How to Alter a New Pattern Using an Old Favorite

The sun here hurts my skin.  After suffering through three summers, I decided to make a sun jacket from hemp silk.  I like to gamble, in this case I married an unknown garment with an unknown fabric.  I could have lost.  Like a good gambler, I hedged my bets by using a simple pattern.

 (Simplicity 4044, no fiddly bits)

I won big- I barely take it off.  The fabric wears well, the satin side slips deliciously over my skin and the outside wears tough with a pretty texture.  The hemp allows the slightest breeze to penetrate.   I suspect part of the jacket love comes from the fit, especially over my difficult lower back:

I thought to make another exactly like it, with a few tweaks to the front fit but that’s boring- especially with so many gorgeous jacket patterns available.  Besides, I want more details.

Instead, I’m working on Advance 2690, View A.  I knew I needed to alter the pattern and decided to use my 4044 as a reference.

This will be a dry technical post for pattern geeks. 

(left- 4044; right- 2690)

The Advance pattern has more pieces with a hip-length peplum and waist seam.  I started alterations on the back.   The back shoulder and armscythes were similar enough to allow me to focus solely on the lower back.

I drew a line straight out from the bottom of the armscythe across both pieces, then measured down from that to find the correct CB length.   Next, I compared the length of the side seams.  Finally, I measured the newly marked seam line on 2690 and compared it to the back waist measurement (shown by an orange line on 4044).

Sudden realization: 4044 was a modernized re-print with ease built in to the design.  2690 is pure WW2 with zero ease.  While the pattern sizing indicates a 28″ waist and I usually take a 28″, this jacket would not fit me without the help of a girdle.  I will wear them with pretty dresses, but I balk at daily wear.

I eliminated one of the back tucks to make both waist measurements match.  I found it handy to have a pattern on hand with the perfect amount of ease already, no guesswork.

Despite the differences in cut, once I pinned the peplum to 2960 and performed my alterations, the two patterns looked remarkably similar.  I added ease to the peplum piece, using the 4044 measurements as a guide.

The front worried me less.  I made a standard 1.5″ FBA.  FBA’s larger than an inch or so tend to distort the armscythe, I often find they bite ever so slightly into my front armpit.  I tried smoothing the armscythe slightly, I’ll use the pen line as my cutting line and hope for the best.

When I perform a FBA, I usually make a new side dart by simply bringing together the cut edges of the pattern.  On my 4044 jacket, I noticed the dart hung too low and seemed to distort the side seam.  This time I made sure to re-mark my bust apex and the side dart points right to it.

To decide the width of the dart, I folded it out until the front side seam matched the back side seam.  I compared the front waist width on 2960 with the front waist width on 4044 and added slightly to the side seam while reducing the width of the front tuck.  Likewise, I added width to the front peplum piece.

Pinning or taping tissue paper gives me hives (if I badly alter a tissue pattern, I can’t start over) but sewing together my polytrace patterns before I cut my fabric acts as a happy medium between a muslin or no muslin.

My halfie:

The pull in the back comes from the tuck, and will work fine in the finished jacket.  I’m happy with the fit but not the photography.  My usual photographer has gone away for 9 days on vacation on an ecological field assignment.  He spent the morning snorkeling here:

I must make do the best I can for photography until he returns.

Besides refining the FBA, I wanted to allow my arms freer range of movement in my new jacket.  4044 slightly restricts forward and downward reaching, occasionally annoying.   As the intrepid wife of a tropical explorer, I must be able to swing from vines, ride camels, climb pyramids and brandish my whip without shucking my outerwear.

(From John Peacock’s Men’s Fashion, The Complete Sourcebook)
(From an Ebay Cache, 1930’s wool)
A back yoke and pleat will add a dash of complexity to the pattern and allow easier whip brandishing.  I’d like to make a pointed yoke to echo the pocket shape on the front, but I may settle for a simple straight yoke.  Notice the left jacket in the top photo- I see this double pleat over and over in WW2 military jackets and rather like it.  When I make the militarized version of this jacket I may incorporate the double pleats.  
I plan to make a back belt feature for this jacket as I’ve always admired back belts on 30’s active wear.  I’ll bind most of the seams and top stitch the darts and pocket tops, it works very well on my other jacket to keep the lines smooth. 
In a sticky impetuous moment I chopped off my ponytail.   Bad idea- I could pin it up and forget it before.   Now I have to wash my hair more frequently and the heat turns my hair stringy.  Lesson learned, at least I can still make a victory roll.  No makeup either, the weather is completely unglamorous.

Gentleman’s Waistcoat

I’m working on the waistcoat in Burda 2767 for my husband.  He asked for the Greatcoat; I figured the waistcoat would make a good removable interlining, and would afford me a chance to work with the fabric before sinking my teeth into the coat.  Last night I made the muslin.

