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Draping an 18th Century Bodice on My DIY Dress Form

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

What is Pattern Draping?

Ever since making my DIY dress form, I have wanted to drape a historical pattern.

It technically wasn't my first time draping, since I draped a pattern for my 18th century swim dress, but this was my first time draping with woven fabric.

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I draped an 18th century jacket pattern!

What is draping? Draping is a process of making a personalized pattern for your own body, but in a completely math and measurement-free way, unlike drafting. I have heard pattern draping likened unto "fairies creating the pattern for you", and in a way, I agree! Though my first draping experience was challenging, it showed me the massive potential for creating historical bodices accurately and quickly.

To put it in a nutshell, in order to drape a pattern, one needs a dress form as close in size as possible to one's own body, some inexpensive woven fabric (like cotton muslin), pins, scissors, and a pencil. That's it! No rulers. If one is draping a historical pattern meant for wear over a corset, your dress form should have the appropriate corset put on it, for best results. I put my zippered 18th century corset on my dress form. Then, one drapes and moulds the fabric over the dress form, pinning it in place, before pencilling on the top, bottom, and seam lines of the garment, and removing the fabric "pattern pieces". It is really an amazing concept!

I will speak in the next section to the differences between draping an 18th century bodice pattern, and creating it through math and drafting which is the more common way. But let me tell you, I much preferred draping, and it left me with a far superior fitting jacket than my first version, which was drafted.

18th century style fashion sewing project jacket janet arnold diy dress form draping muslin mock up pattern how to
Draping was more challenging than expected!

Obviously, every system has its strengths and weakness, and I will speak lower in this article, and in part two of this series, to some of the difficulties I experienced with draping.

What I Learned With My Second 18th Century Jacket

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My first 18th century jacket, made a year ago (while pregnant)

I made my first 18th century jacket about a year ago, and I created it in the most common way that costumers make historical patterns: through scaling up a pattern from a book. I got the pattern from Janet Arnold's "Patterns of Fashions 1", which I highly recommend. But let me tell you, the scaling and altering process for this pattern was a nightmare. Manually scaling up a full size garment, as opposed to something like a corset, takes a very long time, since the pieces are larger. Then, after all of that work, one still has to alter it to fit one's own measurements. In the case of this jacket from a year ago, Number 1) I was pregnant at the time, and Number 2) the jacket was extraordinarily small, even for my non-pregnant measurements. This meant I had to add so much width to the pattern pieces that it was difficult to preserve the original historical shapes.

Then, I made a mock-up, which showed me a myriad of other changes that needed to be made, and even in the final jacket, there are some fit issues, mainly to do with the neckline.

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A sneak peek at the fabric I used for the final version . . .

Now, let's compare this to my draped 18th century jacket. All I used was the afore mentioned draping tools of fabric, pins, a pencil, and my dress form. Then, I found some pictures online of 18th century jackets to locate where the seam lines should be.

After some difficulty, the drape came together relatively quickly, and I made a mock-up, which required very little changes. The only changes it did require was due to a size discrepancy between my dress form and I (her bust being smaller than mine, and her waist being a bit larger). The finished jacket (I will include a sneak peek at the end of this article) fits like a dream, and is very "authentic 18th century" looking.

How Do You Drape a Pattern?

Let's give an overview of basic draping principles. One will need the afore mentioned tools of a dress form, woven fabric, pins, scissors, and a pencil. Then, you start by pinning the straight of grain to either the centre-front or centre-back of the dress form. This should always remain constant.

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The finished mock-up for this pattern drape. It turned out pretty well fitting!

Then, mould the fabric over the rest of the dress form, pinning out darts where your design and desired fit requires, and pinning around the neckline and armholes. Finally, draw on the seam lines and top and bottom lines of the garment. Then you can remove the fabric and "true up" your pattern. I will explain what I mean by that below.

Mistakes I Made and What I Learned

My draping experience didn't work out nearly so cleanly as the above description: there were a lot of mistake and pitfalls along the way. Part of this was due to this being my first time draping, other than my stretchy 18th century swim dress, and part of this was due to its being an 18th century bodice, which in my opinion is more difficult to drape, since there are no darts on the front bodice. Why does the lack of darts make it more difficult to drape?

Well, the whole point of draping a fitted bodice is to pull all the wrinkles out. Normally, this is done by pinning excess bodice fabric into darts. If it is a dart-less bodice, the only place to pull excess fabric to is above the neckline, above the armholes, and into the side seams.

It took me much trial and error to figure this out, and there were many pulled-out pins and bent pins, and general doing and re-doing which had to occur. You may be wondering why, after all these difficulties, I began this article with such a glowing description of draping. Read on!

The Magic of Draping: Finalizing the Pattern

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Just look at that iconic 18th century bodice shape. It must be fairies!

After this initial difficulty, an external, magical force seemed to take over the draping. Maybe it's true about pattern draping fairies. As I dove into this draping with faith that it would work out, and as I pushed through the initial rough bits, the pattern seemed to practically drape itself. The bodice magically formed the perfect curved, 18th century side seam, in the exact right position that it was supposed to be in based on historical examples. Then, when I removed the pattern pieces from the form and had them laid out flat, I saw something amazing!

They had the iconic, 18th century bodice and armhole shapes, which I had struggled to create a year ago through drafting. They had just magically happened when I draped the fabric over the correct type of corset. All this leads me to believe that historical bodices didn't have their side seams and darts placed randomly, they were likely placed in the positions they were in because that was just what the fabric wanted to do when worn over any given era of corset!

Perhaps patterns were often draped back then, or at least drafted by someone with a lot of knowledge as to the structure he was trying to create. Kind of like a fabric architect. Either way, this was a great learning experience! But what did I make with this draped bodice pattern?

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Sneak peek at the final jacket I made using this pattern! Stay tuned for part 2 of this series to see how I made it!

I created a lovely silk taffeta jacket, complete with a mega-flared peplum and winged cuffs! You will have to stay tuned for a future video and blog post to see how I altered the mock-up, created the sleeve pattern, the peplum pattern, and sewed the jacket! Until now, here is a sneak peek of the finished jacket. See you all soon!


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