A dress and a fitting tip that transformed my dressmaking (and the dress)

If you sew a lot of garments, you possibly have one or two fitting tweaks that you’re used to doing regularly. It can take some time to get there to know what you need to do, and it may involve some false starts, too.

For me, the biggest thing that transformed my sewing—specifically the fit of my dress bodices and blouses—was when I realized I nearly always needed to shorten bodices, especially for vintage patterns. Up to a whopping 1.5″, typically less with modern patterns (though I have less of them for comparison since I sew so many vintage patterns).

I’ve already blogged about it, but the “aha” moment (more like “AHA!!!!!!”) came almost two years ago when I was sewing a dress from a vintage pattern. I was faced with a dress bodice muslin that looks mostly fine from the front and then I turned around. Whoooa what a difference. It was all puffy and terrible looking in the back. I was momentarily deflated. (Unlike the muslin.)

While it was an extreme example, I had encountered this a lot up to that point. Not always, so it never occurred to me why it was an issue. But the fit was sometimes off in my bodices—blousy, particularly in the back. The same was true with some ready-to-wear (modern and vintage). I spent a long time never really feeling like everything fit me the way it could, but not quite knowing why since it wasn’t as obvious as the fact that I’m 5″2′ and need to shorten all hems and sleeves.

It finally dawned on me while staring at that particular muslin above that the fix was… a shorter bodice!

It wasn’t something I figured out by reading sewing resources for some reason, and I’d actually shortened some bodices before, so I knew I was short-waisted. But the short torso and blousy back hadn’t clicked for me yet. For some reason it just occurred to me during that muslin that the bodice length was the source of the issue, when I yanked the bodice down in the back and the excess fabric went away. I put two and two together and realized it was puffy because there was too much fabric for my torso!

That muslin above eventually turned into this dress with a smooth, happily puffy-free back, after removing some of the bodice length on the pattern pieces:

Now many months before that dress, I’d sewn another dress with a puffy upper back, too. That one was a wrap dress, and I hadn’t bothered to do a muslin. And you know what? Looking back, I’m actually glad I didn’t, because at the time I don’t think I’d have figured out how to resolve it, and the muslin would have ended up in my muslin bin and I wouldn’t have attempted that pattern again.

But because I was being lazy that one time, it worked out in my favor. The back of the dress looked pretty bad, so I ended up adding in some big darts in the dress which made is wearable, but not ideal by any means.

It hasn’t stopped me from wearing that dress, but I definitely was left hoping I could figure out the fitting issue in the future.

Fast foward. The wrap dress was made in 2015 and the checked dress with the “aha!” moment was made in 2016.

Last spring in 2017, I re-visited the wrap dress pattern, taking my knowledge of shortening bodices for puffy upper backs (puffy bodices, not humans, ha ha) to do the same on that pattern, too. Wrap dresses are a bit wackadoodle by nature but I thought perhaps the torso length was the source of the issue on the first dress since I knew so much of that excess fabric was in my upper back. So I did a muslin, cutting 1.5″ off at the lengthen/shorten line (or drew my own… I can’t recall if the pattern had one or not), and the fit was great. I proceeded ahead with some hoarded Gretchen Hirsch cotton sateen fabric.

And… voila!

Same vintage wrap dress pattern (using different skirts), very different fit in the back!

2016 dress on the left, 2017 re-fitted dress on the right

I mean yeah, it’s a wrap dress so by nature since it’s tied at the waist and open at the back, it moves around a bit and wrinkles up. But there’s absolutely NO big gaping back. It’s an entirely different game. Pretty amazing. And I’m still thrilled about it, which is why I’m bothering to share this so much later. 😉

I think the most fascinating thing is that while I unfortunately don’t have a “before” to show you of the Nancy Drew polka dot wrap dress before I put in the darts in the back, it’s stunning how a measly 1.5″ can make such a difference in fit. Especially considering I remember the size of the darts was more than 2″ (so taking up 4″ of fabric). Of course it wasn’t taken out in the appropriate place, so what a difference an appropriate fix can make to a pattern.

