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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

    Jul 11, 2011, 03.31 AMby taitai60

    I only very rarely make a toile: expensive fabric, very important dress and sewing for other people would be the only times I would. I find that you can deal with most fitting issues by a) measuring the pattern carefully; b) cutting enough seam allowance and not the miniscule 5/8” added by the pattern companies, which means you have to mark your sewing lines directly onto the fabric; c) experience! Knowing what adjustments you need to make on certain brand patterns is crucial, so you should really also keep notes on what changes you make. For instance, after having sewn a few dresses for my aunt, I know that Burda patterns fit her best and she then only needs an adjustment in back length. I always need an adjustment for protruding shoulders regardless of which pattern I use. When I did some tailoring and pattern making classes, we were taught that the most important point to make sure that you add enough seam allowance is at the shoulder as everything hangs from here and adjustments of an inch are not uncommon. I also agree with previous comments that fitting on yourself is very difficult but digital cameras thankfully helped solve that problem! I haven’t yet tried posting pictures online and asking for help from the community, but next time I am faced with some fitting challenges, I probably will!

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    Jul 10, 2011, 10.36 PMby mje2009

    This year I learned how to make a muslin before making a final dress. I learned a lot along the way but it does take more time. The upside is, is that the final garment fits perfectly and is very comfortable. I am now on my second garment that I made a muslin for first. Sometimes when I want to jump in and make a garment right away, I’ll just use what I know about my basic measurements and proceed with the final fashion fabric. Great article! Thanks.

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    Jul 10, 2011, 06.10 PMby ruthw

    I never make a toile and have no intention of starting to make them. For a start all fabrics behave differently. Even the same fabric in two different colours will drape differently because, yes, the dye can change the drape. My shoulders don’t change size, my shoulder slope doesn’t change, and most garments hang off my shoulders. My crotch depth doesn’t change. My arm length doesn’t change. My swayback is not about to suddenly go away and at my age, my legs are not likely to get suddenly significantly longer or shorter. Once you’ve got those right, the rest is easy and you can get all those right by measuring yourself and measuring the flat pattern. Old-style, we just tack certain seams, try the garment on and then alter, as we go. As long as you do the flat pattern measurements and make sure you don’t cut before you measure, the toile takes too long. I do shoulder width and slope adjustments, any bust (height or fullness) and swayback on the paper pattern, then I cut and usually I make slight adjustments to the side seams (for waist and hip curve) in the sewing process. And I can see how my actual fabric is behaving. It’s really bad advice to say use a cheap knit as a toile before using a better one because they will not have the same stretch or drape. And that’s a certainty.

    1 Reply
    • Marina_large

      Jul 11, 2011, 09.56 PMby Marina von Koenig

      You made a valid point regarding the importance of taking correct measurements and transferring this onto the flat pattern.

      If you work with simple or loosely fitted styles, then you may not need a toile. Now, in some cases, especially when it comes to complex designs and fitted garments this is not enough. Often then you will need alterations that cannot be done just by taking in or letting out some fabric. This is especially true for fabrics that need matching. Yet, at the end, it’s your personal choice to toile or not.

      Finally, I wanted to reply to your comment on knits. It only makes sense to use a cheaper knit for a toile, like it was suggested by one of the commenters. I also added that it has to be a quality knit, and suggested couple of other ideas. Cheap doesn’t need to mean ‘bad quality’. For example, I do make toile in cotton jersey, if I intend to use silk jersey as fashion fabric. I make sure that both knits behave similarly and it works.

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    Jul 10, 2011, 02.09 PMby janul

    Hm, I don´t use toile and I don´t think I ever will… I sew with unexpensive fabrics and work with simple designs, so it´s usually straightforward. Also, my time for sewing is so limited, that if I worked with toile, I would never have the time to work on the actual fabric…

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    Jul 10, 2011, 01.11 PMby angelagerson2

    Thank you for the instructions. i’’m also in the middle contraction of the jacket.

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    Jul 9, 2011, 03.13 AMby fifilina

    Fantastic post! I haven’t made any toiles since I did a pattern making course (ages ago in high school…), it just never really occurs to me.

    But I love the idea of making a toile library and using them as patterns, particularly for staple pants, dresses, etc. that can be made over and over.

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    Jul 8, 2011, 04.37 PMby alicelidell

    I’d love to make this jacket: http://www.burdastyle.com/projects/larissa , and as I don’t really trust myself, I wanted to make a muslin first. What kind of fabric would you recommend using for the toile?

    2 Replies
    • Marina_large

      Jul 8, 2011, 05.54 PMby Marina von Koenig

      What fabric do you want to use for this jacket? How does it drape? If your fashion fabric is rather stiff, you can try inexpensive denim or home dec fabric for toile, but if it drapes softer, a heavy-weight muslin (=unbleached cotton) would work just fine. Heavy -weight should not confuse you – it is still lighter than home dec fabric. Whatever you choose, your trial fabric should be tightly woven and be on grain to avoid distortion.

