A couple of years ago, I embarked on a journey to learn how to draft and create a bodice sloper―or block if you prefer―based on the flat pattern method. I wanted to have this template to use to design my own patterns. I learned a lot through the Craftsy course I took with Suzy Furer, an excellent on-screen teacher. I was happy with it and used it, but I was never satisfied with the fit of armscyes. So, this year, in preparation for some new designs, I decided to take a different approach and create a new sloper (after all, a few years and COVID have happened. Could it be that I might not be precisely the same shape?). The different approach I chose was to use Vogue‘s pattern block.
Before I get to that, though, just to be clear in case you’ve forgotten: a sloper (or block) is a foundation pattern created as a perfect fit for one specific body from which more complicated patterns can be designed.
Have you ever used this one? Vogue isn’t the only pattern company that offers these, but I like Vogue patterns, and it seemed to be what I was looking for.
It’s Vogue pattern #1004. I had always wondered about this dress “shell” pattern. Now it was time to see what it could offer me.
The first thing I notice is that there are twelve pages of instructions. Most of these are not instructions on how to put the thing together. They are primarily instructions for fixing the various fit problems that will inevitably plague you as you go along. After all, the whole purpose of this exercise is to have a template the fits to perfection. You can then use it to design, but even more useful in my estimation is that you can use it to alter commercial patterns.
One of the pieces of information on the instructions that I found particularly useful is the illustrated guide to varying degrees of ease added to fashion patterns to create a variety of silhouettes. This illustration will be handy for me as I develop those new patterns.
I washed and dried my muslin to soften it, then cut out the pattern roughly, leaving generous seamlines. I didn’t need to cut along the cut lines anyway since I would be marking the seam lines, which is more accurate in any case.
I used my large waxed sheets of marking paper that I bought on Susan Khalje’s website a few years ago. I don’t’ know why, but I love this part of the process. Well, that’s just the nerd in me coming out!
After the wax marking, I thread-traced so that I’d have most of the markings on both sides. Doing this makes putting it together so much easier and more accurate.
This shell has a waist seam as well as double darts at the waistline. I think this is complicated in a sloper. Since I didn’t want that seam line at the waist, and I wanted single darts, I had to make some adjustments. I made the first one at the pattern stage by omitting one of the waistline darts and adjusting the pattern at the sides. I knew I’d have to make some other changes (such as moving the darts) after putting it together for the first time. That’s why I sewed it together with the longest stitch my machine makes. There was a lot of picking out and resewing. I was prepared for this because that’s how these things go.
When I finally got the fit I liked, I had to adjust for removing the waistline seam, then was ready to cut apart the muslin and trace it out onto paper for final adjustments.
The last step was to transfer it to Bristol board, notch the darts and other important seam thingies, and awl punch the holes in the darts. All of this is so that it’s easier to trace it off onto paper whenever I want to make a new pattern.
All in all, I’m happy with the final product. Let’s see now how it works for my flat pattern-making for the summer!
Let’s get one thing straight up front: I wear pants almost every day of my life. I didn’t always. I, however, love the idea of wearing dresses. And I love to wear a dress to a cocktail party, a wedding (although I have been known to wear a beautiful ivory crepe pantsuit with a silk blouse), and on a hot summer day.
The fact remains that the dresses I have in my closet – of which there are probably too many – don’t get nearly enough wear except when we’re on a cruise somewhere wonderful. I love the freedom of pants. Why then, do I not make them? I make dresses but I don’t make pants. The answer can be summed up in one word: fit.
As far as I’m concerned, pants (trousers for anyone in the UK) like all other pieces of clothing, should fit well. No gaping waistbands, no baggy seats, no draglines. After years of trial and error, I’ve discovered several brands that fit me well. And the idea of making my own jeans? Not ever going to happen. I have found my jean heaven.
Paige jeans fit me very well and although they’re expensive, I’m sticking with them. However, I do like the idea of adding a few pairs of well-fitting pants to my personally-designed and sewn wardrobe. I’d like to take a crack at designing some interesting pant styles. With this in mind, I decided to do some research on different pant styles for women over the years. And those years don’t go back as far as you might think. Women haven’t always worn pants.
Even as recently as 2019, a school in North Carolina (USA) declared that their female students would no longer be permitted to wear pants citing “traditional values” as the reason. Apart from how obnoxious this is on so many levels, it does point our the fact that the wearing of pants by women and girls hasn’t always been acceptable – and still isn’t in some cultures. Historically, pants have been male attire and evolved to meet a need for simple practicality: horse-back riding, ease of movement, warmth in cold weather. These, of course, are all reasons that women wanted to wear pants as well. And let’s not forget comfort and how terrific they can look when they fit well.
