Making yourself an Etta dress? Vanessa here to take you through some fitting adjustments you can make to create a personalised fit unique to your figure.
Bear in mind you almost certainly won’t need to make all of the changes covered in this post. You might not need to make any at all!
But since we’re all different shapes, one of the lovely things about making your own clothes is being able to get a bespoke fit – much better that shop-bought clothing. You can add or remove length where you need it, take the shoulders in or out, adjust for larger or smaller boobs… It does take a bit of extra work, but it’s worth it to have a lovely outfit tailored just for you!
We’re going to look at:
Whatever changes you think you’ll need to make, with a fitted dress like Etta it’s a seriously good idea to check the fit of your dress by making a toile (AKA “muslin”) – a test version in cheapo fabric. That way you can try it on and make any pattern adjustments before cutting into your fancy fabric. Read more about making a toile.
And when it comes to making the real version of your dress, pin the seams before sewing them so you can try the dress on and take it in or out where necessary
Choosing your size
The first thing to do is choose the right size for your measurements. Use a tape measure to find the circumference of your bust, waist and hips, by which we mean:
Bust – the fullest part of your bust, ie. around your nipples
Waist – the point at which you bend to the side
Hips – the fullest part of your hips – it helps to turn to the side and look in a mirror to see where this is
Check that you’re holding the tape measure level to the floor when measuring yourself.
Circle your measurements in the Body Measurements chart in the instructions. If your measurement falls in between a size (for example, if it’s 27in rather than 26in or 28in) it’s nearly always better to choose the larger size, as it’s easier to take the dress in if it’s too big than to let it out if it’s too small.
If your bust, waist and hip measurements all fall into one pattern size – fantastic! That’s your size! There’s a key on the pattern sheets that shows a particular style of solid or dashed line for your size – that’s the one to use when you cut your fabric.
Don’t worry however if your bust, waist and hip measurements span 2 or 3 different sizes – since our bodies have different proportions, this is very common! This calls for a bit of mix and matching – see ‘How to combine pattern sizes’ below.
Lengthening or shortening the bodice, skirt or sleeves
Ask a family member or willing friend to measure from your nape (the knobbly bit at the back of your neck) to your waist (at the centre back). Compare this measurement to the ‘nape to waist’ measurement listed for your size in the Body Measurements chart in the instructions. If it is significantly different, note down how much by, and then work through the alteration below using the ‘lengthen or shorten here’ lines marked on the bodice.
For the same reasons as above, or for personal taste, you may want to adjust the length of the skirt. You may also need to adjust the three-quarter length sleeves if the elbow dart isn’t in the right place for you. You can see the finished length of both the skirt and sleeve on the Finished Measurements chart in the instructions. Again, use the sets of ‘lengthen or shorten here’ lines on the pattern pieces.
To lengthen the bodice, skirt or sleeves
First, draw two parallel lines on a bit of paper, the width between them being the amount you’d like to lengthen the bodice, skirt or sleeves by. Repeat on a second piece of paper if you’re adjusting the bodice or skirt so you have a set of lines for both front and back pattern pieces.
On the pattern piece you’re altering, cut along one of the ‘lengthen or shorten here’ lines marked on the pattern, separate them, and then insert one of the paper strips you made in the previous step. Line one parallel line up with the cut edge and stick or tape down.
Extend either the grainline or ‘Place on fold’ line vertically, and then line the other cut edge up with the horizontal line, matching the vertical lines. Stick or tape down.
Using a ruler or sketching a gentle curve, reconnect the side seams of your pattern size. Cut away the excess. Do this on both front and back pattern pieces if you’re lengthening the bodice or skirt.
To shorten the bodice, skirt or sleeves
To shorten either your bodice, skirt, or three-quarter length sleeves, draw a parallel line above the ‘lengthen or shorten here’ line on each pattern piece, the distance between the two being how much you’d like to shorten it by. Cut along the ‘lengthen or shorten here’ line to separate into two pieces.
Overlap the bottom piece of the pattern on the top piece, aligning the cutting line with the new line you’ve drawn in, and keeping the grainlines aligned. Glue or tape it in place. Redraw the dart legs. If the seam lines look disjointed, you can redraw them too. Do this on both front and back pattern pieces if you’re shortening the bodice or skirt.
