Last augmented: Saturday, January 6, 2001 6:20 PM

Yow! I had to work fast to scoop Scott Baker's article! I confess, I "assimilated" his idea, but that's what he gets for sitting on it for so long. Nyahhh! ;^) It's a good idea to get as many perspectives on this topic as possible, and especially from him since he knows Dr. Ben Wa's dirty little secret!

10/01/99-- As fun as the Beauty Pagent/Gretchen Gazongas thing has been for me, "God, we're sick!" ;^) pretty much sums it up. My staunch liberal and conservative leanings lead me to poke fun at the contradictions of our plight as fancy animals. Sometimes, we think too much and forget the fact that we were born naked. How undignified! Anyway, such overt, testicularly-inspired work clears the way for this: an article on sewing.

Naturally, my recent seamy-slice-of-life stuff needs a multi-purpose doctor (plastic surgeon/gynecologist... whatever), and since I missed out on Mattel's Dr. Ken, I'm going to have to make my own. That's actually a good thing, since it forces me to dust off the old sewing machine and give it a try. I'll be honest: I'm a lousy seamster (as I've mentioned before), and not practicing has made me an even lousier one. The point is that Need creates Motivation, and that forces you to learn stuff. If you can just buy everything you want, you miss out on that motivation. Do we exist to buy or to create? Which is ultimately more fulfilling and demanding of our roles as fancy animals? (That's my oblique, half-complaint about Dragon's foray into this market.)

Don't expect an authoritative step-by-step piece on producing a masterpiece of tailoring. I'm just someone who believes that if other people can do it, I'm probably smart enough to reverse engineer and blunder through a reasonably acceptable version of it. Just like you. And if you stick with it, you can only get better.

The first thing to do is to figure out what you don't know. My journey started with browsing the Internet for pictures of lab coats. There are lots of places out there that sell them, and from looking at a bunch of pictures you put together an idea of what you want. For my needs it doesn't have to be a single perfect picture, but a composite of features will do. I sketched out the design, taking notes on the basic placement of things and any specific details I could cull. There's still some stuff that I have no idea how to do (the side slits), but I'll tackle those areas as they become imminent. I'm not rabid enough about this to go out and buy a real lab coat.

The next thing to do is figure out how Joe clothes are made. You probably have lots of examples to examine. The basic design for a shirt or coat requires two front panels, the facing for those panels, a back panel, a pair of sleeves and a collar. There are a lot of trim details like pockets, cuffs, belts and darts that can be added, but they're incidental to the overall construction. Notice how the front panels and collar are finished on the inside with facing (additional panels of cloth)? Those lead up to the collar where they're folded to the outside. Also notice how pieces are constructed with the wrong side out, and turned inside out to hide the stitching? If you want, you can disassemble an outfit to use as a pattern for whatever you're making. That will give you a real insight on how things are made.

From what I can see, the general construction steps are:

  1. sew the front panels to the back across the shoulders (inside out)
  2. sew the sleeves to the front and back assembly at the shoulders (tough to match up and sew)
  3. test fit for sleeve length
  4. hem the sleeve edges, or attach cuffs
  5. sew the sleeves together and continue down rest of the front panels to the back along each side (try to match the ends of the sleeves-- you can compensate for the bottom hem later)
  6. construct the collar, inside out
  7. attach the collar (moderately difficult)
  8. sew the inside pieces of the front panels (facing) where they open at the front
  9. turn the thing inside out.
  10. sew the inside pieces (so that they stay flat against the front) and continue up to finish the collar
  11. hem the bottom edge
I may have left some things out, and some steps may be out of place. (Thanks to Scott Baker for pointing out a misplaced step!) If you're going to do anything fancier like attaching pockets, adding darts and putting a seam down the back, I think it's traditional to do those while you're doing the subassemblies. The final step is usually adding snaps and buttons.

It's a good idea to get some books on sewing too, since those can teach you tricks to refine your learning as well as the proper way to do this stuff! (I've got some: I just need to read 'em...)

