Focus on Fit: Starting with a Basic Sewing Pattern

So what do I mean by “start with a basic sewing pattern/build a collection of basic patterns?” When I think of a basic sewing pattern, I do think of the fitting shells put out by McCall’s, Butterick and Vogue. I only think of them, I don’t actually utilize them. You can of course, but I find it much more beneficial to start with something that has what I’m already looking for. Fitting shells are supposed to fit you like a second skin and really, you wouldn’t ever make one to wear. You would have to add ease into the garment so that you could wear it. Add to that the fact that when you start adding ease, you start adding fitting and drafting problems. So why not just fit something closer to what you want instead of fitting a fitting shell and then trying to make it work for what you want?


When I’m thinking about a basic fitting shell, when I pick a basic pattern, I’m looking at the same types of lines – lines that will be easy to manipulate later. Let’s dissect the fitting shell for a minute:



There is a basic bodice. The bodice is darted. The darts originate from the bust (side seam) and the waist in both the front and the back. Some fitting shells have a shoulder dart in the back bodice too. The skirt is a straight skirt style – kind of like a pencil skirt. It has darts too. Two in the front and two in the back. The sleeve is a set-in sleeve, full length and sometimes has a dart in the elbow. There’s lots of darts here. The awesome thing about darts is that they are the building blocks of manipulation, so when you are looking at new sewing patterns and you’re thinking, “hmmmm….I want something that could be manipulated,” look at where the darts are placed. Have a gander at this post for rotating a dart. Now let’s take a look at a basic pattern that I would pick.



Let’s take this NewLook pattern for example. It’s a basic shell with some variations. Very basic. The nice thing is that it has some promising neckline variations and there’s a woven t-shirt added to the mix too. What I’m especially looking at here is that its got a dart. Its a single dart – the bust dart, the one that originates from the side seam. Its semi-fitted and pulls over the head, so I shouldn’t have to deal with trying to add ease, I should just be able to fit this style and then start playing around with my own variations. It’s basic. It’s classic. You could actually wear this and make a bajillion iterations. Then you can start playing designer and fiddle around with your pattern and create a whole wardrobe of garments based off this one simple pattern. This is the part that excites me. I can see the potential in this pattern. I can see a dress, I can see myself moving the darts around, adding gathers in places, creating a cute little tulip sleeve (oh be still my heart!!), lengthening it for a tunic to wear with leggings, adding a button front, adding a collar. Do you see what I mean? Do you see the fun and creativity that you can inject into the pattern yourself? This is what I mean by a basic pattern.

If you can’t see the potential in a pattern – as in, you could change this or add that and it would make it look completely different – then I think you’ve taken half the fun out of the pattern itself. Granted there are those designs that defy logic and are worth having just because they are so amazingly different and you couldn’t possibly draft that yourself. Personally, I find those to be few and far between, but those are things you’ll have to decide for yourself.

The other thing to keep in mind when you’re picking a basic pattern is the fit factor. In fact, the whole reason I’m writing these posts! Starting with something basic will be easier to fit than starting with something complicated. There’s definitely going to be some things that are not as easy to fit as others, but this NewLook pattern (above), it looks pretty easy to fit and is something that I wouldn’t have to spend copious amounts of time doing a muslin for.

So this friends, is my “basic pattern” soapbox for the day. I’ve also put together a pinterest board of some really great basic patterns. That way if you’re still kind of not sure what you’re looking for, you can go have a gander there where I’ll be adding more patterns all the time. These are just guidelines, but definitely things to think about as you begin amassing a collection of basic patterns to fit to your body.

So what are you thinking? What’s the first pattern you’d want to try? I’ll also do a post on where I think you should start with the fitting process, but what is the ultimate garment you want to fit?


31 thoughts on “Focus on Fit: Starting with a Basic Sewing Pattern

  1. Thanks so much for this informative post. I’ve been wanting to work with a fitting shell, but never quite sure what to do or how to do it. You’ve provided some great ‘food for thought’ as I prepare to tackle my next project.

