Friday, January 21, 2011

Making the Case for a Dress Form

I am not automatically a proponent for sewing gadgets. First, it has to prove its usefulness to me. Gadgets and tools cannot take the place of technique - like a good screw driver, it can make the job easier, but will never replace the need for practice and knowledge. The more expensive the tool, the more need for establishing its worthiness to my life and budget.

In making the case for a dress form, the best ones will cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and the personal dress forms are a whole lot of trouble to make, so it's a decision that can't be made lightly.
I've draped a new design idea. Looks great!
First ask yourself, what will I use it for? Why do I want it? I use my dress form now in ways that I never needed before college. I use it to test a new design idea. Like at the fabric store, I drape my mannequin with a quick drape to see how the fabric and style idea will go together.

I had to drape the sash on this design I call Espire.
I use my mannequin during the pattern making stage to check things like the flare of the skirt, the gathering of a drape, or the depth of a neckline.

While I sew the new style together, I keep the garment and cut pieces pinned to the mannequin so that it's ever present in my mind and in my view. It's the designer "instinct" that can flag my conscience if something isn't working as expected. In this way I have a another chance to nix or improve a bad idea during this stage of the development.

If the style demands it, I need to use a mannequin to drape the pattern for part or portions of a new design style, as in the hip drape on this red dress I call Espire.

I consider a mannequin invaluable. I own two: one is a Styrofoam in size 6, and the other is my base size 10 in paper maché from dress rite. I use them both equally. But for all the things I do use them for, what you might notice is that I don't use a mannequin for fit. Why not? Because a dress form represents the body of everyone, yet no one. To check fit, I use a real person, a fit model. I talk about that in one of my earlier posts. To use a mannequin for fit, it would have to be a near perfect representation a real body, and even if it did match the measurements and body type I needed, it would still have limitations.

Many manufacturers have tried to produce mannequins that dress makers can use to help with fit. Probably one of the most common is the dial form. You are able to adjust the sides, bust, and back as necessary using the dials. I've never tried to use one of these, but it looks like guess work, and seems like it would be hard to duplicate bodies with a rounded shoulders, large abdomen, or a swayed back.
Another type of adjustable form is like the small Styrofoam form I have. It came with pads and a cover to keep the pads in place. No matter how I tried, I could not pad the form to match a real body, or lengthen the back waist enough. The shoulders are incredibly wide too. No chance of making those smaller.
Using paper tape
For Do-It-Yourselfers, it's popular these days to make a copy of your body by wrapping yourself very carefully in paper mailing tape or duct tape. The idea is that you wear a long t-shirt, knit dress, or garbage bag and have a buddy tape you up with a few layers from neck to hip. There are numerous posts from people who have tried this, so getting the directions isn't a problem using google. What is a problem is that the end result isn't very accurate, it's unpinnable, and they actually add inches to your figure that aren't there! I have tried both of these methods and was not very satisfied with either.

A more accurate method for do-it-yourselfers is to wrap yourself in a plaster cast (like a medical cast for a broken arm) and then fill the cured form with spray foam. Remove the cast, and voila! You have an actual body duplicate that will take a pin and can be marked with waist and seamlines. There are instructions on the internet from a company that sells kits and will do this for you if you want. Check out My Twin Dressform if you are interested. (NOTE: Even though I make this method sound really easy- it's not. Plaster hardens very fast, requires special cutting tools to remove, and can be dangerous to children who might want to play in it. When so encased in plaster, fainting is a real possibility. Please, do not take lightly using this method for making a dress form!)

Saving the best method for last, a very safe, and very accurate method to get yourself a body double is to sew yourself a princess seam moulage or french lining which is a fitted sloper or master pattern with no ease. Pad any suitable mannequin (smaller than your actual measurements) that you may have to fit the moulage. This method requires no long calculations, only a helper. I'm going to do this with my fit model next week, and will leave you with photos and instructions hereafter. Stay tuned!

These posts are now published.Click below to read Copy your Figure:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


  1. Interesting - I never thought about the difference in patterns made with/for a 'perfect' size vs. those made using a real body. Great article. Thank you!

  2. Fascinating, I dont know that I would be brave enough to have for the cast. But I am actually looking for an old fashion wicker dress form. Any idea where I could get one of these online? They are such objects of beauty!

  3. You should warn people that plaster of paris is an extremely dangerous substance that should be kept away from the skin with bandages etc. A young girl in the UK lost most of her hand when she plunged it into a container of plaster of paris which had been prepared for a science activity at school. In spite of all efforts of her teacher and classmates to help her, she was very horribly and permanently injured. If anyone plans on using it at home, they should check their insurance and keep it well away from children!


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