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Worst Kept Secret : Sewing the Hannah Dress as a Novice

Worst Kept Secret: Part 02 reading the instructions and pre washing

By 25th March 20212 Comments

I know, a whole blog post on reading instructions! It seems a little ridiculous but, and it is a big but. I have often been guilty of only scanning instructions or just thinking I know best!

Because I have little to no experience reading dressmaking instructions, it’s hard for me to review whether they are “good” or not. I’m used to the pages and pages of detail that goes into Luna and her friends, but I don’t think that is how it works for dressmaking! 

I decided the best thing to do would be to read through the instructions twice. The first time to let me know what I am up against, and the second to highlight all the terms I wasn’t sure about. It’s not as long a list as I thought it would be! Something I have added in not because I didn’t understand them, just because I want people to know that there are no stupid questions. I googled all the things I wasn’t so sure of and have put simplified Sarah Peel approved explanations below. 

Seam allowance is the area between the fabric edge and the stitching line on two pieces of material being sewn together. Seam allowances can range from ¹⁄₄ inch wide to as much as several inches. Commercial patterns for home sewers have seam allowances ranging from ¹⁄₄ to ⁵⁄₈ inch.

Lay plans is just a technical way of saying layout. The layplan/layout shows you the most economical way to layout the fabric based on your sizing. An accomplished stitcher might prefer to do this themselves to cut down on wastage, but I certainly won’t be going off book! 

Grainline is essentially the weave of the fabric: which direction the threads are running. Straight grain, or lengthwise grain, are the threads going parallel to the selvedge of the material – the uncut edges bound so that they do not unravel. When the fabric is cut at purchase, it is cut on the crossgrain.

Stay stitching is a single line of stitching through one layer of fabric, usually a curve. You would use a stay stitch to stabilise the fabric and prevent it from becoming stretched or distorted. Though you might be tempted to skip this step, it will ensure that your handmade clothing drapes as you would like it to. 

Bias can refer to any diagonal grainline, but it typically refers to the true bias, which runs 45 degrees from the warp or weft.

Darts are used to form a piece of 2D fabric (your pattern piece) to a 3D shape (your body). Darts help shape the material around our curvy parts (breasts, butt, shoulders, stomach, and more), and they do this by closing a wedge of fabric following the shape of your body.

Raw edge refers to an unfinished cut edge on a piece of fabric. 

The selvedge is the tightly woven edge on either side of a width of fabric. The selvedge doesn’t move or stretch the same as the rest of the fabric, so you might want to cut them off (or square up) before cutting the rest of the material.

A loop turner is a handy sewing tool used for turning bias tubing, purse straps and shoulder straps etc. To use it, you pull the loop turner toward you, guiding fabric over hook until it begins to turn inside out.

A rouleau is just a fancy way of saying a roll of material.

Then, of course, we have the Great Washing Debate. It seems like everyone, and their granny will tell you that you absolutely have to prewash fabric, and it has so solid reasoning too. Cotton, for example, can shrink by 5% after washing; who wants to spend hours fitting a garment to find it doesn’t work after the first wash. There is the threat of factory chemicals rubbing all over your hands as you sew.

Mum, however, is very much against prewashing. Years in the garment industry have taught her that nothing is prewashed unless it is for effect. The first disadvantage is pretty apparent – time and inconvenience. Pre-laundering is a significant inconvenience and time cost in the garment industry  – imagine having to wash several fabric bolts before going into production! It is simply not practical, so the industry has developed other ways, which I will mention later.


The second major disadvantage of prewashing is the loss of finish.  New fabric has undergone finishing and pressing, which makes it look nice and polished. This will happen anyway with your finished garment, but fabric finishing makes the fabric easier to handle when laying up, folding, cutting and sewing.

Distortion is another disadvantage of prewashing. In the textile industry, final pressing occurs with the fabric tensioned out flat and squared. Compare this to running a hand iron over a large piece of cloth, with irregular steam and pressure, with most of the fabric hanging off an ironing board – distortion of the grain is inevitable.

Although it is quite different from the home sewing industry, there are many things to take from it.  A great way to reap the benefit of using unwashed fabric while avoiding an ill-fitting garment is to do a test wash and sew according to the shrinkage. 

Once you start measuring your fabrics’ shrinkage, you might be surprised to find out that many fabrics don’t shrink as much as you think. I am lucky to have my mum on my side, who has decades (she will not appreciate that remark)  of experience and has learned which fibres and weaves are prone to change after washing. Some fabrics will always shrink, but armed with the facts; you can now weigh up the pros and cons of pre-washing versus the expected shrinkage of your fabric. Knowledge is key.

 I feel pretty confident to go in without prewashing on mum’s advice because of the loose fit of the pattern and because I’m not planning on making any specific size alterations.  


One thing everyone agrees on is a good steam iron is essential.
Are you Team Wash or Team Not Wash?


All images from the Textiles series by the incredibly talented US Photographer Christopher Payne, you can view his work here


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