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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.

Scaling up to life size

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.

What size is the original pattern?

Waistcoat patternIf 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).

Methods of adjustment

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.


1. Scale up and adjust the flat pattern

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.

2. Drape 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.

3. The Centre Point drafting system

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!

SPP iconFlat pattern adjustment

The first method, and the one I tend to use myself, is to begin with the historical pattern and adapt it to fit the modern measurements. This method works particularly well if the measurements you want aren't vastly different from the measurements of the original pattern.

Begin by scaling up the original pattern to actual size as described in the Overview, so that you have a starting point. Now you will need to adjust this pattern in all directions to match your own measurements.

If you have limited space at home, you can reverse this process by adjusting the pattern at a comfortable size and then enlarging it. However,  you will need a steady hand and a very sharp pencil, because any small errors will be magnified later.

I would recommend enlarging the pattern to 400% before you begin, which is still manageable when you sit at your desk, but will reduce the chances of small errors enlarging into big errors.

Convert the pattern measurements and your own measurements to the same scale before you begin – in other words, if the scale of your pattern is 1 square = 2”, it will help to know from the start that your bust measurement is, say, 20 squares.

Adjusting the waistcoat

Let’s begin with the waistcoat bodice, since it’s a simple two-piece pattern. As long as you adjust it to match your front and back bust and waist and your nape-to-waist measurements, the fine details can be tweaked at the mock-up stage. For the same reason, don’t worry about getting every measurement perfect. You’re not setting out to make the pattern millimetre-perfect right now; you’re getting it to the right proportions so that you can move on to the mock-up stage.

Hint: The images below won't print from the fancy "lightbox" enlargement that you get when you click on them! If you'd like to print any of them full size (eg the ones with the measures drawn in colour), right click on the small version below and use "Open in new window" or "Copy link location" to take them into a new window before printing.

1. First find the centre front and centre back (in red). However much you adjust the pattern, aim to keep these lines straight and vertical. (Click image to enlarge.)

2. From there, it’s fairly easy to find the bust, waist and nape-to-waist measurements, at least approximately.

Notice that I’ve measured from the centre front of the bodice, not the edge of the waistcoat front.

Also notice that I’ve not included the darts in my waist measurement.

3. By measuring the pattern and comparing these with your own measurements you can find out how much you need to add or subtract in each area. (Don’t forget to add ease to your measurements to get the measurements you’ll want the garment to have.)

Waistcoat measures

4. Adjusting the nape to waist is fairly simple, and works in the same way as altering a commerical pattern. Simply slash the pattern across and either spread the pieces out by the required amount, or overlap them to shorten the pattern.

Notice that I've been careful to avoid slashing across the armhole. You only need do so if the armhole is too tight up under the arm.

Nape-waist adjustment
5. Adjusting the bust and waist works the same way – you’ll need to slash vertically, though. Slash and adjust for the bust first, and then measure the new waist to see whether more changes need to be made there. (When adjusting the front, you may need to re-draw the darts on after slashing since they may get distorted.) Back bust adjustment
6. If the waist size needs to increase at the back, slash across the middle horizontally, as for the nape to waist, so that you can adjust the waist without affecting the bust. Back waist adjustment

7. If the waist size needs to be smaller at the back, put in a dart (or a “fish”, as the Victorians charmingly called them). Notice that the waistcoat won’t necessarily need to be fitted perfectly into the back waist – you’ll have the little belt across the back to help.

8. At the front, increase or decrease the size of the darts to adjust the waist measurement.

Dart adjustment
9. Finally, smooth out the seam lines and match one piece up to another to ensure that the seams are still going to match when you sew them together. Smooth out the edges


Adjusting the bolero

SPP 1860s bolero patternAdjust the bolero in the same way, keeping the following differences in mind:

The measurement down the centre back will not be quite as large as the nape to waist measurement, since the jacket is supposed to be short. Try making the same nape-to-waist change, if any, as you did on the waistcoat pattern.

You’ll need to cut the pattern and match up the pattern pieces at the tops of the side front and side back seams to test the bust measurement reasonably accurately. You’ll need to make the same changes as you did on the waistcoat pattern. Remember to consider how the pieces fit together at the side-front and side-back seams when you adjust, and if in doubt, experiment!

