Fitting a 14th or 15th Century Supportive Dress

Welcome to the dress fitting demo. There are many more photos of the process that have not been included here. The full complement of photos can be found at my photo gallery. Click on each image on this page for a larger version. For optimal printing, set page on landscape and use IE 4 or higher.

This demo was recorded in 2003. Since then, I have tweaked my process slightly, but the basics are the same. Dress fitting is very intuitive. Start out by following the process outlined here, then start playing to find something that works for you. It can take practice, but along the way, you will likely still be able to create supportive mockups.

I would like to thank several people. First of all, Tasha McGann, who taught me this method, and who has an outline of her own at La Cotte Simple. The talented Jennifer L. Getty took the photos. Kim Richer was my illustrious model.

A note on patterns: When you use a pattern, you cut out the dress the same every time. When you are making a self-supportive gown, the fit depends quite a bit on the stretch and tension of the fabric. Each one will fit differently, and will need to be adjusted a little bit each time. The final adjustment is key; without it, it’s often difficult to get a supportive fit. When you take a “pattern” from your mockup, it’s really only a starting point. You should fit each dress directly to your body, to the best of your ability. Of course, this is easier to do with help from a friend, but eventually you’ll get an idea of where the changes generally need to be made, and you can do some creative pinning and basting.

Materials

You will need:
  • Measuring tape
  • Scissors
  • Pins
  • Markers or chalk
  • Needle
  • Thread
  • Seam ripper
  • Approximately 2 yards of fabric for the mockup, more for larger figures


 

I used muslin in the demo. Since then, I have started using the linen that will be the actual lining of the dress for the fittings. Before I construct the dress, I take a pattern from it. A dress made with a lining fit directly on the body should fit perfectly, with no further adjustments.


Step 1

Tear or cut your fabric into four equal pieces. The pieces should be long enough to cover a couple of inches above the shoulder, to below hip level, and wide enough to cover a quarter of the body, plus several inches on either side. For your first fitting, start with more fabric than you think you need, as it always tends to shift more than you expect. Eventually, experiment with using one piece in the front, and one in back, or just one large piece slung over the body with a hole cut for the head.

Step 2

Pin two pieces together over one shoulder. I often put in a few pins at a slight slope, then place the fabric over the shoulder. The model can still be wearing a bra, though later in the fitting, it is important to fit with no undergarments.


**Tip

Use placeholder pins in the bra and/or pants to hold the panels in place while working.


Step 3

Pin two pieces over the other shoulder. Put a placeholder pin in the front and back, to hold the fabric on the body.


Step 4

Pin the back, keeping the fabric as close to on grain as possible. Try to keep this seam straight down the back. Pin from the nape of the neck to just below the small of the back.


Step 5

Pin the back piece to the pants and bra of the model to help keep it in line. The blue line shows where the grain of the fabric should be after pinning.


Step 6

Pin under the arms. I find it helps to start pinning at the point right under the bust, and move up and down from there. Have the model hold the front piece straight with their opposite hand. Again, keep the fabric on grain during this pinning.


Step 7

When pinning the side seams, fit close up into the armpit. You don’t want a large armhole on the dress, or the sleeve becomes more difficult to fit.


**Tip

Check your seams as you go along. When I pinned the side seam, the front panel ended up crooked.


**Tip

Simply unpin the seam, readjust the fabric, and have the subject hold the panel straight. Fixing problems as you go along will save work down the line.


Step 8

Pin the front, starting under the bust and moving up and down. The most important grain line is that under the bust. It must be straight across under the bust and around the chest. If there is any bias on this horizontal line, the fabric will eventually stretch, and you’ll lose support throughout the day.


Step 9

The finished front seam.

You don’t have to get a tight and supportive fit at this point. Focus on making the fabric follow the lines of the body, while keeping the grain aligned properly.

Once you get the body pinned, shoulders, back, sides, front, go back and check the grain. Often you will find that the fabric has shifted. Go back and adjust if necessary. Don’t worry! It will happen, and happens to the best of us.

Also check the placement of the seams. Does the back seam go straight down the back? Is the front seam straight down the front? Do the shoulder seams match? Do the side seams match? Often, I find that my side seams have strayed way towards the back. Adjust, if necessary. You may have to adjust several times to get it straight.

Once everything is straight, you have the option of going back and achieving a closer fit. This is not necessary, but does make the following steps faster. With the bodice well-pinned on all seams, pull the front and back seams in a bit. Here, you’re beginning to make the fabric shape the body, instead of the body shaping the fabric. It is possible with practice, especially with a slender wearer, to achieve a finished fit with the pinning step alone.


Step 10

When you’re happy with the pin fit, mark all of the seams with a marker or chalk. I like to make a dotted line for the preliminary fit, and a solid line when I’m complete. Make sure you get every seam, on both sides.


Step 11

Have you ever used a modern pattern, and noticed the little diamonds marking where seams go together? Using the same theory, draw a line perpendicular to the seam, on each seam, so you can match how the pieces go back together. Mark each pattern piece, LF (left front), RF, RB, and LB. If you’re fitting for a crowd, it helps to mark the wearer’s initials on each piece.