Combining pattern sizes
If your proportions don’t match one pattern size – for example, if you’re a size 4 at the bust and size 6 at the hips – you can mix and match sizes to make a dress that fits you. This is also known as “grading between sizes”.
Make sure you end up with the same waist size on both the bodice and skirt so the seams and darts match up.
To combine a different bust and waist size, start by temporarily folding the bust dart closed on the front bodice – bring the two dart lines for your bust size together, fold the dart downward and tape in place.
With a gently tapered line, redraw the side seam from your bust size at the top of the piece to your waist size at the bottom, ending the line 15mm (5/8in) above the waist seam. Mark in any notches. The pink line in the photo above shows a front bodice that tapers from a size 4 at the bust to a size 6 at the waist.
Roll a tracing wheel over the folded dart at the side seam line you’ve just drawn – or if you don’t have one, try pressing hard with a butter knife or similar to make some perforations on the layers of folded paper.
Un-tape and unfold the dart and draw over the perforated lines to make the side seams of your dart.
Re-draw the side seam on the back bodice pattern piece in the same way. This bit’s easier without the dart!
The pink line in the photo above shows a back bodice that tapers from a size 4 at the bust to a size 6 at the waist. The green line shows a side seam combining a size 6 bust and size 4 waist.
To combine different waist and hip sizes, redraw the side seam from your waist size at the top of the front skirt to your hip size at the hip notch. The pink line in the above photo shows a side seam that tapers from a size 6 at the waist to a size 5 at the hips, and vice versa in green. You’ll need to draw this one in with a curved ruler or a gentle hand.
Repeat for the back skirt piece. The side seams are slightly different shapes to accommodate a rounded derriere, so it’s ok if your newly drawn side seams look slightly different.
Widening or narrowing the shoulders
If you have particularly wide or narrow shoulders, you can adjust the dress so the armhole seams sits in the right place. Ideally this seam will run over the end of your shoulder – the point where you can feel the socket move when you raise your arms.
At the end of the shoulder seam, mark how much you want to remove. Draw a line at right angle to the shoulder seam at this point for 2cm (3/4in) or so. Re-draw the armhole curve from this point so it tapers into the original. The above photo shows the original armhole for size 4 in green, and then with 1cm (3/8in) removed from the shoulder width in pink.
Repeat for the back armhole.
Adjusting for a sway back
A sway back adjustment is useful if you have a pronounced curve in your lower back. A sign that this would be a good adjustment for you is if dresses tend to be a good fit on your hips, but wrinkle up at the small of your back. What we’re going to do is take a wedge of fabric out of the back bodice without shortening the side seams.
To work out how much to remove, make a quick toile, tacking (basting) the seams together and trying it on to get a feel for the fit. If there is excess fabric wrinkling in the small of your back, pinch it out in the middle and pin together the excess. This will tell you how much needs to be taken out in the next step. A little goes a long way with this alteration, so I wouldn’t advise taking more than 3cm (1 1/4in).
On the back bodice, mark the stitching lines 15mm (5/8in) in from the raw edge of both the side seam and the back opening at the waist seam.
Mark a point on the back opening, along the stitching line you drew in the previous step. If you want to remove 2.5cm (1in) from the lower back, this point should be 2.5cm (1in) above the waist seam.
Draw a line from this point to the stitching line at the bottom of the side seam.
Cut along the diagonal line you drew in the previous step and discard the small lower piece.
Adjusting for a full or small bust
If your boobs are on the larger side, you may find the pattern fits your bust but is baggy at the upper chest and shoulders. On the other hand, if your bosoms are on the smaller side you may find that, while the full bust fits you, the upper chest and shoulders are too tight. One way to resolve this is to choose a pattern size based on your high bust and then add or subtract room at the full bust. This is known as a full bust adjustment (FBA) or small bust adjustment (SBA).
How do I know if I need to adjust the bust and if so, how much by? Our sewing patterns include a 5cm (2in) difference between the full bust (measured around your nipples) and high bust measurement (measured around your upper chest just under your armpits). If the difference between your full bust and high bust is more like 10cm (4in), you may need to make a bust adjustment.
