Thursday, January 30, 2014

Just My Size

After yesterday’s rant, I thought I would explain how I figured out the proper size pattern for my figure after years of guesswork.

The McCall Company Sizing Chart

My very first apparel pattern purchase was McCall’s 8100.  I ended up with a pattern that contained Sizes 8-10-12, although my measurements were probably something like 35-30-36 at the time and I expected that the finished dress might be on the small side.    

The design has no zipper or button closure, but even so, it is horrendously oversized.  The finished bust measurement on the pattern is 41.5” – that means they are allowing a whopping 7.5” of wearing ease over and above the 34" full bust measurement for a standard Size 12.  If you would like to see the result, here is photographic evidence of the dress; the tie-back design is the only reason it fit at all.  

Sometime around 2008 I discovered  Suddenly I was exploring a fabulous online sewing community where thousands of individuals were well versed in a whole new language of FBAs, SBAs, and UFOs.*  I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about!  

In the ten years prior to finding the online sewing community, I was busy making dresses and costumes, and worked with an incredible costume designer in college where I picked up hundreds of random tips and tricks.  In the costume shop, I was the girl to go to if you needed to get a knot out of a length of thread, or if you needed a hem quickly hand stitched or a zipper unstuck during a quick change.  But I had never dealt with fitting anyone other than myself.  I was capable of putting an entire garment together, but never had to deal with choosing a size for someone or drafting a pattern. 

After years of trial and error, I confirmed that my frame was perfectly suited to a size 12 in Vogue/McCall/Butterick/Simplicity contemporary patterns (exclusive of a couple of minor alterations).  But why was that?  My bust and hips got a bit larger, and my waist smaller, but according to their fit chart, a Size 14 still looks like it should be the best fit.

Over the years, I have learned that The Big 4 (McCalls, Butterick, Simplicity, & Vogue) generally have masses of excess ease built into the designs.  Vogue patterns give me less of a problem in this regard, and Vogue designer patterns even less.  The most common exception to the over-ease rule is a strapless design – those follow the body measurement chart quite closely.

So why do Size 14s turn out too big, especially around the upper edge of the bodice?  I am rather long-waisted and usually add from ¾ to a full 1 inch to the torso length, have a slight swayback, and my upper back is straight up and down without the standard bit of forward slouch, but that does not account for the sizing problem. 

Years and years into the sewing game, I started hearing about something called the “upper bust” or “high bust” or "chest" measurement being the thing that should determine which pattern size is appropriate, rather than the three numbers given on the back of the envelope – who knew? - and where the heck are they hiding that number if it is so darn important?!  This upper bust measurement, after all, gives a much more accurate fit.  Gaining or losing weight will not significantly alter this measurement, just as losing twenty pounds does not narrow wide shoulders, or vice versa.  Altering those areas can also be a bit of a nightmare because you have to deal with shoulder widths, necklines, and most importantly, the armscye, so starting off with a pattern that fits through this area is much more important than the full bust, waistline, or hip measurements.  For a dress maker, the full bust measurement is probably the worst indicator of overall body size of a woman.  Which is ironic, since many vintage patterns are only stamped with that single measurement. 

According to McCall’s chart, the upper bust measurement is 2” less than the full bust on their patterns (this is standard for most patterns as they draft for a B cup, which equates to a 2” difference between the high bust and full bust measurements).  My upper bust measurement is 34” which would put me in a size . .  .14.  Aargh!  That can’t be right?! 

However, it takes more than four or five basic measurements to create a standard bodice block and to describe a person’s complicated three dimensional form.  My upper torso seems to be narrower than average for my size (having to take in just about every halter design I have sewn up at the upper bodice has confirmed this fact for me).  

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the culprit: 3-4" of ease for a "fitted" dress - are they out of their minds?!

Instead, it works much better for me to start with a Size 12, which fits through the shoulders and upper torso, and make adjustments such as adding length to a bodice, or width through the hips.  As a dress enthusiast, I like to think of the shoulders and neckline as the foundation of my garments – of course, a skirt or pair of pants requires a different perspective (for those separates I start with the hips and alter to fit the waist as necessary, and for strapless designs I use the waist as the foundation.)

