Muslins: What, Why and How

How to make a muslin: Learn what a muslin is, why it is important for a well-fitting garment, and how to make one yourself!

Who else is excited about the Make a Muslin challenge? I know can be a serious drag to make a muslin– we all want to get to a pretty finished garment as soon as possible.  But we want a finished garment that fits right?  I mean, that’s why we sew.  If we wanted clothes that fit like ready-to-wear, we’d just buy ready-to-wear.  After all, it would be a heckuvalot easier, faster, and probably cheaper.  No, most of us sew because we want clothes to fit better than ready-to-wear — to fit our unique bodies, not some hypothetical “standard” body.  And that, my friends, takes a little time and effort.

Before you get all intimidated and quit before you even start, let me assure you that it really doesn’t take very long to make a muslin.  In fact, my typical muslins take about 20-30 minutes!  Less for something simple like a woven tank, more for a complicated garment like pants.  But hopefully we can all agree that 30 minutes (or some multiple of that since you may need multiple muslins) is worth it to end up with a final garment that actually fits.

    What is a muslin?

    Some of you may be asking, “What is a muslin already?”  A muslin is simply a test garment.  It’s not meant to be pretty.  It’s not even meant to be finished.  It’s only purpose is to help identify fit issues so you can fix them before making your final garment.

    “Muslin” is primarily a North American term.  In other parts of the world, it’s called a “toile.”  And it is the part of sewing that most sewists love to hate.  It eats away at precious sewing time, and many see it as a “waste” of fabric since the garment isn’t really meant to be wearable.

    But rather than thinking of a muslin as a waste of time and fabric, I would encourage you to think of it instead as the first step in making clothes that FIT!

    Why muslin?

    Like I said above, a muslin really has one purpose — to identify fit issues.  It’s not really meant to be worn.  It doesn’t have finishes or topstitching or closures.  You don’t even have to cut all the pattern pieces — just the ones you need to assess fit.

    So often I see people in Facebook groups lament that such-and-such pattern doesn’t fit straight out of the envelope, and they blame the pattern without making any alterations to the garment.  This always puzzles me.  If RTW doesn’t fit, there’s no reason to expect a handmade garment to fit without alterations.  After all, RTW garments are made from a pattern — a pattern drafted to fit a hypothetical “standard” body.  Unaltered patterns are the same way.  They don’t and can’t fit every body — that’s impossible.  Instead, they are drafted to a “standard” body intended to give the most people the best starting point for their garment.  That means that some people will need fewer alterations than others, but everyone will need some modification to get the best fit.

    That’s where the muslin comes in — you can’t know what alterations a pattern needs to fit your unique body until you make it.  But there’s no need to spend time on extravagances like seam finishes, topstitching, and closures on a garment solely intended to assess fit.

    How to make a muslin?

    Here’s where another one of my biases will come out — I don’t believe in “wearable” muslins.  I think they’re generally a waste of time, particularly in something as time-intensive as a pair of woven pants. Admittedly, in something like joggers or other knit pants, you pretty much have to finish them to assess fit, so if those muslins end up wearable, that’s great.

    But here I’m going to detail the process that I go through to make a muslin of a new pattern.

    First the true muslin.

    If you’ve never made a pattern before, it’s a good idea to make a true muslin before cutting into any “good” fabric.  This is particularly true if you traditionally need substantial pattern adjustments.  When you make a true muslin of a pants pattern:

    • Make sure you choose fabric similar to your final fabric.  For example, if you’re making jeans with stretch denim, don’t use quilting cotton for your muslin.  Your final fabric will have some small amount of stretch, and something like quilting cotton has none.  You need to use comparable fabric to see how the garment will behave for you.
    • Cut only the pieces that you need to assess fit.  Typically, these are (1) the front leg piece, (2) the back leg piece, (3) the yoke (if any), and (4) the outer waistband.
    • Don’t bother with pockets on a true muslin.  Cut the front leg piece as if there were no front pockets.
    • I often cut shorts for my muslin.  I know that I can adjust the legs on my baste muslin, so for the true muslin I focus on fit through the hips and seat.
    • Baste your pieces together using a long straight stitch.  I use a basting stitch for two reasons: (1) it’s fast so I don’t spent a lot of time constructing the muslin, and (2) it’s easy to rip out if I need to adjust the seams to tweak fit.
    • It’s not a bad idea to sew the seams on the outside of your muslin.  That way you can pinch out excess fabric without having to turn the muslin inside out. But if you think that seam bulk will affect the fit, make sure the seam allowances are inside.
    • Don’t bother with any closures.  If your pants will have a fly, just pin it closed.
    • Don’t finish any seams — that’s wasted work on a true muslin.
    • If you’re nervous about any part of construction (say, installing the zip fly), this is a good place to practice them to get comfortable with the steps.

