Introduction: Duplicate Your Existing Clothes!

About: I am an artist and clothing designer with a passion for helping others bring their own creative dreams to life.

The tan coat was a ready-to-wear item that I purchased. The gray and white coat is one that I made myself. I didn't buy a sewing pattern to make the gray and white coat... I just traced the tan one!

I'm sure there are many ways to trace patterns from existing items of clothing, but this is how I do it. You do not have to damage or take apart the original garment in any way. It's great if you have an old favorite that's wearing out, or if you just want to make something in another color. In this instructable, we are going to be tracing each individual piece of the garment, one at a time, until we have a full sewing pattern.

I have actually never used a commercially-made paper sewing pattern. This is how I get all of my patterns, unless I draft them myself. Considering how expensive patterns are, I have saved quite a bit over the years that I've been sewing! If you start with a finished garment, you will have a good idea of the way it will fit you, before you even start constructing it. And you have so many styles and sizes to choose from... there's probably something perfect in your closet right now!

I should probably note that I was holding a camera with one hand pretty much the entire time, and trying to get really clear pictures for you guys. I wasn't focused as much on getting everything as smooth and flat as possible, and some stuff would wrinkle while I shifted it to take a picture from a better angle. I hope nobody hangs me for that. :p

Step 1: Things You Will Need

You will need:

  • A garment that you want to duplicate. Make sure that you're happy with the way it fits. You can do minor adjustments, such as making the sleeves a little longer, but the overall fit should be as perfect as possible.
  • A large piece of paper. I use those large white pieces of packing paper that sometimes come in boxes I get in the mail. I have also used paper grocery bags that I cut open, and sheets of junk mail that I taped together. I have used newspaper as well, but I don't recommend it because it's a bit more fragile, the ink can rub off onto your garment or fabric, and the printing makes it harder to see the marks that you make when you trace your clothes. You could also use butcher paper or the back side of gift wrapping paper.
  • A padded surface. I use the carpeted floor of my sewing area. If you don't have a carpeted floor, you can use a large piece of cardboard, or get a big sheet of foamcore board from the art supply store. In a pinch, you could also use an ironing board with a padded cover, but it's a little too small to spread stuff out very efficiently.
  • Straight pins. They should be fairly long and thick.
  • A fine-point marker.
  • A ruler.
  • Scissors.

Optional, but helpful:

  • A needlepoint tracing wheel. Faster than using a pin, and especially useful if you will be doing a lot of tracing.
  • A compass.
  • A french curve ruler.
  • Chocolate.

You will also eventually need the necessary fabric, thread, and notions to assemble a new garment from your traced pattern. But the main focus of this instructable is how to trace a pattern from your existing garment.

Step 2: Spread Out the Garment

Spread the paper out on the padded surface.

Look at the garment and identify the different pieces of fabric that make up the garment.

Place the garment on top of the piece of paper, and flatten out the first section that you want to trace.

Anchor the fabric piece down along the seam lines, so that it lies flat. I just stab pins all the way through the seam, through the paper, and into the padded surface. Do not stretch the fabric, but do make it smooth and flat. Don't worry about the rest of the garment; just move it out of your way. We're only going to be tracing one piece at a time.

Step 3: Trace the Basic Shapes

Now take a pin, and poke it right through the seamline every 3/8" (1 cm) or so, all the way around. Hold the pin straight up and down, and not at an angle. Make sure that you're not shifting the paper or fabric during the process.

Also use the pin to mark any buttons or pockets that are located on the piece you are tracing. Poke the pin right through the holes on the button, and all along the stitches on the pocket. Buttonholes can simply be drawn through with a pen.

When you have marked the entire piece, take out the pins that are anchoring the garment to the padded surface. You will see that you have duplicated the pattern piece onto the paper, by perforating the paper with the pin.

You can also use a needlepoint tracing wheel to perforate the paper, instead of a pin. The tracing wheel has pinpoints sticking out from the edge of the wheel, and it's quite a bit faster. If you have one, you would use it by basically rolling it carefully along the seamline like a pizza slicer. You can get a good one for under $10, and I highly recommend them if you think you're going to be doing a lot of pattern tracing. But I used a pin for years, and it worked fine. ;-)

Step 4: Finish Drawing the Pattern

Now take a fine-point marker, and connect the dots. You can use a ruler for straight lines, but most clothing patterns have very few lines that are truly straight. If the line of perforations curves slightly, make sure that the line you draw curves right along with them.

Label the pattern piece! If you don't know exactly what it should be called, make up a name that makes sense to you. Or assign a number to each pattern piece, and place a corresponding numbered label on each piece of the garment so that you can figure out which piece is supposed to go where.

Now look at the piece of the garment that you just copied. Which way is the grainline going? You should be able to see the threads that make up the fabric, and the direction in which they are running. It's important that the pieces of the new garment have the same grainline as the old garment, or else it won't drape the same way. Usually the grainline runs pretty much from your shoulder to your knee, but look closely at the piece of fabric you just copied to see exactly how it was oriented when it was cut out at the factory. It helps to lay a ruler on top, and match up the edge of the ruler with the fabric's grainline. Draw a line on the paper pattern piece that corresponds to the grainline on your garment, and write "grainline" on the line so that you remember why it's there.

