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Charlie Dress Sewalong: Swayback alteration & grading between sizes

Aloha Sewists, and welcome to the Alterations Week for the Charlie Dress Sewalong! Throughout these posts we will be going through as many pattern alteration tutorials as we can physically crush in, relevant to the Charlie Dress. But it doesn't end there - the extra great news is that a lot of these tutorials will be applicable not only to the Charlie, but to a huge amount of other patterns too as we tackle most of the common issues surrounding pattern fitting.

Today, we'll be showing you how to:

  • Alter the pattern for swaybacks
  • Grade between sizes at the side seams for wider/narrower waists

And you will need:

  • Your Charlie Dress pattern
  • A tape measure
  • Some extra pattern paper - we like dot & cross or baking paper
  • Pens, a pencil and a ruler
  • French curves or a patternmaster (optional)
  • Tape - masking tape is good as it is easily removable if you make a mistake
  • Paper scissors

Before you begin, have you read our posts on how to take accurate body measurements, and how to download, print & assemble a PDF sewing pattern

*Click here to be taken to all the posts in the Charlie Dress Sewalong*

Swayback Adjustment

To begin with, we'll be talking about how to alter a paper pattern for swaybacks. Sounds a little scary but I promise it's actually a very simple and straightforward alteration to make, and one that will make the world of difference to the fit of your handmade garms.

So what exactly is a Swayback? And how do I know if I have one??

A swayback is basically an exaggerated concave curve at the small of your back. It can be due to your posture, for example if you're a dancer or gymnast, or it could just be the natural shape of your spine.

If you have a swayback, you'll notice that garments often seem too long at the centre back, creating horizontal wrinkles where the excess fabric pools at the small of your back.

As with most fitting alterations, but this one more than most, it's important not to mis-diagnose! Other fitting issues that could easily be misconstrued as a swayback include:

  • Short torso/high waistline - if the horizontal folds extend around the front of the waistline as well as the back, or the entire waistline falls below your natural waist, try shortening the bodice first. A swayback will only be too long at the centre back, but should fit nicely at the centre front and side seams.
  • Full bust - if you have a full bust, this will elevate the waistline at the front, probably causing it to droop down at the back and create those horizontal wrinkles. Try a full bust adjustment.

The good news is that altering your pattern for a swayback is really quick and easy! All we need to do is pinch out those unwanted folds and thereby shorten the centre back, without changing the side seams or front.

Step 1

Put on your toile and carefully pinch out the horizontal folds that occur across the small of your back. If you have a friend to help you out here, all the better. Pin the excess fabric in order to measure the amount by which you'll need to shorten the centre back.

From the toile, we need to determine how much excess needs to come out of the bodice (above the waistline), so be careful not to pinch out any excess from either the gathered skirt or the 3/4 circle skirt.

Step 2

Now you can take off your toile and measure that unwanted excess. 

For example, we pinched out about 1" of excess fabric at the centre back, sloping out to nothing at the side seams. As a result, we'll be taking out 1" from the centre back length at the bodice back.

Step 3

Take your bodice back piece and your bodice side back piece and mark out the seam allowance lines at the side and side back seams (shown in blue). Make sure you're aware of the side seam and the side back seam, and that you're 100% sure which is which on both bodice back pieces!

Step 4

Then mark 1" up from the waistline at the centre back and draw a smooth line from that 1" mark out to the side seam to create your new waistline (shown in pink). When you get to the first seam allowance of the side back seam, stop your line there and start it again from the seam allowance on the bodice side back piece so that the waistline remains smooth once it's all sewn up.

Trim away the excess.

Grading between sizes for wider or narrower waistlines

Grading between sizes can seem like a quick fix, and used in the right way there's no doubt that it's just about the breeziest method of pattern alteration out there. The important thing to remember, however, is not to be tempted to apply this technique in place of a more serious alteration such as a full bust adjustment. As long as it is specifically your waist that is particularly wide or narrow, and you have a proportional 2" difference between your high bust and full bust measurements, then grading between sizes is a perfectly acceptable way to add or remove a little excess at the side seams.

Diagnosis - Unlike some of the more undetectable issues, this is one that can be spotted on body measurements. In a nutshell, if your waist measurement falls into a higher/lower size category than that of your bust measurement, but your high bust and full bust have a 2" difference meaning that you definitely would not benefit from a full or small bust adjustment, then you'll most likely benefit from grading out or in at the bodice side seams.

Please note: In order to make a printed pattern legible, we often have to spread out the graded sizes ever so slightly to avoid a tangle of lineweights and indistinguishable darts. This makes grading between sizes directly on the pattern paper a pretty inaccurate undertaking! In this case, the bodice centre front, side front and centre back pieces aren't spread out so dramatically that it makes a difference, but the bodice side back is - and the correct way to go about this technique for the latter is to trace off both sizes before overlaying them so they are flush at the waistline, before grading between the two side seams.

Step 1

Lay out your bodice side front piece and begin highlighting your size at the bust and starting down the side seam. 

As the side seam begins to curve out for the waist, gradually and smoothly grade from your bust measurement line to your waist measurement line - whether that be out to a larger size or in to a smaller size. You could use a French curve to help you achieve a smooth line if it helps.

In this case, I have graded from a size UK12 out to a UK16. This process will need to be applied to all bodice pieces. In the case of the bodice centre front and centre back pieces (that are only very slightly spread out but therefore do not have the waistline as a baseline, like the bodice side front above), start highlighting from the top down and grade out, as shown above, but make sure that you stop when you hit the horizontal waistline you continue along the lineweight relevant to your bust size, so as to not add extra unwanted length to the bodice. In the case of the bodice side back piece, which has been dramatically spread out, you will need to trace off both sizes and then lay one over the other, ensuring that the waistlines are flush before grading in/out at the side seams.

Tip from the top: Always check your adjustment by making a toile to check the fit. Once you're happy with your newly adjusted pattern, copy it out onto some card for extra safe keeping! Although this is a straightforward adjustment to make, no one wants to have to do it twice...

  • Elisalex de Castro Peake
  • Charlie DressCharlie Dress Sewalongpattern alterationsewalongsewingtutorial

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