To work out how much you need to add or subtract to the bust area, measure your high bust (around your upper chest just under your armpits) and add 5cm (2in). Choose the pattern size with that measurement at the bust to do your bust adjustment on. Compare your high bust + 5cm (2in) to your full bust measurement. If your full bust is 2.5cm (1in) bigger than your high bust + 5cm (2in), you’ll do a full bust adjustment (FBA) and add 2.5cm (1in); if it’s 2.5cm (1in) smaller, you’ll do a small bust adjustment (SBA) and subtract 2.5cm (1in), and so on. Since the pattern pieces are cut twice, divide this measurement by two to work out how much to add or subtract to the pattern pieces – 1.25cm (1/2in) in this example.
Both full and small bust adjustments start off the same way by marking some cutting lines on your pattern, slashing them open, then either spreading them apart or overlapping them, to add or remove space at the bust.
Trace off a copy of your front bodice so you can keep the original intact in case you need to go back to them, making sure to trace off the notches and ‘lengthen or shorten here’ lines too.
To start, we need to set up the lines we’ll use to open up the front bodice.
Begin by locating the bust point. Draw a line from the centre of the bust and then waist dart through the tip, and extend it by an inch or two. Where they intersect is the bust point.
Draw a line from the bust point to the cap sleeve notch. Mark the sewing line 15mm (5/8in) away from the cutting line.
Cut up line running through the waist dart to the bust point, then to the point 15mm (5/8in) away from the armhole. Snip in the other direction at the armhole, so they are still attached on a small hinge at the sewing line. This ensures the armhole stitching line stays the same length.
Finally, cut up the line running through the bust dart to the bust point, leaving the pattern still slightly attached at the bust point on a small hinge.
Full bust adjustment
If you’re doing a full bust adjustment; pivot the piece nearest the side seam away from the other piece so that they open up at the bust point by the amount that you worked out above. In this example it is 1.25cm (1/2in) – remember you’re using half the difference between your high and full bust measurements as you’re working on half your front bodice pattern.
Stick or tape down on top of some paper.
You’ll notice that the piece nearest the centre front will move lower down than the piece nearest the side seam. This is great as the extra length will accommodate a fuller bust. Redraw the waist seam with a straight line to the bottom of the side seam.
Redraw the waist and bust darts. Extend the legs from their original starting points at the waist or side seam until they intersect.
You’ll notice that they’re larger than they were before – this will make the extra volume you need.
Small bust adjustment
If you’re doing a small bust adjustment, overlap the piece nearest the side seam over the other piece at the bust point by the amount that you worked out above. Stick or tape down. In this example it is 1.25cm (1/2in) – remember you’re using half the difference between your high and full bust measurements as the pattern piece represents one half of the front bodice.
You’ll notice that the piece nearest the centre front will move higher up than the other piece. This is great as removing some length will smooth down the bodice for a smaller bust. Redraw the waist seam with a straight line from the end of the side seam to the centre front. Cut along this line and discard the small lower piece.
Redraw the bust and waist dart with straight lines. You’ll notice that your bust point will have moved in slightly. Redraw the waist dart with this new point as the tip. To keep either side of the legs even, you will need to shift the ends at the waist seam towards to centre front by the same amount that you took out from your SBA – in this example it is 1.25cm (1/2in).
Redraw the waist seam at the dart. Roll a tracing wheel over the folded dart at the side seam line you’ve just drawn. Un-tape and unfold the dart and you should see the perforations made by the tracing wheel – draw over these lines to make the side seams of your dart.
Shift the waist dart on the front skirt towards the centre front by the same amount, so that both darts match up when you sew the waist seam together.
Woop! That’s it! Congratulations for making it this far, and don’t fear if you’ve scrolled through and are feeling overwhelmed – all of these alterations are optional and you may only need to make one or two of them, if any.
We’ve covered the most common fitting adjustments, but if you come across any other changes you’d like to make, there are some great books which go into more detail – try Fit for Real People by Pati Palmer and Marta Alto or The Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting by Sarah Veblen (these are affiliate links).
If you find yourself getting a bit exasperated with fitting, put the project down and come back to it after spending some QT with your pet or BFF. You’re probably fixating on things you’d never notice if you bought the dress in the shop, so come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes and a calm mind. Life’s too short to stress about bust darts 🙂