Moving the Needle, Vol. 02


This week

There’s a new ritual in my sewing life. I make a date with my skirt block every time my favorite sewing teacher opens up registration for her Skirt Skills e-course. Sometimes I even re-take the course (alumni get a discount) to inject some organized sewing motivation around a new custom skirt project. Sharing with other students in the forum and the chance for one-on-one support from a couturier is almost irresistible every time.

When Brooks Ann announced another course starts on September 5th, I got ready to sew-along by pulling out my skirt inspiration sketches (like this one), poster board skirt block (which gave birth to my bifurcated trouser block), and self-drafted denim pencil skirt pattern (with original construction samples) to help me plan and design a second denim skirt (the first one I made is the highlight of my wardrobe right now). This one will have plenty of features to warm me up for jeansmaking.

Sew Inspired

Skirting the issue further, there’s Ebi’s purple animal print pencil skirt released into the wild just before her birthday (too damn cute). 1 out of the 18 sewing meet-up activities Kate shared on her blog includes draping and drafting a bodice using cling wrap! The difference between flounces and ruffles, as explained by The Cutting Class, has unruffled the subject in my mind. That time Eliza rotated the back darts of a pencil skirt to the side seams, I vowed to do the same one day. On her blog, Brooks Ann explains how she learned to sew without ever using commercial sewing patterns (its how I knew she was the right teacher for me). The 5-minute video interview with a Levi’s Master Tailor about making bespoke jeans that re-fueled my fire for the process.

Quotes to Sew By

The quest to create something from nothing is a wholly irrational act, do it anyway. ~Jonathan Fields

I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match. ~ Mia Hamm, double Olympic soccer champion


I shared a simple hack on Instagram for assembling a set of 1 lb. pattern weights with hardware store washers and plain white glue. Let me know if you try it!

Moving the Needle, Vol. 01

Version 2

Today, I bring you my first, semi-weekly anchor post, Moving the Needle. It will serve as an in-blog newsletter of sorts to share what I’ve been working on and what’s been inspiring me.

This week

My needle has been moving in and out of mockups while I worked through a belated adjustment to my original trouser block. Drafting only to the knee saved fabric and time and helped me focus on solving a crotch length mystery that only showed up while walking. I love all of the anatomy lessons I’m getting from pattern drafting. Speaking of anatomy, I used the only scale in my house (the balance board of my Nintendo Wii) to confirm I’d lost 8 lbs since January. Now I know why I had to remove an extra 4cm from my skirt block in May! The discovery has me re-thinking some of the garments I’ve been planning. Elastic waists, wrap closures, and alteration-friendly seaming might be the best way to cloth my changing body.

Sew Inspired

The t-shirt dresses Carolyn made to keep cool this summer have given me ideas for adding breezy-ease to a lengthened version of my fitted t-shirt pattern. The drape and floral print of the gorgeous charmeuse dress on the Clothing Engineer blog put silk back on my fabric shopping list. A mix of vintage and modern methods (and an eye-catching African cotton print) went into this 13-step tutorial for sewing a button fly on trousers. Krista of Man Repeller’s series on styling for fuller bosoms woke me up to the layered, ruffled skirt as a real option for me; and this simple how-to stopped me from overthinking how to sew one.  Star Trek the Next Generation meets the 1940s in the best group costuming project my Halloween sewing plans have ever seen.

Quotes to Sew By

Success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm. ~ Winston Churchill.

Playing dress-up begins at age five and never truly ends. ~Kate Spade


After watching this movie on Netflix about how our bodies handle over-consumption of sugar, I stopped drinking soda. My healthier, shrinking body is the excuse I didn’t need to sew more clothes.

Bound for the Sun

With a fool-proof strategy for binding the neckline and armholes of a sleeveless knit top, my relationship with the summer heat finally caught a cool breeze.


I found myself unprepared for the nuclear levels of heat that are happening. My selection of warm weather tops is grossly inadequate for the global baking of the earth. Any project that does not directly involve the prevention of melting has been put on hold.

Tank tops have topped my priorities.

The mission: Make my favorite t-shirt pattern sleeveless and perfect my knit wrap-around binding construction.

Fresh out of “the lab”, this stretch jersey tank is my mostly successful but still very wearable mockup to test my pattern adjustments and the execution of the knit binding technique I adapted from Marcy Tilton’s book. It produces a smooth edge that hugs the neckline.


