Introduction: Minimising Pattern Fabric Requirements

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There are times when you find you’ve mistakenly bought less fabric than the pattern says, or you need to make something fast and will have to use a length from your stash instead of going to the shops. Or you’ve seen the perfect fabric but it’s very expensive and you don’t want to buy any more than absolutely necessary.

Here are some tips and tricks to minimise the fabric requirements for any pattern. You can use just one of them or several at once, whatever’s needed to solve your problem.

Step 1: Examine the Layouts

Buy the pattern and study it before you choose your fabric. Ideally, you want to take it home, but at the least find a café where you can examine the cutting layouts before you go fabric shopping. Often the layout for one width will involve a lot of wastage in comparison with the others – easy to see from the size of the gaps between pattern pieces in the layout. Avoid buying fabric of that width if you can, it’s likely to make your garment more expensive than it need be. In general, the wider your fabric the better, it gives more room to manoeuvre those pattern pieces.

Pay attention to the fabric requirements for different widths and different garment sizes set out on the back of the pattern envelope. If there’s a big jump in the amount needed between your size and one size smaller for a particular width, that’s an indication that you may get away with less than stated, especially if the fabric you choose is a little wider than the standard width.

Assuming you have the opportunity to consider your pattern at home before choosing fabric, then cut roughly around each of the pattern pieces and press them flat with a cool, dry iron. Make any necessary adjustments to them to suit the wearer if his/her measurements are not standard. Lay them out on the floor on a length of fabric that is a candidate for this project or, failing that, an old sheet on which you have ruled lines with an indelible pen to indicate the standard widths (90cm, 115cm, 140cm, etc). The fabric requirements given in a commercial pattern always err on the generous side and it should be possible to fit the pieces together a little more closely than indicated in the relevant layout diagram. You may even find a completely different arrangement that is more fabric-efficient, but remember to pay attention to one-way designs, nap/pile and grainline. An extra 1” (2.5cm) in the width of your fabric compared with the standard width stated on the pattern envelope can make a huge difference. So experiment.

If one or more pieces extend beyond the folded edge, perhaps you can make more economical use of the available fabric by opening it out as a single layer, or with a wide single layer running alongside the double layer from which you’ll cut those pieces that need to be on the fold. In the latter case, don’t forget that you’ll still need to line up any stripes or checks in the two layers by placing the fold along a dominant line. You’ll probably have to duplicate the relevant pattern pieces to be sure they will fit - use rough shapes cut from newspaper to get an approximate idea first.

Step 2: Examine the Fabric

Don’t forget that, for stripes, “even” checks and tartans (plaids), and plain fabrics without a nap, it doesn’t matter whether the pattern pieces are running up or down the length of the fabric, as long as their grainlines are parallel to the selvedges. Pieces such as skirt panels and trouser legs mesh together much more closely if you can place them running in opposite directions. If you aren’t sure whether a checked fabric is “even” (i.e. bi-directional) or not, just fold it in half crosswise (i.e. the two cut edges on top of each other) with dominant lines of the check aligned in the two layers. Lay it down then fold back a single layer at one end (see photo of black and white Prince of Wales checked fabric above). If the pattern appears to run unbroken across the fold, then it’s an even check that can be cut in both directions.

For any pattern pieces that are not cut from a double thickness (e.g. one-piece waistbands), try folding the fabric so that there’s a gap between the selvedges that is the width of the widest such piece, like in the layout above.

When using a plain fabric or a "balanced" check with no nap, you should be able to get away with cutting some pieces with the grain running crosswise instead of lengthwise (or vice versa). (Test for a balanced check by folding the corner of a single layer back at an angle of 45° - see photo of camel/brown/black fabric. Again, if the pattern appears to run unbroken across the fold, then it’s a balanced check that can be cut sideways as well as up or down.) If in doubt, don't risk it with anything that's too obvious, like the front, back or sleeves of a dress, but it should be fine for facings, bindings, internal pockets, waistbands and under-collars. Alternatively, it may be possible to make best use of the available fabric by cutting the whole garment sideways, i.e. folding it cut edge to cut edge, as is often done with border fabrics.

