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Successful dressmaking for beginners – a starting point

Deciding to make your own clothes especially if you are also new to sewing can be quite a daunting process to consider.

There are lots of reasons why people decide to make their own clothes, from fit issues with shop standard sizes to personal individual style. You might like the idea of knowing your garment is handmade rather than supporting the horrendous conditions some of our manufactured clothing is made in, or just the knowledge that when you turn up at a function NO ONE else will be wearing the same outfit!

It might be a combination of all of these, but what ever the reason the first thing for everyone is ….where to start?

Going into a fabric shop or looking online at seriously millions of options of fabric can be very seducing. The array of colour and pattern is so much more than you would come across in your favorite clothing shop. It might be so overwhelming that you leave with nothing or you might end up falling in love with a fabric and buying it because its gorgeous and not because its something you would actually wear! Then if you decide to make it into a skirt or top anyway because you have bought it and then don’t like it and then don’t wear it you could lose heart and give up on the whole idea!

I think a great place to start is at your current wardrobe and do a wardrobe analysis. This will help you identify  your favorite clothing shapes,  types and give you a head start when deciding what to make.  So in a Gok Wan style pull out 5-6 pieces from your wardrobe  that you love and wear a lot. Dont worry  if your favourite item is jeans or a t-shirt or something you wouldn’t think to sew, that’s all part of the process just be honest.

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Write the following headers down and decide which of these elements makes this garment so successful for you. Give each catergory a mark out of 5 if you like.

1.Shape – Think about the overall shape of the garment, for example if its a skirt is it a-line, straight or flared. What length is it? If its a jacket is it a fitted hip length jacket or a cropped boxy jacket.

2. Fit – Think about the way the garment fits you, is it snug fitting, semi fitted, loose or very baggy?

3. Practicality – Is this an item you wear quite a lot or something that only comes out once a year at best. This is all based on your lifestyle. You might be someone who needs lots of evening outfits for a hectic social life or the opposite might be true.

4. Fabric  – What does the fabric feel like? You dont need to worry to much about the technical details at this point think more about the weight and the feel, for example is it stiff or is it drapey?Is it light weight or heavy weight.

5. Detail – is there something special about this garment that makes you love it like the pattern or embroidery or buttons, pleating etc.

6. Colour – Is the garment a good colour that works with other items in your wardrobe.

Add in your own criteria if you have something specific that is important to you when buying/wearing clothes.

I did this exercise with my wardrobe, I think its always easier to understand by looking at examples. This is how it turned out for me:

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Paul Smith trousers:

I bought these when I had a whole row of posh functions to go to and my idea was to add different tops and shoes to wear with these expensive but gorgeous trousers.

Shape: I love the slim leg shape – 5 out of 5

Fit: These trousers fit snugly at the waist and hips and have slim leg so they are flattering if you wear a semi-  fitted top as well as a  loose top – 5 out of 5

Practicality: I bought these to wear to special functions with dressy tops because they are tailored this works but these days I hardly ever go to any posh do’s so I don’t need many clothes like this – 3 out of 5

Fabric: These are made from a fine pure wool, which is gorgeous and because I keep these for special occasions the dry clean side is ok – 5 out of 5

Detail: These trousers have a grey back waistband and welt pocket which adds that special element, I really like this subtle understated detail. – 5 out of 5

Colour: These trousers are black and for most people you can’t go wrong with black, however I am trying to achieve a more colourful wardrobe but for a classic piece such as these I am quite pleased they are black. 5 out of 5

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Great Plains linen top:

Shape:  Boxy semi fitted top, sleeveless but with slightly lengthened shoulders.  Top of hip length. 4 out of 5

Fit: Semi fitted, back darts give this top waist definition, no front waist darts means this top is loose over the tummy. 5 out of 5.

Practicality: This top is great in the summer with trousers or jeans, the sort of thing I wear loads -5 out of 5.

Fabric: This is made from woven medium weight linen, this is good in my books because I love natural fibres and I am happy it is not see-through. – 5 out of 5.

Detail: This top has embroidery and cut out detail at the neck in self colour which I really like and gives the top some interest, without this detail I think this top might as well be a t-shirt. 5 out of 5

Colour: Again its black which is really useful but a bit boring. 4 out of 5.

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Vintage blouse:

Shape:  Loose fit, raglan sleeve with high neck. I like this easy kind of shape with skinny jeans for everyday wear. 4 out of 5

Fit:  Loose almost baggy body shape, sleeves are loose but not baggy. This is easy to wear but perhaps lacks a little bit of style. 3 out of 5

Practicality:  Most of the time I wear relatively casual clothes so this top is great for my lifestyle 5 out of 5.

