Ease and Pattern Alteration- The Art of Being Lazy

Please allow me to unburden myself of all useful information I can think of relating to ease… Today’s post is a little wordy, but it all hangs together.  Be sure to let me know what I missed!

I had a hard time grasping the concept of  “ease” as an intermediate sewist.  For years, I only thought of ease as allowing me enough room to move- “wearing ease.”   I cast around for reasons my garments were over-fitted and stumbled across the concept of “design ease.”  The penny dropped.  That’s the amount of ease a designer builds into a garment for the purposes of design.  What makes a blouse blousy or a coat swingy?

Design ease.

Click the image to visit a positive blog post about curves from the blog Brains and BeautyEase is a very personal preference.  Some people prefer looser garments than others.  It’s common to confuse a close fit (very little wearing ease- it’s tight) with a good fit (skims the body with nary a wrinkle, but does not constrain movement). I think the photograph above shows good fit rather well.  It’s the same dress on two different body types, with very little ease.

As a general rule, I find that the more “fat” in a given area (everyone has it), the more ease will be necessary.  For example, the industry standard for an average woven “fitted” garment is 2″ ease through the bust, 1″ through the waist, and 3″ through the hip.  The breasts and buttocks are common places to carry fatty deposits, and in the case of hips the 3″ barely provides room to sit properly.

This is yet another issue I have with many plus-sized patterns- they provide the same amount of wearing ease as for other body types.  However, the plus sized body will usually feel more comfortable (and therefore more confident) with a little extra ease.

A tip I picked up about waistlines- if you find your waistlines consistently cut into your flesh when you sit down, try taking your waist measurement while seated.  I can’t remember where I read this, but it’s sensible.

Ease can also help camouflage ridges and rolls created by undergarments.  I like about 1″ – 1 1/2″ ease across my back for this reason.

It’s important to pay attention to the designer’s intended design ease when altering patterns.  It’s far too easy to alter all the design right out of a garment.  It may fit like a glove, but “over-fitting” will edit the design details out of a charming blouse, a clever coat, or breezy sun dresses.  Before I alter a pattern, I double check the design ease.

You can make design ease work for you. It’s a balancing act- as a general rule, the more design ease in a garment, the less it will need to be altered for “bulk.”  If I measure a blouse pattern and find it has 8″ of design ease through the bust, I won’t trouble myself to alter.  If I measure and find  it has 5″ of ease, I will alter gently (lazily).  If I measure and find it has less than 5″, I’ll carefully alter to my measurements.

First, decide on a size.

Second, draw a few lines on the pattern perpendicular to the grain line through the bust (roughly 1″ below the bottom of the arm curve), waist and/or hips.  Draw lines on both the front and back.

Measure each line.  Metric is useful here because it allows emotional distance from your measurements (vice versa if you’re already metric).  Besides, the standard seam allowance on most patterns is 1.5cm, which is easier to juggle than 5/8″.

Write the measurement on the line.  Take off seam allowances and darts.  I don’t get pedantic about measurements- I round to the nearest half cm or quarter inch.  Experience tells me it’s not worth stressing over anything smaller. (Though you should by all means if it makes you happy.)

Add each line together, front and back.

Double check the “size” measurements on the pattern envelope.  The pattern’s measurements you just took will be larger.  If you subtract the size measurements (in my case, 39″) from the pattern measurements (42″), you have an idea of how much ease the designer put into the garment.  I find this is very useful for altering patterns and preventing over-fitting.  If you’re lucky, the pattern paper will have the “finished” measurements printed right on the pattern.

Ease chart, courtesy of Butterick Patterns

If you’re new to altering patterns or drafting, you can also measure existing garments in your wardrobe.  If you have a blouse that is neither too loose nor too snug, then measure it through the bust, waist and hips.  You can make note of these measurements and it will help with your pattern work in the future.

One more type of ease: Negative Ease.  Negative ease is most commonly seen in knits, swimwear, activewear and lingerie.  The fabrics used are stretchy, which means that even when they’re made up with zero or negative ease, you will still be able to turn handsprings, sing, eat, laugh and reach the top shelf in your sewing room.  Negative ease garments skim the body closely.

I hope this mini-series on pattern alteration has been helpful. Now tell me, what is the most pressing alteration I should methodically photograph and explain?  Short/long waists and how to measure them?  FBAs?  Something weird you really want to be able to do but can’t find a good tutorial?  Let me know, maybe I could do one a week as a regular feature.

I have some Crowd-Sourced Tee patterns tweaked and ready, I won’t have a good block of time to sit and “electronify” them until Friday.  Friday!