You might recall how the Greeks and Romans have always been portrayed in terms of their dress. Everyone, men and women, wore some version of a tunic, or a toga. These were simple garments from a construction perspective: usually swaths of cloth wrapped artfully around the body or in the case of a tunic, a square-shaped piece of cloth with an opening for the head that fell between the waist and the thighs. Sewing would have been so simple in those days! (If it had existed at all.)
The first historical evidence of pants emerging tells us that they were initially developed in China around 3000 years ago to make it less cumbersome to ride a horse. We have to jump almost 3000 years to the nineteenth century to find women wearing pants. Rebellious women in both Europe and North America would take to wearing trousers when they could get away with it, however, it was illegal to do so. And it has to be said that the men made the laws at that time.
The fight for pant-wearing started in earnest in the 1850s – not that long ago. In the 1930s Marlene Dietrich sported pantsuits and got away with it although she was occasionally denied a restaurant table because of her attire. The second World War made pants a practical alternative to skirts in many occupational fields that women had to take up at the time.
Pants didn’t really ever appear on fashion runways until French couturier Paul Poiret designed what we would now call harem pants in 1911. Although that predated Dietrich and the second world war, only very bold fashionistas wore them.
When Christian Dior pioneered his “New Look” in the 1950s, pants lost their new-found prominence that had emerged during the war. He set pant-wearing among women back several decades.
It was the rebellious 1960s when pants came to the fore and we never really looked back (save for those cavemen running the aforementioned school in North Carolina and others like them).
These days, most of us couldn’t function in our daily lives without them, not to mention having the choice to do so. Which brings me to my current project. The perfect pant block upon which to base some future well-fitting designs.
Two years ago, I thought I’d developed one. There were one or two details I was never really happy with but since I’d used the traditional approach to developing it and put the work in, I kept it. But never used it.
Since then, I’ve wanted to copy a pair of comfortable Eileen Fisher pants that I wore to death and are long since gone from my closet as a result. So, I thought I’d revisit the pant block. This time I started with a simple commercial pants pattern that I thought I could adapt.
So, I did some initial tissue fitting then cut them out from a left-over piece of rayon-blend ponte fabric from a dress (another dress) I had recently made. I started by sewing them together completely with a 5 mm stitch in red thread – my all-over machine basting. After the first try-on, it was clear that they were miles too big everywhere but this is where the fun began.
I then started taking them in, one seam at a time starting with the crotch line. Then I tried them on again. Another tweak, this time with a different colour of machine basting until they were darn near perfect. Of course, by this time I had really wide seam allowances which I left in place until I took out the machine basting.
I did the permanent stitching along the final basting lines. Before I removed the basting lines, I transferred all the seam lines to the pattern I had traced out. These seam lines would be the dimensions of the sloper. Of course, I then removed the basting, serged the seams, lowered the waistline (which I then transferred to the pattern) and added a wide, inside elastic band to finish them I generally dislike anything with an elastic waistline but this is wide and subtle and after all, these are really yoga pants. As far as I’m concerned, they’re still a bit wide for ponte knit but this width should work well in a woven. I can always remake the pattern for a narrower stretch fit.
The final step was to transfer the pattern (without seam allowances) to poster board. I then measured for the high hip, low hip, thigh, knee and centre front and back, measurements I’ll need in future pattern-making. When I compared this block to the one I created using the more conventional measurement-to-math-to-pattern approach I learned two years ago, it was close. This time, though, I had corrected the issues I’d had with the original one.
I was anxious to make them up in leftover woven material to check the fit and tweak the back darts but the piece I planned to use wasn’t big enough. I guess I’ll just have to wait until I can pick up a piece of fabric from one of my favourite fabric stores. I just hope they’re still in business when all this COVID stuff is over. Not long now!
With a well-fitting bodice sloper for woven fabrics (OK the first well-fitting one wasn’t so well-fitting after all, but the current one is!), enough dart manipulation and neckline knowledge to be dangerous, and a passing familiarity with creating front closures for blouses and jackets, I should be ready for my first major design project. Well, not quite. Sleeves, I need sleeves.
So after my vacation and the thrill of planning new projects that I’ll get to over the next few months, I had to get back to my basic sloper work and draft a woven sleeve sloper. But before I get to that, I thought it would be fun to look at some interesting tidbits about sleeves and their history.
