Building a Custom Dressform
Ever wish you could clone yourself? How much easier to make fitting adjustments if you could just step outside your own body and work on you. Here’s how: pad a standard dressform to your measurements and cover it with a custom drafted muslin to replicate your own shape.
Why construct your own form? Once you have a duplicate of your body, fitting becomes SO much easier. You’ll also have an understanding of pattern drafting so style/ fitting changes to commercial patterns are less of a mystery. If your size changes you can adjust the padding and cover to reflect those changes. Couture houses create custom forms for their clients so why not do it for yourself?
The process begins with accurate measurements. Those numbers are used to draft a custom pattern which duplicates the body.
The pattern is cut in muslin and any adjustments made. It’s a skin tight fit.
The pattern is cut apart and transferred to heavy weight muslin. Additional seaming is added to the bust area for better shaping.
Use a dressform that’s SMALLER than you. If you start with a form by bust measurement, it’s invariably too large across the back and shoulders. I usually chose a form that’s at least 3-4 inches smaller than the bust.
The cover is sewn together at the shoulders leaving the side seams open. That makes it easier to get the cover into place without dislodging any of the padding. Start at the shoulders and work down the body. Bra cups fill out a larger bust; shoulder pads can be used to fill out the hip area. Polyester quilt batting works well to smooth out the shape. Tear rather than cut the batting to eliminate ridges. A small steamer helps compress the batting and makes it stick to itself. This is like sculpture. It can be helpful to have a photo of your body: front, back and side views. Work from the top down. Fold the cover down to check if you have padded too little, too much or in the wrong place. Pin the sides closed to check. When the cover is filled out you’ll hand sew the sides closed.
Fold seam allowances under and whip stitch the sides together using strong upholstery thread. Draw some registration marks every couple of inches to keep the sides aligned while you’re sewing.
Steam the cover well. It will shrink slightly and tighten up. Draw balance lines (bust, waist and hip) with a permanent marker. Vertical balance lines at center front and back can also be added.
For a custom arm, here’s the pattern I use. There are NO SEAM ALLOWANCES. I use either heavy muslin or cotton drill cloth for the two main arm pieces and shoulder. Lighter weight muslin covers the cardboard ovals.
Mannequin Arm Pattern: arm-11
I’ve traced the stitch lines in blue dashed lines and am adding 3/8 inch seam allowances. Transfer the vertical and horizontal balance lines also. I use washable marker. Notice the vertical line down the upper arm pivots at the elbow.
There is ease on the upper arm at the elbow point. If you try and match up the stitching lines there is excess fabric which needs to be eased in to create the elbow shape. Stitch the back seam first.
If your balance lines are slightly askew at the elbow, blend into a smooth line across the seam. The marks will dissolve with water after you topstitch the line. Press the seam open. I use a topstitching (has a larger eye) needle and two strands of black thread to trace the balance lines using a 3.5mm stitch length. There are three horizontal balance lines, one at the elbow, one at the underarm and another about 2 inches up from the underarm. Extend the upper balance line to cross both sleeve sections.
Close the remaining seam matching the stitched balance lines. Press open. Close the dart at the top of the sleeve. Cut the shoulder piece (looks like a shoulder pad) from drill cloth. It needs a seam on one side only. I serge the outer edge to prevent fraying. Using a 4.5m stitch, sew along the top of the sleeve. It will gather up slightly which is all you need. Don’t try and ease it like a set-in sleeve.
Clip within the seam allowance on the shoulder section. Mark the mid point and attach it to the arm, matching the mid point to the dart on the sleeve. Make sure you have right sides facing each other. It should look like this.
To stuff the sleeve I use soft polyester fleece. I cut a piece the length of the sleeve plus about 2 inches. Roll up the fleece, not too tightly, and gauge about how much is required to fill out you sleeve. I want the sleeve to be full but not tightly packed and stiff. The wrist and lower arm needs less fill than the upper arm so I shape the fleece like this. I’ve used about 30 inches an have cut off one corner so that the lower arm has less stuffing than the upper.
Begin rolling at the shorter end forming a soft cylinder which is fatter at one end. I safety pin a length of ribbon onto the slimmer (wrist) end, insert the ribbon through the top and pull it through. If you want more or less fill pull out the roll and adjust the amount of stuffing.
Trim the fill at the armseye end leaving enough to fill out the top.
Cut ovals from cardboard for the wrist and armseye covers. I use lighter weight muslin (the drill cloth is too stiff to gather) and add about 3/4 inch seam allowances. Stitch around the edges, insert the cardboard and pull the threads up to create the covers.
I place the armseye cover against my form and mark the shoulder seam point. Notice that I’ve angled it towards the front to better replicate my arm position. Human arms tend to fall slightly in front of center. Line up the wrist oval to simulate the wrist shape. Again wrists aren’t circular; they are wider when viewed from the top of the hand than the side.
Hand sew the covers in place with a whip stitch. Your new arm can be attached with a few pins (I use flat head pins and push them at an angle to avoid snagging the garment). This pattern is for the right arm. If you would like two arms just flip the pieces and make a matching form for the left side. See how easily her arm bends and I’ve found this version much more workable than the premade ones.
This will make a fairly slim arm. If your arms are larger and you want to adjust the pattern I would suggest this method. Trace the pattern onto your preferred paper and slash the upper and lower arm sections. I don’t cut up my master pattern until I’m happy with the changes. If the first alteration doesn’t work I haven’t destroyed the original and it’s much easier to start over.
Divide the amount you want to adjust by 4 and spread the pattern sections by that amount. It doesn’t need to be the same for the entire length of the pattern. You might want an extra inch at the wrist and an extra 2 inches at the bicep. Overlap the sections if you need a smaller arm. Likewise the length, both above and below the elbow can be adjusted. The ovals for the armseye and wrist covers will need to be adjusted and I would just use trial and error. There is a mathematical formula for figuring out the circumference, long and short axis of an ellipse but you don’t want to see it. Anyone with a math background will understand..
I’ve received requests to teach this and have done several workshops. With the current stay-at-home situation, on line classes are a necessity. I’ve taught this remotely using Zoom and it worked well. Those who participated had a buddy to help with measurements but it is possible to fit yourself. I’ve done it and it’s not impossible. There are a few tricks like putting a separating zipper at center front to make the cover easy to get on and off. When the fit is perfected, the zipper is removed and side seams opened. It’s also more accurate than pinning. A few measurements (like the cross back width) will need to be calculated rather than direct measure.
The dressform cover pattern can also be adjusted with ease added to create a custom size master pattern block. You can use this to either create your own designs or help with adjustments to a commercial pattern.
If you’re interested and want more details, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch. Everyone stay safe.