What are “blocks”, where do I get them, and how do I use them?
Previously I blogged about how a basic SLOPER is used to make multiple BLOCKS, which are used to create endless PATTERNS.
When you hear the word “block” in regard to sewing, think of “building blocks”. They are to fashion patterns what base recipes are to the chef: tried-and-true foundations to build from. Blocks are sometimes called “working patterns” because, unlike slopers or even “fitting shells”, blocks include both “wearing ease” but also “design ease”:
Sloper + seam allowance( for sewing) + wearing ease (for fit/comfort) + design ease (for style/silhouette)= Block.
Slopers are useful, but blocks are a step closer to getting the silhouette and fashion that you want. When sewing apparel for yourself, having a tested block lets you avoid re-solving fit issues each time you create a new fashion pattern, or buy a new commercial pattern. It also helps you determine which designers use blocks that best flatter your own body type (apple, pear, etc), and have the wearing ease you find most comfortable. while you can easily see the designer’s style aesthetic from their photos and sketches, you can more easily determine their fit through blocks. Many designers work with a sloper that mimics their own body type, and blocks that flatter that shape. For example Judy Hale at “Patterns for Pirates” explains that her patterns are designed for the hourglass figure: http://www.patternsforpirates.com/shirt-fits/.
(Illustration courtesy of Judy Hale)
Just as finding the RTW brand whose blocks fit and flatter you lets you shop online with fewer returns (and shop in stores with less trying on.), it’s the same with patterns: if you know the designer and the blocks that work for your body, then you can jump into sewing faster without fewer alterations and greater chances of fitting success.
Where do I get my own personal blocks?
Depending on how much time you have to invest, and how comfortable you are with drafting, you can make your own blocks from a personal sloper (direct method), OR you can curate a collection of blocks from commercial patterns that you tweak to fit your particular figure (indirect method).
DIRECT METHOD: for people with plenty of time, who love drafting, begin with a sloper:
- Learn to make a sloper from a sloper-drafting book (recommended books include “How to Draft Basic Patterns”or “Patternmaking for Fashion Design”)
- Take an online class: craftsy.com
- Study from a blog: .madalynne.com
- Use a sloper service, where you send in your measurements and a personal sloper is created for you: Kosher Patterns, Patternmaker, Pattern Stringcodes
- Buy a fitting shell pattern (fitting shell = sloper plus minimal wearing ease but NOT design ease) from McCalls, Butterick, or Vogue (illustrations left to right):
McCalls M2718 : http://mccallpattern.mccall.com/m2718-products-726.php?
Butterick B5627: http://butterick.mccall.com/b5627-products-13768.php
(McCalls shell is by Palmer/Pletsch. The Butterick/Vogue shells are the same pattern)
From there, you test and tweak your patterns until you are pleased with the fit and the silhouette. You can learn from a good apparel-design book about how to manipulate garment shapes through the “pivot-and-slide” and “slash-and-spread” methods:
Recommended design textbooks are (from the bottom up):
“Patternmaking for Fashion Design” (for both sloper drafting AND apparel design)
INDIRECT METHOD: for those with less time, who are not crazy about drafting, or just love to sew and want to get going:
Leave it to the experts. Buy basic commercial patterns in the silhouettes you love, test to fit. Sounds simple, right? Sewing patterns already have both the fit ease and the design ease built in, so voila! But truthfully this still takes time, because there are endless patterns available, and they change with the seasons and fashion trends . Try joining Pattern Review boards online, ask sewing friends and family for their favorite pattern numbers, study the pattern catalogs in the shops by looking at the photos and seeing if you like the way each garment fits. Curating a collections of blocks takes time, but (possibly) less time than starting from scratch.
How do I use my blocks?
- As basic sewing patterns: you can use blocks directly as patterns, for basic styles. Take your basic block for a classic short-sleeve crew-neck tee-shirt. Use the block as is… modify it for scoop-neck, vee-neck, or boat-neck….adjust the sleeve to cap-sleeve, 3/4 sleeve,or long-sleeve. One block, many looks.
- For development into fresh patterns: Take that same tee-shirt block that you already know fits you, add length and design ease to create a swim-cover, a night-shirt, or a beach maxi. For example, look at the variety of dresses that are possible with this one dress block from Kosher Patterns:
(Illustration courtesy of Mrs. Chesler at Kosher Patterns)
3. To check against commercial patterns for correct fit: let’s say you’re a new sewist, and you’ve successfully used “straight line stitching” patterns for twirl skirts and simple pillowcases dresses. Now you’d like to graduate to more fitted SHAPED patterns which means patterns pieces that are CURVED, but you’re not comfortable drafting sleeve-caps, armscyes, and pants rises. You can hunt down a great-fitting pattern, and use that as your block.
Let’s see how that works, using 3 FREE pdf patterns, since that way I can show the entire pattern pieces. My favorite-fitting kids’ pant blocks were designed by the ultra-talented Kerstin Martennson for her company Kwik Sew, which are sometimes available on Ebay. You can download a very similarly shaped block for free from Oliver & S: the “Sunny Day Shorts“. Then place this basic block on top of any new-to-you pants pattern and instantly see if you can use the pattern as-is, make adjustments, or scrap the new pattern altogether and move on.
