Any person can step into a local craft or fabric store and buy a pattern for most anything these days, especially costuming, but I must warn my fellow sewers of the pitfalls of modern patterns.
This toted example of a Regency/Romantic Period dress, think Jane Austen, is so ill-fitting that this tiny waif is swimming in a dress that should hug her bodice perfectly, as was customary in the period.
Steampunk clothing can suffer from the same issues since it is designed after Victorian fashion, which requires exact fitting. Too loose and you will look frumpy and too tight will cause you to rip a sleeve. No two bodies are alike, so a modern pattern is not going to give you a correct fit. While I praise the seamstress on creating an original pattern from a mish-mash of modern patterns she still suffers from not being able to fit the pattern perfectly to the client.
Modern patterns rarely follow correct steps in putting together historical pieces, and the measurements are usually way off and do not translate from pattern company to pattern company. If I followed the measurement guide on most patterns it would tell me to make the size 16 for my size 10 body, but even then I have had a size 16 be too small or way too big This is frustrating because you really can’t know how off the pattern is until you make it or measure out each piece and add the different totals to figure out your waist, bust, and other basic measurements
. This is why I stopped making clothes from patterns and make my own from drafts. Often I can make and adjust the pattern more quickly this way rather than the hours it took me to figure out, adjust, test, adjust, test & adjust that modern pattern. Moderns patterns are made for convenience, to save you time because someone else figured out the proportions, but truthfully you can end up spending twice as long correcting an ill-fitting pattern than creating one from scratch.
Modern patterns may also make simple patterns more difficult and complex patterns too simple. It amazes me how often a modern pattern will require you to take more steps in completing the dress than the original design. Part of this has to do with the modern concept of lining, but also when patterns are made for costumes they often shortcut necessary steps that insure the garment works. I’ve seen kimono patterns that require zippers and Velcro, but these steps are totally unnecessary and require more work than an actual Kimono requires. I’ve seen way too many costume patterns for historical dresses require zippers and one too many coats that were not lined properly. Another great example is the last time I used a modern pattern for a costume piece. It was Simplicity’s 1880s Victorian Dress Pattern.
A lovely dress, beautiful bustle and very accurate in appearance. However, the directions instructed me to set up elaborate hooks, ties, stuffing and the like into the bustle piece. It was a nightmare for a novice to figure out and put together, but turned out beautifully. However, after completing the bustle I suddenly found myself trying to figure out how to store it. “Surely,” I thought, “women of that time didn’t have room for all these bustles. And how do they iron them when they wrinkle?”
I did not learn the answer to this until nearly 7 years later when I was researching bustles and learned that despite most bustles involving layers of poofs, gathers and tucks, at the end of the day a good bustle could be folded flat and stored easily. All the permanent elaborate hooks and ties that the Simplicity pattern made me attach to the bustle and skirt were unnecessary and could be done with a few simple ties and cinching. I have done this several times now with great delight.
Luckily there are a few notable pattern makers out there. Simplicity/Butterick and McCall’s periodically provide historically accurate patterns, as seen above, that work very well, but you have to be very very careful, because “historical” can be loosely applied. These patterns may also require skills that modern seamstress may not understand, so research is always important. Another great site is Patterns of Time. Many movies have used these patterns including Sherlock Holmes (2010). I caution sewers who use Folkwear Patterns. Though they carry unique patterns, their directions are usually difficult to follow or do not provide enough direction. A pattern may also recommend steps that were necessary in original construction that may not be necessary now. French Seams were useful to seal off raw edges but take a lot of time to put in. You can get the same effect if you have a serger or use the jagged stitch on your modern machine. I know this seems a bit ironic in an article discussing the disadvantages of modern patterns, but unless you are wanting to hand stitch everything or use a push pedal machine, then don’t feel too guilty using modern machines or methods to achieve the same look. When deciding where to cheat, think it through; sometimes what you think may be easier to do on a machine or to save time can actually cause you issues.
For example, my pink overdress pictured above has serged edges, because I chose not to line it and it is also linen which loves to fray. Traditionally I would have double rolled the edges and French Seamed them, but as stated before this takes more time. The lace attached to the sleeve and the fischu (the ribbon style cape) are sewn on a machine, but the beaded lace that hems the item was hand sewn on, because I did not want to damage the lace or my machine, which can happen if a bead and needle met. Using a machine also saves you time and we can all use more of that!
My final complaint about modern patterns is a lack of originality. Who hasn’t seen this Simplicity Pattern at numerous events recently?
While it is beautiful, it is merely one option among thousands that can be applied to Steampunk. But because many are tied to modern patterns they are stuck with very few options. Plus these patterns do not teach or provide budding Steampunkers with the necessary knowledge to wear the right undergarments to make this pattern work. Even in this pattern, the model’s belly peeks out. I have often thought about making my own pattern line, but in truth I cannot because I would never be satisfied that a pattern would work for the same two people. Before the age of manufacturing and modern patterns, if you wanted to imitate a design seen on someone else, or in fashion magazines, you had to design your own pattern. Goedy provided a set of drafts in the back of their books, but they often had to be adjusted to size.
To be able to do this takes time and a great understanding of how to make 2-D fabric fit a 3-D frame.
Luckily there is hope! If you are so bold as to make your own pattern or attempt to modify a modern pattern here are a few books I recommend to help you along the way. The options for women far outweigh the options for men, but all these books are a great place to start.
I am a huge fan of Herbert Norris, his books on historical clothing cannot be beat. However, before he could touch on the Victorian era he passed away and his protégé’s could not compare to his work. So when dabbling in the field of Victorian and Edwardian Costuming, which is where you want to start when making Steampunk clothing, I recommend Frances Grimble.
Her books are a mainstay in my costuming collection. Not only does she cover various eras, she has books dedicated to undergarments, etiquette and accessories. Her directions are relatively easy to follow and she decrypts original draft patterns into easy to translate images. You still have to know how to take a draft image and turn it into a life size pattern, but she has sections in each book dedicated to this and every book contains stunning images. I personally like that I can look at these patterns and images and see how to modify them, which is very important when making Steampunk clothing. Another noteable source for Victorian and Edwardian Fashion is Kristina Harris . Her collection is not as extensive but she does provide a book on “Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques” that can help when you are trying to decipher a pattern or figure out how to make those knots, bows, and French seams.
Don’t worry men there is a great book out there for you too and it is aptly named, “The Blue Book of Men’s Tailoring.”
This book provides boundless knowledge on how to construct men’s clothing, including coats, vests, pants, and shirts. It also has a guide on how to make clothing for all body types. This is extremely important because Victorian clothing must fit and you will cut a garment differently for a rotund man vs. a skinny man. Of course my favorite is examples for the slouched shoulders! There are times in this book where it is difficult to match up a pattern with the directions, but this is far outweighed by all the knowledge it provides the seamstress who keeps getting asked to make men’s attire. It is also important to remember there is a great amount of difference in making men and women’s clothing, but in Steampunk you need to learn both because not only are you working with gathers and pleats, but also cuffs and pointed collars. I learned how to make notched collar from scratch from this site.
Learning how to sew is easy, but learning how to sew well takes lots of practice. Victorian costume, which most Steampunk clothing is based on, is intended to be tailored and well made, so it takes time and dedication. Do not be disheartened if errors occur. Simply learn from your mistakes and try again. If you do choose to use modern patterns, then purchasing a book on how to adjust patterns will help make that design fit like a glove.
Whether you are looking to make or purchase your next item I hope this article has provided you with further knowledge and guidance so you know what to look for when choosing your next Steampunk design. Remember, do not be limited by modern patterns and adjust for that perfect fit!