Some new "Custom Fit" designs offer a range of cup sizes in a single pattern envelope: A/B, C, D.  While I am technically a C cup these days, my attempts with the C cup bodice blocks have been rather dismal - probably because my torso is shaped like more of a rectangle than an inverted triangle.  The extra ease given to the C bodice turns out much too wide through the upper bodice/back area for me.  

Vintage patterns are especially tricky because all you get is a single size option.  I generally will only purchase vintage patterns with a 34" or 36” bust because I am lazy and would rather spend my time sewing than grading pattern pieces.  A 34" vintage pattern generally works as well as a Size 12 contemporary Vogue for me - that upper bust measurement is still at play and I rarely have to add inches for a bustline that measures three inches over the 34" sizing.  

For better or worse, every single pattern design is going have variations in ease chosen by the designer or the pattern drafter, which may or may not turn out just like the idealized illustration shown on the envelope.  Whether or not those finished measurements are appropriate for an individual body is what makes sewing challenging and a whole lot of fun!

So I suppose the solution to finding the right size is patience, and lots of trial and error - at least, that has been my experience!  Oddly enough, that first guess was the right one for me (regardless of the horrid fit of that first dress, and the changes in my body shape and measurements over the years, I keep coming back to a size 34).    

Keep in mind that simple alterations like shortening or lengthening bodice pieces, adding or subtracting width from a waist or hipline, and playing with full or small bust adjustments are much more likely to yield a proper fit than blindly following a measurement chart that may or may not contain your body measurements in a single size.  It took some time for me to realize that dropping the waist seam down by one inch would also solve the fit through my hips by moving those curves into the proper place on my body.  

And most important, remember that the full bust measurement on your pattern envelope is much less important than the upper bust.  And I haven't a clue as to why they would not include it on a basic sizing chart!

*SBA:  Small Bust Adjustment; FBA:  Full Bust Adjustment; UFO:  Unfinished Object

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Does Size Really Matter?

Last year I was contacted by Deirdre of Vintage Pattern Lending Library and asked if I would like to test a pattern reproduction for her.  Umm . . . YES!  But it gets better . . . one of the choices was a 1958 Ceil Chapman design!!  And I am somewhat partial to Ceil Chapman since I had such fun working on my Emerald Green Gown a couple of years ago. 

Now I have my very own copy of Spadea 1251 – and so can you!  How awesome it that?!  A glorious and rather complicated design has been made available for more than one lucky soul who grabs the original for crazy sums of cash on ebay. 

Sizing is a little bit different for Spadea designs than other vintage patterns – it assumes more extreme measurements than your standard patterns from the 1950s.  When I was working with my first Ceil Chapman pattern, I came across this site which has some great information about the brand. 

This pattern is copied from a vintage size 12/35” bust, so it would have been the master pattern from which the other sizes were graded.  The measurements are as follows:  35” bust, 25” waist, 36” hips.  There seems to be a misconception that this was standard for vintage patterns in the 40s and 50s.  And looking at images from the period, I can understand why!

This got me thinking about sizing charts in general, so I dug out a few of my 1950s patterns. 

The following sizing charts are from patterns in my possession that are from the 1950s, either by copyright, or by my best guess after looking at the style lines and envelope illustrations.  Here is what is listed as a Size 12.







Mail Order

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

(no measurement given)

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

They are all the same!  But more interesting than that, these are not exactly the va-va-voom measurements that one might expect.  Instead, they seem more appropriate for contemporary clothing and figures with less of an emphasis on a small waistline.

The only exception to this standard is Spadea.

Spadea, it turns out, used a ready-to-wear size chart for their patterns - which is more in line with the girdled and curvy figure ideal of the 1950s. 