The waist measurement isn’t as important for the bolero, since the jacket doesn’t quite come down to the waist. Adjust for your bust, leave big seam allowances, and make any changes lower down at the mock-up stage.

sleeve adjustments.jpgUse the same slash-and-spread technique on the sleeve, adjusting the length above the elbow if you need to. If you need to adjust the sleeve size around the bicep, one rough and ready way to do so is to make lots of small slashes so that you can increase or decrease the size a little in each slash without distorting the overall shape too much. (You’ll need to test how it fits into the armhole at mock -up stage.)

Adjusting the evening bodice

SPP 1860s evening bodice measuresAgain, take front and back separately and compare front and back bust and waist. This time you’ve got no reference point for a nape to waist measurement, so try using the measurement from your bust line (where you’d measure your bust) to your waist at your side to get a picture of roughly how long the pattern should be.

You’ll need to be more of a detective this time to find that bust and waist, but there are always clues you can use. Look for narrow points to spot the waist, and keep in mind that the lower ede of the bodice will probably be on the waist at the side seam, or close to it. Look for the fullest point to find the bust. The bust will go fairly close under the armholes, and both bust and waist will be horizontal at the centre front and centre back.

Additionally, it may help to measure directly from nipple to nipple in your corset – halve this measurement to get the bust measurement of the front piece from centre front to side front seam. (Notice that the neckline is so low that the measurement is taken above it at the centre front.)

Adjusting the skirt

Here you’ll need to know the waist measurement you want, the centre front, side and centre back lengths measured over your crinoline, and the circumference of your crinoline at its fullest point.

Adjust the length by slashing across (or just lengthening the pattern.)

Measure the waist of the pattern, excluding the pleats, and compare to the measurement you want.

Finally, ensure that the skirt is going to be larger around the hem than the circumference of your crinoline.

Generally speaking, however, since the skirt is so large and so dependent on draping, you are likely to get better results by draping from the start - which is the subject of the next page!

SPP iconDraping on the body

Math phobics, please form an orderly queue! This is the most intuitive method of scaling a historical pattern to your own size. With no calculations, you will drape the fabric directly on yourself or on a dummy, using Lovise’s pattern as a guide.

If you drape on yourself, you’re going to need a skilled friend to help and a lot of patience. Far better is to use a duct tape dummy - essentially a cast of your own torso - who will stand still, endure being pinned without complaint and who will wait all night for you to start work again tomorrow, should you wish to take a break!

If you make a dummy on which to drape your dress, don't forget to wear your corset, if you plan to wear one under the dress, since this will make a difference to your measurements. See the link above for instructions from Threads magazine.

For draping, you will need:


Draping the waistcoat

1860s waistcoat bodiceLet’s begin with the simplest bodice, the waistcoat. Before draping the waistcoat, look again at the photographs and the pattern, noticing all the details of the shape you’re looking for. Where are the seams and edges?

Cut two rectangles of fabric that are both a little longer than the length from your shoulder to hip along the grain, and about half your bust measurement. Draw a line down the grainline along the long side of each of them, about 2” from the edge.

1. First we’ll drape the front. Pin the line on one of the pieces of fabric down the centre front of the dummy. (Click to enlarge the images.) Smooth upwards and put a pin in at the top of the centre front, where the neckline will be. Step 1

2. Smooth the fabric from the chest over towards the shoulder and pin along the shoulder. You’ll need to begin snipping fabric away around the neckline, but be careful only to snip away what’s really superfluous!

3. Mark the neckline and shoulder line. As a rule of thumb, the corners will need to be right angles, 90 degrees or thereabouts.

Steps 2 and 3

4. Continue to smooth fabric down around the armhole. Snip away the excess a little at a time (remember to leave room for big seam allowances) and mark the edge of the armhole, then continue down to mark the side seam. Smooth downwards only at this stage, keeping the grain of the fabric reasonably vertical, and don't worry about excess fabric under the bust. We'll come to that next.

You may find it helpful to mark the bust apex (nipple), bustline and waistline.

Step 4

5.You should be left with some excess under the bust. Looking at the waistcoat front on the pattern (link above), you’ll see that this is formed into two darts on the original.

