Fitting Shell Draping Made Easy

[under construction]

Many years ago, I tried drafting a fitting shell for myself from measurements, which was very time consuming and didn’t work well. I really can’t recommend drafting from measurements, since it relies on assumptions about body proportion and shape that don’t hold true for many people. When you drape, you are taking measurements everywhere all at once and accounting for individual shape at the same time. I decided that draping was the only way I could get an accurate fitting shell.

I’d tried draping a fitting shell on my custom paper-tape dress form, but all of the darts came out too large. I didn’t even consider asking a non-sewer friend or family member to drape me in muslin, since I can barely manage to work with muslin myself on a dress form. I kept thinking that there has to be some sort of material that’s easier to drape with, that even a non-sewer could handle. Just after I’d been thinking about this I read Saran Wrap Patternmaking method. Although this method doesn’t exactly give you a fitting shell pattern, it was a good source of inspiration. I thought maybe instead of wrapping plastic wrap around a person, it would work to make flat sheets of several layers of plastic wrap and use it as you would fabric for draping. Fortunately, the plastic wrap I had on hand was food service grade PVC, and it worked great. The plastic wrap is slighlty stiff, yet drapes; it holds its shape, yet stretches slightly like fabric to mold around curves; it is transparent so you can trace marks underneath it and easily true up your pattern; you can make a piece of it as large as you want; if you cut too far you can just tape it back together or tape on another piece; and it holds a crease well to form darts. I really like that there are no pins needed. I don’t particularly enjoy getting stuck with pins.

I tried to make the steps below such that they will work for someone with no draping experience. There should be only minor alterations needed by the time you sew up the fitting shell in fabric.

• Tape to use on plastic wrap (I like masking tape, but just about any kind should work)
• Tape that can be used to mark skin and/or clothing. If you are brave you can use a washable marker instead (test it first!).
• Double-sided tape (optional)
• Either super-fine point permanent markers or ball-point pens in 3 or more colors
• 2 rulers. Preferably transparent. One of them can be a 6″ ruler.
• Yard stick or long straight-edge
• Measuring tape (the flexible sewing kind)
• Square (either an L-square or the triangle kind – even a piece of paper will work in a pinch)
• Protractor (truing darts is way easier with a protractor - just get one, they’re cheap)
• Level (optional)
• Chain necklace or necklace made of small heavy beads that can be adjusted to fit snugly around the neck of the person being fitted
• Draping material. You have several options:

• If you choose plastic wrap, the first option is to use a food service grade PVC plastic wrap such as Stretch-Tite®. Most likely any plastic wrap sold for use in food service will be PVC. Food service PVC film is available in 18″ and 24″ widths. I have a 2000′ roll of 24″ wide Polyvinyl Films wrap (which is exactly the same stuff as Stretch-Tite®) that will last many years, if not the rest of my life. Store brand plastic wrap is likely to be PVC, but you will need to use about 3 times as many of layers of it since it is so thin, and you don’t get much on a roll, so it’s really not practical or economical. The way to tell if plastic wrap is PVC is to press several layers together and see if they stay stuck together tightly, without poofing up at all. As a side note, although I like PVC plastic wrap for this application, it is not necessarily the most healthful choice for use in direct contact with food.
• If you want to avoid PVC, the second plastic wrap option is to use a layer of any type of plastic wrap, then a layer or two of Glad Press’n Seal®.
• If you prefer, you can drape with fabric or heavy-weight non-woven interfacing. I don’t suggest using muslin, though. If you choose fabric, use something a bit thicker than muslin – it’s hard to work with. If you use fabric, you will probably need to use pins instead of tape, and you may not be able to see through it to transfer markings.

Prepare your draping material:

You will need pieces for front bodice, back bodice, front skirt, and back skirt. Make the pieces of draping material a few inches longer and wider than each area to be draped (err on the side of making them too large).

If you are using food service grade PVC plastic wrap, start laying out a layer of plastic wrap on a clean flat surface. Overlap the edges of the plastic wrap as you lay down pieces of it. Add additional layers, alternating the direction you lay out the pieces on each layer. You will need about 4 to 5 layers total. Don’t worry about wrinkles, just press them flat with your hand or a rolling pin. Having some wrinkles is good – they increase the stiffness of the material and make it easier to handle.