Unpin the front, and remove the mockup from the wearer. Don’t forget to take the placeholder pins out of the bra and pants! Baste all of the seams, making sure to match your seam markers. Don’t sew the front closed. Trim off excess material, leaving a couple of inches at each seam and armhole.


Step 12

Put the mockup back on the wearer, and baste up the front. Since doing the photo demo, I’ve found it helps to aim for a snug fit right away with the front seam, so lay the subject down, pin, and baste. You don’t need to go for supportive, but you want it to be nicely fitted. I like to use a back stitch for extra security.


Step 13

Have the wearer lay on her stomach. Her arms should be down at her side, if that can be comfortably accomplished. Pull any additional play or ease that there might be in the fabric, and baste. I like to pin first, to make this a little easier. Don’t worry about going much further than the small of the back.


**Tip

Remember, a cat will always help with a sewing project.


Step 14

Have the wearer turn over and lay on her back. Pull in at the sides, usually just under the bust. You’re aiming at having the fit quite snug for a band about two inches wide just under the bust. The dress is not actually very tight at the bust, only underneath. Below that band, the fit should just skim the body. Above, it should hold the bust at a supported, but not constricting, level. Again, I like to pin before I baste. Be careful to pull evenly at each side, so as to not pull the front off center.


Step 15

The front seam is what gives the bust the shape. A straighter front seam gives a more corset-like fit, while a curved front seam creates a more gentle support, allowing for a rounded bosom.

Have the wearer stand up, and pinch in under the bust as much as you can. Make a mark with the sharpie or chalk. Lay the wearer down, and attempt to pin and baste on this mark. Often, you can pull in more while the wearer is standing – don’t worry much about this, just pull it as snug as possible.

Let the wearer stand up, and check the shape of the bust. Often, there will be a tight line across the bosom right at the armpit level. If this is the case, let out the side seam a bit just under the arm.

If the bosoms are drooping a bit too much, try pulling up on the shoulder seams. Often that will help.


Step 16

If there’s too much fabric gaping at the armpit on a mockup that won’t eventually become a lining, you can put a temporary dart in for fitting purposes. There’s no evidence that this is period, but you can use it to help with the fit, if you are making a mockup out of fabric that you won't be using for the final dress. When copying the mockup onto the good fabric, leave the pins in the dart and lay the mockup as flat as possible.

Don’t worry about a little gaping. Attaching the sleeve will help with most of it. The darts are placed here simply for illustration, but these sleeves are well within the acceptable limits.


Step 17

Choose and cut a neckline, and remember to leave a seam allowance!


Step 18

Mark the armhole. At the top of the shoulder, feel where the point, or very top, is. Just outside of this point is a joint. Place the seam in this joint. Feel for the shoulder joint in the front and the back. Place your fingers on the joint, and have the wearer move her arms. Your fingers should not move (much). The seam should go right at the joint for maximum mobility.


Step 19

Pick a point on the body, below the widest point of the hips, and draw a line parallel to the floor all the way around the wearer. Measure the distance of this line to the floor, and mark it on the mockup. This will assist in determining skirt length, without storing a “pattern” that reaches the floor.


Step 20

Mark the placement of the gores/flare. In the front, I like to insert the gore where the belly starts coming out a bit to allow for a front curve. In the back, I like to insert the gore in the small of the back. At the side, the gores should flare from the hips where the hips start to flare. Here you see the front of the finished mockup. Compare the front seam to the line of her body to compensate for the slight camera angle. It is completely vertical.

Gore and flare placement can be used to change the look for different body types. Heavier women and apple-shaped women will often benefit from higher gores. With proper gore placement and skirt flare, this dress can look flattering on almost any body.


Step 21

You may be tempted to even out the right and left sides. Most people are not symmetrical, and the mockup you make will not be either. As long as the seams looked straight when the mockup was on the body, the seams on the final dress will look fine too. It’s best to treat the “pattern” as 4 pieces, not as two.

Since completing the photo demo, I have started to leave the waist a little looser, only skimming the body instead of shaping it. I generally leave a very tight band about and inch or two wide under the bust. Skimming the body below this gives the most flattering fit. When fitting for a difficult figure, it can help to leave a little extra room below the supportive band.


Step 22

To keep a copy of the mockup for future use, trace each piece to paper (in the image, I’m using muslin). Paper is better than muslin, as fabric will stretch after a few uses. When making future gowns, add extra seam allowance, and treat the copy as a starting point, not as a pattern. All fabric stretches differently, so plan on doing a little tweaking to the fit on each gown.


Step 23

Use each mockup piece to make a panel for a four panel gown. Be sure that you use the grain of the fabric the same way you did for your mockup. You can put gores in the sides, front, and back, or flare the fabric to get the right drape of dress. For a dress with a waist seam, simply exclude any part of the mockup that is below the waist. You can experiment with the curve of the bust and with different necklines to make a create a look specific to a certain decade. For more information on cutting out the pattern and completing the dress, visit the Dress Fitting and Construction page.


Copyright ©2006 Charlotte Johnson.