Saturday, August 29, 2009

Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Muslin?

Ann from Gorgeous Fabrics wrote a really interesting and sassy blog post a while back called "Ain't No Such Thing as a Wearable Muslin." Her thesis, as you might be able to tell from the title, was that the "wearable muslin" is a contradiction of terms.

In her words:
There is no such thing as a wearable muslin. There are muslins, or test garments, and there are finished garments. The point of a muslin is to test out fit, proportion, style and construction. In couture, the muslin, or toile, is made of cheap unbleached cotton, or similar cheap fabric. It is used to determine fit. Once finished, it is torn apart and used as the pattern for the final garment. It is not worn.

When I hear someone say "I'm going to make it a wearable muslin" that sounds to me like "I'm willing to settle for second best." A muslin is a test garment, not the real thing. You deserve better than second best for your sewing efforts.
It was with these words ringing in my head that I went ahead and made what I called a "test drive" of the sheath dress from Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing. But let's face it, it was a wearable muslin. And though I initially wanted to agree with Ann's points, I have to say that I think there is indeed such a thing as a wearable muslin. And that I'm glad I didn't do a traditional muslin for this project because I don't think I would have fixed all the fitting issues that way. Let me explain.

I'm not sewing in one of them there fancy couture houses. I need my garments to be able to take a LOT of wear - countless sweaty subway rides, weekly wear at the office, being covered in cat hair and de-linted, etc. When you make a muslin, you only wear it around your home, and usually without closures--so a seam might be pinned rather than zippered up. Now, this is a pretty limited way to get a sense of how a garment wears.

My sheath dress wearable muslin was a good example of this. When I had it on in my apartment, I was convinced it just needed a good tuck taken out of the middle of the bodice. Well, because it was wearable, I threw a cardigan over it and wore it to work that very day. Throughout the workday, I discovered what the real fitting issues were--half of the extra length needed to be taken out in the middle, as I suspected, but the other half needed to be taken out of the top of the straps.

I never would have discovered this walking around my sewing room with half of the dress pinned on. And I would have gone ahead and made this dress from an amazing, expensive fabric and not been completely happy with it.

So there you have it. I'm now a believer in the wearable muslin. BUT: I do think it's important to do tissue-fitting first to get rid of any initial issues. I also recommend doing a basted fitting in your wearable muslin, before you go ahead and stitch the seams.

And, sure. There are plenty of times when I would do a traditional muslin instead. Like before making an evening dress or a Chanel-style jacket.

Okay, the soap box is yours now. What do you think about this issue?


  1. Hello Gertie,

    I found your blog a few weeks ago and love it. I have read through all of your archives and can't get enough. I am a very bad blogger, so I admire those who keep up with it.

    As to the muslin question... I agree with both points. Most people aren't making couture garments, so a wearable muslin is a great way to test drive a garment out. As a pattern maker, in the garment industry, basically all the samples that we had made were "wearable muslins". We would fit them on the fit models and make corrections to the production pattern based on their comments. I also make custom couture dresses, then the muslin is used as the pattern. I don't use any paper pattern, when making a couture dress, so all the corrections are made to the muslin before "whack, whacking" into the fancy fashion fabric.

    That's my two cents. Keep up the fabulous work!


  2. I'm enjoying your blog very much since finding it a couple of weeks ago! The Mrs. Exeter post was so good I forwarded it to my other 50-something sewing buddies.

    I'm even more of daredevil than you - I never, ever, ever make muslins, and I started sewing in 1969. If it doesn't work, I finish it and give it to The Salvation Army. I do try on as I go, and I use 1" side seams as Sandra Betzina recommends -- my name is Gail, and I have a problem with instant gratification . . .

  3. I agree with you. I have no idea how a garment is going to wear by walking around my house. The real action is at work and communiting to/from work, where, like you there is sweating, sitting, stooping, bending, etc. I can't tell a darned thing from parading around my living room. Garments that I thought needed a tweak turned out to be fantastic in the real world. Now I may make a trial run just to get the idea of fit for a jacket, but I certainly won't use fabric, but rather swedish tracing paper.

  4. Good post! I am totally enjoying your Vogue sew-a-thon. Keep sharing with us!

    Now I'm gonna r-u-n-n-o-f-t to do some sewing!

  5. I love what Gail said!

    You know, when working with vintage patterns, I think often there's a stage of tracing paper fittings and adjustments that's quite a lot more thorough than if using a regular storebought pattern. After all the time and hair-tearing I put into that stage I feel more justified in going from tracing to "wearable muslin".

    I'm still working my way through this whole wearable/nonwearable muslin thing though by trial & error, but one thing I have learned about myself. OK I already knew it: I'm lazy. And impatient. And addictive in the acquisition of patterns and fabrics for additional projects I am always itching to get started on. Working in muslin too long I just get bogged down, start getting seduced by the idea of other projects, etc-- like the finish line is too far away, and I start cutting too many corners that later impact on fit. I agree with you, Gertie, when you say you discover fit issues when you finish the construction completely, facings, zippers, and all the bells & whistles, and have time to live in it. That and just in the construction, I discover things in the pattern that I didn't realize would be problematic, and learn how to do them, or figure out workarounds before whacking up the "real" fabric. But figuring these things out in wearable fabric, I don't get so bored and discouraged to work through them as in muslin: I can maintain the almost-there excitement that keeps my momentum up and leads to completed garments, rather than a drawer of half-done muslins.

