May the Pants be with you

When you make a personal pledge in a public forum to draft, design, and sew a pair of trousers in a month’s time and actually accomplish it, the sun shines a little brighter and your short legs look a little longer.

Najah Carroll's Self-Drafted Linen Trousers (front view)

A few days after writing about my custom denim pencil skirt, I found out that Brooks Ann Camper, my favorite long distance sewing teacher, had developed a pants drafting system with NO standard sizes or pre-defined measurements (unlike the ones in my pattern drafting textbooks filled with “lower by 1/4-inch “or “check the size chart” kind of guidance). The drafting method uses the skirt block I crafted in her original class and a new set of body measurements for bifurcation. She invited her Skirt Skills students to participate in the first run of her Smarty Pants e-Course and I jumped in with both feet.

In fact, the course is still going on now! We’re in the last week of things, learning the finishing steps for TWO pair of custom pants drafted from blocks: trousers and yes….jeans. Since the course can be both self-paced and real-time, I chose to make my trousers in pace with the 6-week lessons and will start on my jeans block and fitting afterward.

So, this story about making linen trousers from the ground up will be told with a little less word count and more hyperlinks than usual. Besides, you may already know the story if you’ve been following my “Me Made May” 31-day micro-blogging marathon on Instagram under the hashtag #wannabesewingpants.

#wannabesewing pants on Instagram

Every First Draft is Perfect

Drafting my way to a garment pattern has been surprisingly less stressful than dealing with the ambiguity of opening the envelope of a purchased pattern or assembling a downloadable one.


In custom sewing class, we’re reminded of the inherent perfection of the first drafting work that happens with a block pattern. It’s job in pantsmaking is to represent a map of my lower body and legs. Once drafted into existence, it is a perfect resource of information for whatever pants style I want to design.

Knowing that my final garment will be based directly on information from MY BODY (not some “ideal” body I must compare mine to) is like getting a hug and a dozen roses from your best friend before going on stage. It’s the best kind of self-administered sewing support.

To understand how well my two-dimensional waist-to-ankle map corresponded to my three-dimensional body, I spent some time evaluating a muslin mockup up of my wide legged trouser block. The process put me in the role of Sewing Detective as I considered how to give a bit more room for my body at the crotch area. I sketched out a theory on my croquis so I could understand the impact the pattern correction would have on the fit of my trouser block, and spent a few days getting lost on the way to executing it. Ultimately I re-learned the value of slowing down during construction.

Design in the Trenches

I only had a rough idea of what kind of pants I’d make when I declared my intentions to all of the #Sewcialists. I wanted to see what specific inspiration would strike once my block was ready, so I pinned all the pins in a sartorial tribute to Katherine Hepburn’s iconic trousers-wearing and raided my fabric collection for options suitable for the wide-leg style I had in mind. The timeframe I had to work in, the warm season, my patience, and skill level (yep, still hovering somewhere on the spectrum between advanced beginner and intermediate seamstress) were also a part of the Committee for Real Life Sewing that influenced my design process.


By day 20, I’d worked out a sketch of a simple design for a pair of linen trousers with familiar construction features to prevent first-timer fumbles (thinking back to the topstitching drama of my denim pencil skirt) that could trigger my inner Samuel L. Jackson and jeopardize my momentum:

  1. A straight/wide leg, drafted 3cm narrower then my trouser block pattern that sits at my natural waist
  2. A hip-length waistline facing for tummy control
  3. An invisible side zipper
  4. 3 patch pockets – 1 in front, 2 in back

I really enjoyed the pattern work that solidified my original sketch and was glad I didn’t design more features than I could handle. With jeans as my next mission, there would be plenty of patterning, construction work, and even more topstitching (Bring it on!) to feed my appetite for design play.

11th-Hour Finish

I highly recommend timing your major construction work over a three-day holiday weekend. I may have missed out on all the Memorial Day happenings around town, but I did take a break from sewing for a highly-anticipated face to face meetup with Brooks Ann where she answered my final construction question (hell yes to twill tape along the waistline stay stitching) and let me get all “fan girl” for a while and go on about sewing for way longer than my husband can tolerate at home.


With the power of The Force still with me, I returned to my project and followed the custom sewing techniques I learned in class to semi-baste together my flax linen trousers (shout out to the lovely, UK fabric store that sent me 3 meters of Robert Kaufmann Essex Wide Flax cotton/linen in the hopes I’d make something fabulous with it one day that might reach my UK readers looking to support an independent business trying to branch out into garment-weight fabrics), try them on, adjust the fit and pass on the changes to my final garment pattern.

For this pattern in the heavy-bodied, almost bottom weight linen-cotton blend fabric I’d chosen, I took in the side seams by 4 cm, tapering from the waist to the thigh. I’m curious how a linen with more drape would respond to the design. When I’m done with the course, I may follow my curiosity to another pair of linen trousers.

