This photo-essay is intended to give you an overview of one way to drape fabric on a body to achieve a tight fit.
Meet Sheree. She’s my willing victim who also happens to get two finished cottes out of this experiment.
For this fitting, I decided to try something new. Rather than starting with 4 separate thin rectangular panels, (which is my typical method and one that is more historically supportable) I started with one solid piece of fabric with a hole cut out for her head. Please understand that this is a modern convenience, not to be construed as my interpretation of what historic tailors used. I used a blue linen fabric which will end up being the lining of her gown. Robin Netherton suggests trying this, and for both fittings I used the same lining material in order to do as ‘pure’ a comparison between them as possible
In order to get the grain of the fabric under control (i.e. straight in relation to the ground), I did some rough pinning from the armpits to below the waist. The cloth was not tight at this point.
I pinned the center-back seam, following the curve of Sheree’s spine. I fit to about three inches past the point at which her backside begins.
Before proceeding further, I trimmed down some of the excess around the edges. This will help with fabric manipulation as I progress.
At this point, the front is rather loose and gives no bust support.
Before tightening the fit any further, I do large basting stitches with strong thread along the center-back seam. This seam will not need much further adjustment, but if it does, you can always baste it again, on top of the existing stitches.
I also baste the side seams to give them some integrity as I will begin to tighten the fit along the center-front seam next.
The basted fitting is beginning to take shape along the sides and back seams. It is now prepared for tension from pulling the center-front portion in tighter.
Note that I cut the center-back seam open. When the basting comes out, there will now be two separate back panels.
The bust fitting is best achieved, to start, from a supine position. This idea is promoted by Robin Netherton, and after trying it, I have to agree.
Sheree adjusts her bust upward before I proceed to fit that area.
Starting from a few inches below the bottom of Sheree’s bust, I begin to pinch the fabric along the center-front line and pin the excess together from the bottom up.
My left finger indicates the line at which Sheree’s bust begins along the underside.
This point is important, because you will need to ensure that the fit from this point downwards for a few inches is very snug. If it is not tight enough, “downward creep” may occur.
Because I have already basted the fabric somewhat tightly on the side and back seams, I am forgoing pinning across the widest part of Sheree’s bust. I do pin the upper area, though, to allow the fabric to follow the curve.
This is what the fitting looks like at this point. I have removed the pins at the top of the center-front seam area, but that will be fitted again before the final pattern is achieved.
The final bust shape will change quite a bit when the armhole is shaped and sleeves are attached. The fitting of the sleeves can greatly affect the shape and feel of the bust support.
At this point, I begin to rebaste along the side seams to pull the fit tighter.There is some puckering and gathering which I decide should be corrected sooner than later.
I pull the fabric rather tight after taking out the existing basting stitches. I really have to watch the grain on the other vertical seams, but I manage to rebaste this side seam more smoothly.
You never thought you’d need finger muscles, eh?
The corrected side seam is rebasted and pulled as tight as possible while maintaining a vertically straight grain at the center of the panel pieces. For a diagram of what I mean, click here.
Always remember to recheck your other three vertical seams when you pull in the one you are currently working on.
See the difference between the left and the right sides? The left has been rebasted to pull the area under the bust as tightly across the ribcage as possible.
The front seam line is ruffling a little, which makes it look more off-grain than it is.
After the right side has been rebasted you can see that there’s a line of semi-support under the bust.
It doesn’t look very attractive yet, though, and so the next step is to adjust the shoulder seams to give some lift to the bust.
In preparation for adjusting the shoulder seams, I trim down the neckline a bit.
I pinch excess fabric along the shoulder seam line and then baste. You can pin and then baste, too.
Before adjusting the armhole, I ask Sheree to raise her arm up. I find the indented point at which her deltoid muscle meets her shoulder.
Keeping my finger on that point, I cut a gently rounded shape that is about 1/2 inch outside of that point.
The indentation will serve as the top of the armhole seam.
After the armhole has been cut down a bit, the bust drops a fraction. In this case, Sheree is still well-supported.
If the bust drops too much during your fitting, readjust the shoulder seams tighter.
NOTE: I accidentally cut the armhole too large during this fitting. In the final making of the gown, I had to piece the armhole to make it smaller. Try not to make that mistake. It IS easy to do, though.
Now that I have a fitting that is attractive, I use a marker to draw along the basting lines of each seam. These will serve to mark the final pattern.
Make sure you draw the basting line on both sides of each seam!
It helps to label each panel unobtrusively for quick reference later: Left, Right, Front, Back.
I cut open the front panel pieces and then separate the four panels by tearing out the basting stitches. The final pieces should be trimmed so that there is a uniform seam allowance on all sides. These lining pieces will be used as patterns to cut out the pieces of fashion fabric for the gown construction, so you want the seam allowance to be built-in and consistent.
This fitting took about one and a half hours but can take longer when first trying it.
The shape of a front panel piece in its finished state.
Every body will produce a unique set of panels. This should serve as a general guide, but if you don’t get this shape, there is no problem, as long as your final panels support your bust asthetically and practically.
The shape of a back panel piece in its finished state.
Note that the back of the armhole is less curved than the front. You may need to experiment with the shape of the armhole to fit the body properly.
The finished gown, made from slightly fulled wine wool twill and lined with the original blue linen used in the fitting, turned out well and looked pleasing on Sheree.
The flared sleeves were inspired by a number of versatile gowns seen in European art of the turn of the 15th century. A specific example can be found in “Story of Procis, Cephalus’
Beautiful Wife”, Boccaccio’s Decameron. Bibliothèque Nationale,
Paris. MS Fr 12420, f. 39v, circa 1400–1410. You can find it in
Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry, edited by Elizabeth Hallam.
Sheree poses here as Procis.
Another source for this sleeve treatment is a tapestry made in Alsace, currently in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, circa 1400. Various women are wearing gowns with a flare at the wrist under their fancier overgowns. The book I found it in is The Medieval Art of Love by Michael Camille, p. 126-7.
The white of Sheree’s chemise shows through the eyelets in this gown. One way to correct this is to use a wider lace which fills the holes more completely.
This is the end of this photo-essay. Be sure to view the straight-front-seam photo-essay to compare the two methods and also take a look at the comparison page to see more pictures of the finished gown and to read Sheree’s and my assessments.