Sunday, July 9, 2017

Planning Your Garb Projects



I've been feeling lately that when it comes to making garments, I tend to go a bit on autopilot. I have a method that works that I'm fairly adept at, and while there's nothing wrong with that (practice makes perfect, as they say), it can get stale. It can also make it harder to discover better methods. Even a rut that's working well is still a rut. This has me thinking about the overall processes we use to go from not having a garment to having one. In recent years, I've seen the value in planning the high-level vision of my wardrobe, so it makes sense that there should be a second layer of planning below that- the planning involved within any given clothing project.

When I think about getting from point A to point B with a garment project, I can identify 9 separate stages to the journey. Each of these has its own set of considerations, needs, tools, etc., and therefore each can be individually planned to form the blueprint for the project. Why we want it, how it should be created, and what we should ultimately end up with are all things that come out of this blueprint. The problem is that we don't have to give this blueprint much thought, and we can still end up with a finished garment. Whether we had a good time of it and/or like the result, however, is less likely without a plan. Or, like me, maybe the plans have become a bit too regular, so while there's a general guide there, it's mostly become something that's not checked against or evaluated. I could certainly use the refresher on what goes into planning a garment project. So shall we?

One: Basic Idea

Obviously, every project begins with an idea. Without that, there's no project. There can be the belief, therefore, that there isn't much planning involved in this step. However, it's important to stop and evaluate the reasons why you want the garment and what, in a basic sense, you hope to gain by having it. This doesn't at all have to be philosophical. It's alright if your answer to the why is, "because it's pretty" and what you hope to gain is, "another option for court wear." It can also be much deeper or complex than that. "I want this because I've gained weight recently and nothing else quite fits, and I hope it will make me feel confident in how I look at events again." Anyway you go with your answer, knowing what needs or desires your idea is based on simply helps build the frame around the project, and can help steer other (sometimes major) decisions down the road. It can also help you identify projects right off the bat that maybe sounded neat, but aren't really worth your time, energy, or resources. All it takes is not moving forward with your idea based solely on the merit of its face value.

Two: Position in Wardrobe

If your project idea passes the initial gate of what and why, the next important step is to figure out how the piece may or may not fit into the larger context of your wardrobe. Lots of folks make garb in a willy-nilly fashion, with no easily visible, over-arching scheme. Others, such as me, make clothing in a specific vein of period, place or basic style. No matter where anybody falls along that spectrum, however, if you pressed yourself to look, you'd start to see some commonality to the garments they like to wear the most. It could be a preference for a certain period style, or a particular fit or cut. Maybe it's some character to the colors or fabrics. Perhaps it's something sensory based, like enjoying the way certain sleeve styles feel on their arms.

Wherever your tastes and preferences fall, anytime you're adding something new, you're either working within your style pattern, or you're creating an outlier. Outliers aren't bad (unless, for you and your wardrobe goals, they are), but if your idea from step one is outside the style of the rest of your garb, it's helpful to know. In most cases, the items that fit outside our typical wardrobe are special and can be treated in a different way. Which opens up possibilities in the next steps as learning, experimentation, and just plain-old fun bring more to bear.

If you're not creating an outlier, you have a different set of considerations as you move forward in planning. How will this garment be different from others you have, or is it preferable that it doesn't differ? Will it work well with garments you already have in terms of fit, color, style, fabric, etc.? Can it layer in a way that you need, or add authentic depth to your outfits? Does it fit in the clothing scheme you've already established for yourself?

Think especially about the way you may use the garment in the long term. If the garment is for a special event or occasion, it's still a good idea to pose this question. How you make the garment and what you invest in it changes as you plot its position between "will only wear once" and "will be a staple item of my wardrobe".

I find these types of questions become invaluable when I'm looking at an idea I have for a garment, but wondering if I'm repeating myself when I could be trying a different approach. I think it's this area in which boredom or staleness with our process can begin to set in- when we just start adding pieces that are too much or too little like what we already have, without identifying the reasons why.

Three: First Wearing

It may not seem like this one is that big of a component to planning your garment, but when you'll wear the garment for the first time can give you some guidance. The first and most obvious is to provide you with a strict or loose deadline. Do you need it for a specific event? Think about the outfit it goes with. Is it an important piece to get the look you're going for right?

