In a delightful case of right place right time (and a great case of karma from a returned favour), last week Rachel from Ray Stitch invited me to a last-minute place on their Pattern Cutting Summer School course. Three days of learning how to build a bodice, skirt and trouser block exactly to my size, and learn how to adapt it to make any pattern I could dream of? SIGN ME UP! I quickly shuffled some work around and found myself at Ray Stitch bright and early last Monday morning with three more students and our fabulous teacher, Alice Prier.
I’ll give a brief overview of what we covered, but there were so many other hints and tips Alice spoke about that you’d really want to take a class yourself to pick everything up. Day one started with an introduction from Alice to her work and techniques. She’s a self-taught lifelong seamstress who now runs a made to measure business, Alice & Co. She also has a fashion travel blog and is soon to launch some beautiful printed patterns which I got a sneak peek of. From the beginning I was rapt by her vast knowledge, soaking it all in sponge-like and scribbling page after page in my notebook. Each day we tackled a different block, with the morning spent drafting and fitting and the afternoon learning about ways to adapt and add design. We used three different methods: plotting measurements onto a ‘grid’, adapting a standard size block, and fitting a calico toile on the body.
We did the skirt on day one, probably the most straightforward. After pairing up to take hip and waist measurements, we drew the rough sizing onto a folded piece of calico, with the fold forming the centre front of the skirt and then the back next to it. (Alice explained it’s good to draft like this so you can check the side seams are nicely lined up.) Shaping from waist to hip is made via darts and shaping in the top of the side seam. Edges are smoothed off with a French curve then the calico is sewn up for a first fitting. All of our tweaks were pretty minor: lengthening and adding to the darts generally to create a sleek, well-fitting shape. The calico is then cut out flat along the adjusted lines and traced onto dot-and-cross paper. Ta-da, one basic skirt block from which a million variations can spring.
In the afternoon, we played around with half-size paper blocks to learn how to manipulate the darts and add in other design elements like pleats, yokes, godets, and flare. This part was so fun – not just because it included scissors, sticky tape and cake making it feel like preschool – because you could really start to visualise how these basic blocks can be transformed in any kind of design you like, while being sure it will always fit perfectly.
On day two we drafted the bodice by starting with Alice’s standard size blocks. On Alice’s recommendation (after so many years she can read a body size extremely well) I cut a size ten with an FBA – I’ve never done an FBA on a pattern before but apparently I needed one as it solved the issue I always have with bagginess in the upper chest. I had to make a fair few other adjustments, as I knew I’d always needed after making the same adjustments over and over to commercial patterns. As well as the FBA we moved the shoulder forward, took a back neck dart (which got rotated into the waist dart), did a large swayback adjustment and added more ease into the sleeve head.
Again, we spent the afternoon leaning about how to adapt that bodice and turn our block into princess seams, swingy shapes, blouses, jackets and so on. We also compared the bodice to our skirt from yesterday to see how they could be combined to make dresses. The biggest WOW moment for me is that just because the darts aren’t sewn it doesn’t mean they aren’t there, because just like the skirt they can be pivoted downwards and left open to create fullness while still leaving shaping intact. That explains why tops like the Grainline Scout work so well with no visible darts – they are there, just not sewn up!
Day three we tackled trousers. I’ve sewn several pairs of pants now that fit pretty well, but actually starting from scratch and learning the theory behind the fitting means the block should be even better. We drafted these using the classic from-scratch technique, inputting our measurements onto a grid of dot and cross paper. Those are then calico’ed, fitted on the body, and the adjustments transferred back to the paper. I eliminated the front darts, lowered the waist (more at the front than back), slimmed the legs and sucked out some excess under the bum. Afterwards we chatted about converting the back darts to a yoke, pockets, waistbands, pleats, adding and removing ease, and so on. I can’t wait to give these a go in real fabric and see how they compare.
After I got home I did a bit more fine-tuning, and tried attaching the skirt, bodice and sleeve to see how they all worked together. Hopefully you can tell even from the crappy fabric and exposed seams that the fit is pretty great: none of the usual sway-back pooling, gaping shoulders, hip tightness etc, and nice straight perpendicular waist and side seams. The block provides a basic ‘shell’ of your body with minimal ease, so when you alter the block you can calculate how much ease to add (or remove) from this baseline. You do need to alter the bodice pattern a bit depending on if your garment will be sleeved or sleeveless so I think I’ll do another block for when I decide to use sleeves (you can see a bit of pulling around the armsyce so more ease is needed). You can also easily adjust the blocks to use with knit fabrics – one simple tip is to use the back bodice as the front too, with adjustments to the neckline and armsyce. I’m really keen to make my knit blocks as well.
Aside from my blocks, I’ve also been left with a head full of ideas and new techniques to improve my general sewing. I really can’t wait to start using the blocks and Alice’s tips to start designing my own garments. I’ve already started doodling some ideas in Illustrator of some interesting silhouettes to try…
I can’t recommend Alice’s pattern cutting class highly enough. She was a fantastic teacher, so inspiring and encouraging and happy to share her years of knowledge. Check out upcoming dates here – she also teaches ‘Recreate a favourite garment’ which I’d love to do as well.
If you’ve been thinking of making your own blocks, either in a class or using a tutorial at home, I’d say definitely take the time and DO IT! It will completely change your sewing because you’ll learn even more about your body and how patterns are constructed to turn the 2d fabric into a 3d curve-fitting shape. Even if you’re not interested in designing your own patterns, you can compare the block to commercial patterns to check/adjust the fit before getting started (we covered this in the class as well). So have I sold you?! I’m off to make one more toile of my blocks to check they’re 100% correct, then expect some self-drafts popping up here in the near future.
Ray Stitch offered me a discounted last-minute place on the class; views my own.