2018: A Pants Odyssey

Readers,

Almost five months after my first report about my pants pattern-fitting journey I’m back with an update.

Surrounded by some (not all!) of the pants muslins I’ve made on this pants odyssey.

In my previous report I said that despite my concerted efforts to understand fitting principles and fit myself I needed in-person, expert help.  Since writing that post I did find help.

I checked the class listings of a small, local fabric store and noticed for the first time that individual lessons with some of the teachers could be arranged.  I called, explained my dilemma, and was told I should come in and talk to one teacher in particular.

And that’s how I met Madame X.

Madame X may be famous for being painted by John Singer Sargent, but she also fits pants patterns!

I explained to Madame X that I had gone as far as I could go on my own and was now just doing variations of different, but not better. Madame X explained that while she was experienced she wouldn’t claim she was an expert. If I was willing to be a good sport, she’d see what she could do.

It turned out she could do quite a lot.

What a relief it was to put on a muslin and have someone else examine the fit!  I could skip my time-consuming rigamarole:  setting the camera on a tripod on time delay, taking very unflattering pictures of myself, downloading the photos, printing some, and writing copious notes critiquing every wrinkle (in the muslin, that is).

After two, maybe three muslins Madame X had worked out quite a nice fit for me.  I was very encouraged.

The next step was a wearable test.  To sew it I used an oyster gray wool blend with a weight and drape similar to what I’d want in wool trousers. Here’s the result:

A little extra fullness needs to be removed, but a much better overall drape in the back than I was able to achieve on my own.

The waistband is being pulled down a bit, but the darts and hip line are nice.

How much wrinkling and extra fabric is fine and how much can be eliminated? It’s a fine line and I’m still learning.

I had mixed feelings about this cut of pants.  The big plus was the way they hung smoothly seen from the side and the back. I was concerned, though, whether the volume in the backs of the legs was too much and could be reduced while preserving the hang.  In the fittings Madame X and I went back and forth about this.  In my own fitting attempts my perennial problem was long diagonal wrinkles in the backs of the legs.  When Madame X allowed for more volume in the back, as in classic trousers, the wrinkles went away and I had a nice, smooth line.

But was that line in scale with my figure? That was the question.   At 5 feet 1 inch tall I’m always thinking proportion, proportion, proportion.  Would this pattern draft give me the best proportion for my figure?

I packed Madame X’s pants draft and the oyster gray wearable test for my trip in September back to Minnesota to see Edith, my fairy godmother sewing teacher.

I put on the pants. “They’re hanging from the hips,” Edith said. “They should hang from the waist.” She pulled the waistband up and then pinned it in place snugly. She subtracted 4 whole inches from the waist, put more curve into the hipline, generously scooped the back crotch curve, and slightly narrowed the legs.  Before long I was trying on the muslin made from her pattern alteration. It fit nicely, and it definitely hung from the waist.

Home again and back in the sewing room, I sewed a wearable test from Edith’s pattern.  This tweedy gray is a wool blend, lighter in weight than the oyster gray but also drapey and nice for trousers. Here is the result:

I think the amount of wrinkling is okay.

There’s much to like about these tweedy gray pants. They do hang nicely from the waist. However, is the waist emphasis okay, or too much?

I tried a second wearable test. I added back about 1 inch in the waist. The fabric was a linen-rayon blend that’s a nice weight and drape for spring and summer.  Here’s the result:

Not the most graceful pose.


Hmm–I think the wrinkles in the left leg indicate my uneven stance.


I can’t see much difference in the appearance of the waist with 1 inch space added back in.  I think one reason is the in-seam pockets I sewed in this pair are gaping open and adding to the curve in the hip. This is not flattering. I’ll research other pocket options.

I continued to wonder whether I really needed this much room in the back of this pants pattern:


I was suffering from pants-fitting fatigue (can you blame me?), but I thought I should try another muslin.  I added back yet another inch to the waist, and  subtracted just 1/4 inch each from the inseam and outseam of the back and front pieces to eliminate a total of 1 inch from the leg circumference.

Here is the unflattering result of that experiment:

The dreaded drag lines have returned! Ugh!

This is pretty much what the backs of my pants muslins looked like when I was working on my own, pre-Madame X.  These wrinkles were the big puzzle I hadn’t solved and which Madame X did. It seemed like the insides of my knees were the source of the wrinkles. I don’t fit the classic knock-knees scenario, but it seemed like I needed a knock-knees solution.  At any rate, Madame X came up with a solution that gave me a smoother line, and Edith, with her decades of pattern-fitting experience, was able to subtract design ease without messing with the fitting ease.

Then I crossed a line and messed up the fitting ease.

Sigh.

Then I went to a week-long Buddhist retreat and learned how to detach myself from–

–No, I didn’t!

