Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion, Norah Waugh's Cut of Women's Clothes and others provide us with a fascinating insight into historical clothes. They do so partly by supplying carefully-reproduced scaled patterns of the clothes themselves for us to use in our own work.
That's all very well, but it's likely that the lady who wore the dress of your dreams in 1765 was not the same size as you - maybe not even close. So how do you manipulate the historical pattern to fit you?
Cathy Hay shows you how, both by draping on the dress form and by flat pattern adjustment.
As our example pattern, I'll use the 1860s walking dress that we're basing our Single Pattern Project on in 2009. Karen Jacobi, who made the pattern for our 1860s dress over a century after the seamstress completed the ensemble, undoubtedly did it by taking measurements from the original gown. She drew the pattern to scale on a grid of squares. If you want to make it into a pattern suitable for you, your first task is to scale the pattern back up to life size. This can be done in one of four ways: by
Projection method: Print the pattern out onto a transparent acetate sheet. Use an overhead projector to project it onto a wall and move the projector backwards or forwards until the grid is the right size. Stick pattern paper to the wall and trace the pattern.
Now you have a scaled up pattern in actual size, but I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find that the pattern that results won’t be in your size.
In fact, you’ll discover that the gown’s original owner had a bust of around 35” (89cm) and a 21” (53cm) waist in her corset. She was approximately 5’2” (157cm) tall.
If you are going to derive a personal pattern for this gown from your own measurements and the existing pattern, this is the first thing you need to know. What size was the original gown’s owner (let’s call her Lovise, a good Danish name), and how does my shape differ from hers?
Even if you are a significantly different shape or size from Lovise, it’s still useful to know what you’re starting with. If you’re twice Lovise’s size, it’s still useful to know that your pattern should come out looking twice that size. You’re looking for a ballpark idea of what your finished pattern will look like in comparison to the original, so that you know it’s coming out roughly correct before you cut your mock-up.
So how did I know Lovise’s measurements without scaling the pattern up? Her bust and waist were easy – the waist size of the gown is given in the pattern notes in December’s translation and I’ve reduced it a little to allow for ease.
You can find out her bust size by looking at the waistcoat bodice pattern. Just under the arms, the back pattern is 3.75 squares wide from the side edge to the centre back and the front is 5.25 squares wide from side to centre front (at the buttons).
We have two backs and two fronts, making 18 squares in all, and the scale is on the bottom left of the pattern – 1 square is 2” or 5cm, making the waistcoat bodice 36” (90cm) around the bust. Her actual bust size would have been a little less, probably about 35” (87.5cm).
And now, down to business. There’s more than one way to blend your measurements with the 1860s pattern. You’re welcome to select the method you’re most comfortable with, although some methods work better than others for particular sizes, shapes or garments.
This is an especially good method to use if your measurements aren’t significantly different from Lovise’s. The closer they are, the easier it will be. You’ll begin with Lovise’s pattern as a base and apply your measurements to it.
Math phobics, please form an orderly queue! This is the most intuitive method. With no calculations, you will drape the fabric directly on yourself or on a dummy, using Lovise’s pattern as a guide.
Throughout the Victorian period tailors, dressmakers and inventors spent a great deal of time coming up with ever more contrived and complex ways of solving the problem of drafting and fitting their extraordinary clothes. The most contemporary method to our 1860s gown is the R L Shep reprint of Louis Devere’s 1866 book The Handbook of Practical Cutting on the Centre Point System (hard to find, but it's out there if you're persistent). This is an authentic Victorian tailor’s drafting manual, recommended for the brave and the romantic reader. Guaranteed authentic, but not guaranteed to work perfectly with modern measurements. Let us know how it works for you!