Here’s an intentionally fuzzy preview of the near future:

Halter-style Indonesian batik dress with full skirt and uneven hem and pleat details?   Are those finger waves for summer?  Yes, please!


32 comments

  1. I love the ease table and thanks for the information about ease for movement and wear vs. design ease – that is very helpful.

    I have been doing an FBA on the pattern for my formal dress tonight – this is one of the most useful alterations I have learned about (and I am sure there is more for me to learn). I made up a muslin of just the bodice and had fun pinning it on myself to work out what needed adjustment. I am now going to have to see whether the sleeve will fit when it is altered and work out how to extend the collar (each piece / side does something slightly different) so that I can lengthen the bodice by an inch or so. My big alteration issue now is what to do with sleeves after you do an FBA?

    • If your FBA altered the position of the armsceye (armhole), but not the length of it — and if the sleeve fits your arm fine — you need do nothing to the sleeve. If your FBA necessitated adding length to the armsceye you’ll need to alter at least the sleeve head. Otherwise, you’ll have to gather/pleat the armsceye to fit the sleeve head, a look that always looks like a mistake, even if you planned it. You can add length/depth to a sleeve head: by redrawing only the curved top of the sleeve to match the new length measurement; by slashing and spreading the pattern piece until the top of the sleeve is the right length and then redrawing the top of the sleeve; and probably at least one other way that I can’t remember right now. You could insert a gusset to accommodate an FBA, without changing either the sleeve or armsceye pattern pieces.

  2. Your explanation of design ease is right-on.
    I have been sewing for a number of years and have gotten some fitting problems solved. But with age and weight/fitness changes (i’m diabetic and weight loss was important to help with control) I have different fitting issues.
    I bought “Fitting & Pattern Alternation” by E. Liechty, J. Rasband, etal and have found it very helpful. One thing I started doing is wiping my minds image of what my fitting issues are and photographing my self with a muslin on and going from there. The pants I am currently working on are better fitting than any I have made before.

  3. How and where exactly do you add the ease to a pattern? Do you add it at the seams? Or slash and slice sveral times or once? How do you manage to keep the shoulder line the way it is?

    • You can add it at the seams, or slash and spread. It depends what you’re doing. When I’m drafting from scratch, I’ll often add it either at the side seams or below a design feature like a pleat…. Unfortunately, there’s no real “X marks the spot” for patterns and ease, it’s another skill to develop.

      I’m not sure what you mean by the shoulder? I didn’t alter this pattern, so there was no danger of the shoulder going all funny. Do you mean during grading, or…? :)

      • About the shoulders: If you slash and spread you have to slash to somewhere right? And often this ends up on the shoulder. That usually results in a different shoulder seam shape. But since the garment hangs on the shoulder it’s the one thing you do not want to change. Or is there a flaw in my logic?

        • You’re right. The idea goes that as a size increases, the shoulder seam should increase the same amount. The slash and spread I mentioned is a common procedure for making patterns- grading. But it doesn’t seem to work that way in real life, especially for larger sizes, which is part of the numbers puzzle I’m playing with in regards to proportions… So you’re right and I believe the pattern sizing methods are wrong. Does that make sense?

              • Traditionally, a little bit of ease is added to the back shoulder seam, then eased into the front shoudler seam, apparently to allow for shoulder blades. I don’t usually notice the difference, I’m afraid I can be a philistine sometimes. ;) I love questions, not a problem.

  4. You’ve put a lot of thought into this very well-written and very sensible post… and SO TRUE! The number of times you see someone posing in their muslin and looking at bunching and wrinkles and ruthlessly snipping and darting to get rid of them, and you want to say, well, you may need those little folds so that you can actually breathe and sit down in your finished garment, (and maybe the stretched out wrinkles are just because the fabric is horrible decade-old sheeting, just maybe?! lolz!) Your charts and tips are very good, and would be even more helpful if you put in the metric measurements too… :))

    • Thanks Carolyn, that means a lot. LOVE the snark, and it’s true… A cheapie fabric will often behave that way. I’ll try to be more rigorous about metric/imperial… I figure if someone’s reading my blog, they’re likely to have a tape measure. Tape measures do have both metric and imperial on them… But yes, for helping everyone intuitively grasp concepts as they read, you’re right.

  5. I have a question for you… I just started belting over clothing, and have noticed that the belt likes to sit 1-1.5″ above where my skirts sit, or where I usually measure for bodice length. So if I’m measuring my waist and waist length for a blouse, should I measure to where the belt likes to sit? That’s generally my narrowest spot, and I would likely make a “wiggle” dress with the waist seam there.

