Fitting often gets left out of otherwise great sewing books, leaving us with the advice to “take a class with an expert,” “get fitted by someone,” “buy a book specifically devoted to the subject.” I firmly stand by that last piece of advice, but the other two options are unrealistic for me. I’m going to assume they might be unrealistic for you, too. And that, in spite of that, you do want to learn to sew clothes that fit you.
I’m not a fitting expert. I’m in the process of figuring out how to fit myself and what I want to offer here is some resources I’ve been finding helpful, as well as my own continuing fitting questions, possible answers, and more conversation in the comments.
In my everyday life I don’t really meet garment sewists. I do, however, often meet sewists who’ve given up on making clothes because they’ve found fitting arcane and just too difficult. If you’ve felt that way, too, maybe some of the links and books I’ve listed below will help you give fitting a second chance. And if you’re out of the fitting woods, please share some of your tips and tricks!
I want to talk about three things: (1) ditching perfectionism, (2) measuring, and (3) additional resources for measuring your body and working toward figuring out a good fit on that basis.
Thinking about fitting as a process can be encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Just like that oft-cited nugget of insight from Kenneth D. King that in order to improve your sewing you will inevitably mess up many, many yards of fabric.
1. Perfectionism is what makes you quit, working with your mistakes is what keeps you going
Before we get to measuring, I just want to say that perfectionism is everyone’s worst enemy. I’m not trying to be preachy here. I’ve been fighting my perfectionist tendencies for a long time. Perfectionism looks friendly enough — you might think that it sets a “high standard” that keeps you going, but that’s really not it. Perfectionism is what makes you tear yourself down and quit. What actually keeps you going is liking what you’ve done enough to want to improve it. That, and working with your mistakes.
As wonderful as it would be never to destroy any fabric and to always get a great fit, we learn most when we make mistakes, accept them, and analyze what went wrong. Mistakes are great for learning. Initially, it sucks to admit that, but once the initial disappointment subsides and you start looking at them more closely, that’s when you are able to understand how the thing works. That’s how you get smarter and better at whatever it is you’re trying to master.
And, yeah, I’m saying this just as I’m grappling with a serious fitting setback I’m still trying to salvage. (More on that another time).
So, again, before we get the tape measures out, here’s what I like to reread every now and then: Sunni Standing’s piece “The Myth That Is Perfect Fit.” (Sunni’s blog A Fashionable Stitch has a treasure trove of fitting advice, so I recommend spending some time browsing it and bookmarking.)
2. Taking measurements
Now, finally, how to measure yourself. There’s lots of guides available online — lots of diagrams and images of ladies wrapped in tape measures. It can get confusing. Mostly, you’re told to measure your full bust, your high bust (to determine your cup size), find and measure your waist, and measure your hips at the widest point. This tutorial from By Hand London covers these.
Are these sufficient for finding your size in sewing patterns and getting a good fit? Absolutely not. They’re a good starting point, though.
I think it’s important to also gather measurements that are often NOT listed on sewing pattern envelopes. Ironically, they can be pretty crucial for fitting. What I’ve learned the hard way is that A LOT happens on the back — that part of you that is the most difficult to measure on your own.
I also recommend having a click through these images and articles they link to. Put quite simply, I recommend measuring the heck out of yourself, and repeating the measuring often.
Some quick fitting tips:
- wrapping elastic around your middle, bending and wiggling will help you find your natural waist
- definitely get both your full bust and high bust measurements. All — or almost all — sewing patterns out there suggest you pick your size based on your full bust measurement because that’s the one they refer to explicitly, but as soon as you take bra cup sizes into consideration, you realize how pointless a tip that is
- pay attention to your back length. It’s not the easiest measurement to take, but — as I will ominously repeat — a lot happens on the back and most of us are shaped by computer work. Tip: don’t hold the tape too snugly at the lower back, let it fall from the upper back to the elastic on your waist and record that measurement as your back length. Better yet: measure your back both ways and mark clearly which is which
- try to take several measurements on your upper back and torso (see which online chart gives you the most accurate tips on that). This is the area that seems hardest to fit correctly if you’re not working with the pattern size closest to your measurements
- finding a measuring buddy is not always possible, but it’s a really good idea
3. More resources:
I really recommend these books:
- Chinelo Bally, Freehand Fashion
The measuring guide I’ve been finding most helpful is not online — it’s Chinelo Bally’s instructions from her book Freehand Fashion. (See somewhat blurry photo above.) This book is a guide to drafting your own patterns based on your measurements. I haven’t used it enough yet, but I really appreciate the diagrams for taking your measurements — they’re the clearest I’ve seen anywhere.
- Marta Alto and Pati Palmer, Fit for Real People
It’s as good as everyone says. I’m not sure how I feel about the tissue fitting technique they work with. Maybe it can work with more loose-fitting designs. It’s certainly not something I’d rely on from the get-go, when you’re still trying to figure sizing and fit. And while the book proposes tissue-fitting as a way to skip muslins, it show you some muslins in the end, offering a really great tip about using gingham fabric to check balance.
- Sarah Veblen, The Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting
The photos are, indeed, great. I would have liked even more information on diagnosing fit issues on the upper back, but the information offered is useful. Great advice about the importance of movement and ease.
I enjoy working with books, but video can in certain cases be much more useful. If you find that’s the case for you, browsing the catalog of Craftsy and Creativebug class offerings is definitely worth a try. Craftsy often has sales on their courses, too, so you might be able to get it at a lower price.
One class that I haven’t taken myself but might is Linda Lee’s Fitting Solo: From Measurements to Muslin. Hanne’s review put it on my radar as a potentially helpful resource.
There are other online classes on fitting, both on Craftsy and Creativebug, so check out the preview videos and see if any speak to you.
There are also YouTube videos on fitting McCall’s patterns with the Palmer/Pletsch tissue fitting method. I enjoyed this one, though I can’t say that it answered my fitting questions about McCall’s pattern sizes.
Threads magazine — invaluable.
Here’s what you can find in their online catalog under “Fitting.” And there’s more with every issue — really worth taking the time to read and try out.
This is obviously just the starting point. Comments and tips very, very welcome!