It's also, at the end, a new piece that you will (or at least should) feel some level of pride or interest in wearing. You want that to be a good experience, so when you wear it for the first time, ask yourself it will it feel like the best occasion for it? Will you be comfortable in it, and will that matter? (Which is a good question to ask if the garment is a utilitarian item, like an undershirt or braies.) If it's an outer or fashionable garment, how will you layer and accessorize it to pull it together into the look your original idea envisioned? Having this initial wearing vision in mind helps you to see the potential and need behind your idea, and can act as the forward arrow signpost along each planning step.

Four: Pattern

There might be no other step along the planning process of a garment that's as crucial as figuring out what pattern you should use, how you will create/acquire it, and how you will utilize it. The pattern is, quite literally, the thing that will bring your idea into the realm of actual creation.

When I say pattern here, I mean different things depending on what your garment is. A pattern could be anything from a list of measurements, to actual physical pieces that you'll use to cut your fabric out, and even to a loose concept of how your garment idea can become reality in its most basic and raw form. The pattern is whatever you need to be able to create each of the pieces of the garment and understand how they go together.

At this planning step, think about what you identified in the first two stages, then make sure that your idea, needs, and level of necessary effort are reflected in the way you will create the pattern, and how simple or complex the pattern is. For your needs, is a commercial pattern suitable? If it can be created using just measurements, do you know what needs to be measured, how to use the measurements, and what tools you are going to need to transfer those measurements to your fabric?

Planning in the pattern step can also get into much deeper considerations. If you're creating a custom pattern, what kind of silhouette or shape will you be aiming for to match your idea? What are the pattern conventions that are appropriate to the time and place your garment is from, for example, in the way the sleeves are attached or in the use of gores? Are their concerns or difficulties you've had in the past regarding some physical or comfort consideration that you'd like to better address? Will you need another pair of hands to help you? How will you know you've got it "right"? What's the goal for the way the garment fits you?

Five: Fabric Choice

Every piece of clothing we want has a set of needs that falls pretty squarely on the shoulders of the fabric use to create it. Do we need something lightweight and layerable? Does it need to be washable? Is the color important for the look we want? What's accurate for the period? What's the budget for this project? Whether you're going to rely on fabric from your stash, or you're going to look for fabric in the store or online, it's incredibly important that you understand the criteria your fabric choice must fulfill to increase the success of your idea.

I also suggest, in tandem with your ability to plan through this stage, that you take the time to learn about cloth types, their properties, and their historical application (if this is something you haven't already studied.) This is especially true of wool cloth, which is a staple of historical costuming. Which types and weaves of wool are best for your period? How big of a difference would choosing one wool cloth over another make for any given garment? One trick for getting a better handle on fabric types is to request swatches of the various fabrics you might need or be looking for, and build your own reference library with them. Paste them into a notebook with labels on where you got it, what type of wool they called it, how you would classify it for your needs, and whatever other details you think your future self might want to know. When you get to this stage in your planning, you can go to this reference and pare down to the cloth options that make the most sense. If you flip to the "worsted flannel" swatch and shout eureka, then you know you can search around for "worsted flannels" to hopefully find the perfect cloth for your project.

I think swatches have a major role in this stage, just in general. I've mentioned this in the past, but you should always request a swatch of any fabric you've found online to check it out before committing. That pretty mint green thumbnail on your screen might be a pretty sage gray in person, and if color is a heavy element in your idea, that could make a big difference. Other things to evaluate in the swatch: the fabric's drape and/or hand, the texture, how the fabric responds to cutting (does it fray?), and if it takes creases or wrinkles easily.

For me, and where I'm at with my garment projects, this stage is usually the bottleneck. It's not easy to locate the right color, fiber, weight, and price combination. I try my best to remain flexible with my idea, but rigid enough with the standards surrounding my overall goals/needs in order to not get stuck here and still feel good about any "plan B" option I might end up going with.

Once you have your fabric selected, you can begin planning the specifics of your garments in the last four stages. Until you know what fabric you'll be working with, it's hard to have anything more than a general idea of the techniques you'll use moving forward. It's a lot different working with a silk that easily frays, than it is a felted wool.

