center of gravity is an asset.Because ready-to-wear denies that someone like me exists, I have always sewn and altered, just like so many of you.I have a great physical body that works and lasts. I just have to take care of it and care for it. I just will never look like Kate Moss, and if I did I would have a different life. I'm 61 and I like my life just fine. I can't waste time wishing I were different in ways that I can't control.Now about patterns and drafting:I did order the BonFit one time. I sent it back because I thought I could do better. I have a Dorothy Moore book on Japanese pattern drafting that is one of the best. The patternmaking instructions are very clear and everything fits. I made pants and a top when I was pregnant for my first boy. The pants didn't fit right for the second pregnancy (another boy), because my shape was not the same. I think this book is no longer in print. You'd think I'd be satisfied, but no...I was recently very brave or very foolish and spent my money on the "Pattern Drafting for Fashion Sewing" by Armstrong. I haven't had time to get to it since I'm preparing to teach skirt making to beginners in October and I have to get all my ducks in a row.I also have the full kit from Lutterloh. Even though these patterns are dated, all the classic lines and cuts are there. I have made several things by doing the pantograph thing. I think this system is underated, but over-priced.I have Japanese pattern magazines from the 1970's, although I never made anything from them.I also took a pattern alteration course a couple of decades ago that worked on the four major pattern companies and their fitting shell, doing these excruciatingly detailed measuring and fitting exercises for each one of the four to get a key so that you could alter the manufacturer's patterns. Too much work. Even then I knew there must be an easier way.Anyway, back to the studio. Thanks for the great discussion.I like your idea, Cat42, of just concentrating on getting the three basic slopers in tow first.

          7. antibelle | | #33

            "I have a Dorothy Moore book on Japanese pattern drafting that is one of the best."I have that book! it's the one with the techi-color 1960's illustrations? I like it too, and it is geared to home sewers, and is really just reviving what my grandmother used to do: drive by the local boutique, go home, spread out the sunday paper and make a pattern! Funny that it took going to japan to notice that. I was reading a thread on Fashion-Incubator discussion group about asian approches to patternmaking. Have you notice anything in using the Dorthy Moore book different than how we are taught here?I, too, am considering investing in the Armstrong book, and would love to know if it's worth it. This self teaching is a rough way to go, but very few people here in Arkansas teach it.also to Lelly, it seems no one is classifying the various types of seam allowance methods, and it seems it would be helpful. Such as - the basting and hand sewing seam lines is a couture method (futher reading in Claire Shaeffer's "Couture Sewing Techniques"), the 5/8" seam allowance is an american home sewing method, no seam allowance patterns are used in european home sewing, as well as bespoke tailors I believe (a la Saville Row), the 1" to 2" allowances are used in costuming (we're always ripping out seams and fitting an old costume to a new actor), and 1/4", 3/8", and
            1/2" seams are industry standards. Maybe that's rehash, but it seems there's a wide variety of different kinds of sewers and methods on this forum, and it gets mixed up.

          8. jjgg | | #34

            About the Helen Joseph_Armstrong book - If you don't know anything about pattern drafting, I think this book will be a little confusing ( perhaps very confusing) I haven't seen the newest edition (4th ed) but I have the 3rd, its what we used in class. There are quite a few mistakes in the book and if you don't have a clue to start with, it will really throw you off. The book is VERY good if you understand it, but it may be very hard to 'self teach' from it. It does cover many of the details of pattern drafting and has many styles in it.I wish I could offer more help, or reccomendation of a book to self teach, but don't know of one.

