McCall’s 5809

Fabric $12.50

Thread $0.87

Beads $1.00

Pattern $1.99

Total $16.36

Total Time: 6 hours (two of which was hand beading around the neckline)

I made this blouse with some changes. I used the longer sleeve from view B, but left the ruffle off the sleeve. And since the pattern only went up to a size 20, I altered it before cutting out so that it will fit immediately. Many people who sew are deathly scared of altering patterns, but there’s really no reason to be afraid. Honestly, why bother sewing something for yourself if you’re not going to bother making it fit any better than something you buy at the store?

Altering a pattern starts with accurate measurements. Without accurate measurements, you might as well toss the project in your scrap bin before you even start because it will be a total waste of time. It’s always best to have someone else take your measurements. If you don’t have a sewing buddy (someone else who sews that helps you with measurements and fitting garments) it may be worth it to seek out a professional for help, at least the first time. Wedding dress shops, seamstresses, tailors, and people who do alterations are all well practiced at taking measurements and won’t be all that surprised to get a request just to take your measurements. When you do take measurements, wear well fitted foundation garments similar to what you expect to wear with the finished garment. Even if you normally wear a thong (or no panties at all), wear something that gives you more coverage just this once. Yes, you’re going to need to get down to your undies to get accurate measurements. And believe me when I tell you that the salesgirl at your local formal dress shop will not be impressed with your barely-there lacy underthings. In fact, some stores will turn you away if they feel you aren’t covered enough.

Now, on the off chance that you do need to take your own measurements for whatever reason, it’s important to know how to do it right. An often overlooked measurement is the bicep or upper arm measurement. There’s nothing worse than finishing a new blouse and realizing that it won’t fit around your arm. Bring the measuring tape around the fullest part of your upper arm. Make sure that when you move your arm up and down that the measuring tape doesn’t cut into your arm. Next is the bust. Wearing the bra you’d wear with the finished garment, measure around the fullest point of your bust, keeping your arms at your sides as much as possible. Why is the bra so important? Try your measurements with a variety of different bras and you’ll see the difference. An inch difference can be critical to ensuring that your blouse fits properly. Waist measurement is easier to take on your own. Without sucking in, measure around the slimmest part of your torso, which should put the measuring tape in line with your belly button. Now, those instructions work well if you’re an hour-glass or triangular shape, but for the oval or apple shaped body, it will put your measurements all out of whack if you go for the slimmest point on your torso… that’s likely to be right where your bra band sits. The problem with that is that it’s not giving you an accurate picture of where and how much you need to alter your pattern. So if you fall into that oval or apple shaped category, line your measuring tape up with your belly button and record that number, even if it’s ugly. Please note that where you measure your waist is NOT where modern jeans tend to sit. Modern jeans are designed to sit below the waistline, sometimes almost at the hip line. Speaking of hips, when you measure your hips, it should land somewhere around 10 inches below your belly button, depending on height. For those of us plus sized girls with a tummy, resist the urge to measure below your stomach and just across the fullest part of your bottom. You won’t be doing yourself any favors.

Now that you have your measurements in hand, you’ll need to gather the finished garment measurements from the pattern. Sometimes all the finished measurements you need are printed right on the back of the pattern. Sometimes you’ll have to look at the pattern pieces themselves to get the measurements. Most major pattern companies include those finished measurements somewhere in the pattern, on the pattern it’s self it’s usually indicated with a circled cross symbol. Keep in mind that the finished measurement includes the extra room they give you for wear-ability and to achieve the look the designer is going for. This is called ease. To figure how much ease has been allowed, subtract the pattern size measurement from the finished garment measurement. For example, if a size 20 shows body measurements of 42, 34, 44, and the finished measurements are 44, 36, 46; then 2 inches of overall ease has been allowed in the garment.

If your measurements are over the pattern size measurement but below the finished garment measurements, you may be able to proceed without making any alterations. Consider how tight of clothes you’re comfortable with and how much room has been allowed. Where there’s a lot of ease (5 inches or more) it may be easier to get away without altering. If your measurements are at or above the finished garment measurements, you’ll need to adjust. Start by figuring out how much you need to add to the garment. Make sure to add enough so that it will not only fit around you, but will allow some wearing ease. In the back of the Vogue pattern book there is an excellent guide to how much ease to allow to achieve a fitted, semi-fitted, etc. look, it’s the guidelines they use in their patterns.