Six: Layout

Once you know the width of the fabric you're going to use, you can plan out how you'll apply your pattern to it. This will tell you the yardage you'll need. Pattern layout doesn't have to be overly complicated, but you should understand how you're going to use the grain and bias in your garment, and how to position the pieces on the cloth for the most efficiency. You may or may not care to sit down with a piece of graph paper and plot out a scale drawing of your layout (though that can be a valuable exercise if you want to learn how to be more frugal with your cloth), but taking a moment to think through how each piece fits together on the fabric and still uses the grain correctly will help ensure that your garment has craftsmanship on its side right at the outset.

Seven: Order of Assembly

Maybe you never thought about it before, but the order in which you put the pieces of your garment together can matter. Here's an example: Think about sewing the front and back together just along the torso section of a side seam, then, sewing the gore into the resulting slit. Now think about sewing one side of the gore into place on the front, then sewing the entire length of the back panel to the front, through the torso and down the other side of the gore. Which order of assembly will create more labor? Which method may create more trouble for you in the seam finishing? Which is likely to create a more successful, good-looking gore point? There are things like this along the entire process of bringing your separate flat pieces together to create a 3-dimensional garment. Think also about how the finishing will play into the creation. Will it be better to finish certain seams before you attach the next piece? Give yourself the opportunity to mentally process the order and think about the alternatives to find a suitable "path of least resistance".

Eight: Techniques of Construction


The basic question here is simple: how are you going to attach the pieces together? Within that question, there are several others. Will you machine sew or hand sew? What kind of thread are you going to use? What type of stitches? Are you going to be methodical and precise with your seam allowances or eyeball them? Will you need to use stay-stitches to prevent the fabric from warping, or will pieces need to be basted together before you begin the actual final stitching? Are there techniques to sewing the pieces together that you haven't tried before but would like to? Is there a period way to construct a seam that you find interesting and would like to apply to this item? Think also about how you'll handle any lining you might be using. Will you flat line or bag line? How will you maintain your craftsmanship in either case?

Nine: Finishing & Details

Along with how you're going to put the garment pieces together, think about the way you will finish the seams and add all of the final details. If you're adding trim, could that be done better if you added it to the flat pieces before sewing them together? If you're using a seam finish that requires more allowance, have you accounted for that in your pattern? How will you finish the hem, cuffs, neckline, and any openings? Does your lacing section need reinforcement? If so, how will you do that?

This step also asks you to evaluate the scope and skill the garment will ultimately require in order to match your idea. How complex, technical, or "fancy" are you going to get? What skills might you be able to learn for this garment that you haven't previously used? Remember that the finishing and details are what make your garment more than just pieces of fabric assembled together. Some top stitching here; a row of buttonholes there; adding a facing to add weight to the hem for better drape. Push yourself to consider multiple options before just going with the standard or easiest ones. You might decide that the standard finishing works, but at least you've given it a chance to justify itself.

Congratulations, you've planned your garment! There's not really a need to belabor any of the steps of planning for every garment you make. Some items will zip through these questions (such as things you make often and see no reason to change up). For those that need some thought, however, taking time at each of these stops can make a huge difference in how the project goes. It's also possible that you've got most of it figured out, but you need to take more time to consider one specific step. Any way you go about it, just be sure that before you take scissors to cloth or needle to seam that you've at least thought about it. You may, of course, also have to change your mind and troubleshoot along the way, but if you never had a plan to begin with, these types of on-the-fly changes could rapidly derail your project and get leave you with something you potentially hate. There's always room for winging it, but you can still go through the effort of thinking forward through each step in a very generalized way, just to head off any issues that will stop the garment in its tracks, and still feel like the project has the kind of spontaneous mystery that winging it creates.

I've got some wool in my stash that's been begging for some attention lately, and I look forward to taking the time to go through the full planning process to see if I can inject some new life into my regular garment-making procedures, and hopefully discover new techniques and skills that will help keep this hobby interesting and exciting.
By the way, I'm developing a printable worksheet for garment planning following this process. If that's something that interests you, be sure to follow me on Facebook to get that when I have it ready!

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