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Muslin construction tips

I make a muslin for each new pattern I sew to make sure it fits and that the various elements are flattering in length and placement. (Some garments never make it past the muslin stage.) Making a muslin is not as involved as sewing the garment itself. There are plenty of shortcuts you can take, and a few you shouldn’t. Here are my tips:

❦ A muslin is called a muslin because that is the fabric traditionally used. It’s main advantage is that it’s inexpensive, but it’s not the only fabric suitable for testing a pattern. Some people like to use gingham because the woven check makes the grainline easy to see, which can be important as alterations are made. Free fabric options include “What was I thinking?” fabric from your stash, and old sheets from your linen cupboard.

❦ Take the time to iron your pattern pieces. You are making a muslin to check the fit, and using wrinkled patterns can affect the results. Besides, you’ll need to iron them before cutting your fashion fabric anyway.

❦ Don’t bother to cut out the facings, unless you need to check them specifically. Facings are not generally critical to the fit.

❦ Don’t waste your good marking pens on your muslin! No. 2 pencils work just fine.

❦ Use contrasting thread. It will be much easier to see when you need to rip a seam apart, and it’s a good way to use up the weird colors on your thread rack and your half-empty bobbins.

❦ Use a basting stitch (long stitch length). You will be glad you did when you need to pull apart a seam; but use a backstitch or lockstitch to start and end each seam, or they will pull apart as you try the muslin on.

❦ Take the time to match and sew your seams accurately. This is one area where you shouldn’t take shortcuts. You are checking the fit, and inaccurate seams defeat this purpose.

❦ Don’t bother to iron your seams. Finger pressing (running the back of your thumbnail or the blunt end of a point turner along a seam to open the seam allowance) will work fine for a muslin.

❦ Don’t cut full-length patterns if you don’t need to. For example, If you only need to check the fit on a skirt from waist to hip, there’s no need to cut the entire pattern in muslin.

If you minimize the time and resources used in making a muslin, you may find that the confidence you get from taking a pattern for a test drive will be well worth the extra effort.

Why a muslin?

There’s been an interesting discussion going on in the online sewing community regarding doing muslins for sewing projects. For the those who don’t know, a muslin is a test drive of a pattern using an inexpensive fabric, typically muslin. The muslin isn’t sewn to completion. It’s sewn just enough to see what, if any, adjustments need to be made to the pattern so it fits better or is more flattering. I initially read about the “muslin backlash” a few days ago in a post at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing.

Photo of muslin

Muslin for a previous project

So, tonight I was starting my next project, when I thought, “Do I really want to make a muslin for this relatively simple skirt?” And my answer was a definite “Yes,” and here’s why.
I read several years ago a recommendation in Threads magazine to do a muslin for every project. I thought it seemed like a lot of effort, but I tried it on my next garment. The muslin was coming together beautifully. I was very excited. And then I tried it on. Horrible. HORRIBLE! The ease was way too generous. The length was way too short. The sleeves were way too long. It looked just awful. I looked in the mirror and actually thought to myself: “This is the part where I usually cry.”

Instead, I started analyzing the muslin, figuring out what needed to be fixed, and altering the pattern accordingly. When I sewed the pattern up in the fashion fabric, it was a total success.

Now when I was a tall, underweight teenager (30 years ago!), all I needed to adjust was length and shoulder width. Today, my figure is far more complicated to fit. The bustline came in with the first pregnancy, and what little waist I had on my straight figure went away. Between a full bust adjustment, lowering the bust point and checking how the neckline falls, I’m too scared NOT to do a muslin. The neckline could be too low, the waistband too loose, the darts too deep, the hemline unflattering. I’ve often been surprised at the areas that need adjustment. When you consider that the pattern image is often a drawing, it’s a wonder the garments ever look like we expect. I want to be confident of what my end result will be.

Now, to be fair, some of the “backlash” regarding muslins has been about the waste of fabric and the waste of time when making a quick and easy garment. For me, I’d rather waste the cheap muslin than take the chance of wasting a more expensive fabric, and I sew because I want better fit and quality than ready-to-wear usually provides. Sewing is all about the opportunity for each of us to have complete creative control over the finished product and how we chose to make it. Making a muslin is my choice. If it’s not yours, I completely understand.

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