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Do all garments you sew fit perfectly, readers? Pockets are where you wanted them to be, the neckline is not gapping and is high enough, and there is no ugly pulling on the back of your pants?

I have to confess, my early sewing attempts had a rather low success rate. Whatever didn’t end up in a UFO bin, was worn once at most. This is when I started this self-imposed couture challenge – I really wanted to wear every project I cut, with dresses that fit, trousers that don’t pull, and jackets that have flattering proportions for my figure. Have I achieved it? Yes! With the help of a toile [twal], or trial garment.

What is a toile?
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Toile, also known as muslin in the US, is the name for both, firmly-woven cotton fabric, and a trial garment. Susan Khalje, a couture instructor and contributing editor to the Threads magazine describes a toile in her article ‘Muslin Refined’ as “a fit and design laboratory” and “the essential first test or trial run for any finished couture garment.”

“The toile is used to work out the proportions, the shoulders, the lengths, etc,” Karl Lagerfeld explains in Episode 1 of my favorite couture documentary Signé Chanel. “If you use the real fabric right away you may not get a good fit. It’s risky, so it’s better to work from a basic structure or pattern that’s discarded when the dress is cut. The toile gives you the proportions and an idea of the finished product, so you can avoid making mistakes.”

Why bother making a toile?
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-because those commercial patterns were not designed to fit YOUR body. Sizing helps, but you still need to fit them

-because you can afford mistakes in muslin

-because your precious fashion fabric remains intact until you perfected the fit

-because you can finally dare to make more complex projects without having the fear that you would ruin expensive fabric

-because you can experiment with design ideas directly on the muslin

-because it cuts down the sewing time to a minimum

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This toile made for Susan Khalje’s Little Black Dress Class showed several fitting problems. Photo courtesy of Frabjous Couture.

Believe me, once you have made your first muslin and got the garment you wanted, you will never look back!

The proof is the growing number of home seamstresses using muslins to test-run their sewing projects. Amy, a scientist and a blogger behind Sew Well said she learned about muslins during the creation of her wedding dress, “My dress was made for me back when I had relatively little sewing experience. At first I was uneasy about the muslin process. We were making my dress from an idea I had in my head, and it took many iterations to get to a fabulous dress. Over the whole process I slowly gained an appreciation for muslins.”

What fabric to use for a toile?
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A toile is usually made from an inexpensive unbleached plain-weave cotton fabric. It is easily available in many stores in the US, but if you have difficulties finding it elsewhere, it can be substituted with old sheets, or plain-weave firmly woven cotton. Just make sure the fabric is on grain, so there won’t be any distortion when you cut the pattern. Also, choose the correct weight – your toile fabric should behave and drape like your fashion fabric.

A fashion designer and blogger Magda of MagdaMagda Design Studio suggests using light colors because they are easy to work with. “Also, using a shade close to the one your final garment can be is useful in predicting the visual effect,” she said.

Do I need to make a toile every time I make a new garment?
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IowaHoodlum, who blogs at Feather Petal Silk said “I would ‘muslin’ anything I would not be comfortable scrapping all the fashion fabric, but mostly when I makes the pattern for the first time, though. I disassemble the muslins and use them as the pattern and then keep them for future pattern use after the project is finished. If I’ve changed significantly in size, I can re-sew and refit the muslin the next time I make the project.”

I always make a toile when I…

1. Need to match print, plaids, or any other pattern
2. Work with a pattern or style that has complex details
3. Anticipate fitting challenges
4. Want to make changes to proportions, such as length, or placement of pockets

These are just a few suggestions and, in fact, there are some situations when you don’t need to make a full muslin. Think of a dress with a fitted bodice and a full skirt. If you are under tight deadline, you could make a partial toile for the bodice only. Or, you want to create a different collar for a blouse – attach a muslin mock up to the bodice.

Making a toile is for advanced seamstresses. – False!
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Making a toile does require time and some fitting experience, and if you are a beginner the process may be challenging. However, this is your best learning experience! The good news is that there is a large online sewing community ready to help with fitting or sewing advice. “While participating in the Male Pattern Boldness Men’s Shirt Sew-Along, I would post a photo to the Sew-Along Flickr group of a muslin that I thought looked fine, and almost instantaneously I’d get input on various fitting issues that I hadn’t even seen due to my inexperience,” Amy said. “The kind seamsters would point me in the right direction, say for a square shoulder adjustment, and after I made the corrections to my muslin, I could see a world of difference in the way the garment flattered my husband.”