Did you know that during the middle ages sleeves were cut straight out from the main bodice of the garment with a triangle of cloth added as a kind of gusset underneath for ease of movement? It seems that sometime in the 14th century the rounded sleeve cap was developed paving the way for our modern notion of set-in sleeves. Just as an aside, I think that in sewing, learning to set in a sleeve to perfection is one of the first things newbies ought to get. I mastered that one many years ago but I still find setting in sleeves in my test garments in muslin annoying. The fabric I use is so unforgiving even the slightest hint of a pucker shows! But I digress…
Sleeves are functional: they protect our arms from sun, wind and cold weather. But they are also fashionable. When we see clothing from the 1920’s it’s clear to us that it’s actually representing that era, for example. But if you look at the sleeves on their own, you can see how these sleeves might be incorporated into a modern design aesthetic.
On the other hand, sleeves that were clearly in style during the Renaissance, for example, might have a harder time finding their way into twenty-first century clothing. Although, maybe someone might like a medieval-looking wedding gown? Sleeves have come a long way I think.
I used what I have been learning from Craftsy’s Suzy Furrer as I continue along this pattern-making learning path. She provides quite a detailed, professional approach to drafting and so I dutifully measured the arm elements – with a little help from my husband who is a meticulous measurer.Then armed with pencils (erasers), rulers, curves and all manner of other drafting tools, I set about following her instructions.
First, though, I had to draft a blouse/dress template from my bodice sloper since ease has to be added for this kind of garment. I was very pleased with the fit of the mock-up I created with this new template and actually deiced to put it on poster board for blouse creation in future. That way I won’t have to begin with my sloper itself – I already have a template with that ease – and which has the sleeve sloper fitted.
The first mock-up of the sleeve was, to my great distress, not perfect. It had a great fold of fabric at the front while the back fit perfectly. I had the sense to set in only one sleeve so was able to mark the changes on the first sleeve, cut it out of the bodice and use it to redraw the second sleeve (which I had already sewn together – seam ripper to the rescue). My plan at that stage was to suck it up and start the sleeve sloper draft all over from the beginning if the second one wasn’t perfect. But it was! Advice for sleeve sloper development: test slopers one sleeve at a time.
With that done, I cut apart the entire toile and used it to create the blouse/dress/sleeve sloper set. I’m closer to designing my first blouse or dress than I have ever been!
[PS I highly recommend the pattern drafting classes offered online by Craftsy.com. And I don’t get paid to endorse them. I just think they offer a good product at a very reasonable price.]
When I finished my bodice sloper designed for woven fabrics (A bodice sloper at last!) I looked at it closely, examined my current lifestyle and considered the kinds of fabrics I love to wear. I concluded that a bodice sloper/block that will be the basis for my design ambitions (designing my own capsule wardrobe – oh, yes, that’s the plan!) has serious limitations if it’s only to be used for woven fabrics and looks like the bodice of a dress with a waist seam.
I mean, I cannot remember the last time I willingly wore a dress made from a woven fabric (with absolutely no lycra) that was designed with a sewn-in waistline and darts of one sort or another. First, I wear dresses only to weddings and funerals (and even then I’ve been known to choose a beautifully cut jacket with equally well-cut pants and pumps), on cruises (and then they have to be the kind that can withstand packing – so no wovens), and on hot summer days (linen please, with no waistline). With all of this in mind, I began to wonder what precisely I might do with the sloper.
Well, I do like what is called “stable knit” fabric. Some sewers ridicule the very idea of a stable knit, believing that a knit by definition isn’t stable. But I do recognize that some knits are more stable than others and I like the stable kind. So, I suppose I might be able to use the block to fit stable knits that might have princess seams or French darts. And I think I know how to get rid of that waist seam. God, I hope so, because I can’t see when I’m going to need it. Peplums are out of the question in my wardrobe! If I can master that, then it’s likely that I can design myself some tops and tunics – once I learn how to draft necklines and sleeves, though. So, it will have that usefulness. However, it’s best use seems to me to be as the basis for making a knit sloper, which is what I did this past week.
The Suzy Furrer Craftsy course I’ve been using to learn to fit moulages and slopers concludes with a piece on design options for slopers, and a section on using my sloper to create a knit sloper by getting rid of darts and waist shaping. It focuses on adding negative ease to the sloper meaning that the body would fill out the knit and then some. I decided that since I don’t really like my knits skin tight I would err on the side of less negative ease than she suggests. Big mistake.