Can you tell I’m a little excited about how this epiphany transformed the fit of this particular pattern??

I love a good wrap dress, and having never gotten my hands on a vintage Swirl brand dress, this is definitely the next best thing! Now I can make all the Swirls I want! I definitely envision some in vintage fabrics this summer.

I took these photos in fall (clearly, as we have like 15″ of snow melting in the yard right now ha ha) but I as I said, I sewed this early last spring and took it to London. So below I was wearing it while enjoying a cup of tea in Shoreditch last April. 🙂

(Sadly I lost that salmon pink Bakelite bangle on the trip. Ugh!)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last several months about my wardrobe (can’t quite seem to pull it together in a coherent blog post yet, though I’ve been trying), and one of the things I’ve realized when assessing my last year or so of preferences is that I’m currently just not really into modern novelty prints (vintage, oohh yes). I never seem to want to pull those items out of my closet more than once or twice. But modern florals are fine—those seem to get worn plenty.

I’ve certainly worn this dress loads, which is saying a lot given the fact that I really don’t typically go for purples. But I couldn’t resist this gorgeous Gertie sateen. I love this dress so much!

I can’t wait for it to warm up so I can wear it again. I’m even toying with a bolero idea that would match the green in it perfectly and I think would make for a perfect pairing. Well, once I get through the other two boleros I have on tap. My knitting needles are busy right now while I’m glued to the television watching the Winter Olympics. 😉

outfit details

vintage wrap dress – made by me
vintage Coro jewelry set – misc. (items acquired separately)
shoes – M. Gemi Stellato

Filed: Sewing, Vintage Wardrobe

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Golly, 44 Comments!

  • It’s a beautiful bodice! Love the gathers at the front and wrap at the back. Like you, I’m 5’2 and run into this a lot. Is the lengthen/shorten line below the armpits?

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    • Also sorry, kind of weird, but I feel strange because I’ve followed you for years and not commented, I think…so anyway, hi, thanks for your blog; I really enjoy it.

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      • Thanks for your first comment! 🙂 Yes, the lengthen/shorten line is below the armpits, below the bust dart if there is one. On occasion you encounter bodice pieces that doesn’t have the line, and I’ve just drawn one in below the bust darts but maybe 2-3″ inches above the waist seam (or if it’s a blouse, above where the waistline would be).

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  • Yay! What a spectacular difference. I always find fitting myself is the hardest part, but I’ve never had anything really come out well without a muslin. Wearable, perhaps – but not as perfect as it could be. I also have back fitting issues, short torso – plus my back “dips” in, so I always need to make adjustments.

    Love the fabric too, brushed cotton is one of my all time favorites. Still great for day wear, but just a little bit nicer than plain cotton.

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    • Thank you! It’s amazing what a difference it made, and I remember thinking it was particularly interesting because it’s taken out the front and back but the front essentially looks the same with or without the adjust–it’s all about the back. This and lowering bust darts are my two main adjustments (well not including hems, I barely count that as an adjustment ha ha) though there are some others I need to do now and again.

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  • The fit now is superb! You look fab.

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  • I remember that dress so clearly – it’s GORGEOUS!

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  • I also suffer from the same issue. Do you only remove length from the back?

    Crazy how much better the fit is with the length removed!

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  • Oh MY GOSH! Tasha you have just changed my life! I have this problem. I tried asking for help on a Ravelry sewing group with pictures, I borrowed 6 or 7 fitting books from the library, searched online, etc. NO ONE discussed this problem. I’m almost crying with relief right now. It sounds silly but I have wanted to sew clothes for myself for years, but I can’t make them fit and I can’t afford a fitting class so I gave up. Now I may be able to make clothes for myself! Thank you!

