Sunday, March 4, 2012

Making a muslin

For years, I avoided making muslins. "What?!? I have to make a rough draft first? That's like, waaaay too much work." And then, after the disappointment of a few ill-fitting projects that now lie in a crumpled heap at the back of my closet, I realized that achieving perfect fit in sewing takes not only skill and experience, but also patience and dedication. I marched on down to my fabric store and bought myself fabric to use in making muslins... 

What's a "muslin"? Muslin is technically a type of thin cotton fabric (at right), but it is often used to create pattern pieces - so "making a muslin" has come to mean cutting, fitting and sewing a rough draft of your garment to ensure you've got the proper fit before you cut into your good (and likely much more expensive) fabric.

I make muslins using whatever inexpensive fabric 
I can get my hands on, usually a thin cotton with no stretch to it - basically, any fabric that is similar in nature to paper flat pattern pieces. That trip to the fabric store I mentioned, I bought a bolt of beige cotton fabric that was marked down because it had grey discolouration running through it. The entire bolt cost me about $6, and will make about 8-10 rough drafts of projects I want to make. 

Give it a try! 
Here, I'm making a pencil skirt muslin...

Cutting the pieces
- cut out the commercial paper pattern pieces in your size
   *if you're unsure at all of the pattern sizing/fit, cut 
     a larger size to be safe
- lay them out on your muslin fabric
- trace the outline using a pen, making any major 
    adjustments you already know you need to add in

With this skirt pattern, I knew the short was too short (pic left)and that I also wanted a little extra fabric along the back seam for the zipper (pic above).

- now transfer any markings as well (ie, darts)
- cut out your new muslin pattern pieces

Sewing the garment
- sew major seams together following 
    your pattern instructions
   *major seams = shoulders, sides, darts, etc
   *use wide stitches, you'll want to be able to 
     rip them out easily afterwards
   *if putting in sleeves, make sure to adjust 
     and sew at your 'true shoulder'
   *this is a rough draft of the finished item, 
      don't bother with hemming or 
      finishing the inside seam allowances!
- try your muslin on, and adjust the fit by taking seams in further as needed or ripping apart and re-sewing areas that need to be adjusted in order to achieve a better fit

Here, the skirt was still too wide at the hips, back darts a little pointy, and look at how the front waistline is higher that the back - I created a new side seam about 1/2" inside the original sewing line, adjusted the darts, and the cut 1/2" off the top front to make sure the waistline was even all the way around. I also decided the taper in the side seams (pic at right) so that the bottom of the skirt would taper in towards my calves rather than hang straight down from my hip.

Finishing the muslin
- lay your garment out on a flat surface
- using your marker, trace a dashed "sewing line" 
    along your stitches
- trim the fabric about 1/2" away from your 
    stitches, this creates your seam allowance
- now rip out your stitches and remove zipper
    (if used)
Using your marker, name each pattern piece so you know what's what and transfer over any other important markings (ie, hemline or changes to dart position).

Voila! You can toss the paper pattern pieces or give them to a sewing buddy, you now have perfectly-fitting muslin pieces of your own to use again and again. Fold them up and put them back in the commercial pattern envelope or use a medium-size plastic zip baggie to keep everything together.

What about making a muslin from an existing piece of clothing? It can be a bit tricky, especially if you don't want to cut up the item into it's individual parts just yet. Just lay the item out on your muslin fabric, and try your best to trace around lines where the item was sewn together. The biggest difference = add your seam allowance! It's already included in commercial patterns (most likely), but you'll need to use your imagination a little if you're trying to create a pattern to recreate beloved items from your closet. Remember - it's a muslin, it's ok to mess it up or have to redo it, the whole point is to play/adjust/fix now instead of after you've already cut into your good fabric! 

What about knits? Honestly, I made one cotton muslin for a perfectly-fitted simple jersey top (from my favourite t-shirt) and I use that to compare against any commercially-made pattern for knits that I intend to use. Is the pattern as wide/long as my perfect muslin piece? Yes? Then I just go for it. The stretch in knits is so forgiving, I usually don't make a muslin unless the pattern is very unique and might not look quite right on my body type without adjustments. But, if you are concerned and want to make a muslin, your best option is to buy an equal amount of cheaper "fashion" knit and test out the pattern first following the guidelines above, and then copy the pattern to a sturdy cotton for future projects. Why not make a muslin out of the cheaper "fashion" knit itself? Knits ravel at the sides, and unless you're interested in putting little weights all around the edges to keep the cut pieces flat, stick with a test run of the commercial pattern and then make your cotton muslin pieces.

Do you have to make a muslin every single time you try out a new pattern? No, not necessarily. If you already have a muslin that is similar in shape to the pattern you want to try, much like with my example of the perfect simple jersey top, you can simply use your muslin to judge if there will be any problems with the commercial pattern's sizing.

But apart from that, don't skip making or using an existing muslin when sewing! Not only do you end up with a properly-fitted garment, but you now have reliable pattern pieces for future garments of the same style. It's a lot faster to throw together a new dress if you know you can count on the sizing of the muslin when cutting out and sewing together your pieces. Having said that, making a muslin does NOT mean you shouldn't still check the fit when sewing your final garment...always try your garment on as you go along. Any changes that still need to be made = don't forget to make them on your muslin as well so the next time things are even more perfect!

Happy sewing!


  1. What a great post! I appreciate the lesson on making a muslin, and what to do with it after. I never thought of taking it apart and using it as the pattern pieces. Thanks!

    1. Hi Heather! Sorry for taking so long to reply, I have been trying to get back to my blog for about 3 months now! Thanks for your feedback, it's much appreciated and I hope you've had a chance to try the muslin part is, the next time you want to make the same item, it comes together so quickly because all the kinks have already been worked out...

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