Getting a Handle On Pattern Alterations

I’m working on the crowd-sourced t-shirt pattern, and reading carefully through all the comments.  Thank you so much for sharing your fit issues with me, I believe I will be able to give you a fairly decent if simple pattern in return.  The more input, the more useful the finished pattern will be.

As I was working on the draft, I pondered how to best explain pattern alteration.  When I began learning, I would get frustrated because I put a great deal of effort into altering a pattern, only to find it still didn’t fit well.  Once I began thinking of pattern alteration in a conceptual way, I started to understand how best to alter.  That is to say, I quit thinking with my emotions- “I put so MUCH work into fitting this damn jacket and it still isn’t right!  Raaaar!”

Fit and Pattern Alteration come down to three basic concepts: Bone Structure, Weight Distribution, and Ease.  I want to focus on each of these three in turn while I work on the t-shirt pattern (shooting for next week).  I’m also working on some pattern alteration posts, please feel free to continue telling me which ones you’d like to see.

I don’t know everything, this is just my take on pattern alteration.  If you have some of the issues listed, try not to let it worry you.  We can figure out how to work on it.  Leave me a comment about it and I’ll add it to my list of pattern alteration posts, or find you a great source to help.

So, what is “Bone Structure?”  It’s the shape of our skeletons as formed through genetics and posture.  Generally, “bone structure” alterations remain much the same throughout your life.  That applies especially to:

  • Length- Length of limbs, length of torso and back (overlaps with “Weight Distribution” in some cases), length of neck
  • Ribcage- Wide, deep, average, narrow.  This can be tricky to “diagnose.”  If the garment doesn’t sit well through your midsection even if you cut the correct size, then you may need to think about your ribcage.  This is an issue that usually only comes out after other issues have been solved- but not always.
  • Pelvic width- some hip bones are “wider” than others, aside from weight distribution.  This affects the drape of pants and skirts.  They may be cut from the correct size, but the pattern might not work well, pulling or twisting in odd ways.
  • Shoulders- Shoulders tend to change and vary depending on habits and age.  Of the “Bone Structure” type issues, this is the most individual and tricky to fit.  Shoulders may be narrow or broad compared to the rest of the body, they my rotate forward with age and/or as you sit at a desk.  Some shoulders are sloping or square- that’s the shape they are.  A few commentators mentioned a hollow upper chest, a lack of “breast flesh.”  One solution to that may lie in the shape of the shoulders.  The other may be a function of gravity/age/weight distribution (but we’ll get to that!).
  • Scoliosis- This is a curvature of the spine, and should be addressed in the pattern if necessary to prevent the garment pulling or twisting.
  • Sway Back- I think this term is mis-used sometimes.  When applied correctly, it refers to a curvature of the spine in the small of the back, often a result of childbearing (though not always).

The good news is that if you can “diagnose” some of these issues, as a rule they’re not difficult to address and tend not to change much.   I’m a pretty big believer in the idea that properly “altered” clothing will always look good, and that most people can pull off most styles if the pattern is adjusted well.

Think about the alterations you do (or wish you could do).  Which ones may be related to bone structure?   I’d like to hear thoughts about bone structure type alterations, do let me know what I’ve missed.


  1. I have a battle with my wide hips and the impact of Scoliosis on what I wear / make / attempt to alter. Like just about everyone, the two sides of my body don’t match but some of my differences are much more siginificant than you would find on someone else eg. my right and left hips sit at different heights as do my shoulders. I can get away with dresses much better than skirts which never sit level for me! I have other differences too but these are not for sharing in a public forum! Hope this info provides some insight.

    • Hmmm… We should get together for some drafting/hanging out soon. :) Maybe I can put you in one of my shirts I’m working on. (One track mind at the moment… shirts, shirts, shirts.)

  2. Yay! I think you’ve made a major breakthrough in differentiating bone from muscle. I may fluctuate in body mass according to how much fat/muscle I pack on or take off, but I will always have dainty wrists.

