For several hundred years, beginning where the High Middle Ages met the Renaissance and continuing through the eve of the French Revolution, fashion treated the female torso as something of an inconvenience. The breasts were flattened, first by bands of wool or linen, later by corsetry and boned bodices. The sides of the body were straightened and the tum controlled. The torso became a conic shape. In some decades, like the 1590s, 1690s, and 1780s, it’s a very long cone. In others, like the 1640s, it’s a very short cone that disappears into skirts below the bust. During these times, a very basic conical torso block can be used as a basis creating custom patterns.
You will need the following measurements:
- Waist, Front/Back Waist
- Nape to Waist Length, Nape to Bust Line Length
- Front/Back Shoulder to Shoulder Width
- Bust, Front/Back Bust
- Armscye to Waist
You will also need:
- a Yardstick
- a Pencil (or Pen, if you’re confident!)
- Paper Scissors
- a Large Sheet of Paper (old wrapping paper and brown paper bags cut and spread flat work well)
- optional: a Calculator
- optional: a French Curve (if you don’t like drawing curves
- optional: Poster Board (for a quick and dirty mockup)
- optional: Tape (I hate it, but I hear others can’t do without)
Overview and Goals
We’re going to be drafting a custom block to your measurements. This block will serve as a starting point for many historical (and fantasy) bodices, corsets, and dresses. This block will have no ease: that is to say, it will be made to your exact measurements, with nothing added and nothing taken away. Most corsets and boned bodices use something called “negative ease”, where the garment is actually slightly smaller than the torso that gets smashed into it. We’ll deal with the negative ease when we manipulate this block into patterns, but not now. (Because different areas of history use different amounts of negative ease, taken out in different fashions.) The point of this block is to ensure that all future patterns are based on something that fits.
This block has been designed to handle bodies where the front half of the body is larger than the back half. (The bustline is a popular place for this to happen.) It has also been designed to work for every body, not just the easy column shaped ones, by the use of a few extra measurements and a little origami. (In other words, this is going to be a little more involved than the ultra-basic renaissance corset pattern you might be familiar with.) Figures that are significantly asymmetrical due to scoliosis or a similar condition will need to make separate drafts for the left and right sides of the body, to reflect the difference in Armscye-to-Waist length and/or Shoulder-to-Shoulder distance that results from spinal curvature.
To the best of my knowledge, this is not a period-correct drafting technique. It’s based off of a simplified version of modern darts. This is, however, a darned good place to start if you’d like to ultimately arrive at period patterns redrafted to your body without spending a huge amount of time begging people to help you pin things to you. ;)
Beginning the Block
Start with a large sheet of paper. It should be at least 1/2 of your Bust (or Waist, if larger) measurement wide by your Nape-to-Waist measurement tall. Larger is better, here, because finding out that you’re a half inch shy of the amount of paper you need for your draft is very annoying. I’ve done it many a time… We’ll begin by determining which is larger: Bust or Waist. This will affect things later, so be aware of it now.
Please note: I am doing this draft to the size of a 16″ fashion doll. It makes it way easier to get pictures of the draft, but her proportions are a little exaggerated and everything is going to look oddly miniature. The method does not change, just the size of things….
On your large sheet of paper, we can start marking out lines:
Start the basic conic draft by laying out an ordinal grid: two lines that meet at right angles. The vertical line will become the side line of the body (directly below the armscye), and the horizontal line will become the waist line. I’ve labelled these, and labelled the Front and Back sides of the draft (with an F and B, respectively).
Now, subtract your Nape-to-Bust measurement from your Nape-to-Waist measurement. The result is your Bust-to-Waist measurement. (I know that sounds convoluted, but it’s based on how we took the measurements – which started at the nape of the neck.)
At this point, you must decide if your Bust or Waist is larger. I’m working with a Bust that is larger than the waist. If you are working with the opposite, use the Waist measurement everywhere I use the Bust and the Bust measurement everywhere I use the Waist. You’ll be drafting the same way, but your pictures will look upside-down to mine.
At this point, you should have a clear idea of why we call these things ‘pattern blocks’. We start by making a rectangle that describes the bouts of the largest part of our measurements. Now we just chip away everything that’s not part of the pattern (much like the immortal, and entirely smarty-pants, instructions on how to carve an elephant from a block of ivory: start with a block, and carve away everything that isn’t part of an elephant.)
Next: Modeling curves…