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Let's Talk Patterns: Clone an existing garment

Getting to grips with patterns is essential in sewing. You don't need to know how to make patterns but you must understand their language. Grain-lines, seam allowance, notches etc. If you understand patterns then you understand design. If you understand patterns then you understand sewing.

I studied fashion design and have been blessed to work as a designer, a garment technician, garment fitting and making measurement specs, but mostly doing pattern cutting and grading. When I first pursued the study of fashion I don't think I intended to be a pattern cutter but for me it is the best of all worlds in sewing and fashion. I love that it is creative and technical, and after 21 years in the fashion industry, pattern cutting still inspires me and it is always developing and moving forward. Many of us have that one item of clothing that we have worn to the point of it falling apart, or we have the most comfortable trousers that we would love a few more pairs of. I will try to keep to the point of this blog but forgive me if I get carried away with pattern-speak!

Manual Pattern Cutting Equipment:

There are many specialised tools available to assist you with manual pattern cutting. My essentials are a set square and tape measure, both of which are available in metric or imperial. A sturdy tracing wheel with long spokes and a pattern awl (also called a stiletto). It is essential to have a sharp pair of paper scissors, pins, a pattern notcher, as well as a clutch pencil and eraser. Lastly you need good quality pattern paper, called spot and cross, and some scotch magic tape always comes in handy. It is helpful to have a good sized table to work on, preferably with a protective laminate covering

There are many other pattern cutting tools available, however I do understand that if you are new to sewing or do not always have time to sew, you may only have a basic supply of pattern equipment. I will at some point write an in-depth blog on pattern cutting, as this one will focus on tracing the pattern from an existing garment.

Pattern Cutting Equipment you may have at home:

Anyone can trace the pattern from an existing garment however I would advise that you start with something simple which has few pattern pieces. Don't push yourself with pattern cutting too early or otherwise you may convince yourself that it is difficult. It is not difficult, but it is precise. There are some tools that you can find at home that may help if you're starting out, but if making patterns is something you would like to pursue more of, then I would advise you to invest is some proper tools.

If you sew, you should already have a tape measure and pins. You would need to have some paper which is big enough for all of the pattern pieces you need to copy and sellotape to sick the paper together. You can use any paper, including newspaper, however printed paper is more difficult to see your markings on. You will need a sharp pencil or a pen, a ruler and a note pad or book; something with a sharp right angle. Hopefully you have a table to work on but please cover the surface with cardboard or layers of newspaper to protect it.

Clone a Garment with Pattern Cutting Tools:

If you are fairly new to pattern cutting and even if you do have all of the tools, start with copying simple garments and work your way up to more challenging styles. Count the number of pieces you will be tracing and make sure your paper is big enough to accommodate each piece. Ensure that the garment is free from wrinkles as this can affect the size of the pattern.

If your garment is symmetrical, fold it down the centre front pinning the shoulder seams, armhole seams and side seams together. If seams don't match up perfectly (which is more commonly the case on t-shirts) take and average. On an asymmetrical item, it will need to be traced open as a full piece. Place the centre fold along a straight line on your paper and flatten the garment out as much as possible. Usually this is difficult to do around the armhole, so lay the body flat and trace around it, then carefully lay the armhole and neckline flat, always keeping the central fold along your straight line. Trace the shape through the seams and around hems with a tracing wheel, marking each end point of a seam with a pattern awl or spike. Repeat this for the back piece and also any yokes or panels if there are any.

For a sleeve, fold it neatly with the inseam flat thereby giving a sharp fold at the over-arm. Draw a straight line on you pattern paper and lay the over-arm fold along this line. Trace around the cuff, inseam and the sleeve head marking all seam end points with the awl. Now flip the sleeve over so that it lies on the other side of the straight line and trace around that side. This should give you a good sleeve-head curve at the front and back of the sleeve.