The tops of the darts are a little way to each side of the nipple. On the photo it looks as though the darts extend quite a way above the bustline, but this makes no sense to me - the fullest point should come at the bust, not above it - so I've just left the tops of the darts a tad above the bustline on my version (right). Also notice on the original that the darts slope inwards towards the waist, one a little more than the other. The dart towards the side seam is a little bigger.

You may find that you don't have a lot of excess - this is to be expected on a modern figure. You could always put one dart in, then make another tiny one just so you get the look of two.

Divide the excess into two darts a little way apart, comparing their size and direction to the pattern and the photo and tweaking until you get a pleasing look. I found that the sloping darts seemed to emphasise the small waistline, a really pretty effect! Mark the position of the darts with your pen. Below the waist you'll have to make an educated guess for now, and fit the darts properly over your skirt at the mock-up stage.

Step 5
6.Finally, mark the waistline, comparing to the pattern once again. Notice that the centre front dips below the waist, but the side seams end at the waist. You’ll need to cut another small piece to approximate the little peplum there. Step 6


Drape the back in the same way, starting at the centre back line and smoothing across until you can mark the edges. Notice that the waistcoat won’t need to be fitted perfectly into the back waist – you’ll have the little belt across the back to help.

If you have significant differences between your left and right side (eg persons with scoliosis), you may want to drape both sides and have separate “left and “right” patterns for the fronts and/or backs. If the differences are small, you may be able to do this at the mock-up stage.

Take the pieces off the dummy and smooth out the lines if necessary, not forgetting to mark each piece with the name of the garment and which piece it is. (I also add the name of the person it’s for and the date.) On the front piece you’ll need to add a little at the centre front, since your buttons and buttonholes will be placed along the centre front line. And there you have your pattern, ready to double check with a mock-up!

Draping the bolero

1860s boleroBefore draping the bolero, look again at the photographs and the pattern, noticing all the details of the shape you’re looking for. The bolero is a short jacket, not quite reaching the waist. It’s fitted using the side front and side back seams, and at the front you’ve got the opportunity to add a little dart in the edge (on the front piece, near D) to help shape it in a little more if you need to.


1. Begin by draping the back, starting as before from the centre back line and smoothing across. Notice on the photos that the back neck is quite high, and graduates down towards the throat at the centre front.

Look at the pattern and look carefully at the photos to get the position of the side back seam – it starts quite a way up the armhole, curves gently and ends up only just over an inch from the centre back. I did it by marking where the seam should begin and end and the direction it would begin to travel in at each end, then filled in the rest as best I could by comparing to the pattern shape.

Remember not to plan this garment to fit tightly over the torso: it’s a jacket, so allow it to have a little room.

Step 1

2. Then move on to the side back piece, leaving the back piece pinned to the dummy. Start with a straight line on the fabric and pin it down where the side seam will be. Smooth across to the side back seam and trace the side back seam.(In practice, you'll find yourself adjusting this a little at mock-up stage - the edge of the side back will end up curving more than the edge of the back piece.)

On the pattern, the side seam is curved, not straight. You may find yourself taking it in a little at the mock-up stage (notice on the photos how the bolero fits into the curve of your side), but I found a way to do it at this stage.

I pinned the top of the pen line to the top of the side seam, then pinned the bottom of the line to the side seam on the hip so that the line was vertical but not fitted into the side of the dummy (see photo, right). I smoothed across as best I could and pinned to the side back seam. Then I removed the pin on the hip and smoothed back from my pins at the side back seam towards the side seam, and re-marked the side seam. The dotted line on this photo shows how I ended up with the curved side seam; the solid line is my original vertical line.

Step 2

3. Begin to drape the front from the centre front. Smooth across the shoulder as before, keeping that raised neckline in mind.

Notice how the centre front begins to cut away at just about the fullest point of the bust. Look at the angle it begins to cut away at - it's just about exactly diagonal. Begin to mark this curve from the centre front line down towards the side seam. Observe and mark the side front seam, allowing it to pass directly over the bust point.

Step 3

4. Then start from the side seam to drape the side front piece, working up towards the side front seam. Remember, it needn’t fit tightly, and you can always tweak the fit at the mock-up stage.

Finally, observe the curve of the bolero hem and fill it in between your diagonal line at the centre front and the hem at the back. Notice how it doesn't curve up very far from the back to the side; most of the curve is between the side and the front.

