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Five top tips before you begin a dressmaking project

1. What kind of fabric do you need for your pattern?

The thing you need to know before you begin on a new sewing project is what kind of fabric your pattern calls for – knit or woven, drapey or stiff, stretchy or stable, light or heavyweight?

Whether the pattern is designed for knit or woven fabrics is important as it will greatly affect how the garment fits, how it is sewn together and the ease of wear of the garment (we will explain what this means later). Most of the main pattern companies might put ‘Just for Knits’ or something similar on the front so it is easy to see at first glance. All patterns will list the suitable fabrics for the garment, usually on the back, and it is vital to pay attention to this. A highly structured fitted dress made from viscose or cotton lawn will fit terribly and look clumsy and a flowing skirt or maxi dress made from cotton sateen will stick out and stay stiff and unflattering. So, before you buy your fabric make sure you are buying the right thing, you can always ask the assistant if you are not sure.

2. What size do you need to be making?

This is a question that has plagued anyone who has ever made a garment and the answer is that it very much depends on the pattern. Like buying clothes on the high street, sizes for similar garments can vary from shop to shop. I have bought bootcut jeans in sizes 12, 14 and 16 from three different shops that all fit me the same!

Sizing can vary from pattern company to company. You will need to check against the actual body measurements rather than ‘size’ as they could be in either American or European sizes and have no bearing on what we are familiar with in UK shops. Each pattern will list body measurements either on the back of the pattern envelope or somewhere on the pattern pieces. This sizing should only be considered a starting point though as there are other factors to consider.

Most patterns will also have a grid that shows either ‘ease of wear’ measurements or ‘finished garment size’. Ease of wear refers to the finish garment size minus your body measurements i.e., it is an indication of how loose or fitted a garment will be. This measurement can vary greatly depending on the style of the garment and can be an especially useful gauge to indicate which size to make the garment. If your body measurement would suggest you make a size 12, and the ease of wear means the finished garment measurement is 13cms bigger than your body measurement, you may wish to size down in order to gain a closer fit. Knit garments often have negative ease, this means the finished garment is smaller than your body measurements to utilise the stretch of the knit. Make sure you read through the sizing suggestions for the pattern and if in doubt make a toile (mock up) garment out of a cheaper fabric like calico or polycotton.

3. Preparing the fabric

I am often asked ‘do I need to prewash this?’ and my answer is almost always yes. Prewashing your fabric is good for two reasons. First, it allows the fabric to shrink before it is cut out. Not all fabric will shrink, and they certainly will not all shrink to the same degree with natural fibres like cotton or linen reacting differently to synthetic fibres.

Shrinkage usually only happens on the first wash so I would always recommend washing the fabric straight away at whatever temperature you will be then washing it as a garment. The second reason to prewash fabric is to remove any ‘dressing’ – this is chemicals that have been used in the production of the fabric.

Removing this dressing will not change the quality of the fabric but may make it easier to work with. If you have an overlocker, I recommend using it to finish off the cut edges of the fabric, alternatively wash the fabric in a net bag or finish off the edges with a zig zag stitches.

Again, this has nothing to do with the quality of the fabric but is about preserving the life of your washing machine by reducing the number of loose fibres coming off the raw edges of the fabric. Dry the fabric flat and if needed give the fabric a quick iron when it is still damp to reduce creases when cutting the pattern out.

4. The paper pattern and instructions

Before you start cutting the pattern paper it is a good idea to read through the instructions carefully. Read each step through before you begin and not rely on the pictures in the instructions only. I and many others have been caught out in the great ‘right side’ or ‘wrong side’ debacle where it is not always clear which way your fabric is supposed to face.

It might be an idea to draw and cut out the pattern pieces scaled down on paper with one side clearly marked as right and the other wrong and see if you can picture how the garment goes together, this can often help you figure out the instructions. The cutting layout is also especially important to study, you may be tempted to alter your layout to save on fabric, but you need to be careful with fabrics that have directional patterns or nap as this can greatly affect where the pattern pieces go in the layout.

Before you cut the paper pattern out ensure you are cutting the correct pieces in the correct size.

5. The fabric cut

Before you start cutting the pattern pieces out check that you have laid them all in the correct place and the right way up and make sure you know how many of each piece you need to cut. In some patterns you may need to cut four pieces so the same pattern piece will need to move and be used again. Follow that old saying ‘measure twice, cut once’, so before you cut any fabric be sure it is right.

Once the fabric is cut out ensure that all markers, darts and notches have been transferred to your fabric – use chalk, tracing wheel and carbon paper or hand stitching, whatever you find easiest.

Before you unpin the fabric check it over one last time to be certain you have all the correct pieces, there is nothing worse than discovering you failed to copy over a dart and now must try to line the paper back up again! When you are certain everything is as it should be you can now begin your sewing.

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