For more of a comparison, I went to find what Gap Corp. thinks are appropriate measurements for a contemporary body (one which does not wear a girdle on a daily basis).  As expected, the size numbers are utterly ridiculous.  Our vintage size 12 with a 25” waist has now become a size 0/XS  (Bust32” - Waist25” - Hips35”).  This is not as extreme as the ready-to-wear size chart of the 1950s, but still caters to more curves than the 1950s pattern sizing, which I find strange.  Clothing that is produced today does not take these proportions into account, so what is the point of their size guides?

Ready-to-wear clothing in the year 2014 does not seem to follow its own prescribed measurements, just as contemporary patterns from the Big 4 tend to offer more ease than is necessary for their size chart.  The McCall Company’s contemporary size 10 is 32.5” -  25” - 34.5”.  That is more extreme than the standard pattern sizing chart used in the 50s – a decade that epitomized the wasp waist and celebrated the hourglass figure.  Go figure! 

When did sizing get so darn complicated?  And why is it that people are so hung up on the number found on a tag in the back of their pants – it is meaningless without some kind of context.  The rumors that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14 are, in fact, true – those numbers do not, however, have anything to do with contemporary American sizing, or take into account that she had a smaller than average waistline.  

So where did these arbitrary numbers come from?  Who decided that double digits mean a person is "fat"?  And what the heck does "00" mean?  Do we now long to occupy so little space that we disappear?  And in forty years will "00000" be the average size of a supermodel?  How many X's can you put in front of a size small before it becomes ridiculous?

Considering the variation that exists with the basic human body (a torso with four limbs attached including various squishy bits and fat deposits in different locations), it is a miracle that anyone looks halfway decent in clothing made to reflect an "average" build.  It certainly makes me grateful for the ability to make my own clothes!!

Yikes . . . that was not where I expected this post to go . . .

I am not sure what any of this has to do with a glorious Ceil Chapman design, but now that I have said it, I feel so much better and can get back to my happy sewing space!  

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dress Form Magic

I happened upon this short film over at Jonathan Walford's Blog and thought I would share (just in case you have not yet seen it!).

The collapsible dress form is extremely practical, but I never thought about what might go into the making of one.  Here is the answer:

And now I realize why a custom measured form costs so much extra!  I wonder what happens to all of those custom molds?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gemstones and Jewels

So I have finally managed to cull through the photos from my most recent trip to the De Young Museum with Mom.

This time around it was all about The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950–1990.  The exhibition should really be labeled “conspicuous consumption.” It is mind boggling to imagine anyone really owning one of these incredible pieces.  These jewels may escape the confines of their velvet prisons for a day or two on the neck of some Hollywood star, but most of their lives are probably spent inside a cold, dark vault.  Which is sad, right?  

I have the same problem with incredible vintage fashion.  It is meant to be worn, but its life will be shortened by daily wear and tear.  So it is better to preserve it in the pristine setting of a museum or vault, or should it be out in the world?  I am not sure which answer makes me more comfortable.  What I do know is  . . . I have never seen such gorgeous emeralds in person, and probably never will ever again!  Photos really cannot do justice to these pieces, and I am so pleased that I had a chance to see them with my own eyes.

A trip to the museum always gets me into a heated discussion with my boss about what deserves the title of “art” and what truly belongs in a museum.  He would never be caught dead in the Bvlgari exhibit (even though he visits this museum frequently).  He insists that these things are a sell out and that fashion exhibitions and the like do not belong in an art museum.

I did manage to get him into the Gaultier exhibit last year (but that probably had more to do with the fact that I happened to mention there were quite a few photos of attractive young models showing quite a bit of flesh).

How can something (even if it is made of fabric or mineral) with exquisite attention to composition, color, form, line, etc., not be considered art?  And is the creator of these "fashion" pieces not considered an artist?

I do not always want to see the suffering of the world on display – sometimes escapism is needed, even on the walls of a museum.  Can’t something be just about beauty for beauty’s sake?  Does it have to make some political impact to be important?

In my world, it certainly does not.  That may be naive, but it is how I get through the day.

