Once I had chosen the dress for my project, I had to develop a pattern for the bodice. I didn’t want to simply use a paper pattern that had already been developed by someone else; I wanted to do my best to draft a new pattern that would mimic the original image as closely as possible. For this I turned to Fashions of the Gilded Age by Frances Grimble.
I had already used volume 2 of this set to draft the pattern for my pink ballgown the previous year, but that was using a straightforward scaled pattern, and to be honest I didn’t do enough mockups and test fittings of that, so the fit was not great. In FotGA volume 1, Grimble has printed several basic basque and jacket bodices for average to “stout” ladies, but these must be drafted up with an apportioned scale. The directions on how to do this are explained in the introduction to the book, but if you struggle with math and sequential/spacial reasoning like I do… it takes a few read-throughs to begin to grasp how one goes about using an apportioned scale.
What I eventually figured out is that once you know your bust measurement (over your corset), you find that size scale printed in the back of the book:
You trace out your size scale several times, cut them out and tape them together to make your “yardstick.” Then you go to the bodice in the book that you want to draft up, in my case the “Medium-sized basque bodice”:
The numbers written on the pattern in the book are not inches or centimeters, they are units of their own, and when drafting these bodices with the apportioned scale, instead of the number of units changing to accommodate different sizes, the unit itself changes depending on what size the maker needs… if that makes sense. So the maker is always going to draw the front of this bodice to be 23 units wide at the bust, but the size of the unit will change depending on the size of the wearer. Once I figured that out I found it kind of ingenious. Victorian magazines, instead of printing several versions of a pattern for different size ladies could just print one version, and print out several scales in the back for the different size ladies to cut out and draft up the pattern on their own. It makes each pattern much more versatile and much easier to size.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t still struggle with drafting the pattern.
I’m lucky in that my sewing table has a grid printed on it, so I cut a large sheet of butcher paper and taped it to the sewing table and drew my side and top axes and relied on the grid I could just see through the paper to keep the rest of my measurements in straight lines. Using my “yardstick,” I measured out each point of the pattern pieces according to the units marked on the printed pattern. I then used a French curve to smoothly connect all the points.
The drafted pattern pieces are designed to overlap in some places, so after drafting the pieces out with the measurements I had to trace some of them again onto new paper to cut them all out.
At some point during this process, it may have even been after I cut the first pieces out of muslin, I realized that I didn’t know if the pattern was drafted with seam allowance or not (spoiler: it’s not).
The first mockup was not good. It was basically child-sized. In no way did it fit my dress form. It was too short at the waist and way too small all around. Instead of completely redrawing the pattern from scratch though, I decided to lengthen it at the waist first, and then add seam allowance, and see what that did for the fit.
Once I fixed the length and added seam allowance, the second mockup was much better and I started to see how the pattern was really designed to work.
The fit was still a bit too small, though, so I decided I needed to redraw it again, this time with more room in the hips. I also took the opportunity to add pleats in the back and side panels to add more volume and interest in the back.
The third mockup was improved enough that I could comfortably put it on, finally!
I decided I still wasn’t done, though. In the photograph, the front of the woman’s bodice is quite rounded at the hem. There’s also the contrast panel in the front center of the bodice, and though we can’t see the back I didn’t want it to just be plain as the pattern was drawn. I re-drew part of the pattern a fourth time to cut in a contrast piece for the front, and a separate piece in the back that I could put piping between.
After all of that, I felt like I was ready to cut the bodice out of the real fabric. But that last moment before you cut into your expensive silk is always nerve wracking, even after doing mockups…
I’ll save the images of bodice construction for later, as I intended this to be a post mainly about using the apportioned scale in FotGA, and how I got my pattern. It seems to me that no amount of images can really show how I used the apportioned scale, so I’m thinking I might make a video showing me drafting up another pattern from the book. Is there interest in that?
The dress has been progressing quite well over the last months since I last posted, and the skirt is now done, with sleeves, collar, and finishing left on the bodice. More posts will be forthcoming! In the meantime if you want to see some videos about pleats and unboxing supplies, you can take a peek at my new YouTube channel.
See the next post about constructing this dress: Skirt Construction
Saratoga Arts made this program possible with an Individual Artist Grant funded by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
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