    • Bendigo_large

      Jul 12, 2011, 11.45 PMby emilybib

      I’ve had the same dilemma (matching garment fabric weight to the muslin) and I found the solution in using old curtains (not the bonded fabric) to make heavier muslins for tailored or suiting pieces. You can often get them at the Op Shop for next to nothing, particularly if they’re really ugly or faded, and you get enough to make a full dress or suit set of muslins, and then recut them for neat patterns, out of a pair of drapes.

  • Skiing_saf_large

    Jul 8, 2011, 01.06 PMby Ankara

    Broad question to the community. While completely agree on concept of toile, I find using, marking and seeing full fit not for easy task for single folk. Do any of you single sewers struggle to either accurately measure, mark or observe fitting issues. Any bright ideas? For me, asking a girlfriend (all now married w/ babies) to come over on any sort of regular basis seems a big ask, or am I just reflecting perhaps part of a bigger societal problem of growing isolation?

    1 Reply
    • Marina_large

      Jul 8, 2011, 03.46 PMby Marina von Koenig

      I am not single, but I sympathize with you because asking my husband to help with fitting is a recipe for disaster :-)) and it takes ages… my suggestion is, before you make a toile, make sure your pattern is very close to your measurements. Make adjustments on the pattern if necessary (take in seams, reduce length of the bodice etc).

      Then, install a camera with a tripod in front of a solid-colored wall and take pictures of yourself from all four sides. You will be surprised how much more you will be able to see on the images. Examine your figure, not only the garment.

      Pin wherever you can reach to make alterations, and make the remaining alterations once you take the muslin off.

      If you are not sure what alterations you need, post your images on online sewing forums and ask for help with fitting – you will get a lot of useful feedback.

      One small advice on fitting, use lengthwise grain (it should be marked on your muslin) as a guide. It is always perpendicular to the floor. This helps a lot if you do it on your own as well.

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    Jul 7, 2011, 09.45 PMby froggypondd

    My mother made me a toile out of the standard dress pattern which fits perfectly, so now any time I’m making a pattern I can just lay my toile over the top to make sure it’s going to fit. It’s particularly important for me because I’m more a petite size than a standard one and I usually have to make things shorter through the waist. It’s pretty easy to trace the new pattern’s features over the top of the standard pattern – which makes life a lot easier!

    2 Replies
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      Jul 7, 2011, 11.02 PMby thecuriouskiwi

      One of my sewing books suggests this. It tells you to take a basic dress pattern and then goes through each possible fitting issue and how to correct it for the perfect fit making it into your “master” pattern to test any new pattern against. I think it’s a great idea and I’m working on my own one right now :)

    • Marina_large

      Jul 8, 2011, 03.16 PMby Marina von Koenig

      exactly!!! the whole hard work with the master pattern/toile pays off, right?

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    Jul 7, 2011, 01.25 PMby hannnc

    I just started making my first muslin today actually! I chose to because its a special garment for my best friends wedding. Though really, it could be good to do for most projects especially while I’m still learning so much.. but as others have said, its hard to spend hours on something you won’t wear. You just have to keep reminding yourself that it’s worth it!!

  • Monjio-1_large

    Jul 7, 2011, 12.18 PMby Monjio

    Nice article! Still to this day I first construct my muslin /toile. For me it is essential, I know for sure that after draping and or patternmaking, my garment will be perfectly made in it’s own fabric!!

    I am especially confident when it is one of a kind client fabric, or it is expensive fabric!! I feel in the long run, it may take some extra steps but in the long run it is time well spent!!

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    Jul 7, 2011, 11.20 AMby Dee Durrant

    Great article – I always do twals of patterns first as it does save time in the end. I always buy this fabric from IKEA – at £1.62 per metre it is well worth doing this rather than ruining expensive materials! I am a novice so I can’t always spot where adjustments need to be made but I’ll get there (someday!).

    1 Reply
    • Marina_large

      Jul 8, 2011, 03.09 PMby Marina von Koenig

      use online communities for help with fitting – there are a lot of people who can help you identify what causes poor fit… helped me a lot!

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    Jul 7, 2011, 06.46 AMby petitejosette

    very interesting. I actually have 4 toiles on my table at the moment ( and a blog update about them to post shortly). I find that making muslins is fast and an easy way to avoid wasting a fabric you love with an ill-fitted garment. It is a bit time consuming when you make a lot of pattern adjustments and make several muslins to check them, but in the end I think it’s well worth it !

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    Jul 7, 2011, 05.47 AMby Ralf Schmitz

    on complex patterns (and on all patterns i ever did myself) i do toiles / muslins and i can not agree more: without, it is not half as good as a result. and YES it is worth the effort. thank you very much for your inspiring article!

    1 Reply
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