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The initial muslin draft. Amy ended up adding a square-shoulder adjustment, narrowing the side seams, and adding a lot of length in the final shirt. Image courtesy of MBP-Amy.

She continues, “As someone relatively new to sewing, I’d suggest to other newbies to take advantage of their sewing community, whether that be local seamsters or the online community (particularly during Sew-Alongs). Other sets of eyes on your muslin, particularly fromthose with more experience, can make a world of difference on a final garment.”

Here are some options for getting virtually instant feedback on your fitting and design
challenges:

-Online forums, such as Patternreview.com and the Stitcher’s Guild Sewing Forum

-Sew-Alongs hosted by many sewing blogs

-Couture Classes often incorporate the process of muslin making (check out Patternreview.com for available online options)

Label, store and re-use!
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Labeled muslin.

One final word about a toile. A well-fitted toile is invaluable! You can re-use them, adding or removing design elements, making a few subtle changes in case you gained or lost weight.

Here are some of my favorites:
-A toile I made for a pencil skirt half a year ago has been re-used several times,
also for a dress

-My Chanel-inspired jacket toile is now going to be used to cut a red felt coat.

-What about a pair of fitted pants? I can make them in print, in wool, cotton, linen – I can use this pattern over and over again, raising waist, adding pockets…

My final tip is to label the toile with a permanent marker directly on the fabric. Write your name (if you are not the only one who you sew for), date, pattern name and size, add the name of the pattern piece and store it in a clear plastic bag.

Have you had experience working with a toile? What styles do you reuse more often?

~Marina

Marina von Koenig blogs at Frabjous Couture, documenting the process of learning couture sewing techniques. Visit her blog for a step-by-step tutorial for making a toile.

71 Comments

  • Missing

    May 2, 2014, 05.59 AMby bluetalmeida

    The muslin IS the way. There must be a reason why the most exquisite way to make clothes :couture use the muslin as a base. Books, no books, NOTHING works as a muslin, and I have 40 years of sewing experience

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    Aug 31, 2013, 09.38 PMby Ashlea Nichol Rogers

    This is a techniques which I have never used before. I love fitted skirts, but have always just made A-line or half circle shirts to avoid having to make alterations for my severe hip to waist ratio (110.5 hip, 73.5 waist). I have now been researching how to make a sloper/muslin/toile in my personal measurements. I haven’t had any luck yet in getting the right looking shape of pattern. Everyone seems to give different directions on, “How to properly measure.” I haven’t given up, though. Hopefully soon I’ll get it right. I know this will help fitting my, rather, robust backside.

  • Missing

    Sep 9, 2012, 08.11 AMby plookiss

    I’m currently studying for my diploma in dress making and this article has helped me with visualizing what I am trying to achieve with making a toile. I just wanted to thank you.

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    Sep 7, 2011, 06.57 AMby loulourosa

    I never make toiles (anymore), as I don’t have the time and courage to make one. I know the problems of my body when it comes to fitting, and know what adjustments to make on the pattern (more or less). Maybe I will make a toile when I use verry expensive fabric or for making something special.

    1 Reply
    • Missing

      Nov 15, 2011, 09.43 PMby jschmoe

      I pretty much do the same for the same reasons.

      Thanks, JS from HO Scale Trains

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    Aug 25, 2011, 08.33 AMby ruthieg101

    Thanks for the extra info. Yesterday I was working on my very first pattern. Previously I had made garments (for my daughter) using actual measurements instead of a pattern. And I had found one that I had to make. When I looked at the measuements, I found I had a perfect bust and hip for the medium pattern (on a single size pattern), but my waist measurement was 4.5 inches bigger than the pattern. After searching the internet for tips (and emailing the pattern designer), I added 1.2 inches to each waist measurement of the bodice, then made up a toile and found that my adjustments were perfect. For the skirt, as I wanted it flowy, I just removed 4 of the 6 darts (the two in the back and the two closest to the side seam). I don’t know if it was the right way, but I got the finish that I wanted. I just need to go out and buy my nice fabric. I had never used a pattern before and found making the toile a great experience. Well worth the time. Now I know that I can make up this pattern and get the fit I want. But the problem comes when I want to tailor the dress as it should be, I will have to edit the pattern to include the darts.

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    Jul 16, 2011, 12.30 PMby ruthw

    And also, Big 4 are NOT consistent even in the same “line”. Fuzzyg is right about that as well.

  • Dscn0826_large

    Jul 16, 2011, 12.26 PMby ruthw

    I think that fuzzy does have a point about the growing popularity of muslin making for people who are sewing normal everyday clothes only for themselves, not specialist stuff like wedding dresses on commission, etc. The fact is that a pattern company traditionally has a “fit model” – usually a size 40 – on which all their sizes are based. As well as the standard bust, waist, hip measurements, the fit model has a shoulder width and slope, leg length, waist length etc. And it is consistent in every pattern.