If you are using Glad Press’n Seal®, first lay out a layer of any type of plastic wrap on a table. If you are using Press’n Seal® for the first layer, place it sticky side up. For the second layer, place Press’n Seal® sticky side down. If you want, add another layer of Press’n Seal®.

These directions are generally for making a fitting shell for a typically shaped woman with a waist smaller than chest and hip measurements. For other figure types, the basic idea is the same, but you may need to elimate or add darts. For men and children, eliminate the bodice front darts. For large bellies, reduce or eliminate the darts below the bust, and add extra to the side seams. For pregnant women, locate a waist seam below the bust, and if you want to create a snug fit below the belly, add darts at the side of the belly. For rounded upper backs, you may need an additional dart or darts at the back of the neck. Also, instead of draping this type of fitting shell, you can drape something closer to the final garments you will be making. For example, if you will only be making shirts, make the torso block longer with fisheye darts at the waist and skip the skirt.

Some of these instructions are what you would find in any book on draping, and some of them are things I’ve made up in an effort to make the directions work for all sizes and shapes of people.

Sorry, I’ve got to stop here and make up a word. As far as I know, there is no word in English that means “the person being fitted.” Every sewing and patternmaking book I’ve looked at uses words like “you”, “customer”, “model”, “the person”, “the body”, and “the person being fitted”. “Customer” and “model” aren’t really appropriate in this situation, and constantly using “the person being fitted” gets awkward. Referring to “the person” or “the body” sounds distant and impersonal. So I’m going to use the word “fittee” to mean “the person being fitted” to make things clearer and easier.

The fittee should wear their usual undergarments and shoes. Shoes change a person’s posture, so unless the fittee wants their clothes to fit best when they are barefoot, they should wear their typical shoes. If the fittee wears something over their undergarments for modesty during the fitting, make sure it is made from thin, stretchy knit that fits snugly but isn’t so tight it distorts the figure.

Tie or staple a piece of 1/4″ elastic around the waistline. Note that the waistline will not necessarily be level, which is fine. Just let the elastic roll to the narrowest spot. For figures without a defined waist, use wider elastic and put the waistline where you would want to locate the waist seam on a garment. Tape the elastic in place so it won’t shift around.

Mark the hip line (where the hips measure the largest) with tape. If you have a level, use it to make sure the hip line is parallel to the floor. You could also use a yard stick to make sure the hip line is the same distance from the floor all the way around.

Mark the chest (men and children) or bust (women) parallel to the floor. Using a level can help. Everything else depends on the hip and bust lines being correct, so you will save yourself a lot of trouble later by getting these right in the first place. Don’t laugh when I suggest using a level. It’s pretty easy to be off by quite a bit when trying to eyeball the sides of the bust line, since you tend to want to make the line perpendicular to the planes of the body rather than parallel to the floor.

Put the chain or bead necklace around the fittee’s neck. Adjust it so it sits at the base of the neck. Have the fittee bend their head down, and mark the spot the necklace settles to at the back of the neck. Have the fittee straighten their head, then mark the neckline all the way around the neck, using the necklace as a guide.

Mark the center front and center back. Use a small weight on a string as a plumb line.

Mark the shoulder seam. Move your head down to the level of the fittee’s shoulders, and look at the shoulder line from front and back. The shoulder seam should be on the top of the ridge of the shoulder. Draw the shoulder seam as a straight line, even if the body curves. Traditionally the shoulder seam intersects the neckline at a right angle, but don’t try to force it into that shape. Not everyone is shaped that way. This applies for all pattern pieces. Don’t alter them to make them more like the “standard” shape. Yours may be quite different.

Mark the shoulder point. Bend the arm up and down and find where it curves.

Mark the side seams. They should be vertical. Divide the body roughly in half if possible. For someone with a lot of curvature in the lower back, the side seam may be far back toward the back of the body at the waist, but don’t worry about it for now. Locate the side seam roughly in the center of the underarm, then go down vertically to the center of the thigh. A small weight on a string can be used as a plumb line.

Locate and mark the lower edge of the armhole. Although it may be counterintuitive at first, a smaller armhole gives more freedom of movement than a larger armhole (when the same type of sleeve is inserted in each). For the purposes of the fitting shell, the lower edge of the armhole should be as high as is comfortable. The armhole depth is a matter of personal preference, but if the fittee is unsure where it should be, here is a way to estimate the depth:  Pin a piece of elastic around the upper arm, moving it up under the arm as far as possible. Measure from the shoulder point down to the top edge of the elastic. This is the sleeve cap height. Divide the sleeve cap height by 7 to calculate the underarm gap. Hold the arm out straight to the front, and measure down from the lower edge of the arm the length of the underarm gap. Mark where it intersects the side seam.