          9. onequarter | | #35

            To jjgg and all who are making this discussion so interesting. I guess we could start a thread on pattern drafting books. I now own so many. I should really make a list.Designing Dress Patterns - Helen Nicol Tanous 1951-1964
            Easy Style, Sewing the Classics - Elsebeth Gynther 1987
            Pattern Drafting and Dressmaking - Dorothy Moore 1971, '69, '68
            (yup, technicolor 60's and 70's stuff - it all comes back)
            Katinka School of Pattern Designing
            designing apparel through the flat pattern - Ernesting Kopp, etc.
            Pattern Drafting and Grading - Rohr 1952 - i love this one. I think that costumers for "It Happened one Night with Claudette Colbert must have used designes from this book.Finally it Fits - Ruth Amiel and Happy Gerhard - 1974I have some other old books - a couple of Mary Brooks Picken, well, you get the idea.These old books have inspired me for years. But, I haven't had much time for sewing until just recently. I'm glad I didn't clean everything out. The books all add seam allowance at the end of the process - making these books suitable for home dressmaking.Dorothy Moore's book illustrates making various styles from basic slopers, rather than drafting to a particular style, like the older Japanese pattern magazines.The Joseph-Armstrong book is going to be reference for me. I don't intend to go through it like a course. I won't be doing complicated seaming or cutting. I sew because of fit rather than a desire to be able to create anything or duplicate anything at all I see in the media. That separates me from the studious pattern drafters. In most things I am a process gal, but in sewing, I am very interested in having something to wear or use at the end of the project.

          10. jjgg | | #36

            You need to add Harriet Pepins book on pattern drafting from 1942, she has some fabulous styles in it (I love the 40' and 50's) I also have the Rhor book as well as numerous other pattern drafting books dating as far back as 1920, plus, I got an 1887 'pattern drafting machine' on e-bay (don't' ask what I paid!) This 'machine' is a set of 5 brass plates that after you take the persons measurements, you adjust the bars on the plates to the measurements and it gives you a pattern for a Victorian style bodice and sleeve! way too cool, But, the Pepin book (and many others) is available on line in its entirety at
            http://www.vintagesewing.info (one of my favorite sites)

          11. sewchris703 | | #38

            After 40+ years of sewing, I'm finally taking a pattern making class.  We are using Armstrong's book and I love it.  So much that I'm having a hard time sticking with the class instructor's pace and wanting to go much faster.  My other pattern making book is the 4th edition (1975) of Norma R. Hollen's Pattern Making by the Flat-Pattern Method.  Which is great but I could only figure out how to draft patterns on woven fabrics.  There are no mention of knits, lycra, lingerie, exercise and swimwear, or children's clothing.  All of which are in Armstrong's book along with strapless and boning.


          12. onequarter | | #40

            Hi all,I love the Dorothy Moore book, and thanks for the pointer to the Harriet Levin website. that is really thorough.I realize that having all these books doesn't get me any closer to clothes I can wear unless I use them. I take from each what I can use. None is perfect, although Dorothy comes close.I'm not confused by the Armstrong-Jones book anymore than I'm confused about any technical explanation. The high-end coffee pots seem to require an engineering degree lately - or a little time and attention. Step by step seems to do the trick. Anxiety makes understanding anything that much harder. The concepts are plain. When I get confused about drafting concepts, I make them up in soft tissue paper. I'm kind of a hands on person, but over the years I've gotten better and better at working things out from text.I like to have references handy and I'm a book collector. There isn't anything new, but there are different ways of presenting material. There are left-brain explanations and right-brain explanations. Sometimes a combination of the two is what I need.I'm now thinking it would be a good idea to type up a list of the drafting books I own. Oops, then I would have to confront how many I actually own. I keep telling myself that this is about sewing. This is about sewing. Back to the fabric and the machine. It reminds me about that greeting card I saw a few years back - an Englebreit I think:There is a signpost at a fork in the road. One way is "Heaven"...the other way is "Seminar on Heaven".It's pathetic on my part, but I can identify with that particular card.Carla

          13. customsewer | | #37

            To Antibelle and onequarter and Cat42 and the other participants who are interested in obtaining a personallized sloper --

            You might like to review several older discussion threads here on Gatherings about the "moulage" technique, which leads to a Genuinely Personalised sloper. Here are some links to specific messages in the 2003-2005 discussion threads:

            2630.7 in reply to 2630.6 

            4196.5 in reply to 4196.4 

            The Moulage is a book published on CD by Kenneth King, who publishes articles and is a guest expert from time to time in Threads. Basically, you use his directions to take measurements and then draft a muslin that fits like a sausage skin ("moulage" in French). This creates a representation of the True You in flat patterns. From there, it is a simple matter to add some standard ease, which gives you a truly personalized sloper. For equipment, all you need is a tape measure, straight edges, pencils and paper.