  2. Sunni…..thanks for all the down to earth advice you’re giving me. Although I’ve been sewing many years, it’s rarely been for myself. Your methods of explanation are making a complicated task very easy and logical.

  3. The timing on this post is excellent! I’ve been thinking for awhile that I want to work on improving my abysmal pattern drafting skills, and even went so far as to purchase a dress pattern with a bodice that I thought could make a good sloper block. (Which I haven’t gotten to yet.) I’m probably not going to stop buying patterns, since there are so many fun ones and I like supporting the indie designers, but I had already planned to try to tweak two patterns I’ve already made before for designs that I have in mind this fall. So it’s good to have that little bit of encouragement that this just might work.

  4. That New Look pattern is such a workhorse in my sewing life that I think I’ve bought it three times, to gift to friends. Sleeves! Two versions of no sleeves! A high, round neck! A shallow, scooped neck! A squared neck!

    My favorite iterations of it use an FBA (so easy to accomplish when the dart is already marked for you!) that I sew up without the dart: I take the extra fullness between the dart legs and gather it into the side seam. This makes for a softer, rounder accommodation for my increasingly-as-I-age softer, rounder bosom — and I can wear various bras under the blouse without having to remember early in the morning which bra will lift my old dugs to what degree of inclination. I can successfully use either a felled seam or a French seam with this application.

    I use this pattern when I am sewing up reversible tops — it is easy to completely line any of the views, and thus make them wearable on both sides, if I use decent-enough lining fabric.

  5. Every time I see the Sorbetto I imagine all of the possibilities, but I haven’t tried it out yet. Maybe it’s time! I’d love to make a simple dress out of it with some interesting details at the front.

  6. Thanks for posting this! I always get hung up on the details without looking at the actual fit sometimes on a basic sewing pattern. I daresay that my pattern collection is way too large, and still lacking at the same time!

  7. My sewing focus is entirely opposite from yours. I don’t look for basic patterns that can be changed. Instead my focus is on patterns that already have the style I want and that I can make in various fabrics so that each garment appears different. I’ve made The Sewing Workshop Opal jacket in coral linen for summer and again in charcoal wool knit for winter. Each has its own style although the pattern is the same. I do add personal fitting alterations (FBA, narrow shoulders, etc). Occasionally I change a neckline or sleeve but generally I stick to the pattern as drafted. Please continue your excellent posts. I’m learning a lot. There just might be a “basic” pattern in my sewing future.

  8. Thanks for the post. I think you are right. Sometimes it is easier to go from a pattern that is close to what you want and then manipulate from there.

    I still use a basic block (i.e. fitting shell) to do most of my patterns though. A fitting shell always includes wearing ease. So a fitted dress is always best made out of a fitting shell/basic block I find. Just change the neckline, perhaps change the sleeves and, tada, you have a dress that actually fits.

  9. such a good idea. i have some precious yardage to cut into and particular style i want… pretty sure i can get there through a pattern i already know and love. thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Sunni, I have a Butterick shell. I tried to draft a few patterns and rotate darts from it. It’s complicated and I always have to fix the fit. I like your simpler approach much better. It makes sense. I have a design idea in mind and I’m going to try to use a pattern I already have to try to make it. I love this series!

  11. This is a great post, very clearly written and so helpful. For me, the beauty of sewing is being able to free myself from the constraints of design and change details as I see fit. Freedom in design, freedom from buying more and more stuff, freedom to create!

  12. I’m still relatively new to sewing and fitting so take my comments for what they are worth but what I like about the fitting patterns is how much they tell me about how my body deviates from the standards that are the basis for all patterns. For instance, I didn’t notice how narrow my shoulders were compared to my bust measurement, nor how short my armscye is and how long my waist is below. If I make a basic shell, I can generally cut a 12 in the bust and a 10 in the waist and it fits well enough, but, doing the exercise of making a fitting shell taught me so much more.