I tried on the tweedy gray wearable test one more time. I tried folding the waistband under and envisioning the pants with just a faced waist. The look would be more streamlined.  That would work.

And in the coming fall and winter months I could sew lined wool trousers from my existing pattern and see how I liked them.

In other words, I decided to declare a partial victory. The fit is good enough, and now I’ll turn my attention to perfecting construction details.  Along the way I’ll read more, learn more, work more with Madame X, understand a few more bits and pieces, and eventually try fitting more pants.

And who knows–maybe jeans, too.

Gather round, muslins! Have I got a story for you!

All studio photos are by Cynthia DeGrand, Photographer.  (The “dreaded drag lines” muslin photo is by Jack Miller, Husband.)

Fitting Conclusions

Readers,

In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve spent much of the last six months, it’s been down a very deep rabbit hole called Fitting a Pants Pattern.

More accurately, this particular rabbit hole should be called Not Fitting Several Pants Patterns.

Does this need further explanation?

For most sewers, a well-fitting pants pattern is like…gold.  At any rate, something rare, valuable, and coveted. And that is because pants patterns are devilishly difficult to fit.

However, pants are not hard to make. Their construction is well within the capabilities of most sewers and will repay the outlay of effort many times over.

Pants are a staple in almost every woman’s work and leisure wardrobe.

Pants are not fun to shop for: many women, including me, routinely find nothing that meets fit, style, and comfort requirements all in the same garment, at any price.

So for custom fit, style, comfort, and convenience (no more fruitless shopping!), making your own pants seems like the way to go.  It’s just that they are a pain in the neck to fit.

Much like a new diet, a new pattern, article, book, DVD, online class, or workshop devoted to pants-fitting offers a new possibility of success.  And some sewers really do succeed using each of these tools or learning aids, which have been created by very skilled, experienced,  thoughtful experts in their field.

But what applies to diets also applies to pants-fitting methods:

Results may vary.

Even though I know from the battery of aptitude tests I took some years back that my spatial abilities are below average, I took the plunge last November to try fitting a pants pattern.

On myself.

By myself.

As a beginner.

It’s not as if I’d had much of a choice. No fitting experts came running to pound on my door, pleading to let them help, only to hear me say No! As usual, I had to figure out how I might get to my goal on my own.

I had made admittedly feeble attempts to learn pants-fitting as far back as 1989, as the date penciled in my–autographed!–copy of Singer’s Sewing Pants That Fit shows. My sewing library boasted fitting books, DVDs, and the full run of Threads magazines.  I belonged to Pattern Review and bought Sarah Veblen’s and Angela Wolf’s online classes, which included student forums. My Craftsy library included pants-fitting classes.  My pattern files held the Palmer-Pletsch McCall’s 6901 and Pamela Leggett’s Pants…Perfected! pattern with DVD.

I even drafted a pattern to my measurements in a class taught by a patternmaker, with two muslins I’d sewn, with her recommendations for further alterations.

All that did not guarantee the pants wardrobe of my dreams. All these wonderful learning tools went unused as I turned my attention to other sewing projects, weakly promising myself that I would get to pants–someday.

But last year there was this coming together of several factors that laid the groundwork that triggered my pants-fitting project:

An increasingly clear vision

The first factor was that my membership in Imogen Lamport’s 7 Steps to Style program was really beginning to help me pull together information about myself to help me design my wardrobe. I had expert feedback on my coloring, contrast, figure type, and most flattering silhouettes, and guidelines for creating my own “style recipe.” To create the outfits and capsules I dreamed of wearing, my current pants would have to go, replaced by ones I would be excited to make.

Saying no to the mediocre

The second factor was pledging not to buy any ready-to-wear clothes for a year as part of the Goodbye Valentino 2018 RTW Fast.  I hadn’t been buying much ready-to-wear anyway, so it was easy to join this challenge. But interestingly, stopping even browsing racks of pants made me realize just how much I had been compromising my fit and style requirements. Once I became aware of this habit of settling for less, I wanted to do better–permanently.

A new world of fitting resources

The third factor was innovations in conveying fitting know-how:

  • PatternReview.com forums and member critiques of thousands of specific patterns.
  • PatternReview.com  and Craftsy online classes with video, printed materials, students’ questions and instructors’ answers.
  • Sewing blogs.
  • Fitting DVDs.
  • YouTube videos.
  • Threads magazine website’s Insider articles and videos.
  • All these new means of conveying information, in addition to excellent new books and revised classics.
  • Not to mention the expansion of Palmer-Pletsch workshop sites around the U.S.

Fitting is the bugbear of many sewers, and there are many talented people trying to serve a broad audience hungry to solve their fitting issues.  So I wondered which of these teaching tools could bridge my knowledge gap and lead me to a well-fitting pants pattern.

