Over the last six months you may have noticed a new routine on Wolfish Written – LARP updates of adventures, Fest write-ups and a collection of “basic” kit tutorials to aid those looking to add a little something extra to their kit. I hope these tutorials are of use to you, dear reader, and that they help you make your LARP environment a little more “real”.
However, there is a limit to the number of “basic” kit tutorials that can be written before they start being repeated, explored as variations, or simply redone without turning to using a paper pattern. Over the next few months and beyond I would like to share some of my own experiences of making kit, working with patterns and exploring other creative methods such as black-work embroidery or crafting re-usable scrolls (to name but a few topics I have in mind) as well as sharing some costume inspirations of current and past characters.
Therefore, in preparation for doing a “walk-through” of a Tudor-style shirt in the near future, I would like to talk a little (or a lot) about reading of commercial patterns.
As a learning costume maker I am totally reliant on commercial patterns that are developed by some very clever people, prepared by companies such as Burda or Simplicity, and then sold through a variety of outlets. Initially I relied heavily on the internet to decode the language of patterns, along with learning from my more experienced friends, though recently I have taken a few tentative steps into using home-drafted patterns provided by crafty folk on the internet or drafting my own. I have even tried making non-costume items for general wear, spurred on by the excellent book by Sarai Mitnick over at Coletterie which provides the basic grounding any seamstress or tailor needs. I am not an expert. I still consider myself a nervous newbie when it comes to working with different cloth and patterned cloth. I can still recall the feeling of confusion and dread when I purchased my first paper pattern and examined its contents – I still feel that feeling of “what am I going to do with all this?” when I open a new pattern when running up to an event with oodles of things to make (which is never a good thing!), so I would like to run through reading a commercial paper pattern and offer up some helpful hints and tips.
I haven’t yet taken the step into drafting my own clothing patterns or making things without patterns (in the way some Viking or re-enactment-style pieces are made), which is the next grand adventure, but I hope this guide helps in reading paper patterns.
Hints and Tips
1) Read EVERYTHING before thinking about buying cloth/cutting pattern pieces/cutting cloth.
2) The instructions included in the booklet of information are there to help guide you step by step through making the garment. If there is a term you don’t know what it means, look it up (the internet is a wonderful resource if you look for the crafty communities/blogs/tutorials)
3) Check your seam allowance. Most patterns either include a standard seam allowance or state on the pieces. The information in the instructions booklet with state what the standard is OR will state if seam allowance is not included.
4) If you’re unsure of how the pattern works, make a mock up in some cheap cloth you don’t mind wrecking before you cut the beautiful cloth that is the perfect addition to your kit. Once you’ve gone through the steps once and have an idea of what to expect, cutting your actual cloth and making your costume piece is significantly less stressful in my experience.
5) Give yourself time. Give yourself space. If you aren’t working to an urgent deadline things will feel to go much smoother, no matter the snarls/broken threads/over-enthusiastic cutting.
Reading a pattern – the main sections
I’m going to be showing a pair of printed patterns – one by Simplicity, one by Burda – but the principle of using these are the same.
I purchase many of my printed patterns via habithat.co.uk, though many haberdasher shops stock or can order patterns.
The patterns I purchase come in a paper envelope and contain a set of instructions, a wodge of folded tissue paper with pattern pieces printed on it, and a load of measurements/lists on the back.
The front normally has photos or pictures of the garments the pattern can make, labeled so that they can be identified in the sections on the back and within the booklet.
On the back different items are labelled next to their line drawings along with a list of materials and sizes. On the back of Simplicity patterns the fabrics are described at the top, with additional notions (buttons, ribbon, zips etc) detailed above the measurements. Simplicity works with imperial measurements in English and metric measurements in French, so using a bit of matching between the two sides of the measurements you can piece together the metric dimensions against the English sizes.
Cloth comes in long lengths (usually 150cm/60″ but check whenever you buy) which relate to the lengths noted down the size – therefore if you want to make the short underdress of the Simplicity pattern for a US size 18, you would need to buy 2.60m of your chosen cloth (satin/taffeta/silk or similar).
Burda patterns are similar, however measurements are detailed at the top of the packet, with materials, closures and other bits detailed at the bottom. However the principle of buying cloth is the same.
I suggest making a list of all the things you need (cloth, interfacing, buttons and ribbon etc) before going shopping, after you’ve determined your size. A sizing guide can be found here.
Simplicity patterns have line drawings of all elements of the garments detailed on the front of the packet from front and back on the front page of it’s booklet, to help clarify details and probably to help choose which of the items you want to make if the differences are not quite obvious from the photos. Beside that is a list of all tissue pattern pieces, numbered and labelled – a handy guide to everything included in the packet. Its been really helpful when I’ve been trying to find a particular piece to cut out but can’t find it as it gives me a clue of what to look for.
