How do I learn to sew clothing without ready-made patterns?
December 7, 2013 6:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm just beginning to learn to sew, but I'd like to start by drafting from basic instructions, understanding how a 2 dimensional piece of fabric becomes a garment to fit a three dimensional body, being a little bit creative from the very beginning. One reason I don't want to use patterns is because the cost of buying them is prohibitive. But I also just don't feel inspired to go that way. What do you think? Ideas, resources, books? Anything to lead me step by step into the process of drafting and sewing clothing?

I've been wanting to learn to sew my own clothes for a long time and over the last year I've been getting started — I'm now familiar with my sewing machine, know a few basic hems and seams and other techniques, and have made a couple of simple patternless garments (like a full circle skirt). But I'd like to get into more complex things that would otherwise use patterns.

I've been looking things up ad-hoc on the internet but want to streamline the process a bit now. I also struggle with accuracy and am learning how to measure and draw accurately alongside.
posted by miaow to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
An adjustable dressmaker's form (or a patient, same sized friend) would allow you to drape a design in muslin. You then could take the finished product and create a pattern out of that.

Another thing you could do is take apart an item of clothing that you like and draft a paper pattern from that.
posted by marimeko at 7:01 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Patternmaking for Fashion Design is the book that I got when I wanted to learn pattern design. The first review on the Amazon site is super comprehensive and discusses that book as well as several others.

I had a pretty good experience with Patternmaking for Fashion Design, but it asks a LOT from beginners in terms of taking a lot of detailed measurements, measuring and drawing accurately, and understanding garment construction techniques; it may be that another book, like How to Draft Basic Patterns, would suit you better.

For me, making clothes from patterns was the best way to start to understand how clothes were put together (especially things like linings and interfacings) -- it would've been too big a jump to go right into making patterns from scratch.
posted by Jeanne at 7:02 AM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

A pattern is just a way to make a two dimensional surface (fabric) into a three dimensional surface. It's the skeleton of the dress, the blueprints--it's instructions via pictures. Especially as you try to make more draped or tailored items, in more expensive fabric, you will want to use either patterns or a muslin BEFORE you start cutting and sewing your fashion fabric. ESPECIALLY if you struggle with accuracy--this is not the time to just start pinning even a muslin onto a form.

Patterns from the major manufacturers go on sale several times a year for 99 cents each. offers free downloadable patterns. Please don't be freaked out by Vogue advertising their patterns at $24.95 each.

But it is always a good idea to know how patterns work, so your wish is on the right track.

I've had good use out of Adele P. Margolis's "Design Your Own Dress Patterns". She takes the most basic pattern--a sloper--and shows where you can add the two-dimensional pattern shapes to create the three-dimensional garment effect.

Once you've looked through this book I would urge you to buy a 99 cent sloper pattern from a major manufacturer, and adjust it to fit your figure. You can then get a cheap roll of butcher paper or medical exam paper and make your own patterns as you desire.
posted by Hypatia at 7:12 AM on December 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Along with those great books I would recommend checking out eBay, Craigslist, or whatever your local alternative is for supplies. I've gotten great deals on tables, dressforms, and even brand new patterns that I couldn't find on sale at my local big box (COUGH COUGH JoAnn) store. Oh and a good beginner book for more skirts is Skirt-a-Day Sewing. Have fun!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 7:25 AM on December 7, 2013

I make a lot of my own clothes and clothes for my daughter.

I have this book for pattern drafting, which is not bad for a beginner.

However, to be honest, I don't draft many patterns for the upper half of my body because the trial and error is too costly time-wise. I have a few slopers that I've put together that I've used over and over, but I have many more that weren't quite right in the sleeve or fit fine until I decided to have three glasses of wine. Also, I would not recommend drafting patterns from scratch without access to a dressform. Trust me that it is a hundred times more difficult to do the fitting on yourself.

What I do instead is find a few patterns that I like and then either vary them slightly into endless combinations of stuff, or I steal an essential element like a sleeve or a skirt yoke and then use those as jumping off points for making my own patterns. It's like having a sous chef for pattern making. I've reused t-shirt patterns like the ones in Vogue 2925 and Butterick 5335 and turned them into some of my favorite dresses.

Also, Patterns get very cheap when you wait for them to go on sale for $1 or $2. I check websites for upcoming sales. They are a common loss-leader for big craft stores.