            I've also been sewing for 50 years and have a large collection of pattern drafting books (and not enough time). The vast majority of the pattern drafting books have you start with a major pattern company's basic fitting shell -- but for those of us whose body is just not the same as the pattern company's fit model, you would have to do extreme and time-consuming modifications to arrive at a well-fitting sloper. The advantage of the moulage technique is that you start directly with your real shape, not an approximation based on some ideal.

            Hope this is not too far off-topic for a discussion that started out about seam allowances.

            Carol in Denver

        2. HeartFire2 | | #29

          <<<< When you draft a pattern, you draft the seamlines not the cut lines, and when you make adjustments to a pattern, you adjust to the seamline, not the cut line. Then once you have it the way you want it, you add the SA to the pattern as the last step before cutting from your fabric.>>>>Cat42,
          To the contrary, in the fashion industry (commercial) you draft patterns with seam alowances. The notches on the corner of the patterns tell you if its a 1/4 inch or 1/2 inch or even a 1inch seam allowance, but SA are always there when drafting new stylesJudy

          1. cat42 | | #30

            well, I've never worked in the fashion industry, so I wasn't referring to what is done there. I was referring to what I've learned about pattern drafting from various Threads articles. There, you draft the seamlines and then add SAs afterwards. Because the seamline is where the fit is.Sorry if my response was confusing!

          2. HeartFire2 | | #31

            No problem, personally, when I draft patterns I do it without seam allowances myself. When I did work commercially, you would start with a "block" this is a pattern that is 'tried and true' - it has been perfected to fit the 'fit model' the company uses, and really any prior design can be used - if we needed to draft a new blouse design, we would find a similar pattern from prior seasons, - perhaps it had the right style front - darts, length, buttons etc, but now instead of a plain front placket it had ruffles and french cuffs instead of barrel cuffs, so you only had to make whatever changes were necessary.

  2. jjgg | | #5

    When sewing without standard seam alloances, what you do is hand baste the sewing lines - they are usually marked on the undelining - then you line up the sewing lines on the 2 pieces, and hand baste them together, then, you machine sew it and remove the hand basting - yup, there are 3 rows of hand basting that need to be pulled out. Lining up the 2 layers should be done by feel, you pin them and then baste them.

    As to what others were commenting on, in the "industry" seam alloances are for most normal straight seams 1/2 inch and for curved seams such as neck edges it is 1/4 inch - this doesn't need to be clipped or trimmed later, and for center backs wehre a zipper is put in its 1 inch.

    1. User avater
      Thimblefingers | | #6

      I agree with jigg.  I used to work in a theatre costume department and all sewing lines were basted first onto the fabric from the pattern piece then just cut out around with generous (because actresses lie about their measurements!) but not measured seam allowances.  The point is that the sewing line is ultimately the most important information on the pattern.  Seam allowances are then cut for a purpose - a fitting seam would have a larger seam allowance and a non-fitting (eg - neckline) seam would have less.   I use this method as it is much more accurate than matching up cutting lines which depend on the cutter's accuracy or the fabric or the sharpness of the scissors, etc.  This is also the method we used when I studied Apparel Design and Development.  Most Europeans are trained this way, even home sewers, thus understand the Burda concept of no seam allowances on the patterns.  Us North Americans have been somewhat spoiled and mislead by having seam allowances drawn onto the patterns for us, although on simple unfitted garments they are more convenient and, assuming our cutting is fairly accurate, adequate for the job!  

      1. MaGe | | #7

        It's true, that in Europe, whe are not spoiled by premade SA!
        Allthough, I would not mind with easy patterns. I usually draw my SA on the fabric. I have to be quite accurate in drawing and cutting, but for me it seems to be easier than basting. But some fabrics are difficult and it is better to do basting.

        1. Lelly | | #8

          So, it would seem the concensus is that without a standard seam allowance throughout your cut pieces: you would need to hand-baste everything together. Correct? I understand that this is more precise.
          Anyone else?
          Leslie (Lelly)

          1. mem | | #11

            no the hand basting is for "drawing in" the SA. you dont need to baste it TOGETHER unless you want to test fit.