    The reason I LOVE burdastyle magazine WITH A PASSION (sorry for shouting, but it’s the real thing!) is that they give you the ENTIRE SET OF MEASUREMENTS (biceps, neck circumference, you name it, it’s there) and they are consistent in their drafting. I always without fail need to subtract 5cm from the arm length – in fact I never need to measure the flat patterns really. It’s always the same. Burdastyle shoulders always fit me. I always need a swayback adjustment, but it is always exactly the same. So it’s quick and easy to do on the paper pattern I trace without needing to make a muslin.

    With the Big 4, they do not give any measurements except the basic three. You have to measure and calculate everything and muslin if you don’t want cuffs too short/too long, shoulder seams round your elbows or halfway to your neck, etc, etc., bodice too long/short etc, etc. And to make matters worse the large companies have “different lines” (Sandra Betzina, Khalia Ali, etc) and they don’t give the measurements for the different lines, so you have to muslin all over again if you want to try a different line. This is why people muslin so much now and why we didn’t used to. Ironically, we more “choice” but less information about what we are choosing. It is really irritating!

    So now, if I see a pattern from the Big 4 that I like, I just wait a few months ( or weeks) until Burdastyle Magazine brings out something very similar! Kudos to Burdastyle magazine! Class! And thank you, because since I found you two years ago, you have improved my sewing life enormously.

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    Jul 15, 2011, 11.01 PMby Ankara

    Thank you Marina for answering mine and so many other’s questions with detail and thoughtfulness. Great idea on camera and tripod for lots of reasons – now I also know how to take my Burda Club photos and start up loading as well! This is such a super community of learning.

  • Missing

    Jul 14, 2011, 02.48 AMby denecier1

    When you make a muslin, toile, a cheap trial…whatever you want to call it…You don’t actually finish it. It doesn’t take very long because you don’t finish all the seams, do any facings, no lining (unless you need to practice how to do it)…

    All you do is sew up a few side seams maybe a shoulder seam…and try it on your body.

    From reading so many of the posts it seems some people actually make the entire garment from start to finish and then make it again in their fashion fabric.

    So, that’s my “two cents” on the muslin making.

    I personally make muslins because I have a huge bust and smaller waist and hips. According the the pattern directions I usually need a size 22 bust and a size 14 on the bottom. I also have to add about 3 inches of length in the bodice as well. I don’t wear a 22 across my back, shoulders or neckline….so it is just an absolute mess of trial and error to actually get something to fit me…even when I make it myself!

    1 Reply
    • Missing

      Jul 14, 2011, 08.30 AMby fuzzyg

      Actually it sounds like you could benefit from some focused FBA help :-). There’s Debbie Cook’s series of tutorials http://stitchesandseams.blogspot.com/2001/02/tutorials.html which I find excellent, very clearly explained. And for the advanced version, there’s the Full Busted? video by Palmer and Pletsch (and Alto) which covers more styles and more varied situations.
      Once you know exactly how much you should be adding for yourself, and have an idea of how to proceed, you’ll get much more hits right off.. Courage! It can be done.

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    Jul 14, 2011, 02.04 AMby KLKing

    I’ve made bridal gowns and other clothing professionally for 30 years. I would NEVER make a gown for someone without fitting a muslin. The bodice at least. Often, in the case of a full or a-line dress, I would prepare the skirt in the lining layer, and attach it to the bodice muslin. If the dress was a sheath, the the entire garment would be done in a muslin. Every body is different. Very few people are even on both sides. Also, I find that in making clothes for myself,

    every time I do not test the pattern, i waste the fabric. this is due to the fact that i have a short, full body type. The patterns rarely fit the way they are expected to. Usually , the first problem I encounter is in the necklines. Somehow they always are cut too wide, which cannot be fixed once the fabric is cut. That requires pinching in at the center back lines, and removing fabric from the front as well. Whenever i find myself feeling lazy, it usually ends up being a sewing re-do. Another point… Even if the cut is salvageable in your lovely fabric, having to alter the item often WILTS the finished garment. it is so much worth the extra hour or two to cut and sew a simple test.

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    Jul 14, 2011, 12.04 AMby marietake3

    I use old bedsheets to make my muslins. It’s got a nice weave, straight grain and I can toss them once I transfer the changes to the patterns.

