Ruminating on Zelda

I recently shared the story of my investment in a dressmaker’s dummy and the challenge of getting it home from the office. Quite a few of you asked for more details on this investment, as you’re considering your own purchases. So I thought I’d talk through the decision-making process and my conclusions a few days into ownership.

I’ve been sewing for a good 2-2.5 years now. I only know this because I have religiously uploaded photos of every make into a Flickr set. I strongly recommend doing this – it’s such a fabulous aide-memoire and brilliant testament to your sewing journey.

Anyway. As my sewing abilities increased, I would occasionally be aware of how much a dressmaker’s dummy would help. I missed it when I was measuring hems, when I was attaching linings, trying to adjust fittings on my own body and when it just didn’t feel right to drape a make in expensive fabric over the back of a chair.

I decided to take the plunge and invest. This wasn’t an easy or quick decision. You can spend as much or as little as you like on sewing, and the sky’s the limit if you have an open purse (which I don’t!), and I want to think long and hard about key investments. I’m sure that’s true for all of us.

I began watching Ebay listings. My impressions were that even second-hand dummies were going for the best part of £70 or £80. Not necessarily bargains. I tried appealing on Freecycle for a dummy – no luck. I decided that if I was going to spend that amount on Ebay, I might as well add a bit more to the pot and get a new dummy with recourse to the supplier if I needed it.

In the end, I ordered the Adjustoform Supafit Deluxe Dress form from Sew Essentials. They were very understanding when I a) ordered the wrong size dummy, b) had to return it and c) kept missing the delivery man for the second delivered dummy.

What about the form itself? One frustration for me is that I’m between sizes – hence the initial wrong order. My chest is relatively, ahem, modest compared to the measurements for my waist and hips. This means I had to go for a ‘small’ dress form. I’ve never been small in my life! The bust is right for me, but I have to expand the dummy to its full extent to match my waist measurement – and so there are huge gaps between the sections of the form.

Huge gaping holes can be tricky when it comes to making adjustments on your dress form. However, I have seen people put a close-fitting T-shirt or jersey top over a dress form to get around this quandary. Let me know if you have any other tips!

What else? The form is nice and light which is great for carrying it home or lugging it up and down stairs – as I have already done several times. Everything does feel a bit … plastic, though. Sometimes the adjustment wheels get stuck and I worry that one day they’ll snap. The chalk hem marker didn’t work because no holes had been drilled in the plastic feeder to let the chalk dust be ‘spurted’ onto the hem line. No biggie – we have tools that can solve this problem – but still. I don’t want to spend over £100 in order to get a drill out.

What I will say is that my dummy has already proved its worth as I make a dress for a friend. I’ve adjusted the dummy to her size – crucial for checking the fit before hand stitching the zipper in. This also means I don’t have to constantly harass my friend for fittings as I work further into the make.

I think I’ll probably have more to say after another six months living with Zelda. I’d love to hear if any of you have tips about how to get the best from your dressmaker’s dummy and what it can help you do. I’d be particularly interested in tips on getting the bust – size and height! – to match yours. An old bra?

Another step on the journey!

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27 Responses to Ruminating on Zelda

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Karen
    I’ve recently discovered your blog and other sewing blogs and reading about your journey has encouraged me to start again on my sewing (which I had put aside due to other events in life, including the birth of my boy)… I’m at the moment considering my options for a dress form and have narrowed down the choice to the adjustoform… However I’m also in-between sizes but was thinking of going for the medium, the main reason being the gaps if I had to adjust the form to the maximum measurements on the smallest size… However, the medium has a slightly larger bust size so I’ll have to take that into consideration when fitting… or else stuffing my bra when I wear clothes 🙂

    • This is exactly the dilemma I had. I feel that bodice fitting is one of the most challenging areas of dressmaking, so if my dummy simply didn’t come close to my bust size – what was the point in investing? I can pad out a waist but I can’t hack boobs off a dummy!

  2. Vicki Kate says:

    I don’t know how to bridge the gaps I’m afraid. It’s interesting to hear your experiences though. Unfortunately my chest will mean it’s always going to be a medium for me! I hope that it all starts to fall into place though. And your friend’s dress looks wonderful!

