Arms Preparing to Sew

So you've chosen your pattern and your fabric. Now you're all eager to go home and sew. Well I hate to break it to you, but you're not ready to sew just yet. There's actually a lot you still need to do before you can sit down at the sewing machine. In fact, this preparation work often takes more time than the sewing itself.

Read the Pattern

I cannot stress this enough - Read all parts of your pattern thoroughly. Make sure you have enough fabric. Make sure you have all the required notions. Make sure you have all the tools you'll need. Make sure you understand everything in the instructions. Discovering mid-project that you don't have something you need can be very annoying. Discovering you don't understand the directions is no fun either. Even worse though is discovering that due to not understanding the directions you've made a mistake you can't correct easily, if at all.

Determine the Cutting Lines

If your pattern contains multiple sizes, be sure you know which style of dashed or dotted line is the correct one for you. Some people even like to trace the correct cutting line with a colored marker or highlighter so they're able to easily follow it when cutting. Alternately, if your pattern only contains seam lines and not cutting lines, you'll need to add seam allowance to the pattern pieces before you can cut them out.

Preshrink Fabric and Notions

There's hardly any point to putting the time and effort into making a garment if it's just going to shrink the first time you wash it. To prevent this you should preshrink your fabric and also any notions that might shrink, such as trim or zippers. For most fabrics and notions, the best way to accomplish preshrinking is to prewash, which has the added advantage of removing sizings and loose dye. If your fabric requires dry-cleaning, you'll need to have it dry-cleaned before you make your garment. (Contrary to popular belief, dry-cleaning doesn't prevent shrinking. In fact, very high temperatures are used in the process and fabrics can shrink dramatically.)

The more you preshrink your fabric, the less likely your garment will shrink again once constructed. To most effectively preshrink your fabric then, it helps to understand what causes the most shrinkage. Most people are aware that high temperatures cause fabrics to shrink, but many are unaware that sudden temperature changes are also highly effective. Because of this, a hot/cold wash cycle will cause more shrinkage than hot/warm. Dry heat is also more effective than moist heat, so keeping a fabric in the dryer past the point at which it becomes dry will increase shrinkage.

To best shrink your fabric then, I recommend being at least as harsh to it as you plan to be to the finished garment. When possible, try to be harsher. For example, if you're making a cotton dress and plan to wash it on warm/cold and dry it on medium, then wash the fabric on hot/cold and dry on high heat until well past dry. Do keep in mind though the limits that some fabrics have on how harsh you can be to them. For instance, if you wash wool in hot water, agitate it, or place it in the dryer, it will shrink dramatically and become fulled. Instead, you probably only want to wash wools in cold water on the delicate cycle and hang them to dry, and then do the same to the finished garment. If you ever have any doubts about how harsh you can be to a fabric, prewash a test swatch.

Iron and Straighten the Fabric

During the prewashing process it's likely your fabric has become at least somewhat wrinkled. While it isn't necessary to iron the fabric until it has a completely smooth surface, you do at least need to remove any major wrinkles. Failing to do so can cause the fabric to not lay flat during cutting, leading to distorted pattern pieces being cut.

During manufacturing or packaging, fabric is often pulled off of the true grain so that it becomes distorted. While prewashing will often correct this problem, you may still need to straighten your fabric. Doing so will help to ensure the finished garment hangs smoothly. Straightening is especially important for fabrics with geometric woven-in designs, such as plaids. There's one exception to this rule though. Sometimes a printed pattern is applied to off-grain fabric. If that's the case you may actually need to pull the fabric off-grain after prewashing in order to straighten the design. If your fabric does require straightening, it's often easiest to do so at the same time as any ironing that may be necessary.

Layout, Cutting, and Marking

Once your fabric is prepared, you're ready to lay out your pattern pieces and cut them out. First, cut the pattern pieces apart from each other and set aside any you won't be using. Don't try to cut the pattern pieces exactly on the cutting lines, but instead just cut between the pattern pieces and remove any large areas of unprinted pattern tissue.

Lay out your fabric, being sure it's folded, opened flat, and/or oriented properly according to the cutting layout. Lay the pattern pieces on the fabric according to the layout, being sure to align grain line marks on the pattern pieces with the grain of the fabric. Whenever possible, try to lay out all the pattern pieces at once before you begin to cut, thus assuring you can fit them all on your piece of fabric. Pin or weight the pattern pieces to the fabric to keep them from shifting.

Once all your pattern pieces are in place, go ahead and cut them out. But then before you begin sewing don't forget to transfer any registration marks you'll need, using marking pens or pencils, chalk, tracing paper, or tailor's tacks. If possible, leave the pattern tissue attached to the various pieces until you're ready to use them. That way you're less likely to confuse similarly shaped pieces.


Once you've accomplished all the above preparations, you'll finally be ready to sew. At this point, simply follow the pattern instructions to assemble the various pieces into your finished garment.

© 2000–2009 Jessica I. Clark
Permission to print a copy for your own use freely given. Please contact me for permission to reprint or distribute.

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