    I tend to have to do fittings due to short back and rounded shoulders. My love for princess seams really does require a number of alterations. But then I can make as many as I like!

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    Jul 13, 2011, 03.51 PMby Rebecca Alleyne

    When I did my one semester of sewing classes at my university we first learned the importance of toile, and I was glad for it because I was completely new to garment construction and the toile saved me a lot of headache in running back and forth to replace my fashion fabric. I bought a few yards of cheap plain brown cotton and I still have my a-line and flare skirt toiles that I reuse when I want to make new skirts.

    That being said, I don’t think toile is necessary all the time… because really and truly it doubles your work load. Only if I am definitely unsure about a pattern will I pull out my brown cotton otherwise I find it easier and more convenient to just pin test my garment (pinned alterations before any cutting or sewing is done).

  • Missing

    Jul 13, 2011, 01.41 PMby doris833yahoocom

    Has anyone tried Nancy Zieman’s Pivot and Slide Technique for fitting a pattern. I find it works very well. However I am old, out of shape, have a long waist and SHORT legs and often need to make additional changes on the pattern pieces but for a person with a “younger” shape, it works nicely.

  • Missing

    Jul 13, 2011, 07.31 AMby fuzzyg

    I see a problem with this vogue for muslin-everything that is sweeping the online sewing world. Of course it’s very, very useful for a seamstress to make a basic fitting block for herself. And custom dressmakers are well-advised to make them for their clients. But it used to be that pattern companies used very consistent sizing (Burda was excellent at this), and as a person who sews for herself you could, only once, take the company’s fitting shell and figure out what adjustments you needed to do to to fit your own body. Then you could confidently apply those same adjustments to every one of their patterns and know that you’d get results that would fit you. I didn’t say that you could be confident of good pattern/fabric matching, or that a specific style would suit you :-). Those you still had to learn by painful experience. But at least you could have the size right, and not have to start from scratch with every project.

    Unfortunately it seems to me that this one-upmanship in the couture standards (as if every single summer dress needed to be a work of art) has been muddled with working methods of past custom dressmakers, so that innocent beginners now thing it’s normal to muslin every t-shirt. As a result they have encouraged pattern companies to be even more slack in sticking to their defined sizes. So one now often needs to do a muslin when sewing up the big 4, which seem to be morphing from merely strange sizing to really all over the place. Sigh.

    The truly useful part of a muslin is when you have fabric so precious/expensive that it gives you cold sweats, or that you’re doing some very experimental design (think Miyake or Yamamoto). Then you can see concretely what you’re planning is likely to come to, and make less painful adjustments, or talk yourself out of that wrong path entirely. Most of the time, you should simply make whatever it is out of cheaper fabric the first time (‘wearable muslin’, a misleading term).

    4 Replies
    • Marina_large

      Jul 13, 2011, 04.47 PMby Marina von Koenig

      Interesting comment, fuzzyg! I really don’t think muslin-making is that intimidating, so I would recommend it especially to beginners for number of reasons: to learn fitting, to learn about personal adjustments and fitting, making notes, references, doodling on it, whatever… it’s fun and it’s a personal choice to create a garment that fits. Muslin/toile is a very good mean to achieve that. In addition, one straight skirt muslin = several well-fitting skirts (note, adjustments were made only once – on muslin). I am sure you agree. After all, you also recommend at the end of your comment to make a trial garment in cheaper fabric.

      What I don’t understand is how does muslin-making influence sizing of commercial patterns?

    • Missing

      Jul 13, 2011, 10.10 PMby fuzzyg

      Marina, I don’t think muslins are intimidating, I think they’re a big fat waste of time :-). When overdone, which seems to be becoming the norm.
      As to sizing in commercial patterns, it used to be very consistent (even if you thought a specific company was wrong-headed, it was always wrong-headed the same way). Now that seems to be going by the wayside, and I worry that telling all sewers that they need to muslin every time is encouraging companies to think consistent sizing isn’t important to us.. Does that make sense?

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      Jul 14, 2011, 01.40 PMby adriprints

      I’m an intermediate beginner, and I just wanted to assuage your fears. I read this article, and having learned some basic techniques from a costume (theatre) shop, I know that there’s a time and a place for toiles (or maybe not! ha ha). The article and all those blogs out there recommending toiles as a tools are just that: another option for people to make their clothes fit better. What’s wrong with that? Mass manufacturers will strive for the cheapest/easiest way until consumers stop buying the stuff. I’m glad to hear a dissenting opinion, but you sound somewhat nihilistic about the future of sewing patterns. What has that to do with toiles and guest bloggers?

