Growing up, my body was the mysterious size between an extra large and a 1X in the plus size
store. With the plus size designs strongly resembling muumuus and tents at that time, I
desperately wanted to fit into the extra large designs. Every day clothing was a struggle and I
often wore flannel shirts, jeans or overalls. I also played two sports and got away with wearing
team t-shirts and jerseys.
My first exposure to tailored clothes as a plus size person came when I was in high school. My
mother is a wearable clothing artist so when it came time for homecoming and prom, my mother made my dresses. I remember picking out the color of my dresses, but everything else was her decision. We would head to the fabric store and she would pick out a pattern. I watched her cut out the dress on our living room floor and sew late into the night. I became proficient at wiggling out of dresses with pins in them. Yet my mother’s process seemed so intuitive that I didn’t feel it was something I could learn myself.
When I learned to quilt in my thirties, I thought back to those days when my Mom made my dresses. I knew no one would have a dress just like mine and they fit me perfectly. (FIND HOMECOMING PICTURE!) Could I translate my one dimensional sewing skills into three dimensional objects?
Some of my favorite quilting cotton designers like Amy Butler, Anna Maria Horner and the Cotton and Steel designers were adding garment substrates to their collections. Inspired to make something in my favorite modern designs, I decided to leap into the world of three dimensional sewing and made both an ill fitting tank top and a bag in one month’s time.
Frustrated with trying to fit the tank to my body, I explored bag making instead. Thinking back on that decision, I see how it was the perfect, non stressful way to start making three dimensional objects. I learned how darts can create curves, the differences and importance of interfacing, and how different fabrics created different wearable experiences.
After several bag making successes, I decided to try garment making again. This time, I decided to take a class with Christine Haynes. I felt in person instruction would make it less “scary” and having someone help me fit something to my body would be better than using a generic pattern. Not only was I right to start out in Christine’s class, it also began a series of important lessons.
Assuming I needed to bring my own fabric, I brought unwashed quilting cotton for my muslin. Since I don’t prewash the fabrics I use for quilting, I didn’t think about prewashing them for clothes. Also, I was used to sewing quilted cottons that I hadn’t considered buying a different (and probably more flattering) garment substrate. I was saving my “precious” garment substrates for when I knew more about garment sewing. I created a wearable garment in class but it immediately shrank to a smaller unwearable size that didn’t look flattering on my body.
With the success of a fitting garment, I was starting to see how my quilting sewing skills came in handy. Reading through pattern instructions, I often found ways to chain piece/sew pieces and make construction go faster. Having made yards and yards binding for my quilts, the concept of bias binding wasn’t challenging.
Yet other garment sewing skills mystified me. I remember being in Christine’s class and wondering why you would sew a 5/8” seam allowance and then cut it down? Quilters use a 1/4” seam allowance and sometimes push it to 1/8” when something isn’t going to be washed or used long term. A 5/8” seam allowance seemed huge! Quilting also requires close to perfection for sewing perfectly matched patchwork points.
Garment sewing can be more about intuition and trying different techniques when working on fit. Does it not fit right on my body even though that is what it says on the pattern? The pattern may say to add length in a certain spot but is that the same spot as on my body? Since every body is different and fabric can have a mind of its own, those are not factors when making a quilt. You are usually using quilting cottons with the quilt math producing reliable results.
Eventually, I felt I couldn’t go farther learning about garment sewing online. There are great resources online but it’s not in my personality to learn best that way. I tried a large local sewing class but didn’t have the proper time to devote to it. I came back around to the idea of needing personal instruction. I looked at the American Sewing Guild website and emailed one of their local instructors. During our phone interview, I told her I wanted to focus on fit and build up a foundational garment sewing skill set. We have had six lessons so far and I have learned more than I could have imagined. I have measurements of almost every part of my body and its proximity to other parts. I understand where bust darts are supposed to be in a garment. My large arm bicep adjustment reflects my actual bicep measurements. I made a button hole placket and sewed my buttons on using my machine.
With every successful accomplishment in the garment making process, I’m grateful for the long path it took me to get here. While I would have hurriedly sewn garments in the past, I am now taking my time to build a deeper understanding for the process. No longer settling for “good enough”, my seams look more professional and garments look made for me. My amazing teacher patiently answers all of my “why” questions and I can troubleshoot better when pattern instructions are deficient. Those quilting skills have come in handy and I no longer expect perfection. I find I’m a better quilter and garment maker because I’ve pushed myself to learn more.