Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fabulous Fit Dress Form Review, Part One: Great System, But I Ordered the Wrong Size

I have made up my mind, rather recently, that I am going to learn to sew clothing that fits me properly. After years of frustrating shopping trips, trying on stacks of clothing in fitting rooms and coming home with only very stretchy knits or very formless, oversized styles and then hating everything in my closet, I have finally decided to put in the time to learn the techniques of garment sewing -- and, crucially, learning how to adjust commercial patterns for a custom fit.  I believe we can all look better and feel better in our clothing when it fits us properly, regardless of our various sizes and shapes. 

So last Spring, just before my bicycle accident, I signed up for a slew of fitting classes at the Atlanta Sewing & Quilting Expo.  One of the seminars I attended was Joe Vecchiarelli's Dress Form Fitting class, where he demonstrated how to pad a standard dress form to match the unique size AND shape of the person for whom you are sewing. 

Joe Vecchiarelli Customizing a Dress Form

Joe asked for a volunteer who didn't mind having her measurements called out for everyone to hear, so I raised my hand to be the guinea pig.  He used a polyester batting (shown in the photo above) in areas where he wanted to add width all the way around the dress form, along with contoured pads from Fabulous Fit where he needed to add curves to specific areas such as shoulders, bust, an upper back Dowager's hump, tummy, thighs, etc. 


With this system, you order a non-adjustable dress form according to your SMALLEST horizontal body measurement, and then pad up the areas where you need to make it larger.  You can use the Fabulous Fit pads with any company's dress form to achieve a more custom fit, and you can easily add or remove pads or shift their positioning on the dress form as your figure changes over time, or if you are sewing for people of various sizes and shapes.


Dritz Adjustable Dress Form
This system has several advantages over the more common adjustable dress forms that are widely available.  First, the custom padded dress form is completely pinnable for draping, whereas the adjustable dress forms have gaps the size of the Grand Canyon once the measurements are dialed out.  Second, when you adjust the bust dial on an adjustable dress form for a larger bust, it doesn't just increase the bust -- it increases the upper chest and back as well.  Third, although you can increase and decrease the width of an adjustable dress form at key points such as the bust, waist and hips, you cannot raise or lower those positions to reflect a petite or tall torso, or a lower bust line.  So even though you may be able to set the dials on an adjustable dress form to match your measurements at the bust, waist, and hips, the dress form won't help you much if her bust line is too high or if she has a wide, FLAT tummy and you have a narrow, ROUNDED tummy.  The whole point of a dress form is to approximate your body (or your customer or fit model's body, if you sew professionally) as closely as possible, so it makes sense to look for a dress form that can mimic the body's contours as closely as possible.

The area where I personally have the most fitting issues is the upper chest and shoulders.  I have a narrow frame with broad, square shoulders, coupled with a larger bust that is hell-bent on going to visit my belly button thanks to gravity, the passage of time, and Childbirth Wreckage.  So any time I try on a readymade fitted dress or blouse in a store, I get horrible horizontal wrinkles across the bust line and buttons straining, threatening to pop off and take someone's eye out, but if I go up enough sizes to fit the bust, I find that I am swimming in an ocean of excess fabric through the upper chest and back and I look like I am wearing a sack.  The side seams generally pull towards the front as well, because size large and extra-large assumes that one is bigger all the way around, not just in the front.  What's more, now that I have been dragged (reluctantly, kicking and screaming) into my forties, I find that I have NEW curves to contend with below the waistline: a tummy bulge that refuses to go away no matter how much I exercise and a bit more padding on my thighs and caboose. 

So I ordered my Fabulous Fit Studio Dress Form back in November, when I was working on my Victorian Christmas caroling costume.  I ordered a size 10, which was the size dress form that Joe recommended for me in his seminar based on my bust, waist, and hip measurements, which are between 1-2" larger than the dimensions of the size 10 form.  I was so frantic about getting that caroling costume done and then got caught up in the holiday rush, so I didn't get around to trying to customize the form to match my body until last week.

