Have you used a commercial sewing pattern and bemoaned the finished product? Have you looked at someone wearing a 'homemade' dress and wondered why it looked a mess? Have you looked at someone else and wondered who made their gorgeous clothing - they couldn't have made it themselves!
Using a pattern is not the secret to good sewing. Research is the answer.
Before you cut out a pattern you should do as much research as you can. Look for examples of the dress on other people, particularly people with your body shape. The finished product may be shown on a slim young girl - it will not look the same on a well-padded hourglass figure! Make sure you know the correct undergarments to be worn under the garment. Visit the pattern company's website and see if they have online pictorial step-by-step pattern instructions. Look for online dress diaries. Look at who is recommending the patterns - send them an email and ask them why they are recommending the pattern. Ask them why they are 'not' recommending other patterns.
Because of the power of the internet I have chosen not to list the pattern companies I do not recommend. There are some out there that I would not use for certain eras, yet these companies do have some patterns that I have found very useful.
I do however, recommend patterns that I am currently using. Because I teach and sew for a living, I have to be careful of copyright. I have permission from some patten companies to use their patterns, and don't have permission from others. Because of this, I try to steer away from using companies I don't have permission from. I'm not saying I don't admire their patterns, its just safer for me to use the ones I have permission from.
At the moment I am using the Sensibility pattern range - and sell them as well. Jennie Chancey has given me permission to use these patterns in my classes, for my dance display troupe and for small-scale commercial production.
I have heard different reactions from people both in Australia and overseas. Some people love Jennie's patterns and others tear them to shreds. Quite often I hear people complain about lack of historical accuracy - and I'd like to refute this claim. If you have purchased one of Jennie's patterns you will receive an instruction booklet - inside this booklet is the historical background of the pattern. If you are not satisfied with Jennie's research, she is online and happy to answer your questions. Others have mentioned problems with the patterns - please report your problems to Jennie. She is eager to hear from you - and will correct a pattern if it is at fault. She has an "ooops" page on her website with all corrections listed, and pdfs to be downloaded with the corrected piece. She then makes the correction to the next batch of patterns to be sent out.
Also ask yourself - when was this pattern released and what was the market asking for? No matter how historically accurate you wish a pattern to be, does the market want it yet? Jennie's first pattern came out when asking people to wear a "push-up" bra was as much as you could expect of the market. Now people are asking for more accuracy, so Jennie has brought out a pattern to be worn over stays and chemises, plus a pattern for undergarments.
This article is a work in progress and contains my thoughts without any edits or corrections.