It has taken me way too long to post this next section, and the section itself is long. So I’m dividing it up in the interests of getting the information here, where it is useful, rather than sitting on my computer being half-written, where it is not. I will also be putting the whole thing together on its own page, as soon as I figure out how I can do that without messing up people’s links. That way anyone who is interested should be able to get RSS updates on that page alone. Forwarding links will be provided!

PART TWO – how many pieces? Measurements, and Building the Back.

The first step to building a pattern off your measurements is, of course, having some measurements to work from. If the person wearing the dress will be corseted, make sure the measurements are taken while the corset is being worn! The basic measurements that you will want to have are:
bust (around the body at the widest point on the chest
waist (around the body at the narrowest point)
note: again as a result of modern fashions, a surprising number of people have no idea where their waist actually is. The waist is the narrowest, and also the most compress-able point on the torso. It is usually much higher than people believe it to be. If you or the person taking measurements have any cause to doubt the exact position of the waist, have your ‘measuree’ stand with their hands on their hips and bend sideways – their body will bend at the natural waist, and the flesh will wrinkle there. Measure that point.
back across shoulders – for me this is usually exactly what it sounds like – across the back at the level of the shoulder blades, stopping at the shoulder joint and before the arm. I’ve had people interpret it other ways – ‘armpit to armpit’, for example. That really doesn’t matter, you can use either one. What is important is that you, the person who needs the measurement, know what it represents.
back length – this is from the base of the neck to the point on the back at which you took the waist measurement. Where there will be variance here, if someone else is measuring, is whether they used the base of the neck, or higher – some people include the length of the neck in this measurement. Again, as long as you know, you can adjust.
bust point – the bust measurement marks the widest point on the chest on the horizontal plane, the bust point measures from the shoulder to the highest point on the bust. (Basically, picture shoulder to nipple). This measurement will give you an angle, and tell you rather a lot about the shape of the body you’re about to cover.
arm length (elbow slightly bent) not essential, but it’s a nice one to have, and saves the guesswork.

Other measurements you may want, depending on style, period, and how paranoid you are (I like to get as many measurements as possible, because it’s always good to be able to cross check yourself as you go)
waist to floor
neck circumference
upper arm circumference
hip (usually almost completely irrelevant, but might be useful if you’re doing one of those clingier, longer-torsoed late period gowns

The reasons for measuring in the corset are obvious. You will also want to know what the corset looks like, what style it is. There were three distinct phases of corset shape even in the basic overbust corset during this period. To that you can add the underbust styles, and the “spoon busk”, which adds an outward curve over the belly. Spoon busks won’t make a huge difference in your measurement, but an underbust will – the bustline will be lower, while a “straight front” will make the bustline higher, and add more curve to the back seam but less to the lower front. The only measurement that will change significantly is that bust point one, so you won’t be able to tell just from the measurements what your proportions are, to get everything sitting just right, you’ll want to be able to picture the undergarments in your head as you work.
(NB: corsets do not actually alter the natural waist measurement very much. The purpose of a corset in period is to emphasize the waist and mold the figure, not to warp it unrealistically. (There were tight-lacing fetishists, as there are now, but that’s a whole other discussion!) Generally, a corset will reduce your waist by 2-4 inches, but the corset itself adds two inches to the body’s girth, so by the time you’ve added petticoats, skirt waistbands, and a structured bodice, the waist will be back up to the natural measurement or higher. What a corset does is smooth and mold the lines of the body, and alter the posture, and the position of the breasts. So, if you don’t know what kind of corset will be worn, the measurements you take will be accurate, but they may be in the wrong place.)

Note for the following – I draw my patterns on scrap fabric – old bedsheets, or whatever, and add my seam allowances when I cut. Remember to make sure you add seam allowances, because I’m not including them in the measurements I discuss below!

Here’s a rough sketch (very rough, I just got a new draw pad and I’m still learning!) of what your back piece should look like:


If you can’t read my handwriting, which wouldn’t be surprising, your back length is that top shaped bit. You can cut it on the fold, but notice that there will be a back seam anyway – the fold will be at the edge of that jutting out piece that starts at the waist. Even if your bodice doesn’t have a long skirt attached, as this one obviously does, it will likely have some kind of skirt/ruffle/peplum hanging out over the bustle – this is to give a smooth line over the bustle and prevent the waist of the skirt from showing. That jutting out piece will be pleated into the waist, and all that extra fabric will spread out over the bustle of the dress.

