Ways to copy a garment.

Last time I blogged here, I told you about why I love to copy garments. This time I am going to tell you about some of the ways you can actually do it. But before you start copying a garment I do have a few warnings!

Warning one:

It takes time to copy a garment. Unless there is something you really like about the garment, such as the fit or a particular feature, consider whether it is time well spent. I really like a particular set of my pyjamas. But I’m not especially attached to them and I have seen a well-reviewed pattern out there that is very similar so I’m going to give the pattern a try first.

Second warning:

Different fabrics can produce very different results. If you really want something just like the original make sure you pick fabric just like the original. I learnt that lesson the hard way with a pair of pants I copied. The fabric I picked was slightly heavier and didn’t drape quite as well. My version didn’t turn out the way I hoped and I don’t like wearing them. So choose wisely!

Third warning:

Obviously, if you make the pattern yourself from an existing garment you don’t get sewing instructions. So make sure you have the skills and knowledge to complete the garment on your own. I guess what I’m saying is, rubbing off is more suited to people who have a bit of sewing experience behind them!

You have been warned, so now let’s get on with it.

The “Pin Through” Method

This is my personal favourite. It’s like a sewing sandwich. You put down a nice thick towel, some paper and then your garment. Make sure you turn the garment inside out so you can see the seams! I use the tracing paper I buy in bulk to trace my patterns.

Choose one piece of the garment to copy at a time. For example, for a simple t-shirt you need to copy the front, the back, and the front and back of the sleeve. (The front of the sleeve cap and the back will be different.) Whichever piece you choose to do first, make sure that piece is smoothed out with no wrinkles. Then I put pins in key areas (like the corners) to hold it still. Get a thin, sharp pin, and prick through along the seams. I like the Merchant and Mills pins. I have been known to use a nice sharp entomology pin for this. When you lift the garment up you should have the outline of the piece pricked into the paper. Then you just need play dot-to-dot with your pencil.

When you have finished each piece don’t forget to a label it! (There is nothing worse than having several pieces of paper floating around, and you need to go back and do it all again because you aren’t sure what is what.)

I like this method because it is relatively fast, doesn’t damage the garment and it is accurate.

This method isn’t so great if you are trying to copy something thick. I did try it for a denim jacket, but I had to use so much force to get the pin through the garment shifted and the paper beneath ripped. I ended up using a different method.

Trace Around Method

This is very similar to the pin through method, but it’s the lousy version. None-the-less, I’ll tell you about it. You put down your paper, you put down wax tracing paper and then the section of the garment you want to trace on top. Then you use a tracing wheel and trace along the seams. Sometimes people skip the wax paper and use one of the pointy tracing wheels to leave marks in the paper underneath.

It’s sounds okay, right? Faster than the pin through method!

Here is why I don’t like it:

You need to use a fair bit of pressure to mark the paper beneath the garment. I worry about the “pointy” tracing wheels potentially damaging the original garment. But even more importantly, I find that the pressure you have to use subtly shifts the garment as you trace. I once spent a lot of time tracing a more complex garment this way. When I started checking things at the end something wasn’t quite working. I compared my traced pieces to the original, and found that I’d “stretched” the pieces out in the direction I was tracing. As I’d rolled the tracing wheel along, the garment had also slid along the paper a little. I’m a careful sort of person, and I did not notice at the time, but some of the longer pieces ended up being stretched by 2cm. I haven’t worked out a way to completely stop this from happening so I don’t use this method. And I had to start from scratch copying that more complex garment. At the time, it was a real blow!

Pull it Apart Method  

Once, I bought a pair of pants twice. They were exactly the same - these pants only came in one colour -  but I liked them enough I decided I wanted them in all the colours. So I sent my husband back to the shop to buy another pair of the (on sale) pants. I carefully pulled one pair apart to see how they were constructed and to make a pattern from them.

While this sounds like the simplest way to make a pattern from an existing garment there are some drawbacks and some pitfalls to keep in mind.

One: If you pull apart the original garment you will not have it anymore. Obvious, I know, but if you are trying to copy a garment I presume you probably like it. So think carefully, and don’t do it on the spur of the moment at midnight after a few glasses of wine.

Two: Sewing a garment and wearing it changes it. When you pull a garment apart the pieces won’t be the same as they were before sewing. One of the resources I’ve watched is Kenneth D. King’s class “Jeanius! Reverse engineer your favourite jeans” on Bluprint. He says that it’s better to not to pull garment apart when creating a copy because of the way the pieces get distorted during the sewing process.  

Three: Make sure you are copying the seam lines when you trace your pieces. If you unpick it and you trace the whole piece your copy will be too big.

Four: If you pull apart the original you don’t have the garment to go back and refer to. You can’t compare the fit, and you can’t compare a construction detail that you have taken out and forgotten (personally, I do forget!)

Some of the nice things about pulling the garment apart is that you can check some of the hidden construction (take photos as you go) and I think it can be easier to copy complicated pleats and darts. It can also be a little faster, but it depends on the garment!

What I Call “Pin and Trace”

This method is the most time consuming of the methods I’ve done. But it’s also pretty good and has worked for me when the pin through method hasn’t.

Basically, you baste along the grain lines of the garment you want to copy. And then you mark the cross grain. On a piece of see-through fabric you mark the grain and cross grain. You pin the fabric to the garment, matching up the grain and the cross grain, and then smooth it and pin near the seams. Once it’s pinned in place you trace the seams and features.

I’ve seen this done with silk organza, where all of the pieces are traced onto the same pieces of organza and then copied to paper. (Copy the pieces on top of each other to save organza.) I haven’t done it with organza. I have been known to inhabit some of the more out of-the-way areas of Australia, and if I haven’t had had appropriate light coloured organza in my stash there is no way to get any quickly. I have used Trace and Toile though (because I had it) and that has worked well for me.  

Tape Method

I confess I haven’t ever tried this method myself. It’s the only one I’m mentioning today that I haven’t personally done. But apparently it’s a thing! People carefully put tape along the edge of the piece (just inside the seam), and then fill in the centre with tape too. They seem to use painters tape. Then they lift the whole tape piece off and have a pattern. If you want to try it, I suggest you google it and let us know how it goes!     


So, you might be thinking, that sounds easy enough, but how do you add ease to the sleeve head of a jacket? What do you do once you’ve got the basic copy? There must be more to it than this! Well, there kind of is. Next time, I’ll go into a few more details when I talk about rubbing off my denim jacket, and some of the stuff I had to learn to make it work.


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