The first attempt at the sloper resulted in a sloppy mess. I had bought some cheap (and it has to be said supremely ugly) knit fabric at the moving sale at Fabricland in Toronto. It’s not my favourite store in which to buy fabrics since they tend to stock so many less expensive synthetics and I like natural fabrics or at least blends. But they do have a terrific selection of notions and threads all of which are currently on sale, and very cheap remnants. But I digress.
My husband often tells me that I tend to buy my clothes too large, seeming to have an inflated notion of how big I am. He was entirely correct in the case of fitting my knit sloper. Since I had only this piece of fabric in which to make up the proto-type before putting the final sloper on poster board, I went back to the drawing board and re-drafted the sloper from the beginning using the instructor’s directions this time, and tweaking a bit based on my own observation of shoulder slope issues (yet again). Then I unpicked the first sloper and hoped I could re-cut the same fabric smaller. It seemed to work.
When I whipped up the second sloper I was delighted with the fit. All that was left was to put the sloper on poster board. As I hung the it in the closet with the woven one, I realized just how much I had learned about the process of fitting and pattern-making. After so many years of slavish devotion to commercial patterns and continual moaning about fit issues, I believe that I have the basis to move forward to better fitted garments – both from commercial patterns and ones I plan to create!
My six best pieces of advice for learning to make slopers/blocks:
If you’re taking an online course, using a textbook, or following someone’s online tutorial, watch, listen to or read the entire process before starting anything. Get an idea of the overall process.
Assemble the equipment you’ll need: a flexible ruler, a curve, tape, fabric shears and scissors to cut fabric, a good pencil (and eraser), a roll of pattern paper (lots of it), a bolt of muslin or other cheap, plain fabric. I noticed that many of the students taking my course used left-over quilting material etc. with patterns on it. It’s difficult to see details of problems/issues and how to fix.
Prepare yourself mentally for doing it again and again until you get it right.
Keep your eraser and seam-ripper handy and use them often.
Focus on the process rather than the outcome. If you can’t do this, the process will soon drive you crazy. The process can be very meditative.
When you’re finished, take stock of all of the elements of fit and pattern-making that you now know that you didn’t before you started. You’ve come a long way, baby!
It’s been months in the making. I’ve spent hours measuring and drawing, cutting and pinning, sewing and seam-ripping. But I’ve finally finished the sloper – and it fits me!
When last I recorded my progress, I had redrafted the sloper incorporating changes to solve problems that seemed to have emerged sometime between moulage and sloper. I then whipped it up on muslin and ta-da! It fit me! I was anxious to move forward in drafting the final sloper on poster board for posterity (and future pattern drafting), but held myself back until I received feedback from my online instructor, Suzy Furrer. When I got the go ahead from her, I ambled down to Staples and picked up some poster board – and a set of erasable coloured pencils, an item I’d been wishing for throughout the drafting process. Then I set to work creating that clean, poster-board copy to hang in a closet!
The process of creating the final sloper is really easy once the thing actually fits. All I had to do was trace the outline onto poster board, then use a tracing wheel and tracing paper to get the various lines (waist, bust, high and low hip etc.) and the darts onto the poster. The instructor refers to “tag” as the kind of heavy paper that the fashion industry uses for these pattern blocks, but tag seems a difficult item to find.
I had been concerned that poster board might actually be too light for this final product, but it seems that when you search for definitions of tag, that this tag is thinner than poster board. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the accurate word is tagboard and they define it as “…strong cardboard used especially for making shipping tags.” When I think about shipping tags, I think of quite flimsy cardboard, and when I went into a craft supply store, they didn’t have any such material. Anyway, poster board seems to be a reasonably good medium for the sloper so that’s what I chose.
Once I had the sloper traced out, I firmed up all my lines, and as instructed, I cut it out in preparation for “notching” and “awl punching.” The notching is done along the edges at every point where I will need to add a line to a future pattern. For example, I need notches at both ends of the waist line so that I’ll be able to join them up on a pattern traced from this block. As for the darts, well, I’ll need those awl punches at the dart points (or any important point on the interior of the pattern) so that I can join up the ends of the darts with the points.
I ordered my notcher from Ebay months ago. It had to come from China (the only way to get one at such a cheap price!), and the awl from Amazon. When I look at my awl and compare it with those used by sewers and designers, although it was advertised as for this purpose, I really think it’s more for punching leather and using n a wood-working shop, but it does the trick!
