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frugal sewing tips

Five dressmaking rules worth breaking

I’ve cut out a new dress today. I fell for the colours. They remind me of summer days in my teens. The turquoise/cyan in particular. I remember my sister making a skirt and top in the same colour, one year.

I bought the fabric with a different dress in mind, but when the moment came to prepare the fabric for cutting, I knew it wouldn’t work. Plan B. A different dress pattern.

This often happens to me. I buy fabric for one project and then have second thoughts once I get home. Realisation hits that it would work better in a different style. Then starts the challenge. Is there enough fabric for the alternative dress pattern?

This time it needed less fabric. Me being me, still rolled up my sleeves to make something out of very little. I had the chance to eek out enough for a second sewing project. Two for the price of one. My kind of bargain.

So how do I squeeze more out of my fabrics? No. It’s not a question of persuading the children to play tug of war with it, although I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t take much persuading for them to give it a go. Nor do I go on a crash diet, or breathe in the whole time I’m wearing the outfit.

Want to know how I do it? These are dressmaking tips you won’t find in the pattern instructions.

Steps to saving fabric

Step 1: Don’t follow the cutting plan.

Every dressmaking pattern comes with diagrams, showing you how to position the paper patterns on your fabric. Ignore it.

To be honest, I seldom cut fabric out as the instructions suggest. As long as I line up the grainline (that big double headed arrow, in case you’re wondering) and respect the direction of the print (I need the fishes swimming in the same direction, right?), anything else is up for interpretation.

For instance, in this latest fabric cutting, I changed the foldline of the fabric when I cut out the front of the dress. It left me with a big rectangle of fabric that I could cut the sleeves from. Feels like free fabric.

If I’d followed the instructions and lined up the selvedges, as suggested, the front of the dress would have been cut out of the middle of the fabric, leaving two thin rectangles of fabric on each side. No use to man or beast. On the printed plan this was mostly left as waste fabric. Madness when you stop to think about it.

Be creative. Find a way to free up large areas of the fabric, rather than being left with lots of small pieces.

Warning: Don’t cut anything out until all the pattern pieces have been positioned on the fabric.

Step 2: Use contrasting fabrics for yokes, hems, etc


Most patterns assume you are going to use the same fabric throughout the project. Some allow a contrast for one part, like the collar, but not all. There is nothing to say you have to stick to one fabric for all the other parts. Yokes, sleeves, pockets, hems – they can be different.

A confession story best illustrates this one. Last year I bought fabric to make a blouse for my daughter. Such cute fabric she had selected. In my excitement, I completely forgot that I needed more fabric to match up the cars at the front of the blouse. My bad. It looked like I couldn’t avoid slicing cars in half at the button-up front, if I wanted to make the blouse out of this fabric.


If I’m going to spend time hand making a garment, I want it to look good at the end. No half cars, please.

I put my thinking cap on. After pattern matching the front of the blouse, there was no fabric left for the back yoke, so I used a coordinating blue fabric for it, that I found in my scrap bag.

Result: a fun blouse that looked better than I had originally imagined. I still used the fabulous fabric to good effect, but the blue made it pop out even more.

Step 3: Patchwork fabric

Carrying on with the same blouse, I didn’t have enough fabric for the back either. Crazy, I know. Anyone wondering why I didn’t give up on this project? I am.

So, what did I do? I got creative with my cutting. I sliced the back paper piece in two and positioned the halves on the fabric, allowing for a small seam allowance, so that the car patterns would match. Once it was sewn up, from a distance, it looks like one piece of fabric. Mission accomplished.

There is nothing in the rule book to say fabric cannot be patched together. In fact, I’ve read of haute couture houses cutting up stripes to make the perfect zigzag fabric, when needed.

Step 4: Use different fabric for facings that don’t show.

If the fabric isn’t going to show, then use a different one. Pockets tucked in the seams will not show. Save fabric by using a similar fabric. I made four polar bear pyjamas. Each pair has pockets made from different brushed cotton fabric from previous projects.

This is my brown, cord dress. (Eek! I still haven’t shared photos of this dress here.) In the instructions, it listed the neck facing to be cut from the same fabric as the rest of the dress. I had lots of fabric, but I’m always looking to save it. Also I didn’t much fancy the black cord rubbing against my neck.

So I dived into my recycling pile and pulled out a silk shirt of my husband. I loved that shirt, but he didn’t. I cut it up and used it as the neck facing. It gave the structure required, but with the added silky, softness, and I have enough brown fabric left for a skirt.

Step 5: Change lengths or shape

My rose dress used a lot of fabric. It is a fit and flare. I didn’t really have quite enough fabric. I overlapped the pattern slightly on seams and hem allowance.  I shortened the sleeve length slightly. These little tweaks made all the difference.

On one or two garments, I’ve reduced the seam allowance. I always neaten seams. I want my garments to look good on the inside too. Using fabric tape, I can still ensure the fabric won’t fray and unravel when there’s less fabric.