I’d been dissatisfied with ready-to-wear pants fit and styles for…my whole life, actually. But it was only when these new circumstances came together that the scales were tipped:  I found myself with

  • a creative limitation keeping me from going back
  • a vision helping me move forward
  • tools holding the promise of realizing my dream

So I started. During a six-month period my sewing and fitting focus was entirely pants.

Here are some things that happened and things I learned:

I learned how to battle a strong aversion to reading the fitting literature and watching fitting videos. They were really boring for my brain, and in the past I had always bailed out. This time I hung in there.

Why did I stay the course this time?

  • I defined the reward to be compelling enough.
  • I defined not getting the reward to be disappointing enough.
  • I recognized that I couldn’t overcome my aversion but I could work with it.
    • I gave my brain breaks.
    • I gave my brain stuff to do that it knew how to do. For example, I transcribed–yes, word for word–several of the videos in Sarah Veblen’s Fun With Fitting Pants class on PatternReview.com. It took a long time, and it was tedious (sorry, Sarah–not your fault!) but it was kind of like taking dictation in a foreign language class and slowly absorbing the grammar and vocabulary.

Much to my surprise, once I got some traction understanding fitting concepts–like what crotch depth and crotch length are–and had a muslin of my own to experiment on, I got absorbed in the topic. I read every Threads magazine article, every chapter in my books, scrutinized photos and illustrations, watched DVDs and online classes repeatedly, read Pattern Review discussions, and kept discovering nuances that had escaped me before. Incredibly, fitting books and articles even became my bedtime reading.

I began seeing philosophies of fitting.  I thought–to use the foreign language comparison again–that there were fitting “grammar books,” like Sarah Veblen’s Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting that stress foundational concepts, and fitting “phrasebooks,” like Sandra Betzina’s Fast Fit, that diagnose specific problems and give specific solutions. Both are useful.

I tried tissue-fitting with McCall’s 6901 and Pamela Leggett’s Pants…Perfected! patterns. I tried Fitography’s Chloe pants pattern, based on my measurements and produced with software I downloaded from the company.  Fitography deserves its own post someday.  I also tried fitting the custom-drafted pants pattern I made in class.  I moved among patterns and methods, but stayed long enough to delve deep. Pages of Sarah Veblen’s trouble-shooting guide from her online class are underlined and creased from frequent use.

I learned more about experimenting and problem-solving in sewing than I ever have before.  I used Sarah’s grid method to examine the hang of pants. I tried to figure out how much I could learn from one muslin before proceeding to the next.  If the front was fine, I’d keep it, rip out the back and cut just a new back.

I learned to set up a tripod and put the camera on 10-second delay to take pictures of myself in muslins from front, sides, and back. Then I printed out the pictures and evaluated every wrinkle and drag line. I learned to be more observant.

I learned to look at terrible pictures of myself in muslins without flinching!

I really had no intention of spending this long on pants-fitting. I was going to participate in a Pattern Review sewing challenge in February and March with pants being part of the outfits.  But no–I was nowhere near meeting my goal.  I had to set aside every other sewing and wardrobe goal to concentrate on pants-fitting.  Partly because I have this low spatial ability, and also because as a blogger I was methodically recording everything–I have voluminous notes–my project took longer.  Also because I’m a beginner and a slowpoke.

I ended up overfitting one pattern and then another. My muslins would be too baggy; I’d experiment with taking them in at the inseam, back crotch, outseam…and then go too far. Also, excess fabric under the seat plagued me for weeks and I never completely solved that problem.  There seem to be many causes and as many solutions. I got some advice from Angela Wolf through her Altering Pants class on Pattern Review about what to do and count it as one of my greater life accomplishments that I completely understood what she meant.

It was when I was fiddling with small changes that were only different, not improvements, that I thought I really couldn’t get any further on my own.  So it was back to looking for an expert willing to help me. That’s where I am now.

I’ve learned a lot about fitting concepts and techniques that I’d never had the desire, patience, or fortitude to learn before. I learned to experiment and was excited to see when I’d made the right judgment call.

But I’ve also learned–again–what my limitations are. As Sarah Veblen says in one of her PatternReview.com videos in Fun With Fitting Pants, it is possible to fit yourself. But for me, the odds are just too long.

What makes pants-fitting difficult is achieving a delicate, unique balance of all the interrelated parts to make them comfortable, functional, and attractive. To get my things sewn I need to achieve my own balance: when I can rely on my strengths and experience and consult experts’ books and videos, and when I need to acknowledge my weaknesses and inexperience and rely on in-person expertise, on a regular basis, to make up the difference.

I have had access to such expertise sometimes, but now I really think it is a cornerstone of getting things sewn. I will continue to think about how to access the in-person expertise I need.  I am more convinced than ever that it’s essential and worth working hard to get–and preserve.