Make it in your head before you make it with your hands


Think back to a few of your most disappointing sewing disasters. What were they? What made them so disappointing?

I’ll bet if you think about it, most of them have something to do with your fabric choice. Maybe you loved the fabric and you loved the pattern, but the two just didn’t work together.

This has happened to me plenty of times. Plenty. I’ve made fitted skirts that ended up lumpy and bumpy because of a thick fabric. I’ve made dresses that were a bit too tailored for a flowy fabric and just looked like sad droopy messes.

But, as my friend Jenny Rushmore pointed out when she visited recently, you can’t learn to sew without actually sewing. And that means sometimes you fail. And hopefully, you learn a few things along the way.

Here’s what I’ve learned about visualizing fabric into a garment before you start cutting.

  1. Go with the flow. One of the most common mistakes we make as sewists is choosing fabric with the wrong hand for a particular style. Generally, tailored styles that are fitted with darts and seam that follow the contours of the body need fabric with body to them. Loose styles that are meant to gather, billow, float, or skim require fabric that drapes. Before you pick your fabric, ask yourself where the garment falls on the tailored-flowy spectrum.
  2. Think bulk. Another disappointing outcome you might face from time to time comes from choosing fabric that is too thick or bulky. This can be a problem particularly with close-fitting garments, where thick fabrics add, well, thickness to the silhouette. Any garment that has a slim cut and/or lots of seams can look weird with bulky fabrics. If you fall for a thick fabric, fold it in half and check the thickness of two layers held together. Most seams will be at least two layers of fabric, maybe more.
  3. Find examples. After you’ve chosen the type of garment you want to sew but before you’ve settled on fabric, look for examples of that style online and in stores. Try to determine what sort of fabric they’re made from. There’s probably a reason, and this can teach you a lot about why designers put certain styles and fabric types together.
  4. Drape it first. Once you have your fabric candidate and know what style you plan to make, drape the fabric on a dress form (if you have one), another person, or yourself. Imitate the shape of the garment a little by pinning the fabric in place. If the style is loose, drape it loosely. If it’s more tailored, pinch out excess fabric and pin little darts or seams, just to get a feel for the style.

These four simple tricks will get your 80% of the way to making great fabric choices. All you need after that is practice, a few more learning mistakes, and a dash of patience.

What were your worst sewing disasters? Were they due to fabric choice, or something else?

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 47


That’s a really helpful post, thank you. I’ve definitely fallen victim to daft fabric-pattern combinations! The idea of draping the fabric on yourself to mimic the garment is genius – I’ll definitely be doing that from now on :-)


Oh boy, have I made some really terrible mistakes in choosing the wrong fabric…but my worst is not taking the time to study the garment and understanding the steps. Going too fast is not what sewing is about :0) great article!


Great advice – thank you! I made the Laurel dress twice and both times it was a disaster due to wrong fabric choice! The first time I made it with shirting material – the problem wasn’t the material per se but the checks! It looked like one big box with lots of little boxes on it. Not only didn’t the dress look great on it’s own but on me it was a complete disaster. Then I made it out of a navy jersey which turned out to be too heavy and the dress weighed a ton! And really it’s a style not meant to stretch so the fit was off too. I love this pattern! I’m hoping the third time will be the trick :)


So true! Some of my biggest mistakes have been due to poor fabric choice. Early on, I often choice quilting fabrics for garments and it never gave the right drape. The quilting fabrics are so cute! However, I generally resist the urge to use them for clothes because they just don’t give the drape that I want.


Thank you Sarai, this is something I’ve been working toward recently. Its monumentally disappointing to put all that work into a garment to find that it didn’t suit the fabric and vice versa – I’m looking at you thick ponte fitted dress with added pleather piping at waist seam!! I am starting to search online for garments I’d buy, then work toward making that style appropriate for me in the right fabric. Things are definitely on the improve.


I love your blog, your patterns, and everything you do for the sewing community. Thank you so much!

I have just one critique: the light grey color of the text on this blog! It looks very modern and elegant, but it is sooo. difficult to read, at least for me.


