American Girl, keep giving us Dolls of Color for Girls of the Year.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Crafting Creatively: Picking Perfect Prints and Fabric

Kit's dress looks good because I started with good fabrics.1
So there you are, doing your first AG sewing project! You've already decided to avoid the Generidress profile--or if you're working with it (because it's a great starter project), you're tweaking it to look like more than that. Maybe you bought a pattern or two from Etsy, or are doing a basic gathered skirt, or something. Either way, you're all ready to cut and sew and make something neat for your doll wardrobe. It's go time!

Wait, no it's not. Don't cut that fabric just yet. Let's make sure that your fabric fits what you're doing. Set the scissors down and listen, cause we can all learn a little something before we get into the cutting. Learn twice, cut once, cause you can't uncut fabric or trims.

There's a lot of good, cute fabrics out there, and a lot of good, cute clothing patterns. I own several patterns and like buying them from Etsy shops. But part of working with an American Girl doll and making clothes for them is working to scale. Like I said with my knitting post, messing up the scale, the print, or the add-ons and not trying to work within some limits for dolls can turn what might have been a nice outfit into a hot, oversized, terrible looking mess. And this is especially true with fabric. I got a lot of my mistakes out as a kid on other doll brands, but I also didn't have the internet to show these failings.2 I fucked it up so you don't have to.

This doesn't just include the fabric, it includes the trims. Let's hop below the cut for the things to do, and things not to do.
That's more like houndsdaggers, there.
Drowning in the Print

This is the first mistake many people make and it's the easiest to correct at step one: picking out prints that are way, way too big for a doll. Fabric prints and designs are generally printed to look good on a human scale, not a doll's, and you're going to need to adjust your mentality to work with it. A print that might fit a dress for a person is likely to be simply too big on an AG--and if it's huge on a person, it's massive on someone 1/3rd the size. AG dolls are on a 1:3 scale roughly when it comes to clothing. So for every inch on a person, it's going to look 3 inches on an AG. And if you're sewing for smaller dolls--some of us do--it scales up and up. That cute polka dot fabric you got with the large spots, when shrunk down, barely works on the doll. That vertical stripe was okay small, but now you've cut a pair of sleeves and it's all off and huge. 

Big on the kid is HUGE on the doll.3
It's really hard to go too small, but it's easy to get too big. Anything much bigger than a quarter is likely to look oversized when you cut it out for an AG doll. Maybe you don't carry a quarter with you to the fabric store but you have your hands, most likely. Make a ring with your thumb and pointer finger--the okay symbol. Anything print that's got a motif or repeating pattern much bigger than that is going to look huge.

Now, there's an exception to every rule, of course. You can do large scale for things that might realistically have a fairly large design, such as yukata and kimono. When I designed Addy's yukata and several others, I went with a large (for her) sunflower style print since the straight style of kimono is so that large, bright prints can be emphasized.

It doesn't look bad.
The print is big, but it's supposed to be. If I had made, say a dress or pants with this print it would have been a terrible idea. And even then, I had to think about the layout and design and size. It would have been way too easy to go too big.

Clash of the Designs

The Colors, Duke.
A lot of new people sewing want to mix and match things, so to avoid the all in one look of a print. So they get two or three or four(!) prints they think will work together and cut the outfit out of various contrasts. Say, the ruffle and sleeves of one and the main body with another, the top of one design and the bottom of another, mixing and not matching.

And then they end up with a big old chaos clothes mess. The eye doesn't know where to go or where to stay when you do so much together. Do I look at the bottom print? Do I look at the pink Paris? Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket? It's all over the place.

Solid colored fabric is not your enemy. If you like that print enough to make it into an outfit but you want a contrast, you can complement that print with a plain solid. Whites, blacks, and matching shades or high contrast within color theory can help bring focus to the print. Generally--and this is me--I don't do more than one print for any one outfit. If the skirt is going to be of a print, the bodice is going to get a solid color. Collars are almost never of anything other than white, or a solid color that compliments. If the dress is the major print, and I'm adding a pinafore, I will probably do the pinafore of a solid white (you can never go wrong with a white pinafore). Bright print top? Solid pants.