    I’ve made a couple sundresses with the waist at my “skirt waist”. I think it works there because of the full skirts… makes it look like my torso is more than just bosom.

    • The place where your belt settles is probably your true waistline. I need to do a post on waists, waistlines, how to find them, where to measure… Been meaning to for a while. :) If making a dress with a seam at your waist is what makes you look like your torso is just bosom, maybe there’s some other factors to play with… Do I remember correctly that you also have a full bust/short waist issue? In that case, you can try tricks of the eye… For example, you can try a dress with a midriff section. The extra section just under the bust to the waistline will help create more waist definition. If you make the midriff in a solid or dark and the rest of the dress lighter or in a print, that can also help trick the eye. The other thing I’m playing with to “help” balance out full bust and short waist is to wear dresses with longer skirts. Mid-calf length is appealing to me right now, as is ankle length… It seems to make me look longer. I can share other tricks I use as they come up.

      • I believe so! I don’t know that I’ll ever understand all the terminology. My narrowest point is measured over my ribs. My skirts sit just below my ribs. I’ll have to try something with a midriff band. I’m afraid that that might also make me look like I’m “all bust”, since they are rather prominent. I love the idea of a dress like Colette’s Chantilly, though. I wonder.. if I did a princess seamed fitted top plus a shaped midriff band, how that would work. I already employ shaped underbust darts, which I find helps define things.

        • It’s a question of learning how and when to “define” the large bust and when to “camouflage” it. Maybe I’ll do a post on that, too. A dress like chantilly is the type of dress I would make for being comfortable, cool, and still well-dressed. However, the lack of strong waist definition or underbust darts means when I wear a garment cut that way, it adds 10-15 pounds to my frame. Sometimes I don’t care if it does. For the times I do care, I look for darts darts darts (the more the better) and midriff bands… I like belts for waist definition in a pinch, but thinner belts aren’t my favorites. Something about the proportion seems off.

          I also tend use very little gathering (for skirts, sleeve caps, bodices, etc) because I feel it adds bulk and “frumpifies” me. I like nice smooth lines and silhouettes, as a general rule.

  6. What always causes me the most trouble is the *combination* of fit alterations that want doing. If it was just an FBA, I could do that – but my bust is high as well as full, and I’m high-waisted/short-waisted, but just removing length from the midriff isn’t enough; I also end up needing to remove length above the bust as well – as if I were petite! Which, at 5’9″ in my bare feet, I certainly am not. I generally start with around a pattern size 20, so it may be that some of the problem is just the way patterns are graded up into the realm of plus sizes, without any particular consideration for (as you have mentioned) the fact the skeletons don’t keep increasing ad infinitum.

    I’ve found that I can make pattern alterations work in sleeveless, princess-seamed styles, by removing excess length in the back and adding extra fabric to the princess seams, horizontally, at the bust, in the front. I recall removing 2 vertical inches from the upper back of one dress – which was originally supposed to have sleeves! Not wanting to re-draft the sleeves entirely, I converted that dress to a sleeveless style. But I’m slightly mystified as to how to go about making ALL these changes, and still being able to have sleeves. I think sleeve-drafting from scratch is probably going to have to play in!

    But part of the problem is FBAs themselves – I don’t usually need more length for my bust, because there’s already too much length, but FBAs add length. When doing alterations, should I do a standard FBA, including adding length, and then go in and remove the above-and-below-the-bust excess length, front and back, or do length removals first, and then a standard FBA? Or something else entirely?

    I haven’t even had much luck trying to draft from scratch, because the usual formulas don’t work for my frame – they end up turning in on themselves weirdly because my proportions don’t line up. It’s very exasperating – and me with some formal fashion training and everything!

    I’m very much enjoying your posts on fit and I eagerly await more! If you have any tips on alteration order, I’d LOVE to hear them. :)

  7. Wow, that green goddess dress is amazing. Thank you for taking the time to write this and demonstrate–very well thought-out. i have to remember to measure patterns more often, especially when working with new companies or older patterns, to get an idea of what their fit is in comparison to my idea. I like blousy garments a lot but find that even those can be challenging if the design ease isn’t done cleverly. Add to this the differences in design ease in every decade. “Loose-fitting” from the 80s is insanely loose-fitting now.

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    • It’s a Full Bust Alteration. Most patterns are made with a B-cup size in mind, but I don’t think that’s the average anymore. So that means to get a good fit, a lot of sewists have to alter the pattern in that area.

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