The waistcoat is cut on generally the same lines as the coat, though the back is simplified:

This also allows me a chance to work on fit.  I knew ahead of time that waist length and shoulders might be an issue.  His shoulder seams never sit on his shoulders, and he usually has little hollows of fabric at the front shoulder.  These are things only a fit-crazy wife would notice.

Based on his measurements, I traced off a size 38.  Nearly every one of his measurements fell exactly between size 36 and 38.  Usually I just go for whichever size is closer; in cases like this I find it prudent to go for the larger size and adjust a muslin.

I took flat pattern measurements of the center back, the waist, the chest, and shoulder length on front and back.  Then I subtracted the size measurements to give me wearing ease.  I like to know how much ease I’m working with, otherwise I would just add or subtract based on size measurements/Husband measurements.  For example, if I didn’t care to know how much ease I’m working with, I could look and see that the waist measure for size 38 is 34″.  I could compare that to husband’s 33″ waist and easily surmise I need to take off 1″ from the waistline.  Incidentally, the waistcoat has 6″ of waistline ease.

My flat pattern measurements told me to shorten the waist length by 1″.  For some reason the chest flat measurement worked out to be perfect so I left it alone, and I took off 1″ total at the waist.  I did that by measuring .25″ from the edge of the pattern and tapering the side seam into it.  Shoulder length was correct.

Then I put it on Husband.  The fit was ok.  On the left, I trimmed and tucked the armscythe seam allowances, that made it sit smoother.

Again, the fit was just ok.  I could probably get away with making it up as is and no one but me and a few other picky-pickies would notice.  But I love my husband, and I think he should wear a well-fitting garment for once.  It makes you feel completely different about your body when your clothes conform to your build, rather than highlighting your “flaws.”   

Notice my finger, that is for your benefit to mark the shoulder seam.  Notice how his t-shirt sleeve pulls funny because of the forward rotated shoulder.   I consulted Betzina and FFRP.  I find both of those books good for diagnoses, but still somewhat lacking.  Anyway, I unpicked the shoulder seam, and adjusted it to sit where it ought to.

I had to pivot the shoulder seam 1″ forward before it sat where it should.  Then I unpicked the back yoke seam on the same side and re-adjusted.  From the neck to about 3″ down it sat beautifully, then the seam went awry.  I ended up taking about 3/8″ bow shape out of the back at that seam.  The seam on the back yoke piece became straighter.  I don’t really understand the geometry of it, but it worked. 

(Upper seam on back piece, adjusted with green chalk)
(Adjusted seam on back yoke piece, curve flattened slightly.)
After those adjustments, it sat beautifully on him.  I think there is a little too much ease through the chest, but I decided I can adjust that when I put the lining/underlining and exterior pieces on him before I sew them together.  They will act differently than the cheap nasty lawn I used here.  I see some funny wrinkles down near the bottom, that tells me that he needs a little more room in the seams below the waist.  
My instincts tell me the bottom of the waistcoat should hit at the top of his pants, or overlap a little.  Currently the waistcoat ends about 2″ above where he wears his pants.  I think I should lengthen it below the waist, to make it longer.  I hate editing the style of a garment, but I think it would be stupid to have the gap there. 
I hope when I make his coat muslin I can extrapolate these alterations and streamline the fitting process.
The next step will be learning piped buttonholes/pockets from Kenneth King’s Cool Couture.  One of the problems inherent in working in a sewing centre is the constant stream of temptations.  When I used to be cash-strapped, it was all well and fine to just avoid entering a sewing shop.  Now it is very hard.  I bought the book because it picks up where my Palmer Pletsch Jackets for Real People leaves me cold.  Don’t get me wrong, I think JFRP is a great book, but a little bit “home-sewing.”  K.King kicks it up a notch, very carefully lays down the law about equipment and needle positions, and takes no prisoners.  It’s exactly my kind of book, I sat down and read it one end to the other.  
So this week I’m practicing his piped buttonhole technique, no less than 10 times (Nancy!) or until I reach perfection.  I ordered the wool flannel from Charles Parsons, they delivered like lightning, special delivery, and it came on rolls.  Like I’m a fabric store.  I ordered charcoal for the waistcoat and black for the coat.  I find their lengths of fabric very generous.  In JFRP, they recommend putting a steamy wool setting iron on your wool for a few seconds to find out if you need to pre-steam it.  If it shrinks up, then yes.  Mine didn’t, I don’t have to steam 5+ yards of flannel!  Calooh callay!  
For lining, I’ll use a bit of cotton silk that dyed funny, and the interlining an old sweater of Husband’s that I shrank when he was still Boyfriend.   Recycling!
Finally, the buttons:

(I also made that Vogue 8379 wrap dress this weekend, but no witty remarks until I have a picture of it on and I know she loves it.  I fell in love with it myself while working on it, nothing but iron willpower prevented me ordering more rayon doubleknit to make one for myself.  Having a great time dyeing, no conclusive results yet but my fingernails are green.  For now, the flying geese have gone north for the winter.)