If you will need two identical pieces to make your garment, such as you would with sleeves, then write "cut two" on the pattern piece. That way, when you are ready to cut the pieces for your new garment, you will remember to cut one sleeve out of your fabric, then flip the paper over (so that you have a mirror image of your first sleeve), and cut another.

Step 5: Add Seam Allowances

You will need to add seam allowances. There are two different ways to do this: you can draw them right on the paper now, or wait until you're ready to cut the pieces out of the new fabric, and add the seam allowance to the fabric as you're cutting it.

If you want to add the seam allowance to the paper pattern itself, do it before you cut the paper pattern pieces out. Line up a ruler's 5/8" mark with the line of dots, and draw the seam allowance all the way around. (If you want a different width of seam allowance, then use the appropriate mark on the ruler.) Move the ruler really often to make sure that your lines are smooth and accurate. You can also set a compass to the width of your seam allowance, and carefully trace along the perforated line with the point of the compass. The compass pencil will draw the seam allowance on the paper accurately as you go.

I typically add seam allowances to the fabric as I cut the pattern out. I don't add them to the paper pattern, because I might want the seam allowance to be a different width next time I make the garment, depending on what type of fabric I am going to be working with. An easy way that I have found to add seam allowances, is to stick something to the edge of your scissors with a magnet. I use a magnet from a discarded computer hard drive, and a bobbin. But a metal bolt or anything that's the right width will do nicely. Do a test sample, and check the seam allowance width with a ruler to make sure you have everything set properly. When you cut out the fabric, just align the edge of the bobbin (or whatever you have stuck to your scissors) with the edge of the paper pattern. Seam allowances will be automatically added as you cut.

On the hem edges, you will need a larger hem allowance than you do on the other edges. Usually, you will measure the depth of the original garment's hem, and double that measurement. But your garment might have a different style of hem, such as a lettuce edge, that requires a different approach. Look at the garment to see how the original hem was made, and determine how much hem allowance to add.

No matter when you choose to add seam allowances, make sure that you write down your choice on the pattern itself. If you added seam allowances to the paper, make a note of what width you used. If you have not added seam allowances, write on the paper pattern that they will need to be added as the pieces are cut out.

Step 6: Tracing Symmetrical Pieces

Some of the garment pieces will be symmetrical, meaning they are the same on the left and the right. A back yoke, for example, would be symmetrical, or a collar. Pieces like this, you should fold in half and mark the center fold with a line of pins. Now you will only need to trace half of the piece, treating the line of pins like one edge.

Be sure to make a note on the paper pattern that the edge where the center was, is a fold line. Do not add a seam allowance to this edge. You will need to place that side of the paper pattern on a folded piece of fabric, when you eventually cut your pattern out of cloth. This will give you an entire collar, instead of half of a collar!

On really simple pieces, like belts, you can just measure the length and width and add seam allowances. You don't need to trace them out, but do take note of the grainline.

Step 7: Tracing Curved Pieces

Curved pieces are a tiny bit trickier than flat ones, but usually all you need to do is use more pins to anchor them down. That's what I'm doing in the first two pictures here.

Sometimes a pattern piece won't lie flat all at once. In that case, you need to anchor down a portion of it at a time, and trace that part before you move on to the rest. Starting at one end and using a lot of pins, anchor down however much fabric will lie flat easily. Trace that section, and then release the pins that are anchoring the part you have already traced, making sure that you leave in the pins near the part you are going to anchor next (so that the fabric doesn't shift). Anchor down the next section, which should lie flat (now that you have released the part that you already traced). The pictures should make things pretty clear.

Step 8: Tracing Sleeves

Sleeves are tricky because they are eased in at the top, meaning that the piece of fabric is initially cut out to be larger than it appears as a finished sleeve. They are cut like this to give the wearer more freedom of movement, but it makes sleeves harder to trace because if you trace and cut the sleeve as it is now, it will end up too small.

To trace a sleeve, first mark a long, straight line on your paper. Fold the sleeve in half at the very top, which will be along the grainline. Lay the fold of the sleeve along the line you drew. You will notice that the sleeve pulls away from the line as it gets closer to the shoulder. You can see what I'm talking about in the pictures. This is normal, and is exactly what you want to happen. When you trace the shoulder, just pretend that it goes all the way to the line, and trace it accordingly.

Now flip the sleeve over, and align the other side of the fold with the other side of the line. You have to trace both sides of the sleeve, because the front and back of sleeves are usually not symmetrical.

Step 9: Tracing Darts

Darts are a little bit harder to trace than pieces without any shaping, but it's easier than you might think. You will have to pay careful attention to the grainline to make sure that you are not distorting the fabric as you trace it.

