A toile ["twahl"] – or a muslin – is an initial mock up of a garment made in cheap fabric so you can check and alter how the pattern fits your body before cutting into your nice fabric.
Why should you make one?
While taking accurate measurements to select your pattern size is a great first step in making a garment that fits you, there is more to fitting than bust, waist and hip measurements. Our bodies are all totally different shapes, whether we have broad shoulders, a sway back, high or low boobies, big guns, a bodacious booty... etc etc. A sewing pattern is a template to make a garment, and may well need a few tweaks to fit your particular body shape.
It may seem like a pain in the bum to make a toile when you’re itching to get on with sewing your dress for real, but for certain kinds of dressmaking projects it will save you time, money and frustration in the long run to do a test run on fabric that you don’t mind going to waste.
So which projects should you make a toile for?
There are some dressmaking projects that are easy to alter to fit you as you sew them, and which personally I wouldn’t bother making a toile for. For example, Coco is designed to have a relaxed fit, is made in knit fabric which has the flexibility of stretch, and because the seam lines are only at the sides and shoulders it’s easy to alter the shape and size as you go along through pinning and basting before stitching for real.
The kinds of projects that I would make a toile for are those that are more closely fitted or that have darts and seam lines across the bodice that you want to position in the right place. For example, the Francoise dress is fitted at the bust with both bust darts and French darts. It also has raglan sleeves which, while easier to sew than set-in sleeves (the kind that are inserted into the armhole at the shoulder as tubes), may need to be tweaked depending on the shape of your upper chest, back or shoulders.
How do you make a toile then?
Find some cheap fabric that you don’t mind using up. Traditionally toiles are made of calico – unbleached cotton. However, cotton prices mean that calico isn’t actually that cheap any more, not in the UK at least, so feel free to use something else like an old bed sheet or maybe some fabric in your stash that you don’t like that much. A lighter colour will help so you can mark any changes on the fabric in pen.
Bear in mind that calico or a cotton sheet may not be appropriate for your toile if the fabric you’ve chosen for your real dress is something totally different. Choose a toile fabric with similar properties to the fabric you’ll be sewing your dress in – so if you’re using a drapey or stiff fabric, stable or stretchy fabric, heavy or lightweight fabric, find a similar inexpensive version of that fabric for the toile, otherwise you might find that the final dress hangs, fits or feels totally different.
Cut out the main pattern pieces of the garment that you need to check the shape or fit of. For example, for the Francoise dress, toile up the front and back dress pieces and (depending on which version you’re making) the sleeves or yoke. You can toile up details such as the collar if you want to see how the shape looks on you or if you want to practise constructing them, but it’s by no means essential.
Thread your sewing machine in a contrast colour thread to your fabric so you can see – and rip out - your stitching easily. Set your machine to a longer stitch length and tack (baste) stitch the pieces together in the order outlined in the pattern instructions. Don’t bother finishing the seams, this is just a rough mock up. And personally I wouldn’t worry about installing a zip or buttonholes – you can simply pin the openings together on the fitting line where the zip or buttonholes will go. Don’t make the neckline facings either – if you’re making a plain neckline, I would trim it down to the stitching line (15mm or 5/8in down), or if I’m adding a collar later I like to draw the neckline on the toile in pen or pencil, notch the seam allowance and fold it down to the stitching line so I can get a feel for how high or low the neckline is.
What do you do once you’ve made a toile?
Now you can try it on and assess how it fits you. Take a look in the mirror – is it hanging nicely? Do you see any areas where the fabric is pulling because it is too tight, or sagging because it is too loose? Can you move your arms, sit down and walk around comfortably? Are you happy with the overall sense of ease? Remember that fit is subjective, so you need to make sure that the amount of ease in the garment feels comfortable for you.
Now you can get to work on the toile, making alterations to fit your body. Some changes may be as simple as lowering the neckline or re-stitching the side seams or raglan seams with a wider or narrower seam allowance. Mark your new stitching or cutting lines (whichever you choose, be consistent) on the toile in pen.
Others alterations may involve moving the bust darts. I like to draw the points where my nipples are in pen (that sounds wrong, but let’s just go with it) and check that the bust darts are pointing towards the nipples but are about 2cm / 3/4in shy of them to avoid the Madonna effect.
If an area is too loose, pinch out the excess fabric and pin or stitch it in place. In the delightful yellow mess a few photos above, you can see where I repositioned the darts and also took out some excess fabric in the upper chest to fit my torso.
Now you can transfer the changes you’ve made to the toile back to the pattern. Trace off a copy of the pattern, measure the positions of the points where you made the changes on the toile and map them onto the pattern. If you slashed open the toile, do the same on the pattern, patching up the opening with spare paper; or if you pinched out excess fabric on the toile, cut and overlap the pattern in this area by the same amount and glue or tape it in place - similar to the way we lengthened and shortened the pattern here.
If you’ve made lots of changes, it’s usually worth making a second toile just to check the fit again. For a more complicated garment you may end up making multiple versions! If I’m more or less happy with the fit but want to test it out in real life, I sometimes make a “wearable toile”, ie. a full version of the garment in a fabric that's cheapo but not totally horrific, and wear it around the house for a day or so to see how comfortable it is to sit and move in.
Once you’re happy with the fit and have transferred the changes to your pattern, you can cut out your real fabric – hooray!
In the next post, I will outline some common fitting alterations that you may want to make to your toile or flat pattern of the Francoise dress. In a later post, I’ll suggest some further resources to help you learn to tackle your own individual fitting issues...