With the Fabulous Fit dress form system, you begin by stretching a tight-fitting knit fabric cover over your dress form from top to bottom, inserting padding between the dress form and the cover at key points as you go.  I started by adding shoulder pads to my dress form and then used the bust pads along with contour pads to increase the bust dimension and lower the bust line.  As I positioned these pads, I checked to be sure that the bust span matched mine (wider than the dress form's) as well as the bust height (lower than the dress form's). 


In unflattering photo above (deliberately NOT holding in my tummy) it looks like I lowered the bust line too much, but in reality it's pretty much spot-on.  Note that you can ONLY successfully lower the bust line if your dress form's bust is SMALLER than yours initially, because you lower the bust by placing the bust pads just beneath the fullest part of the dress form's bust, and this automatically adds to the bust dimension.  You can raise or lower the waist line in the same way to create a petite or tall torso, as long as the dress form's waist line is smaller than yours, by erasing her waistline with pads and creating a new waistline in the correct position to match your body.  So far, so good, or so I thought. 

At this point in the process, I took the mannequin's upper chest measurement (above the bust, under the armpits) and discovered that she measured close to 36" there, whereas I am only 33 1/2" in the upper chest.  Ugh!  I hadn't added any padding to the dress form in this area, so there was no way for me to make it any smaller.  Worse than the upper chest discrepancy was the dress form's shape below the waist line, however.  Yes, the waist and hip measurements of the dress form are between 1-2" smaller than my measurements, but as you can see, she has a totally FLAT tummy and no derriere, whereas my body has definite rounded protrusions in these areas.  When I put the contoured Fabulous Fit foam pads on the dress form in the correct areas to mimic those curves, her overall hip measurement grew to several inches LARGER than mine.  That was when I realized that the size 10 dress form was just not going to work for me at all.

Rear View, Me and the Size 10 Dress Form
I know you can't really see my behind very well in the black pants (this is by design!), but you can definitely see that the dress form isn't narrow enough in the under bust area and although her butt is too flat, her hips are too wide and the small of her back is not as concave as mine.  This is why the waistline of my jeans always gaps at the back.  Looking at this picture now, I see that I made the dress form's shoulders too square with those shoulder pads, so I will need to correct that to match the true angle of my shoulders.  (And yes, I AM standing straight in that photo; I have a crooked body and one of my shoulders is higher than the other). 

I spoke with Customer Service at Fabulous Fit and they agreed to exchange my dress form for a smaller size.  I sent them my measurements along with photos from all angles so they could get a better idea of why the size 10 form wasn't working for me, and they recommended that I go with a size 6 dress form and with additional padding for the bust area.  Their size 6 dress form measures 33 5/8" in the upper chest, where I measure 33 1/2", which is pretty darned close.  That way she'll be small enough in the upper chest, back, and waist, and I should be able to give her a rounded, mommy-loves-chocolate-tummy and a rounded caboose without her waist and hip dimensions ending up too large. 

Meanwhile, the moral of this story is that you can only make a dress form LARGER with pads, not smaller.  If you're in doubt about which size dress form to order, go with the SMALLER size.  Take ALL of your measurements, not just the bust, waist, and hips, and choose the SMALLEST dress form size that corresponds to at least one of your measurements.  If you are bigger than a B or C bra cup, your upper chest measurement is probably the one to go with.  If you need to lower the bust line for a more mature, gravity-affected silhouette as so many of us do, then it's even more important that the dress form's bust measures several inches smaller than yours.  Another way to think of this is that the dress form needs to match your skeletal frame because we all carry our weight differently.  If you are slender with a narrow rib cage and you gain 20 or 30 pounds, your horizontal dimensions increase but your underlying bone structure remains the same.  As long as your dress form matches your skeletal frame you can always add padding wherever it's needed to match your changing silhouette and the unique distribution of your body weight, but if the dress form isn't small enough to begin with you have no room to add your personal bumps and bulges.

I do like this dress form system so far.  Even though it turned out that the size 10 dress form won't match my body, I can see that the Fabulous Fit pads on a smaller form are going to enable me to mimic my shape much more accurately than any adjustable dress form could ever do.  And yes, I know that I could have a custom dress form made to match my measurements for a small fortune, but what if I finally lose a few pounds, or gain a few more?  I am aware of the low-cost DIY duct tape dress forms that were featured in Threads magazine a few years ago, but I wanted something with a sturdy base that wouldn't knock over, something that would look nice in my studio when it's not in use.  I also didn't want to be sticking pins through duct tape, looking at duct tape, or trying to drape fabric on a slippery duct tape surface.  I'm looking forward to trying this process again with the Fabulous Fit pads once I receive the smaller dress form, and I'll be sure to do a follow-up post to let you know how that works out.

