Should you alter existing patterns or draft your own blocks?

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As far as making your own clothes is concerned, there are two main options. You can look at altering existing patterns, or drafting your own blocks using your body measurements. This applies whether you sew or knit. I’d say that both solutions require an equal amount of investment – but that the split between time and money for each option can vary. Here are some things to consider when making your decision.

In a poll I ran on Instagram Stories about garment making, 40% of knitters said that fitting issues were the biggest obstacle to success. It was the top answer along with lack of time. This poll ran in early July 2023. I expect the numbers are similar for sewists.

Screenshot of 40% of knitters stating that fitting issues were their biggest problem with making garments.

Was I surprised? No. Nor was anyone else who saw the results! But it did prompt me to run a deeper survey on fitting and alterations – for knitting and sewing – and there’ll be more to come from that in future posts. Yes, I will share the results 🙂

I started thinking a bit more economically, because the two main obstacles above both concerned time. That is: what do makers see as:

  • A waste of time;
  • Taking too much time;
  • An investment of their time?

This is also an excuse to include one of my all-time favourite Venn diagrams, designed by the artist Colin Harman:

When to alter patterns, and when to draft your own

There are three main reasons why you might draft your bespoke blocks:

  • Planned obsolescence – ready-to-wear clothing is not built to last these days;
  • More creative expression – or not finding the styles you want;
  • Being fed up of making alterations to patterns, or ongoing fit issues.

Before I continue: This is NOT presented as a clothes making option for plus-sized makers or anyone else who’s poorly represented. This post is a discussion about where and how best to invest your time and money when it comes to clothes making, wardrobe building, and style curation.

Planned obsolescence

Illustration titled 'Planned Obsolescence', featuring an outstretched hand holding a bag full of rubbish over a bin.

This varies between market levels, and typically ready-to-wear clothing. Shopping for clothes is a hobby for many, and it’s only fun when there’s a steady supply of new items to choose from.

The trouble begins when you buy something you really like and want to keep it for a long time. Especially if it something you’ve been keeping an eye out for. It’s difficult to preserve clothes that were designed to have a short life. If you want to keep the item, you have the option of copying it (creating a knock-off), or drafting your own pattern. You can pay someone to do this for you, or learn how to do this yourself.

The latter option – having your own pattern, however you get it – means you can reinterpret the style in any way you like. You can go well beyond what attracted you to the garment in the first place.

Designing for yourself – not being able to find the styles you want

This is for people who know EXACTLY what they want and are prepared to go after it! Waiting for things to appear in the shop is tedious and not an option. Maybe you’re interested in reinterpreting styles from another era. Perhaps you love particular design details and don’t see them often enough. Or, you’re fiercely creative and independent – you don’t want to depend on other people.

Designing for yourself, using bespoke blocks that you’ve drafted, can apply to one garment, one outfit, or an entire wardrobe. If there’s something you just can’t get out of your head, designing it yourself is a sensible route. You can take classes or self-teach to bring your ideas to life. Is this the quick route? No. Is it one of the most satisfying? YES.

You can’t underestimate the peace of mind that comes from having an item like this. It really feels like a dream come true. Wedding dresses are often touted as dream items, but why not other clothes? There’s no reason why you can’t have a beloved shirt, trousers, sweater or cardigan, exactly the way you want it. Make the everyday joyful!

A half scale skirt toile featuring a series of box pleats.

The skirt toile here was a bit of playtime for me in a job gone by. I saw a really interesting box pleated skirt by Roksanda Ilincic, and wanted to see if I could recreate the pattern. This is piece was purely for fun – I haven’t made the skirt in full scale, never mind for myself – but it exemplifies the kind of freedom you can get when you can make your own patterns. It’s also a good way to practice your observational skills and ability to interpret a design on sight.

Ongoing fit issues, or being fed up of altering patterns

This solution is for clothes makers who’ve weighed up the time it takes for them to nail the fit of an existing commercial pattern versus the time it takes for them to DIY it. Drafting your own blocks is often an underrated solution; I recommend considering it at the very least. If nothing else, the process will reveal the source of many ongoing fit issues, and you can apply this knowledge to future projects.

On one hand, you have:

  • Learning how to diagnose and assess fitting problems;
  • Seaching for tutorials;
  • Executing the pattern alterations, often with a toile.

On the other hand, there’s:

  • Learning creative pattern cutting;
  • Working with a teacher or fitting partner to fine-tune your block or sloper with a toile (this is always necessary);
  • Drafting the pattern yourself.

Altering existing commerical patterns is free or relatively cheap, but takes up a lot of your spare time. The results aren’t always guaranteed, either. It takes a few (sometimes several) attempts to get good results. In-person classes are always a good move at some point in your journey because people can give you what the internet cannot.

Drafting your own block AND learning creative pattern cutting also takes time. I always recommend working with a tutor to draft bespoke blocks. You have a much better guarantee that they’ll fit well, and you’ll get instant feedback and personalised advice. You can get further with creative pattern cutting when learning independently, but classes are also a good move at some point.

Knowing what you want to learn will help you decide

Understanding that fitting and pattern alterations takes time is one thing, but deciding how you’ll spend your available time solving that problem is another. Which skills are the most valuable to learn? Both are an invaluable and timeless gift to yourself.

If it feels like you’re still lost or back at square one every time you alter a new or different pattern, you’ll appreciate the peace of mind that comes with bespoke blocks. You’ll love this if you’ve always fancied the idea of being a designer, but know that you don’t want the hassle of publishing pattern for sale.

If you like the idea of being able to turn your hand to any pattern you buy, and enjoy the experimentation and problems solving, gobble up as many resources for pattern alterations as you can.

Whichever option you choose, learning how to fit yourself – or learning anything at all – is so much more than access to information. There’s plenty of data on the internet (yes, I know I’m adding to it) – but if that was really enough, all teachers and bespoke tailors would be out of work!

There’s nothing wrong with being self taught – NOTHING – but all learning experiences are richer and more fulfulling for the company and knowledge of others. Go as far as you can with the internet, and then consolidate your knowledge by taking a class or two. Ideally, you want something cohort-based or with direct access to interactive tutor feedback.

Next time, I’ll share a case study from one of my pattern cutting students. But until then, I’d love to hear from you: Which of these fitting solutions has worked for you, and why? Let me know in the comments.

Should you alter existing patterns or draft your own blocks?

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Natalie in Stitches

I design size inclusive knitting patterns for clothes makers who want their garments to fit well. Clothes should serve you, not the other way around. You alter clothes to fit you, not alter yourself to fit the clothes. I also teach people how to sew, how to design knitwear, and am currently creating a comprehensive, year-long knitwear design course, covering everything from illustration to pattern grading. If you're enjoying my content, you can get more by following me on Instagram or Pinterest @natalieinstitches, or signing up to my newsletter. Thank you for reading!

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