Far and away the easiest way to achieve a good fit on your 14th and 15th century dresses is to have a friend help you with the patterning, by draping fabric directly on your body. However, it’s not always possible to enlist somebody’s help. I, myself, have not been fitted by another person since 2003.
Since then, I’ve gained and lost weight, had two kids, and my body shape has changed. I’ve adjusted my original pattern over and over, and in 2009, I completely revamped it, changing it to a straight front seam style, all fitting it on myself.
It may not be easy, but it is possible to fit yourself. If you give yourself a lot of time, have a lot of patience, and aren’t afraid of blowing through a lot of cheap fabric, you should be able to manage it. I’d like to share some tips and tricks which will make the process a little easier.
The Basic Process
The reality of fitting yourself if that you have to have a LOT of patience. In a nutshell, you start with a draft, you put it on, decide where to change it, take it off, stitch or pin the changes. Lather, rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And if you royally screw up, start over, or cut out what you have in new fabric, getting it as close to the last working version as possible.
After the initial fitting, before doing all of the final tweaks, it might help to compare the two sides. You may decide that you want to even out the sides (pdf) before continuing. Always keep your originals, just in case things twist on your body once they’re all evened out.
What to make?
When fitting yourself, I recommend using the straight front seam method of patterning. There are various schools of thought on the straight front seam versus a shaped front seam, and I usually believe that which method you use depends on what end result you want and what works best on your body. In a self-fitting exercise, however, reducing the number of variables should increase your chance of success. The front seam can be very difficult to pinch in tight enough and evenly on yourself. Keeping the front seam straight also allows you an opening on which you don’t have to mess with shaping.
Where to Start?
If you have a four panel dress pattern of some sort that already fits you adequately, but doesn’t give support, that would be a good starting point. You might choose to use these techniques on a commercially-bought pattern. Alternatively, you may wish to draft your starting point using measurements. Even if you use a commercial pattern, I recommend checking your measurements against it before you start, which may allow you to make some easy fixes right away.
If your existing pattern has a curve in the front seam, smooth this out into a straight line. If you wish, you can take a little out of the side seams to make up for adding the front seam space. The more you do this, the more you can start to rely on instinct and experience to know what to add and what to take away.
If you wish to draft, this Drafting by Measurement article describes the techniques that I’ve used in order to create a remote pattern.
Use Canvas or Sturdy Fabric
Fabric stretch and give have a lot to do with how the final dress will look, but in the beginning stages, it can make things a little simpler to start with a very sturdy fabric. This can be especially true if you’re a little more well-endowed.
When I converted an old curved front seam pattern to a straight seam pattern, I cut out my first guess shape onto a sturdy hemp canvas. Any sort of heavy and tightly woven fabric will do, even if it’s some ugly poly cotton upholstery fabric that you have laying around. My first guess shape might be equivalent to your commercial pattern shape, or your measured draft. Using this fabric made it much easier to hold my chest in place while I was playing with the side seams.
However, many heavy fabrics do not have the bias stretch that allows a lighter fabric to mold to the body. When I was fitting with the canvas, I could not get a smooth fit under the bust. As soon as I transferred the pattern to a linen with a more flexible weave, I was able to remove an inch out of each side, which gave me the proper fit.
Use Lacing Strips
Generally, when you are fitting another person, most seaming will be done with pins and/or sewn seams. Most of the time, though, the final dress will be laced. Incidentally, lacing is also a handy tool for the self-fitter. When fitting yourself, you will need to remove the garment frequently, and if you can do this quickly, it will speed up the whole process. The lacing strips are part of what make using the straight front seam method easier.
To make lacing strips, fold a long and narrow piece of fabric lengthwise, so you have a long, double-thickness strip. The final lacing strip should be about 2″ wide and 18″ long. You don’t need to do anything fancy to the edges, although to prevent fraying, you can sew them into a long tube that’s turned inside out. Using an automatic button hole feature on your sewing machine, or even the quick metal eyelets or grommets, insert a line of holes, about a half inch from one edge (unless you have a preference on how close your eyelets normally are to the edge, naturally). Just don’t use a good lacing cord during if you use the metal eyelets. Place holes approximately an inch apart, give or take depending on preference and experience.
Even easier, before you toss out an old dress, make yourself lacing strips from the eyelets that you already have!
To use the lacing strips, sew them onto the front opening of your mock up, ensuring that your stitching is outside of the eyelets. Place the edge of the strip at the edge of the fold or seam line of the fabric. This is important – don’t forget to take seam allowances into consideration! Also stagger the eyelets so that your spiral lacing works correctly, as shown in this article (pdf).
Move the Side Seams Forward
This tip doesn’t just apply to fitting yourself, but any time you’re fitting a straight front seam dress. Often people have difficulty with the straight front seam method because there is little way to shape the fabric in a way that accounts for the chest. The side seams have to do all of the work. However, on many women, especially those of us who are more well endowed, breast tissue extends a bit around the side of the body. If you move the side seams forward to meet that, you can start to shape that seam around the curve of the breast.
If you have been fit before for a four panel dress, say, a curved front seam dress, it’s not unlikely that your back panels are quite a bit narrower than your front panels. I’ve seen this time and again – when people do a fitting, they tend to move the side seams further back. I don’t know where that tendency comes from, but it exists. If you’re working with a pattern like that, you can start out by moving that seam further forward – take some space out of the front and put it in the back, or redraw that seam line right away. You may not need to move much. It should still be on the side of your body, just where your breast starts to curve.
An added advantage of moving the side seam forward is that it’s a bit easier to reach. When you’re desperately trying to pinch some fabric in at the side, or mark it with chalk, you’ll appreciate the seam being an inch or two closer to the front!
Throughout the process, you’ll be checking yourself in the mirror. As we all know, the mirror lies! I was wearing a particular dress from a particular fitting for years, before I finally saw a picture of myself at a certain angle, and discovered that it pulled a funny line across my chest. You can imagine how embarrassing that was! Photos don’t lie.
Not only are pictures good for seeing what you cannot see in the mirror, but a camera with a timer and a tripod or flat surface is invaluable for checking the back.
Fit the Back using Cheat Seams
No doubt about it, the back can be the hardest thing to fit on yourself. Luckily, for most of us, the back can be pretty straightforward. I recommend starting with a straight seam on the back, as well. You can try taking a bit out at the lower back, to account for the small of your back being, well, smaller. But just like how the front can have plenty of shape just by using the side seams, so can the back.
The hardest part about the back seam is keeping it straight. Even when fitting somebody else, pulling on the side seams invariably pulls the back out of whack. This is one time when you’re going to need to use the camera. If you do find that your seam is crooked, it may be almost impossible to fix. Instead of trying to rearrange the seam, you can draw a cheater seam. If you can actually reach around and draw it, more power to you. This might be where you need to take the mock up off, put in a row of pins where you think the seam needs to be (you have your photos for reference, which should help), and put it on again to check.
A cheater seam is only a temporary fix. When you take another version of the mock up, tracing it to new fabric, cut along the cheater seam instead of the real seam, and that’s the new seam. Cheater seams can be addicting – I’ve used them on all of the body seams, and even the shoulder seams, when necessary. They can be a huge time saver.
Putting the gore in the back will also help immensely with the back seam fit. Instead of worrying about shaping the seam over the swell of the bottom, place the gore in at the narrowest point in your back, and let the skirt start to flare over your rear. You can fit more closely than that, but most of the time, that gore placement will suffice.
With a lot of patience, time, and some of these tricks, you stand a good chance of being able to achieve the silhouette that you want.