One question I get asked occasionally is whether a sewist needs to have a dress form. The short answer, believe it or not, is “no.”
If there’s a short answer, that means there has to be a long answer too. And today I’m going to give you the long answer. The long answer is still mostly “no,” but with a lot more explanation and a few hedges.
Whether you need or can use a dress form depends a lot on what you want to do with it.
Many dress forms or mannequins are made solely for display in stores for merchandising the clothing. These can be great for taking photos of your sewing projects, but they’re not very useful for sewing or for draping because they aren’t very accurate in terms of body shape or sizing. On the other hand, if you’re a blogger and hate to pose for photos, go for it! I totally support this idea, especially given my personal dislike of posing for photos. (By the way, I still pose for photographs because you’ve told me you like to see how I style them.)
Here’s the truth about dress forms. Many sewists assume that a dress form will be really useful for making clothes that fit properly. But unless you have draping skills and plan to drape your clothes from scratch, it’s very likely that you won’t make much use of one. I was pretty certain I needed one when I graduated from design school, and then I got one and it served mostly to stand quietly in the corner and frighten the internet installation guy until I finally sold it.
Personally, I find that I prefer to fit clothes directly on my body. It’s difficult to find a dress form that mirrors your body, and even if you have one that’s a perfect double of your own body I think it’s really important to feel how the clothing feels and looks on your body: how much easy do you need; where does the neckline look best; can you bend over, turn, and breathe? And if you don’t know how to drape, there’s a good chance you won’t know what to do with a garment once you get it on a dress form anyway. If you fit a pattern to your own body you’ll be able to see and feel what needs to change.
Yes, there are all sorts of custom dress form options out there: the duct tape dress form, padding a basic dress form to mimic your body, 3D modelling, etc. They each have advantages and disadvantages. One distinct disadvantage of a duct tape dress form is that, although it’s quite inexpensive to make, you can’t pin into it without gunking up your pins. (Even if you cover your form with fabric.) And frankly, when you’re wrapping yourself in duct tape (or someone is wrapping you), it’s going to distort your body so that the finished dress form won’t be very accurate. The custom models can also be really expensive. Padding a dress form to mirror your own body can be done, but it’s complicated and difficult to mimic your shape and stance. Are your shoulders forward, or is one higher than the other? How straight is your back? If you don’t get the essential posture of your body just right, the dress form probably isn’t going to give you the results you want. And custom 3D dress form options can be quite pricey for something you might not use as often as you think you will.
Having said all that, I own two dress forms. Here’s how I use them.
For our Oliver + S kids patterns, I use a traditional Royal form, which is basically a paper mache torso, legs, and arm covered with linen. This dress form works well for checking the fit and proportions on our sample size, but I mostly develop patterns with a flat pattern technique. That means the dress form serves mostly as a check to confirm that the patterns fit and look right before they’re graded. Once all the sizes have been developed, we do a lot of further testing on real bodies to check the sizing and fit for the various sizes.
For our women’s Liesl + Co. patterns, I use a custom AlvaForm. I love it because it’s anatomically very accurate. By that I mean that the shape is much more accurate than the traditional dress forms like Wolf and Royal, so the fit through the bust and armhole can be better than it would be with a traditional form. If you’ve ever sewn a pattern that gapes at the armhole even if it fits well through the bust, chances are it was developed or fitted on a traditional paper mache form that didn’t allow correction of the concave area between the bust and shoulder. Alva forms solve this problem but are very expensive (and to ship your custom, finished form from Asia costs almost as much as the form itself!), so this is really not an option for most home sewists. But again, on a professional pattern-making level, this form allows me to develop sewing patterns that adhere to a standard fit before we grade to develop and test the different sizes. This video about how AlvaForms are made is really interesting.