Before I binge-sew a hundred more (yeah-yeah, I know…it will be more like, three), I wrote a little construction guide to help me repeat (and improve) my binding results on the next tops – which might have different neckline depths or shapes. For those of you with wardrobes as vulnerable to heatwaves as mine, this could come in handy.

Formula for Calculating Knit Binding Length

  1. Measure. Measure seam allowance-free neckline and armholes, front and back. Record totals. Divide neckline circumference by 4 to get the length of the test strip for finding the fabric’s optimal neck-to-binding ratio.
  2. Stretch. Cut a 5 cm (2-inch) wide by test strip length piece on the crossgrain. Stretch it along measuring tape in a 1 to 1 ratio to see how far it can stretch before the fabric gets distorted.
  3. Calculate. Multiply the stretch distance (e.g., 1cm) by 4, subtract it from the neckline circumference, and add the total seam allowance for the binding’s join to get the final length of neckline binding. Repeat the calculation with the armhole circumference for its binding length.
  4. Miter. Cut binding lengths by preferred width —3 times finished width plus 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) for turn of cloth and underlap — and cut short ends on a 45 degree angle. Sew the ends with a 1cm seam, press seam open, then trim allowance to reduce bulk.
  5. Quarter. With seamed and finished shoulder seams, divide the neckline and binding into quarters (without using the binding’s seam as a marker), and snip tiny notches. Keep the binding’s seam off-center at the back, match and pin it to the neckline at the snipped markers, right sides together with binding on top so feed dogs can ease in the longer neckline to the smaller binding.
  6. Sew. Set machine to a slight zig zag stitch, stretch the binding strip slightly while sewing between each pin.
  7. Wrap. Wrap it to the wrong side, smoothing the binding over an even seam allowance. Press over a ham from the front side, pinning along the way. Turn underlap edge under, overlock it, leave it as-is, or pink it (my favorite option so far).
  8. Secure. Sew the binding in place by stitching in the ditch from the front side with an edgestitch foot (or by hand for extra invisibility).
  9. Repeat. Carry out steps 5 through 8 for the left and right armhole bindings.


The status of this mockup as a wearable muslin was sealed when I forgot to check the placement of the binding’s joining seam. Ideally, one would place it inconspicuously. For the neckline: in the back, off-center. For the armhole: in line with the side seam. On my right armhole, it landed aimlessly near the shoulder seam.


If you walk around from that point to the front and squint your eyes, you can see the neckline binding’s mitered seam loitering about near the top of the shoulder.


Hardly noticeable unless you find yourself close enough to my neck to kiss or bite it. My potential critics are: my husband or Dracula. Luckily, neither will care given their business in that area.

I rewarded my triple binding work with a simple, lazy zig-zagged hem.


If it’s possible to have a crush on a sewing technique, I certainly have one on this wrap-around binding. It elevates the status of a tank top to more than just a color peeking out from under a cardigan….it becomes a hand-wrapped license to bare arms.

Are you sewing yourself cool this summer? How do you finish the holes of your sleeveless garments? Do you turn, bind, or band?

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.

When Good Girls Sew Bad(ly)


I collected every discarded strand into an ugly yellow tumbleweed so that I could take a moment to honor my hard work….with laughter.

One doesn’t set out to spend a weekend topstitching the same center back zipper over and over again, but when the comedy of errors is choreographed just right, it’s best just to sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

