One of the trickiest things about sewing clothing is getting the fit right. Nothing is more disappointing than finishing off a beautiful new garment and trying it on, only to find it's too narrow through the shoulders, or the waist hits too low.
So how do you avoid this kind of disappointment? It all starts with picking the right pattern for your body shape. This doesn't mean choosing particular dress designs based on your body type—a well-cut, well fitted dress can look good on just about any body type. When it comes to picking the right pattern, you want to choose the correct version based on your individual measurements.
Taking your measurements
The exact measurements you'll need will depend a little bit on the type of dress you're making. Generally, the more fitted your garment, the more measurements you'll need. Whatever measurements you take, the key is to make sure they are accurate. Ideally, have a friend help so you can be sure you're working from the correct numbers. Always take measurements wearing as few layers as possible. If you plan on wearing any kind of shapewear under the finished dress, make sure you have it on when you take your measurements, as anything that affects the shape of your body should also affect the shape of your dress. Take measurements with a dressmaker's tape—a flexible tape measure that's shorter and easier to use on garments than a quilter's tape. If you don't have a dressmaker's tape, you can use a length of grosgrain ribbon, or other flexible but non-stretch material. Mark each measurement on the ribbon as you take it, and then use a ruler or construction tape-measure to find the distance with the ribbon laid flat. The most basic measurements most patterns call for are of the shoulders, bust, waist, and hips.
To measure the shoulders, stand straight and tall with your arms at your sides. Make sure your head is up, since looking down at the floor can round your shoulders and add to the measurement. Have a friend measure across your upper back from the outside point of one shoulder to the outside point of the other.
Wearing the undergarments you plan to wear under your finished dress, measure around your bust at the fullest point. Have a friend make sure the tape stays parallel to the floor all the way around your body.
Regardless of whether the dress you're making has a dropped-waist dress or an empire waistline, take your preliminary waist measurement at your natural waistline. This is the narrowest point of your torso, often much closer to the bottom of the ribs than to your hip bones. To find this point, tie a piece of string around your waist, snugly, but not so tightly that it cuts into you. Bend and twist a few times to let the string settle. It will naturally find the narrowest part of your waist, and give you a landmark for taking other measurements. Measure around your waist at the string.
This measurement is something of a polite misnomer. It's not actually a measurement of the hips, like where mid-rise jeans sit, but of the wider part of your pelvis and fullest part of your posterior, almost at the tops of your thighs. Basically, this measurement is looking for the widest part of your lower body. Measure around your body, again making sure to keep the tape measure parallel with the floor the whole way around.
There are many, many other measurements that you may need to take to perfect your pattern, but it all depends on the style! One that may come in handy for choosing a pattern, however, it the high bust measurement. Like your regular bust measurement, wrap the tape measure around your chest, but instead of measuring the fullest part of your bust, measure the circumference of your torso above your bust. This may cause your tape measure to be angled up slightly, rather than perfectly parallel with the floor, but that's all right. Note this measurement for later.
Choosing your pattern
With your measurements in hand, it's time to start pattern shopping. Most commercial patterns come with a sizing chart on the back, indicating which version to buy based on your bust, waist, and hip measurements. Unfortunately, these patterns are often standardized, meaning that they only work for a limited number of waist, hip, and bust combinations. So are you stuck buying the pattern that fits your largest measurements? Not at all. Generally, your waist is your anchor measurement. Choose the pattern that most closely fits your waist, even if the bust and hip measurements are a bit off. Those areas can be adjusted using simple pattern tricks, such as the Full Bust Adjustment or the Full Hip Adjustment (there are corresponding adjustments for small busts and narrow hips as well). There are exceptions to the waist-as-anchor rule, especially if your chosen design is very fitted through the bust. In that case, choose a pattern based on your high-bust measurement, and use a Full Bust Adjustment to ensure a good fit.
A note on ease
Even with your precise measurements in hand, it's not a good idea to make a garment to those specific measurements. You'll always want a little bit of breathing room in a garment to make sure it moves well and is comfortable throughout the day. This extra space is called ease, and the amount added varies depending on the material being used (stretchier fabrics generally require less ease) and your own personal preference. Most commercial patterns include ease in the design, but there are a few brands that don't. Make sure to pay attention to the sizing chart on the pattern. If it uses body measurements to indicate the correct pattern size, then ease is built in and you don't need to add to your measurements unless you know you want extra room. If only the finished garment sizes are listed, then you should add a minimum of 2 inches to all your measurements to make sure your finished dress will be comfortable to wear. Whatever ease you choose, make sure to add the same amount to all your measurements so that the pattern stays consistent.
With accurate measurements and a few pattern-adjusting tricks in your arsenal, you'll be able to create fitted dresses with confidence. Before long, you may even find you're creating your own patterns!
Ready for more sewing tips and tricks? Check out these 30 Hacks to make your life easier (and your projects perfect)!