Thanks for the heads up Patricia! We’ve had a few people mention this and figure it must look different on various screens. We’re going to try darkening it.


oh good. I love the new look, which includes my favourite La Duree green, but find the print too light too.
This was a great post, Sarai. When I started sewing again I too fell into the quitlting cotton trap – totally forgot all my previous experience – in fact all my full skirted dresses have been remade into fitted 50s blouses – they work well with it. That’s about it, I find.

SJ Kurtz

I fight about this with the web developer All The Time.
Nothing says “Get off my internet, old geezer” like light type on a colored background.

As a geezer, I may take the hint.


That’s great to hear. For me, it’s a combination of color and weight. Even in your comments where the font color appears black to me, the weight (thickness of the stokes in the font) makes it hard to distinguish the letters easily. And yes my Rx is up-to-date in my glasses;-) And I’m “young” to boot. A suggestion for other readers, I’ve found that if I highlight text with my mouse as I read it is much easier to see. The highlighting renders the text white on a blue background which pops more easily.


I AM an old geezer, but I do like the content of your site! I hope there are others out there that aren’t in the “old” zone who like to be able to read and view the examples. I truly cannot see what you are trying to get across in copy or photos. One that I’ve finally mastered is the continuous binding tip: I copied it to a Word doc, changed the text to black (sorry!) then printed it out and carefully re-drew the markings after reading the text a few times. I hope you hear from some under-50 people who are finding the site difficult to read and understand. It is beautiful but misses the education point if we can’t see it.


I have been giving this fabric v. pattern conundrum more thought for the past few sews and it’s making a huge difference! I have definitely been suckered in by those great quilting cottons and I’m trying to be more disciplined around them (I don’t quilt, so I should stay away). I’m much happier with my more recent projects than I am with most.
My other issue with fabric is falling for great prints! I love some of the garments I’ve made in bold prints, but they tend to sit longer between wearing. I’m so pleased with the Aster I just completed in a bottle green solid, and it’s a good motivator to continue making more clothing with non-print fabric.


I recently went into a plus sized store to look at blazers. I have never worn a blazer so I wanted to see the shape on me as well as look at the fabric and linings. Only blazer I could find was bright pink, a knit, and had big shoulder pads. The knit was very thin so I could see the black shoulder pad through the fabric, it also created a distinct fold line. The sizes in plus sized stores are a bit wacky, this particular piece had sleeves so wide the arm hole made me look way more top heavy than I actually am. Fail. One huge hilarious fail. Stores don’t always get it right either.

Alice Elliot

Look into Gail Grigg Hazen’s articles on plus size sewing. She’s wonderful. Stores definitely don’t get how to sew for plus sizes!


Great post, thank you.
I usually do the first three points suggested above before cutting fabric, but still have some doubts.
I am not a very experienced sewer however and I especially focus on what the designer suggests for the particular pattern.


That’s a great thing to do Valentina! Good for you using patterns! Apparently they can be quite intimidating. When/If you have a big fail know that it’s just more experience. You know, one stops crying.


I have definitely had disasters that were from the wrong fabric choice. I most often go wrong when it is the fabric I’m in love with and I try to use a pattern that doesn’t suit it well. If I have a pattern picked I can usually be more sensible about getting a fabric that should work.


Sounds familiar! I did a polyester dupioni for a 1960s sheath dress with gathered shoulders, creating a sort of shallow, wide V neckline. What I really needed something more drapy, with a little stretch. The dress was so incredibly stiff I couldn’t be comfortable! I made it again in a lightweight faille with a little horizontal stretch and it fit so much better. It looked nicer, too, with the more drapy fabric at the neckline. There is no substitute for experience, is there? : )


Hello Sarai,

Excellent tips, thank you so much for sharing.

When in doubt, I always make a muslin :-)


Most of my sewing disasters are choosing things that don’t look good on me. Maybe fabric is partly to blame but when you are overweight it’s hard to tell how something is going to look on you from skinny model pictures. And so many times I can’t find something in stores that look like the style to try on before I make it. Very frustrating.


Ain’t it the truth! Those models. I suggest going to a store and trying a TON of different things on. Especially styles you don’t like. Then you can possibly learn something new that you DO like. It is harder for our body type though. Stay strong girl.

Lisa G.

I also have taken a while to realize what will look good on me, and what won’t. I think I’ve finally got it.


