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Getting a great fit

This guide is an excerpt from Sew Your Own Wardrobe by Tessa Evelegh, the book which accompanies the second series of The Great British Sewing Bee.

Although professional dressmakers and tailors use many different techniques to adjust patterns for every part of the body, this can be a complicated mathematical challenge, especially as adjusting one piece can have a knock-on effect for others, such as facings, or where bodices join to skirts. However, this does not mean you can’t easily make beautiful made-to-measure garments – it’s more a matter of understanding how fit works, and making best use of the facilities offered by commercial patterns.


Choosing Patterns with Fit in Mind

The less you need to adjust a pattern before sewing the better. Loose designs offer less of a fit challenge, but that doesn’t mean beginners are limited to flowing styles. If you do want to make a close-fitting garment, choose one that naturally has many points where you can adjust while you’re making it. These points will be at darts and seams.


Five Simple Steps for a Fabulous Fit

Choose the Right Size Pattern

It’s much easier to adjust length than width, so take your measurements accurately and consult the size chart to choose the right size in the first place.


Use Lengthen and Shorten Lines

Commercial patterns are designed for women around 1.67m (5ft 5in). If you’re taller or shorter than this, expect to make adjustments. The natural waistline, hip line and bust point are marked on commercial patterns where they are relevant.


Make Minor Width Adjustments 

Major width adjustments are tricky because they have knock-on effects on other pieces that join to them, such as facings, collars. Minor adjustments, however, can be made within seam allowances when you get to the sewing stage. If there are obvious discrepancies that need adjusting – if your waist is very much smaller than your hips, for example – make these changes on the pattern pieces, making smooth lines that dovetail to the original cutting line where appropriate.


Make a Full Bust Adjustment 

Commercial patterns are designed to fit a B cup, but if your full bust measurement is more than 7.5cm (3in) larger than your high bust measurement, you will need to sew the pattern sized for your high bust measurement but adjust it for a full bust.


Stitch the Shell

Once you have stitched the darts and the major seams, you can make minor adjustments to the shell. Press it and try it on. If the fit is not good, put it on inside out and, if you don’t have a dressmaker’s form, get a helper to make minor adjustments to the seams. You don’t really want to make any more than a 1cm (³⁄8in) adjustment to any seam, whether you are taking it in or letting it out. However, remember that if you take a seam in by 1cm (³⁄8in), this will make an adjustment of 2cm (¾in) because you are working with two layers of fabric.

Working from the top downwards, pinch out any bubbles resulting from excess fabric around darts or hips and pin to fit. Mark the line with tailor’s chalk, then re-position the pins so they don’t get caught up in the machine when you sew the new seams.

Once you have re-stitched the seams and/or darts, press the shell again and try it on before trimming and finishing the seams.

Adjusting Pattern Pieces

Once you’ve decided which size to make, cut out all the relevant pieces along the relevant size lines, making sure you cut the notches outwards. Iron each piece flat with a cool iron.

With commercial patterns, most of the adjustments you’ll be making will be lengthening and shortening. However, it’s also useful to be able to move bust darts and to make full bust adjustments if you have a fuller figure.


You will need:



Spare tissue

Invisible sticky

Steel rule or straight edge

Lengthening and Shortening Pattern Pieces 

Pattern pieces need to be lengthened or shortened at a point where there is not too much shaping. The right place to lengthen or shorten a pattern piece is marked on a commercial pattern with two parallel lines


To Lengthen

Cut the pattern between the two parallel lines. Separate the pieces by the amount you need to lengthen by, then slip a strip of tissue under the two pieces and pin or tape it in place. Trim off any excess tissue to smooth the edges. You can also lengthen at the hemline.

To Shorten

Fold the pattern between the two parallel lines, then fold the tissue up or down to avoid any darts by the amount you need to shorten the piece. Pin the fold in place and use a pen to smooth the line of the side seam. You can also shorten a skirt or dress by cutting it at the hemline.

Shorten a dress pattern piece

To Adjust Dart Position

Badly placed darts only accentuate higher or lower bustlines, generally making the garment look more ‘home made’. The point of the dart should finish about 1.25cm (½in) from the bust point for smaller busts and up to 5cm (2in) away if you are fuller. It’s very easy to either raise or lower the dart. You will need a pen and ruler, a sharp pair of scissors, some tissue and invisible sticky tape.


 Hold the pattern piece in the correct position on your body and mark the position of your bust point. Now, using the ruler and pen, draw a box around the dart so that the vertical line runs through the dart point.


Cut around the lines and move the dart so that the end of it aligns with the new bust point position – raising it or lowering it as appropriate. Stick it in position using sticky tape

Change bust size

Fill in the gap above or below the new position using tissue and sticky tape.

Full Bust Adjustment

Learning how to make a full bust adjustment is one of the most popular skills request at sewing workshops. This is because buying off the shelf often limits fuller girls to larger sizes that swamp their small frames, and sewing their own can be the only way they can get clothes to fit properly. Basically, you need the correct size for your high bust measurement and then work in more material and ease in the bust area where you need it. Adjusting the pattern is not difficult if you carefully follow the technique. The most effective and popular method is slash and spread.


Start by holding the pattern in the correct position against your body, The centre front should align with the centre front of somebody with a B cup and lie comfortably between the breasts. If you need a larger cup size, the centre front will not reach the centre front of your body. Measure the difference between the centre front edge of the pattern piece and the centre front of your chest. This measurement is the amount by which you need to increase the fullness in the pattern piece.

Using the ruler and pen, draw a line at right angles to the grain line, running through the dart fold line to the bust points. Now draw a line from the bust point to the waistline parallel to the grain line. A third line goes from the bust point diagonally up to the armhole notch.

Full Bust Adjustment

Cut along the vertical line and up towards the armhole, but leave a small hinge at the armhole notch. Now cut along the first line you drew along the dart fold line, leaving another small hinge at the bust point.

Change bust size on a sewing pattern

This whole operation will mean the centre front section is now too short, so make a horizontal cut near to the bottom of the larger part of the pattern and move that section down until the bottom edge of the pattern is level. Stick that piece into position. Turn the pattern over and trim off any excess tissue. Now try the pattern piece against you again to check that it fits.


The Great British Sewing Bee: Sew Your Own Wardrobe by Tessa Evelegh, published by Quadrille (£25)

Photos ©Tiffany  Mumford & Charlotte Medlicott; Illustrations ©Kate Simunek