Fabric: It is made from a synthetic woven medium weight fabric. I like the weight but I would prefer it was a natural fibre such as cotton. 2 out of 5

Detail: It has a self fabric frill detail on the neck edge and cuffs which is what gives this top its interest. Frills are not something I would go for but as its on this shape it is quite subtle it seems to work. 5 out of 5

Colour: This top is pale grey, I am a lover of neutrels as they work with all colours so I am happy with this. 5 out of 5

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Wrap pleated bow neck top:

Shape:  Sleeveless with drop shoulder on a trapeze shape bodice with a matching vest top underneath. 5 out of 5

Fit: Loose fit in semi sheer fabric 4 out of 5

Practicality: I think this top works well dressed up with smart trousers or skirt as well as it does with jeans so for my lifestyle this is great 5 out of 5

Fabric: The fabric is semi sheer georgette which gives the top have a more dressy feel and also makes nice soft pleats. 5 out of 5.

Detail: the pleats and the bow are the detail, both work really well together and give the blouse a nice vintagey feel! 5 out of 5

Colour: Off white, really useful colour but perhaps a little worky! 4 out of 5

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River Island jeans:

Shape: Slim fit with a slight low cut waist but not hipster. 5 out of 5

Fit: These are fairly fitted but not skin tight and not cut to high or to low, they are very comfortable due to this cut and the soft denim.

Practicality:  Jeans are most peoples wardrobe stable, definately mine! I love the fact you can wear them with a sweater and pumps as well as high heels and a dressy top, I like versatile items it makes me feel like I am getting my moneys worth! 5 out of 5

Fabric: Denim, this denim has no stretch but is quite a soft handle for a such a heavy denim. 5 out of 5

Detail: No major detail apart from a blue gem button which I am not that keen on, but as its always covered by a belt or top its not a problem. 1 out of 5

Colour: Blue classic colour for jeans and seems to go with everything when its denim! 5 out of 5

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Toast biker jacket:

Shape: Boxy just below waist semi fitted jacket. This is my favorite basic shape for jackets its not to big and over powering so it seems more like part of an outfit which I think jackets should. I think this shape is flattering to my body shape. 5 out of 5

Fit: Semi fitted, this jacket is unlined which gives it more of a cardigan knitwear feel. 5 out of 5

Practicality: I love this jacket it works with skirts and dresses as much as trousers and jeans. 5 out of 5

Fabric: Soft wool boucle quite heavy weight but very soft, fabric feels like knitwear 5 out of 5

Detail: Biker styling, I love a touch of biker feel especially when its slightly out of context, because its made in wool rather than leather. It has gold metal zippers, which is quite a nice touch, although I would probably usually favor silver. 5 out of 5

Colour: Black, as before black is the easy option and for a jacket it is a useful colour, but would love this in duck egg blue or subtle tartan. 4 out of 5

Now you have this information there is quite a lot you can do with it. It takes all these elements of a design to make a successful garment but by breaking it down you can work out where to start. By choosing a basic shape you know works for you means there is a good chance your first handmade garment will be something you will wear and enjoy.

First have a look at your top rated shapes and fits, these really go hand in hand and can help you when you go pattern shopping. If you had a favorite trouser shape like my Paul Smith trousers you might want to look for a pattern similar in shape and fit to make another pair in a different colour. The style details can be different but if the overall shape is similar there is a good chance you will be happy with the end result. Be aware of things like pleats  instead of darts at the waist that would alter the shape.

Have a look at the practicality ratings next, if your ultimate favorite item is a beautiful ballgown that you wore 4 years ago and might wear again one day then this is probably not high on your agenda of must makes.  However if you need a different ballgown twice a month then go for it!Again its good to start off making something that you are likely to wear. Don’t fall into the trap of making a skirt because it looks easy, but you never wear skirts because you will still probably not wear skirts.

You might have spotted some gaps in your wardrobe! Perhaps if your favorite jeans were listed you might want to make something new to go with them, based on the top shapes you have identified as your favorites, perhaps one of these you already wear with your jeans but would like some new versions.

The fabric side is very important and I will do more posts about fabric but at this stage if you have your chosen clothing item take it with you and compare the weight of fabric in the fabric shop. For instance if you have decided to make some slim fit trousers they don’t need to be made from exactly the same type of fabric with the same fibre content but if you find something similar in weight and handle then it is more likely to work.

If you are new to sewing as well as new to making your own clothes then I recommend you look out for patterns marked very easy or easy. Most commercial patterns will be rated like this and lots of independent pattern makers will also give this information. Even as a total novice there is a huge range of styles you can make.

Hopefully you now have an idea of a garment you would like to make, with the best chance of it being something you will also like wearing. This is just a starting point I am all for experimenting and trying new things but I think its good to find your feet first, get to grips with making clothes, gain confidence. Then the world is your clothing oyster!

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Julia Claridge

I was about 6 or 7 years old when I had my first go on a sewing machine, it was an old hand crank machine that my mum used with her patients, she was an occupational therapist. I still vividly remember watching with amazement as the tiny perfectly formed stitches were created as I turned the handle. I Grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when buying clothes was less affordable and dressmaking was an answer to updating your wardrobe more regularly. My own mother was a talented dressmaker who made most of my clothes and my sisters clothes as well as a many for herself. I soon got involved with making my clothes, I loved the whole experience of picking out fabrics, trims and a pattern to create a new outfit, then going home to make a new garment or outfit. When it came to leaving school I visited a careers advisor who asked what I wanted to do next. My answer was ..Sew! Read more...

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