pattern cutting

Hey everybody, thank you so much for your concern and lighthearted mockery! No really, I mean it. I’ve been doing a pile of nothing much – cut two dresses with CK the other day (she having Very Generously offered to finish this show or I and the company would have been screwed!) It turns out, whatever it is I do might actually be HARD – at least it is with one arm. I was totally knocked out the next day, and am still doing basically nothing but enjoying the gorgeous weather. And wishing I could do something else!
The good news for me has been, I bought a new (to me) toy. Yes, I too can now sign emails with the cool-to-be-geeky tag, “from my iPod”. Which is where I’m typing this post from too, so I’m afraid there’s nothing much in the way of pictures today, as I haven’ t got any on here yet. Except those down below, which is apparently the only way I can load ’em from here, how annoying.
Well, annoying or not it is MUCH easier (don’t see any itallics either) to type on this tiny silly keypad, so I can post… and learning this thing and setting it up has kept me amused when I might otherwise have gone mad(der).
So the pictures that it promises to show, which I have no idea what they will look like, were drawn on said iPod with a silly little app that is loads of fun. Not that the pictures themselves are anything much, but as a way of sketching and developing ideas for later, “realler” stuff this is a blast.

Edit: ok I checked ’em out on a real monitor and I still like ’em! Yeah!

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!

Part One, or This Really Isn’t Hard, Honest.

I’ve been working on this ever since I got the purple bodice done, and it turns out (surprise surprise) that it’s kind of long. So this is Part the First.

The intention of this is to help those who are getting into serious reproduction stitchery, or looking for help with period-costume theatre. If you’re just looking to go out as Queen Victoria for hallowe’en next year, this is probably (but not necessarily) TMI for you. Likewise, if you consider yourself an expert in the area of Victorian reproduction sewing, you probably already have any information I can offer.

All I’m shooting for here is to help people, especially people who work with commercial patterns, understand what is going on in the period cuts, so they have a better ability to judge and where necessary alter the pattern they’re using for the best possible fit. I don’t generally use commercial patterns, but there is nothing wrong with doing so – there are some quite good ones out there nowadays – as long as you understand how they are made, and how certain alterations to cut that are made for the mass-market casual sewer can damage your chances at getting a good ‘period’ result.

Victorian gowns, early or late, can be lots of fun to make. All that interesting drapery, the trims, the lace… watching it all come together can be thrilling. But it can be equally frustrating to spend hours draping and pinning and sewing tucks only to find that the darned thing won’t sit right. The smooth, tight lines of a bodice back should point up the drapes and bustles or emphasize the fullness of the skirt, and if the back is bunchy or loose, the overall effect is spoiled.

If your bodice isn’t fitting like a glove, it doesn’t mean you “can’t sew”, or that historical costume is “harder” than any other sewing. What it means, most of the time, is that the bodice has been cut incorrectly, due either to a modern pattern’s [mis]interpretation of a period line, or to a lack of information about what is/should be going on in and under the garment.


As I said before, I don’t use commercial patterns for historical gowns. This is not to say that there aren’t some perfectly acceptable patterns out there, whose designers have put lots of good research into the shapes and styles. But. The changes in line, in mode, in style of construction and in our very concept of the purpose of clothes and the nature of fit has changed so much in the past century that both the designers and the purchasers of commercial patterns are often bringing to the act of cutting their fabric a whole set of assumptions that are not appropriate for period construction. For example:

Fabric is relatively inexpensive.
Someone who has just shelled out thirty dollars a yard for silk brocade may not feel that they are participating in this misconception, but unless they have to scratch to trim a hat out of the leftovers, they are. A seamstress ‘in period’ would be using the most efficient layout possible, often on narrower fabric than you’ll find in any modern “suggested pattern layouts”. (like, 25 inches wide!) She would ‘railroad’ (cut sideways) and piece sections if necessary, which is rarely if ever suggested in a modern layout. Using period shape and layout has for me always resulted in using less fabric than suggested by a modern pattern.

Period patterns are hard to size and fit
Again, this may seem like a reasonable assumption if you have on the one hand a period pattern sample, which consists usually of a bunch of strange shapes with little letters next to them, and on the other a commercial tissue pattern with recognizable shapes clearly labeled and a variety of sizes marked out for you. But those carefully graphed sizes are one of the main sources of error for the unwitting cutter. Simply put, modern patterns do not fit. Oh, you can make a stunning modern garment, in a size just right for you, and it will be comfortable and flatter you and hang beautifully and garner compliments galore. But that is a modern concept of fit. If you are making a custom fit 1870s bodice, it should cling snugly to your carefully molded figure, it should neither hang nor shift but simply be. “size” is virtually irrelevant, because what your measurements are and more importantly WHERE your measurements are are both factors that you have some control over, and they may change from morning to evening, when you decide that your decolletage requires different undergarments, let alone from person to person. Remember Scarlet lacing herself tighter so she could wear her afternoon dress to the barbeque? The reference is an anachronism, but the situation is perfectly relevant.