Let’s imagine that my poorly drawn example above is the front and back pattern piece for a simple tank top, where both the front and the back are cut out on the center fold of the fabric and there are no facings. In this example, there are 3 main locations where you can easily add inches to make the top larger: the center front, the center back, and the side seams. At the center front or back, you would simply pin the pattern an inch away from the fold to add two inches. Then when cutting out, instead of cutting along the pattern on that edge, continue the neckline to the fold as if the pattern extended that far. If you only need to add a little bit to your pattern, say an inch or two to allow for a large bust line, you could add the extra inch or two just to the front of the top at the center front without causing any problems in fit. Anything more than two inches and you should really consider splitting the addition between the center front and the center back. Anything more than four inches and you need to consider adding at the sides as well.

Adding to the side seam isn’t terribly complicated either. After pinning the pattern to the fabric, use a chalk or fabric marking pen to draw the extra onto the side seams. Keep in mind that two pieces meet at each side seam and there are two side seams, so you’ll need to divide the total number of inches to be added by 4 to ensure that the extra is added evenly to the shirt. So if you add just one inch to the front side seam and the back side seam, a total of four inches will be added to the shirt.

What if you need to go really far and add 6 inches or more? That starts getting a little more tricky. At that point, I always advise first to consider buying a pattern large enough to begin with. Excuse me for a moment while I duck the tomatoes being thrown at me. Yes, I know that plus size patterns look like tents and the misses patterns are much cuter and shaplier. But I also know that there are three wonderful lines of patterns from three of the major pattern companies that take into account the concerns of the plus sized woman with some taste. Vogue’s Today’s Woman Line, Simplicity’s patterns by Kahlia Ali, and Butterick’s patterns by Connie Crawford all offer better styles in larger sizes. Yes, they still have a long way to go and yes, there’s still a limited offering. But they’re making strides and you might have an easier time dressing up a simple classic from one of these lines than you’ll have in adding a significant amount to a smaller pattern. With that said though, it’s not impossible. In the example above, you’ll need to add at all three locations to keep the garment even as you size it up. Here’s how: Take the total number of long “seams” (or center front and center back as the case may be) and multiply by two. Take the total number of inches you need to add and divide by that answer. In this example, you have 4 locations (two sides, center front and center back) times two equals 8. If you need to add 6 inches, you’d be adding ¾ of an inch to each seam. So when you pin the center front and center back to the fabric, keep that pattern piece ¾ inch away from the fold.

Even though you’ve been monkeying with the finished measurements of the garment, you’ll still sew the seams at the same seam allowance that the pattern calls for. Your pattern already takes that seam allowance into account when they figure the finished measurements, and in addition, sewing at a different seam allowance can mess up the accuracy and usefulness of the pattern markings. You’ll learn as you experiment with adding to patterns that trying to transfer the pattern markings like notches and dots has wildly varying success rates. Personally, I don’t bother with them when I’ve altered the pattern. I rely on accurate measurements and accurate cutting to ensure that my pieces will come together the way they’re supposed to.

Now that we’ve explored adding to a very simple pattern, it’s not a huge leap to adapting the pattern I made this weekend. The primary concern is to remember to consistently add to ALL of the side seams and ALL of the center backs. Aside from that, I also have to consider how my alterations will affect the v-neckline of the shirt, which is why I chose not to add at the center front. Since I added to the side seams of the shirt, I also had to consider how that affected the arm hole and the sleeve. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to sew an un-altered sleeve into an altered arm-hole! As I mentioned before, when it was all said and done, of 8 pattern pieces, 7 had at least one alteration. I know it sounds horribly time consuming and tedious, but making the alterations only cost me about an extra half an hour of work, and most of that was in tearing out a seam when I forgot to gather the front of the top before attaching it to the band. I spent more time adding decorative beading to it than I did working on the alterations.

Really, the only way to learn to alter is to try it for yourself. Start with a very basic, very simple pattern, the fewer the pieces the better. Get your measurements and some cheap fabric and start experimenting with it. As I say every time I’m worried about a small technical error: “If anyone’s close enough to see it and stupid enough to mention it, I’ll just slap them. They shouldn’t be looking at my armpit (or wherever) anyway!”