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Garment sewing basics for quilters

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

If quilting was your first introduction to the world of sewing, you probably have some feels about the thought of sewing a garment. They're 3D, patterns are super confusing leaving a lot of room for interpretation, and then there's the whole measurements thing; what, how, where? But still, you can't help but wonder what the garment sewing thing is about and that you should be able to make a simple garment (PJ pants, a hoodie, a quilt coat) for yourself. After all, you sew all the time, right?


But then, you purchase a pattern or try a small project and immediately get bombarded by a host of jargon that might as well be a foreign language to you. Not willing to give up yet, you google it . . . and get a thousand different conflicting opinions with no explanation about why one was better than another. So maybe you give up then and there, or maybe you struggle on and produce a garment that doesn't fit, looks distinctly homemade, and ultimately hate. Either way, that's probably the last time you'll touch a garment project for at least a few years until the unpleasant memories fade.


My friend, you are not alone. I've been quilting for over 15 years (since I was in middle school), but I've always been a bit daunted by the thought of sewing a garment for myself. "I could never make that!" This year, I have decided to conquer that fear and I'm sharing some of what I've learned with you. These are the basics that garment patterns don't really tell you translated into quilters terms so that the learning curve isn't quite so steep.


Contents:


Garment Types


Garments can be separated into 2 basic categories:


  1. Garments made of woven fabrics

  2. Garments made from knit fabrics


Of these two, I find, garments made from knit fabrics will be exponentially easier to make for a beginner because you don't have to get the fit and sewing perfect in order to get everything to work. Knits stretch, so if things aren't quite matching up perfectly, you can stretch a little here or compress a little there and it will still be comfortable and stylish to wear. That's not possible with a woven fabric. If one side is too long, you're going to have to make a pleat or trim something.


This stretchiness also means that If the sleeve is a little tight or the bust not quite big enough, the fabric itself will stretch to accommodate. This removes the need for tailoring skills and precision from garment making. You also don't have to worry about how you finish the seams because knits don't unravel and let's face it, knits are more comfortable to wear anyways.


For a first garment, I recommend looking for a simple pattern (like a hoodie or long-sleeved shirt). If the one you pick has sleeves, try to find one that includes raglan sleeves. This means that the sleeve ties into the neckline and the sleeves are added before the side seams of the garment are sewn. Sewing sleeves this way is easier than sewing an armhole, although neither is particularly difficult once you get your feet wet.


Here are a couple of good beginner pattern options for women:

  1. Tami Revolution Hoodie - by Pattern Niche

  2. Caribou Shirt/Dress - by Sofiona Designs

  3. Nova Sweatshirt - by Sinclair Patterns


Fabric Types and Preparation


Due to the stretchy nature of knits, particularly in contrast to very non-stretchy quilting cottons we're used to working with, knits can feel a bit awkward to work with. Not all knits are created equal and some are definitely easier to start with than others. Here are some of the most common types of knits you'll often encounter.


  1. Jersey - this is t-shirt fabric. However, when you buy it off the bolt, it's often much softer than your average t-shirt which can make it super stretchy. It's also very thin and all of this can make it difficult to control as a beginner garment sewer.

  2. French Terry - this stuff is soft like jersey on the outside, but is a little thicker, a little less stretchy, and has tiny loops on the wrong side. These loops can be "brushed" or not. Brushed simply means that the loops have been frayed to make a fuzzy underside (think hoodie material).

  3. Interlock - you can think of this almost as double jersey. It's as if you fused 2 layers of jersey fabric together. As a result, it's a little heavier, less stretchy, but it doesn't really have a wrong side or a right side.

  4. Sweatshirt Fleece - this is probably the heaviest knit you'll encounter, but it's the stuff we know and love from that comfy, well-loved hoodie. It's basically jersey texture on the right side, but has a brushed, fuzzy, fleecy wrong side which is what you feel on the inside of the garment. There's nothing cozier!

