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Sewing, Patterns, & Cosplay

July 23, 2014 | Ames | Comments (5) Facebook Twitter More...

Ballgown cosplayers
These must have been a lot of work! Does anyone know what show or game they're from?

Despite my many years of sewing costumes, I still prefer to work from a pattern whenever possible. As I joke to my friends, “if it has armpits or crotches, I need a pattern.” It’s vital to construct these areas well for fitting, flattering, and  -- most importantly! – allowing the wearer to actually move.  If you’re going to a convention or a party, you will be very grateful for that mobility.

Of course, some costumes from RPGs, anime, or other sources are so ridiculous and cumbersome that the wearers can’t move that well, no matter how well-fitted the crotch or armpits are!

Where can you buy patterns?

I used to be a big fan of Simplicity patterns, because, as the name implies, they’re pretty simple and straightforward to use. Unfortunately, Fabricland no longer stocks Simplicity/New Look, as of August last year, due to a price increase. BlogTO has a list of some of the best independent fabric stores in Toronto, however, so you can always check them out!

Patterns can also be purchased online, even through Amazon, but make sure you are buying a new, unused pattern. There would be nothing worse than buying a pattern and finding it isn’t your size! 

Pattern sizes

Speaking of pattern sizes. They often go by European sizing (so if you wear a size 4 normally, you’re likely a 8 or 10 for a pattern), they tend to be generous, and each company does their sizing based on their own measurements. A measuring chart is typically available on their website, or on the patterns itself, and you should use a good measuring tape and a friend for help in figuring out your measurements, and what size of pattern you need.

The good thing is, most patterns come in multiple sizes—6, 8, 10, and 12 will be available in the same packet, for example. This means you can often customize your size a little. If you’re making a dress, and your measurements suggest you’re an 8 on top and a 10 on the bottom, you can cut out the pattern accordingly. Some also include adjustments for those of a petite height! Adjustments for tall individuals are less common, but are sometimes available as well.

White Mage robe
This hooded robe is based on a dress pattern for a Lord of the Rings character! I modified the hem, sleeves, and added a hood in the back.

Ready-made characters

Simplicity often creates costume patterns based on popular television shows and movies. For example, there are patterns that allow you to create the look of characters from Downton Abbey, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or this pattern that has both. There are also patterns for Disney Princesses such as Merida. Popular elements of subculture such as Steampunk patterns are also readily available.

They’re not the only ones, though. McCall, Butterick, and Burda also offer some similar patterns based on pop culture.

So if you want to be one of those characters, great! There is a ready-made pattern that you can use, with little or no adjustment required, other than picking your size.

Using patterns creatively

But what if you’re trying to recreate some character that isn’t as popular and well-known?

That’s where you need to get a little bit creative. Rather than using an entire pattern, you might just use pieces from one, pieces from another, or else find a pattern that is close to what you need, with vital details in the right places, and make changes to it from there.

None of the costume patterns I saw – from Simplicity, McCall, Butterick or Burda – had the sort of pants I was looking for.

Steampunk costume
My Steampunk costume.

So I turned to the regular pants patterns, hoping to find one with the elements I was looking for: high, flat, non-elasticated waist; bloused at the hips; coming in tight from the knee down; slim enough to fit into boots. Ideally I wanted something with pockets – nothing ruins a good cosplay quite like carrying a purse – and I didn’t want to do pants with a visible fly, since it wasn’t period-appropriate. For example, my last costume was Steampunk, inspired by the books I blogged about before, and also the character of Madame Lefoux from Soulless (and sequels) by Gail Carriger. Although female, Madame Lefoux dresses like a man, and I wanted to do a female scientist character that wore a long, feminine coat, but men’s trousers. I found a pattern for a coat that I loved, with plans for some minor changes, but I wasn’t interested in making the skirt. I started looking at the other costume patterns for pants.

