It’s a tempting proposition, isn’t it? You’ve seen the Sewing Bee contestants knock up a top in 90 minutes and here’s a pattern here with
1 HOUR *
emblazoned across the top of an attractive selection of classic shell-tops and tank tops. You’ve a metre or so of a fabric you’ve been dying to use (drop in on our Tops & blouses fabric page if not!) and you’re confident that your sewing skills are up to a couple of darts, some facing and a bit of top-stitching. And truly, you’re not wrong – of course you can knock up a top like that in no time at all. It’s not even as if you’ve got Claudia bellowing ‘FIVE MINUTES!!’ at you – or Patrick arching an eyebrow at minutely mis-matched stripe.
What, we wonder, could possibly go wrong…?
If it were simply down to your sewing, then the chances are that you wouldn’t have a problem at all. We have lots of new sewers who call and email with fabric and garment queries and we love nothing more than offering encouragement and advice where we can. It’s a big part of what ClothSpot is all about – and it embodies the DIY spirit that many of us grew up with. It’s why we loved watching Jade’s creative enthusiasm on the Sewing Bee as much as we enjoyed Tracey and Joyce wrangling a complicated traditional pattern.
But pause. Did you notice that asterisk next to the ‘1 HOUR’ claim on the pattern? The one that usually indicates, say, a ‘Serving Suggestion’ on the front of a ready meal – or some tricksy terms and conditions on a special offer? In this instance, that pesky asterisk refers you to ‘Sewing time’. Your top will take no longer than an hour to actually sew. In the case of many of our customers – and even us – you could add in there ‘Pressing time’ and ‘Hemming time’ and you’d still have time to put the kettle on.
“Oh well” you might think.
“Yes it’ll take a bit of time to cut out or trace the pattern, lay it out, cut it out and mark it up. So maybe, say, two hours. Start after coffee and it’ll be ready by lunchtime.”
And you might even be right. If you were popping it over a standard-sized mannequin and not aiming to wear it that afternoon, then you might have a chance.
However what you might also have gleaned from the Sewing Bee is that in the third challenge every week – that ‘Fit Challenge’ – it’s all a bit different. Not only have they practiced their make beforehand and come with their pattern all ready to go – (or even in the final challenge, all cut out already) they also have the best part of a day to do it in. The reason? Not simply because there might be some tricky construction or finishing to accomplish and showcase – but mainly because the finished garment has to *fit*.
And there we have it. When you see that asterisk – think FIT. We fall for it time and time again even now after decades of sewing and really – it’s the biggest hurdle to being pleased with a garment you’ve made and actually *wearing* it. We refer you to our ‘Trousers’ blogs earlier this year – ‘Toile and toile again’. Making a trial version of your garment first – even if it’s in a bit of old sheet – is the key to success. Even if you’re embarking upon the simplest of patterns, not bothering with a toile is a recipe for disappointment. And really – we hate people to be disappointed. It pains us to think that a novice sewer might pick up one of these patterns and decide never to bother sewing again because what they created made them look and feel like a bag of frozen peas that’s been at the bottom of the freezer for too long.
If it makes you feel any better – we all fall for it. Neither of the two tops we made for this blog will be worn in their current unaltered forms.
Keen to crack on with our make, we didn’t toile it – but we measured very carefully. Our blogger usually wears a size 12 top, allowing for ‘swimmer’s shoulders’ and a small bust. Her measurements correlated to a Size 16 on the pattern sizes – although with previous experience in mind, we graded down to a 14 on the neckline. Bearing in mind that this was a ‘pop-over’ top with no side or back closure – just a button-back neckline, we should have realised that it was cut with quite a lot of ease – but nevertheless were unprepared for the fact that it was easily two sizes two big. That might not have mattered with a draping fabric, but we used a good-quality poplin more suited to a structured or fitted garment. The result was a pretty top that simply doesn’t fit and doesn’t even drape enough to compensate. Strike one.
Our second make was the sleeveless Curlew top taken from the Merchant & Mills Workbook, for which we used our Soft coral linen mix fabric.
In this instance we chose absolutely the right fabric – and although this was very definitely not a last-minute make, we do like the look of the result.
The sizing was a pretty close call. We measured to between a 12 and a 14 on the M&M size chart, so sized up, given that this top is cut on the bias and we reasoned that our linen would drape to compensate any oversizing. In fact those swimmer’s shoulders were only just accommodated – we’d tweak the back measurement in future. A bigger issue here was a bust dart that landed about two inches above our blogger’s actual bust. Again, a toile would have dealt with that – we’d simply have re-positioned the dart.
So if you really do want to make a top in an hour which you’ll actually wear, here are some tips for achieving that goal.
Make a toile first – or at least make sure you’ve made your pattern at least once up before and have altered it to fit you.
Choose your fabric wisely. The more fitted the top, the more structured your fabric needs to be, is a rule of thumb. A draping fabric won’t necessarily hold a fitted shape – conversely a fabric with too much structure will make a less fitted design look like a box.
Allow enough time to prepare, process and finish properly. Press your pattern pieces, prepare and press your fabric beforehand. Take time to press and finish seams and darts. It doesn’t take long to hand-stitch the hem of a top or shirt.
Beware of distractions – we know from our own experience as well as from conversations with our customers that finding time to sew is possibly the most difficult aspect of any project. Warn partners, children and flatmates as required. Feed, water and walk animals if necessary. Put some music or a film on and enjoy the process.
Don’t sew to a deadline unless you’re very confident of the pattern and fabric you’re using. (We can hear laughter at that one but really – it doesn’t help!)
These are the essentials – but we’d also suggest that you ask around. While we were thinking about this post, we had some very helpful conversations with customers about their experiences with various patterns. It was encouraging to find that we’d experienced similar issues with specific designs or pattern publishers. It reassured us that our problems didn’t always lie with mistakes we’d made. Just search for your pattern on the internet and you’ll usually find plenty of blogs and forums that have mentioned it – and of course you can drop in on sites like the Pattern Review or the Sewing Forum – tremendous sources of information and experience.
In the case of our Curlew top, a customer had the same experience with the dart (this despite her narrow frame, larger bust) and showed us how she’d repositioned it.
None of this is to imply that pattern publishers are necessarily at fault. We can point to fabulous examples of independent pattern publishers who have raised the bar in terms of the quality of the instructions provided with patterns as well as the sheer variety of designs available. Many sewers haven’t been taught to make garments at school, or how to read a traditional pattern – and so the clearly diagrammed (or even photographed) instructions that some publishers now provide, are incredibly valuable.
We’re excited to see so many more pattern publishers in the market than there were five years ago. We would be the first to acknowledge the complexity of not only designing a garment but also the technical and creative demands of grading, documenting and publishing a pattern that enables others to reproduce that garment to reflect their personal style. Yes indeed – we can all think of patterns we’ve used that had actual mistakes in them and there’s no doubt that a bit more testing and use of websites to document errata would help. More often however it’s the process of matching your pattern to your body that’s at the root of the problem. That’s why we’d suggest a little less of ‘1 HOUR* easy’ – and a little more realistic encouragement to to test out a pattern before you cut into your precious fabric stash.