When I returned to work after the holiday break, the big analytics project I’d kicked off earlier in the month had picked up steam and time-sucked me into a thousand meetings that made me get that hallway-stretching horror movie feeling that I was never gonna get out of here and back to my sewing room. I ultimately escaped. It was day 31 and I had only hours until midnight to finish my trousers in time to meet my self-imposed deadline.


With only a handful of “monkey-fighting” moments —I do admit to banning my family from my presence long enough to install, remove, and re-install (with the right foot this time) an invisible zipper without interruption — I finished my trousers around midnight and proceeded to sleep like a baby. When Baby woke up the next day, she wore the cutest trousers and the biggest smile to the office.


Thank you, to the #Sewcialists of Instagram who followed and encouraged me with likes and you-can-do-its along the way. Sharing my goal with such a big audience helped me see it through to the end. A month-long, public marathon of making was pretty intense, so I’ll probably keep my attempts to once a year.

With this latest dive into custom sewing, however, I learned so much (besides the ass-kicking skill of self-drafting pants) from the experience…like how to get the most of the small chunks of time available to me, how to create a garment plan to guide my approach, and how to trust my fitting and design instincts to make me enormously proud of what I can produce with my mind and hands.

Pencil Me In…Denim

153 days ago, I told you about my jones for a custom, pencil skirt made of denim.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so deadly serious about sewing something into existence. I learned how to draft a skirt block, rebooted my whole sewing process, and survived my first battle with topstitching thread to self-grant my wish.

And. It. Was. ALL. WORTH IT!

Custom-Drafted Denim Pencil Skirt

Draft Pick

Every bit of this road trip was worth the wait.

I even risked sitting wrinkles while waiting out the rain that tried to cancel my photoshoot. When your lipstick is like BOOM and you’re heels are like BAM and your skirt is like…BONJOUR!! there’s no weather forecast that can withstand that kind of readiness.

I’m not saying that my denim pencil skirt has the power to stop the rain or anything…

Denim pencil skirt, front view

…but I did bring it to life wielding a pencil and thimble. That’s all the proof I need that there may be a little magic in these hands.

The custom sewing e-course I took in October that rocked my bobbin-winding world, also infected me with a hearty passion for flat patterning. Before earning my Skirt Skills badge, I enjoyed hacking the style of a commercial pattern every now and then. I’d get a small thrill of vandalism and even a little pride out of being a silent co-designer when I drafted new lines on something ready-to-sew. Doing it from scratch though… is a whole other, lovely beast.

Crafting a garment pattern from top to bottom, deciding all the features, figuring out how to construct them, truing up all the lines, meticulously labeling all the pieces…all of this BEFORE I cut into any fabric. That. Is. WORK, y’all. Not sweat-generating work, but solid concentration of the lip-biting kind.

Denim Pencil Skirt Pattern Pieces

I had grand ideas for this skirt right out of the gate. I wanted to try out all kinds of drafting techniques, I wanted all the fancy seams and WOW factors I could get. I sketched and pinned like a fiend. Then, I remembered I was a student. A fresh and delicate newbie with all of the success-sensitive emotions that go along with it. And, newbies gotta slow their roll.

So, the second skirt made from my block would have three, simple design changes: a shaped waistband, a tapered hem, and a slit for walking ease. I’d never sewn or worn a well-fitting contoured waistband before. I’d never worn or sewn a tapered skirt, nor had I ever sewn a slit (or even a vent) into anything before. The whole experience was so new to me, I wondered if I should be designing diapers!

Denim Pencil Skirt, front view

I took my time through everything. The skirt drafting process had my right and left brain on fire. I loved it. Sorting out how to communicate to myself on my pattern pieces so I’d know what to do with them when it was time to cut was one of the most interesting parts of the experience. There are no seam allowances on my final pattern pieces so that I can mark stitchlines and cutlines directly onto my unfolded fabric. This means I have to remember to flip my pattern pieces over at the center front and center back “fold”. Instead of remembering to do it (which I didn’t a few times), I just noted it is as a flip instead of a fold. Clipping notches, drawing grainlines, including landmarks for the seamstress who’d be lost without them (me!) ….this is the work of pattern drafters I took for granted all these years.

And, now I’m doing it.

If they weren’t basted by hand before stitching…if the waistband facing wasn’t understitched with surgical accuracy…if my zipper wasn’t topstitched with ferocity…

…my seams would be bursting with pride.

Denim Pencil Skirt, side view

All About That Baste

The pre-construction phase was the most illuminating for me. I learned about hand-basted fittings in Brooks Ann’s course and used the method to try on my skirt for the first time after cutting it out.

