Thursday, 27 June 2013

How NOT to make a dress-form


If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen some curious photos of me having a custom dress form made last week. I've always wanted a body double to help with some of the trickier aspects of dressmaking - like pinning things on myself - but also for experimenting with drafting patterns by draping fabric, rather than relying solely on the flat paper method. (You can see some of the in-progress photos on the third row down).


Over a year ago I'd bought the supplies to make a dress-form using the gummed paper parcel tape method, but then an evening where I could be wrapped up in tape never seemed to present itself and I put the idea to one side. However, last week just such an evening arose (I remembered the tape and there was a football match on which my husband could watch as he taped) and so we set about making a papery version of me. If you haven't heard of this before, the process is that you wear whatever old, but fitted, clothing you have to hand. You then ask your assistant to wrap you in cellophane (cling-film) to avoid getting too wet and cold and then tiny pieces of tape are dipped into a bucket of water and stuck onto your body to gradually create a body-double. The tape will eventually dry and when it does a crisp, fairly substantial, shell will have formed around you, at which point your assistant can release you by cutting up the centre back of the shell.


It took two torturously long hours of standing extremely still, unable even to shuffle from leg to leg, during which I questioned who would willingly choose to be a beefeater to the Queen. By the time my shell was being dried with a hairdryer I felt wet, cold and exhausted.

The next morning though, it all looked rather impressive, aside from it suddenly becoming obvious that my bust must have been somewhat flattened by the cellophane. However, with the paper tape method it's not too difficult to add to an existing form. Unfortunately though, my sculpting skills are limited and I ended up with one side rather larger than the other and no amount of extra padding, covered by more bits of paper tape could rectify the problem. Eventually, I decided that the only option was to turn a blind eye to my lopsided figure and to press on, hoping it would magically rectify itself at some point.

There may be a need for a bra with cup sizes several letters apart for this dress form 
I stuffed the paper dress form with old offcuts of quilt wadding and made a stretch Lycra cover for it. Once covered, I stood back to admire my work and felt perplexed that my bottom appeared to be so much larger than I had imagined it to be, or even remembered it to be when I'd seen the dress form cut off me for the first time. I also felt quite surprised by how rounded my back appeared.

After being wildly overstuffed
Before being overstuffed or made lopsided in the chest department

I left the stuffed form in the corner of our bedroom overnight and was woken the next morning by my son asking if he could go down for breakfast. As I tried to focus on the clock to see how early it was, he surveyed the mannequin with amusement, asking 'why does it not look like you anymore? I thought it was meant to be you?' At which point my husband sat up to see what he could be meaning and told me that my stuffing had indeed distorted its original shape and it no longer looked anything like me. On measuring it, its hips were indeed 4" bigger than mine. My enthusiastic if-I-stuff-this-dressform-really-densely-it-will-be-totally-fabulous-and-long-lasting ethos was ultimately my downfall. Damn. Although, I still feel really confused by this - how can paper stretch? It simply can't, so the whole thing seems a bit of an upsetting anomaly and I'm still left wondering where I went wrong.

By this point I was feeling rather disappointed. I'd been hugely excited by the prospect of finally having something that I'd spent several years pondering and now it was misshapen beyond repair and the remnants of it were being worn around the house as armour by children pretending to be Roman soliders (with a large bust). I couldn't face the prospect of being wrapped up in cling-film and parcel tape all over again, even though my husband offered to repeat the exercise that very evening.

Instead, after inspecting it for spiders, I retrieved my old mannequin from the garage and set to work on her instead. This mannequin is a petite adjustoform, but she really is very, very petite and much slimmer than me, with an almost non-existent (but enviably high) chest and no sign of a bottom at all. No amount of being able to turn the dials to make her larger can replicate my figure, as she just becomes bigger, but without any increase in lumps and bumps. However, I've discovered that a mannequin that's smaller than you is a good thing as she's a blank canvas on which to impose your own figure. I was able to pad out a bra on her, before adding some wadding to her bottom too.


I then stood back-to-back, side-to-side and front-to-front with the dress-form and my husband assessed whether we were identical from every angle. After much dial turning and re-padding he declared that she did indeed look just like me (although I rarely wear quilt batting taped to my bottom with Duck tape). I made another black Lycra cover to disguise my additions and provide something to pin to.


Once I was sure that I was happy with everything, I set about adding some lines that would make drafting patterns directly from her more easy. Traditionally this is done with something called Bolduc tape, which I was unable to buy. In its place I bought some cord that's a little like very narrow, flat shoelaces. It took two evenings of hand-sewing to attach them all and get them placed just as they're meant to be.

I've now spent a substantial amount of time working with her and feel really quite delighted - she's absolutely perfect and the guide lines now seem worth the investment of time to get right, as they're incredibly helpful for draping the fabric properly. It feels rather a traumatic path to get to this point, but I thought it was a tale worth sharing, so that if you're tempted to make your own body-double you may be able to learn from any or all of my many mistakes.

Florence x

36 comments:

  1. I have been so curious about this ever since I saw your instagram photos. My lovely dress form is too big for me and I have been puzzling over all the options you have just investigated. The paper tape option has always sounded rather icky to me and after reading your description of the process I think that I will also try padding up a petite form. Yours looks wonderful. Thank you for doing all the hard work! T x

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    1. Thats's a pleasure (a retrospective one...I didn't enjoy it at all at the time). Good look with your next form. x

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  2. I did the duct tape dressform. Sadly, I was 4 months pregnant and didn't know yet. (I was supposedly unable.) And I had a terrible reaction to the extreme adhesive exposure. I keep telling myself to do the paper one or buy one and pad. I'm glad to see this as I don't have the time or patience to wait for an hour. Love how yours turned out.

