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Unselfish sewing - copying a RTW denim skirt

If you are looking for tips on how to copy a RTW garment - please scroll to the bottom :)

In recent times (especially the last year or two), I have been very unwilling to sew for others.  Sewing for the kids doesn't seem as rewarding when they wear school uniform so much, Nick doesn't need anything and I haven't been doing much quilting either.

I usually politely decline any offers to assist friends with sewing tasks, particularly taking in or hemming, unless they are a VERY good friend.  I would rather make myself a whole new pair of pants than fix a hem on mine, so why anyone would think I might enjoy mending their clothes is beyond me...

However, some people are special enough and sometimes the task at hand is interesting enough.

Introducing Nicky's new denim skirt:

Nicky is about to go overseas for 7 months and really wanted a new version of a very worn-in denim skirt she has.

I used leftover Cone Mills denim from Nick's jeans, which made this satisfying and non-wasteful.

I mostly copied the skirt she gave me, but offered her the chance to customise the pockets (I sent her a few examples and she chose one):

I used the same combination of topstitching threads (a mix of blue and green) as I did on my Cashmerette Ames Jeans and some jeans hardware I already had leftover from other projects.

For the final magic trick - I was able to copy the skirt without cutting it up!  There are a few tips on doing this below, but here they are together!

I actually love both of these skirts - one so distressed and casual and the other so sharp and smart :)

If you are interested in copying one yourself, here's tips on how I did it:

Tip 1 - make it easy
It's a lot easier NOT to leave the one you are copying intact.  The first time I did this, I copied a pair of RTW jeans for nick, but they had holes all over the place and he was happy for them to be cut up.  If you have that option - use it!  It allows you to see construction, reverse document the steps etc.

Tip 2 - use a pattern
"But I want the fit of these pants, not from a pattern!" I hear you cry.  I get that, but I still use a sewing pattern for a similar jeans construction to let me review methods for things like constructing the pocket bags and the fly.  In this case, I used the Morgan Jeans pattern from Closet Case Patterns a bit, because it has those things.

Tip 3 - don't do this first (probably)
I am not sure I would have been able to do this if I hadn't already made jeans previously from a pattern.  It's just easier to reverse engineer the steps when you have done them forward at least once!  The downside on this is that you have to deal with fit issues if you use a pattern, whereas you know it fits if you copy a garment...

Tip 4 - measure, measure, measure (then measure some more!)
You need to measure the RTW version a lot, then do it some more.  Measure everything.  Garments of denim curve over time, plus jeans have a lot of curved seams, so you will be trying to measure around curves and translate them to a flat garment. 

Take your time, work out how to measure multiple reference points (i.e. "if this piece is right, the edge of the pocket will be in line with a point about a third of the way up the fly").  These aren't super precise, but they are reassuring references!

Tip 5 - don't forget seam methods, and make your allowances large
Jeans seams can be constructed in various ways (serged and pressed over to one side, then topstitched down, or flat-felled etc).  Take note of how the seams on the RTW garment work and how much allowance you might need to include to reproduce that seam.

You can also consider changing the seam finish to something you like more, just be careful to consider why the seam was finished that way in the first place.  For example, flat-felled seams are "expensive" to make, as they take time and precision.  Jeans makers might just serge and press to the side instead to save money.  However, the front seam on most jeans and skirts of this type is almost always the serged method because of how the fly is constructed - you need to be able to clip into that seam to allow the fly to press nicely to the side.

Tip 6 - do you want to adjust them?
I know we just said we are copying these because they are a great fit...but they could still be a teensy bit too tight or too loose, too long or too short.  Now is the time to make them even more perfect.  Just consider how and where to adjust (i.e. is the additional leg length needed below or above the knee etc).

Tip 7 - how will they wear?  Or really, make them tighter than you think
The garment you are copying is probably already worn in.  It has stretched and moulded to the wearers body over possibly years and multiple washes.  The fit will be very different to how it was when the garment was new.

This is a big dilemma - the balance between comfort now and longevity of fit.  If you make them exactly like the original, they will probably be too loose within weeks.  You need to make them a bit tighter than you think, so they can relax to the best fit possible.  This is only a small amount and the brand new denim will also add some stiffness, so go carefully.  Use step 11 as a guide here.

Tip 8 - consider the grain
Have a look at the garment you want to copy and work out where a seam or piece is on the straight of the grain and where not.  In parts where the piece isn't on the grain or is irregular, match whatever they have done as there could be a good reason why a particular seam is cut on the grain meaning the rest of piece isn't.

The yoke of jeans and skirts is often cut with the grain running the other way (i.e. horizontally rather than vertically), so watch for that and mimic accordingly.

Tip 9 - eyeball measure and compare as you go
As you cut each piece, lay it over the top of the other and check it seems right.  If you haven't cut up the original, you can even fold under the expected seam allowance to check the result is OK.

Similarly, when the two back panels or legs are sewn together, measure from side to side across the full garment width and compare whether this seems correct.  Do it at each step to make sure something didn't go awry and you don't realise until too late.

Tip 10 - sewing order
Think through and document the sewing order.  Particularly re the fly area and how the front seam is sewn.  This is where having a reference pattern is also really helpful.  You don't want to have to unpick things!  

You should also consider in what order to topstitch.  You can do some as you go, but some has to wait until you are sure you don't need to adjust the seam further (see step 11).  It's also painful to re-thread your machine a lot if you are using the one machine only.  The Cashmerette Ames pattern has an alternate construction order for people using one machine, to help you avoid having to re-thread too many times. 

Tip 11 - baste to fit
If you have the person you are making this copy garment for (and it's not a surprise!), use them to test the fit and make sure you are on the right track.

Most patterns have you sew in the pocket bags at the front, yokes at the back, and finish the inner leg seams / front seam.  You then baste the fly area / crotch seam shut and baste the side seams.  You can then try the skirt or pants on (no need to add the waistband) and see whether they feel right.  If you can, you would do this a few times, such as prior to hemming and before you install the waistband button.

Tip 12 - hammer the seams
Most machines struggle with 4+ layers of denim. If you hammer seams and intersect points they will be much easier to sew.  Similarly, hammer wherever you will install rivets.  

I didn't believe this would make much difference until I did it (I am a dumbass sometimes).

Tip 13 - have fun!
This is wonderful excuse to customise jeans with different colour stitching, distressing etc.  There are heaps of tutorials and ideas out there for this and the process of personalisation (even when knocking off an existing garment) is awesome.  

Making stuff like this makes me feel super human :)


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