We are so lucky! We take it for granted that our trousers have two legs of equal width and length and that our shirts button up evenly. We don’t even need to constantly tug one sleeve down to match the other!

You might think that this is such an obvious thing to remark upon but it wasn’t so long ago that merely draping oneself in a piece of cloth and cinching a belt to hold it closed was standard attire.

In some parts of the world, it still is: think of India’s flowing saris, for instance, or the traditional kimono of Japan, held together by its obi.

There is a science to making clothes to fit the body; clothes that are ‘even’ on both sides. It is called pattern-making.

As you may have guessed, that statement only applies to roughly the last 150 years. Before that time, all sewing was bespoke; done by hand and made to order.

Even that is not exactly true.

Only the wealthy could afford tailor-made clothing; everyone else made do as best they could. As you might imagine, those results might not have been… even.

What really revolutionised the clothing industry – indeed, what turned clothing into an industry was the sewing machine.

The first working sewing machine caused a riot. Angry tailors, fearing for their future income, burned down the shop of one sewing machine inventor and nearly killed him.

Fortunately, we’ve moved past those days; now we live in a time where we can buy all the clothes we want without having to endure multiple fittings at the dressmakers’ or tailors’, with a reasonable assurance that the clothes will be properly cut and sewn.

Besides the sewing machine, what makes such extravagance possible? Sewing patterns!

Today, your Superprof takes a look behind the actual making of clothes to see how they are measured and cut, how they are sized and why there really is no ‘one size fits well’ in off-the-rack clothing.

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Clothing Before Patterns

Evidence of sewing clothes dates back several thousand years but, for our purposes, we needn’t go back quite that far. The Middle Ages will do us just fine.

During this time, people who could afford it would contract a dressmaker or tailor to make clothing for them. Those skilled in needle arts were thus elevated into a position of prominence; to wit, Henry VIII had his very own Lord Sewer to make all of the clothes for his coronation.

Before the mid-19th Century, outside of the royal court, sewing was pretty much for practical purposes only.

Nobody had the time to sit around, dreaming of dazzling garments, nor did they have the money to buy shimmering cloth with which to make said garments. To say nothing of the fact that the average person had no need of shimmering garments.

The Industrial Revolution changed all of that.

It didn’t give people reasons to wear nice clothing but it made the possibility of clothing being more than just serviceable.

Machines could now produce low-cost bolts of cloth from which many articles of clothing could be made and factories sprang up to mass-produce clothing. They were able to do so thanks to pattern-makers.

Discover how you too can make your own clothes patterns...

You can design a wrap dress pattern on a form
A dressmaking form is a way to get a look at how well the dress will drape Image by Lara Gonzalo from Pixabay

Pattern-Making Particulars

Mass-producing clothing for men in varying sizes was really not so difficult; measurements are pretty straightforward and nothing gets draped.

Women’s clothing, on the other hand, proves a far greater challenge. Besides the greater variety of styles in women's clothing, things get much more complicated because there is no hard-and-fast ratio of the bust-waist-hip measurement.

That is why clothes-making was soon standardised through the use of patterns. These patterns are meant to accommodate body measurements of the average-sized person.

To be more exact, two main pattern-making techniques were designed.

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The Flat Pattern

Pattern drafting starts with a set of measurements.

Let’s say you want to make a pattern from which all of your future clothing will be made from. You will need to take exact measurements of your:

  • Neck, measuring at its base
  • chest (bust): wrap the measuring tape around your chest at nipple height
  • shoulder width: from shoulder to shoulder, across the yoke
  • sleeve length: measure both arms from shoulder to wrist
    • you will also have to measure your biceps and wrist!
  • Waist: measure the fullest part, if possible
  • hips: here also, you should target the fullest part
  • half-length: from the base of your neck to the top of the hips

And so you would continue, measuring your inseam, outer seam, thigh girth and so on.

Once you have all of these measurements, you would plot a sloper; a basic outline of your measurements.

In fact, you may want an upper and lower sloper and, if you anticipate making skirts and dresses, you might make a narrow skirt sloper. Don’t worry, you can always embellish it later!

The point of having a sloper is that you have a basic outline from which to make patterns. You might think of your slope as a two-dimensional dressmaker dummy.

You may also want to make it on something more resilient than paper; maybe paperboard or even a thin sheet of Teflon.

Once you have created this more durable slope, its name changes to ‘block’.

Pin your pattern to the fabric before cutting it out
You can make free sewing patterns from your own blocks Image by Maatkare from Pixabay

The Draping Method

If you’ve ever undertaken any sewing projects that called for draping cloth over a dress form, then you are already familiar with this method of making clothing patterns.

As its name implies, one simply drapes muslin over this form until the desired look is achieved, after which the design is transferred to paper to create a slope or the cloth itself becomes the pattern.

Using such a form is especially effective if you want to learn how to make your own dress patterns because it gives you a three-dimensional look at how the dress will drape and flow.

The Tricky Science of Sizing

If you endeavour to make clothing for yourself or members of your family, you will encounter one obvious stumbling block: not everyone is the same size. Or shape, for that matter.

How do clothiers use a slope or block to make clothing suitable for everyone? That is where sizing – grading is the industry word for it, comes in.

To make a graded shirt pattern, for instance, you would first trace your block onto pattern paper.

Then, using the centre line, the measurement that reaches from the base of the neck to the top of the hips as a baseline, expand or shrink the straight seams as needed.

Straight seams include the bottom line of the shirt and its sides. They are the best place to start grading because they run parallel and perpendicular to the centre line.

Once you expand/contract the sides of the shirt, you must also modify the armhole. For that, you would take away from the side seam – the lower part of the sleeve opening, rather than from the shoulder.

You would surely need a French curve ruler to make sure the bow of the armhole keeps its proportion in relation to the shirt's grading.

The neckline is another tricky measure to grade; here too you would have to rely on geometry to make your adjustments.

It is important to know that slopes and blocks do not include any seam allowances so, as you adjust your pattern for size, do not forget to add an inch or two for this allowance.

Grading a pattern is not complicated; you may get a better idea of how to do it by looking at a Butterick pattern…

You can get sewing ideas from quilt patterns
You can learn how to sew and make patterns by following a quilt pattern Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay

Pattern-Making for Non-Clothing Items

The days when sewing was considered an essential skill are gone. Today, few practise home sewing and children do not learn to sew in schools anymore – at least, not public schools.

A recent poll indicates that rather than sew a button back on or mend a tear, most people would discard the item of clothing to buy a new summer dress and buying sewing supplies would never cross their minds.

Still, there is room for hope, judging by the number of Vogue patterns being bought and the sewing tutorials being watched online.

So maybe, instead of starting with an ambitious sewing project like a sundress or a gathered skirt, you could start by sewing something you won’t wear but may still display.

You could start with bag patterns. Sewing a unique tote bag would give you a good idea on how to measure and cut, how to follow a pattern… and you may even learn how to grade from a bag pattern.

Once you know how to sew bags, you could move on to something larger.

You might opt for a quilt pattern, for instance. A simple Internet search will turn up free patterns that you could download and execute – probably not in time to make holiday gifts this year but certainly by next year…

When you feel you are ready to start making clothing, you might start with doll clothes.

True, the sizes are scaled down dramatically but, once you get the hang of sewing those tiny clothes, you can look forward to buying your first sewing pattern and make something for yourself.

In all, learning how to make patterns for sewing is not difficult and, once you gain the skills necessary to do it, there’ll be no stopping you!

Now, learn all about pattern-making for fashion design

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.