Size, Size, Everywhere a Size

( I love the secretly saucy cut of many vintage blouses. I have so many that look prim as can be until I move a certain way.)

I spent an interesting afternoon altering the pattern for my Simplicity 4044 blazer. This is a vintage revival pattern, made to fit “modern” size charts.

Problem: I don’t know my modern size. Neither for patterns nor for RTW.  For circa 1930-1965 I sew a 16 with mods:


(Simplicity, c.1952)

My standard alterations, in order of importance:
  • 34″ high bust, 37″-39″ full bust, 28″waist, 39″ hips.
  • .75″-1.25″ FBA (though for 1950’s I usually just lower the bust darts, maybe a .5″ FBA)
  • nip in the waist slightly (for some reason I have a little more room, maybe somehow extra spillover from the FBA. It’s a mystery.)
  • 3/8″-1/2″ shortwaist
  • 5/8″ sway back
  • 3/8″ narrow shoulder
  • For a 1930’s fitted sleeve, I do a FBiA.

With practice, a list of standard alterations becomes quick and painless. I know when I finish, the size isn’t a number anymore. It’s size Steph, and is perfect.

When I faced this:


I had absolutely no idea where to start. A fit newbie all over again. I thought I’d give a “quick” overview of how to effectively bend a pattern to your will.

Modern size 16- automatic pass.
Modern size 14- fit my waist, but not my high bust.
Modern size 12- fit my high bust, but not my waist. I could have sucked in and pulled the tape measure tight and fantasized that I have a 26 1/2″ waist, but why?

I don’t need to fantasize. I love how clothes look on my shape but I did not always feel that way. It took me a while to get accustomed to having a 28″ waist. I’ve always been slimmer. Then I had a baby. I’m fit, I’m strong, I’m healthy and my husband thinks I’m smokin’. Once I realized that, I gave up caring that my waist was a good 3″ bigger than it had been.

Besides, a well-fitting garment makes you look:

  • Rich- you can afford custom made clothing
  • Clever- you made it yourself, and it fits like a second skin

No matter your measurements, it is never ever a bad thing to look rich or clever.

Returning to the process:

Of course, you fit your bust by a high bust measure rather than a full bust because pattern companies draft off a B-cup size. High bust ensures that the shoulders and back fits as well.  Because the bust size for 14 was closer to my own full bust measure, and because I alter the back anyway, I decided to do a 14 with a smaller FBA.

I traced off the 14 and began my series of flat pattern measuring, starting with the back.

I drew lines where I measured:

  • 4″ below my back neckline
  • across the width of my back from underarm to underarm, at side seam.
  • Down the CB to the waist, along the seam line.

My back measurements dictated I had to do a LOT of altering. And the shoulder seam was much too long. Something wrong with the pattern.

New plan: Retrace size 12 for the shoulders down, tapering to a 14 at the waist.

I drew a line perpendicular to the grainline at the waist and chopped my pattern piece in half. I like to do that because I find it easier to play with the pattern above the waist. I took a 1.5cm tuck in the back from the waist up, parallel to the grainline, based on my measurements and ease calculations. The upper shoulder could have more taken out, and I probably will when I’m sewing it. That will be easy because I have a center back seam. I allowed myself 1″ of ease across my back.

Printed on the pattern was 5.5″ ease for the bust. Size 12= 34″ bust, 39.5″ finished.

My full bust is 39″. Add 5.5″ for 44.5″. I should add 5″ of ease.

I had 1″ ease across the back, I just needed another 4″. I hate doing more than a 1.5″ FBA (distorts things nastily sometimes) so I decided my semi-fitted jacket would be slightly more fitted. I won’t line it, which will reduce bulk.

I chopped my piece in half at the waist and only worked with the top portion to perform my 1.5″ FBA. I also chopped out the area of the bust dart and repositioned it.

AFTER the FBA, I measured the front waist. I measured again and again and again, somehow it was exactly right. I re-attached the bottom half of the pattern piece and graded the side seam.

I measured down the center back to the waist, compared that to my own, and took out a 3cm wedge, tapering to nothing at the side seam. Re-attached the bottom half of the piece, trued up the seams. The back seam looks weird.

Basted the whole thing together, tried it on, fit like a dream. Size Steph.

Sorry for the switching back and forth to metric, I find it easier to do my alterations metrically because seam allowances are 1.5cm.