Each print is a note or a tune, and if you have two very loud ones screaming at each other you don't have anything but cacophony. Let solids be your harmony and backup.

Match Your Era-sthetic 

What exactly am I looking at here? Cause it's not "pioneer."
Are you making something historical or semi-historical? Then you should make sure the print is semi-historical. Each era had and has popular style prints and aesthetics that were popular, and to go way out of that era by making an older style set in a modern print is extremely, terribly jarring.

Gingham has been popular for centuries, but not on huge scales--Felicity wouldn't have worn it much, but she would have done lots of vertical stripes. Denim has been around for decades but before about 1960 or so, it was what work or field clothes were made of--people didn't wear denim dresses or shirts or even pants casually, because it was low-class and poor to wear denim. (ETA 4/6/16: To clarify, it would have been on casual jeans for around the house buming as early as the 30s, but it wasn't casual day wear.) Glitter lamé ribbon is highly inaccurate for your Edwardian middy dress. Shiny glossy satin is terrible for a medieval dress. And 1850s girls aren't wearing peace sign prints and ladybug buttons.

Don't be afraid of bright colors in historical clothing--most older clothing looks dark or dull because of age and a lack of colorfast dyes and so clothing faded to the muted colors. But this does not mean that you can get away with anything you want--Addy wouldn't wear a neon pink day dress. Don't just grab any old fabric for your dresses. Get some quilting calico in a good scale and some solid mother of pearl or white or black buttons and work with it. You will wreck a cute style of dress by doing it in the wrong style print, and your end result will look amateur and unrealistic.

The dress above would have looked fine without all that damn lime green.

Trim Down the Trim 

The lace is as bad as the print. Josefina's hiding her face, it's so bad.
So we've at least gotten you to pick a nice color print, talked you into scaling it down, and made sure not to use three different prints all at once. And you probably want to add trims, buttons or bits to make a nice look. Good for you! Now let's make sure they're to scale too. It's the same 1:3 thought--three inch long lace is going to look nine inches long on a doll. Inch wide ribbon is three inches. A two inch button is now appearing six inches wide.

For trim ribbon, 1/4" is generally your best bet unless you're doing a wide sash, large hair bows, or oversized trims. Little bows should be in scale to the dress--again 1/4" wide ribbon is nicest. Buttons shouldn't be much bigger than about 1/2". Lace longer than 2" is too much in large quantities unless you're doing a ruffled all the way up petticoat. And if you're adding things like little flowers or roses or accents, make sure they're to scale too.

And don't put too many trims on. A hemline with some lace and a ribbon edge is okay. A ribbon and lace hem accented with bows and then another level of lace and all this duplicated on the edge of the shirt and sleeves and neckline is starting to push it into terrible territory.

Sloppy Cuts and Lines 

Make sure things look their best.
Now, before you cut--before you cut--look at and lay out your fabric. Lay it smooth and press it and prewash if you need to and really get a feel for it. Open it up all the way if you have to and only cut on a single thickness.

Try to make things match along seams. If you're making something of stripes and there's a smooth seam where the pieces would line up? Line them up, so there's no jags. If you're doing a chevron style, make sure the lines match at the seam. Diagonals? Make sure they lay neat. Don't just slap the pattern on the fabric any old way and start hacking at it. Oftentimes a commercial pattern is on sheer tracing style paper, so you can half peek through it to see the underlying fabric. Get a air-erase or a white marking pencil or something that easily comes up, lay the pattern down, and trace around it and look at how that is going to look cut out. Lay out many times, cut once. Patterns give the minimal amount of fabric needed, and buy more than you need--I get a half yard, minimal, even for the smallest item. It's always better to have too much than too little so you can lay things around and decide from there what would work. Is there a bottom edge to the fabric that's designed to be a mini-hem? Place the bottom edge on it. 

Make sure specific designs aren't cut off halfway down. Make sure that, if there's an up way to the print, it's going up--you don't want upside down Anna heads on your Frozen Dress.4 Make sure sleeves look alike--if you're laying out on stripes, open the fabric flat and make sure that both sleeves start at about the same spot.

And plaids? Plaids get their own category, because....

