For the past few weeks we’ve been sharing couture sewing goodness with you, from hand seam finishes to an analysis of the haute couture shows. Today I want to talk to you about the critical building block of any couture garment: the muslin!
I know muslin making is viewed with trepidation if not downright distaste by many sewists. When you’re itching to get busy and start sewing, the last thing most people want to do is spend time sewing a test garment. I have to admit, I was firmly in this camp for many years, and did almost anything I could to avoid making muslins because it just felt like such a drag. However, after sewing countless garments and being in business for over 6 years, I’ve learned that muslin-making is a critical step for most sewing projects. At this point, I’m so used to making them when we’re testing patterns that it has become pretty much second nature anytime I start a personal project.
Scrolling through my phone for the last year trying to find images for this post, it seems like a good 10% of my pictures are of muslins, whether it’s ones we’ve made for our dress form, our fit models, or muslins I’ve made for myself. They are simply integral to how we work here, and I think if you’re hoping to take you sewing game up a notch, scheduling time to make a muslin for a new project will actually save you time down the road, if not save a garment from being thrown in the “donate” pile when it doesn’t fit you properly at the end.
Here’s why making a muslin is so important:
- It allows you to spot fit issues immediately. While many tweaks can be made to a garment while you’re sewing it, many adjustments need to be made before you cut into your fabric, and making a muslin helps you visualize those issues immediately.
- You can determine the correct ease. If you prefer choosing a size based on finished garment measurements, making a muslin helps determine if the size you’ve chosen works.
- You can study proportion, details and style lines. If you need to shift a seam, enlarge a pocket or modify a detail, your muslin is the testing ground for those changes.
- You can do a test run of construction order and techniques before you start on the real thing. This is especially important if you’re sewing a complex garment (I would have been lost if I hadn’t made a muslin for my Rachel Comey jumpsuit) or if you’re sewing a new-to-you technique. Wouldn’t you rather figure that out before you jump in with your beautiful fabric?
BEST FABRIC FOR MUSLIN MAKING
A basic muslin can be made from just anything; thrifted bedsheets or stash fabric you don’t like or plan to use in a final project are good thrifty choices (we just cleaned out our stash and created a large bin of bigger pieces we can use for muslins). Here in the studio we buy muslin by the roll, and have a few different weights depending on the type of garment. I like unbleached cotton muslin because it’s a blank canvas and lets you see fit issues clearly since you’re not distracted by print or colour (you can buy a large bolt of it here). Your muslin fabric should mimic the fabric you’ll use for the final garment, which means choosing knit fabric for a knit muslin, or lighter weight sheets or muslin for a drapey or flowy dress. I don’t recommend using anything drapey or flowy for actual muslin material though – it’s pretty shifty and can make it difficult to assess fit issues. For wovens, it’s always good to choose a muslin fabric with a bit of structure and stability, so don’t plan on using rayon challis or tencel twill for muslins.
SEWING A QUICK MUSLIN
A typical muslin is a quick mockup of the final garment. You can skip seam finishes and details like pockets, and just sew up the main body pieces to study overall fit. When I’m making a quick muslin, I like to draw the main features of the garment on it so I can test things like pocket placement and design lines. At the bare minimum, I suggest making a quick muslin for most projects unless the garment is very simple or you are very comfortable with a pattern company blocks and drafting style. Some of my favourite indie brands fit me out of the package most of the time, so if I’m sewing a simple Grainline pattern I might skip a muslin, but when in doubt: MAKE A MUSLIN!
Now, after having studied with Susan Khale in the past year (more on Susan here and my couture workshop with her here) I’ve learned a new method for muslin making that I think is pretty game-changing. It’s more involved than the average muslin making process, but it allows for a degree of precision you can’t get otherwise.
MAKING A MUSLIN THE COUTURE WAY
Muslins are critical to any couture project – there is no way you would jump into a very involved sewing project like a couture dress or jacket without first refining fit, proportion and details through a muslin. Susan calls this your “laboratory”, and it’s an opportunity to really perfect the fit and style of your garment.
Here is how a couture muslin defers from a typical “quick” version:
- All pattern marks are transferred to the fabric, including darts, notches, grainlines, center front, center back etc. To assess balance and ensure the grainline and style lines are running in the right direction, I suggest marking bust/waist/hip marks (if they are not included on the pattern you should find where they are on your actual body and transfer to the muslin) and then drawing horizontal lines across the body of the garment at these areas by marking perpendicular to the grainline.
