You probably know the frustration of finding a beautiful vintage pattern, only to discover that it isn’t in your size. Good ones can be hard to come by, and even on the rare occasion that you hit the jackpot and find one in your size, the proportions and fit just may not be right for you. In this article I’m going to show you how to take that wondeful piece of history and alter it to fit you.
A 50’s style dress is a great piece to start with, especially if it’s your first time grading a pattern: you can concentrate on creating a perfectly fitted bodice because the full skirt doesn’t require much altering. The pattern I am using in the example doesn’t have a fitted skirt or sleeve, but the grading process I use can be applied to any pattern piece as long as you ensure you take all the important measurements into account.
The more measurements you have, the more accurate a fit you can get! For someone who is a little bit taller or shorter, you can also adjust the pattern by slashing horizontally and adjusting the length of the bodice. Make sure you take the shoulder-to-bust and bust-to-waist measurements so you can pinpoint exactly where the extra length needs to go. Most of this how-to is aimed at making a vintage pattern larger, as smaller ones are more frequently found intact... but to make your pattern smaller just remove measurements instead of adding them.
For the grading process I will use the Vogue “one piece dress and cummerbund” pattern from 1956 as an example. You can adapt the basics of this grading process to use for other garment styles, such as trousers/tops, but the toiling process will be an especially important stage for these styles. It may even take a few toiles to get a perfect fit, but don't be discouraged - your work now will pay off in spades when you have a perfectly fitting, authentic vintage dress!
Calico or similar weight fabric to the final garments
Scissors (for use on paper and fabric)
Coloured pen (optional)
Pattern master/pattern square
Pattern notcher (optional)
Pattern drill (Optional)
1. First you will need to decide what measurements you want your pattern to conform to. If you want to make the pattern to fit a specific person, you will need to measure them of course! If you want to grade it to a generic size (e.g. 12/14) you will need to use a set of standard size measurements. Depending on the style of garment you are grading, you will need to add different amounts of "ease" onto these measurements, as the garment needs to be slightly bigger than the person wearing it to allow for movement.
Ultimately it’s up to you how much ease you add into your pattern. This can vary depending on how much give you have in the final fabric and how close fitted you want the garment to be. To get an accurate period look, you will need to take measurements over correct foundation garments of the era too!
I would recommend comparing the actual measurements of the pattern with the size it was intended to fit. This way you can work out how much ease is in the pattern already, which is a good starting point to decide how much you want in your final pattern. In this case I have kept my ease roughly the same as the original pattern with the exception of the waist. This pattern has no ease and would be worn with foundation garments; I have decided to add in 2” (5.1cm) ease for a more comfortable fit.
Remember: if you have a button fastening or similar you will need to measure the pattern from the centre front, not the edge of the pattern, as there will be some overlap. For example, the measurements of my original pattern and the measurements I want my pattern to fit are:
2. Trace your pattern exactly onto pattern paper, and use this for your pattern. You will be cutting, drawing and altering the pattern, so you don’t want to do this to the valuable original. You don’t need to copy over all the details but seam allowance, grainline and name of the pattern piece are important. Notches are helpful but you may want to mark these in one colour and final notches in another colour. Although these are a helpful marker during the grading process, they will change and you don’t want to get them confused when tracing off the finished pattern. It will make adjustment easier if you can trace corresponding pattern pieces next to each other. For example, I have traced off the front panel and the front side panel next to each other.
Make sure you leave space around each pattern piece for the alterations. Just trace off the main pieces at this point. Cuffs and facings will change dramatically and will be easier to re-draft at the end of the process. The pockets will most likely not change at all.
3. Concentrating on the bodice to begin with, you will need to divide each pattern piece up to ensure you are adding in the additional measurements evenly. Trace the bodice pieces from your draft, excluding the seam allowance, and cut these out. You will use them to manipulate the pattern into the desired size. I have slashed the bodice seven times parallel to the grainline. This is where I will add in the additional measurements. Remember, when choosing where to slash your pattern, that this is where the additional fabric will go in the final garment. I want to expand the waist, bust and neck, so I will slash through these points. Avoid slashing through darts, as this can distort the garment shape.
4. Next, work out how much you need to add into each slash. As my pattern is symmetrical, I will only need to work on a half pattern and cut 2 of each piece for the final garment. The measurements I need to add into each slash are:
I have divided this fairly evenly between the slashes. I try to keep my numbers fairly simple so I can be more accurate. Generally you need a little more ease in the front of the bust area. I have decided to add 1” (2.5cm) in the front bust area and ¾” (1.9cm) on the remaining bust slashes. Don’t worry too much about getting this just right. Garments fit differently on everyone. As with any bespoke pattern, this process is a little bit trial and error. We will look at toiling and adjusting the final bits of your pattern later.
5. Now cut down the lines where you have decided to slash the pattern. Stick the panel with the centre back onto the pattern draft, matching up the centre backs (you can do this on a separate piece of pattern paper, but I think it helps to have the original underneath to compare later on in the process. You can use different coloured pencils for each pattern if you think you'll get confused).
From the bust and waist points of the panel you just stuck down, measure out the measurement you are adding into the slash and then stick the next panel down, leaving that size gap in between. Only stick from the bust down to the paper, as we will go back and adjust the upper halves of the panels later on. Repeat with the remaining panels and repeat for each bodice pattern piece.
6. This will now have opened up larger measurements than you need in the neck/shoulder/sleeve (top of the slashes) so these will need adjusting. Slash the panels horizontally along the bust line and pivot them in towards the centre back/front until you are happy with the measurements. I have reduced mine to approximately 3/8” per slash. This will be dependent on how much bigger you want to make the neck.