          2. Beanhi | | #12

            After fitting a muslin I cut the whole thing apart at the stitch line. Without the seam allowance I can quickly trace the pieces with chalk onto the fabric. I don't have to worry about cutting accurately either so I save time here. Then with right sides up, I fold one side under at the stitch line and match it up to stitch line on the other piece. I hand baste into the fabric on one side and into the fold for the folded side. It's accurate and is quicker than ripping seams.

          3. jjgg | | #13

            <<<So, it would seem the concensus is that without a standard seam allowance throughout your cut pieces: you would need to hand-baste everything together. Correct? I understand that this is more precise.>>>Yes, this is how I was taught by Susan Khalje when I took some classes with her, and Claire Schaffer reccomends using a fine cotton thread for basting (and yes, this works better than silk thread, I've tried them both) the cotton basting thread will pull out much easier after the seam is machine sewn and will not disturb the machine sewing as it is much weaker thread and will break when the machine sewing has gone over it. I use the 60 wt cotton thread that is made for machine embroidery, it comes in all colors and is very fine, light weight. When you get used to hand basting the seams and the sewing lines it goes very quickly

          4. dotty | | #14

            I don't think it's necessary to hand baste the different seam allowances unless you've forgotten what size you've made them or your fabric is not an easy one to work with.Or where the seam alignments might be tricky such as attaching a collar to the neck

            Edited 9/13/2006 10:07 am by dotty

          5. Lelly | | #15

            Thank you all so much for responding and contributing to a great, informative discussion. What a great forum this is, and how generous you all are with your knowledge.
            Leslie (Lelly)

          6. midnitesewer | | #16

            Thanks, Lelly for asking this question. I'd read that one can use different seam allowances depending on the location of the seam and the fiber content of the fabric, but I had not thought about how to actually do it. Thanks to everyone who commented. I learned alot. This sound like a good idea for a Threads article with lots of pictures.

          7. stitchintime | | #17

            I have also learned alot from this discussion.

            Threads recently did an article (#122, pp. 42-45) on different industry seam allowances but only suggested marking the different seamlines and seam allowances on the pattern tissue.

            I know it sounds time consuming but the suggestions of basting the seamlines seems to me to mean that you only have to be very accurate once (when you do the basting) and then you follow the stitching line when you sew. (I assume this is after you've done all the fitting.) That way you don't have to remember where you put the 1/4", 1/2" or 1" seams. It's probably easier on patterns with no seam allowance to begin with.



  3. mem | | #9

    In high end sewing the seam allowances are cut off the pattern and the seam allowances basted in with silk thread simply done after the pattern pieces are cut out in a single layer It works well but is time consuming .

  4. onequarter | | #18

    Hi Lelly,

    What a good question. I want to say something that might be obvious to some but might not be to others. I am a literal person, and it occurred to me, when I read your question, that if I looked at having different seam allowances on a garment, I would not automatically think that the shoulder seams would have to have matching widths, I might be thinking that someone meant that they would draw a wider seam allowance on the back shoulder piece than on the front shoulder piece for some obscure but advanced reason I wasn't smart enough to think of (self-doubt).

    Please excuse me for stating the obvious, but I have made mistakes like this before. You can just imagine the "oh, oh" moments I have had, and will probably continue to have either because I rush too much before I fully understand (what, read the directions?), or just over-analyze and do the reverse of what I was supposed to do, or something equally dense.

    What I understand about changing seam allowances is:

    SHOULDER SEAMS can be narrow, because they don't need much adjustment (people don't usually gain or lose much weight in the shoulders.

    SIDE SEAMS: These can be wider than usual - one inch or more, because this is the area of dressmaking where the greatest adjustment is usually made.

    ARMHOLE SEAMS: Same here. There usually isn't much adjustment here, unless you're doing flat fell, or other types of seams that require more cloth for turning.

    The seam allowances that meet have to match in width usually. That is how we identify the seamline.

    That's just me. I need it spelled out, or I need to make the mistake to understand. That's one reason why we make muslins. I like to make muslins with my "ugly" cloth.


  5. Ra | | #39

    I have no training, so I just do what I think is logical.  When I use Burda patterns I machine baste them together.  When it's fitted I just sew on top of the basting.  I only pull basting a couple inches where seams cross.  This wouldn't work on anything delicate, but has worked fine for me on cotton dresses.

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