- Stitch lines are clearly drawn on the pattern piece, transferred to the muslin, and then stitched at the machine. This makes it very easy to see the outlines of the pattern piece, make adjustments, and it stabilizes the muslin fabric so it can be torn apart and used as your final pattern pieces. You should always sew to the edge of the muslin piece and start new lines for each seam rather thank simply turning corners. This helps stabilize the fabric.
- Seam allowances are generally larger; Susan suggests 1″ which gives you lots of room to make adjustments.
- Since your muslin pieces have been stabilized with stitching, you can use them as your actual pattern. Once you’re down with your muslin, take it apart, give it a good press and you can now use it to sew your final garment! (More on this next week when we talk about underlining)
There are two ways to transfer all this information to your muslin piece. The first method is to draw in your stitch lines on the pattern, pin it to your fabric and use transfer or carbon paper and a tracing wheel to transfer all the necessary information (including tracing the stitch lines you marked) to your muslin fabric. You would then double your muslin fabric and use the transfer paper/tracing wheel between the muslin layers to copy the lines from one piece to the other for pieces that are mirrored. This method lets you make your seam allowances as big as you want, since you’re tracing the actual stitch lines to your muslin fabric. You can cut out your pieces roughly with big seam allowances since you know exactly where the seam lines are. This works best for fabrics you plan on underlining, since you can eventually transfer those stitch lines to the underlining fabric (most often silk organza) and then use that to cut out your fashion fabric (again, more on this next week!)
The second method is one I’ve been using myself since it’s a bit faster. Rather than drawing in the stitch lines, I cut out the pattern pieces from my muslin with the given seam allowances and mark all the necessary information with transfer paper and tracing wheel. Then I sew the stitch lines around the pattern by machine, checking the instruction booklet to ensure the seam allowances are accurate (they may shift to a smaller seam allowance at a collar, or a larger seam allowance at a hem). This method lets you use the muslin pieces as pattern pieces down the road without an underlining, since you have defined seam allowances to cut around with your fashion fabric, but it does limit you to whatever seam allowance the pattern came with.
For the following muslin, I used the first method since I wanted to test the garment with larger seam allowances. All the stitch lines were marked with transfer paper and sewn at the machine with black thread. It’s important when you’re sewing these stitch lines to sew past the edge of the connecting stitch lines rather than just leaving your needle down and turning the corner.
For a pattern where I anticipate minimal changes, I use the second method since it’s a bit faster to sew the stitch lines at the machine rather than tracing the stitch lines on the pattern first. For my couture gown, I used 5/8″ seam allowances which you can see here:
ASSEMBLING AND TESTING YOUR MUSLIN
Once you’ve got all your pieces prepped, marked and stitched along the seam lines, it’s time to assemble your muslin. This can be done by quickly basting at your machine. Use a long stitch length so you can rip out and adjust as needed. You may find it necessary to clip into curves around necklines and armscyes to see where the final seam line will lay. If I need to make any changes to seam lines, I baste it in with a different thread colour so I can see the difference and make sure I mark both sides of the pattern piece with a pencil. If you need to slash and spread (ie. for a full tummy or fill seat), you can actually do that to your muslin piece itself, and simply sew in a scrap of fabric where it’s needed. This is your chance to tweak the design; you can change necklines, move seams, modify details etc. Thinking of your muslin like a sewing labratory is a great way to feel like a designer and modify and change things till they are exactly to your liking.
I have a custom dress form I love to use for fitting since it’s an exact replica of my body. The dress below was surprisingly difficult to fit for such a simple design, and I spent quite a bit of time tweaking the ease and darts positions to best suit my body.
Below you can see where I shaped the back darts with pins – I then drew these new stitch lines on the pattern with a pencil.
The pink lines below are where I adjusted the pattern. After I tried it on and made my changes, I transferred the new stitch lines to the pattern piece by folding in half and using my red transfer paper to transfer to the opposite side.
If you don’t have a dress form, taking pictures while you’re wearing the garment is great – I find it easier to spot issues when I’m looking at a picture. And sometimes you don’t even need to take off your pants!
Once the muslin was done I tore it apart, pressed it and used it as my pattern pieces. I did eventually make up the dress, but I still need to get the buttons sewn on so hopefully you’ll be seeing this garment eventually.
I’ve grown to love making muslins even if it does add time to projects at the front end; it’s so reassuring to know my final garment is exactly what I want! How do you feel about making muslins? Do you have any tips to share?