Plaids Will Destroy You If You Don't Respect Them

Plaids are the Expert Level of Clothing.
The first time I read a pattern as a kid, it stated that there should be additional fabric for plaids, one way designs, and the like. So I asked why, and if I could lay out something in plaid, cause I like plaid. I always have. My mom looked at me and said "You don't want to work in plaids yet," and gave me some solids and prints. Then when I did my first plaid design, and she helped me do a layout, I saw why I had to be careful. Plaids are not easy. You will fuck it up if you don't think every step of the way cutting it out and laying it out and sewing it. And this includes gingham, check, or any sort of high repeating square-based design.

Plaids need to be matched. Matched plaids are the sign of professionalism and cleanness in craft. When you're laying out plaids, you are going to need to take your time and do it right.5 Bodices need to come together on the sides and in the back. Items that have two pieces--like sleeves or the bodice sides above--need to be nearly mirrors, and some will need to match to the armhole. You don't cut on the fold--you unfold it and do a double layout. You don't want to cut on a diagonal if you can help it--sometimes on the bias, but not on an off kilter diagonal. Skirts need to make sure they don't tilt to one side or the other, and every piece should be triple checked to make sure that lines are straight and smooth. You want to do all this and do it right so that when you're sewing, it comes together and looks good. Google and read and read and read and read. Don't be lazy.

Most fabric is such that you can fold it over and cut two pieces at once, and the design won't suffer for it. With plaid, this is a BAD idea. The absolute worst. If you decide to cut two layers of fabric at once, there is a chance that the fabric could slip or not line up, and you would not be cutting exactly along the lines you’re trying to match. So unfold your fabric, and lay out each piece one by one--this means some pieces will need to be flipped and reversed or traced to remove a fold--and do them one by one. Yes, it takes longer but it looks better in the end. 

If you're just starting to learn to sew? Back away. Set the plaid down. Don't fuck with plaid until you are ready to do it right or you will get screwed and your outfits will look like absolute trash. 


Everyone starts sewing at a beginner level. I was a beginner once. Yes, a four year old beginner, mind you, and I put together my first doll dress for a Cabbage Patch doll when I was five. But I was a beginner. Even if you are an amateur, your choice of fabrics and trims can hide that. If you pick nice things and work within limits instead of grabbing any bolt of fabric that catches your eye and trying to force it into the pattern, things will look okay.

Even the most simple design can look good in the right prints.
And don't dare fuck with plaids, diagonals, or one way prints until you know what you are doing.  They will whoop your ass and send you crying.


1 I have a million outfits I've made I'd like to do close ups on.
2 In some cases I don't even have pictures, since in the days before digital cameras I didn't have the money to waste film and processing on shots of doll things.
3 Don't get me wrong, I hate both these dresses. But the child one at least isn't too terribly scaled. 
4 Or, you know, don't make loud ass Frozen dresses.
5 Like the S.O.S. Band song.


  1. I appreciate this so much! Especially the OK symbol tip to choose prints, very clever.

  2. I'm a beginner so I really needed this. I'm trying to teach myself to sew and it's turned into a hot mess. This is a big help.

  3. Good post.

    By the way, quilting stores are great places to find historical reproductions prints. Civil war prints are easy to find -- great colors and many of the prints are very small scale. The '30s repros are also good, though you have to pick and choose to get the right scale prints. And there are also solids that co-ordinate with them so that your doll clothes can be in the colors that were popular for the time period.

    Even more fabrics are available online, but it's often hard to judge the scale of the print without seeing the fabric in person.

  4. Thank you!!!!!! Zaina

  5. For fabrics, I REALLY like Michael Levine and their loft store (across the street from the main store, and all fabrics are $1.99 a pound. It's like a treasure hunt... you never know what you're gonna get). There's a bunch of places in LA's Fashion District, but Michael Levine has some of the best fabrics at the best prices.

    Closer to you, Fabric Depot in Gresham, OR, is pretty awesome.

    When I look at Etsy, and clothes for AG and other similarly sized dolls, I GROAN a bit sometimes. Between an atrocious fabric, a terrible pattern, and a craptastic sewing job, the dress is DOOMED. I've found the BEST patterns are from Pixie Faire and its affiliates, and for anyone that LIKES to sew, and CAN sew, they're awesome. And basically every week, they do a "Friday Freebie" and give one of the site's patterns away. Voting starts on Wednesdays, and typically there's four choices. Sometimes it's all for 18" dolls, sometimes it's for a Journey Girl doll or another doll, and sometimes a couple of choices are for 18" dolls and a couple for another sized doll. I highly recommend a looksie there (and no, not affiliated with them).