Excellent advice. I’ve sewn for MANY years, but always love to learn new ideas. Will surely think of these when I next shop.


Thanks for the great article – I needed this advice! Choosing fabric leaves me obsessively second-guessing my choices until they arrive in the mail. One of the biggest problems for me isn’t fabric though, it’s not paying enough attention to instructions and getting ahead of myself. My worst disaster happened very recently – I’m working on a dress with a 6-piece bodice using French seams. I got the pieces turned about and ended up with boobs on the side of my dress instead of the front. I’ve got about 3 hours of seam-ripping ahead of me now!


Hi there. I have just discovered your fab blog & the articles on Wardrobe Architect. I would love to participate moving forwards. Is it ridiculously too late. Don’t have a blog but could start one?

Stephanie x


I just did this! And yes: Fabric choice. Problem was I fell for a fabric that wasn’t the best for me but could maybe work. Then I redrafted my faithful Peony pattern to a style that I thought might look good on me. I even made a muslin OUT of muslin. But with the real fabric all the maybes added up to a definitely not.


Thanks for this – great advice! I’m in the middle of a big fat fail right now, sigh. I live 30 miles from the nearest fabric shop, so I have to buy online. Sometimes i get the fabric I’m hoping for, but occasionally I get something cometely unsuitable for the pattern I had in mind. I’m a newbie, on a very tight budget too, so I get pretty discouraged when it all goes wrong. It’s good to know I’m not alone! Xx

Erma Kelso

My biggest mistake I have made recently was the neckline. I am narrow across the shoulders and have to make it smaller on the top but when I cut out the material, for some reason, I cut the neck larger. So when I sewed it, I was shocked how low in the back the neck was. So I went and bot a white summer sweater to wear over the dress and that made it much better.


When I was a teenager in the 70’s, I sewed a jumpsuit, which would have been ok, except mine was in bright banana yellow corduroy. Also it had buttons down the front that were white and red with little cartoon cats on them. Yes, I wore it to school. Cringe.


Im sorry, that sounds FABULOUS. I hope you have pictures.


This morning’s post is absolutely wonderful, what with the TUTORIALS to click on!

Alice Elliot

When I was teaching beginning sewing I always had my class pay special attention to the “recommended fabrics” section on the back of the pattern. Then they had to go to the store and find those fabrics, roll them off the bolt a bit, and see how they draped and felt in the hand. They had to ask about care as well. Then they made fewer mistakes. Although the color and print scale are something you kind of have to find out for yourself.
I spend lots of time putting myself to sleep at night making my current project “in my head” before actually working on it. Puts me right to sleep.


I was once the apalled recipient of someone else’s sewing disaster. A neighbor’s grandparents brought home a length of beautiful wool tartan as a gift. My friends mother was a wonderful seamstress and sewed her a lovely suit with a pleated skirt and a boxy little jacket. Nothing wrong there, but the tartan was the dress MacDonald- 8″ plaid with a background of orange solid and green and yellow and blue stripes. My friend refused to wear it because, she said, it made her look like a roll of scotch tape. Guess who got it. My mother was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth and it was just the thing for a weeks visit to relatives in San Francisco. The suit was way too big for me and, at the time, my mom didn’t have the time to completely remake it so she just shortened the skirt and sleeves. Not only did I look like a roll of scotch tape, I looked like I had been swallowed by one. I wore that suit everywhere we went in SF, to museums, concerts and visits to elderly aunties. When I got home I shoved it in the back of the closet where it stayed until my mother finally reluctantly donated it.


Thanks for your personal story – I hope it is less traumatic for you after the passage of years, but it made my day to read it. It reminds me of a pant suit I made last year out of Shetland wool that has a lovely (but intense) pallet of burgundy, blue and green. I think it looks smashing with a red turtleneck sweater, and it cheers me up to wear it for a walk on a cool fall day, but it is quite possible other people think it looks hideous. If I lived in London, it wouldn’t matter. But it is a little out of place in my country neighborhood. Maybe your suit was just right for SF sensibilities.