A note: It is true that it has been possible to buy clothes “off the rack” for centuries. Often these clothes were ‘used’, but as fashion became increasingly industrialized, new clothes based on the concept of ‘standard sizing” became more and more readily available. And if you had the choice, you didn’t buy them, because they did not fit as well as clothes you made yourself or had custom tailored. This is still true. If you have ever spent a day at the mall trying to find a pair of jeans that looked half decent and didn’t bulge in some places and threaten to rip in others, just try and imagine how much fun it would be to buy a dress that didn’t make you look like the maid on her ‘day out’.

The human shape has straight lines
We now bring to pattern cutting an image of the human female torso as a sort of stuffed tube with a clearly delineated “front”, “back”, and some curvy bits about halfway up the “front”. I suspect there is a very interesting socio-psychological reason that we have for some years now been slicing our clothes neatly along an arbitrarily designated point halfway back from our nose, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that this rather linear view of a round object is limiting and not the most effective way to achieve the “fit” mentioned above. Shoulder seams, for example: The line of an actual shoulder is a sort of “S” curve down from the neck, up and around over the joint. Placing a straight-grain seam at this point will not only fail to fit (or even approach) the shoulder, it will negatively affect all other seams on both the ‘front’ and ‘back”, and quite probably the armscy as well.
We also tend to assume that both the front and back of a garment should be cut straight. I don’t know why. Neither the front or back of the human figure consist of straight lines, so trying to shape a garment along the straight of grain at these points is doomed to fail.

Finally, some pictures to look at!

Here are is a picture of a reproduction “violin” bodice I just saw the other day:


Now, overall, the dress is gorgeous, and you can see that a tremendous amount of work has gone into it. So how annoying must that thing going on at the back shoulder be?
But the problem isn’t really with the shoulder: Notice how straight the lines are in those centre back panels? And, the shoulder seams are so high you can’t even see them in this photo. There’s just no room there to fix the shaping. Now here is a period pattern for a gown like this from this very cool site:


Look how much curve there is in those same pieces. That’s why it’s called the “violin”. Look at the deep angle on the back shoulder. That’s going to fall quite a bit below where we’re used to seeing that seam.

Here’s an extreme example of a historical gown made to a modern cut. (with the same lines as the gown above). This picture is the pattern cover, so theoretically it is the ideal manifestation of this pattern, in beautiful fabric on beautiful models.


Like I said, it’s an extreme example. If you’re actually interested in reproduction sewing, you will eschew anything that calls for a zipper in the “notions” section. Great big hint there of what you can expect! But I included this shot because the dresses do look nice, right? The first thing a lot of people might think is “wow, what a great result, this pattern isn’t so bad, even with the zipper! I could always use hooks instead.”

Here’s the sketch from that pattern showing the seam lines.


Now look at the cover again. These are skinny models, and they aren’t wearing corsets. That front is cut straight, so there is a straight line from chest to gut, and another straight line across the chest. Even in the heavy fabric, you can see that it is wrinkling and puckering a bit there, and around the hip. Put this shape on a woman who HAS some shape, and those wrinkles are only going to get more noticeable. Boning and pressing will not fix this. Now check out that violin pattern again. You may have to trust me here, the frame of the pattern didn’t come through very well, but the front is just a little off the straight. And, it has those two huge darts, the first of which will pull that not-quite-straight line into a big “fish” or s-curve over the bust.

There’s a practical reason for all this tight fitting, as well as an aesthetic one – all that drapery is HEAVY! The more structure the bodice has, the less it will be pulled down and out of shape by any drapery below or behind. Basically, the more drapery that is attached to the bodice (because often a gown is in two pieces, and a lot of the drapery is on the skirt) the tighter and more structured it is going to have to be.

Two more pictures. The first is the back of the bodice I just finished:


Because it is on an armless and too-small dressform, there’s still a bit of droop where an arm would be – which I have to mention is true on the green dress up there as well. But even with that, I think you can see how much difference the extreme curves and the extra back pieces make. The shoulders are also dropped towards the back, avoiding that straight line across a curved surface.

Here’s an actual period dress I found yesterday in the collection at Mass. U:


This one is on a form built for it, so you can see the way the pieces sit over the corset. It’s got the same line at the shoulder, too. The sleeve caps puff up more than mine do, which mine ‘should’ – the customer specifically requested that they not, as she doesn’t like that.

Those super-curvy back seams that meet the armscy are almost always there – even in the violin bodice, the stabilizing fabric is cut to those lines. They just give the best shape control.

If you’re making a costume for a fuller figure, the temptation may be to widen that centre back piece – but that’s not necessary at all. Widen the side back if needed, and alter the darts in the front. A larger woman is shaped more ‘like a woman’, not less, and that extreme shaping will flatter her more.

Here are some photos (from this site) that show a variety of figure shapes, all of whose dresses fit and flatter them (in the context of the period aesthetic, at least!) Notice that it’s the heavier ladies who have the most pronounced waists and who (in my opinion at least) look the best in these styles:

picture-7.jpg picture-5.jpg picture-10.jpg picture-6.jpg picture-8.jpg

So there is my really long intro. Next time, I’ll talk about how the proportions actually work, and how to use the measurements you’ve got to make your own patterns.

Edited to add – part two is finally up, talking about measurements and the shape of the back.  The link is here, and I notice that it is possible if you want to subscribe to RSS for a particular tag, so if you want you could subscribe to the “pattern cutting” tag for updates as I post them.