Do you use a dress form?  If so, which kind?  Have you used Fabulous Fit pads or any other system to customize your dress form to your own size and shape?  Let me know what did and didn't work for you in the comments. Happy Stitching!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Victorian Caroling Costume: The Mind-Boggling, Massive, Monstrous, Magnificent Skirt

Finished Christmas Caroling Dress
The first thing I did after I got home from the store with my fabric and my costume pattern (Simplicity 1818) was to look for reviews and suggestions online from others who had already made this dress.  One common theme in those reviews was that people had trouble with the skirt and/or thought that it was way too full, with way too much fabric.  The skirt is made up of four panel widths and is approximately 170" in circumference at the waist and about 186" in circumference at the bottom.  That's a LOT of fabric!

Well, having done my research on mid-Victorian women's fashions, I knew that it wasn't an excessive amount of fabric; it was period-correct.  There are other patterns out there for "Victorian costumes" with way less fullness in the skirt, and those would definitely be easier to make, but less authentic.  Of course, my skirt was further complicated by the silk organza underlining that I felt my silk shantung fashion fabric needed in order to hold up to repeated wearings, resist wrinkling, and support the weight of the trims.  So the first thing we did after cutting out the skirt panels was to hand baste silk organza to the wrong side of each panel, with perpendicular lines of basting through the center of each piece to align the grain and then basting around the perimeter of each piece through the seamline.  Then, because my silk shantung frayed so badly and so immediately, as soon as I seamed the panel widths together I pressed the seams open and then serged both sides of the seam allowances to put an end to the ravelling.  (How do I love my serger?  Oh, let me count the ways...)
Inside of Skirt, Organza Underlining, Serged Seam Allowances, Skirt Facing Attached
There are several odd things about this skirt pattern, and one of them is that there is no hem allowance to press up at the bottom.  Instead, you create the hem with a deep facing out of lining fabric, as shown in the above photo.  The only reason for this that I can think of is that, although the side and back panels of the skirt are rectangular pieces of fabric, the center front panel is curved at the bottom and the facing is able to match that curve.  Unfortunately, this means that you cannot adjust the finished length of the skirt at the end of construction by taking a deeper or shallower hem. 

For my dress, I put on the hoop skirt and shoes that I would be wearing with the costume, held up the center front skirt pattern piece with the fold line right at the waistband of my hoop skirt, and looked in a full-length mirror to check the length of the skirt without adjustments, knowing that there was a 5/8" seam allowance at the bottom of the pattern piece.  I decided to add 2 1/2" to all of the skirt pieces before cutting them out (I'm 5'7" tall and my shoes have about a 2-3" heel).

My Hoop Skirt, Found on Amazon here
Ah yes, the hoop skirt -- Yes, you do need one with this pattern.  Not only do you need a hoop skirt, but you need a flouffy net ball gown petticoat as well, between the hoops and the dress itself. 
My Petticoat, Found on Amazon here

That's how these enormously full skirts were supported back in the day, and without those crucial undergarments to lift the skirt and spread it out in a graceful bell shape, this dress will be way too long and will look like a mess.  If you don't want to wear hoops and petticoats, this pattern is not for you.  My hoop skirt was very inexpensive, and it has given me a bit of trouble.  I thought it would be fine at first, but the finished skirt seemed kind of empty with just the hoop skirt, the rings of the hoops showed through as ridges on the front of the skirt, and the drawstring waist has a very skinny string like a shoelace that cut into my tummy uncomfortably.  My mom replaced the drawstring with a wide, firm elastic and again, I thought I was good.  But when my petticoat arrived (which makes my dress look SO MUCH BETTER), the weight of the petticoat was making the elastic waist of my hoop skirt slide down on my hips.  The bottom of the hoop skirt was hanging out beneath the hem of my dress and I tripped on it several times.  So I cut off the bottom hoop and serged the raw edge of the hoop skirt about an inch and a half below the 5th hoop.  So far, this is working much better.  My petticoat was a lot more expensive than the hoop skirt, but it is perfect right out of the box without any of these annoying trouble-shooting alterations.  It has a firm waistband that closes with Velcro, lining on the outside and inside of the voluminous ruffled netting layers that give it its fullness, and is a much more appropriate length to support a full, floor length dress without sticking out at the bottom. 