Mark the armhole lines all the way around the front and back. Move the arm around to figure out the location where the armhole should be located.

For women, place a piece of tape across the front of the bust horizontally, then mark the bust apexes. The apex is usually at the nipple.

Take a few measurements:
Take these first measurements exactly.
• Chest (men and children) or bust (women) circumference
• Distance between bust apexes (women)
• Waist circumference
• Hip circumference
The rest of the measurements only need to be taken approximately.
• Waist to hip (measure this where it is the longest – where the body curves the most)
• Side of neck to bust/chest line
• Side of neck to shoulder blade apex

Prepare the bodice front draping material: Draw a vertical line down the center of a piece of draping material. Add a couple of inches to the side of neck to bust/chest line measurement. Measure down this amount from the top edge of your draping material and use a square to draw a horizontal line perpendicular to the center line. For women, use the distance between bust apexes measurement to mark the bust apex locations on the draping material. Place a piece of tape at each bust apex on the side of the material that will be facing the fittee’s body.

Prepare the bodice back draping material: Draw a vertical line down the center of a piece of draping material. Add a couple of inches to the side of neck to shoulder blade apex measurement. Measure down this amount from the top edge of your draping material and draw a horizontal line perpendicular to the center line.

Prepare the skirt front and back draping material (these two pieces are prepared the same): Draw a vertical line down the center of a piece of draping material. Add a couple of inches to the waist to hip measurement. Measure down this amount from the top edge of your draping material and draw a horizontal line perpendicular to the center line.

Note: If the fittee is very asymetrical, you may wish to skip all of the truing up, and make separate left and right patterns.

Place double-sided tape (or small rolls of tape rolled sticky side out) on the bust apexes (or along the chest front line). Stick the bodice front draping material to the bust/chest tape, making sure the centerline is vertical. Smooth the draping material from the apex toward the side of the body, keeping the bust line level. If you have a lot of extra material past the side seam, trim it to within a couple of inches of the side seam. Tape the bustline level at the sides. For women, you can place the above the bust dart either at the side seam just above or at the chest line, at the center of the armscye (armhole), or at the center of the shoulder seam. Pick whichever you prefer. I’m going to show the dart at the armscye. Smooth, trim and tape at the edges the bodice neck and shoulder. Pinch out the above the bust darts and fold them down. The tip of the dart will not be at the bust apex. The distance the tip of the dart will be from the bust apex is determined by how rounded the tips of the fittee’s breasts are. Use a small piece of tape to hold the dart in place (you will have to cut the tape later to open the dart, so don’t use too much tape).

Fold and tape the below the bust darts.

Using your first pen color, draw dashed lines along the shoulder, armscye, waist, and side seams to mark their approximate locations.

Remove the draping material from the fittee’s body. Using a pen, mark the dart legs with dashed lines. Snip the tape holding the darts closed. Fold the darts the opposite direction to trace the other legs.

Begin to true up the above the bust darts: Place a ruler from the bust point (not the dart end point) to the end of one dart leg. Place another ruler from the bust point to the other dart leg end. Measure the angle with a protractor. Repeat for the other dart. Calculate the average of the two angles (add them together, then divide by 2). Get an average of the distance from the dart ends to the bust point. Draw a line from the bust point through the center of one dart. Draw in a dart ending at the bust point with the average angle you calculated. Average the length of the dart legs, mark off this length along the dart legs. Draw in a new dart from the actual dart point where you marked the end of the dart legs.

Now true up the below the bust darts:

Fold the draping material in half along the centerline and trace the darts onto the other side. Unfold, then fold tape the darts shut with small pieces of tape.

Place the draping material back on the fittee. If necessary, correct the darts. Hold the draping material in place with a few pieces of tape at the edges.

With a solid line, draw in neck, shoulder, armscye, waist, and side seams.

Remove the draping material from the fittee’s body. Fold the draping material in half along the centerline. With your next pen color, draw a solid line halfway between the outer seam lines. Flip over and trace the line on the other side.

Place the draping material on the fittee. Tape in place.

Drape the back.

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