You'll find that below the bust the bolero hangs straight down. I pulled the side front seam in to fit it a little (see my scribbled-out and redrawn line on the photo), but I don't seem to need the little dart just in front of it that you see on the pattern. Again, our modern shape tends to be a lot less curvy than Lovise's, but you may find you need that dart. Alternatively, you could always make a tiny dart just to get the authentic look.

Step 4

Sleeves are difficult to drape, but if you’ve made arms for your dummy, by all means give it a try. I find I’m better off making a reasonable attempt at a sleeve by the flat pattern method (on the previous page) and then fitting it to the mock-up. If you’d like to try draping it, I’d recommend starting with the curved outside seam, placing this down the inside of your arm and snipping away from there. Don’t forget to leave some room in the sleeve head so that it’ll fit comfortably into the armhole and not be too tight.

Draping the evening bodice

1860s evening bodiceThis is the most complex of the three, but if you’ve done the others, it’s not difficult to see how to begin. Once again you’ve got four pieces, and once again you’ve got a convenient straight line at centre front and centre back to start from.

Make sure that the side front seam goes right over the nipple and then the seam will take care of the shape there; the fullest point of the side front seam curve on both pieces will end up at the apex of your bust. Make the seam curve nicely down to the waist and bring the side front piece up to match it, even if that makes the side front piece a funny shape – I’d say the shape of the front piece is the most attractive and obvious feature, so work on making that look good and making the side front work with it so that it fits. (It’ll be covered in lace if you’re following the original gown anyway, so don’t get caught up in making it perfect!)

Remember that this bodice, being off the shoulder, will need to fit very closely, but you can fit for that at the mock-up stage, tweaking it here and there.

It looks as though the shoulder strap ought to go right over the corner of the shoulder. Don’t chop the fabric off around the neckline too much until you’ve got the neckline organised – this will help you guard against stretching the fabric here. The same goes for the back.

Again, at the back decide the position of the side back seam on the back piece, and bring the side back piece around to meet it. This time, unlike on the waistcoat, you won’t need to add anything to your finished pattern at the join where it’s fastened, since it’ll be laced edge-to-edge.

The cap sleeve is a small piece, and can probably be draped over the shoulder of your dummy. Don’t forget to put a little ease in the top of the shoulder so that it curves on over the arm; use what you know about patterns you’ve used in the past.

Finally, don’t forget that your pattern will be a different shape from Lovise’s: you’re a different shape, and you’re simply using Lovise’s as a guide. Do your best, mock it up to tweak it, and if your garment fits together and looks good on the dummy and on you, then the shape of the pieces when they’re laid flat doesn’t matter.

Draping the skirt

1860s gown, front view1860s gown, back viewObviously, you’re going to need your cage crinoline to do this, and preferably a petticoat over it. Again, begin with a too-large piece with a line marked down the grain, and place that down the centre front. (There won't actually be a seam here on the finished skirt, but you can place the fold of the fabric on this line later, when you cut the real thing.)

Look carefully at the photos and pattern and notice the approximate size and direction of the pleats – they start by pointing backwards and then turn the other way at the side seam, ending with a big inverted pleat at the centre back.

Begin pleating towards the back and pinning to the dress form, ensuring that you’re leaving plenty of fabric to fall gracefully over the widest point of the hoop. Use one large piece of fabric or smaller ones to emulate the pieces in the final pattern; you can always rearrange the seams later in order to ensure that the tops of the seams are hidden in the pleats.

When you arrive at the side back, mark and cut the fabric at the same angle as that on the pattern. Begin again from the centre back, working towards the side back to meet the sloping edge with a straight grain edge, as in the pattern.Mark the fabric wherever you make a pleat or seam, and mark the waist and a generous hem, so that you can remove the pieces from the dummy and be left with a pattern on the fabric.

Congratulations, you just draped your own historical pattern!


Overview | Flat pattern adjustment | Draping






Tags: Mockups muslins and toilesPatternmakingBeginner - Free ArticlesJan 2009Cathy Hay
Thank you so much for this! I have a lot of antique patterns from "La Mode Illustrée" but I didn't know how to adjust them to my own mesurements. I'll try this soon!

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