I found a pattern that worked for me: a pair of pants intended to be done in a tweed or heavy cotton for the fall season, high-waist, bloused at the hips and slim in the leg, with two front pleats, slash pockets, and a front fly. I adjusted the pattern to do away with the fly, simply closing the pants up the front instead, then cheated a little by putting a zipper in the back seam where no one would see it! I also made the legs a bit slimmer from the knee down, keeping in mind that I had to be able to pull them on and off over my feet!

Working with patterns will, over time, give you an idea of what you can adjust with relative ease. A few simple changes would be:

Madame Red costume
This jacket has lapels and sleeves modified from the original pattern. The skirt was made without a pattern.
  • The length of a skirt or pair of pants
  • Minor changes to the shape of pant legs (from the knee area down, mostly), adding or removing cuffs
  • The shape of lapels or collar on a jacket
  • The shape and length of sleeves, adding or removing cuffs
  • The positioning of a zipper in a skirt or pants (if you’re comfortable with sewing a zipper)
  • The type of fastenings, i.e. using buttons instead of a zipper

A few tips about working with patterns:

  • If you’re new to patterns, look for any of the “quick” or “easy” patterns available from that manufacturer
  • Measure, measure, measure! And use the measuring chart. Don’t assume you know the size you need, even if you’ve worked with that manufacturer’s patterns before
  • Read the instructions! All patterns will give basic information about how to use them and cut them out, so if you haven’t worked with one before, don’t skip this step!
  • Be very, very careful when cutting the pattern out that you’re cutting the correct size! Especially if you’re transitioning from one size to another to customize for your body
  • Make sure you transfer all of the pattern marks to your fabric appropriately, with something that you can see but can remove if needed (such as chalk)
  • If you’re worried that your adjustments won’t turn out right, make a mock-up with cheap fabric first, or baste your sewing lines so you can take them out again if needed
  • Remember: you can always take in and trim down, but you can’t add on or always let out!

A note on free patterns, and patterns made by individuals:

There are a lot of free sewing patterns offered on the internet, and patterns made by independent artists. One thing to be aware of with these patterns is sizing— they may not be as customizable—and another is quality. If the person has professional drafting experience or education, chances are it’s a pretty good pattern. If not, then it may not turn out so well, especially if you’re trying to customize. Of course, it’s up to you! If it’s a simple piece like a skirt, or a sleeveless dress, chances are the pattern will be just fine.

But for crotches and armpits, I try to stick to professionals.

Books for beginners!

If you’re new to sewing entirely, we also have some excellent books for beginners. Here are a few of my suggestions:

The Sewing Answer Book


The Sewing Answer Book by Barbara Weiland Talbert.

Also available as an ebook.

Excellent advice on buying a sewing machine, including the stitches, feet, and features you’ll need along with common tools for sewing. An excellent list of resources for new sewers as well. I wish it had a complete glossary in the back to make it easier to look up terms, but they're explained as they come up in each chapter.


The Sewing Machine Classroom


The Sewing Machine Classroom by Charlene Phillips

Also available as an ebook.

Excellent pictures and diagrams throughout the book; the visual component really helps with the instructions. The section called "Mastering the materials” is particularly helpful, with a very thorough description of the use of various tools and notions. Excellent glossary of terms and resources.



Me and My Sewing Machine


Me and My Sewing Machine (ebook) by Kate Haxell

This book is probably my favourite of the three, for beginners. 

It includes detailed diagrams of a sewing machine and how it works, step-by-step instructions for many sewing machines, and also includes some free online patterns. There are instructions for making a skirt, apron, pillow, tote bag, wrap, and more. It also has an excellent glossary of terms.



Also, the manual for your sewing machine is an excellent help! A good manual will have instructions for techniques such as sewing in a zipper or making a button hole. It should also have a troubleshooting guide, in case things go wrong!

If you're not ready to make the leap to investing in a sewing machine, you can also try one out! There are a few places in Toronto where you can use a machine if you don't have your own:

All photos in this post were taken by the author.