First Dress Pro Tips

I got an e-mail today from the sweetest girl ever, and she needs a little help making the leap from home sewer to seamstress. I hear this a lot wasting hours on Reddit's sewing section. I thought I would help put some OC on the internet and give everyone crippled with fear some pro tips to help get you started making your new favorite clothes.

1. Don't start with a dress. I recommend starting with pajama pants. This is a great starter pattern pack. With pajama pants you don't have to worry about fabric really, it can be see through, it doesn't have to be stretchy, and you can give into those super silly fabrics at the fabric store. Plus if they look a little weird at the end, who cares? Quit looking at my pajamas. 

2. Fabric matters more than you think. You can't just like this pattern, and this fabric and it's a match made in heaven. Sucks, I know. 

  • I like to start with a pattern and think about what shoes I would wear with this style of dress. This way I know it needs to be in the brown family to go with my brown boots. This leaves you with less disappointment in the aisles. If you go in with your heart set on a red floral, you might miss the orange stripe. 
  • On the back of the pattern it will list what kinds of fabric you can use for that pattern. Some need a two way stretch (which is hard to find in Cedar Rapids) which if you don't use, you won't be able to get the dress on in the end.  
  • Head to the apparel fabrics section and start feeling everything. Once you find one that is listed on your pattern and you like, unroll it and hold it up to yourself. This is where a friend helps. It might be too busy for a dress, it might be too stiff for a flowy skirt. Or too silky for a pencil skirt.
  • Hold it up to the light, is it see through? Is the dress lined?
  • Look at each fabric trying to find why it won't work. Make the fabric prove itself to you, and one will. Let it take time. This is where a patient friend helps. 
  • Resist the urge to start right away, and wash and dry the fabric.
3. Understand that sewing is the last step. You might be thinking, "but I have the pattern! I have the fabric, let's cut and get needle to fabric!" WHOA slow down. You will work on the dress for hours before it even looks like a dress. If you want a fast turn around, make something else and come back. Don't rush/skip steps in all your excitement. No one will be more impressed if it took you three hours compared to three days. 

4. Have a tissue fitting.

If you have cats make sure to do this part when they are sound asleep. Otherwise dickheads have a field day.

With every new pattern you will be faced with the same question every time: "Which size do I cut out?" so get used to that uneasy feeling. I always have a "well, here goes nothing" moment. This is where shit gets tricky. You will measure your bust and check the pattern to see what size they think you should cut out. Store dress sizes are NOT the same as pattern sizes, but frankly they are in the same ball park most of the time. I wear a size 6 from stores, and most of the time I cut a size 6 or 8 in a pattern, but sometimes the pattern will tell me to cut a size 16...Open the pattern up. Somewhere around the bust they will list the finished garment measurements and ease measurements. These mean sometimes the person who made the pattern has decided that it should be worn really baggy or lose. The ease is the difference between your size and the dresses size. This is where you put your designer hat on. Do you want your dress that loose? Or did you want it to be more fitted? Keep at least an inch or and inch and half ease in on everything. So that means if your bust is a 36 and wanting it fitted, you want your finished dress's bust to measure around a 38, look to see what size has a finished garment measurement of 38 and cut that size. (sometimes it's good to measure a shirt that you know fits you well for a good finished garment measurement) I've cut size 4's and size 16's before. It really comes down to that damn ease that is only printed on the pattern itself and not on the packet. So really each pattern has its own scale. That is why knowing your measurements and how you like to your clothing to fit is gold.

  • Cut out your pattern
  • Draw where the seam allowance is (which is built into most major pattern companies) 
  • Pin the tissue together where you would sew it
  • Try it on (sometimes I do it with a tank top on and pin it to myself)
  • Nit-pick as brutally as you do when you try on clothing. Make a list of the problems. "too baggy in the back" "shoulder seam is off my shoulder" Then look to Google on how to make those adjustments. Make the trims or add-ons where you need to and try it on. Keep doing this until it fits like a glove.
5. Check yo pattern/ grain lines. When it's time to cut the fabric lay it all out per instructions. Now look where the side seams are. Will the pattern line up on the other piece? Make sure they line up the best you can. I personally like to weigh the pattern down to the fabric, some like to pin it, it's up to you. Follow the grain lines, they are there for a reason. Take a deep breath and cut. 

6. Test your tension/ stitch length. With some of the cut off scraps do a few test runs of the tension and stitch length.  There shouldn't be any puckering or pulling. Find that sweet spot where it goes through like butter.

7. Iron, iron, iron. Before and after anything goes through the machine, iron it. The dress comes together more through the iron then the sewing machine. When you take your time and put the pieces together, and iron them, your press puts them together the stitch just makes your press permanent.

8. A dress is no harder than a pillow case. I know a lot of people look at a dress like it is way out of their league. It's not. If you can drive a car, you can use a sewing machine. If you can use a sewing machine you can make a dress. In today's world we think of dress makers as crazy skilled designers who went to art collage, but just a generation ago it was considered a basic skill. If a nine year old Amish girl can do it, you can do it. There might be a few more pieces than a pillow case, and you might need to do a curve now and then, but it's all the same. Sewing is sewing.

9. One last thing. If you start sewing your own dresses, designer dresses become in reach. When patterns go on sale, which is like 4 times a year, they go for dollar. That means you can own a Donna Karan dress for under $20 after fabric. You also open the door to liking your body. Standard clothing can make you feel like something's wrong with you. What's wrong, is the clothing. Once you start wearing custom made clothing you will never go back. I look at stores now and flip through the racks and see mismatched seams, no pockets, no detail. I see 50 dollar shirts made out of fabric I know only costs 5 bucks a yard. I know that 50 dollar shirt won't ever fit right either. It's really easy to make clothing that's better than what is out there. It will become clear the low standard we all have for clothing nowadays. You will rise above the shoddy craftsmanship of mass produced clothing faster than you can realize on this side of it. Make the leap. You won't have to search and hope for clothing that you like AND fit ever ever again.