Helene Jeans: Studying the Fit

If I tally up all the time I spend on a big sewing project, most of it is NOT spent sewing. It’s not even spent on fitting the toile (thanks, Top Down Center Out!). Rather, the majority of my time is spent studying the pattern, researching the details, and crystalizing my vision for what I want the garment to be. In today’s post, I’ll share some of the research that went into my latest project, the Helene jeans from Anna Allen.

Anna describes this pattern as “traditional, high waist, non-stretch jeans pattern” that is “based on heritage denim the 1930’s -1960s”. Importantly, Anna also says that she drafted the Helene jeans to have “more wearing ease” compared to her other patterns like the Persephone pants.

To understand this pattern, I went down the denim rabbit hole to learn more about heritage denim and vintage jeans styles. The term “heritage denim” refers to classic, timeless jeans styles that have been worn for about a century, typically as menswear and originally as workwear.

Traditional denim styles have not changed much in the last century. Left, men wearing denim in the 1950s. Right, a couple wearing heritage denim today.

I wanted to understand the fit of these classic styles, so I began to collect images of men and women wearing jeans from the 1930s through mid 1950s. These images all show some common hallmarks for fit: a high waist, a straight leg, a long fly (which helps to get in and out of the plants easily). There is also noticeable ease in the crotch seam, hip circumference, and back leg.

Princess Alexandra of Kent wears selvedge denim jeans to play tennis in 1954. Image from Elle magazine.

I love the image above because it shows the fit details so well (and IMHO is a dead ringer for the Helene jeans), but the fact that Princess Alexandra is actually playing tennis in her jeans tells me that this garment was comfortable enough (and had enough ease) for a wide range of movement.

The full mood board with more vintage denim examples can be found here.

A selection of images from my Pinterest board showing the fit of women’s selvedge denim styles, all likely dating to the 1940s. Notice plenty of ease in the crotch and hip for movement.

The next clue about the intended fit of the Helene jeans comes from the size chart. The Helenes have 2 inches (5cm) of ease at both the waist and the hip for all sizes. This amount of ease in a heavyweight, non-stretch denim signals to me that these jeans are not intended to be tight through the hip, crotch seam, or thigh, and it is consistent with the vintage fitting details noted above.

I noticed that even the line drawings for the pattern show where the ease is supposed to be. There are ease lines drawn at the crotch, hip, and back of the leg, indicating that we should expect to see some excess fabric there. It’s subtle, but intentional.

Finally, I looked through the Helene jeans hashtag on IG, which is filled with some fabulous jeans that fit very much like the vintage photos above: super high waist, extra long fly, plenty of wearing ease in the crotch, hips, and back of the leg.

The only thing that seemed to disagree was the Helene jeans sample photos from Anna Allen herself. To me, the photos on the pattern website look noticeably more snug in the the hip and thigh than they do in the hashtag. This discrepancy may be the reason that a number of makers seemed unhappy with the amount of ease in the crotch and back leg on their Helenes, even though this is a hallmark of the heritage denim style. I emailed Anna to ask about the sample photos, and she confirmed the samples had 2 inches of ease in the hip, plus some vertical ease in the crotch seam.

Differences in the type of denim used for the samples or in body anatomy could explain the visual discrepancy here, but I decided not to rely on the sample photos to inform my fitting expectations. I choose to rely more on the vintage inspiration photos and the hashtag posts as my guide for the intended fit. To me, Helene is a throwback to a classic, rigid denim jean; it has a straight leg with a super high waist, and a bit of room in the crotch, thigh, and back of the leg to allow for comfort and movement.

Drafting

After studying the historical record for fitting clues, I turned to the drafting to understand how the drafting creates the unique fit. I’ll be focusing my analysis on the lower size range, View B (the slim straight leg), because that’s what I made. Many of the observations in this post are applicable to all views, though.

The most interesting and unique part of this pattern is the straight edge along the side seam, which allows us to use selvedge denim. Selvedge denim has a self-finished edge, and it is generally seen as being higher quality and having more character than other denims available today.

Selvedge denim (left) and non-selvedge denim (right)

All denim from the 19o0s-1950s was selvedge denim, and originally all jeans patterns had a straight side seam to make efficient use of these ~30 inch wide fabrics. The straight side seam can be positioned along the selvedge edge, saving precious cutting space.

But this pattern is not just about cutting layout efficiency, the straight side seam has a number of implications for the fit and fitting of the garment.

First, I like to think about how the pattern “works” or comes together to make the garment, because Helene is different than a trouser. The straight side seam means that most of the shaping is in the center of the pattern (see above), unlike a typical trouser or jean pattern.

When the Helene pattern pieces are sewn together, the straight side seam will need to curve around the hip, while also bringing the center front and center back seams to vertical.

These striped Levi’s (left) have a straight side seam, which must curve around the body when worn. This forces the fabric to bend around the hip and in at the waist (right).

This bending creates a curvy grainline, which is normal for this style. It also forces the fabric to buckle at the point where it changes direction around the hip, and we can see this effect even in a scaled down piece of fabric (below). The buckling at the hip line is what causes the signature crotch whiskering seen in the vintage photos, above, and some wrinkles beneath the butt. The more that the fabric has to bend around the hips, the more likely it is to see these distinctive wrinkles.