However, I never rely solely on a dress form for pattern development. It’s important to see how a pattern fits and feels on real bodies, so we do lots of fittings and wear testing before a pattern is ready for grading. I sew our women’s patterns for myself and wear them for a few weeks before they’re graded. I make basic pattern adjustments for my body when I sew the samples–I’m longer waisted and smaller busted than our standard sample size–and this way I can tell if there might be as issue somewhere in the basic pattern. Maybe I notice that the armhole is too high or that the neck is uncomfortable, or perhaps it needs more room across the upper back so you can move. This is the role that a traditional fit model plays, but of course being the small company that we are I don’t have the budget for a professional fit model. So I alter the patterns for my body and fit test them myself. I also rely on our pattern testers to do the same so we can check the patterns on a wide variety of body shapes and sizes, and I sew the samples for our photo shoots so I can check the fit against our models as well. (I have a very reliable group of testers—some experienced and some quite new to sewing—who help me with a lot of this process.)
But when it comes to sewing for myself for fun, I sew for my body and don’t use a dress form at all. And that’s despite the fact that I’m quite close in size to my AlvaForm dress form! I honestly don’t use it for myself. It’s much more useful to fit the pattern to my body in the form of a muslin. This is what I teach in my fit classes, too. It helps to have a sewing buddy who you can work with, but none of my friends sew so I do it myself. I make a muslin, look in the mirror, occasionally ask my husband or daughter to take some photos from the angles I can’t see very well, and then I take off the muslin and make adjustments before checking the fit again. It’s adjustment by adjustment until I’m happy with the result. My best tools for fitting? A mirror, maybe a camera, and a copy of Fit for Real People, which I highly recommend to all my students and all our customers because it explains how to get a good fit in ways that are relatively intuitive, with lots of photos, diagrams, and examples to help you along the way. This is what I teach in my fit workshops as well, and once you’re comfortable with the process I think you’ll find that you really don’t need a dress form at all.
So do you need a dress form? It’s sort of up to you, but I generally counsel against it. It looks cool in a sewing room and in blog photos. But unless you’re developing sewing patterns yourself, my personal opinion is that you won’t get very much use out of it. Use your own body and a few tools, and you’ll get much better results.
This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Fringe Association. Thanks to Karen for asking the question and having me join her there.
What an interesting and informative post! Thanks for sharing!
I have a dress form and I use it all the time. After basting the Garment together I I try it on the dress form. I then make any further adjustments necessary and try it on myself. The dress form helps me a great deal.
Thank you for such a clear and thorough explanation. It’s really helpful to learn how you fit patterns for yourself. I have a copy of the fitting book you recommend and hope one day to attend your fitting class. Fitting is my biggest challenge when sewing clothes. It’s reassuring to be reminded that additional tools are not necessarily always helpful and that ultimately what will help fitting is lots (and lots…) of practice. Here’s to more sewing!
Thank you for the post, Liesl! I have wondered if I’m somehow lacking for not having one, but I always wondered how useful they could be when a woman’s body changes so much, especially during childbearing years.
great post and good advice, I have a basic inexpensive dress form and its useful for fixing linings of coats (I handsew mine) and leaving my project sit on while I assess it. and before I bought it, I was convinced I needed one! I find the best way to asses fit is to wear the item around the house while doing some chores and then look in the mirror!
Thanks for sharing. I am also long-waisted and small chested, so it is hard to find tops and dresses that fit me well. The waist always ends up too high and there is too much looseness in the bust area. As I have aged I have also developed more abdominal fatness, which compounds all fitting issues.
Great post! Until now I always felt a form was truly a treasure, but I am really convinced I don’t need one, really. Best to invest in fabric 😉
I made dresses and suits for myself without a dress form but purchased a very used model to use when I made my wedding gown. I still drag her out every year when I make costumes for local theater. My husband still jumps when he encourages that old headless girl wearing a dress in a dark room.
When you fit a muslin, how do you record the adjustments and transfer them to the pattern? Do you pin/measure/eyeball the adjustments? And then how do you re-mark/reconstruct the pattern? As you can tell I’m at the rank beginning of learning the fitting process (with E. Liechty’s “Pattern Alteration” tome). I realize this is a complicated (read time-consuming) question. I’d just like a general/helicopter take on your process as you have such efficient methods, gleaned from years of practice. Thanks!
I am looking for an easy way to alter my clothes from a 14-16 down to a 10-12 and have nobody to help me. Would getting a mannequin be the easiest way? I am finding it difficult to pin the tops on my own.
Thank you for this. I was considering buying a dress form, but now I will hold off longer and just try it on myself to see if I like the fit of what I am making.