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    1. Eep! to the allergic reaction - that hadn't even occurred to me! But congratulations on the surprise baby, which must be so very much nicer than a dressform - I think you got a very good deal there! x

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  3. I did the duct tape one-ended up with a hallow bust & never used it :p. But now have an adjustable form that works for alterations. Love yours with the lines for drafting!

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  4. Wow, that's a lot of work, but it turned out beautifully. I need to work with mine more, as I agree draping would be much easier. I've used it for draping things that don't have a fitted waist. Mine is simultaneously too small in the bust and waist but too large in the ribcage. I'm not really sure how to handle that issue. But you have solved my problem with my flat bottom - off to duct tape some padding on, thanks!

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    1. I really think the ribcage is less of a problem, unless you want to use it for making a very fitted bodice. The bust and bottom are the two points which cause a garment to stand proud from the body, so I'm guessing they're the two things that are deal breakers with whether a mannequin can work for you?

      So pleased you will have a duct tapped bottom too. x

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  5. I share your pain! The same thing happened to me when I made a tape dress form: the hips (and also waist) ended up 4" larger than my own once stuffed. That was nearly a year ago, and I still haven't attempted an alternate solution. Way to get back on the horse!

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    1. I feel slightly guilty for feeling relieved to hear that, but it makes me feel less odd for somehow stretching paper. I hope you find one that works for you though.

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  6. Good work! You've made a fantastic job of the second one. I'm really impressed with your efforts.

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  7. You deserve A* for Mark I but looks like Mark II is the one to use!

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  8. That's a serious amount of work - I'm really impressed by your staying power. The adjustable dressmakers dummies are good but as you've highlighted are sometimes a bit limited. The bust on mine doesn't go small enough and has a nice flat stomach - unlike mine!

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  9. Well what you've ended up with looks very impressive, it's a shame you had to endure the discomfort of the paper one first!

    I did a duct tape one for my daughter but her bust also got flattened out in the process.

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  10. I did the parcel tape method with a girl friend who found the whole thing hilarious! It looked great till I tried to stuff it as well. I thought I was being very clever, using expanding insulating foam, but it started coming out of every weak spot and ended up looking like some thing out of Aliens!!!!
    Havent tried again.
    www.caroandthegulls.blogspot.com

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    1. Oh no! That must have been most distressing to see it bursting before your eyes!

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  11. Thanks for this post! I have been debating as to purchase a form or do the taped form. I like you have had the tape sitting in the garage for several years. After reading this I think I may just purchase a form and add where necessary. Now to decide on what form......

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  12. I read this with interest, as I did exactly what you have done with an old dress fornm a few years ago. Sadly my dress form was rather broken to begin with and I couldn't adjust her back waist enough to truly replicate me, but it worked quite well for a few years. Eventually the padding slipped, and I stripped her back to a simple stand. Today though trying to pin a bodice on myself I was wishing I had a dummy, maybe I should try and pad her out to my size again.

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  13. Great Work.. Looking forward to the final image of your work

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  14. Wow! This is such a great investment of all your time-- a truly functional dressform is so useful! I'm glad you were able to make yours work for you after the disappointment of the first dressform.

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  15. You are amazing. You go to such lengths to get perfection - i totally admire you x

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    1. Your comment totally made my day - that's an incredibly generous comment for what could be viewed by some as insanity! Thank you. x

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  16. That is the sort of perfection I dream about but always end up cutting corners and ending up with a top that has the darts in the wrong place. Can't wait to see what you make on your body double. Jo x

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  17. Florence, that mummification process looks tortuous, if not downright dangerous! So glad you told us about it so I'm never tempted to try it! Version 2 looks great, though, and makes me wonder about retrieving my sister's old mannequin from the parental loft... x

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    1. You see the perils that may befall you if you didn't read my blog, Nina? Do keep reading - I'm sure in the future I can save you from several other sticky situations that would never occur to you. x

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  18. This is great Florence. I've been using a stuffed bra on Madge (material girl) for a while but never stuffed the bottom.

    Don't suppose you could do a tutorial on how to make that splendid cover? :)

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    1. I think I may have earned the title of Dressmaking Dummy Godmother, Julia - I've just finished a post on it for you - unfortunately, it doesn't have relevant photos, but you'll hopefully get my gist. I hope Madge enjoys it. x

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  19. I'm with JuliaB! Please show us more about making that cover!

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  20. Well, at least you could apply for a part-time Beefeater position. I think you would qualify :)
    The longer I read about dress forms...the more I am conviced I prefer pinning my flesh than going though all the trouble! I love the end result on yours...but I also have to be honest with myself and my skills.

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    1. You totally have the skills for this...and I think you would love it and use it a lot. That is me, laying down the gauntlet. x

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  21. Sorry to laugh at your trauma but this is the funniest thing I've read in ages! So glad you succeeded in the end. Cheers!

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  22. i love your utter geekiness and tales of your helpful husband!
    I've always dreamt of making my own dress-form, perhaps by stitching one around me, or the gaffer tape method (old T-shirt, couple of reels of gaffer tape and...voila). Thank you for reporting your research on this matter. It's a great help and may save me from wasting precious tape yet.

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    1. Oh good, I'm so pleased. I may just have out-geeked myself and written a post on making a cover for the mannequin too!

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  23. I tried the papier mache method of making a dress form- essentially the same idea as you- in 30 degree heat. It was not fun. It was not worth it. It looked rubbish and was made worse by the fact that i couldnt bear to keep it on so it could dry properly!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x