updated on 15 March 2018


&& stick in somewhere:

If the rectangle you don't need a pattern for is small, make a paper pattern anyway.  Having a pattern in the envelope keeps you from forgetting that piece, a piece with a pattern pinned to it is much less likely to get lost among the scraps, laying a pattern on a scrap tells you at once whether or not it is big enough, and a template allows you to measure length and breadth in one go.  But use the pattern as a template for measuring, not as a pattern for cutting.

Sometimes I'll cut paper to the correct width, write the correct length on it, then tear one end off to indicate that it isn't complete.

Table of Contents

Draping vs. Drafting

You can drape garments exactly like those made by flat drafting, but until flat drafting became common, nobody did.  In flat drafting, it's easier to make the shoulder seam exactly on top of the shoulder, and the side seam exactly at the side.  Draping is easier if these seams are displaced to the back.  Nor did someone draping a garment have any concern for how the pieces looked when laid flat:  an eighteenth-century garment looks very strange to modern eyes when it's taken apart to make a cutting pattern, and there was much more variation in the shapes of sleeve caps and the like.

Garment draping is much easier than flat-pattern drafting; you have the fabric right there and can poke and pull it until it's right, without really knowing any theory, where flat drafting is a sort of dead-reckoning process.  But your draping teacher has to be physically present, and flat patterns, being flat, can be put into a book.

If you get a chance to take a draping lesson or watch a draper at work, go!  Even a video can give you some insight into the process.

If you know someone who re-enacts an era before the first world war, he may well know about workshops where one can learn to create clothing directly on the body.  Such a workshop would be more to our purpose than the lengthier courses of lessons available at schools of haute couture.

Pattern and Design

Watchword:  you don't make clothes comfortable by making them fit loosely, but by making them fit right.

fitting &&

darts &&

design &&



Clothing Design

Patterns for plain clothes should, when reasonable, feature straight lines cut on the straight grain, the cross grain, or the true bias.  Seams should meet at right angles, or at angles that add up to a straight line.  Corners should be square.  Straight lines and right angles not only make sewing easier, they make the work more durable.

Don't carry the passion for straight lines too far — the human body is round.  Nearly all darts, for example, should be somewhat concave to accommodate the convex curves of the body.  Even when a dart is straight, you should stitch toward a point a bit short of the desired ending point, then curve the line of stitching in the last half inch or so, so that the stitching is nearly parallel to the fold when it crosses it.  This prevents the lumpy point that is apt to appear at the end of a dart.

But if a dart is turned to the outside as an ornament, it should be stitched along a straight line so that it can fold flat.  Any tapering needed can be accomplished by making several darts of different lengths.

Inside darts should be stitched from the base to the point for greatest smoothness.  Stitch for a while after the needle leaves the fabric, to twist the bobbin thread and needle thread together.  Then tie the twisted thread in an overhand knot, using a pin or fine awl to encourage the knot to lie as close as possible to the fabric, and trim the ends to about half an inch.

An ornamental dart should be stitched from tip to base, so that it can be sewn with a continuous thread to eliminate ends.  Begin by tying the bobbin thread to the needle thread.  The smallest and most-secure knot is also the simplest:  hold the two threads together and tie an overhand knot.

Turn the handwheel to bring the needle to a position where the tension is relaxed, then pull the needle thread somewhere behind the tension disks until you have pulled out enough bobbin thread to sew the dart, plus enough to thread the needle.

It seems as though the knot ought to cause trouble when it goes through the tension disks, but it usually doesn't.  (Usually, that is.  The thread has been known to snap when the knot hits the tension disks.)  I've actually stitched overhand knots into my seam, when I guessed wrong about there being enough thread left to finish the seam if I tied on a new thread to hold the tension on the old one.  (Don't sew knots in on purpose.)

Digression:  peek at your spool of thread once in a while, to see how much is left on it.  Saves being surprised.  When you begin a long seam that's going to take so much concentration to control that you might fail to notice that the needle is going up and down without making stitches, it doesn't hurt to take the bobbin out and look at it before you begin.

Fitting and Design

An article about something the author called the "seam allowance" method of pattern alteration was all slack-jawed over the observation that the pivot-slide method and the slash-and-spread method GIVE THE SAME RESULTS!

It's not surprising, because they are the very same method.  "Pivot-and-slide" is what you call slash-and-spread when you want to preserve your original pattern, so you make a copy of it — and to save time and tape, you copy the part to one side of the slash, then move the original and copy the rest in the position you would have moved it to after slashing.

And both are but a dead-reckoning method of pattern draping.  What happens when you drape a pattern?  You hold a piece of cloth up to the object being covered, and pin wrinkles into darts.  You can, of course, move a wrinkle before you make a dart of it.

