After our design consultation, the custom sketches were approved and Deborah returned to the studio for lots of measurements. I took a set of 40+ measurements and several body photos which I used to create a custom Size-Deborah dress form.
Creating a Custom Dress Form
Dress forms (also known as Dressmaker’s Mannequins) are manufactured in standardized sizes, but they can be customized to match an individual. A dress form is the foundation of the patternmaking technique of draping (in the same way that a block or sloper is the foundation of flat patternmaking). Since having a 3D version of my bride is valuable throughout the custom process, creating a custom dress form that matches her unique body is one of my very first steps.
The key to creating a custom dress form is to start with a professional form that is smaller than the person everywhere. You can add padding to your heart’s content, but you can’t take away what’s there. You’ll do much better starting with a form that is 5 sizes too small than one that matches any of your circumferences. I can turn a Size 2 into a Size 22 but I can rarely turn a Size 10 into a custom Size 10…
As my students learn in detail in my eCourses, circumference measurements aren’t terribly helpful for getting a custom fit and can be quite misleading. Wrapping a tape measure around your Bust/Waist/Hips without a lot of other references only tell you numbers. It doesn’t tell you the shape of each oval, or how much of it is in the front vs. the back, or how the ovals relate to each other…
To offer a few examples….
My husband Charles is a 6’1″ slim man and I am a 4’11” curvy woman. Charles and I share the same Bust/Waist/Hip circumferences though we would never be considered similar physically and certainly wouldn’t fit beautifully into each other’s clothes!
If your bust circumference measurement matches the dress form perfectly but the fullest part of your bust is 2″ lower than where it is placed on the form, you won’t be able to lower it to match your bust placement. But if your form’s bust measurement is much smaller than yours, you can ignore the placement and pad out lower down to match where you need the shaping.
If your back is small and you carry most of the circumference in the front, you’ll need a form that is small enough across the back before adding to the front.
If the smallest part of the form’s waist is higher or lower than yours, you’ll need the higher or lower area of the form to be small enough, disregarding where the dress form’s waist is and what it measures.
Padding out allows you to completely change the shape of a standard form and still use the features of the collapsible shoulders and sturdy base. Lots of layers will offer lots of chances for revision.
To pad out a form, I mostly use bits of quilted muslin and thrift store shoulder pads. Sometimes I’ll add stuffing or even pillows! I’ll also often pin a neutral fabric layer over the padding to give it a more streamlined look.
In this photo, there are two Size 2 forms, two Size 8 forms, and two Size 12 forms all with various custom padding (and one wearing Loula’s wedding dress!) Try to guess which is which before checking your answer in the caption!
I start at the neck before adding a custom shoulder slope and working my way down the body pinning layers on top of layers sculpting the custom shape. Though Deborah does not wear a Size 2 in clothing, her waist was so tiny that my smallest form was our best starting point.
Draping and Drafting the Bodice
Once I was happy with the shape of Deborah’s custom dress form, I covered the padding with a neutral fabric layer and was ready to start draping the custom pattern.
The draping process started with a bit of plain muslin. I draped it across one half of the body to begin to match the design and contours I was looking for.
With the muslin, I can play around with design lines. Here you can see me pencilling in an idea for Deborah’s neckline curve.
I smoothed the fabric across the custom form and created custom darts to give the flat fabric a custom shape. I also drew in an armhole curve and side seam.
After trimming away the excess, I followed a similar process for the back. This is just the first draft, so perfection is never expected. I just want to get close enough to make easy adjustments in our first fitting.
Once I was happy with the front and back in 3D, I made sure my darts and edges were outlined in pencil before unpinning and laying the pieces flat.
With a sheet of plain paper underneath, I secured my flat muslin pieces to my pinnable top work table and traced my pencil lines with my needlepoint spiky wheel.
The spiky wheel leaves a dotted line on the paper underneath…
…which I clean up with my rulers and curves to create a rough flat pattern.
After cutting out the pattern, the next step was to ‘blend and true’ the edges so that everything would sew up evenly and smoothly. Here I’ve closed a neckline dart to discover that the dart legs are mismatched and that the neckline isn’t quite smooth yet.
No worries! I taped a little bit of paper to the edge and used my curve to redraw a smooth attractive line while correcting any discrepancies.
Here I’m truing the darts of the waistline while making it smooth.
Anything I’ve drafted to join to something else gets matched up and revised with little scraps of paper. Some people enjoy really clean patterns, but I adore seeing all those little added scraps. As the pattern constantly improves throughout the custom process, I love being able to see the messy history of its evolution!
Next, I played around with some stiff organdy to drape the front of the skirt…
…before I spiky wheeled my way to a custom pattern piece of its own (which I forgot to photograph) extending the rough sample to floor-length.
The back of the skirt design is a bunch of pleats in contrasting fabric so, instead of draping, I had to use math. Many of you know that I am not a ‘math person’ preferring a loosey-goosey approach, but I was still able to work everything out (at least well enough for a first draft) with a few numbers and some fancy folding.
I’ve always loved the Jane Smiley quote “A first draft is always perfect because all it has to do is exist”. I had zero expectations that this pattern was perfect, but I was confident that this would be a great starting point. This was only the very beginning of something beautiful!
NEXT BRIDAL POST: I’ll use this pattern draft to create an inexpensive mockup dress that Deborah can try on for our first round of improvements!
NEXT POST: I’m going to be interviewed on the Love To Sew Podcast! I’ll share my experience and links to how you can listen!