As I've mentioned, you can always disassemble a piece if you want a pattern. Too drastic for you? Because we're working on a doll (and not a live human being), you can also take a piece of paper, wrap it around and eyeball the approximate shape. Just build in enough clearance so that the pattern isn't form-fitting (unless you want it that way). You can also transfer measurements by using a wire. It's important to note that the length of the arm cutouts should be roughly the same as the length of the matching sleeve edge, or you'll have to figure some way to pucker the seam. Same with the collar..

This doesn't mean you'll get it right on the first attempt. Patterns need to be tweaked, but that's part of the learning curve. You'll notice that it's hard to find patterns on the Internet. Sheesh, that's because it takes time and effort to get it right, and people sell stuff based on their work (it's one of those gritty realities of life). As with most of this site, I have no intention of being a spoiler for those folks-- you can do it, but some effort is required! Besides, that's part of the fun and sense of accomplishment. Otherwise, you might as well just go out and buy it.


10/02/99- Anyhoooo, here I've got most of the untweaked pattern worked out and ready for transfer to cloth for cutting. Some pieces were penciled halfway, inked with marker and folded over for tracing the full pattern. Ideally, some parts of the pattern should be bilaterally symmetrical, right? One other thing that can help is buying a Barbie/Ken pattern and studying it to see how they do it. Their patterns are complicated, with linings and facings. If you use your noggin, you can simplify it to your level of expertise (or ineptitude)-- The main thing to note is how the shapes are cut, and how they assemble together. I found it helpful to transfer shapes onto a piece of clear acetate to study how the shapes fit together, and where things were identical, and therefore traceable. This isn't a secret trick of the seamster's union-- it's just an idea derived from common sense.


10/03/99-- Peee-Yew! After my first disastrous attempt (based on that horrid pattern above), my seamster's card was revoked and now I have to prove myself worthy of being called a lowly sewer.

Sewing isn't very forgiving, and sometimes when things are screwed up, it's nearly impossible to fix. If you make your pattern too snug for example, you aren't really sure of that until you've invested a lot of time (especially if you're inexperienced). There's nothing you can do to salvage it, and you're sorely tempted to throw in the towel. It would be hard for me to do that though, on account of the fact that I've started this stinkin' article, and that I'm so big on that rah-rah learning from failure jazz. Damn. ;^)

It's true-- you do learn from failure. One thing I've learned is that it's better to cut an unproven pattern to be oversized, rather than a strict 1/4" from the sewing line. If you're doing a sleeve, cut the sleeve pattern longer than it needs to be. You can always shorten a sleeve, but you can't easily make one longer. Same with the overall length, chest and sleeve hole clearance. If you're developing or adapting a pattern, consider whether the figure will be wearing other clothes underneath, and adapt the size accordingly.

As I mentioned, this isn't a "how-to" article. Sewing presupposes familiarity with your sewing machine, and using your machine gives you experience with material handling. It's sort of like describing how to use a mouse-- you have to do it. There are a few areas where this is really clear: sewing contours, such as joining the sleeves to the front and back panels. This might seem straight forward in a diagram or verbal description-- you baste the parts, and sew the contour. If only it were that easy! Unfortunately, in real life, the bulk of the fabric assembly gets in the way of the tiny area where your task is focused. It's not really obvious how to sew something circular and curved on a flat bed. More than likely, the first time you try this you'll get peculiar folds and puckers in the seam and have to try again. One of the things you learn to do is tension the material as it feeds through so that it feeds in a fairly straight line. Also, curves can be notched so that they can be straightened out for fastening to a straighter piece. These are just a few small details of the hands-on learning that's part of mastering the environment of sewing.

For my "crappy sewer" level of expertise, I found Fabri-Tack glue to be extremely useful for holding things in place for sewing. Individuals with a greater level of skill would probably find this "crutch" technique to be unnecessary and time-consuming. It may not be too good for your machine's needle either, but for the sewing-impaired it's a worthwhile tradeoff-- it's easier and quicker than sewing basting stitches. It makes it possible to pre-hem pieces which are normally sewn together and turned inside out (like the facing for the lapels), and allows you to easily make adjustments through the glue version of seam-ripping. You can also make minor corrections by nudging a glue joint. For me, it's a more natural bridge between the other techniques that I already know. It's only an aid, and not a substitute though: Glue-placed pieces and hems should be sewn, since the construction is much stronger that way.

Always test first.