Sunday, October 25, 2009

Kate's custom fitting shell.

A week ago I had a special appointment with a Palmer/Pletsch fit instructor. Patti Palmer and Martha Pletsch are authors of my favorite fit book, Fit for Real People. They are also the founders and instructors at the Palmer/Pletsch International School of Sewing in Portland, OR. If I ever win the lottery or become independently wealthy, I plan to visit them for fit workshops and help. Until then, I am finding assistance with wonderful instructors locally, like Marilyn, who helped me created a custom fitting shell.

Palmer and Pletsch pioneered a particular style of tissue fitting that helps identify and execute pattern alterations on the pattern itself, rather than through tedious muslin fittings. Since tissue fitting yourself is very challenging (how do you see, let alone fit your back by yourself), my morning with Marilyn was invaluable. Marilyn helped me discover all of the quirks of my own figure, and translated these into pattern alterations to help garments fit me as they were designed.

I went into the process thinking of these physical quirks as flaws, although the more I think about it, the less I like to think of my body shape as flawed. Certainly there are areas of my body that are less than they could be (carrying extra weight, for example, or upper arms that are less toned due to a lack of exercise). These "quirks" might fairly be considered flaws. But there are also parts of my shape that are simply intrinsic to my genetic code. My broad shoulders and narrow hips, for example, can never be undone by any amount of exercise. My height, my bone structure, the length of my torso are all examples of "quirks" that are not flaws. True, they differ from the standard shape used to draft commercial patterns, but just because they are different does not mean I need to think of them as flaws or deformities. So instead I will think of these shape alteration specific to my figure as my quirks, my idiosyncrasies, or to make it fun, my Kate Traits.

Kate Traits: The Back

We started with the back, which is ALWAYS the proper place to start. An ill fitting back will result in garment discrepancies in the front, so it is important to always fit the back bodice first. Marilyn put me into several sizes of pre-sewn fitting shells, looking careful at the back to determine the correct pattern size based on my shoulder breadth. First things first, I was able to GO DOWN A SIZE in patterns. I always thought I needed a size 24 based on my high bust of 46 inches. However it turns out my best size is actually a bit smaller, and this smaller size fits more appropriately to my shoulder width.

As I have always surmised, my front side is significantly larger than my backside. However, trying to buy to fit my front always results in ill-fitting garments with shoulder issues (see Everyone's Favorite Claire McCardell as an example). Rather than buying big and scaling back, Marilyn succeeded in showing me how to buy for my smallest part and increase size with alterations for specific quirks and idiosyncrasies, thereby ensuring a stronger, closer fit overall. Brilliant.

Looking at my back in the tissue fit, Marilyn immediately wrinkled her brow at the wrinkling and puckering in the lower armhole area, which she acknowledged is due to my high round back. Apparently, I have a very prominent protrusion in my spine just above my shoulders where my back becomes my neck. This rounded area pulls the fabric and affects fit in the arm area. It is so protruding, in fact, that it requires a full 3/4 inch high round back adjustment. According to Marilyn, this is a fairly significant amount to add to the back, so it should be added in two areas. I add a 1/2 inch to the highest high back, and 1/4 inch to the low high back. Conveniently, these areas for alteration are noted on the Palmer Pletsch fitting shell, which made the alteration easy (and you can see in the above photo), however for other patterns I need simply gauge the two areas for alteration based on arm hole to make the alteration.

My back torso is also a bit longer than average, so I added 5/8 inch in back length. This was done as a horizontal adjustment just above the waistline. On other patterns it should be made at the lengthen/shorten line if noted, and if not, always made above the waistline.

Finally, because I have a thick middle, I need to add about an inch extra at the side seam at the wast, and taper the stitching line to its mark. I also need to eliminate back darts. Marilyn suggested I can create an "essence of dart" by stitching a tiny, essentially non functional dart if they are part of the design element of a pattern, but for me there is no real need to taper material. I need all I can get to cover my midsection without pulling.

Kate Traits: The Front

When the back fit, we moved to the front. The first alteration Marilyn noticed was a forward shoulder. Apparently, along with my high round back I also have shoulders that slope slightly more forward than average, so I must add 3/8 inch to the shoulder seam at the armhole on the back bodice, and true the seam by tapering my new stitch line to the existing stick line. This means I must also DECREASE the shoulder seam on the front of the bodice by 3/8. The idea is to never, ever, ever alter the circumference of the armhole when making alterations. So if you add to one area along the armscye, you must take it away from another area.

Next she lengthened the front bodice 5/8 inch on the shorten/lengthen line to match the alteration we made to the back. The general idea in all of these alterations is to make sure that the seam lines always remain the same. The armscye should not change on the bodice, lest you need to make changes on the sleeve too. Therefore if you add 5/8 to the entire back of a garment in a way that changes the side seam, you must make the same alteration to the front to lengthen the overall side seam. Otherwise you end up with mismatched side seams.