Steam-A-Seam 2 Lite, found here on Amazon
So, back to the skirt construction.  My pattern instructions told me to attach the facing to the bottom of the skirt, press it up, press under a 1/4" hem on the raw edge of the facing, and then slipstitch that to the skirt.  I rummaged around in my studio and came up with another handy notion to simplify that process, a 1/4" wide double-stick lightweight fusible web Steam-A-Seam 2 Lite that I've used in the past for securing narrow hems in slippery knit fabrics prior to cover stitching them on my serger.  That way I was able to secure my skirt facing to the organza layer on the inside of my skirt panels without pins and then slip stitch the facing only to the organza, with no stitching coming through to the right side of the skirt and no chance of pins catching and snagging the silk fabric during the hand stitching process.  The manufacturer says that this product "bonds permanently when ironed," but I wasn't taking any chances.  I'm not comfortable with nothing but glue holding my hem together, but if you feel like you have a strong enough bond with your fabric, you may be able to skip the hand stitching altogether with this product.

In Process of Turning Up Facing and Fusing to Silk Organza
At this point I have something that looks like a huge, 4-width drapery panel that was accidentally sewn into a tube.  I've got the side seams done and serged, the hem facing attached, but I have raw edges that are fraying wildly along the top of my skirt, so I serged along the top edge next.  I felt SO much better with all of the raw edges under control -- there were times when I was afraid the whole dress would disintegrate before I could finish making it!

Top Edge Of Skirt Folded Down, Stitching On the Fold Line
The next step in my directions was to turn the raw edges at the top of the skirt down along a fold line.  Since I had two slippery layers to my skirt rather than just one, I decided to stitch along that fold line first and I'm so glad that I did.  It prevented any shifting of the organza layer during the pleating and gathering phase that followed.  From this point on, the skirt was a lot like making an elaborate window treatment.  The fold line became my "board line," and the process of marking and folding in the thick, stacked pleats at the sides of the skirt was very much like pleating up an Empire Swag drapery valance (except that the stacked pleats on the dress skirt are all perpendicular to the top edge of the skirt, whereas the stacked pleats on a drapery swag would be angled). 

But before you start pinning in the folded and stacked pleats, you have to hand stitch gathering threads for your cartridge pleats at the back of the skirt.  Unlike the stitches you put in for regular gathering and easing, the stitches for the cartridge pleats must be perfectly aligned and identically spaced in order for the pleats to draw up properly like an accordion when the threads are pulled. 

Tiger Tape, available here at Amazon
The pattern instructions tell you to mark your stitches every 3/8" all along the back portion of the skirt, and mentions that Tiger Tape (originally intended to help hand quilters maintain evenly spaced quilting stitches) is helpful with this.  In my opinion, Tiger Tape is the ONLY sane way to do this.  I used the Tiger Tape that has 12 lines to the inch, and took a stitch every five lines along the top and bottom edges of the 1/4" wide tape.  This was much faster and more accurate than the alternative, using a ruler to mark a gazillion little dots every 3/8". 

Using Tiger Tape to Guide Hand Stitching

Gathering Threads for Cartridge Pleats, Ready to Go
Also, I should mention that the pattern called for "buttonhole twist" for these stitching lines.  I couldn't find anything called "buttonhole twist" on the thread wall at my local JoAnn's, but I knew this thread needed to be STRONG. 

Gutermann Polyester Upholstery Thread, available here
I used Gutermann Polyester Upholstery Thread in Dark Green for my gathering threads, and I also used this thread to hand stitch the entire skirt to the waistband.  It's ridiculously strong, as well as smooth and static-free so it glides through the thick fabric layers and resists kinking up and tangling.  Also, do yourself a favor and reach for a strong, sharp, NEW needle.  This is not a job for that needle that you've had in your pin cushion for the last 15 years!  I needed my very snug-fitting sterling silver Roxanne Thimble that I use for hand quilting for this task (which I realized after puncturing my finger with the EYE of my needle due to the tremendous force required to penetrate so many fabric layers) and a rubber needle grabber in order to sew through all of the layers of stacked pleats by hand.