Dress:  Made by me, Vogue 883
Bolero:  Made by me, Butterick 4927
Hat:  Vintage
Shoes:  Colin Stuart
Necklace:  Banana Republic
Earrings:  Shadows

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fabric Flaws

Without fail, flawed portions of fabric manage to end up front and center on finished garments, but are not so easy to find on yardage lengths.  Why?!?  

Over the years, I have found a way to avoid this issue . . . most of the time.

Before cutting, I always press my yardage which gives me the opportunity to look at the fibers up close and personal.  Even minor snags or imperfections get "stitched" with a contrasting thread – if I can avoid those spots altogether, I will!  At worst, they will work for a facing or the underside of a collar, etc. if there is a fabric shortage.  This takes very little time (seconds, really) and makes the flaws easily visible from the right and wrong side of the fabric.    

I am embarrassed to admit that when I started garment sewing, I used the selvedge as the center back zipper opening because I knew it would not fray.  This would often come at a cost – most pieces are not cut with an edge exactly on grain.  It seemed a piddling thing to worry about at the time . . . but I do not do that any more! 

Tightly woven selvedge edges must be clipped so that the fabric will lay flat and on grain.  Not all selvedges will create a huge amount of distortion (laundering will often exacerbate the problem), but it is good to get in the habit of clipping when the pattern layout gets close to a selvedge edge.  Linear prints and designs make the issue quite obvious, but most woven fabrics will benefit by tending to the selvedge.

There is no earth shattering information here, but I thought someone might find it useful!

Happy sewing, everyone!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Knitting Away

This is my second Knit for Victory project, although I doubt it will make the deadline.

A sweater that looks stylish in any decade.

Is it 40s, 50s, or 60s appropriate?  Take your pick!

The design is not actually a cardigan, although it has that look (and I have to admit that was my initial impression until I started reading the directions - whoops!).  The back is now complete, and I am starting to like the look of it.  The sparkly wool is from KnitPicks and, once again, they have outdone themselves with the color name:  "Fiesta"!

A big thank you to Subversive Femme for sharing this vintage treasure!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Butterick, Spring 2014

Butterick 6022

More new patterns have appeared in the Butterick Catalog!  I heard rumors of new retro designs, but never remember to check the pattern section at JoAnn Fabrics - I actually just got back from an emergency Bemberg rayon run and forgot, once again.  But there was the email about the new Buttericks when I checked my email.

Butterick 6022

Regarding the vintage reproductions:  are they the most amazing things I have ever beheld?  Not even remotely.  But I do like the off-the-shoulder-collar on the bridal design.

Butterick 6018

The other is very familiar to any lover of vintage patterns, although the empire bodice with the princess seamed skirt is something I do not have in my stash.

Butterick 6018

Love the cuffs!

Butterick 6019

This lovely design is classic Alfred Shaheen, and I am positive that Gertie was inspired by some of his vintage pieces.  It looks a bit like her bombshell dress.  

Butterick 6019

This slip is fabulous, but I would never want a knit slip - too much cling factor to deal with.  Perhaps a few alterations and some bias would make it possible to use a woven?  And it really drives me crazy when lace embellishments are only placed on the front (but that would be easy enough to fix!).

Butterick 6031

I am going to study the line drawing a bit more before making any decisions.

Butterick 6031

And speaking of line drawings . . . the mock up and pictures of the dress are nothing special, but the french dart design is very classic (and flattering!) and a welcome change from the standard sheath.

Butterick 6016

Not that I have children to sew for, but would it not be more interesting to have a children’s pattern for this fabulous coat, not just a doll?  I would actually love a version for myself.  Then again, I look nothing like a six year old Shirley Temple, so perhaps I should let it go . . .

Butterick 6000

And this is either completely charming, or really very scary.  Anyway, I think I need a fruit novelty outfit, complete with matching sunhat and rick-rack!  

Butterick 6001

Are any designs tempting you this season?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hashtag "Repurposed"

This dress has been living in my closet for a long time.  The label is Eileen West, and the style screams 1980s.  I believe my Mom purchased this at a garage sale years ago and it ended up in my closet.