With the shoulders fit, we jumped right into the full bust alteration, for obvious reasons. The pattern only pulled partway across my bust without coming close to my center front, and because I needed to add a gigantic 2 1/2 inches in my full bust adjustment, Marilyn taught me the new and improved Y-bust FBA. It magnificently adds the needed width and length in the full bust while keeping better proportions than a standard full bust adjustment. The Y-bust involves spreading the adjustment over two areas, rather than one. It is so helpful I plan to post a second post focused entirely on this new technique. It's that helpful.

The Y-bust gracefully assisted the tissue bodice in covering my ample bosom, and the shoulders maintained a very nice, flush proximity to my chest. No armpit, shoulder poufing as I have experienced with other FBA. However, due to my ample tummy, the pattern was still not long enough to pull down to my waistline. Thus Marilyn added 2 5/8 inches in length at the center front. With a lesser adjustment (less than an inch), you would simply true the seam at this point by drawing a new stitching line lined up along the new center length to the side seam (in order to avoid altering the side seam length, as mentioned earlier). However my addition is so significant, she encouraged me to carry the 2 5/8 straight through the bust point, before truing the seam. It makes sense to me, I have a lot of roundness to cover in my center belly.

Kate Traits: The Sleeve

As expected, my overall larger body size also means larger arms, although my right arm turns out to be bigger than my left. My left gun clocks in at 14 1/2 inches around, while my right arm measures a full 16 inches. Marlyn assures me that this is not a visibly noticeable difference, and I should always alter for my larger side on both sides.

Again, the idea when making sleeve alterations is to NEVER change the circumference of the armhole, so before making any sleeve adjustments we traced the original armhole onto tissue and marked where to reattach later. After all adjustments, we placed to original curve back on the arm to maintain proportion.

Overall we added 2 inches to the upper arm. We also shortened the sleeve by 1 inch total, taking 1/2 from above the elbow, and 1/2 from below the elbow to maintain proportion.

Kate Traits: The Skirt

The good news is that like the bodice, the back skirt fit well in a size 22. Again, I eliminate the darts entirely to accommodate my thick waist. I have an incredibly flat derriere (that is the honest to god alteration terminology in the book!), so there is no need for me to dart the back to accommodate any curves. Marilyn again suggested that I can always create an "essence of dart" for design aesthetic without actually changing the back width of the skirt.

The front of the skirt, wow, it was shockingly too small. In the end we added about 5 inches to the side seam and eliminate front darts entirely. These changes were coupled with changing the top stitching line on the skirt. In order to keep the hem straight, the adjustment needs to be made at the waist. The center front of the skirt should always match the center front of the person, so in adding waist width I also had to pull up the waist of the skirt along the center front of the waist, to avoid a droopy middle. It is, quite frankly, hard to explain, but works wonderfully to keep everything proportional.

Overall it was a great experience. I am pleased to use my new found size 22 as my starting point, and especially pleased about this as it puts me back into the size range of most traditional patterns which often go up to 22 but not beyond. Yay!

My next order of business is learning to use the fitting shell as a guide for altering other patterns. I may even retrace the lines and laminate the fitting shell for a permanent reminder of my body map. And with that I am filled with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm for sewing. Let the custom alterations commence!


OldRound said...

Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

pati palmer said...

I think Marilyn did a great job. Thank her for me. Pati Palmer, Palmer/Pletsch

Myra said...

Where is this woman at in SA? I would come in and pay her to fit a sloper for me. I have similar issues, not as much bust, but roundness/tummy area. You can email me at

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is amazing! I have the Fit for Real people book but have not done this. With this master pattern you can now design your own clothes! Although I'm a smaller size than you, I found your detailed account very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write about it! I think we need to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect body. Everybody is shaped differently.

Regarding your bust adjustment, that dart sure looks big. I've read that when a FBA is larger than 2 inches, the best thing is to have two darts. (You can have a big dart and then a smaller one below it. Or you can rotate and put some of the dart up in the shoulder.) Did your PP fitter give you any advice about that? So many of us have busts that are bigger than a size B cup. This is fascinating stuff and so useful to know.

You may enjoy the fitting info on this blog (from a wedding dress maker in OK). I found this post particularly interesting, especially the part about making the bed. Sometimes fitting seems so overwhelming.

You may also like reading this one

claire makes dresses for brides of all sizes, so I think you'll enjoy her blog and fitting advice

violarulz/ducksandbooks said...

I need to figure out how to fit myself.... I checked the book out from the library, now I just need to find the time/energy to read and process it!

Laura McFall said...

Kate, What a great article. You have inspired us all. I am also interested in meeting Marilyn - is she in SA? We might like to have her as a guest for our sewing guild. I shared your post with our group and a few of us are interested in a consultation with her. Send me a message at Thanks,