Whipstitching Stacked Pleats to the Waistband, Catching All Fabric Layers

No, You Cannot Do This By Machine!
This skirt gets sewn to the waistband COMPLETELY BY HAND because the fabric thickness is way too thick for the sewing machine; plus, there is no seam allowance at the top to add bulk to the waistline.  You just whipstitch the top folded edge of the skirt to the bottom edge of the finished waistband, and you need to catch all the layers all the way through every pleat, all the way around the skirt, so it's crucial that you keep that top folded edge perfectly aligned as you're pinning in the pleats.   I used straight pins to secure each fold, but used Wonder Clips to secure the stacked pleats because they don't distort the edges of the fabric the way that pins do when your layers are this thick.  When you turn back the waistband after stitching it, the skirt merely abuts the waistband.  They are touching each other with no overlap whatsoever.  Very cool.  So, first I sewed the pleated sections of the skirt to the waistband at either side of the skirt opening (the skirt opening is to the left of center and, although some reviewers of this pattern mentioned that they could not figure out where the center front and center back were, both are clearly marked on the pattern piece for the waistband).  Then I pulled up the strings to gather my cartridge pleats in the back section of the skirt, fitting it to the remaining loose portion of the waistband.
Front Edge of Cartridge Pleats Pinned to Lower Edge of Finished Waistband

Folded Stacked Pleats Already Stitched to Waistband, Cartridge Pleats Ready to Stitch
Here's the cool thing about those cartridge pleats.  Looking at the photo above, you see that only the fold at the FRONT of each little pleat will get stitched to the waistband.  The backs of the pleats are pointing inward.  But when you put this skirt on over the hoop skirt and petticoat, those pleats rotate outward away from the waistband.  It allows you to attach a tremendous amount of fabric to a small waistband without any bulk at the waistline, which is crucial for the Victorian ideal of a "wasp waist" silhouette.  (In the photo above, you can also see that those stacked, folded pleats were basted about an inch below the fold line prior to whipstitching the top edge to the waistband.  Those basting stitches are subsequently removed).  Once the skirt has been sewn to the waistband, all that's left to do is sew on the hook and eye closures and tack the skirt to the inside of the bodice at key points (to each of the boned seam allowances). 
Finished Dress, Front View
The bodice fits me much better than it does my dress form, by the way -- the dress form needs to be padded out to match my size and shape but I just haven't had a chance to do it yet.  I don't have any good pictures of me wearing the dress that really show the skirt like these do.


Finished Dress, Side and Back View
In addition to the pleated ruffle trim, we also hand stitched a heavy trim to the bottom edge of the skirt as well as to the lapels.  I really wanted the lapel trim to wrap around the back of the neckline and extend down the bodice front, like this:
Abandoned Plan for Additional Trim
But I decided against it because it's difficult enough for me to button and unbutton the little dress buttons with my broken thumb and all that stiff boning in the way.  I was worried that I'd spend hours hand stitching the trim and then be unable to button the bodice and have to take all the trim off again.  Also, I was running out of time!

Even Sitting Is a Challenge In This Skirt!
Now that the dress is finished, I'd like to extend a big THANK YOU to my mom for helping me make it happen.  Without her help making sense of the directions, cutting layouts, endless hours of hand basting silk organza and stitching skirt trim while I wrestled with buttonholes, this costume would definitely never have gotten finished in time for my first caroling gig.  I couldn't have done it without her help.  Thanks, Mom!

My Amazingly Talented and Profoundly Patient Mom
I'm linking up with WIPs on Wednesdays at Esther's Blog and Let's Bee Social at Sew Fresh Quilts, Main Crush Monday at Cooking Up Quilts, and Monday Making at Love Laugh Quilt.  And now, I'm off to the mall to get my cracked iPhone screen replaced and clean out the LEGO store.  Wish me luck!
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