I sometimes feel guilty about altering clothing (in twenty years will vintage enthusiasts curse me for destroying originals?), but the shoulders of the dress had considerable sun damage – I would not have felt comfortable wearing the dress as it was.  Also, the gray color was not doing me any favors.  The silky cotton twill, however, was just too lovely to ignore.

My original intent was to dye the fabric, seam rip the dress, and use the yardage to make myself a new dress (because the design is rather voluminous, there is plenty to work with).

But it only seemed fair to wear the dress out and take a few pictures to memorialize the original before cutting into anything.

Part of the reason the dress looked so frumpy on the hanger was the waist closure.  There was one button, two buttonholes, and a bent hook & eye.  My best guess is someone needed more room in the waist, so they moved one button, eliminated the second altogether, and added a small hook & eye that was sewn on for dear life (it took me five minutes to remove the darn thing).

Since Tulip Liquid Dye worked so well on the gloves for my gala gown, I purchased a bottle of navy blue for this project.  It is always hard to tell exactly how a dye job is going to come out, especially when working with a colored fabric.  And it was not clear if the hashtag/pound symbol/number sign print would be lost in the darker dye, but it seemed worth a try.  And it worked!

Then I had to find two buttons that fit the existing buttonholes.  As you might imagine, I have quite a few lying about.  But the size needed was absent from my collection of orphaned buttons.  I finally found the two remaining buttons from this project - perfect!  The sleeves are a very awkward length, but if I am going to harvest the piece for fabric in the future, I do not want to cut anything off, so I just rolled them up for the day (pegged pants were popular in the 80s, so why not pegged sleeves?!).

The dress is so easy to wear that I am having second thoughts about its destruction.  So for the moment, I am not sure what will become of this dress.  But it feels good to rework a piece that, for me, was unwearable in its original condition – all thanks to a bottle of fabric dye.

Dress:  Eileen West, repurposed by me
Shoes:  Hinge
Coat:  Banana Republic
Earrings:  1928
Bracelet:  Borrowed from mom

Sunday, January 5, 2014


I am not big on Resolutions for the New Year, but I came across this sentiment on Pinterest and felt like I needed to write this down so I am accountable (to myself, at least!).  No new fabric, unless it is so very exceptional I cannot live without it!

Since I have drawers full of fabric, it should be easy to reign in new fabric purchases, right?  There was that online purchase in December that I feel guilty about, but I am going to get over it.

So I am going to do my best to refrain from buying new sewing supplies this year, other than absolute essentials, such as linings and zippers, etc.  My Britex projects should quench the thirst for new, new, new.  At least it should . . .

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Return of the Vintage Vogue Pattern

Vogue 8973

I am relieved to see that Vogue has not given up on the Vintage Vogue line - two new patterns have been released in the new Spring 2014 Collection!  They are not the most fabulous vintage designs I have come across, but they have some lovely features.  But why do they continue to hide those plus difficile designs from us?!

The color on this one is yummy, but it seems an odd choice for Spring.  And the pleated bodice and box pleated skirt is jarring to me (although my opinion may change after I stare at it for a bit).  That straw hat is brilliant, though!

The Vogue 8974 neckline is quite interesting, but reminds me of Butterick 5214.  

The design elements are not exact, but the cut-in neckline and overall look is too similar for me to be super excited about the dress.  The jacket, at least, is new.

Vogue 8974

Perhaps I am just getting desensitized by all of the uber modern looks Vogue has been producing, but I really like Vogue 1384.  I do not know if I would ever choose to sew this up, but Donna Karan sure does know how to design a dress!

Vogue 1384

I also find myself very drawn to Vogue 1379, by Tracy Reese.  I am not sure about those tab things at the neckline, but the overall fluid look is just lovely.

Vogue 1379

There are even two new stylish menswear designs!  Vogue 8988 makes me want to work on a double-breasted suit - why does a man's jacket always have that great back vent while none of my jacket patterns include that detail?!

Will you be purchasing any designs from the new offerings?