Cloth architecture?
November 22, 2007 10:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I make clothes?

Recently I've been sketching various clothing ideas and I've decided I'd like to be able to, um, make them real. Everything from outerwear to modified jeans interest me, and I want the flexibility to deal with this variety. I would like to make both male and female garments (though I'm a guy). I know that some things fall out of the range of the individual (making like different textured fabrics, etc) but I am sure there must be a reasonable amount that can be done with a sewing machine and careful measuring.

I'm looking for good information on stitching methods, proper sewing machines, how to pattern garments and assemble the pieces and so on. Basically a premiere on how to build clothes. Any help is appreciated!
posted by roygbv to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (14 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
My mom bought a Bernina sewing machine years ago and my brother and I lived in the clothes she made for as long as I can remember.

There's also immeasurable time spent in a fabric store getting patterns and such. Thats where I'd start. As I remember there were hundreds of thick books of styles to look through and you'd get these big thin paper layouts and cut and sew them up.

I'm sure things have hugely changed in the internet age, but thats where I'd start.
posted by sanka at 11:39 PM on November 22, 2007

If there are any community colleges near you, they often offer night school classes to learn basic sewing skills. That way you can get some experience with different fabrics, patterns, sewing machines, and construction techniques before heading off into the wilds of the fabric store.

I find that (for me, at least) it's way too easy to start buying interesting fabric or patterns that wind up being too complicated or expensive to finish. A hands-on class could start you in the right direction.
posted by meadowlands at 1:45 AM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: ASTM Standard D-6193 is the successor to Federal Standard 751a, which was the 1965 successor to Civil War era Federal Stitch Types, for describing the various kinds of seaming and decorative stitches used in clothing manufacture. Of the more than 1600 stitches described, Stitch Types 301 (two thread lockstitch), 401 (two thread chainstitch), 101 (single thread blindstitch) and 502/503/504 (2 and 3 thread overedge stitches for serging and finishing cloth edges) are the most important and widely used for clothing.

You could begin, as sanka suggests, with equipping a home fashion workshop, with a basic home sewing machine, which is typically a Stitch Type 301 two thread lockstitch machine which may have an articulated needle bar mechanism capable of making certain additional decorative and functional stitches like a Stitch Type 304 zig-zag mechanism machine. You could then add a serger (also called an overlock machine or a merrow machine), for pre-finishing edges on garment parts with overlocked edges, and perhaps then add a blindstitch machine for making hems, and invisibly tacking facings.

You can generally take "sewing lessons" at specialty stores in your area selling home sewing machines, fabrics, and notions and it's a good idea to buy your machine there, and take the basic lessons as a means of learning how to operate and care for your sewing machine(s). You can also sometimes take sewing lessons and "fashion" classes through adult education programs at community colleges in your area. Generally, you'll learn to use commercial paper patterns to layout, cut and sew garments, from bolt cloth, and perhaps how to manipulate and alter patterns, drape fabric using a dress form, and perhaps make specialty garment features like welt pockets, open darts, and rolled facings.

You'll also want dress and clothing forms, to help you drape and create/alter patterns. You can buy forms, or make your own.

You'll also need a good iron, and preferably a vacuum pressing buck. A vacuum buck, combined with a steam iron, can vastly improve your pressing results by "setting" and cooling a press with air pressure and air flow aided by vacuum. It's very useful when working with fusible interlining materials.

Beyond that, you'll want to study woven and knit fabric construction, to understand how fabrics perform, and how they must be used in garment manufacture, respecting their innate properties, for proper garment performance and wear. Ideally, you'd also come to learn about natural and synthetic fibers, their processing into yarn and fabrics, and how the chemistry and physical characteristics of fiber govern the properties of yarns and fabrics produced from them. You'd also learn about fabric and garment treatments.

You can do all this, formally, as a course of professional study, at various fashion schools. Frankly, the quality and focus of education offered at fashion schools varies tremendously, as in any other field, and entrance to the top schools, like FIT and Philadelphia University, can be as intimidating as Harvard and Yale. There are also technology and engineering schools offering programs in textile and fiber engineering, which provide high level understanding of technology necessary to volume manufacture of fabric and clothing on an industrial scale. And there are various schools which focus on helping people become fashion educators, clothing and textile conservators, and writers.
posted by paulsc at 2:07 AM on November 23, 2007 [10 favorites]

You could spend a lot of money on a lot of equipment, but knowledge is more useful and weighs nothing. Start with classes, buy a cheap or refurbished machine, and mock up everything in muslin to make alterations on before you work on expensive fabric.

You don't need a dressmaker's dummy if you have a same-sized friend, or a friend who can pin alterations on you. Once you understand the mechanics of a pattern, you don't need a dummy at all, just the appropriate measurements.

I make everything from clothing to curtains with a travel iron and a machine I bought off eBay. When I started sewing, as a teenager, I didn't even have a machine so made everything up by hand. If you have money to spend, spend it on lessons and workshops, not expensive machines and accessories.
posted by methylsalicylate at 2:20 AM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: Go to a sewing machine dealer/repair place and get them to sell you a reconditioned second-hand sewing machine. An older machine with all metal parts inside is going to be tougher and more capable of sewing heavy fabrics than a newer machine with plastic parts.

All the equipment paulsc suggested is great, but all you really need to get started is a sewing machine and an iron. I've been sewing for several years now (mostly corsetry and costumes) with just those, and am only now starting to think about a serger.

Dress forms are expensive, but there are several ways to make your own.

