Hacker Series: Pattern Anatomy

I am REALLY TRULY horrible at sewing a pattern from the given tutorial. I very rarely do so. Maybe it's the puzzler in me (a love for which I can credit to my Mom-mom!), but I have always approached things as a sum of their parts. Sewing patterns are no different. I have always approached them with a "less a 'rule', more a 'guideline" philosophy. A blank canvas begging to be tweaked and improved upon for the project at hand. 

So I thought I'd start off a fun Hacker series with a little "Pattern Anatomy 101"!

If you've ever wanted to try your hand at pattern hacking, this is a great intro for you! Here's my guide to pattern-hacking, what patterns are worth your dollar, and which you can create with your existing collection!

FIRST THINGS FIRST. You need to take inventory. Click/sift through your pattern stash, and make note of all the features available in them. You can separate them into categories like...

  • Necklines - High, Scoop, Square, V, Wide/Boat, Placket, Shawl, Cowl, Peasant, Sweet-heart
  • Collars - Standard Shirt, Mandarin, Peter-Pan
  • Sleeve Types & Lengths - Set-in, Cap, Raglan, Dolman, Kimono, Cuffed, Halter, Sleeveless, Racer-back, Spaghetti Straps
  • Bodice/Dress Styles - Fitted/Sheath,  Relaxed/Shift, Swing, Empire, Drop-waist
  • Design Features - Keyholes, Cut-outs, Button Tabs
  • Fit Features - Back Darts, Front Darts, Bust Darts, Princess Seams
  • Waist Closures - Elastic Casing, Yoga Band, Side/Back Zipper, Zip/Button Fly
  • Pocket Styles - Curved, Diagonal, In-seam, Patch, Welt, Cargo
  • Pant Legs & Lengths - Wide, Flared, Straight, Skinny, Short, Capri, Long
  • Skirt Types & Lengths - (Full, Half, Quarter) Circle, A-Line, Pleated, Gathered, Godet, Maxi, Tea Length, Knee, Mini

Of course - you don't LITERALLY need to make this list. You can work backwards when you have an inspiration style you'd like to recreate. These are the kinds of features you will need to make note of.

Hacking Terms: Defined (or, you know, totally made up)

While you're taking your inventory - consider how big or small the design differences are. I think you'll find that a lot of these differences are VERY slight and cosmetic. Intro-level hacking looks like:

"The Pen Stroke"

A simple pen stroke can scoop a high neckline, or straighten a skinny pant:

Finally cutting into my blush stretch denim to make some straight leg crop pants! #summercapsulesewalong

A photo posted by Becca DuVal (@beccaduvalphoto) on

"The Crop"

A thoughtful crop can turn pants into capris or shorts, or long-sleeve into 3/4 or short sleeves. And ANY set-in-sleeved shirt can be made sleeveless with a simple bias tape finish:


The reverse of "the crop" - you can makeover many pattern pieces by "growing" them. Minis can become maxi skirts, short sleeves can become long... even a placket can be lengthened!

"The Merge" / "The Split"

There isn't a skirt pattern you couldn't attach to a top pattern and create your own dress... Or a skirt that couldn't be detached from a dress - or a dress that couldn't be made new with a skirt-swap. 

"Ok, but what about the not-as-small changes? Like your leather jacket hack?"

What?? This old thing?? (Hah, that's obnoxious, but it's in my top-3-things-I've-ever-made list - so who can blame me??)

This jacket started as the (FREE!!!) Swoon Scarf Neck Cardigan. I altered the shape dramatically by transferring two, vertical fish-eye darts on the back, borrowed from another pattern in my stash.

No - this isn't a tutorial on making the jacket (though I could be persuaded at some point). This is the first skill required for Intermediate Hacking. I call it ....


... and it covers a LOT of the more hacks that make people go:

But it doesn't have to be that way! (Still on the video? Go ahead. Watch it a few more times. Get in your giggles. I'll be here when you're done :) ) You can master transference of design details super easily. All you need is your road map (the pattern) and your measuring tape.

For instance, in the Anthro jacket hack above, I got my back darts transferred on the first try. "How!?" I used the patterns as my map. See - the widest part of my back darts (which, if you've never sewn them before, look like really loooong diamonds.) go at my waistline. Pretty intuitive, right? That's where my body is the most narrow (or, where I want it to look the most narrow anyway!), so that's where I want to remove the most width/fabric from the pattern. I put the darts as far from the fold as on the jacket pattern they came from, and lined up the widest part of the dart at the waistline on my muslin (more or less, belly button height). I simply transferred the darts from one pattern, onto a shape-less one that needed more structure.