For a fabric with no obvious “right” side, you may be able to cut some of the pieces with the “wrong” side of the fabric visible on the finished garment, so try laying any obstinate pattern pieces face down to see if they will fit better that way. Sometimes it’s possible to eke out the fabric by cutting such pieces on the true bias (i.e. with the grainline running across them at 45°). You can even make a design feature of it in a checked fabric for parts such as patch pockets, neckbands, pocket welts and plackets. But do consider the different properties of fabric cut on the bias, i.e. its stretchiness. You may want to back a bias-cut patch pocket with nylon lining fabric to stabilise it.

Things get more complicated if you are planning to use a fabric with a large or obvious design that will have to be matched. To minimise the amount that you’ll need to buy, you really need to have already picked the fabric you are planning to use and have taken some measurements from it. See Step 6.

Step 3: Do You Really Need That Piece?

While you are considering the layout, take note of any problem pieces that just don’t seem to fit. Do you really need them? You could probably do without a pocket or a pocket flap, and a fabric belt can always be replaced with a bought one. You might even be able to dispense with a collar, or apply Petersham to the waist of trousers or a skirt instead of a waistband. You can certainly manage without pieces such as front pocket linings, as they can be cut in lining fabric instead and will give a better finish by being less bulky. Bear in mind that you might need to make compensatory adjustments to other pattern pieces if you dispense with something, e.g. extending the side front corner of a skirt panel if a front hip pocket is removed.

Neck and armhole facings are prime candidates for being jettisoned. You could replace them with bias binding (either purchased or cut from scraps left over when you have cut out everything else), or else cut them from a plain coloured, toning fabric instead. There can be other advantages to making such a substitution, e.g. when the main fabric is a coarse linen that could rub under the arms if used to face a sleeveless dress.

Step 4: Changing the Shape/size of Pattern Pieces

One obvious trick is to cut a smaller seam allowance than the usually recommended 5/8” (1.5cm). For a reasonably fine, tightly woven fabric such as cotton shirting, 3/8” (1cm) may be enough. The reduction may not seem like much, but that creates an extra 1” (2cm) across the width of the fabric even if there is just one pattern piece with two seams cut from the double layer. This could be enough to allow you to move an adjacent piece further up the fabric, thereby saving much more than an inch in the length. Also, be conscious of the seam allowance at the widest part of a pattern piece. It won’t be seen when the garment is finished, so there’s no reason why it can’t be positioned right up against the selvedge, even if the printed design or the weave is distorted there or there are little holes from where the fabric was held during stentering. This corner of the seam allowance may well get trimmed off during construction of the garment, but if not you can always deal with any fabric distortion by clipping it later.

What about shortening pieces? You may prefer your skirt shorter than the pattern calls for, and if you’re a petite size then perhaps the back waist length can be reduced too. If long sleeves are the problem, why not make them bracelet-length, short or capped, or dispense with them altogether? You could put a false hem on trouser legs, then you only need cut them ½” longer than the finished length. A deep hem on a dress or skirt made in a fine fabric can usually be successfully replaced with a narrow hem.

Sometimes the width of a piece can be adjusted as well. If the front of a shirt has decorative pleats or pintucks, do you really need them? You could work embroidery down the front instead if it will be too plain otherwise, or applique on some lace or ribbon. Removing pleats or pintucks will make the width narrower and can easily be achieved by folding the pattern along the fold lines or tuck lines indicated.

Step 5: Getting More Creative

Certain parts of a garment lend themselves to being cut in a contrast fabric, such as collars, reveres and cuffs. A lot of men’s shirts have a contrasting inner neckband nowadays. You’ll usually need to find a fabric of a similar composition and weight, although a fur or velvet collar can work on a tweed jacket. Bear in mind that removing a small pattern piece from the layout may make all the difference and provide enough room for all the larger pieces to fit.

Another trick is to consider whether a little extra room can be created by removing a seam. If a skirt has a centre back seam that is on the straight grain of the fabric, perhaps the seam line of that piece can be placed on the fold instead and just one back cut out instead of two. Of course, the zip will have to be relocated to the side seam if it was originally in the centre back. Don’t forget to think about such knock-on consequences if you are making two pieces into one.