When my pattern, my body, my fabric, and my preferences were introduced to each other during my basted-fitting, I was surprised to learn I needed 4 cm less circumference to get the snug fit I was after.

This meant my final pattern was tested and fitted for a bottom-weight twill fabric and if I wanted to sew it up in something different in the future -say, a wool suiting- I’d be better off drafting a new pencil skirt from my block and baste-fitting the suiting fabric skirt to see how it cooperated.

Hand-basted denim pencil skirt

A 4 cm reduction at the side seams was all I had to do to tweak the fit of my denim skirt and correct the paper pattern. Even though that tiny tweak surprised me (I wrongly assumed the stability of denim was similar to that of the muslin fabric I used to fit my skirt block), I am beyond ecstatic at a sewing future with little to no pattern alterations.

Fabulous Finish

When I was finally ready to sew permanent seams, I gave myself several more days of room to contemplate, sample sew, and finalize my construction methods and sequence. If I’d bought this skirt pattern, it would’ve come with all of those decisions made and illustrated for me. This custom skirt didn’t come with a manual.

I considered how to stabilize my waistband by examining the ready-to-wear jeans in my closet and by sewing samples. I figured out that my shaped waistband would be stable enough leveraging the untrimmed bottom seam allowance of the facing and the topstitching. I spent considerable time deciding whether or not to topstitch at all, ultimately choosing to go with topstitching, and then losing (and later finding) my mind over the act of topstitching. In hindsight…all good times I wouldn’t trade for a $500 skirt off the rack.

Back view, denim pencil skirt

On the subject of my backside (my daughter has named that part of anatomy the booty butt)…NEVER has it looked this good in a skirt before. The four darts shaping my hips are WERKING IT back there!

When I doubted for a moment whether or not I could get used to the small limitation in my walking range, my husband (who was a fan since the basted-fitting), instructed me to go look in the mirror again and said, “So WHAT you can’t take giant strides in it…Have you SEEN yourself in this skirt!!?” I spent some more time looking and loving my silhouette. After all, it had never been introduced to the world in its true form. I didn’t even know that walking in a tapered pencil skirt is SUPPOSED to involve some wiggle.

I am on board with my foxy ladyness now. Move over little black dress. The denim pencil skirt is here to challenge you to an LBD vs. DPS deathmatch for the Foxy Lady championship!

I am also a certified fan of simple seam finishes.

Insides. Denim Pencil Skirt

Not only did I keep the selvedge so I wouldn’t have to finish the center back seam, but I talked myself out of a hong kong finish and simply stitched and pinked the side seam allowances. The double fold, topstitched hem was a sweet finale to THE MOST satisfying make of my sewing career.

Growing Up with Sarah

I am transforming the way I sew, becoming a beginner again. In the middle of this re-birth, I get an email from Elisalex of By Hand London asking me to test their unreleased shirt pattern. They named it Sarah. Equally honored and daunted by the offer, I took a shot at making a shirt on a two-week deadline using a pattern I had never seen before.

Three yards of floral challis later, Sarah and I got to know each other pretty well. And with this double test drive, I got a chance to use the Jedi sewing moves I learned in the fall from the incomparable Brooks Ann Camper.

Sarah Shirt, Modeled - Front

Make It Differently

Learning pattern drafting and adopting basic couture techniques has been like a baptism for my sewing process, giving it new life and focus. Interrupting work on my own designs to sew someone else’s pattern was a strange decision to be faced with. At that moment, I had to decide what kind of seamstress I wanted to be. Now that I’m into custom drafting, does that mean all of my purchased patterns collect dust? Can what I learned even be applied to clothes I choose to make with patterns drafted for standard sizes?

These are the seven methods that anchor my sewing process now:

  1. Work from custom-drafted patterns that do not include seam allowances.
  2. Layout patterns on a single layer of fabric.
  3. Mark stitch lines and cut lines by hand directly onto fabric.
    • Mark 1″ wide allowances for seams
    • Mark 2” wide allowances for hems
  4. Thread mark neck, waist, and hem lines by hand.
  5. Hand-baste all interfacings and underlinings to fashion fabric.
  6. Hand-baste select seams and all hems for a pre-construction “basted fitting”.
  7. Machine-sew permanent seams by pre-basting with pins or thread along the stitch line before sewing directly on it (instead of using the cut edge as a guide).

I answered NO and YES, respectively to the questions about my sewing future and went on to successfully prove my hypothesis while crafting a beta version of By Hand London’s downloadable Sarah Shirt pattern.

By Hand London Sarah Shirt - Technical DrawingBHL Sarah Shirt in Challis

In a future post about a different garment, I will describe how methods 2 through 7 go down for me. For now, I’ll tell you what I did to customize the shirt pattern to fit my proportions after printing and assembling the PDF pages.

