The Great Unicorn Pants Quest – Part 2

Making the Pattern

By Kitty

Last time, after being wrapped from the waist down in duct tape, I ended up with this:

Now, I just had to turn all this into a viable pants pattern.  Sounds simple enough, until you take a closer look at what I had to work with.

A caveat before proceeding

If you’re not familiar with pattern-making or -testing, please be advised that what I am about to do is NOT the conventional or accepted way to make/test patterns.  I wouldn’t blame classically trained pattern-makers if they wanted to burn me for heresy.  In fact, I myself would never do it this way when I make patterns for my designs.

I’m just sharing what I did this one time, because (spoilers for the next instalment of the series!), after much howling and tearing of hair, it actually worked in the end.  No guarantees that it will do the same for anyone else, but I have the first pair of pants in twenty-plus years of sewing that really, properly fit me.   Maybe seeing the process will be worth something to someone sometime.

If you’re also on this quest

If you’re doing this with me, you will need the following before you continue:

  • A lot of paper.  I used a big roll of brown paper from Staples, but you can also use newspaper or any spare wrapping paper you have lying around.  If necessary, you can even tape together regular old printer paper.  Make sure that it’s big enough to hold your entire duct tape shell with room to spare all around.  If your paper has folds or wrinkles, press it flat with an iron.
  • A pencil or pen, scotch tape, and some sharpies, a ruler, and some scissors you don’t mind using on paper.  Don’t use your good dress-making shears on paper, as they’ll dull in no time.
  • Weights for holding down your pattern pieces so they don’t shift during tracing.  Tinned cat food or tuna works fine if you don’t own pattern weights.
  • Some basic experience working with sewing patterns.  Intermediate skills like truing seams and moving darts would be handy, but not absolutely essential, since these are things you can look up online.  Video tutorials exist for everything these days!
  • And of course, your duct tape shell.

Cutting up your duct tape shell

In theory, you can cut apart your duct tape shell however you like.  But for the purpose of making a standard slacks-type pattern, you’ll want to cut it along the side seam and inseam lines you marked while the shell was still on your body.  

I’d show you what mine looked like at this point, but it would just be confusing, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.  So refer to my squiggly drawing instead; you will end up with a front piece and a back piece, which should look like some variation on these basic shapes:

The cut edges of your shell may look even more wobbly than my drawings; that’s totally fine.

Don’t worry if none of the lines look neat or straight.  Depending on your own body shape, the front and back may look quite uneven, and the leg width may not look balanced at all.  

Unless you have an extremely strange body, the duct tape shell will NOT want to lie flat, which makes total sense.  Your lower body is a whole collection of very 3-dimensional shapes, all of which will translate into a bump in your shell.  Your buttocks, your calves, your abdomen, and any in-and-out bits will all become hills and valleys, which may seem impossible to fully flatten out.

You’ll need to make some cuts into your shell to help with the tracing.  To flatten the buttock area, draw a line (use a ruler if you need to) from the top of the back waist line pointing to the fullest point of your butt, which you marked during the taping process.  Carefully cut on the line up to, but not past, the full butt point.  A dart will open up along the cut, and you should be able to get the butt area to lie (fairly) flat:

If you have a rounded tummy, you can do the same thing in the front — just rule a line from the top front waist line pointing to where the bump looks biggest and cut to open a “dart.”

Unless you have really large calves and small ankles, you shouldn’t need to cut into the lower leg area at all.  After all, we’re making a slacks pattern, and it won’t be very fitted around the calves anyway.  But if, like me, you have very large calves and very narrow ankles, you may need to make a vertical cut down the centre of the calf area.  My calf looked like this uncut:

What happens if you have big calves and tiny ankles

It was just too much, so I had to make the cut just to make the duct tape manageable in this area.

The calf area lying flat(ish) after cutting

After I sliced into the calf, I wound up continuing the cut upward, entirely cutting the back half of my shell into two parts, a centre back and a side back.  I did this because I could not for the life of me figure out how to keep it in one piece and make it behave anything like a pants back pattern (this is why I didn’t want to use my back piece as a sample earlier!)  You can see what I mean here:

So how the $#*% do I mash these two parts together?

I would just have to deal with the two-piece back later in the process.  With luck, yours does not look like this, and you can proceed with the tracing.

Tracing your duct tape shell onto paper

Begin by laying one of your duct tape shell halves on your paper, tape side up.  Make sure you have at least a couple of inches extra paper all around.  Place your weights on it to keep it from shifting as you work.

Trying to keep the duct tape as flat as you reasonably can, trace around the edges.  Keep the pen or pencil perpendicular to the cut edge of the tape; don’t let the tip of your pen go under it, or it will change the size.  You won’t be able to keep it entirely flat, so don’t try.  But at least try to get an accurate flat tracing of the crotch curve.

When you’re done, add around ¾ inch around all the edges except the top and bottom.  This is so you have a little wearing ease plus a seam allowance for when you test the pattern.  I recommend adding at least 1 inch to the top edge, and none to the bottom hem for the moment; this will make life a bit easier during the test fitting stage later on.  You can always add more or less according to your preferences.  It should look something like this:

Allowances added to tracing

It’s obviously easier to add the allowances after removing the duct tape shell from the paper; I left it on in the photo only so you can see what it looks like after the addition.  I’m also showing my side back piece (remember, I divided my back half into two pieces), so don’t worry if your (single-piece back) pattern piece doesn’t look anything like mine.

Since I was making a slacks pattern, not super-skinny pants, I straightened out the leg shape from the knee down, rather than follow the duct tape.  The legs look flared in the photo because I need to accommodate my super-prominent calves; yours will likely look more straight up and down.

Straightening the lower leg for a slacks pattern

I then repeated the tracing with my front piece, which looks more “normal” than my back.  Yours shouldn’t look too different from this, though you may have a dart if your abdomen is more rounded than mine.  I moved the duct tape shell away from the traced front crotch line so you can see it better:

Making the edges match up

Cut out both your front and back tracings.  Now, compare the length of your front and back side seams by putting one piece over the other and “walking” your way along the entire length of the seam.  If they don’t match, trim the longer piece or add to the shorter piece by taping on a sliver of paper, whichever seems to look better to you.  Repeat with the front/back inseams.

The grainlines

This is a deceptively important part of this whole process.  On each of your pattern pieces, mark a line which would have been exactly perpendicular to the floor when the duct tape was still on your body.  

Hopefully this was one of the markings you made during the taping process.  Any line you marked along a dropped plumb bob or straight edge going up and down (you’ll have done this at least for the side seams and maybe inseams) will do as a grainline reference.  Just draw a line parallel to that line on each pattern piece.

Good enough for now!  It’s time to test the pattern in fabric.

Another caveat, and a prescription for patience

Remember, these are very crude pseudo-pattern pieces at this point.  It’s way too soon to start worrying about nailing the pants length or making sure the pattern hem is level.  Just try to make sure that the bits that will be sewn together more or less match.

FYI, it’s perishingly unlikely that you’ll end up with a decent-fitting pair of wearable pants the first time you cut and sew this pattern (one professional pattern fitter once told me that she often goes through ten test patterns per client to obtain a perfectly-fitted pair of pants).  I certainly didn’t, not the first time, nor the second, nor the third or fourth.  If you do, you are obviously not of the mortal plane, and probably have unicorns grazing on your lawn.

Next time, join me as I:

  • Actually make pants from my pattern
  • Completely scrap and rejig my original pattern lines
  • Test the revised pattern, then make alterations, then test again
  • Rinse and repeat, again and again and again, ad nauseam

…until finally, I make a pair of pants that really, properly fits me!  

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