On the other hand, it is sometimes helpful to make one piece into two, i.e. to introduce a seam. A waistband that is meant to be a single strip of fabric can, if necessary, be joined at the side seams and the centre back. You can do the same with under-collars, facings and other components that aren’t normally seen, as long as your fabric isn’t so thick that the extra bulk will be noticeable. Just remember to add a seam allowance on both sides to every new seam you introduce.

With a jacket, you could gain a little extra room for the fronts by making it edge-to-edge rather than a conventional lapped closure. Either wear it open or introduce rouleau loops and buttons, a zip (zipper), or hooks and eyes to fasten.

Finally, consider colour-blocking. Either cut alternate main pieces of the garment in two or more colours of the same fabric, Mondrian-style, or cut the bottom part of a skirt, sleeve or whatever in a contrasting or toning fabric. Generally speaking, the seam line where the pieces join should run parallel to the nearby hem, i.e. the lower edge of a garment or the cuff of a sleeve. You’ll need to cut off the bottom of the original pattern piece along the new seam line (add some notch marks first, so you can line up the seam), then add a seam allowance to both pieces.

Step 6: Buying

Having worked out exactly how much fabric you need to buy in whatever units you normally work in (yards, metres or whatever), convert this to the quantity that your local shops sell in. You’ll probably need to do this for several different widths, unless you know that what you want only comes in a certain width. Add a little extra if the fabric is of a type that will need to be shrunk before you cut out, such as cotton or linen – 3-4% should be enough.

For example, I might lay out the pattern pieces for a jacket and work out that I need 207cm of 114cm wide fabric or 168cm of 140cm wide. That means that I’ll have to buy 2.1m of 114cm or 1.7m of 140cm, because my local fabric store only sells to the nearest 10cm. In fact, I'll probably add an extra 10cm to be on the safe side, seeing as the calculated requirement is in each case only just less than 2.1m / 1.7m. If I’m going to look in the market as well, where they sell by the yard to the nearest ¼yd, then I’ll work out how many yards I need too. I’ll also make a note if there’s a change in fabric requirements for a wider-than-standard fabric, then I can buy less with confidence if, say, I find some jacketing I like that is 152cm wide.

Take a tape measure with you to the shop, or ask to borrow one there. You’ll need to check what the usable width is, i.e. the distance between any selvedge distortions of the fabric itself or the design on it. The width as stated on the ticket on the end of the roll is usually a nominal figure and could vary from the actual, usable width by enough to make a difference to the yardage required for the pattern.

When choosing the fabric, examine it carefully to see if it has a nap or design that means it can only be used in one direction. It’s often best to take it to the door where you can see it in the daylight. If you are determined to use a fabric with a design that needs to be matched, then measure the pattern repeat, both lengthways and widthways, and take note of whether it is a staggered (half drop) repeat or a straight one. Draw a sketch showing all the repeats across the width and a couple lengthways, with measurements. Then go back home and work out very carefully how much fabric you’ll need to accommodate this design. You could draw the outline of a large repeating design roughly on the old sheet you are using for laying out the pattern pieces, using a disappearing fabric pen or a water-soluble crayon.

Before you take your chosen fabric roll to the counter, check that the cut end is reasonably square. If it’s not, it’s reasonable to ask the assistant to measure from the shortest point – as you’ve worked out the bare minimum fabric requirement, you’ll need every last bit of it.

As the assistant unrolls the fabric and measures it, watch like a hawk to spot any flaws, because you won’t have the spare fabric to cut around them. Point them out if you see any, explain that they’ll be a problem for you and politely ask for extra length to compensate. (It’s a good idea to bring a sketch of your fabric layout with you, just in case this happens, then you can tell which pattern pieces will have to be moved to avoid the flaws and estimate by how much.) Also check that the assistant measures correctly and cuts the end squarely.

Finally, I recommend cutting out the garment as soon as you get your fabric home. Then, if by some chance you have miscalculated, you can go back to the shop to buy some more before it sells out.

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