Make it Work

I started out annotating the pattern’s measurement chart to note where my body measurements land – which is typically all over the map. Luckily, the drapey fit and flared hem of the shirt made my circumference check pass with ease (pun intended, as always). But without any reference to center back length or a fit model’s height, I couldn’t tell whether or not the shirt and sleeves would be too long for me. Since my height barely qualifies me for amusement park rides, this omission in multi-size patterns never surprises me.

I suppose it is a safe assumption for a pattern drafter to make that most women are much taller than five feet. So it was also safe for me to assume that the pattern had a total of 2 to 3 inches of length I didn’t need in various places. My job was to figure out the best way to find it, then remove or bypass it.

When I made a woven tee a while back from a multi-sized McCall’s pattern, I had good results blending sizes from the sleeve cap to the underarm point to bypass the extra length I’d have to remove if I’d used the sleeve size that matched my bicep circumference. This small-to-large size blending also works for bypassing extra shoulder width and chest length. So, I set out do this for the shirt’s relevant pattern pieces.

BHL Sarah Shirt, Annotated Measurement Chart

First, I had to find the shoulder point somewhere on the yoke.

There were two notches on the yoke, but neither was marked as such and with my beginner’s mind engaged, I didn’t want to guess. This was my opportunity to compare my 2-D body to the pattern using the bodice block I have been tinkering with. To prepare for this and my eventual removal of the seam and hem allowances, I marked the hidden stitching lines on the main pattern pieces (following the lines that corresponded to the sizes that best match my shape) and taped the front and back pieces to the yoke pattern as it would be sewn.

Finding Shoulder Line on BHL Sarah Shirt

By lining up my front bodice block pattern to the center front of the shirt pattern and sliding it up to meet the top of the shirt neckline/yoke, I was able to mark the spot along the yoke where a shoulder seam would go on a shirt drafted without a yoke. From there, I did a double-check comparison to make sure the shirt’s stitch lines landed in the right place compared to my block. Where they didn’t, I found lines that did and blended them accordingly. I did the same for the yoke, back, and sleeve. This step wasn’t photographed, but here is a diagram borrowed from a Threads Magazine article that illustrates the comparison process.


Because the shirt sleeve was drafted to be gathered at the sleeve cap, it was hard to tell if there’d be too little or too much ease for me. I was also nervous about the fit at the underarm, that critical point where bust circumference, armhole height, and the ability to move your arm comfortably join forces. I wanted to ensure harmony in that area, so – after cutting off all of the seam allowances I’d drawn onto the pattern pieces – I marked, cut and hand-basted a one-sleeved mockup of the shirt sans collar, cuff, and placket.

The toile helped me discover that there was too much ease in the sleeve cap. I eliminated it by blending to a smaller size sleeve cap on the paper pattern and confirming those changes by transferring them to my muslin sleeve and re-basting it in for a final test. There was also way too much fabric at the underarm that I didn’t catch with my bodice block comparison because I was too lazy to rotate the bodice block’s bust dart to the shoulder for an apples to apples comparison. Lesson. Learned. For next time.

With confidence in the pattern’s fit, I moved on to fabric.

Make It Beautiful

Sewing with accuracy and more control. That is the result I am enjoying from adopting the seven methods I listed above. The way I’d been sewing left me guessing at so many things, that for the first time ever, I feel like I know what the hell I’m doing. More importantly, when something goes wrong, I trust myself to figure out how to un-screw it up because I have everything I need to know about what I’m making marked, checked, tested, and prepped.
 BHL Sarah Shirt, Dressform Back Pleat

I didn’t start sewing the shirt at the start of the two weeks I was given, I spent a few days deciding if the distraction was a good idea. Once I convinced myself that it was and got going, all of that handwork I would’ve scoffed at doing in the past, got done like it was a normal part of my life. Which, I think it is now. There was no hurry because every “slow motion” task was an investment in precision.

Sewing the old way feels foreign.

With the time constraint, I chose to finish the shirt’s seams with my overlocker. And, as of this writing, the shirt is missing buttonholes. To get some photos over to Elisalex in time for her pattern launch, I cleverly placed safety pins in the faux-pearl shank buttons I’m auditioning. Once Sarah is buttoned up for real, she’ll resurface here in a proper outfit. My semi-couture work on this shirt and the confidence I had during its making lets me appreciate how much my sewing has grown up.

BHL Sarah Shirt - Back Swing
The Sarah shirt was expertly drafted. The style fits my aesthetic and the swishy hem that won’t stay put during windy photoshoots is versatile enough to be tucked into the custom-designed pencil skirt I am also finishing.

I am grateful to By Hand London for the gifted pattern and the invitation to make something beautiful.