    Also I think a true muslin probably makes sense for people with much greater experience (and eduction/instruction!) than I, who can get a better idea from the fit of a very basic muslin how the end result will be.

    Yeah OK sewing is a great lesson in better patience and perseverance, but- I'm not there yet.

  6. Gertie- I remember Ann's blog post. In my opinion and experience, it depends on the pattern and how comfortable I am with the fit. Every garment I make seems to take on its own life. Sometimes I tissue fit, sometimes I make a muslin and mark it up, and sometimes I use a different fabric to "test drive" it first. It all depends on my comfort level with the project. I don't believe in the right and wrong way of sewing-- for every technique that I have learned, there always seems to be another way of doing it!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I would have to say that you made some very valid points on actually wearing a piece and finding out what really needs to be fixed. The post was by Ann was on point too and all of the comments here offer a different perspective.

    I guess it's all in who you ask, what you are making, and your preferences. I definitely think one shouldn't limit themselves as to what information they will heed because there are 10 million ways to skin a cat.

  9. I live in New Zealand and had never even heard of making a muslin until I read about it on the internet. I think most people here just dive straight in. My Mum has been sewing for 30 years (she taught me to sew) and she has never made one, so I don't even consider it when I'm sewing a pattern for the first time.

  10. I'm in the same league as two of the above posters; I'd never heard of making a muslin until I read about it online, and my Mom is a seamstress by trade and started in the 50s. She's from Switzerland, sewed in England and Canada in the 70s...and has never made muslins. All the clothes she's ever made me, are tried on after each seam is sewn pretty much and thats how I've made what limited stuff I've made so far. I don't think I'd have the patience to sew the same thing twice...I'd rather just adjust it after the fact.

  11. I'd never heard of making a muslin either, before the internet, and I've been sewing for twenty years and amassed a big collection of vintage sewing books. A basic sloper or fit dress, yes - a test run for a really special fabric or design - but not a disposable trial of each and every garment.

    The tradition of home sewing I came up from is more focused on economy than on fashion, and my basic problem with the muslin concept is that it's extremely wasteful.

  12. I step up in defence of wearable muslins!!

    I make them all the time. It has nothing at all to do with second best. I'm very tall and always, always, have to make alterations to fit.

    I hate waste. The idea of making something with the expectation it will go straight to landfill doesn't sit right. If I try my darndest to make a muslin that can be worn, even if just bumming around the house. it's less wasteful.

    Often the muslin serves not just to check fitting issues, but to see if I actually like the style as much as I thought I did before there are any disasterous, irreversible "whack-whack" mistakes....

  13. This week I saw how a true muslin would have been of great use. I was making up a skirt pattern which was new to me, and was too small in the waist. I was lining it, so I added the necessary extra to the side seams when cutting it out, then fit the lining on me as I sewed. Perfect "wearable muslin" idea, what?

    Except I ended up needing to change the front darts pretty substantially, and the side seams gained a strange curve. It wasn't easy transferring those to the outer skirt pieces, and I was left with 1/4" seam allowance in sections of the side seams. If I had used muslin-as-new-pattern, I could have cut everything along the stitching lines, and laid it out on the actual lining and fashion fabric and had them be marked exactly the same and with proper seam allowances.

    But I think I'll be sticking to the "wearable muslin" -mostly because 90% of the time I don't get to the second make up for a year or two. Might as well get some use out of it in the mean time!

  14. I learned along time ago that making a garment in muslin first never produced the desired results in the finished garment. I agree with all the reasons you listed plus my final garments are never in fabric similiar to muslin and since the two fabrics are different you do not get the same results. We've probably all had the experience of making something from a pattern we have used before and sadly discovered that it didn't fit the same as the first item. I do use muslin to make parts of garments where I am especially concerned about fitting issues and this allows me to work out the any serious problems before "whacking" into my fashion fabric. I then use that muslin piece as a replacement pattern piece for the tissue pattern. Perhaps the issue here is terminolgy as opposed to technique. Ann is right about the concept of a muslin and how it is traditionally used but you are right that most of us don't sew from a muslin pattern rather we just want to insure a better fit by making a test garment.

  15. I am trying to be a good girl and make muslins to work on fitting issues, but I will be honest and saw I want instant gratification when I sew!! I want to make an item and then wear it! I have no patience AT ALL!!

  16. Gertie that is such a good point about not being able to truly tell the fit of a garment without wearing it around properly. I have never tried making a 'wearable muslin' before, but I always make my 'test runs' as complet as posible and do things like wear them round the house for a day, do cooking and whatever, to see how I like it. But this is a really good idea- if i'm going to the effort of making the garment up correctly I maight as well make it in a nicer fabric so that I can get some proper use out of the 'test run' as well as the garment itself!