In flat-pattern drafting, you start out with a good idea of the shape of the pattern and its darts, because your predecessors have been draping for thousands of years.  You measure the object that you want to cover, then change the pattern to match the measurements. For a good fit, you have to make a "muslin"* and try it on, so you end up draping anyhow, but drafting a flat pattern first saves having someone standing there fidgeting while you are trying to think.  Flat-pattern drafting is the only way you can manage if you are making something for yourself and haven't got an unusually-accurate dress dummy.

A lot of fitting can be managed without special training if you are patient, and look at what you are trying to alter.  When you see wrinkles running up and down, you are apt to think the piece is too wide — but take another look.  Do those wrinkles look a bit tense?  Perhaps the piece is too short instead of too wide; when you pull on a piece of cloth, you get wrinkles along the lines of tension.  In making a bed, you remove such wrinkles by creating more tension at right angles to them — but you want a bed sheet to be tight.

Since people breath and move, clothing is usually cut a bit larger than the body.  Not always:  Morticia Adams, in the TV show, was never shown walking:  stagehands shifted her between scenes.  Those of us without stagehands prefer skirts that are wider than our ankles at the hem.

The excess over body measurements is called "ease".  Woven fabrics require more ease than knitted fabrics, inelastic fibers such as polyester require more ease than elastic fibers such as wool, a fabric cut with the straight grain going around the body usually requires more ease than it would have required if cut with the straight grain running up and down, work clothes require more ease than formal clothes.

A close-fitting garment made of stretch fabric may have negative ease:  it is cut smaller than the body, and stretched to fit.

Sometimes extra fabric is introduced into a pattern as decoration.  This is called "design ease" to distinguish it from fitting ease.


If you want to do something radical to a pattern, first deprive it of all seam allowances, and make the darts into straight-sided wedges that extend all the way to the high point:  the center of the fattest part of the body part you are trying to fit.  Darts like this are called "designer's darts" to distinguish them from the shorter, curvier darts you would sew into a garment.  The stripped-down pattern is called a "sloper" or "block".  If you were to cut a sloper pattern out of heavy paper and tape it together, you would get a caricature of a human figure made of cylinders and cones.

When you flatten such a pattern again, you don't have to cut where you taped it together.  You can flatten a cone by cutting along any line or curve that extends from the circumference to the point, and you can flatten a cylinder by any cut that goes from one edge to the other.

This means that a sloper can be cut up and taped back together any way you please, and a pattern made from it will fit the same way as the original pattern.  Every time you tape a dart closed, another dart of precisely the right size and location will open up.

If you run a seam through the point of a dart, the dart will appear to vanish. Sometimes when taping a seam together, you will discover that the seam was concealing a dart. This is easiest to see at the side seams of skirts and pants:  side seams usually curve to make the waist smaller than the hip; if you close the seam, you must add a dart to do the same job.

You can divide dart control among several darts by making a cut at each place where you want a dart.

If you want a yoke across a dart, tape the dart closed, allowing another to open anywhere out of the way.  Cut the yoke off, then shift the dart in what's left back to the original position.  You will find that part of it has vanished into the shape of the yoke.  If the yoke seam passes near the high point, the dart disappears altogether, but the dart control is still there.

Princess styles are made by dividing the dart control between a shoulder dart and a waist dart, then drawing a seam through both darts.  On many figures, the most-flattering princess seam curves from a waistline dart into a dart extending from the arm hole.  The traditional to-the-shoulder seam is more economical of cloth, because the pieces are more uniform in width.


An alternative to thinking of darts as a way to create cones is to think of them as a way to make the edge of a piece smaller than its middle.  Darts are easily replaced by pleats or gathers, or, if small enough, by easing.

Commercial patterns tout dartless patterns as easy to make, but sometimes adding a dart makes construction easier.  If I wanted to make a smock gathered onto a yoke, for example, my first step would be to make the side seams parallel to the center front and center back, so that all could be cut on the straight grain.  This would almost certainly require a bust dart.


Once you have persuaded a pattern to fit properly, use it and use it and use it.

There are all kinds of changes you can make without affecting the fit:  sometimes merely changing the fabric and trimming makes a dramatic difference — my dressy pants are just my digging-in-the-garden pants made of silk or wool, with more hand work in the finishing.  Necklines and hemlines can be raised and lowered, collars can be any shape, sleeves can be short or long, full or fitted.  You can cut a pattern piece into smaller pieces and add seam allowances, creating yokes and color blocks.  You can tape pattern pieces together.  You can baste pleats into fabric before cutting it.

And there is quite a lot to be said for finding your pockets where you expect them.


