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Building Blocks: an Imprecise History of Pattern Drafting

My life, and probably yours, gentle reader, would be much simplified if, perchance, our predecessors of the fifteenth century had taken a few moments to write a book on their patterning practices.  Alas, they did not.  Nor did our predecessors of the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries, gosh darn them.  I can’t tell you that I know how they did it, either.  (Sad, but true: though I freely admit to lying whenever it’s convenient, I’m basically an honest girl.)  What I can do is share the method I’ve worked out for my own use over the years.  Who’s in?  ;)

Now that I’ve lured you in here with that promising intro, I’m going to back up for a bit of a history lesson.  Here is a basic timeline of developments in pattern-making, going chronologically backwards.  I find it somewhat revealing, and just generally interesting:

c1926: Standardized sizing is introduced to commercial patterns, via the Buereau of Standards (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 2, pg 4)

1910: Butterick first includes instructions with their patterns.  (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 2, pg 4)

1908: Corset drafting instructions appear in the book “Up-To-Date Dress Cutting and Drafting”, Part IV, by M. Prince Browne.  These instructions advice women to “pick apart” a bodice they already own and use the pieces as a guideline for making their corset pattern. (Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines, pg 157-158)

c1880: The rise of the “Scientific” method of pattern drafting, forerunner to all modern flat pattern drafting methods. (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 2, pg 4)

Let’s pause with to ponder that for a moment.  Arnold says, specifically:

“many books on the scientific methods of pattern construction were written from c1880 onwards.  This method of constructing patterns on paper is still used today and is known as flat pattern drafting or working on the flat.  A block pattern is constructed from a set of given measurements adapted to the lines of the required design and cut in calico.”

This is the basic method behind all modern slopers.  Calling it the “scientific method of pattern construction” (and that is the term used in period) is quite the Victorian thing.  Those of you who are in to SteamPunk should be familiar with the Victorian concept of science: it’s darn fussy.  The culture took this idea into it’s collective brain that anything in nature could be described if you used enough terribly complicated, detailed measurements and equations.  (And anything could be made with enough steam power and clock-work.)  “Scientific” was as much a buzz-word for advertising purposes as an indication that actual science had occurred, along the lines of “New and Improved!” today.  So how was pattern drafting done prior to the scientific method of the 1880s?

I don’t think we really know.  There are some clues, but not so many as to give a full picture.  It would seem that the Victorians felt it was incredibly loosey-goosey, given their desire to science it up.  There’s evidence that fashion had reached a point where a few measurements taken on a tape were no longer sufficient to create the reigning styles.  Going back to our timeline, we see draped patterns emerge:

1839:  A contemporary engraving shows a bodice pattern partially draped on a table-top stand. (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1, pg 13)

1836: Janet Arnold gives this as the year for the first paper pattern advertised to the home sewer that, so far as she’d ever found.  It appeared in The World of Fashion, October, 1836. (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1, pg 3)

1804: An early description of how to drape patterns on a stand (or a human body), along with an illustration,  is given in The Book of Trades.  (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 2, pg 4)

It makes perfect sense that draped patterning techniques should show up around the same time as the the bust dart (a dress dated 1795-1810, Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1, pg 47).  Both are indicative of styles that handle the bust with more subtlety than the traditional “smash ’em flat” approach.  In fact, both ideas indicate a fairly subtle knowledge of how to manipulate a flat surface (like fabric) into a three dimensional surface that is composed of a main curved plane with smaller curved areas on it.  Geometrically, that’s pretty intense.  These developments follow close on the heels of the French Revolution (1789-1799), which created one of the most extreme and sudden shifts of fashion aesthetic seen in history.  Suddenly, the rigidly controlled and hyper-decorated fashions of the aristocracy were out, and a romanticized notion of the “natural” greco-roman fashions was just the thing.

Before that, though, all evidence points to pattern drafting being more an art than a science.  Relatively few measurements were taken, simple tools were employed, basic patterns were drafted and fitted directly to the wearer, and I suspect the tailor relied heavily on his visualization skills, and the occassional sample, to reproduce gowns with the correct volume and form for the current mode.  What we know goes like this:

1769: L’Art du Tailleur, by Garsault, describes a method of taking measurements from a client by making notches in a strip of paper.  Pre-marked measuring tapes hadn’t been invented yet, and won’t be until some time in the early nineteenth century. (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1, pg 3)

1589: Juan de Alcega publishes his Libro de Geometrica, Practica y Traca, available now in facsimile form.  Rather than describing the steps to create custom patterns, the book primarily shows economical cutting layouts and the general shape of the pieces a tailor is shooting for.  (Alcega, Tailor’s Pattern Book) Some of the translated passages give hints as to how patterns were arrived at: one listing for a veil directs the tailor to put fabric over the wearer’s head and mark where it hits the ground with soap, while another listing for a mantle states that the hemline should be marked on the wearer and then sewn.  He adds that if his directions are followed carefully, it’s possible to make up a mantle without using an existing mantle as a pattern. (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, pg 4)

1500s: On page 4 of Patterns of Fashion, Arnold lists some basic tools of the tailor’s trade in the sixteenth century: strips of parchment for taking measurements (apparently the standard for the next 200+ years!), a “mett stick” for measuring the cloth, buckram and canvas to make up toiles to be sent to tailors in other countries (these having already been fitted to the person the gown was intended for), and brown paper (ostensibly for pattern making).