  17. I hate the idea of making anything that will just become scrap or take up space. If it's for a customer that's one thing, you won't use it again anyway as it is a custom fit, but for me, wearable muslin is the way to go!

  18. It seems like semantics to me. What you mean by a wearable muslin takes the preliminary fitting concept of a muslin and takes it to a further step of enabling it to not go straight in the trash or the scrap pile if it ends up working. I think your points about the value of wearing it to work and using fabric with similar qualities to the final fabric are good. I think Ann might not object if you called it a "test run" or something. I do think that the phrase "wearable muslin" has value in that it implies certain things from the word "muslin" -- like the use of inexpensive fabric, the concentration on fit issues, and the idea that it is a step toward a different final garment. Adding the modifier "wearable" means to me that you take it up a level and make something that could be worn if it turns out well, but you are still aware that it might not be usable in the end.

  19. A wearable muslin is surely just sewer speak for I want to make this garment. I'm not sure if it will look great on me, so rather than risk my good fabric, I'll make it up in a cheaper fabric first. If it turns out, proceed to finish the garment to usual standards. I consider this less wasteful than making up a garment in calico that can never be worn.

  20. I tend to think in terms of investment: some pieces are more trendy, off-the-rack items that I'd like to add to this season's wardrobe for spice; others are investment pieces that I expect to have an wear and love for many, many years. I have lower standards for something I picked up at a mall shop that's fantastic for now but won't be in fashion for long than I do for a camel coat, say, or a Chanel suit. Those investment pieces get muslins; the others are for instant gratification and I usually just jump in and make adjustments as I go. My mother never, ever made muslins when she worked or taught me to sew, and I've had to force myself to do so now for the pieces I really want to cherish. On the others, caution meets wind and away we go.

    Viva la impatience!

    BTW, my mom designed high-end children's clothing for years, and one of her best sellers of all time was a little tiered-skirt jumper out of unbleached muslin with rick rack. Wearable muslin, indeed!

  21. I love all the varying opinions here! So interesting to hear of all the people who have sewed for so long without ever hearing of making a muslin at all. That certainly seems to be the VoNBBS way of doing things: to tissue fit, and then to do a basted fitting before finally stitching the seams.

    I also agree with those that felt muslins could be a bit wasteful. I understand the idea that they're meant to be a second pattern, but still: if we can use one pattern instead of two, that seems ideal.

  22. A bit late chiming in... but I definitely make a lot of both wearable and traditional muslins--so I guess I'm on both sides of the fence! If a design is complicated (or something I drafted from scratch), I tend to make a "proper" muslin to start off by testing the fit, dart placement, etc. Sometimes it just saves time to make a full muslin rather than than a working muslin, actually. Other times, if it's a simple design or something I know would work for just bumming around the house in, I'll make a working muslin! If a Happy Sewing Moment happens, I may just end up with a "real" garment and finish it completely. ;) lol.

  23. One of the only muslins I ever made was with a vintage sheath pattern - I wanted it to be 'wearable' so searched for some cheap fabric that wasn't your standard cream-color. I came up with a 2.99/yard beautiful thin cotton in a large two-tone print. I never made the "fancy" version of the dress-the muslin turned out so beautifully! (after some fitting, of course)

  24. Thanks for posting this - perfect timing for me, as I just made my first-ever muslin. I think it is a logical step on the path to becoming a better seamstress. In the beginning, we are so happy to have a dress we can wear, we don't see all the fitting issues at all that further down the road would make us throw away the entire project...
    I am lucky and usually fit into standard sizes without any adjustments. That's why I think I will still make clothes without muslins in the future.
    But I have now just started my very first self-made project (my own design, my own pattern etc), and there just is no way to do it without a muslin. I am using an old blanket for it... I would guess that a muslin only works, if the fabric is approximately of the same weight and stretch as the one you will be using. Otherwise I just don't think it would work, right?

  25. I work in the theater and have never seen or tried on a muslin and the seamstresses there are amazing. They take very accurate measurements, then you come to the first fitting. The costume is put together loosely, only basted in all the critical places, sleeves often not put in at all yet. They will rip apart some of the basting with you in the dress and re-do it, they will put safety pins all over, make new darts, all with you in the dress, breathing, lifting your arms, moving the way you will have to move on stage...
    Then there's the second fitting, where usually everything is just perfect.
    I honestly don't think there would be use of doing a muslin - not with historical costumes anyway, where fabrics are so specific! But they also never make muslins for modern costumes...I have never seen them having to re-do an entire piece or waste material. The fabrics would be too expensive for that. And it works just fine that way.
    I say: Fit as you go! Basically: after every single seam! The feeling of a garment that has been fit to your body so precisely is unbeatable!

  26. I love making muslins...i started making muslins and now recently ?(as in the last couple of hours) i have spent making a bodice foundation, skirt foundation and a sleeve foundation...i now know i have a really long back length a prominent tummy and a different to average hip to waist measurement. I think muslins give a chance to look at the garment without the guilt of messing it up.



Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

© Gertie's Blog For Better Sewing. Powered by Cake