How to Sew Without a Pattern

Posted by on Aug 07, 2012

Print this Post

Alexandra Grablewsk


To sew without a pattern may "seam" like road-tripping without Google Maps, but Nicole Blum, co-author of "Improv Sewing: A Freeform Approach to Creative Techniques," inspires even those new to sewing to toss aside tricky patterns rife with insider vocab and less-than-guaranteed results. She instead teaches a patternless sewing technique that lends itself to truly custom garments and accessories. 

patternless skirt
What are the pros and cons of sewing with a pattern?

I have really learned a lot about clothing construction by using patterns in the past — there is always a front and a back to a garment, for example, and sleeves attach to the shoulder seam. The paper used for the pattern is nice and crinkly. Sometimes the fit is even right! I think you can see where I am going with my pros and cons list.

I have to admit that I have never tried an independent pattern company, but patterns by the major companies that you can purchase at big fabric stores can be hit or miss. I often end up improvising and making adjustments to improve the fit or overall look. I stare and stare at the pictures provided in the catalogs, but I can’t always tell if I’m going to like it once I’m done. Generally, if I want to use a pattern designed by someone else, I look for very basic designs that seem like they will lend themselves to tweaking.

And sewing without a pattern — what do you dig about it? Any downfalls?

I’m all about making my own patterns. I love how I get to decide what it’s going to look like. Of course, I must make it clear that I really like simple lines and an unfussy look, so my pattern-making is pretty straightforward. Also, I make a ton of stuff out of jerseys and other knit fabrics, so I generally don’t need darts, zippers or other closures to get the fit right (though sometimes they do add a little something nice). 

I guess it is technically not patternless sewing, as I make my own based on something that already fits well. I have found that there is no need to start from the very beginning when there are a million T-shirts out there and one of them is bound to fit just right. A well fitting T-shirt is all that’s needed to make a wardrobe filled with shirts, tunics and dresses that fit you just the way you want.
embroidered lunch napkin
When trying to sew without a pattern, what are the important things to remember?

Even though you aren’t starting with someone else’s pattern, it is important to remember that symmetry is very important for your finished garment. Though you could simply trace a T-shirt onto a piece of fabric and possibly end up with something you like, it is also likely that you will have shoulder seams that are different widths and arm holes that are slightly different as well. Using half of the front panel of a well-fitting T-shirt to create a pattern on a folded piece of paper allows you to make a perfectly symmetrical panel. 

When the piece is unfolded it will be exactly the same on the other side of the fold, and then this paper pattern you just created can be used as the basis of all sorts of tops and dresses (something that is fully explained and laid out in our book, Improv Sewing). 

Any favorite tips when trying to sew a skirt without a pattern?

You don’t need a serger when sewing jersey, but those stitches need to be able to stretch with the stretchy fabric, lest you pop a seam. Also, jersey doesn’t need to be hemmed, bless it. There are so many ways to decorate this skirt. Have I mentioned our book yet?

To make an A-line skirt with jersey fabric you only need three measurements — your waist measurement, the length from your waist to where you want the skirt to fall and the width of that bottom edge (which is determined by the amount of flare you desire).
cover of "Improv Sewing"
Nicole Blum and Debra Immergut are the authors of "Improv Sewing: A Freeform Approach to Creative Techniques; 101 Fast, Fun, and Fearless Projects: Dresses, Tunics, Scarves, Skirts, Accessories, Pillows, Curtains, and More," published by Storey Publishing. Images by Alexandra Grablewski.
Do you have a question for Nicole and Debbie?

You can ask here in the comments or via Facebook or Twitter. If you have a question about a specific item, you can email us an image at

Log-in to Post a Comment: Craftfoxes shadow Google shadow


(1 comment)
  • by

    i am a huge fan of improv sewing!! both in theory and the fab book :) thanks for making such fun techniques accessible to so many sewists!