    This is my muslin of the Itch to Stitch Liana Jeans.  As you can see, they are definitely not wearable!  I sewed the front and back pieces, the yokes and one waistband piece.  I didn’t bother with a zipper — just pinned the front closed.  I also sewed wrong sides together so I could more easily pinch excess out of seams.

      My Liana Jeans muslin. I can tell that I need a small swayback adjustment to remedy the little bit of gaping I’m getting at the center back. I will also deepen the crotch curve just a tad at the inseam. That should give me a tad more room in the inner thigh and hopefully get rid of those under butt wrinkles.

      The other thing I notice from this muslin is that the yoke comes down a lot lower than on my Birkins.  When I do my baste muslin, I will pay close attention to back pocket placement.

      I also muslined the Closet Case Sasha Trousers.  These will be work pants, but since they’re drafted and fitted like jeans, I thought I’d muslin them now!

        My Sasha Trouser muslin. Again, I can tell that I need a swayback adjustment. A little bigger than on the Lianas, but still not huge. Also like my Lianas, I’ll deepen the crotch curve just a little so that I have some more room at the inner thigh.

        Since these will be work pants, I may take a smaller seam allowance in the thigh as well so that the legs aren’t quite as tight.

        Next, the baste muslin.

        You’ve made one or more true muslins and made your fit adjustments, and now you’re ready to cut into your final fabric.  But don’t get ahead of yourself, before diving into detailed construction and topstitching, take a little bit of time to make a baste muslin.

        You see, denim and twill fabrics are fiddly creatures, and each fabric will behave a little differently.  Each will have slightly different stretch, will relax and recover just a little differently, etc.  Because each and every fabric is different, it’s always a good idea on pants to do a baste muslin on every. single. pair.  For your baste muslin:

        • Cut your fabric, but then baste the front pocket facing piece onto the front main piece to give yourself a full front leg piece.
        • You’ll be working with just the pieces you need to assess fit on the baste muslin — the front piece (with the pocket basted in), the back piece, the yokes (if any) and the outer waistband.  Baste those pieces together using a long straight stitch.
        • Put them on and see if anything needs to be tweaked.  You should have a 5/8″ seam allowance to work with, which is plenty of wiggle room for adjustment, particularly since you’ve already done a true muslin and taken care of any major adjustments.
        • This is a good time to fiddle with the back pocket placement.  You probably know that proper back pocket placement is key to making flattering jeans.  The right pocket placement makes your butt look smokin’, and the wrong pocket placement … doesn’t.  You could baste the back pockets on with a basting stitch, but I think it’s easier to just stick them on with a double-sided temporary sewing adhesive.  That way you can easily move them around.
        • Tweak the fit as needed.  Pay particular attention to how the legs fit in the calves — tight calves can have effects all the way up the legs of the pants.
        • After you’ve tweaked and tweaked some more, make sure you record all your adjustments, and then rip out the basting stitches.  Proceed to sew up your jeans!

        Here is the baste muslin for my Birkin/Ginger mash up skinny jeans:

          And my Birkin/Ginger baste muslin. I finished a lot more on these than on the others. I’ve made them before so I generally know how they fit. This baste muslin is to tweak the fit. When I sew the final seams, I will take a smaller seam allowance at the inner thigh and the calf. I think releasing the calf a bit will clear up my knee wrinkles.

          I know that sounds like a lot of steps, but I promise, constructing a muslin goes really fast!  Since you’re not cutting all the pieces and not bothering with any finishes, it’s just a matter of sewing a few basting stitches.  I’m not a particularly fast sewist, but even I can assemble a muslin in 20-30 minutes, tops.  That’s time well spent if it reveals a major fitting issue and saves you from wasting your good fabric on a garment that doesn’t fit!

          Which camp are you in — do you muslin every new pattern or avoid it like the plague?

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