Copy all other pieces of the garment in a similar way; folded in half if they are symmetrical or copied flat if you must. For clothing with elastic or gathers, it is helpful to have heavy weights to hold the item as flat as possible or pin the garment to a straight central line which you have drawn. I often pin one side of the elastic to the paper, then hold it with my elbow and stretch the elastic allowing me to trace the shape with the other hand. Afterwards I will stretch the elastic along a tape measure and ensure that my pattern measurement is the same. Write the finished measurement on the pattern so the paper measures the stretched measurement but the elastic you use will measure the finished or relaxed measurement.

If your garment has any darts, pleats or gathers, these need to be accounted for. Flatten the biggest section of your garment along a straight central line on your paper. Trace up to the point of the dart or other detail, marking all detail points with an awl, then hold the garment at that point and continue to flatten it along the detail, opening out pleats or gathers, or pivoting the fabric along the point of the dart ensuring that the centre of the garment stays along the straight line.

An essential next step is to check that the pattern pieces fit together and then add seam allowance. Check all of the pieces on your garment that need to be sewn together, then measure the pattern pieces against each other. Front side seams should match the back side seams, shoulder seams should match, yokes or pleats and collars or cuffs should all match their conjoining pieces, accounting for any pleats, gathers or darts. Ensure that the sleeve head will fit into the armhole, noting that for woven fabrics there should be about 1,5-2cm extra for ease in the sleeve head.

Use a set square or grading rule to add a seam allowance that you are used to sewing with. I will not dictate the standards to you here but if you sew, add what you are comfortable sewing with. Also consider that you may want a bit extra to let the seams or hems out if they are too snug or too short. For asymmetric styles, cut these with the right side of the fabric facing up, ensuring that left and right side seams match properly. Mark your pattern pieces clearly with the piece name, how many pieces to cut, if they need to be fused and any special instructions or finished measurements.

Clone a Garment with Basic Sewing Tools:

It is helpful to have ready your pieces of paper large enough to trace all of your pattern pieces on to. The process of cloning an existing garment with tools from home is the same as above, only the way you mark the seams and details will be slightly different. I must assume that if you sew that you have pins and a tape measure. Your pins take the place of the tracing wheel and pattern awl. Mark each seam and garment detail by pressing the pins along every seam at short intervals, thereby piercing the paper underneath. Double check the seam length by measuring your garment and then measuring what you have marked onto your paper. These measurements should be the same. Mark each start and end point of each seam clearly by pressing the pin in a few times around the same point.

Double check all measurements and ensure that darts, pleats or other details have the correct amount of fabric in them as this will affect the fit. Add your seam allowance using a ruler or tape measure and ensure that any right angles are marked using the square edge of a book or notepad. Label all pieces clearly.

Pattern Cutting Tips:

Always sew a toile or basic sample of a new pattern before cutting your actual fabric! Use a similar fabric to the original garment so that the end result will be the same. Fit your toile and look in the mirror to ensure you can see the drape and any fit issues.

Ensure your grainline is straight or else the pieces will twist. The grain must be parallel to the centre on the front or back, the centre of the sleeve or the centre of the trouser leg. The grainline runs up and down the body when sewing with standard fabrics.

Ensure your seams join at right angles for a smooth line, unless the seam is dipped or you specifically want a pointy hanky-hem effect.

The front sleeve head is more curved than the back at the peak and the underarm. It does not mean the front is bigger or longer, just more curved.

From the underarm point down the inseam of a sleeve, the front and back are the same shape. This is for a one-piece sleeve, not a two-piece tailored sleeve.

The back rise (crotch seam) on a trouser pattern is much longer that the front, usually around 10cm for a standard waistline and 8cm for a high waistline but 12cm or more on a low waisted trouser.

From the knee down, the leg shape on a trouser is the same on the left and right of each piece, as well as the front and back. The back leg is wider by about 1-2cm but the shape is the same.

Best of luck with your pattern cloning. Just remember that practice makes perfect, and sewing your own patterns gives a good overview about how the pattern should be labelled and cut. You will also soon learn the basic "shapes" of pattern pieces like armholes, collars or sleeves.

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