Another consequence of a straight side seam is that the inseam is longer when compared to other patterns. It’s also placed on more of a bias. Here is an extreme example, comparing the Helene jeans inseam with the Brooks jeans from Helen’s closet:

The Helene Jeans inseam (black line) is almost 1 inch longer than the Brooks inseam (blue line) even though the legs are the same length from hip to hem.

A longer, stretchier inseam means more wearing ease for leg movement. Ease at the inseam is helpful if you are squatting, straddling, climbing a ladder, or even playing tennis — all things you might be doing in your jeans in the 1930s and 40s.

In addition to inseam ease, we can see where Anna has added some additional wearing ease in the crotch seam. Below I am aligning front and back pattern pieces at the inseam to see the cross-body depth created by the crotch seam, or “saddle” of the jeans. In the Helene jeans, the cross-body depth for size 14 is 8.9 inches (measured 2 inches above the inseam).

Helene jeans aligned to show the cross-body depth

I compared this measurement on a variety of other patterns: Persephone pants, Philipa pants, Morgan jeans, Dawn jeans, Brooks jeans, Heroine jeans, and Worship jeans. As a reference point, the cross-body depth typically grades by about 3/8 inch (~ 1 cm) per size, whereas the hip circumference typically grades by about 2 inches (~5 cm), so small changes in cross-body depth can go a long way toward changing the fit. In all cases, the Helene jeans had the most cross-body depth, sometimes by several inches when comparing against comparable sizes in other patterns.

A comparison of the cross-body depth measurements for a variety of jeans patterns drafted for a 42 inch hip circumference.

* The Persephone and Philipa pants do not grade in the crotch hook, therefore the cross-body depth is fixed for these patterns.

The extra space drafted into the crotch, as well as the fact that the center seams are more on-bias, means that the Helene jeans will be more comfortable for sitting, squatting, and generally moving around than the patterns that have less cross-body depth. It also explains why many folks have noticed that there is a little extra fabric in the front crotch of Helene; these jeans are not intended to fit tightly. Paired with the extra ease in the inseam, and we have a very comfortable pair of jeans.

Moving to the back of the jeans, the yoke on the lower size range of the Helene jeans has less shaping compared to similar patterns. Below, I am comparing the Helene yoke with the Daughter Judy Worship jeans and the Merchant and Mills Heroine jeans, both of which have straight waistbands.

Helene is notably less curved than these other two yokes, and it has a straight seam on the bottom edge rather than a curved seam. One reason for the straighter shape might be because the Helene jeans are designed to be so high waisted, that the body doesn’t need as much shaping higher up on the torso compared to a jean with a lower rise. (The yoke on the upper size range for Helene is curved along the bottom, providing more shaping).

Balanced designs

When drafting trousers, there is an often-referenced “rule” that the width of the knee should be centered over the width of the hem (below, right). Many sewists refer to this configuration as being “balanced”, and some will look for this in their patterns or redraft patterns to create a balanced leg shape. Full disclosure, dear reader, I used to be a member of this club and would assume that any pattern that wasn’t balanced had to be corrected before the pants would fit well. Here is an example that proves me wrong: Helene is noticeably un-balanced.

By this point, it is hopefully obvious, but this is no mistake and it’s not sloppy drafting. It’s intentional design to create a classic and extremely comfortable fit for a pair of rigid denim jeans. Yes, the Helenes will have some wrinkles at the crotch and in the back of the leg because of this drafting technique, however those wrinkles are a signature detail of a heritage jean style. To overfit and remove these wrinkles would mean losing the spirit of the design.

Summary

For more vintage images and a few additional insights into this pattern, I’ve got a saved story highlight on my Instagram page about the Helene jeans.

Diving deep into this pattern and the origins of heritage denim was the most fun I’ve had while researching a big sewing project. It took me down a rabbit hole of denim history that is deeply connected to American history, cultural identity, globalization, and more. It evolved into much more than a sewing project by the end.

It was also a great exercise in studying the design intent of a pattern, and how a 2D pattern comes together to create a 3D garment. The Helene jeans are expertly drafted and the placement of each mark is deliberate to create shape, to facilitate body movement, and ultimately to make a garment that is as functional as it is beautiful.

10 thoughts on “Helene Jeans: Studying the Fit”

    1. Never going back! Me too, the fit on this pattern is still blowing my mind, and I’ve been wearing my Helenes for weeks now. I’ve done multiple 3+ hour car trips, gardening, biking around town, etc etc in these jeans and they just don’t quit. So good.

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  1. Thank you for sharing all your thoughts process!!! Even if I don’t have the Helene on my to-sew list (yet), it is fascinating to read your evaluation, and dissection of areas I had never challenged. I feel I am smarter after reading this post, thanks 😊. And BTW your jeans (seen on insta) look great !

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  2. I love a deep dive! I would be really interested to compare with the Muna and Broad Noice jeans. The Helene jeans with a shaped yoke in the larger sizes, I wonder if the aesthetic changes? Thank you for an interesting read!

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  3. I do love your posts and the deep dives into what the pattern intention is. I was just wondering why pattern designers don’t share this sort of info with us but then it might take away half our fun in finding it out. I am going to have to look into these trousers for me. Thank you.

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    1. I’ve had the same question. I think it’s possible that for some designers, this kind of thing is common knowledge so it may not occur to them that other people would find it interesting. Or it’s possible that putting together this kind of content would take away from other activities they are doing to grow/sustain their businesses. I do agree that half the fun is doing the research and discovering all of this for oneself, though!

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