Skirts, as you have probably already noticed, are also really easy to draft using math and your own measurements, especially if the waist is elastic. I used to frown at elastic waists, but they are handy for times when you need to be active, or plan on eating a lot. I've written a few easy tutorials that may or may not be helpful (1, 2, 3).
posted by Alison at 7:35 AM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

understanding how a 2 dimensional piece of fabric becomes a garment to fit a three dimensional body

That's kind of what patterns are there for really. There's a reason why there are a lot more people sewing than making patterns and sewing. It's not easy to make a good pattern. By all means give it a shot but I'd start by buying some patterns, when they go on sale. Start to understand patterns first. Hone your skills at putting the garment together from a working pattern first. Learn to adapt them to give you your perfect fit. Then graduate to making your own patterns.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:50 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I actually like deconstructing garments to see how everything goes together. I sew (badly) by intuition, and yes, it doesn't always work the best, but it sure is fun.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:10 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm going to answer a question you likely didn't realize you could ask (normal!):
One reason I don't want to use patterns is because the cost of buying them is prohibitive.

If you subscribe to Vogue, Butterick, and McCalls emailings, you will only get emails from them about pattern sales and their new collections. I've subscribed to all three for a few years now, and they're pretty good about not spamming; altogether, they send one or two emails every couple of weeks. You can then manage to get $15 patterns for $3 or $4, so it is really worth it. If perchance you live overseas and shipping is an issue, it costs $15 flat rate for the first three patterns. So if you order three patterns at $4 each, for example, that makes $12+$15 = $27, or what works out to $9 a pattern all told. Still quite a deal, especially for Vogue's designer patterns.

For reasons others have also described, I would not recommend starting out as a beginner with pattern drafting. It's very helpful to see what professional patterns look like and how they go together before starting to draft your own. It's a little less creative, yes, but seeing as you haven't sewn from a pattern before, I think you'll be surprised just how much creativity does go into sewing one once you get started.

There's also the question of garment construction. You've only done barebones projects so far – it's hard to overstate how much you can learn from the directions that are provided with professionally-designed sewing patterns, while sewing along with them. They've come a long way in the last few decades. And sewing a pattern step by step is a different animal from reading a book on pattern drafting and garment construction. It's hands-on, experiential. You will learn things you didn't realize you needed to learn. If you start straight with pattern drafting, you're going to hit a lot of walls without realizing that they already have doors (pattern instructions).
posted by fraula at 8:18 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you looked for patterns at yard sales or thrift stores? They're usually pretty cheap, and if nothing else--buy a couple and see how things fit together, even if you don't actually sew the garment. Or take a piece of clothing apart and use that as a basis for a pattern.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:41 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My grandmother made all her own patterns (even for bras!), and I know other ladies who do, but it's a skill I'm afraid I'll never master until I can afford to take drafting classes.

I've amassed my huge, really-needs-deaccessioning collection of commercial patterns from:

Frequent $1-a-pattern sales at Jo-Ann Fabrics (like, every other week)
Thrift stores (anywhere from $0.25 to $1)
Yard sales/rummage sales (anywhere from $1 a pattern to an entire box I got once for $0.50)
A local crafts recycling charity shop, which not every community has (anywhere from $0 to $5)
Other sewers' deaccessions.
Ebay job lots (worked out from $0.50-$3.00 per pattern)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:43 AM on December 7, 2013

buy a couple and see how things fit together, even if you don't actually sew the garment. Or take a piece of clothing apart and use that as a basis for a pattern.

Yes, I've done a lot of this. The bridesmaid's dresses I made for Ruddigore featured the bodice from one of two patterns (depending on the bust of the actress), the sleeves from another, and the underskirt from another (omitting the overskirt). I didn't use the recommended fastening, trim, or lining methods for any of the patterns.

I had a favorite skirt once that I wanted to wear every day. So, I did what I remembered my mother doing with the dress I wanted to wear every day as a kid - took it apart and used it as a pattern to make copies in several different fabrics. I tinkered with the waist to make it an easy slip-on with elastic instead of a zipper.