  1. Before going for it on my denim skirt, I consulted Sandra Betzina’s Fabric Savvy book to read her profile on sewing heavyweight denim. Then, after a few tries, I sewed the most perfect centered zipper sample using a large swatch of my fabric, a twin version of my final zipper, jeans topstitching thread from an American company (*sigh*…made in Mexico), a 100/16 needle, stitch length at 4.5, and thread tension at around 7.
  2. I carried that sample around in my purse for a week while I worked on the Sarah shirt. I’d pull it out and lay it on my desk to stroke the stitches during conference calls. I was so proud of how they descended along the zipper opening so evenly, making the 90-est degree turns at the bottom. The fantasy of my finished skirt’s award-winning, topstitched zipper was burning a proverbial hole in my bag, putting my keys and lip gloss at risk. My alarm to sew was going off and the snooze button was disabled.
  3. So, I cleaned up my work space, picked up my custom drafted skirt pieces — still hand-basted together after my final fitting — and sewed the center back seam with a combination of basting and permanent stitches. Then, my daughter woke up. And, Saturday morning life began.
  4. The sun was out that afternoon, but my family’s needs for winter Vitamin D were not my priority. I just wanted to sew the best zipper ever. I kept my plans to eventually go to the park quiet, plopped Josephine in front of a 4-inch stack of cotton fabric swatches, instructed her to “sort them for Mommmy”, and proceeded to baste in place, topstitch and IMMEDIATELY RIP OUT my first attempt. It was a hot mess. OK. No, problem. Just a little rusty. Perhaps distracted by parenting. Let’s try this again. Later. When the kid is out of the room and outside the blast radius of an f-bomb from Mommy.
  5. After dinner, I snuck away for a second and third failed attempt. The stitches were inconsistent on top, looked drunk on the bobbin side, and veered off from straight in various places. Double-You-Tee-Eff! What’s a girl gotta do to repeat her own success around here? Oh, wait-a-minute….what’s this? I still had the 80/12 needle in the machine I used to sew the center back seam!
  6. The 100/16 needle is in. Denim Topstitching, take 4….slow, steady, not too much foot on the gas…good…careful around the corners…OK, done. Let’s see…What!? Mutha…It’s at this point in the story we must apply some censorship. When the thread hits the fan for me, I become the Samuel L. Jackson of sewing. So, I’ll deal with my sailor mouth here in the same way they over-dub Mr. Jackson when his movies get adapted for television. I don’t watch cable or broadcast TV anymore, but when I did back in the day, I saw them take Sam Jackson’s famous line from the comedy-horror, Snakes on a Plane, and dub it into the best alternative I’ve ever heard.  His rated-R line, “I’m tired of these mutha-bleepin’ snakes on this mutha-bleepin’ plane!” was dubbed over for television audiences to “I’m tired of these monkey-fightin’ snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!” Let’s continue …with a touch of silly censoring. The ends of the zipper tape folded and got caught in the stitching during the 4th attempt. While unpicking the bobbin thread, I noticed it was sitting slack. Cheese and rice! The tension is off! Was it off the whole time!? I don’t even care anymore. I’m going to bed.
  7. Sunday morning arrives. Finally. It’s Mama’s holy day for full-attention sewing. I make quiche to fill the bellies of man and child, dump a pile of Legos on the living room floor, and return to the Zipper That Won’t Stitch. I increase the tension just a smidgen and put my foot on the pedal. I stop mid-way to check the bobbin thread and it’s looking good. As I get closer to the top….I realize that the stitch lines aren’t even on one side! No monkey-fighting way! I stared at the carnage of yellow thread on the floor for a solid five minutes.
  8. After shaking off the trauma, I unpick again. Getting faster at it this time. I impress and disgust myself when I can remove the top thread in one magical pull. After saying some encouraging words to my machine, I proceed to topstitch my poor, serially stabbed skirt for a sixth time. I’m breathing in and out, my machine and I are one. Up. Down. In. Out. Good, girl. You got it. Let’s take a look. Stitch length is even, stitch line is 1/4″ away from the opening on BOTH sides this time…but, cod n’ salmon! Why are there three rogue stitches near the bottom that look like they’re trying to go AWOL!? Is this a conspiracy? Is this my punishment for supporting an American thread company that outsources all the work to Mexico? Why, Lord, why is topstitching perfection alluding me? I did it once before. I’ll give up coffee for a month if you let me get this right.
  9. At this point, I’d just lied to God. Things had reached Shakespearean levels of drama. I had to get out of the house for a couple hours to stop the “to sew or not to sew” monologues in my head trying to bring me down. The break did me good. I moved into the acceptance stage of grief and carried out topstitch job number seven: 90% perfect. The problem (this time) was with my basting. It was holding the zipper in place, but doing a crap job of keeping the fabric from shifting under my machine’s clunky zipper foot. I re-basted the zipper in blood red thread (as if it was war paint), checking for balance with a ruler along the way.
  10. I only had to fight monkeys three more times before my topstitching performance was 98% perfect. An acceptable end to a long battle with fate and stupidity. I’m not fracking with it ANY. MORE.

That last, stubborn 2% of fail will give the skirt character. I even wrote myself a topstitching checklist for next time. With my sense of humor still in tact and a new reverence for the simple tasks that can (and do) go horribly wrong, I carried on with making…humbled and entertained by my tumbleweed souvenir.

Now, it’s your turn. What was your last sewing fumble? Did you prevail or wadder-out? Got any curse word alternatives to contribute? Seriously, share your worst. Your stories will be my sewcial therapy ;-).

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.