Adventures in Design Perfection

{Or how I learned not to trust patterns and wrestled with a sleeve cap in order to avoid stabbing myself with pins.}

I’m still in the throes of fitting my Lady Grey muslin. For about a week, there has been pattern paper and tracing paper thrown all over my office. In my spare time, I’ve been tracing and re-tracing. I had to adjust quite a bit in the bust area, and then realized the bust area comprised 2 front pieces, 1 facing and 2 lining pieces. It is not as simple as taking a dart out of one-piece bodice.

There is something about sewing patterns that brings out the utter abstractionist in me. Looking at the pattern and imagining how it works has become more fun than sewing it. As a teenager, I used to think the fun part of sewing was in the actual sewing, getting to the machine. The faster I could get things cut out the better.

But all that has changed. I do more fitting in the abstract than actual fitting on my body. I visualize flat shapes and where they go and tweak them around, imagining them in 3-dimensional relationships. I do this a lot with other visual practices, in things I do daily like gardening and web design. There is a lot of abstract imagining before something commits to physical reality. I remember doing this in math classes too. I used to image the outcome of math equations. I count visually and “see” numbers. I don’t know how to explain that, but someone out there might understand. I constantly place things together in my mind’s eye, and try to imagine how they form a 3-dimensional relationship. It’s almost as if I like to perfect things abstractly and by the time they get to the paper they should work.

Not that they always do.

Patterns are not perfect. One of the worst perpetrators of poor engineering is in sleeves. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at various sleeve drafts.

{from Modern Pattern Design and Leena’s Patternmaker}

I have a few patternmaking books and my favorite sleeve is in European Cut by Elizabeth Allemong. I’d love to show some pictures of various sleeve blocks from pattern companies and drafting books so you can get a sense of all the different shapes out there.

Of course, many sewers accept the design, and enjoy solving problems as they are sewing the thing together. This is the way I learned to sew. But if something didn’t work in process, I’d think it was my own fault. I’d prefer if the design and engineering were perfected before one got to cutting everything out. (There is a whole story here about putting together an Ikea bed frame and all along trusting that these bed engineers knew what they are doing, that they put these parts and strange bass-ackwards instructions in there for you for a very good reason, but no.)

A hilarious outtake on the subject is “When the Pattern is Your Frenemy”, wherein a vintage sewer wrestles with the sleeve cap of an alluring 1940s pattern several times before she decided its design didn’t have her best interests in mind. Like her, I’m relieved to know that the difficulties I have with building things are a product of poor design.

To make up for big sleeve ease, for example, we sewers learned to do some laborious pinning and basting. Just look at all these pins in these sleeves here! I really don’t want to do this on my Lady Grey coat; it looks dangerous. (I love Gorgeous Fabrics, by the way. The fabric for my coat comes from them.)

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you’ve got to read “Sleeve Cap Ease is Bogus”, a now-notorious blog entry that launched a thousand ships of independent thinkers and seamstresses.

I wouldn’t say Lady Grey is my Frenemy. I know what those are. She fits quite well, she is designed well, but there are a few problems. Her sleeve cap has an inch of ease in between the notches, which are actually quite close to each other and so don’t give you a lot of length to fudge the easing. This would require some super-human pinning. Additionally, the seamlines of the bodice don’t match.

So I’ve gotten the nerve up to write my first sewing tutorial. (I’m still working on cleaning up the photos but it’s coming in the next couple days!) It addresses the sleeve and seamlines, and also shows how to true up seamlines and cutting lines so that a pattern is easier to sew.

In another project I’d like to experiment with the shape of sleeve caps. I’ve found quite a few fitting books and tutorials that demonstrate a “forward shoulder adjustment” to both the sleeve and the armscye. This adjustment in effect creates a sleeve cap shape that actually seems more anatomically correct–the result being one might not need much ease at all to fit the shoulder properly. I think more people have “forward shoulders” than not. It’s not a body problem; it’s a pattern problem. Sleeves are often drafted for a perfectly symmetrical front-to-back arm and shoulder and we are not perfectly symmetrical there.

I really don’t want to go through this again, so I am determined to finish that custom sleeve and bodice pattern (from European Cut) I started a year ago.