  5. Ribbing - this is a coarse, ultra-stretchy type of knit that is used almost exclusively for cuffs and necklines. It comes in a tube rather than flat fabric from a bolt. If you like to be able to push your sleeves up to your elbows and you're worried regular fabric won't stretch enough for that, ribbing might be worthwhile, but more than likely you won't need it.



Of these varieties, French Terry is the fabric type I would recommend for a beginner garment maker. It's not super thick, stretchy, or slippery to the point where you'll have difficulty controlling it. It's also relatively cheap and readily available. Once you've gotten your feet wet and built your confidence up, then you can have fun exploring the many other types of knit fabrics.


Preparation for all garment fabric is the same; prewash and dry.


Unlike quilting, where prewashing is optional, you don't want to skip this step with garment making. You are going to choose and make a size that fits your body as you've measured it. Just like in a store, if the garment fits you pre-wash, it probably isn't going to fit you anymore post-wash because all cotton knits shrink; it's the nature of the beast. By getting that shrinkage out of the way beforehand, you can rest assured that the dimensions of your garment aren't going to change after their first wash.


Thread


If you're working with stretchy fabrics, you're going to need a stretchy thread. Polyester thread is by nature, more stretchy than cotton (read more about that here) so make sure you're using polyester thread when sewing knit garments. We'll also address this stretching problem in the stitches used later on, but starting with a thread that has at least a little stretch only helps.


I like a basic, 40 wt Glide since I already have lots of colors on hand for machine quilting. It also will hold up better than cotton to vigorous washing. You do not need a stretchy thread to sew stretchy garments; those can be particularly tricky to work with due to machine tension issues.


Many patterns will recommend a ballpoint or stretch needle for sewing knits. These are duller needles to keep from punching holes in the fabric. A dull universal needle, sized appropriate to the size of thread you're using (90/14 or 80/12 for 40 wt thread), will also work just fine and you probably already have one lying around.


Preparing the pattern


If you're using a modern garment pattern, bought stand-alone as a digital file, there is the hurdle of how to prepare the very large pattern pieces you'll need to cut your fabric. Most digital pattern files will provide both letter size and an A0 size (in addition to occasionally projector files and other sizes). If you don't mind printing out and taping together lots of pages, the letter size file is fine, but if you have the option, I recommend having the A0 size printed for you instead. It makes life A LOT easier.


A0 paper is 4 foot x 3 foot in dimension and most pattern pieces will easily fit on them without having to piece anything together. All you have to do is cut them out.


Most independent print shops can print A0 files for you. If you can't find one locally, here are 2 online shops that also print them for a reasonable price. 3-4 sheets will run you about $4-6 which is well worth it in my opinion.



A0 files also frequently have the option to select only the sizes you need so that your patterns don't print with 14+ dashed and dotted lines on them. You can usually find instructions about how to do that with your pattern download.


Deciding on a Size


This is possibly the trickiest part of garment sewing. That's because there is no such thing as a "standard size". Everyone's body is different so the likelihood of you fitting perfectly into a straight size from a given pattern isn't high. What that means, is every pattern is probably going to require some type of modification to get it to fit you well. This process is actually not too difficult when you're working with knits.


As you make the modifications, remember: you're modifying the pattern to fit you, not the other way around.


Step 1: Take your measurements

Don't skip this step or guess. You'll need to purchase a flexible tape measure like this, if you don't already have one.



image of flexible tape measure

Wearing your typical undergarments and standing comfortably (don't suck in your spare tire!), measure the following locations:


  1. Bust - the circumference of the fullest part of your chest

  2. Upper chest - the circumference of your chest right under your armpits

  3. Waist - the circumference at the smallest part of your torso

  4. Hip - the circumference around the widest part of your pelvis

  5. Length - the distance from your mid-shoulder to wherever you want the hem of your garment to sit

  6. Sleeve length - from the base of your neck to wherever you want the hem of the sleeve to sit when your arm is held straight out.


schematic of where to take your body measurements

You only really need to take these measurements once unless you happen to gain or lose a bunch of weight. Once you've taken them, write them down and keep them handy because these are the measurements you'll make all your garments to. They stay on a stickey in my sewing room.