NOTE: No one pattern fits everybody! Even though kids have fewer shape “issues” than adults, they still have variety, and this block won’t be the best fit on all kids…maybe not your kid! I’m using it an example because I personally have had a lot of success with it, for my clients. As always, I suggest making a muslin before cutting into your “real” fabric.
This is Sunny Day: the back rise (left side in photo) has an ideal angle and French-curved shape that fits over a child’s bum to avoid “wedgies”, and enough rise height to avoid “plumber’s crack”. The front rise (right side in photo) has a shorter rise height to avoid bubbling or “wadding” when sitting, and a nicely extended crotch hook to avoid “crotch bite”. Apologies for the yucky terminology. I need to find some nicer ways to express these fit issues……suggestions are most welcome!
Let’s say I’m interested in trying the “Taylor’s Pajama Pant” available for free from CKC through Fabric.com. Note that the back and front rises are the same height, since the pattern is cut on the fold, so already I know there will be “bubbling” in the front rise. The back and front rises are also the same shape (bums and bellies do not have the same shape!) but we’ll see in a minute how the rise angles and crotch shapes compare to the pant block that I trust:
I place Sunny Day on top of Taylor’s (please disregard the differences in overall height, as Sunny Day gets a separate waistband): the thigh measures are identical (these are children’s size 4)….the waist measure of Taylor’s is bigger, which is fine (I wouldn’t want it to be any smaller than my trusted block) but keep in mind: Fit is not defined as having enough fabric to cover body parts. Especially when fitting curved body parts as you do in pants, it’s not about the measurements, it’s all about the SHAPE. Here the shape and angle of the rises are very different between the two designs (kind of looks like Taylor‘s has two front rises?:
First the BACK rise, Taylor‘s (underneath) has hardly any scoop to accommodate the shape of a child’s bum:
For the FRONT rise, Taylor’s (underneath) has no “hook” to go under the crotch:
(For a fuller explanation of the pitfalls of pants with not enough curve in the back and front rises, and not enough hook going under the crotch, read Kathleen Fasanella’s blogpost, which also explains how this happens in mass production when factories skimp on yardage yield by slightly altering the SHAPE of pattern pieces, all the while maintaining the specification MEASUREMENTS. Shape is subjective, measurements are objective. Retailers will reject an apparel shipment if the merchandise is off-specification measurements, but its much more difficult to prove the shape has been revised. Warning: if you are at all interested in correctly fitting patterns, pour yourself a cup of tea first, because her blog is addictive.)
Next up from free from Dana Made It: “Kids Pants” (but only in size 2/3): these appear better than the “cut-on-a-fold” pants, as there is a clearly different front and back:
As they are a size smaller than the Sunny Day, it’s not possible to compare the width (waist measure and hip measure) since these are two different sizes, but let’s look at the angle and shape of the rises: much better than before..but not great yet:
(Okay now I have to flip the pattern pieces over so you can compare more clearly)
First the BACK rise, Kids Pants (underneath, pink) has hardly any scoop to accommodate the shape of a child’s bum:
For the FRONT rise, Kids Pant (underneath, pink) has no “hook” to go under the crotch:
Now let’s compare the rises of all three patterns in 3D by pinning the pattern inseams as they would be stitched. First up is Sunny Day; imagine a child’s body inside, bum to the left and belly to the right….it looks like a comfortable shape:
And here’s Taylor’s in 3D: the back rise on the left is going to give a “wedgie”, and the front rise on the right is going to have “crotch bite”:
And here is Kids Pants: rise heights are better, but crotch shape has the same issues as Taylor’s:
The only way to make Taylor’s and Kids Pants wearable (without extensive adjustment) is to cut your pattern and fabric several sizes too large for your child. Which means you are not “fitting”….you are simply covering up the body.
Now let’s try a completely different pattern, this is Aivilo Charlotte’s “High Tide” shorts pattern, (not free, so I’m not showing the whole pattern pieces) which has the same thigh and waist measurements as “Sunny Day”. First let’s look at the BACK rise (High Tide on bottom, Sunny Day on top) : pretty nice shape! I would add a bit more back scoop and “hook” extension, based on my personal experience with the fit of “Sunny Day”. If I find there’s excess fabric when fitting the muslin, I can pin it: it’s easier to take-in than to let-out:
This is the FRONT rise (High Tide on bottom, Sunny Day on top): the shapes are slightly different but the “hook” extension going under the crotch measures about the same, so I can choose to transfer the exact fit of Sunny Day, or else test the High Tide as-is and see how it fits.
And here’s High Tide in 3D: the crotch has a very nice smooth shape, I can envision a cute little body fitting in there. Personally I’m going to want that bit of extra scoop in back from Sunny Day (these would have fit my very slim older sister as a kid, but unfortunately not me!). Overall I’d say this will probably be a nicely fitting pattern as-is, and I would be fine with going straight into muslin-making:
So that’s how you can use your tried-and-true blocks, to check on the fit of new-to-you patterns and designers, and make any “tweaks” BEFORE cutting out your fitting muslin, saving you both time and money. And frustration.
What are YOUR favorite blocks?
(Note: added March 5, 2016: I just saw a Wrangler’s advertisement on YouTube explaining that their jeans are more comfortable because they have the U-fit as opposed to the V-fit …..yes! You are want the U-fit. That’s what I’m going to call it now. Unless Wranglers copyrighted the term. Probably have already. Darn it.)