The red shirt has single-pointed darts, meaning that they end in a seamline. To trace these, place a pin right at the point of the dart (at the end of the stitching that is holding the dart closed). Anchor the garment below the dart to the padded surface. The fabric above the dart will pucker and rumple, but that's okay. Now trace the part that you have anchored, including the stitching line of the dart.

Leave the pin at the point of the dart right where it is. Release the lowest pins, until you are able to smooth out the fabric above the dart. Now, the fabric BELOW the dart will wrinkle, but that's fine. Again trace the fabric that you have anchored to the padded surface, including the stitching line of the dart. If needed, remove the lowest pins again to smooth out and trace the rest of the fabric. Remove the garment from the paper when you're done.

Add seam allowances (if you're going to add them to the paper instead of when you cut the fabric), and then fold the dart just like you would if you had sewn it. The two lines you drew on the dart legs should be touching each other all the way down. Now "press" the dart flat with your fingers, just like you would iron a dart you had sewn. The dart should be folded back on the drawn lines. With the dart still folded like this, cut out your paper pattern. When you flatten the dart back out, you will notice that the necessary extra seam allowance is now added to the dart area.

For double-pointed darts (where the dart does not end in a seamline, and has two points instead), you will do almost the same thing. You will need to keep a pin in each dart point, as you trace one side (including the dart's stitching line.) Leave both pins in the two dart points as you flatten out and trace the other side, again including the dart's stitching line. Do not cut the dart's oval shape out of your pattern paper when you are done... just trace over the perforated lines with a fine-point marker, and mark a note on the pattern that those lines are the dart's stitching lines.

Step 10: Tracing Pleats, Gathers, and Ruffles

Pleats can sometimes simply be measured to determine the original width of the fabric piece. That's what I'm doing with the blue shirt in the picture. I measured the depth of each fold, and multiplied by 2. That's the width of the extra, "hidden" fabric that makes up the pleats. On that shirt, each pleat had a depth of 3/4", which meant that it took 1.5" of fabric to make each pleat. There were 6 folds, so 6 X 1.5 = 9". Since I was tracing half of a symmetrical piece, I halved that measurement, which equaled 4.5". Then, when I anchored down the fabric to trace it, I placed the folded edge of the fabric so that it was 4.5" away from the edge of my paper. The edge of the paper will become the fold line on my pattern piece. I also made a mark with the pin where each pleat was folded, for future reference.

Gathers are similar to sleeves, because you need to let the fabric lie along a straight line to determine how much material was taken up when it was sewn. The purple shirt in the pictures has gathers along the back. I folded the shirt in half, paying attention to the grainline to be sure that I wasn't distorting the fabric. Then, I lined up the center back fold with the edge of my paper, and kept the grain straight as I smoothed it all the way up. You can see in the pictures, how the gathers make the fabric pull away from the edge of the paper. Draw a line all the way to the edge of the paper, where the fabric would be if it wasn't gathered. Take the pin and mark where the gathers start, so that you will know where to gather the fabric when you're constructing your new garment. You will gather the fabric in the marked area, until it is the same length as the piece that you will be sewing it to.

Decorative ruffles will not need to be traced. If you want to duplicate a ruffle, just measure the width and length of the completed ruffle. When you measure the width, take note of whether it's a single layer of fabric, or whether it has been folded in half. If the edge is on a fold, you will need to double the width. Add seam allowances, and cut the new piece of fabric the same width, but twice the length of the original ruffle. Gather the ruffle until it is as full as you want it, and trim off any excess fabric that you might have at the end.

Step 11: Tips for Constructing a Garment From Your Traced Pattern

The pattern that you traced won't come with instructions on how to put the new garment together. Therefore, you will need to look closely at the finished garment and determine in what order to sew the pieces together. Typically, garments of a similar style will be constructed in a similar order. For example, if you're making a coat, you would likely sew the shoulder seams first, then the side seams, then sew and set in the sleeves, etc. You can poke around online for info about how to construct the exact type of garment that you are working with. Or, if you have a pattern for a similar garment already, you can likely use those instructions to construct a garment from your traced pattern.

One important thing to remember, is that you need to choose a fabric that is similar to the fabric from which the original garment was constructed. Pick something that has roughly the same thickness and stretchiness. If the original fabric was a cotton knit, you don't want to make the new garment out of canvas!

It's not a bad idea to do some quick measuring of the original garment and your paper pattern to make sure that everything is traced accurately before you begin cutting out your fabric to make a new garment. Check things like the depth of dart folds, and make sure that all of the pieces that will be sewn together are the same length. If you have any discrepancies, retrace the problem area.

If you're going to be making the new garment out of an expensive or special piece of fabric, then make a mock-up first out of cheaper material (muslin is a common one to use), to make sure that you have everything right.

And have fun! It's only fabric, after all. Don't be afraid to cut stuff up and make a mess. I hope you'll have a good time creating, and have learned something new along the way! Post a comment if you have questions, post pictures if you make something, and best of luck to you!

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