Making Clothes For Myself
And why I often don't do it well
I always do a terrible job when I make clothes for myself from scratch. I’ve been pondering for the last few days about whether there is some profound reason for this. Maybe I don’t feel like I deserve nice things. Maybe I have a lower standard when I’m making things for myself than for paying customers. Maybe I don’t have a good idea of my own sense of style.
While making a waistcoat for myself this week I realised that all the ideas above are total bullshit. I always do a terrible job when I make clothes for myself because it’s hard fucking work!
Let’s use this waistcoat as an example.
The Pattern and Toile
First of all, you need to draft the pattern or use a shop bought pattern. Even if you use a shop bought pattern, the likelihood of it fitting perfectly or being exactly what you want is very small. For this waistcoat I wanted it to be a fair bit longer than the pattern I was starting out with. So, I traced the shop bought pattern then added some extra length to each of the four pieces. I then cut this adapted pattern out from the fabric of an old pillowcase I had lying around to make the first mockup, or toile if we’re using the proper terminology. I always try to avoid buying fabric for toiles and use stuff that was going to be thrown out anyway or leftovers from previous projects.
The First Fitting
I’m sadly not lucky enough to be married to a fellow clothing constructor so my husband must act as my pinning and fitting assistant. Happily, this has resulted in surprisingly few stabbings and arguments over the years. He’s learned a lot while attempting to pin me into many different half-constructed garments but he’s still not really sure what he’s doing. This waistcoat needed some adjusting around the bust, which I could just about do myself as you traditionally find the bust at the front of the body. It also needed some extra room around the hips at the back. Apparently when I adapted the pattern, I did not leave room for my shapely figure.
Solutions to fitting problems are not always immediately apparent and it can be a bit of a puzzle to figure out exactly what needs taking in or letting out to get the garment to fit, especially if you’re currently pinned into it at the time. Over time and with practice you learn to spot what needs tweaking, but it's always different with every garment and every body. During the first fitting for the waistcoat the back kept folding up around the waist rather than sitting flat over my lower back and it took several different methods of tucking, folding, and a bit of swearing before I realised that more fabric was required in the seam between the back and side back pieces to allow the fabric to fit neatly over my hips.
Altering the Pattern
Once the first fitting is complete and the toile has more chalk marks on it than a hipster café's menu board, you have the somewhat heartbreaking process of ripping the whole thing apart so you can make the adjustment to the pattern pieces. With sturdy fabric and poor-quality thread this can be a joy as you can literally tear the garment apart at the seams. If you’re using better thread and fabric that won’t hold up to too much force, this is a more laborious and frustrating process. You can either be brave and use a seam ripper (aka stitch unpicker), which comes with the bonus excitement of potentially ripping the fabric rather than the thread, or you can settle down with a pair of small, sharp, pointy scissors and get carefully snipping at the threads until the pieces come apart.
After the destruction is complete and the pieces are ironed flat again you can either make the adaptations on your original paper pattern or, as I did in this case, mark them directly onto the fabric for toile number two. This will depend on how dramatic your alterations need to be and on the resources you have available. As my current stash of pattern paper is extremely small and I knew I was going to need to make another toile anyway, I went straight onto fresh fabric for toile number 2. I also have a lot of pillowcases from my mother-in-law that were on their way to the rubbish anyway, so I currently have more fabric than paper. As I mentioned, I will use anything I can get my hands on to avoid having to actually buy fabric!
The Second Toile and Fitting
I then cut out the newly shaped pieces and put them together for fitting number two. If you’ve fitted your first toile well and didn’t need to make any major alterations this should be a doddle. If the first fitting was an absolute horror show, then the second fitting may be a bit more arduous. Thankfully for me, my assistant/husband and I did a good job with the first fitting and only a little alteration need to be made at the back of toile number two.
Now that I’m happy with the final toile, I have the joy of repeating the destruction process described above.
I intend to use this pattern, or a slightly adapted version of it, to make several waistcoats so I will keep the pieces of toile number two as my master pattern for this garment. So, I iron them flat and label them. On each garment I write which piece of the garment it is (front, side front, back etc), how much seam allowance is included (5/8 of an inch, screw you metric system) and some indication of what size it is. In this case I labelled it ‘size 12 Burdastyle’ as this is company I got the original pattern from and the size I cut out. I then store this pattern in a plastic wallet with a post-it note on it describing what the garment is and the date I made it. This is then filed in the appropriate folder in my collection. In this case ‘Personal Patterns’, where I keep all the patterns that I have adapted specifically for myself. As I mentioned above, I’m very lazy when it comes to making my own clothes so this folder is small and practically empty.