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    • Oh I am SO happy to hear this will be helpful for you in the future!! It’s an odd problem. I feel like I’ve seen only references like “if you have a short torso, shorten on the lengthen/shorten line” which doesn’t at all help you figure out what the *symptoms* of a short torso might present themselves as in a bodice! Which is weird because there’s tons of resources over other types of typical alterations… full bust / small bust adjustment, sway back, full butt, etc. Always you’re told what could be typical things to look for that you’ll need to know to make the right adjustment, but not usually for a short torso!

      Good luck and do let me know if this works out for you sometime! 🙂

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  • I’ve got the same issue (I’m also 5’2) and it was my biggest hurdle when making dresses. I’ve started doing this adjustment a few months ago (after a long sewing hiatus) and omg, this changes absolutely everything!

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  • Must be something to do with being 5 foot 2 ( and a half in my case). I always need to shorten the bodice too. I will be studying your dress style even closer now I know you have the same “problem”. I find knowing this helps with understanding what sort of styles may also suit my short body!

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    • I think I have the half inch too, ha ha. My typical bodice adjustments are: shortening the torso and lowering bust darts (bust darts on vintage patterns are REALLY high and I even wear vintage style bras that give me a good bit of lift). On occasion I need other things but those are my standbys now!

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  • Yes I’ve been shortening bodices for years and it makes a heck of a difference, do you know when I realised it? Not when making but when I was trying on a vintage fitted jacket and it just didn’t fit, until I lifted it up by the shoulders when on me by about 2 inches and it fit perfectly – well apart from the obviously. It was then I realised! However I do have the additional problem of having a huge bust so that adds difficulty, I’m forever doing double darts at the front for the bust to fit right too.

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    • Yes yes yes about the shoulder lifting! I think that’s part of how I initially figured it out, too! I lifted something up from the shoulders and thought “well why the hell does it look so much better now??”

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      • Yes, I’ve had that aha moment too. You really need a fitting buddy. I don’t have one myself. Do you have one nearby? I think that would be so helpful. I never had any sewing friends in NYC, believe it or not.

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        • Sadly no I don’t really! Which is part of the reason that while I love the Palmer/Pletsch books for sewing instruction, I dislike them for all their tissue fitting techniques. That just does NOT work unless you have a sewing buddy!

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  • Sometimes the simplest fixes really can make a huge difference- I often have to shorten bodices too, so I know exactly what you mean about the puffy back!
    The difference between the unaltered wrap dress and the second one is amazing. That’s so good you were able to figure out what was wrong. That floral dress is beautiful, I can see why you wear it so often.

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    • Thanks! Yes, the difference is quite impressive. Wish I’d remembered to take a photo of the original dress before I put the darts in, for an even greater comparison. Even still doing the shortened muslin, for the first couple of times I wore this dress I kept looking at the back in the mirror, as if I was suddenly going to see it all saggy and baggy. Ha ha! Nope!

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  • I have the exact same problem (and I’m quite small too, so clearly a trend), and like others have said already, I tried to find a solution in books etc and no one seems to be talking about it! I am definitely going to try this, thank you so much. The only thing I’m wondering is does that not end up lifting the bodice too high so the waist of the dress no longer sits on your natural waist? (I mean clearly it doesn’t in your photos, but that would be my only concern).

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    • You’re very welcome, hope it works out for you too! No, this doesn’t raise the bodice too high. Basically the entire concept is that your torso is too short for the torso of the bodice, so you have excess fabric in there above the waist that is causing it to be blousy. The waist is likely sitting in the right place on you because the waist is the narrowest part of the bodice (well probably not all bodices, but the type of things I sew). So don’t use that as the guide– because once you remove the excess fabric, the waist will still be at the right place (the narrowest part) but it’ll be nice and smooth above it instead of blousy!