More common "transference" hacks?? Switching up your sleeves! Sometimes you have a pattern without sleeves. Sometimes you have them, but you want a different style of sleeves. And drafting an armscye perfectly is a real bear of an undertaking for those untrained in pattern making. You can use THIS method to trace any armscye from one pattern, to alter any other. 

You can apply "transference" hacks to closures, as well. I put the zipper fly and waistband of the Greenstyle Taylor Shorts onto the pant leg pattern pieces of the Jocole Skinny Pants. It was really as simple as transferring those pattern pieces, and sticking them onto another pattern's pant pieces. Super, duper simple folks. 

But then... there's level 3. Which might as well be called "pattern drafting" - but let's call it "Conceptualizing" instead. This is very similar to transference... but instead of moving parts of a pattern piece onto another? You are exchanging ideas from one pattern to another. 

That's when you start to do things like...

Draft your own waistband, and borrow the lined-zipper-technique from the Mouse House Creations Caroline Dress, and use that same method to install a closure on your super fitted high-waist shorts. 

Or realize that you can recreate some sassy lounge wear by borrowing the "twist" concept from this shrug pattern:

And draft your new back piece accordingly:

Hacking Logistics

With our hacking terms defined, it's important to discuss the logistics behind a successful hack:

  • Your "blank canvas" matters! Make sure you have already taken the time to muslin the pattern as-is before you hack it. Otherwise, you won't know if it was the pattern/size as drafted, or your modifications that you need to adjust to get the right fit.
  • Use your existing patterns as your road map. You should be able to use your pattern pieces to identify bust points (use your muslin and your darts as a guide), waist lines (may be marked as the lengthen/shorten line), hip and knee placements, etc. When you're eyeballing your modifications, these are areas you'll need to be aware of. You will match these points when blending two patterns, or as a guide for length modifications. (For instance, that "scoop" neckline might be overly generous if it intersects your waist line! :-O!!! )
  • On that note - when hacking two or more patterns together, it's useful to stick with the same designer. They often use the same proportions, sizing, markings, etc in all of their patterns, and that consistency can help streamline your hacking project.
  • Remember EASE - and that knit patterns will often have no, or negative ease, and woven patterns include multiple inches of ease. You'll have the best luck modifying knit patterns for a knit hack, and woven patterns for your woven hack.
  • The more you hack, the better you get at it. Don't be afraid of failing - your decision to hack is an investment in your hacking education regardless! But, in case your project doesn't turn out...
  • MUSLIN, always! (In case I've been too subtle in my feelings on muslins, revisit this post!) The easiest way to make small tweaks is to throw the muslin on and draw changes onto it directly. The more time you spend planning your hack, the fewer muslins you will need.

Hacking - regardless how complicated - is equal parts planning and faith. Take the time to break your inspiration down into it's most basic parts, match those to features you have already acquired in your pattern stash, and craft your assembly plan. Then keep a sense of humor with you throughout the assembling process. This is a vision ALL YOUR OWN, and your options are literally limitless. It's pretty much a sewing super-power. So even if you stumble for a while, and Tony-Stark-Style destroy fancy cars and blast holes through your home with your rocket boots, be patient with yourself and optimistic in your process. You'll be zipping around the (sewing) world in no time :)

When a Pattern Is Worth Your Dollar

When you think of sewing patterns in this fragmented way... you might start to wonder, "why buy patterns at all??" Let me tell you where I find the most value in new patterns, and deem them worthy of my dollars:

When they teach me something new. How do I sew a keyhole neckline? Who do I sew a zipper fly? How can I sew a clean, professional placket? Many indie designer's patterns are much more than paper shapes to cut out. They double as sewing lessons teaching me the essentials of apparel sewing. Once I learn these skills, I can apply them to other patterns, and build my pattern-hacking-arsenal. 

When I just don't have the time. A fellow sewist in our capsule sew along group told me once that she values her sewing time at $15/hour. I've adopted this mentality myself, and I've got to tell you - if it's going to "cost" me more time to hack a pattern than it would to buy one that fits the bill, you can bet I'll fork over the money to save my sanity. That said, we have to remember my strict ALWAYS MUSLIN policy. Depending on the design, it could "cost" me more time or money to muslin and fit a new pattern. Picking designers I'm familiar with can streamline this process.

Are you a pattern hacker?? What advice would you add? Leave your feedback below!!

New to hacking, or not quite ready to try?? Don't forget to pin this advice to your sewing boards - it'll come in handy later!