7. You will now need to redraw the outer lines of your pattern. Ensure that you choose a smooth average between the existing lines. Measure panels that will be sewn together to ensure they are the same length and will still fit together. Remember that the back shoulder panel can be longer than the front by a small amount. My back shoulder/arm panel is ¾” (1.9cm) longer than the front. This is ease to allow the garment to travel over the shoulder. If any other panels don’t match up you will need to adjust them. For discrepancies less than ½” you can add the extra onto the length of the panel but if more than ½” you will need to adjust the slashing and spreading process until they fit. Adding too much onto the length of a panel this will distort the garment. If it’s a curve that doesn’t fit correctly, then you can adjust the severity of the curve to lose or gain a small amount of length.
8. Once everything matches up you can trace off the new bodice pattern pieces and add the seam allowance back on. Add notches and drill holes on all darts and matching panels so you can use these as a guide when sewing.
9. The last piece to adjust on this pattern is the skirt. As this skirt isn’t fitted, the hip measurement is more than sufficient to fit most sizes, so it’s more about adjusting the waist and taking this through into the skirt length to keep it proportional. This pattern has one skirt piece that makes up four quarters of the skirt. As the skirt will be gathered and is fairly square I will just add 1” (2.5cm) to either edge of the pattern, which will make up the total 8” (20.3cm) adjustment. Follow the line of the skirt and add the same measurement or flare slightly towards the bottom, depending on the silhouette. Make sure it flows well or this will be visible when the skirt is made and it won’t hang evenly. Double check the skirt will fit the bodice at the waist and trace off the pattern piece, adding the corresponding notches and seam allowance. If your skirt is more fitted/shaped or you need to add significantly more fabric into the piece, I would recommend slashing the skirt halfway through the panel(s), adding in the additional measurement evenly to this split and the edges of the panel(s).
If your pattern has separate sleeves you will also need to check any armhole adjustments and alter the sleeve head to match the bodice armhole.
10. Now cut out your pieces in calico (or fabric of a similar weight to the one you will be using for the final garment) and sew them together to create a toile/mock-up. Take note of any discrepancies along the way. For example, if two seams don’t fit together accurately or notches don’t match up, these will need to be amended on your pattern.
11. The next stage is to fit the garment. When the garment is on you will need to look for any spots that look too tight or baggy. Work out the measurement you need to add or remove from the pattern by pinching the excess fabric and measuring it. You can easily fix areas like this by going back to your draft and adjusting the slashed panels in these areas to add or remove the desired measurement.
Sleeves and hems can just be lengthened or shortened by adding or removing length from the pattern. Make sure all the main bodice, skirt and sleeve alterations are done before you move on to cuffs, facings or finishings, or these will be need to be constantly redrafted to fit the altered pattern pieces.
12. Now that your main pattern pieces are complete, you can alter the collar and cuffs to fit. It is likely that your cuffs will not need altering unless you have adjusted the width of the sleeve. The collar and cuffs can be adjusted by applying the same slashing and spreading process as used for the bodice. For the collar, take the neck measurement from the final pattern. Slash the collar vertically in three places, following the curve, and add in the additional measurement here.
Do not pivot the collar pieces at this stage, as you will alter the shape of the collar and prevent it from sitting flat; keep each piece parallel to the next. Trace off, notch and add seam allowance to the collar. Ensure you notch the collar at the centre back and shoulder points (take the measurements from your final pattern so that they are accurate). Cut the collar out of fabric, interface and add to the toile. If the collar doesn’t sit flat you will need to pivot the panels of your pattern on the outer edge, keeping the neck measurement the same. If the collar is puckered, increase the outer edge of the collar. If the collar is easily lifted away from the shirt and you can pinch fabric out of it, then this excess will need to be removed from the outer edge of the collar.
13. As with many vintage patterns, pieces get lost... and my pattern doesn’t have a cuff piece. It is very easy to draft a new cuff. Draft a square twice the width of the cuff by the circumference you want it to be. I measured where the cuff will sit on my arm and added 1” (2.5cm). Trace off the cuff with seam allowance and add a notch halfway through the width so you know where to fold the cuff when sewing. Cut the cuffs out of fabric, interface and add to the toile. If the cuff is too short or long, then adjust this by adding or removing the measurement from the length of the cuff.
14. The last stage of the pattern is drafting the finishings. This pattern has a facing, and since the bodice has changed many times from the original, it will be easiest to draft a new facing from the new bodice pattern. Measure the width of the original facing and take note of its shape. Then mark this out on the final bodice pattern draft. If you need a facing in an area that has a dart, avoid including the dart in the facing, as this will create unnecessary bulk. Trace around the edge of the bodice following the new facing line, and add notches to indicate where the facing will match up with the bodice. Add the seam allowance, cut out of fabric, interface and sew to the toile. Generally the facing won’t need any adjustment unless it’s too short along the width and flicks forward. If this happens, just make the facing wider. You can also tack the facing to the seam allowance at the shoulder and waist to prevent this.
15. Before making the final garment, evaluate the toile. If you altered any pieces after the first fitting, it’s best to re-toile these to ensure everything fits together. It’s well worth taking the time to iron out any imperfections at this stage so you can enjoy making the final garment, knowing that it really will fit perfectly.
If you find pattern making and drafting exciting, you may like to look at these modern drafting books to deepen your knowledge of pattern making generally.
Metric Pattern Cutting for Womenswear by Winifred Aldrich
Make Your Own Dress Patterns by Adele P.Margolis