Learn more about sewing dress forms, whether you need one, and how to sew your very own DIY plus size dress form with this how-to guide.
Hey y’all, today we’re going to be talking about dress forms for sewing. I am revising my previous opinion from this post when I said that a dress form probably wouldn’t help your pattern fitting for yourself if you’re not a standard size. I still hold that buying a form might not be very helpful to fit yourself, however, I’ve found and used another option for custom dress forms that you can sew and that is definitely something that would be more helpful for fitting. Getting a replica of your body is easier if you use your measurements for the form to begin with, and that’s exactly what I did when I made the plus size form pictured above.
What Is A Dress Form?
A dress form is a tool used for draping – if you’ve ever watched Project Runway or a similar show, you’ve likely seen the designers using a professional dress form to create a pattern by pinning fabric directly to the form. Draping is one way to create a pattern, the other way is to flat pattern a sloper or block on paper and then manipulate it to draft your pattern. Personally, I prefer to draft from flat pattern blocks and then sew a muslin to refine fit rather than draping, but I can see how sometimes draping is the preferred method, particularly when you are doing folds, gathers or pleats to manipulate the fabric on the form. In the image above I was draping to work on manipulating the sleeve folds I had drafted and figure out where to place pleats.
They can also be used as display forms to showcase clothing, and they can be used to help fit clothing. Tailors and dressmakers often use a body form to make their muslin draft of a pattern and then refine the fit on the actual client’s body, because forms are only useful to make fitting alterations when they are pretty similar to the bodies that will ultimately wear the clothes. Which is why I say that if your body is not “standard” then a standard sized dress form won’t help much. Even an adjustable dress form with dials to change the sizes isn’t helpful if you’re shorter than the form was made for, as I found out when I bought one. What I learned is that while I could make the bust, waist and hips circumferences match my measurements I could not modify the high bust (my high bust is MUCH smaller than the adjustable form) and the waist was always in the wrong place because the dress form had a longer torso than I do.
Features to Look for in a Dress Form for Sewing
If you are a standard size or close to one, then you can get a manufactured dress form and make adjustments to the bust/waist/hips by padding out to your measurements, but remember that you can’t adjust height. If you’re shopping for a a dressmaker form you’d want to get one that matches the smallest measurement on your body and then pad out the other areas using foam, poly-fil and/or quilt batting. For example, if I really wanted a body double for myself, I’d look for a petite size 0 or 2 form to match my small high bust and vertical height, then add a bra with stuffing to make the full bust match, then pad out the waist and hips with quilt batting to make them match. If you choose to go this route, make sure to look for collapsible shoulders on the form (pictured below) – otherwise it is a pain to try to put garments on it that pull over the head. The disadvantage of padding out a form with foam and stiffing is that those materials are not designed to be pinnable in the same way that a linen covered cage works to pin to when you’re draping a design.
PGM is generally the manufacturer of the body forms you’ll see in used in shows like Project Runway and in fashion schools. And they make dress forms like the one pictured in this post, which are used for drafting and displaying tops, skirts and dresses. They have magnetic arm forms that you can add to the basic dress form for working on sleeves. For pants you need either a full body form or a pants form, and there are also half body forms that have the legs division but not the entire leg that can be used for swimsuits and lingerie. If you are only making underwear or swimwear bottoms, there are panty forms for that.
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Basic Dress Form Sizes
Like clothing, dress forms come in both misses and plus sizes. The lack of plus size dress form options is what led me to try making my own. When things got shut down and I couldn’t get close to my fit model to test fit my plus size drafts because we were all staying in our own homes and not mingling with other households, I needed an alternate option. I could not find any manufactured plus size forms above a size 22 (I wanted a size 28) and the ones I could find in the size 22 were taking so long to ship I decided to give making my own a try. I used the Bootstrap Fashion DIY Dress Form custom pattern (affiliate link) to make a form with the measurements I use for my largest size pattern block. As soon as I shared the image below on Instagram, I started getting questions and comments from plus size sewists about the dress form, so I’m finally (over a year later) writing a post to answer them.
Sewing Your Form
Not only did I write a post about how I made this DIY plus size dress form, I made a video about it. You can watch that below or on YouTube here if the player below won’t work for some reason. Check out my thoughts and reasoning and get a peek at the pattern I used.
There are a lot of reasons I prefer and recommend sewing a custom dress form. First, you get something that much more closely resembles your body. If you’re plus size, this is a much more affordable option than what I found with professional dress forms I could order, if your size is even available (again, I had trouble at the time finding anything above a size 22 in stock and I wanted a size 28). Because this form is stuffed with poly-fil instead of a cage, the shoulders do squish in like a cage with collapsible shoulders to put garments on it that pull on over the head, which is one of my must have features for a mannequin used for sewing. And if you stuff the form very firmly, you can pin designs to it much like you could with a cage form. The disadvantages are that these do take time to construct, and while they are less expensive than many professional forms, they are still not cheap. This cannot compete with the low cost of a duct tape form, for example. I also wish I had found a pole with wheels so that my DIY form could be moved around my studio as easily as my manufactured form, but I may still figure out how to add wheels.
Fabrics and Materials to Make a DIY Dress Form
As I said in the video, while this DIY version was much more affordable than ordering a manufactured dress form (which I couldn’t find in the size I wanted anyway) it was not cheap. In addition to the time I spent making it – two to three hours a day over a period of a week – the materials added up. And the muslin I used was probably the cheapest option; if you wanted your dress form to be made of a fancier fabric (like the brocade that the sample in the pattern instructions was made from) you’d be spending more on fabric. Below I try to tally up costs (commissions earned on these links)
Pattern from Bootstrap Fashion $26
Fabric – approximately 3 yards of muslin $15
Medium Weight Fusible interfacing, 3yd $15
Hat rack (used as the display pole) $27
Zippers $ 3
PVC Pipe $ 9
Neck Sponge $ 4
Total before tax & shipping $147
Making a smaller size might be slightly less money in materials. For reference, my dress form has a bust of 54 inches and is my size 3X or about a women’s size 28.
Final Thoughts on This Sewing Tool
As I said in the earlier article I wrote, having a dress form isn’t a magical tool that will suddenly help you understand why things you sewed don’t fit you, unless it is a pretty good replica of your body, and even then it is just a tool, amongst many. Other things that can help you achieve a good fit are taking your measurements properly, understanding how to choose your pattern size , making common bust adjustments as needed, and understanding pattern ease and how it affects the final fit of a garment. All of these things will help you in your quest for a great fit, and in particular measuring properly might even make or break your project if you do decide to try to make DIY form.