Notice how the shoulder seam drops down. The width of that little dip for the neck is not wide at all – you only want about four inches maximum there (two inches either side) and all the rest is shoulder. Finding the length of that line is easy – from the centre back to the edge of the armscy is one half your back width, so once you’ve got your little neck scoop, the shoulder is an angled line from the neck to wherever the edge of your armscy should be. It should drop enough to hit just below the ball joint of the shoulder (if you poke yourself there, it hurts) but this doesn’t have to be exact, there’s no need to go poking the person you’re sewing for, just eyeball it.

The skinniest part of this piece, at the waist, is only a couple of inches. It can be as narrow as ONE inch! Don’t be shy – the narrower it is, the more bias is included in that sweet curvy seam, which means the more your fabric will be willing to shape to match the body inside it!

The curve of the armscy on this piece is actually quite short as well, again only a couple of inches. My sketching got a little over-enthusiastic there, it should probably be a bit shorter and less dramatically curvy. Wherever you end it, you are now going to draw that lovely curve up from the waist and out to the edge of the armscy. Don’t curve out too soon, but do keep it a nice sweep. Modern princess curves are almost square; just up and then out. You want something more graceful. If you draw an imaginary line straight between the waist and armscy, and then imagine another line joining them with a right angle (lines in red):


see how the line curves up, cutting the resulting triangle in half? (Cut a triangle in half? That sounds like math. I don’t do math, but hopefully you can see what I mean!)

Now, that back piece has a history. In some early to mid nineteenth century dresses, it even does have a straight line instead of a curve – that’s when you’re working with a crinoline rather than a bustle and the bodice lines aren’t quite as snug. But long before that, the backs of doublets worn by men and women were sometimes cut that way, and the front piece was just one enormous curved section that wrapped all the way around. That’s not desperately important, but I mention it because it works REALLY WELL and I still use a memory of that shape when cutting bodice fronts.

Before we get to the bodice front, however, you’ll be wanting the rest of the back. As you can plainly see, you have quite a bit of skirt there with nothing above it! This shape is easy in principle, and quite small – all it is doing is filling in that gap. I like to cut it next, and cut it a bit larger than I’ll need, because it’s the easiest piece to trim bits off of. Once you know that back seam is sitting nicely, you can cut your front to fit, and any excess can be trimmed out of the side seam, so you’ll never have to worry about messing up the more complicated back or front sections while making size adjustments.

Here’s the shape:


Again translating my horrible scribble: The long curved side matches to the back curve. In fact, it needs to be slightly LONGER, so that the cut of the armscy will line up, because it’s descending pretty abruptly here. Remember, even if you’re scrimping on fabric, it is less wasteful to cut something a bit larger than you think you’ll need, and have to trim it down, than to cut too small and have to throw away the whole piece. That’s true of this piece especially, because it’s got the most room for adjustment, and also if it IS wasted, there is nothing else in the bodice that you can use it for. Too short for facings, to small and off-straight for trimmings, too narrow and close to straight for bindings. Play it safe on this one!

The shorter side should be about the length of the armpit to the waist (usually about half of the back length). Period dresses had very very small armholes, much tighter and less comfortable than we’re used to. I’m not recommending this, you’ll want to widen it out a bit later. I AM recommending that you cut it this high to begin with, though. Though I’m boring you to tears, I will repeat again that this is where most of your playing around will happen, and some very strange things can occur with an armscy when you adjust the side seam. You want to have that extra inch or two, just in case.

Now, the diagram above is really a sort of general idea of the shape of this piece, because it can actually vary quite a lot from person to person. The bottom of it should have a very slight curve – more noticable the wider the piece is – because it is wrapping around the body to the side. The measurement I was just discussing, what will be the side seam, will probably angle out a bit, but it depends on how narrow your back waist is, and how wide and full the bust is. What you want is for the two pieces together to cover the whole back, to right under the arm. So if the waist is 28 inches, then one half the centre back at the waist plus one of these side back pieces at the waist should add up to seven inches. (plus seam allowances) If the total bust is 36 inches, then at the point under the arm, the two together should measure to 9 inches (plus seam allowances)


If the person the dress is for has a small cup size, you probably won’t be altering this piece very much. If they are larger busted, or have a straight-front corset, you’ll wind up trimming the top of that section smaller, because their chest measurement won’t be evenly divided, they’ll have more up front. The waist, on the other hand, because of the corset, will be more symmetrical. That is the reason I cut the pieces in this order, too – it allows me to play with the layout of the front as I go, because knowing what I have in the back tells me what I have left to work with from my measurements, how much I have to take in and where it looks best to do so.

Which is what I’ll be getting to next time. Also to come are linings, underlinings, and boning! Feel free to nag if it doesn’t happen soon enough! Also, if I’m unclear (which wouldn’t surprise me) or have missed something, or if you just have a question about stuff I might have an opinion on, you are welcome to email me. Seriously. I will cheerfully babble about costuming with people at the drop of a well-trimmed bonnet!