|Kit's dress looks good because I started with good fabrics.1|
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.|
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|
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.|
Clash of the Designs
|The Colors, Duke.|
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."|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.