I meant to say my suit fabric is also plaid…


These are great tips! I hope you receive many more in the comments because it is one of the greatest challenges I have too. A recent wadder resulted from badly placed bust darts using poly chiffon, a horrible fabric to sew the first time, much less rip out and retry for a second time. ( I like to think if it was silk chiffon, I would have tried a little harder. Maybe I did not have enough respect for the fabric and just gave up…) The situation was complicated by the fact that I had to add the fuller bust option – as some have already commented, this changes the look of the final, and now I am thinking it also changes the design from more flowy and less tailored to more tailored and less flowy. So perhaps the designer should have added gathers for a fuller bust and not a dart? What do you think?

I have a tendency of picking fabric just a little too heavyweight for the design, but I have successfully gotten away with that more times than I have failed.

Another time I made a fitted, tailored retro blouse from flowy rayon crepe – it turned out perfect. Then with the rest of the same 4 yard piece I made a flowy tunic dress – it looked horrible, was too big, and felt like an unflattering tent. I have to make bad makes like that occasionally to remind myself that I look and feel best in tailored styles, much as I want to be a Helen of Troy and not a Cleopatra! So for me the style, and the quality of fabric, print and color, are all much more critical than the right or wrong fabric. Maybe I have not much trouble after all picking the best type of fabric – that seems to be just a matter of following the recommendations that come with the pattern. Like, I would never wildly diverge from what is recommended.

Catherine Coll

A common theme with my mistakes is not giving seam finishes & fabric type enough consideration. When I first bought my overlocker I used it on every seam regardless of the fabric weight & structure. I used the same stitch size, ( both width & length) and all four threads on every fabric. Side seams on dresses made of light fabric would drag down and facings bumpy..
I have memories of a bikini my Grandmother made me made of heavy embossed Hot pink crimplene. It looked beatiful but cut into me. My mum crocheted me one too, it held so much water the pants would slip down!


My current problem is that I am sewing in my head INSTEAD of with my hands. :(


I guess I also should have said that I am dealing with a 62 year old body that remembers when it was 40. I had plenty of figure challenges then but now they are totally different. BUT today after reading this I did a closet clean out.. Here’s what I figured out. I would love to be artsy but artsy clothes don’t love me. Bohemian is too flowy. I look best in things that are tailored either in soft or crisp fabrics that softly skim the body. Things can’t be too short or too long. Love a fit and flair dress, an a line skirt. Slim but not tight pants. It’s all coming together. For middle aged ladies let me suggest the blog Not My Age. Great ideas to start from. Thanks for the words of encouragement.


Lately I have been feeling very lucky that my Nana taught me to sew (and select fabric.) I admire you ladies who are self taught and have figured all this out for yourselves. Don’t give up completely on using quilting cotton for garments! There’s quilting cotton, and then there’s quilting cotton. Some of it sews and drapes beautifully. I have been known to drape fabrics on myself in the store:).


Yes, I have had several older women school me in quilting fabric, telling me how they made garments out of it when they were much younger than me. I wont give them up , I dont care what anyone says. Some of my favorite dresses Ive made are of it!


Great article. Yes, the number one problem I see newer sewers making is matching fabric to pattern. When the two are in synch, a beautiful garment that doesn’t necessarily look handmade is created and one that the maker is excited to wear. It’s a skill that is learned after years of sewing dozens and dozens and dozens of garments and making a lot of mistakes. Sewing off and on for 46 years, I am now able imagine what I want a garment to look like – exactly – but finding the fabric in a store is the much more difficult task.. Thank goodness for the internet!


My problem is ALWAYS ‘FIT” …….. my weight always fluctuates AND with ‘age’ ive now developed a stomach…..

Thank you though for this tip…I have learned something new.


I’ve never thought so much about sewing as these last days, ever! Following the wardrobe architect this year was already very interesting. But with the tips above (especially the one on draping the fabric on a dress form) I could match 4 fabrics from my stash to four patterns I carefully chose for my fall/winter silhouettes. I hope so much that all this thinking will result in clothes that fit me. Clothes I’ll want to live in :-).
And know: getting started with the sewing!
Thank you so much for this proces!


what is that gorgeous fabric in the post picture?! It looks vintage but I’m crossing my fingers!


I bought the fabric on a trip to Buenos Aires. :) There are more photos here:

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