Real talk: if you sew your own clothes, it’s probably because you want a custom fit. And that usually means you adjust the pattern before taking scissors to fabric. But if you’re not also fitting while you sew, you’re missing out on an opportunity to make your garment as perfect as can be.
Fitting as you sew means either using a dress form that’s a good replica of your body shape, or trying on the garment while it’s still a work in progress. A quick pro tip: go for the try-on as much as possible. While you can adjust the circumference at various points on a dress form, it’s more difficult to get the vertical measurements right — which is when trying on the piece can really pay off.
Otherwise, here are a few places you may want to adjust when striving for a custom fit.
1. Seam Allowances
Before you cut out your fabric, consider changing all seam allowances to 1″ instead of whatever the pattern calls for. Doing so gives you a little extra fabric to work with, in case you end up needing it.
For example, in a typical pattern with ⅝” seam allowances, adding another ⅜” on the side seam gives you another 1½” total of extra room at the bust, waist and hip. Having the ability to let the garment out right where you need it can totally transform the fit of a garment, so it’s nice to keep that option available.
You also want to add the same seam allowance to any sleeve seam, as your sleeve will need to be larger at the underarm seam as well. You can taper that extra seam allowance away as you sew the seam.
2. Bodice Front
Most sewing patterns are designed for a person who is 5’5″ or 5’6″. If you’re shorter or taller, the vertical measurements may not match your body shape. And what if you have a short torso and long legs, or vice versa? Bottom line: the bust curve or shoulder height in a pattern may need adjusting.
Sometimes the dress or top is too big, or the bust point lands below the apex. If that’s your issue, you can take the garment up at the shoulders. You’ll have to adjust any facings or collar, too.
If your neckline is too low or just doesn’t fit right, adding extra to the seam allowance makes it possible to raise the neckline slightly. On the flip side, you can also take away at the front neckline if your garment is too high or restrictive — just make the curve deeper in the center front.
Princess seams give a lot of leeway in fitting the bodice, whether you need to take it in or let it out. Even if you don’t add to the seam allowance, sewing each front princess seam with a ⅜” seam allowance over the bust line instead of a ⅝” gains you 1″ (4 x ¼”) over the front bodice.
3. Shoulder Fit
Shoulder princess seams are another perfect opportunity to fit as you sew. Choosing a pattern size based on bust measurement might get you a pattern that fits in the body, but not in the neckline or shoulders. Taper some width away at the front and back of the shoulder using the shoulder princess seam line and you won’t need to make any change to the sleeve insertion.
4. Center Back Fit
To get a good fit across the center back — which means the whole neckline — it pays to check the placement of the zipper in a center back seam. And remember, you don’t have to follow the pattern’s seam allowance for a zipper application.
In the image above, we took out about 1½” on either side of the top of the zipper, tapering away to the regular seam allowance at the waist. This made the bodice back fit well.
If you find there’s gaping at the center back on finished garments, leave the zipper application until the last step and then baste it in. You can then try on the garment and see if making adjustments in that center back seam solves the problem.
5. Waist Placement
There’s one fit adjustment you should always make as you sew: placement of the waist seam. Depending on your body shape and height, you may have to raise or lower the waist seam — and you may need to do so in the front or back. (That’s another reason to put the zipper in after you’ve put together the garment.) Either way, you want to create a waist seam that’s horizontal and equidistant from the floor on both the front and back, as viewed from the side.
Breaking the Rules
One more important thing about fitting on the fly: you don’t have to follow the pattern!
For example, instead of sewing a dress’s bodice and the skirt separately and then attaching the two together, you could sew the entire front, then the entire back, before starting with the shoulder seams and working your way down the body pin basting and adjusting fit.
This process may take a few more trips back and forth to the sewing machine, but it’s worth it for a perfect fit!