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Changes that Extend the Life of Your Pattern (aka Hacking)

Image of a woman standing in front of a wall covered in vines, her arms wide open. She wears a short sleeve dress with a V-neck, empire waist, and mid-calf flowing skirt. She wears brown boots. Her eyes are closed, and she smiles wide.
Spring Emma, Front

Imagine that you are a chef. You spend hours getting a certain recipe just right. You play around with ingredients, ratios, and temperatures. It is hours, days, sometimes weeks until you get to the perfect balance. This is the dish you have always known you could create.

And then, you cook the dish once and move on.

It does not make any sense, right? So why do we do this when it comes to sewing?

You spend all this time getting the fit just right. You take in here, you let out there. You pin and you baste and you pin and you baste. Maybe there are techniques specific to this one garment that you take the time to learn. And when the pattern finally fits you like a glove, when you can sew it in half the time now that you are so familiar with it… you move on.

But you say—I don’t want multiple versions of the same garment. This is boring. I am not boring!

Image of a woman standing in front of a wall covered in vines, her back to the camera. Her hair is long and black. She wears a short sleeve dress with a V-neck, empire waist, and mid-calf flowing skirt. She wears brown boots.
Spring Emma, Back

When I first started sewing, this was my mindset. I wanted to sew all the patterns as fast as possible. I thought that the measure of a good sewist was how many garments they could make and how fast they could finish them. 

Once I realized that sewing is awesome but sewing clothes that fit me is awesome-er, I slowed down. I learned that after putting so much time and effort into a pattern, I want to exhaust its possibilities. And there is nothing boring about this.

The Secret to Variety in Sewing is…

Little changes! You don’t need to reinvent a whole garment to make it look different. Changing the neckline or collar, sleeves, and/or skirt style or length, and you have added variety to your wardrobe!

In Practice, This Is How It Goes

I recently finished my first Emma Dress by Designer Stitch. It is not often that I can sew a pattern right out of the package without adjustments. But this was the story with the Emma: Not one change. I had to harness the power of this pattern with small changes to make each version its own thing.

This pattern made a perfect goth dress for cool weather, but it would not be so perfect for warmer weather—or people who overheat (like me!). While I love the shape of the dress, I was not so in love with the neckline finish or the contrast detail below the bust (you can get the whole story on my first Emma here: The Accidental Goth Dress: Emma by Designer Stitch).

What I Changed

Sleeves

Image of a woman standing in front of a wall covered in vines, her arms wide open. She is looking directly at the camera, one hand on her cheek. She wears a short sleeve dress with a V-neck, empire waist, and mid-calf flowing skirt. She wears brown boots.
Fun Sleeves

Changing the length of the sleeves is the easiest and fastest way to change the look of a pattern. It is easier to remove length than to add, but both modifications take little time and effort.

If you want to go an extra step, change the style of the sleeves. You can add or remove volume by spreading and slashing (don’t know how? This blog post can help: Let’s Give ’em Sleeves to Talk About). You can leave cuffs out for a bell-shaped sleeve, or add cuffs for contrast and puffiness. 

For my second Emma, I simply removed length from the original sleeve pattern piece. With a ruler, I measured from the sleeve hem up. Then, I trued the side seams by bringing them together and removing any excess paper that did not match.

Neckline

15 styles of neckline shown in a drawing with the garment colored in red
Neckline Styles

There are so many styles of necklines for both woven and knit garments! When sewing my own t-shirts (all the same fabric, black rayon jersey), changing the neckline does wonders to give each tee its own look. The original Emma has a V-neck, but you could easily change it to a scoop or boat style.

Another option is to change the way a neckline is finished. The Emma Dress neckline is finished with knit bias tape. I don’t love the fact that the inside of the neckline is not properly finished—you just trim close to the stitch line. Maybe I missed a step, but my finished trimmed edge was not really beautiful (and I am famous in my own head for cutting holes into fabric when trimming fabric, so this finish is quite scary).

For my Spring Emma, I used the nick binding as a collar. I like how it looks, but for the next version—for there will be a next version!—I am going to make the neckband shorter. The neckline does not have enough tension, so it feels a bit floppy.

Length

Image of a woman standing in front of a wall covered in vines, her profile to the camera. She wears a short sleeve dress with a V-neck, empire waist, and mid-calf flowing skirt. She wears brown boots.
The Mid-Length Skirt

Adding or taking length from a garment is another really easy way to change the look of a pattern. If you have a skirt or dress pattern that you love, adding or subtracting a few or many inches will allow you to wear a beloved pattern from season to season.

I am not a maxi-dress or skirt person. The long Emma happened because I wanted to sew the pattern with no modifications to start with. It turned out beautiful, and it might be the gateway to more maxi-dresses in my wardrobe.

For the new version, I used the shorter version of the skirt included with the pattern. The mid-length skirt is still a bit longer than what I usually wear. I already see a third, shorter version of the Emma in my future.

Design Lines

Image of a woman standing in front of a wall covered in vines. She smiles at the camera. She wears a short sleeve dress with a V-neck, empire waist, and mid-calf flowing skirt. She wears brown boots. Her eyes are closed, and she smiles wide.

If you are ready for something more challenging, changing the style of part or all the pattern is the ultimate in stretching the life and use of a pattern. You can change dart shape and position; add or subtract a seam; add or subtract gathers, pleats, or tucks. 

If your dress pattern has a straight skirt, why not add a gathered, yoke, or circle skirt? Or why not turn darts into princess seams? The goal here is to keep the adjusted fit but make as many changes as possible—without altering the fit. 

This approach takes a bit more experience, but even beginner sewists can find success in using it. Much like cooking, sewing is about experimenting. 

I did not add the contrast band below the bust because I was not going to use a contrasting color. Black on black just seemed like a waste of time. I forgot to gather the bodice, so I’m not counting that as a change. For my next version, I will use the bodice as is but add a skirt that is less full in order to maximize fabric yardage. Another consideration is to remove all center seams and end up with fewer pieces. So much to try!

Hacking Is the Name of the Game

Have you ever heard the work “hacking” being used in sewing? All of these—and many more—changes amount to hacking a pattern. This is how you can use the same pattern for multiple variations. This is how you minimize fitting and maximize sewing. This is how you extend the life of a pattern for all seasons. 

My dream of becoming a hacker came true, albeit in a different iteration of the word 🙂

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