Break the rules

I’m using the term “rules” in a very loose way. There are no design police who turn up and put you straight if you ignore the instructions.

I know the handmade projects that have caused the most problems, have turned out to be my favourites, because I’ve not been able to follow the rules. My daughter’s blouse certainly gave me a few head scratching moments, and I love the touch of green in my brown dress.

I’ve not used any indie design patterns. I have no idea how prescriptive their instructions tend to be or how easy they can be modified. I do love using sewing patterns from the so-called Big Four (Simplicity, Vogue, McCalls, Butterick) but I like to make them my own. Using the instructions as suggestions rather than anything else.

By mixing and matching, I think it makes a handmade garment that little bit more special. More of a designed feel. Saving fabric at the same time. Not something to be sniffed at.

Have you any tips to make your fabric go that little bit further?

Other frugal dressmaking tips:

Upcycling a Vintage Skirt

upcycled skirtI’ve had a corduroy skirt put aside for a while to work on. I think it used to belong to one of my big sisters and then handed on to me for dressing up. Once I was past that stage, I left it in a box. Using it to protect the contents of the box, during the many house moves that followed. I’m not sure I meant to keep it. I can’t remember feeling particularly fond of it. The skirt must date back to the 70s.

The label is faded, so I can’t tell which shop it originally came from. Or what size it is. Or even the washing instructions, if I wanted to. The skirt has seen better days.

vintage corduroy skirt(I took this photo last week, but somehow it still looks like its the 70s)

This week, I offered it to my stargazing Middle Daughter. It fitted her perfectly, but she didn’t want it. Don’t be fooled by the happy photo just above. She said that there was no way she would wear it. For a moment I wondered if the skirt was about to return to it’s former role as cushioning in boxes.

Ok. I understand. It was not her style. It was longer than this Tween would wear and decidedly dated. As she modelled the skirt I couldn’t help thinking that if I added a bonnet, she could rock a “Little House on the Praire” look. Sweet but most definitely not her.

Her style is shorter. She loves to wear shorter skirts over leggings. Jeans are not comfortable for my gymnast, so she opts for leggings. If she wears tunics, then it looks great, but with shorter tops the leggings transform into pyjamas. As if she’s just rolled out of bed. By wearing skirts over the top, it helps to show that she’s sporting leggings not pjs and also adds an element of modesty.

So I offered to shorten the skirt.

I cut it down to size, which transformed it and she said she would wear it, but only at home. Not outside. Hmm. Not really a win then.

upcycling a vintage skirtShe didn’t like the buckle. It wasn’t adding much to function of the skirt and had left rust marks on the fabric. It seemed to be more for decoration. I agreed to remove it and add a different button. We had fun going through the button tin, selecting the perfect button. The joy of a button box. She chose an enamel style flower button which is more contemporary. It always amazes me how changing a button can transform an outfit. The same way that new handles on a cupboard can change the look completely. Taking decades off it.

Back to the skirt. The pockets now looked huge on the shorter skirt. Completely out of proportion. I removed them, which left an obvious line on the skirt where the pockets had been attached. There wasn’t an easy way to remedy the marks, as they were too deeply ingrained after so many years of washing and storing. The only choice was to cover them. Using some of the fabric cut off the length, I made new patch pockets. Smaller and rounder. I suggested a bit of colour too. I also used the buckle fabric, minus the rusting buckle, to cover up the obvious line where the pocket had been connected up to the waist band.

patch pocketsShe liked the idea, but once the pockets were in place, they stood out more than the original pockets. They had to go.

I removed the colourful edging and pinched the top of the pockets to change the shape again. Then positioned them back on the skirt, covering up as much of the old stitch lines.

before and after upcycled skirtAs an upcycle project goes this was fairly straightforward. A bit of extreme scissor work reminds me of my ugly jumper upcycle. It helps that the skirt was well made to start with. Threads had started to undo but apart from that it was perfectly wearable. I suspect there may be a few people that think I should have left it as it was, but then no one would have worn it. I could still improve it by playing with the position of the button and giving it a good ironing, but I may need to sneak it away from her.

She loves the new improved skirt. Apparently it is very comfortable. It does fit her in all the right places. I guess we’ll have to wait to see if she wears it anywhere than home.

Half price sewing patterns

cutting the cost of home sewing dressmaking patterns(Floral blouse – New Look 6598)

One of my top tips for keeping the cost of home sewing down, is to keep an eye out for when the big pattern companies have their cut price sales. It’s worth waiting for.

As I write, Kwik Sew and New Look are both selling their patterns at half price. 50% off. When this happens, I can’t resist filling up my basket, either real or on-line, with all the tempting patterns.

“I’ll have that one and that one. Oh. I like that one. They are half price, right?”

Then I look at the grand total and gulp. Hmm. Time to be selective.

blouse dress pattern(bobbin blouse)

That’s when I fall back on my checklist. Continue reading


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