  3. Certainly one of the first things to get a good fit in the pattern is the diversity in the different bone structures. When I discovered this in my studies of patronage, opened a world of possibilities before me, it was as the panacea to many problems of adjustment. I have the shameful weakness of going down the street watching the people and “guessing” what is the problem of his / her adjustment of garments.

    • I share that shameful weakness. I tend to wear sunglasses, so I can get away with analyzing bone structure and the cut of someone’s garment without looking like a weirdo. ;)

  4. Pingback: Pattern Alterations: Weight/Muscle Distribution « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  5. I find with most patterns my torso is long so I generally need to add 1-2inches in length and dresses/skirts are too long as I have short legs. I’m pretty new to sewing so haven’t come across many other issues but when shopping for clothes I generally steer away from pants as I have a small waist but larger thighs/bottom so I always have gape at the back of my pants/jeans (although I recently bought the new Levis curved ID jeans in the Bold Curve and they fit perfectly…no gape!!!)

  6. I absolutely love your blog and find a lot of your post’s to be what precisely I’m looking for. Does one offer guest writers to write content for you? I wouldn’t mind producing a post or elaborating on most of the subjects you write with regards to here. Again, awesome blog!

  7. Thank you for addressing scoliosis. Even though mine has been corrected I have issues making patterns fit. I tend to gravitate toward dresses that don’t have much shape for fear of making something that will not fit my waistline, since it still has a mind of it’s own. I have a phobia about pants with waistbands. I may step out of my box with my next project. Thanks again!

    • I wish I had more experience with scoliosis. It’s so individual, so without looking at you I wouldn’t know where to start for fitting… I’ve been digging around, if I find anything useful I’ll be sure to post it.

      • Thanks! I just need to make my pants with one leg shorter than the other……:) and yes, scoliosis is so very different for each case. Much like bra sizes. One size does not fit all.

  8. I made a list of my alterations for one of your posts and it grew too big! As far as bone structure, I definitely have a proportionally narrow ribcage. If I choose a pattern correctly by shoulder or chest width, the bust will be too big. This was a quandary for awhile because I’m a B-cup, but even if I do an SBA there is still something else that needs to be taken in all the way down to my waist. Really fitted styles or tailored styles like jackets tend to swim in this area. Just to test, I tried to do the reverse for the Sencha blouse, and chose the size based on my bust, and the shoulders and chest were almost choking me.

    My “swayback” is definitely a bone/alignment thing with a very pronounced s-curve below the waist. I experimented once by taking a motherload of photos of me in trousers and kept rotating my hips to see what happened to the fabric. My natural rotation also causes my lower belly to stick out further than my bust!

    • Scoliosis/Uneven Shoulders: I’m just discovering this blog. It’s 2013. My curve causes a 3/4 inch difference in my shoulders (and hips). A shoulder pad does not always help. Here are some things that may be helpful. Diagonal folds often mean a fitting problem is two-fold: both a width and length problem. Understand the difference between making alterations inside or outside the seam line. It can be helpful to manipulate dart intake by using shoulder and waist darts both front and back. (Slash and pivot to move a dart to the shoulder.) That way you are working straight up and down. I needed other more common alterations as well as those for scolioisis, but on my final fitting muslin, measurements on one side were 3/4″ different than the other. Waist to shoulder tip, waist to neck edge, center to side seam (under the arm) and dart intake. The darts on my HIGH side were 3/4″ deeper and longer than the LOW side. So, if you get one side looking good, try the same corrections to the other side using the amount of your shoulder difference as a guide. Add room for a shoulder pad after you’re satisfied without one. Unevenness can make sewing with patterned fabric a challenge. If you proceed to making a torso muslin, the hips can add another twist. Watch for the side seam at the hip to be different side to side, again based on the shoulder height difference. Of great help to me was the book Patternmaking for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph Armstrong. In the 80s it was a textbook used by the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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