Storing these slopers seems to require some kind of special equipment as well. The instructor – as well as everyone else who teaches this or writes about slopers & blocks – punches a large hole in them and hangs them on a “pattern hook.” When I looked at trying to order a pattern hook or two or three, they seemed inordinately expensive. (In this photo I found online, it is actually upside down.) Several sewing bloggers have posted pieces on how to make them, and then there’s my husband who likes to browse Canadian Tire. (If you aren’t a Canadian and have no idea what Canadian Tire is, you might enjoy an online browse. Don’t be fooled by their name: they are not just a tire store although they used to be in years gone by. They’re our everything store!). Anyway, he found a pack of boot hooks by a company called Neatfreak (readily available online as well) for $12.99 CDN. They were ideal!
I did not have to get a large hole punch for a pattern hook; rather I was able to clip the front and back of the sloper together and hang them in the empty closet in the den. They will be joined next week by a knit sloper (my next project) and future slopers for pants!
Yay! I’m on to the course on dart manipulation in my first step toward designing something!
It never fails: tune into a discussion of garment pattern sizes among newbie sewers and be prepared for the lamenting to begin. Yes, you, the experienced garment producer, think to yourself, a size 8 pattern is most assuredly not going to fit you if you wear a size 8 in ready-to-wear. In fact, I understand the depths of your indignance. If you wear a size 8 in most ready-to-wear, you probably wear a size 6 in Not Your Daughter’s Jeans (yes, I’m old enough to truly appreciate them). And, to add insult to injury, you probably wear a size 0 – yes, zero – in Chicos (of course their sizing is a thing onto itself). But here’s the thing – you only wear a size 8 in North America anyway. Rest assured, you’re never going to be able to zip up that size 8 dress off the rack at Harrod’s or, god forbid that you even try, at Galleries LaFayette in Paris. That’s because a size 8 in North America ready-to wear equates to a size 12 in the UK, and generally a European size 42, just maybe a 40 (not a 38 as you might wish). So, where does that leave you in pattern sizing? Probably a size 14.
I have one thing to say to you – the same thing I had to say to myself – get over it. If you really want to be able to get your clothing to fit, ignore the number and go with what works. Let’s back-track for a moment to see if we can understand this.
Did you know that clothing sizes were invented only in the early 1800’s? Before that, there was no need of them. If you were well-to-do enough, your tailor simply made your clothes to measure – all of them. If you were less financially fortunate, you made your own, fitting them to your body, your children’s bodies and the bodies of anyone else who relied on you (the matriarch usually) to provide them with wardrobe.
According to a very interesting article in Time magazine titled, “The Bizarre History of Women’s Clothing Sizes” (which is worth a read), true sizing as we recognize it today, really began to develop in the 1940’s. Before that, children’s’ clothing, for example, was sized according to age range. Even today you usually buy baby clothes by age: 6-12 months, 18 months etc., as if every child at 12 months weighs the same!
Interestingly, the standard sizing in the US was developed through an extensive survey of some 15,000 women who volunteered to be measured. The fact that they were paid to do this also resulted in the sizing being skewed toward the sizes of those in the lower socio-economic strata of society.
As the authors of the Time article state,
“As American girth increased, so did egos…And thus began the practice of vanity sizing. Over the decades, government size guidelines were heeded less and less, items of clothing began getting marked with lower numbers and eventually, in 1983, the Department of Commerce withdrew its commercial women’s clothing size standard altogether.”
Oh vanity sizing! I remember being in a dressing room in the Gap several years ago. I was well aware that the Gap had changed their sizing, especially since I was comfortable in their size 6 jeans. Next door to me were several young women also trying on jeans. Suddenly I heard a screech: “OMG! I’ve lost weight! The size 10 fits!” Sorry, kid. You’ll really have to measure yourself and/or get on the scales to find that out if that’s true. Which is where we begin the search for the perfect fit in sewing patterns. Measuring.
There really is a knack to this measuring stuff. And then if you’re using an off-the-shelf pattern which many (most?) home sewers do, there’s the matter of finding out that you don’t really fit perfectly into any of their sizes. And it’s worth noting that in the sewing world, the notion of vanity sizing hasn’t really taken hold to the same extent, but there is no doubt about it, it’s there.
I stumbled upon this sizing chart from a 1948 Vogue sewing manual…
So, what size would you have worn in 1948? And here’s their chart today…
And not really fitting any of them perfectly? So goes the world. My answer was to seek out a way to make a personal moulage, from which I’ll create a personal block, or sloper – terms that I hadn’t even heard of six months ago.
So, I’ve embarked on a new course to learn to draft my own perfectly fitted patterns. It all begins with perfect measuring, and thankfully, I have a wonderful husband whose perfectionism borders on the mystical – a terrific trait in your measuring partner. I began there, then proceeded to the session on beginning to draft. I’ll let you know how it goes!