Step 2: Choosing your base pattern size

Every pattern has a size chart. Using the measurements you just established for yourself, choose the size that matches your measurements as close as possible. If you're between sizes, pick the one that most closely matches your bust size; that's the most important.


Size chart showing where I fall on the pattern sizing

This will be your base size and it's what you should cut out all of your pattern pieces at and then make modifications from there.


You may find that your bust is one size while your waist/hip is another. In this case, you can just taper the pattern pieces between these two sizes to mix sizes. These are really the only 2 measurements you should do that for though. You should never mix sizes between the bust and sleeve sizes. Those have to match.


Tapering a pattern between sizes

Step 3: Making basic modifications

If the straight sizes in your pattern don't perfectly fit your dimensions (and let's face it, they almost never do), there are some easy basic modifications you can make to get a perfect fit.


Shortening or lengthening the garment or sleeves - this is the measurement I always have to modify. #TallPeopleProblems. It's also super easy. Most patterns will come with a cut line or a lengthening line. On sleeve pieces, this will be somewhere around the elbow. On torso pieces, it will be around the lower rib cage. This is where you will cut to either add or remove length.


You determine how much length to add or remove by comparing your length measurements to the pattern's length measurements and adding or subtracting the difference from the pattern pieces. If your pattern doesn't list length measurements for the finished garment (most don't), just measure that distance on the pattern pieces and subtract the seam allowance. That will get you pretty close.


Cut the pattern piece along the lengthening line. If you need to add more length, tape one piece down to a fresh sheet of paper and then measure the distance you need to add with a ruler. Tape the opposing half of the pattern at the newly marked line and then connect the pattern outline by drawing a gradual curve between the two.


adding length to a patter piece

If you need to remove length, just divide the distance you need to remove by two and then remove that much from each half of the pattern piece. Tape the two pieces back together and then smooth out the outline to get a gentle curve.


Some other modifications include a full bust adjustment, for when your upper bust and bust measurements are different by more than ~2", and a small bust adjustment, for when your upper bust and bust measurements are less than 0.5" different. Both of these adjustments aren't difficult, but they're a little too involved to explain here. Plus, with the stretch of most knit garments, you can probably skip this adjustment and still end up with a garment you're perfectly happy with.


Garment Pattern Markings


Now that you have your pattern pieces modified to perfectly fit your measurements, you're ready to start cutting out your fabric. However, you might notice there's quite a few foreign markings on your pieces. Here's a quick cheat sheet of what those mean if you've never seen them before. The Alignment markings you'll want to transfer to your fabric either by snipping a wedge or with a chalk pencil or other marking tool. Most patterns will have a key of what each of the markings on the pattern means also.


  1. Grainline - these will be double-ended arrows somewhere in the middle of your pattern pieces. The arrow on the pattern piece should be parallel to the selvage edge in order to ensure the stretch of the fabric is in the right spot. Don't ignore these markings.

  2. Notches - these look like little triangles on the edge of the pattern piece. These are alignment marks; they will match a corresponding notch on the adjacent pattern piece.

  3. Dots - these are exactly what they sound like, large black dots. They usually mark an alignment point in the middle of a pattern, such as for a pocket or decorative element.



Transfer all your alignment markings to your fabric and cut out your pieces. I recommend doing this will a small, 28 mm rotary blade. That is much easier than trying to pin the pattern down to the fabric or holding the fabric in place while cutting with shears.


cutting a pattern out with a rotary cutter

Specialty stitches


Since knit fabrics are stretchy, you can't sew your garment seams with just a normal straight stitch. Straight stitches don't stretch which is why we love them so much for quilting.