Not a lot to go on, is it?  It’s almost a half-drafted, half-draped approach to fitting: the drafted pattern exists to get you “close enough” so that a fitting is possible.  (Ironically, this is still pretty much how pattern drafting works today.)   We know it started with simple measurements, and that the resulting forms could handle the overall conical nature of the female torso, but any “inconvenient” curves were banished by boning.  Patterns, even for basic items like a mantle, were often made by picking apart existing garments and using them as a starting point.  What’s worse, I think, is that when you look through the history of corsets/boned bodices from the 1500s-1700s, they mostly seem to be a series of refinements on earlier models.

Bother, indeed.  It makes it rather difficult to just jump in to the middle of the timeline and make a “period correct” draft with “period methods”.  I don’t think it’s possible: we just don’t know enough about how patterns were made before the Victorians and their scientific methods.  To my poor little brain, the best we can hope for is to turn out a pattern that creates the right silhouette and correctly shaped pattern pieces.  And even that last is iffy, because, as we’ve already discussed, drafting the same garment with the same fit for differently shaped bodies will require differently shaped pattern pieces.  (God laughs at pattern makers, I think…)

All that said, I draft basic foundation blocks based on the required silhouette.  I then alter these blocks to get the particular pattern I need.  By and large, my basic blocks are based strongly on the torso shape provided by the corsetry of an era, but they don’t necessarily follow the same seam placement because seams are very easy to move around.  I divide costume history into several distinct eras, each of which uses its own special block draft.  They go roughly (very roughly, indeed, because I’m ignoring every exception I can think of) like this:

  1. Before 900ad: I don’t care.  I’ve tried, but I can’t seem to manage it.
  2. pre-Renaissance: No block required; patterns based on geometric shapes.
  3. Renaissance – the Eve of the French Revolution: Simple conic block – length and armscye location change, but the basic draft is the same.
  4. French Revolution – 1870s: Hourglass block – height changes, but it’s definitely a waisted block.
  5. 1870s-1910s: Long hourglass block – wherein we finally have to take a full hip measurement.
  6. 1920s-now: I lose interest.  I’d rather go shoe shopping.  (Technically, it’s all variations off a long hourglass block without negative ease, unless you’re doing knitwear, and with more or less boning and more or less acceptance of curves.  After 1930 or so, a pant block is required for women.)

Did I mention being honest at the beginning?  There are large periods of fashion history that I find deathly dull.  Pre-900, the 1920s, the 1960s, and basically any other period that might be described as a ‘droopy booby’ era doesn’t do it for me.  That to one side, we’re basically looking at three main torso blocks to get us through most of women’s fashion over a 600 year span.  Not a bad bang for your buck, really.  We’ll start with the simplest and oldest of these, the basic conical torso block.  After we put together the block, we’ll start making patterns based off of it.

But that’s another post….


  1. Lauren
    Lauren August 11, 2010

    Wow, the persistent problem with my straps and armholes finally explained! This is amazingly clear and logical. I may even recut my first corset to fit using your triangle method . . .

  2. Violetta DiParma
    Violetta DiParma October 17, 2010

    I am very glad to have found your blog, and am thrilled to learn that others have had problems dealing with drafted patterns… as you say, they are a great starting point, but each person is made with a unique shape. I will be sending my SCA friends to see your site, so they can get help with their garb.

  3. missa
    missa October 18, 2010

    Thanks, Violetta! I’m glad you found me, and that you’ve been enjoying your visit. Be sure to check the pinter friendly version of the basic conic draft in the downloads section. Once you’ve got a fitted block, it’s easy to compare patterns to it and see what needs to be changed, or just alter the block to make patterns.

  4. Anna-Carin
    Anna-Carin January 27, 2011

    I’ve been reading a book on the division of labor between tailors and seamstresses in dressmaking in 1770-1830, and found it has an interesting chapter on the history of pattern drafting. One point the author makes, is that researchers have mostly focused on the methods used in England and France, while drafting techniques seems to have been developed in the German sphere already in the 18th century. The book is a doctoral dissertation written in Swedish, but if you’re interested I could scan the English summary and period illustrations for you. If so, please get in touch with me through email – I’ve got the book on interlibrary loan, have to return it in two weeks.

  5. missa
    missa January 27, 2011

    That would be so unbelievably cool! And, seriously, you’re reading a Swedish-language doctoral dissertation on what when? I feel completely out-geeked right now. ;) You have my utmost admiration and respect, Anna-Carin. Thank you so much!

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