You should read through the general directions before cutting as this details the seam allowance (usually 5/8″ or 1.5cm but check!) and explains the symbols used on the paper pieces. It also gives advice on treating your cloth before cutting and how to use the cutting layouts detailed further down the page. The cutting layouts are to help with cutting out the pieces for your pattern. They are an example of how best to lay out your pieces before cutting, but if you think you have a better way, you don’t need to stick to the layout. If you’re matching patterns or stripes, you may need more cloth, so bear this in mind when shopping. The cutting layout also details all outer, lining and interfacing you need to cut. I tick off each piece I cut from the cloth if I’m working with a new pattern to keep track of where I am as I try to cut all my cloth in one sitting (as I find it really tedious, but find it more frustrating to keep going back to cut more cloth as I work). Be aware that some pieces need to be cut on folds (as noted on the pattern piece) and some need to be cut a particular way up, shown by the key in the pattern layouts.
After that are just the instructions for making/sewing your pattern. Find the garment you’re making and read it through, ignoring anything that relates to a different variant of the garment you’re making. For example, the Tudor-style shirt I made using Simplicity’s Renaissance Men’s Costume (or #4059) uses similar instructions and pattern pieces for shirt A and shirt B, however shirt B has an additional bit of collar and has no lace trim to the sleeves. Therefore its separate instructions are inserted into the main instructions as a variant, and I just ignore them as I work on shirt A.
Burda patterns work a little differently where the list of pattern pieces required for each item are detailed at the top of the sheet, then any tips for preparing the paper pattern pieces included below, before it lists any instructions on cutting the cloth. Cutting layouts are included on the tissue paper itself so a bit of digging may be required before starting out. The instructions follow below for each item, detailing how interfacing should be applied and including helpful working diagrams to assist.
The Pattern Pieces
If you take all the bits out carefully from the packed, you’ll see the tissue pattern pieces are all numbered and may have sizes noted on them. We’ll discuss these below, but I wanted to draw your attention to all these bits that have been touched on above.
This is your paper pattern – all the things you need to make the garments shown on the packet. After deciding on your size, cut out all the numbered pattern pieces for the garment you’re making. Some pattern pieces include all the sizes and you just need to trim to your working size, though some pieces may only be applicable for particular sizes. These will be labelled, just make sure you choose the right one. Paper pattern pieces contain instructions on which direction to orientate your pattern, if the item needs to be placed on a fold or if it has notches/dots. Notches and dots need to be transferred to your cloth once cut as these are used to match pieces together or indicate where to start sewing seams/preparing gathers from. These are explained in the instructions and you can usually touch up marks as you go along.
Working with the Pattern
Check you’ve cut all the paper pattern pieces out and give them a careful press with a dry iron (ideally before you put any water in it if you have a steam iron). A quick iron helps smooth out any creases that will affect your overall shape of garment and helps the paper lie flat, particularly if it’s been folded or scrunched up for a long time. Some people choose not to use the tissue patterns themselves but use freezer paper or similar as a cutting guide, having transferred the pattern piece and all markings onto this working guide.
Now lightly iron/press your cloth so it’s nice and smooth. Be careful not to overheat your iron for any delicate cloth, even going so far as to using the minimal setting just to warm out any creases before you work. Don’t hold the iron on too long just in case you accidentally melt any synthetic fibre and put an iron shaped hole in your cloth. Not that this has ever happened to me ever …
I have found there is some debate as to whether you pin your pattern pieces to your cloth or just hold them in place with pattern weights and mark up around it. I admit I pin then cut but that’s because I end up working on the floor rather than a conveniently raised flat surface like a table. Also I’m lazy and don’t have pattern weights. Make sure you cut out all the relevant pieces of cloth (be it outer layer, lining or interfacing) and the correct number (for example a pattern piece may be for two pieces of outer, two pieces of lining and two pieces of interfacing, or just for two pieces of lining depending on the role it plays) and transfer any markings onto your cloth. Your future self will thank you if you do this whilst everything is flat and paired with it’s paper piece.
Now comes the fun part – follow the instructions to the letter! Read all your instructions before starting to pin and sew, and if you are unsure of any terms look them up on the internet. There is a large collection of sewing blogs and someone out there will have done a tutorial on it – or written about it – or videoed it. Do a bit of homework before you start and you will sew with confidence. Keep to your seam allowance if sewing by machine or by hand, obeying any instructions that say “now sew a 3/8″ seam” rather than your usual 5/8″ seam allowance as it has been done for a reason.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable working with your gorgeous (often expensive) fabric, make a mock up in something cheap like old clean bed sheeting from a charity shop, or off cuts of something else you’ve made. This will allow you to get to grips with what’s going on, how things will turn out and if you make any mistakes you can always rip the seams and try again. The seam ripper is your friend, you needn’t suffer if you make a mistake. And if you make a mistake on your proper version, most of the time it’ll a) be hidden by a seam or b) not be noticeable once it’s all sewn together.
Work through each step carefully, taking them one at a time. If you end up doing several copies of the same pattern because a) you love it or b) people comment on it and ask you to make something for them, you may find quicker ways to work (for example I apply interfacing on everything that requires it at the beginning if I know it just gets caught in the seam as I work) but that’s up to you. Baby steps first, you can run later!
And that concludes this guide to using paper patterns. I hope it hasn’t put you off trying to make your own costumes and look forward to seeing your creations in future.
Stay tuned for my upcoming walk-throughs of Simplicity’s Renaissance Men’s Costume (or #4059) to make my black Tudor-style shirt to go under my Knight’s armour, as well as explorations in making a shirt with black-work embroidery and a period cartridge ruffed collar.