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If someone asked you what advice sewers least like hearing, what would you say?  My answer would be, in the words of Kenneth King, author of Smart Fitting Solutions,

“Make muslins, make muslins, make muslins!”

Imagine:  A newly released pattern catches your eye.  A beautiful fabric captures your heart. You swoon–and all you can think about is snapping up that pattern or fabric and going to town with it.  In your mind’s eye you are cutting and sewing with carefree abandon, and the result is stunning. Am I wrong?

If you follow this course, however, you know and I know what the actual result can be: stunned silence. Disappointment. Remorse.

Hence, the exhortation to make muslins–test garments from an inexpensive, plain fabric like cotton muslin–that help you check that the style and fit of the garment are right for you.

I’m happier than I look here. No, really!

You know, when I started learning to sew, thirty-plus years ago, I don’t remember learning about muslins.  Have I forgotten, or am I correct that they weren’t emphasized very much?  Maybe I just avoided the subject, as anything related to fitting and pattern-alteration used to be unfathomable to me.

When I look back at my pre-muslining days–which I do as little as I can get by with–I cringe recalling what I used to wear with pride. I remember a tweed coat I made about 1989, when giant shoulder pads roamed the earth, that was so big and long I could have carried an average-sized accordion under it and nobody would have looked twice.  I also made many a skirt that was too large in the waist, so blouses tended not to stay tucked in, which was vexatious!

And yet. I still didn’t tumble to the idea that I could test the fit and style of a pattern using plain, old, medium-weight, boring, inexpensive cotton. Either the idea never crossed my mind, or I thought I couldn’t possibly penetrate the mysteries of muslining and fitting.

That changed in 2003, when I met my fairy godmother sewing teacher, Edith Gazzuolo.  When I showed her a vintage jacket pattern I wanted to make, there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it: I would have to make a muslin. Story for another day, but in short, I made three muslins to fit that particular jacket, which seemed truly amazing to me back then.

Times have changed. Fast forward fifteen years, to when I undertook my pants-fitting project. How many muslins did I make pursuing my holy grail–decent fit in the waist, hip, and seat all in the same garment? I don’t know because I can’t count that high.

The battle is over and won.

I never thought pants-fitting would take as long as it did–more than a year of concentrated effort–and I’m not saying it would take anyone else as long.  Pants fitters aren’t thick on the ground, if you haven’t noticed, so I soldiered on by myself for months before I got some expert advice and eventually achieved success.

But if there’s one benefit I gained from my months of toil equal to that of a great-fitting pants pattern, it’s my enlightened attitude toward muslins. Muslins no longer hold fear for me.

Oh, I may sigh as I write in my notes, “I hate to say this, but it looks like I should make another muslin.” I may flinch at the regulation front, back, and side photos of myself in muslins that are lighted to show every wrinkle. My brow may furrow at new drag lines appearing in my efforts to eliminate other ones.

Can. Of. Worms.

But experience has shown me that muslins are, almost without exception, worth the time they take to construct and analyze. In fact, I now know that in the long run, they will save me time.

Just since I started my Getting Things Sewn Project Management Improvement Daily Challenge (today is Day #90), muslins have helped me

  • decide against several patterns that turned out not to be what I wanted
  • test the waist fit and walking stride in a straight skirt
  • test whether I want a more or less-fitted version of a coat
  • experiment with changing the grainline in a flared skirt
  • test how much ease I want in the bicep of a coat sleeve
  • fine-tune the fit of a knit top, using inexpensive knit fabrics as stand-ins for muslin
  • understand where I’ve strayed into overfitting

Harsh lighting is useful for detecting drag lines, but not so great for faces.

In the past I would make a muslin occasionally, and reluctantly. But the desire to have great-fitting pants inevitably led to muslin-making in depth, and I learned a lot.

Now this daily challenge, where I’m working on nine core collection patterns in rotation, has me in a veritable golden age of muslin-making. And it occurred to me recently that there is an advantage to muslin-making in breadth that I hadn’t recognized before.  I honestly didn’t see this advantage till a couple of weeks ago:

The lessons I learn from fitting one muslin can often be applied to fit another muslin, and another.

I am gradually absorbing fitting principles and not seeing every fit problem as unique.  A coat sleeve cap, jacket sleeve cap, and blouse sleeve cap all have ease.  I didn’t used to routinely check sleeve cap ease; now I do, and can anticipate whether I’ll want to change it.

My neck-to waist back measurement is the same whether I’m fitting a blouse, jacket, or dress, so I’ll anticipate similar alterations for those garments.

And just this week I noticed my left shoulder is lower than my right. Why did that not register before?  Now I’m scrutinizing my fitting resources anew to recognize drag lines created by uneven shoulders and ways to improve the fit and look.  (Maybe I should add some posture exercises, too.)

Size 8 muslin here, to compare with the fit of the size 6. Size 6 is better in the shoulders.

No doubt about it, muslining takes time and effort and will never be anybody’s favorite part of garment-making. But since I’ve experienced terrible results from skipping this step, superior results from doing it, and a growing understanding of fitting principles, I take muslin-making in stride.

I wouldn’t say I embrace muslin-making, to use a word that’s in fashion these days. But now I accept it, and even, once in a while, find it very interesting. (Especially when I succeed.)

My attitude now is, bring it on. Let’s face the muslin and dance!