    • Marina_large

      Jul 14, 2011, 03.30 PMby Marina von Koenig

      Fuzzyg, thanks for explaining. In my opinion, if the pattern quality goes down people stop buying them. I don’t see a connection between muslin-making by home sewists and inconsistency in pattern sizing by the big4, but I understand what you want to say.

  • Missing

    Jul 13, 2011, 01.05 AMby kathnick

    I usually only do this when the pattern is something that needs a perfect fit, or it’s a technique I’ve never used. Or if I don’t quite understand the construction of the garment (I’m a newer pattern follower) I do it to test the technique. I spend a lot of time looking over my pattern pieces, and taking measurements before I do any cutting, and I make adjustments early. My mom always used old sheets, so I do that sometimes too. I have a stash of “testing” materials, so I use whatever I have on hand most of the time.

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    Jul 13, 2011, 12.28 AMby randommixer

    Where’s the finished shirt?!

    1 Reply
    • Marina_large

      Jul 13, 2011, 04.48 PMby Marina von Koenig

      Just follow the link to Amy’s blog – it’s in the post.

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    Jul 13, 2011, 12.07 AMby tortugita

    I thought for years that the only way to get a garment to fit well was to make a muslin, but contrary to the information in this article, I found that a muslin is NOT necessary. The book “Fit for Real People” by Palmer and Pletsch explains how to get a perfectly fitting outfit WITHOUT a muslin. You simply fit the pattern tissue, and fit as you sew. The book has all sorts of wonderful tips on how to alter a pattern so that it fits you just right. I highly recommend it, and you will never have to make a muslin again or deal with an ill-fitting project. The book is not very expensive either, and it’s the only thing that’s worked for me.

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    Jul 12, 2011, 11.37 PMby emilybib

    A few years ago, I picked up a Reader’s Digest home sewing book at an Op Shop (thrift store) for $1. Inside were a very clear set of instructions and black-and-white photos for making a toile, and for adjusting it for all sorts of different body shapes and common fitting problems. I have followed these instructions, strict and stuffy as they are, and have found that my dresses have more often than not turned out beautifully. Some of the suggestions – tucks, snips, re-cuts – seemed drastic, but they all worked! As for making toiles on myself, I tend to spend a lot of time cutting, pinning, guessing, re-pinning and using two mirrors (to see the back!), but then I transfer the toiles to another, neater piece of calico and reuse them over and over. I also save biggish scraps and oddments to use as toiles, so I have different weights available to trial. It does mean that some of my toiles have been multi-coloured, but the results are in the garments!

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    Jul 12, 2011, 07.58 PMby FashionSewingBlog

    The making of a toile is such an important process, and fashion sewers need to understand its importance, even if they do not use it often. It helps in giving a better understanding of ones body shape and even help when it comes to choosing the right sewing patterns for your body shape.

    What I like about using a toile is that I can see my exact body shape and sadly (ha) hows its changed over the years. I mainly encompass its use when making more structured garments and trousers.

    I do have to agree with some of the comments as regards timing and costs or even when to use the process.

    The answer could be – “tissue fitting”. This can hold some of the answers to fitting problems but it is very limited. I personally try to work with both methods and in doing so, reap the benefits. If a problem can not be solved with a tissue fitting, then it can by making a toile.

    The benefits that I gain from making a toile:-

    A better understanding of my body shape. It’s easier to check the portions of a garment you want to make The placement of buttons, pockets and trimmings etc.. Better understanding of how the fabric will drape around the body Source of reference for other sewing projects.

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    Jul 11, 2011, 04.03 PMby aleah

    I never make a muslin. I tried once by using a dress form made of duck tape, but I suppose the dress form didn’t lead to measurements that were correct enough… now I usually “try on” pieces of garments, for example the bodice to adjust darts and pleats. But I would love to make some muslins though, I’m just too darn impatient.

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    Jul 11, 2011, 07.13 AMby ndimi

    Unfortunately I’m an exceptionally impatient person and can’t bear to make something I won’t use. Apart from my sloper blouse, pant, and skirt pattern to get the right measurements, I don’t make toiles.

    I would rather make an item in a cheaper fabric (not muslin) so that it is not exactly a throwaway. The toile is then a dress to wear and not a complete loss of productivity. Of course, if it’s a UFO, it absolutely cannot be used, but usually it can be altered enough to be wearable. Then I remake in the actual fabric. Sometimes this means I end up with 2 similar dresses, other times the “toile” makes me change my mind about the item altogether. There’s something about wearing a dress for a day that gives you far more feedback than wearing it just for a fitting. IMHO, of course. :)

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