Last week I got an almost-last-minute invitation to a cocktail party, and decided it was the perfect time to make a skirt I’ve been thinking about for a while. I already had the fabric: pale grey wool bouclé with tiny clear sequins sewn all over it; I pictured this as the perfect pencil skirt, with a contrast lining that would just peek out from the off-center front slit.
Problem: I didn’t have a pattern for this mythical wonder-skirt, or at least not one that I trusted to fit me.
Solution: I used my Garment Designer software and my own measurements to create a custom pattern.*
Since I was in a bit of a rush to get this skirt made, I didn’t photograph the entire process, but I’ll do my best to describe what I did.
First step: After creating my basic skirt design in GD, and plugging in my measurements, I generated a sewing pattern (the software calculates the pattern using my measurements) and printed it out. Obviously it wouldn’t all fit on a letter-sized page, so it automatically tiles the pattern into multiple pages, so all I had to do was tape them together; the patterns print out with handy guidelines to help align the pages properly. (You can see the pattern for the skirt back in the first photo, below).
Second step: I made the muslin. For those of you not familiar with this (like me, before this project), a muslin is like a test copy you make before cutting into the fabric you’re actually going to use for the garment; this helps you fine-tune the fit without any fear of ruining fabric. (It’s called a muslin because muslin, an undyed cotton fabric available in many weights, is the type of fabric most commonly used for this process.)
Once I had cut my muslin pieces, I basted everything: the waist darts in front and back, side and center back seams, leaving an opening at the top of the center back for the zipper. (I didn’t actually sew a zipper into my muslin; when I tried it on, I just pinned this opening shut to check the fit. However, if you’re unsure of your zipper-insertion skills, the muslin is the perfect place to practice! You can just remove the zipper from the muslin after fitting is done, and re-use it in the actual garment.) By the way, when I say basting, I mean with the sewing machine, using a long stitch length (4 on my machine); this makes it much easier to rip out later.
When I tried on the muslin the first time, I was amazed at how close to perfect the fit already was, but it did benefit from some tweaking. The biggest change I made was changing the silhouette from a straight skirt (falling straight down from the hip) to more of a pencil (tapering in towards the hem); I like this look and felt it would be more flattering on me. So I pinned it into the shape I wanted, and took in the waist just a bit at the center back, and also shortened the skirt a touch.
Tip: The general muslin concept is to cut and sew the muslin pieces, fit them on your body, pinning and marking any necessary changes, sew the changes, check the fit again; repeat until you have it the way you want it, then take the whole thing apart, and use the pieces as your pattern.
In this photo, on the right is the original pattern for the skirt back, and on the left is what the muslin skirt back looks like after making the changes:
When looking at these pieces side by side, you can see how much the muslin has changed from the original pattern. And just in case all this work sounds unnecessary, let me just say that, after this experience, I doubt I will ever be tempted ever again to make a garment without a muslin— it was truly that enlightening. And I now have a perfect pencil skirt pattern (the muslin pieces) that I can use over and over. But I think the best part about it was that, once all the tweaking was done and the muslin disassembled, I could go ahead with the actual skirt with total confidence that it would fit me exactly as I wanted!
Third step: I made the actual skirt. After all the preliminary work on the muslin, making the skirt seemed like a breeze! I went ahead and cut the bouclé and the lining, using my muslin pieces as my pattern, knowing I had already done the bulk of the fitting work. I did try on the bouclé part of the skirt before attaching the lining; since this wool fabric was thicker and draped differently from the muslin, it was possible that I might have to make some minor adjustments, but honestly, it was just right when I slipped it on. So I could proceed to make the lining and attach it to the bouclé with total confidence. (I keep saying that because this was truly an eye-opening experience for me.)
A few more notes about this project: I used a heavy crepe-back satin (mostly because I already had it); I love the pop of color, even though you only see it when my leg moves. And although I had planned to make this skirt without a waistband, because the bouclé fabric is a little too bulky, I changed my mind and used the lining fabric to make this narrow sort of binding at the waist, and I’m glad I did— that sequined bouclé would probably have irritated my skin. And I like the finish that the binding gives, even if it will most often be covered up. I may also say that, once the muslin was done and the pieces for the skirt and lining were cut, all the sewing (including over 2 hours of hand finishing) took just about 5 hours; I finished it at 4:17 p.m., and left for the party at 6:45, where I got nothing but rave reviews!
Here’s my finished skirt. (If I can get someone to take a picture of it on me, I’ll add that below— I’d love to show you just how perfectly it fits me!)
One final note: even after years of being a devoted What Not To Wear fan, I still could not believe the difference it made to my confidence level when I put this skirt on! (It really drove home what I wrote about it in Is it Just Me, or Is It My Clothes?, about how we tend to blame our bodies, rather than ill-fitting garments, for the way we feel about the way we look.) I went to that party feeling not only good about wearing a beautiful garment I’d made myself, but great about the way I looked. And to judge from the general reaction, that message communicated itself very clearly to everyone there. Muslin, oops, I mean mission, accomplished!
*My no-need-for-disclosure statement: I don’t benefit in any way from my mention of the Garment Designer software, other than the satisfaction of sharing this information with all of you. I’ve used GD (from Cochenille Design Studio) for many years; it helps you create custom patterns for both knitting and sewing, but this is the very first time I’ve actually printed out a paper pattern for a sewing project!