Good luck!
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:13 AM on November 23, 2007

There may be an Adult Ed. sewing class you could take.
posted by theora55 at 5:25 AM on November 23, 2007

If there is a JoAnn's or similar store near you, they offer sewing classes; they also sell machines, fabrics, notions and so on.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:59 AM on November 23, 2007

Actually, Sanka, not that much has changed with the internet :-). I'm sure they do make patterns you can buy and print online, but the best ones are the ones you buy in the store that are on that thin paper and you can store in the envelope.
posted by fructose at 8:13 AM on November 23, 2007 is where I send people who ask me to teach them how to sew. Here's a good starting point.

A blog about sewn product manufacturing, which has some good articles about fit.

Sewing machines are also common to find at yard sales. The last sewing machine I actually bought was $5. Since then I've gotten 2 more machines that friends wanted to get out of their house. Wait on getting a serger or an expensive machine until you have some more sewing experience and know what features you would like to have.

Threads magazine has articles on drafting patterns, various specialty fabrics. and unusual techniques. Ornament magazine focuses more on fiber arts (this includes clothing), has a lot of pictures you might find inspiring but not much 'how to' information.

A good way to start understanding how to pattern garments is by cutting apart finished clothing. Start with something that fits you, or some other person who will let you stick pattern pieces on their body, sew them clothing, and try it on while you adjust the fit with pins. It is preferable to first try pinning on yourself, so you don't lose your assistant before learning not to poke people with pins.
posted by yohko at 12:24 PM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: Lots of good answers here. I’m pleased to see that something I already wrote on the topic of dress forms is referenced in both of the answers you’ve marked, but permit me to reiterate the value of a CUSTOM body form as a widely dismissed and critically under-appreciated learning tool and efficiency aid. It’s so helpful and so intuitively instructive to see yourself in the round, and to be able to evaluate and manipulate your patterns and fabrics directly on a 3D shape. Many sewers assume that forms are something they can pick up later, or will need only after they get better and more serious, and therefore miss how working on a form can make complex concepts and challenging problems obvious, especially to a beginner. The custom part is really essential if you’re going to be sewing mostly for yourself and maybe one or two friends. Plus, a custom form will be the cheapest way to go...

I’d put taking clothes apart and otherwise thoroughly examining them, inside and out, at the top of my own list of things to do to learn about clothesmaking.

Next would be to read, very soon, a general, consumer sewing text more or less cover to cover. I’m not totally up to date on what’s been recently put out there, but something like one of the books on this list is what I’m talking about. The idea is to get an overview of tools, terms and techniques quickly, not to study the thing. At the same time, subscribing to or checking out a bunch of back issues of a mag like Threads or Vogue Patterns, and reading these the same way, especially the ads, will give you vocabulary and perspective. Once you’ve done that, check out this publisher (and inter-library loan services) for the best collection of serious gament-making textbooks.

I think the next thing would be to appreciate and recognize the various levels within the garment-making universe, to see where you might want to focus your attack. It’s not just about the often surprisingly big differences between the consumer/pro, hobbyist/manufacturer approaches; there are quite a few distinct and significant quality/effort plateaus to note as well, in both the consumer and pro branches, not to mention your own predispositions regarding how involved you want to get. Each of these realms will have definite and often quite different opinions and understandings about how best to do anything.
I.e., are you or your potential mentors: Quick’n’dirty; utilitarian; innovative; cost-effective; painstaking; quality-obsessed; fit-fanatics; artistic; etc.? Crafters, DIY’ers, vintage-collage-ists, dressmakers, tailors, costumers, samplemakers, sweat-shops, T-Shirt maker-printers, bridal-couteriers, embellishers, designers, manufactures... They’ve all got interesting ideas to share, and often they can barely communicate with one another, or WILL. So, define your interests soon, and possibly, spell them out here in more detail for more specific advice. Also, this will help you pick out the most likely to be useful online resources, of which there are plenty.

Finally, I’d say that getting down with fabric is a huge challenge that you should be starting to explore in every way possible. No doubt you already have a sense of the kinds of fabric you are and aren’t interested in. But I’m not so much talking about getting to know what’s out there, as about learning how to match a fabric in a store with a result in your intention, once you make it up. Again, examining existing clothes from this perspective is a good starting place, and there’s no way to sidestep experience. I’m just wanting to alert you to the fact that choosing the right fabric will have way more impact than you’re likely now to appreciate on how well you can realize your clothing visions.

Oh, I forgot: You need a BIG, HIGH table, so you can spread out without stooping over.
posted by dpcoffin at 2:35 PM on November 23, 2007

Definitely go and do a course!! Endlessly awesome! And interestingly is a prerequisite for doing design.

Messing around with alterations and stuff a bit first might help you get your head around it too. Cuts that work - you never need to fix them. Cuts that just don't - they just end up getting reworked every time you come across it. So no need to ever even cut a pattern that looks like that, huh? :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:30 PM on November 23, 2007

Caution: Fabric is addictive. You will hoard it. You will always want more. You must either control this urge, or you will end up on skid row, robbing people for money to buy more fabric, which you keep in a shopping cart, hidden in an alley behind a dumpster.
posted by Goofyy at 4:56 AM on November 24, 2007

Oh, I forgot to add: The notion expressed above, that patterns may be judge by the sort of paper they are printed on, is nonsense. Kwiksew patters are fabulous, especially for beginners, and printed on more normal paper, rather than that damn tissue which requires ironing, and will tear at the slightest excuse. While learning garment construction, Kwiksew patters provide the best instructions in the business. (Please note, "Simplicity" brand are not simple)
posted by Goofyy at 4:59 AM on November 24, 2007

Response by poster: "the next thing would be to appreciate and recognize the various levels within the garment-making universe, to see where you might want to focus your attack"

I aim to make clothing that looks and feels professional - store bought, if you will - and holds up over time. I suppose this would put me in the quality-obsessed, well-fit, design-oriented category...

Also: thanks for the great answers! Lot of good material to start with here.
posted by roygbv at 4:07 PM on November 24, 2007

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