  3. Debbie Cook says:

    You can set the dressform smaller and then wrap quilt batting around it, followed by a tight-fitting tee. I made a “tee” (more like a mini dress) for mine out of flesh-colored Powerdry (knit) so it would fit Zillie (my form) very snug.

    As far as a bra – not an old one, but a new one. An old one will sag and won’t match you. Stuff this with quilt batting too.

    This link on my blog has links to other tips, etc. for buying and customizing a dressform. The photos of mine were before I made the tee mentioned above.

  4. Em says:

    I recommend the same advice as Debbie as that is exactly what I do to mine. I put a brand new padded bra on mine and put quilt batting in it. I also put quilt batting around the hip area to match my own and pinned it in place. I did this after measuring myself very carefully everywhere to get it exactly the same size. The gaps don’t cause me any problems to be honest. Sounds like you went for the right size because you can always make it bigger but it’s impossible to make it smaller. Love your blog by the way, I’m a new reader.

  5. sarah says:

    I bought my dress makers dummy from sew essentials too, and after initially sending me an email to say it may not be delivered for three weeks it turned up two days later (imagine how excited I was after my initial disappointment!!)
    I have to be honnest (if not a little dull) but I never set it to my actual size, only the size I’m making the garment in?! I will definitely be giving it a go next time I’m making something for myself maybe I’ll get a better Idea of fit lol! I can’t believe this never occurred to me before, ahh well they do say you learn something new every day!!!

  6. Gemma says:

    I too am thinking of getting a dressmakers dummy – it’s all a bit confusing though and you’re experience helps clear things up a lot. One question: can you shorten the waist height? I’m short waisted and if I can’t adjust the waist height on the dummy I’d have to do some serious jiggery pokery with padding to get the waist / hip in the right place!

    • No, you can’t. Mine has quite a deep section for the waist and a removable piece of black tape that you’re meant to position so that you can see where your natural waist sits. But if you have a particularly short torso, I can see that may not be enough.

    • Maybe you could mark where your natural waist sits on a dummy, and then effectively pad-out with thin wadding (batting) to create the hip area just below that – i.e. moving the wider hip-area upwards, nearer to the narrowest part of the dummy?

    • Molly says:

      Some dummies have the option to extend or lower the waist but I’m not sure if they go from petite (ie. 15″) or from average (16″) and up for long waisted people. My form is bodice length adjustable but I’m not at home so I can’t measure it! Its a Diana.

  7. MrsC says:

    Well done, I may have to get a change jar if it can deliver so much largesse! 🙂 I have a similar looking form, in a large size but I mainly use it for other people sewing. My tuppenceworth of advice is to be mindful of your body’s planes. Measurements are important but so is the distribution. Dummies are very uniformly distributed and ramrod straight, I find, and people are not – our bums stick out, we have sway backs, shoulders that sit further forward or back etc. So have a good peer at yourself and make sure you are making a real Karen! Mind you from the many pix and angles on this blog you look very well-proportione 🙂

  8. I use a bra and a tight t-shirt on mine too. Mine does have an adjustable back waist length though. It’s a fiddle to change the length but I guess you only have to do it once. The top and bottom halves sort of pull apart around the waist.

  9. Lucy says:

    I don’t think I’d ever get a dummy to fit me. I have to add in length pretty much everywhere (inc. above the bust), have a 30 inch waist to 42 inch hips, and a prominant swayback. And that’s before you start on things like padded bras. *sigh*

  10. Karen – there’s a commercially available system for padding out existing dressforms to match shape/size more accurately. (Basically it seems to be a pricier version of using the bras + wadding/batting as previously suggested above :)). It’s the Fitting System by Fabulous Fit – if you look at the link it has pics which talk you through it. You could DIY it using some pads taken out of old bras (or maybe buy cheap ones from Walthamstow market?).

  11. Felicity from Down Under says:

    It’s obvious that you did a lot of research before venturing into dressform territory and, although I can see that it might not be a perfect solution, it’s clearly a huge help. I must say, I’ve often wished I had such a thing as a dressform and if ever I get one, I’ll be sure to check all those helpful, informative links. After all, as you say, each of us is unique and a unique shape.