      So when you take out the excess

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  • Thank you! What a difference 1.5″ makes! I am gearing up to sew dresses this spring and, at a towering 5’3″, I appreciate the timely fitting tip.

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    • You’re welcome! It’s clearly us in the short crew that may need this bodice alteration! Not everyone I’m sure, but from the people I’ve heard from it sounds like many of us. 😉

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  • I think you should wear purple a LOT – that dress looks just beautiful on you! Such a great fit – I think we’re all a little guilty of forgetting to check what it looks like in the back – I know I am! I never have this length issue (being 5’8″) with patterns but I have lots of other fit issues that more than compensate for my “escape” from the length dilemma 🙂 I’ve been working with a pattern (the Kastrup blouse by How to Do Fashion https://www.howtodofashion.com/shop/no3kastrup-printed-sewing-pattern) that is a fitting challenge extraordinaire for me – I have a large bust and forward shoulders – which is why I picked it (I like the styling as well). I thought if I can get this blouse to fit me well, I will have gained some serious transferable skills to fit a lot of other patterns. I’m just on my 3rd muslin (might be a wearable one but we’ll see) and feel as though I’m finally getting there.

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    • Thanks! I just don’t care for purple very much. 🙂

      Good luck with your Kastrup blouse! I went through several muslins on a blouse last summer and it was well worth the supreme annoyance I felt during the process, because now it’s one of my favorite patterns and I can’t wait to make more this summer!

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  • So you only shortened the back piece?

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    • No — I think I said in a comment above but both front and back have to be shortened. Otherwise the side seams wouldn’t match. Even though all the problem *appears* to be in the back, it resolves it by shortening the front and back. (Probably because all the excess fabric just wants to roll to the back anyway so it’s deceptive that it presents as just an issue with the back.)

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  • I love reading all your blogs and fun tips. I wish I was as good at sewing as you. I can’t seem to follow a pattern to save my life, but give me a garment and I can copy it easy peasy. Thank you for taking the time to bless us all with your insights and fun ideas.

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  • I really like the neck piping on that dress. I also like a dress that wraps in the back like that. Super job.

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  • Thank you for sharing. Who would have guessed!? I thought it needed darts too. I have a short bodice (top of my body?) too, so this is a very welcome trick. Please keep them coming. I love your blog and you look fantastic in that purple flower dress. And you have an edelweiss bracelet! Have a lovely day, dear. 🙂

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  • Hi interested to read your comments – I have the reverse problem being 5’8″ long in the back/body! Often find myself pulling bodices down! However, some patterns dont do this – why? Then in a 70’s Ann Ladbury book found out the “misses” range of patterns are on average 15″ long from neck edge to waist, a “womans” pattern is 16.25″ long in the back” those extra inches make all the differnence! It seems to be this way accross all makes of patterns but they call them different things half sizes, womans, misses, etc So now I always measure back bodice piece of a “new” pattern before I start! I mainly sew vintage patterns from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s. I love your blog & am always inspired by your look & makes. I have just started knitting as my Mum was the family knitter and so perfect my knitting looked poor in comparison but age has given me patience and now I like my knitting (even my Mum is impressed!!!!) keep the blog coming as always a lovely read! Many thanks

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    • It’s so interesting to find out all the differences in patterns and bodies, even if it’s sometimes (often) a frustrating process, ha ha! Have fun with your knitting!! 😀

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  • I’m a shortie too. Same problems. I’m not making vintage any more but I do enjoy your blog and your creations. I am seriously impressed by your abilities.
    I’m hoping that there are a lot of vintage fans out there in the UK too as I am in the process of preparing over a hundred patterns to sell on ebay. Such nostalgia, even though I didn’t get around to making most of them at the time. I often found a favourite pattern and used it a lot. The rest were temptations – or my mothers!

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  • […] is another version of Sew-Easy Advance 2944, from 1963. I recently blogged about how in my second version (and here’s the first), I nailed down the fit after realizing the bodice was way too long on […]

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