Ideally, you will draft all your own patterns, or create a set of custom slopers that you compare printed patterns to before you alter them.  But even if you are one of the rare people who fit standard sizes, even if you are perfectly happy with patterns as they are printed, you should, early in your career, get a book that gives step- by-step instructions, draft a sleeveless bodice pattern, and make it up in cheap fabric just for the exercise.  It will take hours, but the time is well spent — if you understand how patterns are made, you will use patterns much more intelligently.

If you get a book and cannot understand it, it might be that you are stupid.  It might be that you aren't trying hard enough.  It might be that you are trying too hard, and reading too fast.  It might be that the author of the book doesn't know how to write, or doesn't know how to draft patterns, or isn't trying hard enough.  It might be that the book was meant for use as a text in a structured course, or it might be that you were supposed to read six other books first.

But the most likely cause is that the book just plain doesn't fit.  Just as clothes have to fit your body, books have to fit your mind, and not every book written in English is written in your language.  If one book doesn't fit, pester the reference librarian to find you another, and another, and another, until you find one that makes sense to you.

Don't overlook the children's library as a resource.  It is true that an appalling number of writers —and, alas, book buyers— feel that any sort of half-baked slop is good enough for children, but others are aware that young minds should feed only on the very best, and these noble souls will spend more time polishing and fact-checking a fifty-page children's book than they would spend on a full-length book for adults.

There won't be as much information in a child's book as there is in a longer work for adults, but that is all to the good — you won't have to sort the important from the unimportant because the unimportant isn't there.  Some of the important information will also be missing, but if it's a good children's book, you'll know enough to ask the right questions when you go back to the adult shelves.

No Pattern Required

No pattern for the basic item, that is.  Even the simplest object can have patterns for ornamental details, everything that's pleated can be pleated onto a shaped band, a broadfall closure on your skirt requires a pocket pattern and two waistband templates, and so on.

Aprons:  belly aprons, cobbler aprons, butcher (aka chef or barbecue) aprons, shop aprons, some bib aprons.  It is possible to make fitted aprons by cutting an apron shape out of a dress or skirt pattern, and aprons merge gradually into smocks and coveralls.


Sheets, blankets, and pillowcases

Tablecloths, place mats, and napkins

Diapers (infant's breechclouts)

Handkerchiefs, scarves, and furoshikis

Pleated or gathered skirts

Curtains and draperies

Bags and carrying cloths

Belts and sashes

Many styles of cloaks

Most shawls

Some capes

Anything made entirely of rectangles and other simple geometric shapes can be copied by measuring an existing artifact.

Quasi-historical account of clothing-design philosophy

I'm going to discuss clothing as if the designs developed in a neat and linear fashion, but in real life, fitted clothing developed before the invention of woven fabric, and possibly before the idea of making thread, as opposed to using whatever stringy substance came to hand for sewing one's animal pelts into pieces big enough to use.  It's often said that an expert can tell designs adapted from leather to cloth from designs developed after weaving became common, but as far as I know nobody has ever written a book about the philosophy of skin-clothing design.  The famous "bog jacket" that knitters love is sometimes given as an example; though it is made up as rectangles, like cloth, it is plain that the designers assumed that cuts wouldn't ravel.  (Perhaps the original, found in a bog, was leather?  Gotta Google.)

15 March 2018 -- I DuckDuckGoed, and it was found on Egtved Girl, and (duh!) the coat was formed on the loom, with the "cuts" woven in. And it was a "top", rather than a jacket.

(Did the eyed needle, as opposed to lacing through holes poked with an awl, develop before or after weaving?  Before or after spinning?  Writing this book raises more questions than it answers.)

Suppose you have just woven the world's first piece of fabric.  Even if you already know how to sew —and even if you've invented plying and can make decent sewing thread— you are not going to cut this fabric into bits and sew it back together.  You are going to wrap it around yourself just as it comes from the loom.

Countless garments are still designed on this philosophy:  scarves, shawls, stoles, blankets, saris, great kilts, turbans, sarongs, . . .

&& I no longer remember where I was going with this.  Pointed questions welcome.  Please ask some questions!

Pattern Paper

Two papers made specifically for patterns are called "oaktag" and "cross and dot".

Oaktag is a brown paper which, I judge by the name and the stiffness, was originally designed for making tags.  (I presume that "oak" refers to the color.)  Oaktag is excellent for making slopers and other patterns that you will trace around, as it's thick enough to guide the pencil.  I last saw oaktag for sale at a bookstore near Purdue; I believe that it's available in many places on the Web these days.  I have seen thin poster board that appears to be a reasonable substitute, if you want only a small quantity and don't need large pieces.