Cutting the Final Fabric
Finally, it’s time to get the real fabric involved and make something proper. For this project, I was using some lovely fabric that also came my way from my mother-in-law. The fabric in question lived a former life as curtains in my husband’s childhood bedroom. It is dark green with gold, red, and slightly blue suns, moons, and shells on it. She used some of it it to make a dog bed for her English bull terrier, but I thought it was far too nice for my dog to wipe her arse on and drool all over. I also thought it was nicely in-keeping with the steampunk aesthetic I’m currently trying to achieve. Bad luck dog, this fabric is mine!
Using the pieces of toile number two as a pattern, I cut out the front pieces of the waistcoat, half the lining of the front, the collar, and the strap across the waist at the back in the formally-curtain fabric. I cut out all the other pieces (the back and the other half of the front lining) in some lining fabric I also had left over from a previous project. I then applied iron on interfacing to the inside of the straps, collar, and the front edge of the front pieces that runs from the shoulder to the point at the bottom of the waistcoat. The purpose of this interfacing is to add some structure to the areas of the garment that need it, like the buttonholes, and give a neat finish to the edges and final shape of the garment.
Constructing the Waistcoat
Next, I stitch the seams of each section (the two fronts and the back) together, then trim and press them flat. I then sew together the lining and outer pieces of each section, with the right sides facing each other, along the armholes, neckline, and front and bottom edges. To remove bulk and allow the corners of the garment to sit flat, I trim the seam allowance down at the armhole and other areas like the point at the bottom of the front section.
The next part is one of my favourite parts about making a waistcoat. All three sections are now turned the right way out and pressed, revealing beautifully finished edges with no need for fiddly facings, bastard bias bindings, or any other annoyingly time-consuming way of finishing the edges of a garment. It’s an absolute dream!
Sewing the side and shoulder seams together involves a certain amount of wrestling sections of the waistcoat through one another and some careful manipulation of the fabric to make sure the seams sit neatly within each other and don’t leave big steps where the fronts and back of the garment meet. As you can see from the photo below, I did a better job of this on the right shoulder seam than the left.
Buttons and Buttonholes
The final flourish to the waistcoat is the buttons. I decided to go balls-to-the-wall (to quote one of my favourite podcasts, Let’s Go To Court) with some jazzy buttons. This is something I often do, with plain garments especially, as I think you can really transform an item of clothing with the liberal application of jazzy buttons. I’ve bought many shirts from charity or vintage clothing shops and replaced the buttons with something more fun and it makes a big difference.
My sewing machine has a special foot and system for sewing buttonholes and I cannot stress enough how much time and effort it saves. As you can see from the photo below, I always do a few tester buttonholes to make sure I’ve chosen the right size for the buttons in question. These also help me to remember which buttons to push and what order to push them in on my sewing machine, as I can sometimes go quite a while between buttonhole stitching sessions. Finally, I sew the buttonholes and buttons onto the waistcoat itself and it’s done.
The Finished Garment
This post is not intended as a how-to guide for making a waistcoat. If it was, I’ve definitely done a terrible job of writing it. The point I want to make here is that making a garment fit well, really well, and constructing it to a high standard takes time, patience, and expertise. I’m extremely happy with the way this waistcoat came out and pleased that I took the time to do it properly, as I have failed to do with so many of my previous projects. But it was, as I mentioned before, hard fucking work.
In the past, I have been frustrated with people who thought getting something custom made could be as cheap as buying something from a high street shop. There are definitely other blogs you can go to if you want to learn about the evils of fast fashion so I won’t go on about it here. But I do want to emphasise the fact that dressmaking or tailoring or whatever you want to call it, is a slow process when you do it properly. There are many stages to putting a garment together, each with their own pitfalls and opportunities to cock-up. However, there’s a fabulous satisfaction in the process and its results. It’s definitely much better to do the hard fucking work and make something I’m happy with, than half-arsing it and ending up with something made quickly that I ultimately won’t wear because I’m not happy with the finished result.