I love to create dimension with fabric. What draws me most to fabric as a material is the ability to cut two pieces of flat cloth into shapes that, when sewn together, will bulge and curve outward, or pinch inward, in just the right spots to create the three-dimensional form I have in mind.
I think it's really important to hang onto the inner desire to play with materials. It's easy to get swept up in all the tasks demanding your attention when you run a sewing business, but truly what got you here in the first place was the excitement of playing with fabric and thread and making something new.
Today, let's take some time to play with that most basic of shaping techniques: the dart.
What's a Dart?
In it's essence, a dart is a fold in fabric. Have you ever sewn something that wasn't shaped quite right, like there was an extra bit of fabric that just didn't need to be there? Maybe you found yourself pinching the fabric, wishing that extra bit would disappear? That pinch is the makings of a dart.
Darts are sewn into the fabric pieces before assembly. To sew a dart, fold the fabric and then sew down the length of the fold. Sewing a dart is like making that pinch permanent. You can use darts when you design a sewing pattern to create contours because a dart transforms a flat piece of fabric into one with a three-dimensional shape.
Want to see a dart in action? Pull out a dress, fitted blouse, or skirt from your closet and turn it inside out. Look for short seams at the bust and the hip. Those are darts and they're there to make your clothes fit around the curves of your body.
Learning How Darts Work
Let's do a very simple exercise to see what exactly a dart does to a square of fabric. Here's a square of felt.
This is a single-pointed dart. The deeper the fold, the more of a curve I'll get (imagine a BIG pinch).
A shallow fold will create just a little contouring (just pinching a
tiny bit of fabirc). The line of a single-pointed dart doesn't have to be straight. It could be a convex or concave curve.
Sew darts from the wide end to the narrow end, with the last few stitches right on the fold. Keep stitching after your needle has left the fabric to lock the stitches in place (don't backstitch at the end of a dart or your dart may pucker).
If you're using heavy-weight fabric like I am here, trim away the excess fabric inside the dart so it's not so bulky. Now, when we open up our previously flat and square piece of fabric…
If we want to sew this piece to another piece, remember that the length of the darted side is now shorter than the length of the other three side of the square. We removed some fabric when we made the dart.
Now Let's Play!
The absolute best way to envision how darts work is to play with them. It's time for a dart adventure.
Cut a square of fabric. Cut and sew a dart. Now ask, "What would happen if…" and try it! What would happen if I made the fold narrower? Sew a second dart and find out. Don't worry that the edges aren't square anymore. We're just having fun. What would happen if I made two darts next to each other? Or across from each other? Try single-pointed darts made of concave and convex curves.
Once you're square is full of darts, try a new one, but this time with a shaped dart. What's that? It's a dart that has points at both ends! I love football shaped darts, and diamond shaped darts. The neat thing about shaped darts is that the edge of the fabric is untouched. All the shaping happening in the interior, while the perimeter of the fabric is just as long as it always was.
Just don't be afraid. There isn't some sort of "right" way that sewing has to be. Your Home Ec. teacher isn't looking over your shoulder saying you're doing everything wrong. I started to really love sewing when I realized I could just do it without worrying about it being the traditional "right" way.
What Can You Do With a Dart Now?
First of all, playing with darts on your own really informs your understanding of sewing patterns you're using. Instead of just being told, "Sew the dart," you can see what purpose the dart serves. Why did the designer put a dart there? What would happen if you skipped it?
But more importantly, a dart is tool for your design library. If you've designed a pattern or two on your own, but haven't yet incorporated a dart, go for it. I use darts on the sides of Ruby the Reindeer to make his body nice and rotund. In fact all of my seated stuffed animals have darted sides.
A dart is a simple concept with powerful design capability, and there are lots of other neat ways to play with fabric shaping. If you're interested in playing some more, I highly recommend The Art of Manipulating Fabric (affiliate link) by Colette Wolff. This book is a truly amazing reference that will guide you through playing with fabric in every imaginable way. Colette Wolff designed sewing patterns for dolls and stuffed animals for nearly 30 years before writing this book. Softie designers know and understand the joy of playing with dimension.