I have a couple of older reference books I use when I run into trouble, so they aren't anything I can recommend you order on Amazon. But if you're ever at a used book sale and see any edition of something called "The Singer Sewing Book" or a book called "Tailoring" put out by Singer, you might want to check them out.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:52 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm awful at making things without a pattern. Awful. I have problems with measuring, etc because of my dyscalculia. However, I want to make things that aren't precut and premeasured, and that I can call "mine" so I thought I'd start simple. I bought The One Hour Dress and it helped a lot. Maybe it'll work for you too.
posted by patheral at 9:42 AM on December 7, 2013

In the long run, I do think you might save yourself some frustration by starting with store-bought patterns... but really, what would be the harm in skipping that and making your own if that's what you want to do? You can just pick up a book and some muslin and start experimenting with pattern drafting and see how it goes for you. There are 2 main ways to make patterns, flat patternmaking or draping. (Though draping would use some flat patternmaking techniques as well). I'd start off with flat.

I went to URI & FIT for fashion design and these are the books that we used:

Patternmaking for Fashion Design

Draping for Apparel Design

I always learned from taking classes though, so I don't know how helpful these would be for learning on your own.

Best of luck!
posted by Shadow Boxer at 9:52 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, so many great responses already! A quick clarification about patterns and the cost — I live in Asia, not in the US — so I can't access many of the sources of cheap patterns you guys speak of.

Thanks, thanks, thanks!
posted by miaow at 9:55 AM on December 7, 2013

I have to agree with others that using sewing patterns will make it easier to learn to sew, esp clothing. Unless you just want t-shirts or dresses with no fit, just straight, boxy shapes. You might be interested in this blog. She does a lot of sewing (writes about other stuff, too, but quite a few sewing posts) and often tweaks the pattern for fit and style.

I have also admired from afar the many Japanese sewing books for clothing, accessories, and more. Great style and variations from simple to complex. Maybe you would have access to these. To get an idea of what they look like, here is an Etsy seller from Japan. Pinterest has many boards of Japanese sewing patterns, even some that are free.

The books usually include multiple patterns and designs in one book, so you get many choices for your investment. People say that the diagrams and patterns are so well done that even if you don't read Japanese, they are easy to follow. I don't read Japanese; I have looked through a couple of the books and that looks to be true. It does help, though, to have a basic understanding of how things work in sewing (back to that recommendation to start with a few commercial patterns that you can read). It does matter that things are measured and cut accurately and also what order you put things together.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 11:35 AM on December 7, 2013

BurdaStyle had free patterns to download!
posted by jrobin276 at 2:49 PM on December 7, 2013

Do you have access to cheap clothing (thrift store or the like)? I would buy some basics- pants, top, simple coat, etc. and take them apart at the seams. It will give you a good idea of how clothing is put together (when I first started sewing I was amazed at how much fabric sleeves took). You can then use the pieces to draft your own patterns.

Or pretty much what The Underpants Monster said.
posted by dogmom at 7:06 PM on December 7, 2013

It's weird how timely it is. My company just launched the first two basics in a patternmaking series. It's 4+ hours per class; the first two focus on a skirt sloper with design variations and a bodice sloper. The instructor is Suzy Furrer, the founder of Apparel Arts and the author of Building Patterns. The whole series is going to a be a couple semesters of fashion school crammed into seven online courses.

The sloper is going to be your base for all future patternmaking; whether you're drafting a wiggle dress or a swing coat, you'll use your bodice sloper and layer necklines, dart manipulations, and design ease on top to make a new design. You can fit a commercial sloper to yourself and use that (Vogue 1004 is a good one) but a custom-drafted sloper is an interesting experiment and will teach you so much about 1) how your body works; and 2) how to translate that into darts and seamlines for a second-skin fit.

You don't need to know a lot about sewing to be a great patternmaker, though it will help you to be conversant with the vocabulary and to understand how things are going to go together. But making your own patterns as you go and making mockups is a fantastic way to learn about construction along with design; it's how I learned.

Full disclosure: I helped produce these classes, and I'm paid as an affiliate if you buy them through this link. But that's sort of incidental to how amazing of a solution this might be for you if you're serious about it; they're really incredible classes packed with so much about patternmaking fundamentals. They might be some of the things I've worked on I'm most proud of.

Patternmaking Basics: The Skirt Sloper
Patternmaking Basics: The Bodice Sloper

The fun REALLY starts when you start manipulating the darts to create new shapes—those classes are in post and will launch early next year; in the meantime, this is a great basic tutorial.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:02 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

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