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Fit on the Fly: How to Adjust for the Perfect Fit as You Sew

Many of us sew garments because we want custom-fit clothing, which means we spend time with the pattern making adjustments before taking scissors to our fabric. But do you fit as you sew, as well? Even after your garment is cut out, there are plenty of fit adjustments you can make to achieve the fit you want. 

Purple Dress in Progress on Dress Form

Fitting as you sew means either trying on the garment or using a dress form that’s a good replica of your body shape. On a lot of dress forms you can adjust the circumference at various points. However, it is more difficult to get the vertical measurements right. This is where trying on the garment really pays off.

Before you cut out your fabric, consider adjusting your seam allowances.

The easiest fit insurance you can add is to change all seam allowances to 1″ instead of whatever the pattern calls for. That way, you’ll have a little extra fabric to work with should you need it.

plaid dress with one inch seam allowance

In a typical pattern with 5/8″ seam allowances, adding another 3/8″ on the side seam will give you an additional 1½” total of extra room at the bust, waist and hip. You might be surprised how the fit of the garment can change by letting it out just a little bit where you might need it. Don’t forget to add the same seam allowance to any sleeve seam — in case you do take advantage of this, your sleeve will need to be larger at the underarm seam as well. You can taper that extra seam allowance away as you sew the seam.

Bodice front fit

dress bodice adjustments

Here’s an important fact: most sewing patterns are designed for a person who is 5’5″ to 5’6″ tall. If you are shorter or taller, the vertical measurements might not be a good match to your body shape. Everyone is different — you have have a short torso and long legs, or the opposite. Either way, this means that the bust curve or shoulder height in a pattern may not be a match for you.

One common adjustment is to change the shoulder seam.

Sometimes the dress or top is too big, or the bust point lands below the apex. You can take the garment up at the shoulders. Note that you will also have to adjust any facings or collar as well.

The neckline is another place where you can adjust.

The neckline may be too low for your comfort or just not fit correctly. If you added extra to the seam allowance, you can raise the neckline slightly. Don’t be afraid to take away at the front neckline: sometimes a garment feels too restrictive or high at the neckline. This can be adjusted by making that curve deeper in the center front. 

Use princess seams.

Princess seams allow a lot of leeway in fitting the bodice, taking in or letting out as needed for your figure. Even if you don’t add to the seam allowance, note that if you sew each front princess seam with a 3/8″ seam allowance over the bustline instead of a 5/8″ seam allowance, you can gain 1″ (4 x ¼”) over the front bodice. 

Shoulder fit

adjusting shoulder width on a jacket

Shoulder princess seams are another perfect opportunity to fit as you sew. Choosing a pattern size based on bust measurement often results in a pattern that fits in the body but not in the neckline or shoulders. You can taper some width away front and back at the shoulder using the shoulder princess seam line without making any change to the sleeve insertion. 

Center back fit

center back zipper adjustment

To achieve a good fit across the center back — and thus the whole neckline — it pays to check the placement of the zipper in a center back seam. You don’t have to follow the pattern’s seam allowance for a zipper application.

In the image above, you can see I took out about 1½” on either side of the top of the zipper, tapering away to the regular seam allowance at the waist. This made the bodice back fit well.

If you find you have gaping at the center back on finished garments, leave the zipper application until the last step and baste it in. Try on the garment and see if making some adjustment in that center back seam will give you a more comfortable, better fitting garment. 

Waist placement

attaching skirt to dress bodice

If there is one fit adjustment I always check with I fit as I sew: placement of the waist seam. Depending on your body shape and height, you may have to raise or lower the waist seam on a garment. (Another reason to put in the zipper after the garment is put together.)

Sometimes you have to raise in the back and lower in the front, or the reverse. Either way, you want to create a waist seam that’s horizontal and equidistant from the floor on both the front and back of the garment as viewed from the side.

The big rule: You don’t have to follow the pattern!

One more thing to note when fitting on the fly: It helps to disregard the order of construction in the pattern instructions!

For example, instead of sewing the a dress’s bodice and the skirt separately and then attaching the two together, sew the entire front, the entire back, and then start with the shoulder seams and work your way down the body, pin basting and adjusting fit. This process may take a few more trips back and forth to the sewing machine but the result is worth it for a perfect fit.

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Fitting Fundamentals for Sewers

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Super suggestions!


very helpful- why didn’t I think of that before?


Can you please explain what is a shoulder Princess seam?

Julie Culshaw

The front and back bodice consist of two parts, a center front or back piece and a side front or back piece. These are joined in a seam that goes from somewhere along the shoulder seam down to the waist. The other type of princess seam comes from the armhole down to the waist. The shoulder princess seam has a more gradual curve, while the armhole princess seam has quite a sharp curve for the bust. Easier to alter the shoulder princess pattern than the armhole one.


thank you thank you thank you. In addition to the width issues that I’m always working with as a plus size women, I have problems with length as well,. Not just that it be long enough; easy enough because i’n short, but the visual illusion that front and back are level.

I have a large bust, large rear and a protruding stomach The bust needs extra length but for the waistline on skirts, and dresses and pants my front waist is low but I don’t want the garment to settle at my front waist. Back waist is a different length. skirt fronts are shorter than the back. I can’t tell you how many muslins I’ve started and gotten frustrated with just trying to get length straightened out. Make an adjustment, cut a test, try it and fail and get frustrated. I’ve always left extra at the side seam, it just never occurred to me for shoulder seams. Or at the bottom waist of a dress.

Using your method I cut an extra 1″ at the shoulder seam of a jacket pattern because I’d been having some issues with shoulder seams pulling forward.. I marked the regular 5/8″ as well. Wow. I needed the 1″ (and even a little more) at the front shoulder seam, without adding or taking away anything from the back and my shoulder line – finally – lays on my shoulder instead of pulling to the front. It even fits better in the bust. Although i had to attempt several variations by pin fitting, I only had to cut out and make one test garment because I had the extra to spare and i could just repin and try something else.

Thank you


As I’m 5ft 3ins tall and short waisted I’ve always had to shorten patterns particularly at the bodice. I’ve always done this on the marked pattern lines…until now. Duh! Why hadn’t I thought of shortening the bodice at the shoulders before, an ideal solution for me? Probably because I did what I was told in Needlework class at school. Thank you for posting this brilliant article, it’s going to make a huge difference to the fit of future garments.


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