Since Oaktag cannot be folded without damage, it must be hung up by a hole punched in one corner or at a balance point.  If you don't have a lot of patterns, a nail in the wall will suffice; professionals buy special hooks for hanging patterns on closet rods.  (USD $7.50/dozen, on the first Web site I found.  This one was the hook off a coat hanger connected by a cord to a little stick that can be pushed through the hole in the pattern, like the plastic wires that attach price tags to clothing in stores.)

"Cross and Dot" is a specific interfacing-like paper, probably a specific brand, which I have never seen.  It's marked with alternating crosses and dots to facilitate designing — it's graph paper with only the intersections shown.

There are many non-woven fabrics made specifically for making patterns, some printed with guide marks, some not.  Choose one of these papers when you are going to use the pattern umpty zillion times, or when you are going to baste it together and try it on.

The only special-for-patterns paper that I have seen was too poor to use:  the texture was so coarse that marks made on it were easier to read on the surface that had been under it when the marks were made than on the paper itself, and it was practically invisible when laid on fabric.  I don't have any samples of this left, but the memory is indelible.

Good pattern paper will probably cost as much per square yard as fabric.

Non-stretchy fabric has been used for making patterns.  <dons Miss Thistlebottom hat> Properly, "muslin" should be used only for a garment that will be unbasted and used for a pattern; if you plan to finish the experiment and wear it for a while to be sure it's comfortable and suitable for its purpose, you should call it a "beta".  Of course, sometimes one intends to make a muslin, but it works on the first try, and it seems like a sin to waste the gingham, so a muslin turns into a beta.  </Thistlebottom>

I've used almost anything thin and flat that would hold still for pattern paper.

Some folks swear by exam-table paper, and buy it at medical supply houses, or get roll ends from their doctors.  I don't have access to exam paper, but I do have a small newspaper office nearby.  Rolls of paper too small to put back on the press still have many, many yards of paper on them, and newspapers will sell them for a nominal fee or even beg you to carry them off.  If you know of anybody who buys paper by the truckload, catch the office open and ask what is done with the scraps.

When dime stores were still around, they sold rolls of "shelf paper" that were good for making patterns.  The cheaper (thinner) grades of wrapping paper also work, but I don't like the color — I hang my patterns on nails, and brown patterns darken the sewing room.

Before gaining access to newsprint, I always checked after-holiday sales of gift wrap, looking for pale colors that were printed on only one side.

Once upon a time, one of my favorite stores put your purchases into flat bags made of a thin, tough paper printed with convenient quarter-inch stripes.

Many other flat paper bags are thin and tough, but when grocery bags were still available, they were a tad too thick.

Once, I inherited a roll of graph paper when a plotter was discarded.  This was very convenient, especially when drafting a pattern from scratch.

I have somehow acquired two packets of ledger-sized spreadsheet paper.  The lines and columns are almost as convenient as graph paper, and the paper is stiff and tough — very good for small pieces such as collars and hats.

I thought a roll of discarded wallpaper was a find, but the paper was thick and took up a lot of room in the envelope (this was before I acquired walls to hang patterns on), and it was brittle, breaking at folds and along tracing-wheel marks.

Two pattern pieces were cut from non-woven cleaning rags.

Packing paper is indistinguishable from newsprint, once you iron it flat.

Not terribly long before machine embroidery became popular, my favorite fabric store got stuck with a roll of stabilizer that they had mistaken for interfacing, and sold it for ten cents a yard.  This had all the virtues of tissue paper and none of the drawbacks — but by the time I realized how nice it was, they had sold the rest of it.

So I tried another cheap interfacing, which turned out to be stretchy and fuzzy and really easy to tear along the grain.

Typing paper does nicely for very small pieces.

Once upon a time, old newspapers were the only readily-available large sheets of paper, and were much used for copying and trading patterns.  See http://wlweather.net/PAGESEW/APRON_files/pattern.jpg.

There's a sleeve pattern cut from an old desk calendar hanging on my wall.

I even have one pattern piece cut from gift- wrap tissue paper.  Tissue paper is very fragile, but it has two virtues:  You can see through it, and commercial pattern makers can cram quite a lot of it into an envelope.  One more:  dropping a sheet of it over a middle-aged tomcat turns him into a carefree kitten for several minutes.

I've got a pad of tracing paper.  I find it a bit brittle, and you don't really need that much transparency.  A paper that is translucent by reason of being thin, like airmail paper or manifold paper, would be better, if it came in large sheets or rolls.  I presume that some tracing papers are tough.


*designers use gingham, nowadays, but muslin used to be the cheapest fabric and was, therefore, used for testing or draping patterns, so "muslin" has stuck as a name for trial pieces.

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The great kilt was called a "plaid" before we took plaid to mean the class of woven-in patterns to which tartans belong.  Both "kilt" and "plaid" originally meant "pleated thing".

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