  12. reader says:

    Dear Karen,

    I have put off buying a dressform because I’ve read about so many problems with lesser forms that I want to buy a Wolf, either used, or preferably, custom made. I’m in no position to do that right now. What I suggest you do is to get someone to help you make a muslin that fits you skin tight which will be placed over your form and then padded to fit. I would hire a professional to help me with this. I’m all for saving money when money can be saved, but this is something that you have to get just right for it to be worth all the time and effort.

  13. Chris says:

    Similarly to others, my dummy (Jennifer) is at the smallest setting for the chest, and wears a padded-out bra, to mimic my 30G bust. It works quite well. I measured from the shoulder and neck etc to work out where the bra should sit (sadly low) and pinned it there to keep it in place. Then where there are big gaps in the dummy to allow for my relatively larger waistline and pear-shaped hips, I’ve stretched an old, tight teeshirt over. It’s not perfect, but actually it does a very good job on the whole, and as I don’t have a sewing buddy to make a duct tape form with me, or help me to make a bodice shell, I find it’s the next best thing to having a really accurate doppelganger. Now if only I was better at dealing with fitting issues I’d be well away.

    Love your blog, but never commented before sorry. I live in Yorkshire and envy all you Southern girls your shopping meet-ups. One of these days I must start blogging too, so that I can make a bit more of an effort to get to know you all!

  14. Saskia says:

    I just found your lovely blog and this post, I bought a dress form from a thrift shop a few years ago for $15 AU and used it as it was for a while but then put on weight and encountered the same problems you are describing. My solution was to pad the dress form and make a muslin cover for it. Threads produced a helpful series on customising your own dress form in the early 90’s which they since published in a book called Fitting your figure (now out of print but readily available on ABE). I used a princess line dress pattern for my cover rather than draping the muslin as the article suggests. I also found that over stuffing the dress form and then taking in the muslin to match your measurements makes for a firmer and more”pinable” form. I know this sounds like alot of effort but results in a customised form and makes sewing for youself so much less frustrating!

  15. Molly says:

    I have a 10 year old Diana dress-form and after all the house-moves, car journeys and general bashing about I’m amazed she’s still as robust as ever. She did however have an encounter with my friend’s vacuum which cracked her bush (yes, thats what the bit the feet slot into is called) and resulted in her being very tipsy for a while. The company were able to supply a new one. Other than that she has only the odd snag to her fabric, a dent in the hem marker (which I need to straighten and is entirely my fault) and is missing her pin-cushion piece of foam. I paid £100 for her new.

    She’s like an old friend and invaluable for draping. choosing fabric combinations and position pockets and buttons etc but I wouldn’t use her for fitting. First it’s impossible to get her to match my measurements spot on and secondly she’s a different shape to me, I’m very flat in the torso and she is more shapely and evenly distributed. She also usually wears one of my bras filled with toy stuffing. Despite these issues I wouldn’t be without her and would like a pantsform too since you can’t put trousers on dress-forms due to the centre pole.

    I encountered my first major issue with her a while ago. I discovered she has very wide shoulders, and where we would lift our arms to wriggle into a a tight dress or top, that’s not an option with my dress-form (I’ve seen pricier ones with removable shoulders). I was trying to work on a very tight-fitting strapless dress. Despite being on the smallest settings I couldn’t get it on over the neck down nor over the hips and up. I have no issues getting the dress on and off because I am a squishable, wiggly human and the dress holds me in. That’s not an option on a solid fibreglass dummy! Big d’oh.

    I did consider also making a fitting shell for her and also making a body double using modroc and expanding foam but research has indicated variable results from others who had similar ideas. Also wondering about the possibilities of making an alginate mold like those pregnancy casting kits that are sold. I think the perfect fitting and practical dummy may still remain a bit of a holy grail for dressmakers.

    • Molly says:

      One other thing I meant to mention, I have read many times and it makes sense, to not rely on the form for even hemming of skirts and dresses. The reason being that most of us have one hip (and shoulder) higher than the other and the dummy does not. Therefore once the garment is on the person, the hem will look uneven. This is why we hem from the floor up, rather than the waist down, to keep the hem parallel to the floor.

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  18. Clever blonde Donna G says:

    Oh dear, I recently purchased a 2nd dress form. I thought, seems a bit silly now, that I would magically be able to make perfectly fitted clothes!

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