    In short, you said it all. "Cute" doll clothes require: SKILL on the seamstress' part; an "appropriate" fabric; and a pattern suited for the fabric. Some patterns may be awesome, but put together with a certain fabric, will be truly terrible.

    You see a LOT of that, in horrific mangling, on Etsy. I may have to blog about that myself... the craporific crafting of fellow crafters (but I'm concerned it may be a tad snarky).

    1. Melinda, you're right about the hideous monstrosities people are actually have the nerve to try to sell on Etsy. Can't they see how ugly it is with their own eyes?

    2. "Can't they see how ugly it is with their own eyes?"

      Apparently not. I follow a Facebook group comprised of people who are trying to sell their crafts online. Frequently, people will post pictures of their doll clothes and ask for input about pricing because they just aren't selling. I don't have the heart to tell them that their clothes are so awful that you couldn't pay me to put them on my doll.

    3. you made me laugh so hard. I'm so glad that I follow this blog.

  6. Great post! I'm just coming back to AG as an adult, and I really want to learn to make my own doll clothes. Are there any resources you'd recommend to a complete, total beginner who hasn't sewn anything since pillows at day camp? :) I love your craftsmanship with the clothes you've made, and the totally justified snark at the horrors of other creators. That lime green trim is a bit terrifying! ;D

    1. MyFroggyStuff has great tutorials on her YouTube channel. I would start off with jeans or something using her doll pants/orange blossom tutorial (both of these videos have the jeans, but the latter is more basic).
      Then, try Liberty Jane patterns from Pixie Faire- I recommend the tank top and trendy t shirt, they are both free and easy. There are patterns for skirts, dresses, polo shirts etc. on their website too, which I think are also free.
      Search for 'second chance studio 18 inch doll shirt' and a blog site should come up- New Green mama- with a very easy t-shirt pattern.
      That's all I've tried!

    2. Thanks so much! I'll definitely try those!

  7. Fun post! Since you're in the Seattle area, have you had a chance to check out Gathering Fabric and Keepsake Cottage in Woodinville? (former near the Hollywood Schoolhouse, latter in Country Village) They're my favorite places to buy fabric. If I could sew doll clothes as well as you (I stick to soft toys and housewares like potholders and placemats) I'd enter them in the doll clothes competition at the Evergreen State Fair. When you enter something it costs you nothing and you get a "buy one get one free" ticket for fair admission. Best way to do it is go before 2:00pm on opening day, when parking and admission are free, and hope you win enough money to cover your lunch. Prizes range from $2-7 and you get fun ribbons too.

    1. I know where Country Village is! I will have to go there and look at their fabric selections one of these weekends.

      There's a doll clothes competition? Ooo. I might have to look into that.

    2. Yes, here's a link: http://wa-evergreenstatefairgrounds.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/242

      Doll clothes are class code D12 and doll accessories are class code D13.

      Good luck if you enter, although I don't think you'll need it--your sewing is impressive.

  8. Great post, Neth. I do agree I cannot stand some of the horrible prints used on Etsy. I think this is why I reluctantly used the one dress my grandmother made for Samantha (rest her soul) - the print was too huge for 1:3 scale, but she did take the time to make it for me, so my 10 year old self bit my tongue. The other dress she made for Kirsten was used a lot more since the print was actually to scale that it looked like it fit right into Kirsten's wardrobe.

  9. Thank you so much for the post and for saying all the things I've thought, but kept my mouth shut about. Some folks just have no eye for that, and I see their stuff listed over and over again on Ebay. Do they not understand why their stuff isn't selling? My mom made and sold Barbie clothing and she was such a stickler for scale, her pieces were like mini works of art-then I would see stuff other people made and cringe.

    I always think of a friend who did stained glass and his story as to why he quit going to craft shows to sell his wares. The last straw for him was the day that someone set up beside him selling those ridiculous refrigerator magnets made with foam and glitter. (remember those?)


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