To allow for stretching without popping seams one of the following stitches can be used:


  1. Narrow zig zag - zig zag stitches are inherently stretchy. Choose 2-3 mm stitch width to keep your zig-zag from becoming too wide. This is a perfectly acceptable stitch for constructing your knit garment and almost every sewing machine can do it (unless it's a straight stitch-only machine). It's not as strong as some of the other options, but it will get the job done.

  2. 3-step straight stitch - if you have a slightly better than bargain sewing machine, more than likely you have a 3-step straight stitch option. This is my preferred stretch stitch because it looks and sews like a regular straight stitch, but is stretchy (although not quite as stretchy as the others). That means that you can use it to hem shirts and cuffs and it looks pretty like a topstitch. It's super strong, but it does take a while to sew (because you're sewing 3 times as many stitches) and it's a pain to unpick if you ever have to.

  3. Lightening bolt stitch - This is a modification of a narrow zig-zag, but it sews a little bit more linearly and is, therefore, a little stronger as well. Most computerized machines have this stitch option. It's nice because it sews faster than the 3-step straight stitch, but is still stretchy and strong.


fabric swatch showing 3 different stretch stitches

Of these choices, the 3-step straight stitch is my favorite and it's what I would choose if you have the option.


There are many other stitches that also work, such as a mock overcast stitch that many computerized machines are capable of, as well as a blind hem stitch. Both of these are geared at replacing the function of an overlocker or serger which are specialized machines for garment making. however, I don't like using them purely because they prevent you from opening the seam allowance which is my preferred way to press seams.


Whichever way you go, you DO NOT NEED a serger to create beautiful, comfortable knit garments.


Sewing and pressing the actual seams


Once you've chosen the stretch stitch you plan on using, sewing garment seams is fairly easy. Follow your pattern to match up the correct pieces. Use lots of pins to keep those stretchy knit fabrics in place, and then sew your seams according to the seam allowance in your pattern. Most of the time, this will be larger than the typical quilter 1/4" .


As you sew, keep a bubble of fabric in front of your presser foot and let the feed dogs move the fabric through at their own pace. This will prevent you from stretching out the fabric too much as you sew. Some is inevitable, but that is what a good press with steam is for.

sewing knit fabrics with a bubble

Once the seam is complete (don't forget to backstitch and the beginning and end), set the seam with steam to get the fabrics to rebound before pressing your seam. You can press garment seams open or to the side, depending on your preferences, but my preference is to press the seam open. If you look at your favorite store-bought garment, you'll probably find that the seams are all serged and pressed to the side out of necessity due to the serging. When not serging, you have the option of pressing open and I find that creates a much flatter, more comfortable seam when wearing.


pressed garment seams

Extra Resources


Hopefully, this crash course in garment sewing takes the fear out of garment sewing for you. If you're looking for more resources, Sew Liberated offers several great beginner garment sewing courses. I jumped straight in and just took the knits course and got everything I needed to get started garment sewing.


For your first couple of garments, I recommend using cheaper fabric. The first one is never the best (obviously, practice makes perfect). Many folks will suggest you make a muslin (a cheap, throw-away garment mock-up that allows you to test out your pattern alterations before you sew the real thing). I've never been able to bring myself to do this, and with the tips listed here, your first garment will probably be plenty wearable, just not perfected yet, so just don't use the most expensive fabric you can find.


Here are a few of my favorite places to get knit fabrics from:


  1. The Fabric Snob - Canadian shop that sews every kind of high-quanity, garment fabrics you can think of. And, they happily ship to the US.

  2. Stash - Fabric shop In Burlington, VT that specializes in garment fabrics. Great selection.

  3. Prarie Love Knits - Canadian custom fabric printer. Sharon paints the most beautiful water colors and prints them onto fabrics. If you love highland cows and florals, you have to check out her shop.


Fun fact, Joann also carries plenty of garment fabrics, but almost none of them are 100% cotton which is a deal breaker for me. I didn't know you could make polyester jersey fabric, but that seems to be all they stock.


Happy sewing!



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