    I’m still working on getting a basic pants block for myself. I have such a long back rise and such a short front rise, plus really full hips and thighs compared to my relatively small waist, that no one makes pants that fit. Even sewaholic pants dip down in back and if I use a plaid or horizontal stripe fabric, I get chevron at the back seam. So I’m continuing to work on getting a basic pant block I can use to modify and make other kinds of pants.

  13. Thanks for sharing this series with us! Getting a good fit for my body is one of the most challenging parts of sewing for me, so I’m really looking forward to learning from this.

  14. I’m really excited about your fitting post series! Two summers ago I started on a fitting shell that helped me determine where to alter on Big 4 patterns. Then I stopped sewing Big 4 patterns because the indie patterns work really well for me. Several of your pins are in my collection! With fall here, I will start with fitting a Clover.

    I’m also returning to the languishing Big 4 patterns in my stash so V8766 needs a turn. Like you indicate, imagine the possibilities! My favorite basic knit tee, V8536, has no darts but I’m hoping to take some of the Laurel inspiration/variation into it.

  15. Thank you so much for creating the Pinterest board, Sunni! I’m interested in all kinds of fitting, but my current obsession is dealing with my body’s asymmetries in button-up shirts, so I was really glad to see the Archer shirt on your board!

  16. I recently tried on a dress with fitted bodice and full skirt and was thrilled how it hid my tummy!

    I read this post with interest and then I looked on your Pinterest Board. I can see what I would like would be possible with Vogue 8766 (bodice D + skirt F for starters) thank you.

    As it is a pattern for woven could it be adapted to use with a knit/stretch too? I’m thinking winter warmth.

  17. I read this post with interest, and found Vogue 8766 which I would love with bodice D and skirt F.

    Suggested fabrics are woven, can it be used for knit?

  18. I recently started taking classes in pattern drafting and can tell you it makes such a difference to sew with the assurance that the finished garment will fit around all the quirks of my figure.

  19. Thanks for the Pinterest board! I’m happy to see some patterns with knits. They’re such a staple of my wardrobe that I really want some basics that I can customize, but it’s hard to find great knit patterns.

  20. I actually have that New Look pattern, and I plan to use it as the base for my pattern cutting studies. Good to know you think that is a good base too.

  21. Thanks for this great series. I’m hoping to develop a TNT tee that I can use to draft new details onto in stead of reinventing the fitting wheel over and over. I took a look through your Pinterest boards as well. When researching for a fitting basic for wovens, one of the patterns I considered was Mccall’s 2818, and did my reasearch through blogs and Pattern Review. The results were not favorable, ot say the least. I’ve had good success in the past with some of the Palmer-Pletch line; this one seems to be a HUGE exception. You might want to take a look and decide if you should reconsider this one particular recommendation. It’s already been repinned 8 times; you might be able to still save newbies the hours of frustration that have been reported.

  22. Very good serie! I was thinking about it today as I was reflecting on my current and future use for Lekala patterns, their customizable feature came so close to perfect without alterations that I think it would be a great place to start for a first pattern iteration.

  23. I’m SO glad you are doing this series. I am simply terrified to make tops for myself because I have to do a full bust adjustment on any pattern. After a gazillion attempts, I have never ever successfully created a good fitting top for myself. I have a dress form, its been sized properly and she stands there with one piece of a New Look 0126 pattern cut up and pinned to her to check the fit. From there, I’m paralyzed. I don’t know when or where to add ease. While not fat (per se), I carry my weight on my back so a top can become tight and binding very quickly and I refuse to wear it. For that reason I love knits, but I don’t want one that clings to show the bra roll (or the one below it!) I took your Craftsy class for zippers and have a ton of skirts from your course, but tops is where I’m stuck. Looking forward to the series!

  24. What I want to find (or make, eventually), is a simple sleeveless top to be made from slightly stretchy material, with a low squareish neck and princess seams. ok, that sounds very specific already when I put it like that, but you could add ruffles at the neck or waist, lacing loops down the princess seams for a corseted look, little puffed or long bell sleeves, hook and eye tape for a center front colosure. I would honestly wear a version of this top every day, I daydream about it, but somehow haven’t gotten around to finding a simple pattern to start from yet. one day.

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