Monday, October 29, 2012

Nerdy Pattern Drafting History

I'm sure you are aware of my pattern drafting obsession by now as evidenced in many a blog post published on this blog. In my quest to find answers to the whys and hows of pattern drafting I discovered a book a while back, which traces the history of pattern drafting systems. The book is called Cutting a Fashionable Fit, written by Claudia B. Kidwell:

I learned many interesting facts about the development of pattern drafting systems from this book and would like to share some of the highlights of this book here with you. It may help to shed some light on the mystery of pattern drafting. Indeed before the Enlightenment, the author says, pattern cutting and drafting used to be a very secretive part of the tailoring industry. Tailors would have their ways of drafting patterns and a set of pattern blocks, which they would pass on after their deaths to their sons or apprentices. Only through the scientific quest for knowledge during the Enlightenment did pattern drafting start to become more accessible and was shared outside the tailoring trade.

Essentially two methods of pattern drafting evolved and competed with each other: the proportional method and the direct method. The proportional method is a way of drafting blocks with only a few basic measurements and the rest are added through proportional calculations. The direct method uses only measurements that are directly measured on the body. During the nineteenth century more and more experts in the field filed for patents for their new and wonderful pattern drafting systems. The book includes explanations and pictures of some truly amazing but mad inventions on how to solve the perpetual issue of obtaining a good fit. Some methods claimed that by only measuring the bust circumference of a client, a perfect pattern can be calculated: clearly the proportional method has gone too far here. We all know that only with our bust measurement we could never fit a pattern accurately. On the other extreme is, for example, Pollock's Garment Fitting Frame, which looks more like an instrument of torture:

Source:  Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents 
It could be adjusted and put on and off by turning screws and would then lie flat so it could be traced for a pattern. Another one is the Adjustable Pattern-Drafting Apparatus by F.E. Buddington:

Source: USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database

Wouldn't it be handy to have one of these?

The more successful pattern drafting systems were a combination of both the proportional and the direct pattern drafting methods, called hybrid methods, and it is these methods that made the paper pattern industry (or the ready-to-wear industry for that matter) possible. Clearly, to sell patterns for people to use for themselves at home, they have to rely in some way on proportional measurements, as they cannot include the user's exact measurements.

I find it interesting to see how modern-day pattern drafting books have different systems, which often either use a more direct or a more proportional method for drafting blocks. The M. Müller & Sohn system, which I reviewed here a while back, seems heavily proportional in many ways. While they do include ways of drafting a block to pretty exact body measurements, they also show you how to draft a block, if all you have is a person's bust, waist, hip and height. The method used in the Italian drafting book, called Il Modellismo Sartoriale (which used to be available for free online - can't find link anymore - maybe you can and share it) published by the Istituto Burgo seems to use are more direct measurement method. I haven't tried drafting anything with it but it seems to use barely any calculations.

One would assume that taking direct measurements and using those for your own personal block is the more accurate method, but I think if all measurements are taken directly without carefully comparing them to a standard chart, then the block can turn out very inaccurate as our bodies can never be measured exactly. We move, we eat, and we don't have fixed design lines like a dress form and therefore the measurements might easily vary from one time to another.

The book Cutting a Fashionable Fit by Claudia B. Kidwell is available for download here from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. It is a fairly academic text and therefore goes into a lot of detail. If you are not a pattern drafting nerd it may not be such a thrilling read. But only flicking through it for the interesting pictures of utterly strange drafting systems and devices is worth taking the time to download it.


  1. Oh this IS interesting! Being a nerd myself (software developer before kids), I do enjoy learning about how things are done. I've been hoping to draft myself a block based on the book "Patternmaking in Fashion" by Lucia Mors De Castro, but I'm finding it a bit confusing (translation problem?) so haven't started yet. Must do soon!

  2. What a wonderful essay and find! I wonder how many of those patents actually went into use. Many, many years ago, for the lack of any other patternmaking resources, I drafted a couple of things using Lutterloh, which uses two, maybe three, measurements and then a golden mean tape to obtain the rest of the draft. Interesting to think of myself as one big golden mean ratio! ;) One of my latest projects involves drafting a waistcoat from Aldrich for my husband. I have taken his measurements 4 times, drafted the vest four times. It's fascinating how just 2 cm difference in the chest measurement changes the entire fit in every direction. (I'm still not happy with it.) Thanks for sharing!

  3. Cool! How old is this book? It looks like a good one for the the public domain archive.. But yea I saw pics of one of the original extensible brass (?) versions of the pattern thing on tumblr a while back.. I'll link it here if if I manage to find it again..

    1. Well, the book is available for free download from a link I included in my post, but it's not so old. 1979.

  4. What a great book! I love pattern drafting and finding new resources (or old). Learning about drafting helps me learn about fitting and I'm moving beyond the usual fitting problems and discovering more like fitting the narrow torso and so forth that most fitting books don't cover. Great post!

    1. Thank you! I'm really fascinated by pattern drafting too and keep learning new things :)

  5. Do you know the following book : patternmaking for fashion design by Helen Joseph - Armstrong.
    This is my pattern making bible.

  6. Thank goodness they did not continue to keep pattern-drafting a secret, and finally chose to share their knowledge. Can you imagine a world without being able to sew our own clothes?! I cannot bear the thought of it!! :D


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