A Body Block for Bess (part 1)

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m planning to teach myself pattern drafting. I want to make sure I understand it really well, so I’m starting with a basic body block, which isn’t a real pattern, but represents the shape of a particular body so that you can make patterns for it. I’m walking through it in my blog to make sure I understand all of it.

I’m planning to try a couple of different systems, but I’m starting with one from The Costume Technician’s Handbook (third edition) by Ingham and Covey. This is the book I wish I had read about a decade ago. I know a lot of the information in it now, and a more experienced costumer might not get a lot out of it, but it’s a great collection of information all in one place, and I highly recommend it. Some of it is about theater costuming, which is why I’d initially not bothered with it, but I got it after a few people recommended it for the pattern drafting section, and I am very happy with the purchase. I’m guessing most libraries have a copy, and I suspect the older editions are fine for most people’s purposes. Most of the info here is from this book (i.e., the drafting method – e.g., connect point A to point B) is not my creation, but the explanation of why we’re doing it that way is mine).

Note that this is a modern method of drafting patterns. In my class with the School of Historical Dress, someone asked Melanie B. if the drafting method she was using (a German method that I’ll explore later) was used in the period we were studying. She said that it’s a more modern method that she learned in her modern training, but noted that she can’t unknow things that she knows and that a modern method will give you safe, reliable results. She drafts a block for a person, then turns it into whatever type of pattern she needs for that person. I’m hoping to learn both modern and historical patterning, and I’m interested in more than one era, so I’m starting with the system that friends told me was the clearest description of drafting a body block they’ve seen. I’ll dig into other methods later.

Tools needed:

  1. Pencil and eraser
    • You really don’t want to do this in pen, and you want a sharp pencil. If someone in your house has drafting pencils and erasers, borrow them. Otherwise, raid the kids’ or gamers’ mechanical pencils.
  2. Rulers
    • Clear quilting rulers work very well for this. 
  3. French curve
    • You can buy a fancy one or print out one of these and glue it to part of a cereal box. If you can eyeball drawing curved lines, you might not need one.
  4. Paper
    • I used fancy Swedish sewing paper, and it turns out that it’s a PITA to erase on it when you make mistakes, so just use regular paper or a paper bag or something.
  5. Charts in book for dart calculation
    • I’m not going to include it here because the book is still in print, and authors need to eat, so get a copy or hit the library for the charts needed to calculate dart width.

As I noted in my last post, I’m planning to practice patterning in half scale for adorably cute half-scale dress forms (Bess and Robin – no, not very original names, but they please me). To use this method for a full-sized person or dress form (Bess is a half-scale industry standard size 6), you’d need to double all of the measurements and results of the formulas and constants used.

I’ll let an expert teach you how to take measurements – there are lots of diagrams and videos online.

Measurements needed for this body block (these are Bess’s measurements):

  1. Bust: 17.25″
  2. Waist: 12.875″
  3. Bust point to bust point: 3.5″
  4. Shoulder length: 2.5″
  5. Center shoulder to bust point: 4.5″
  6. Nape (back of neck) to waist: 8.125″
  7. Front width: 6.375″
  8. Back width: 6.875″

To start our body block, we start with a rectangle that has a height (A-B and C-D) of the back nape to waist measurement, plus the depth of the bust dart (this will be pinched in eventually), which for my dress form will be 0.5″ (remember to double everything for a full-sized body block). The depth of the bust dart will vary according to the person’s bust size (see Chart 1, p. 110). This is making the body block as long as the person’s torso. The width of the rectangle is half the bust measurement, plus 1/4″ (A-C and B-D). Here we’re drawing only one side of the block, so it needs to fit around one side of the person.


Next, we’re going to divide the rectangle in half with a vertical line (E-F). This is letting us draw both the front and the back of the block on the same page. The reason for this will make more sense as we go along.

Our next step is to draw a horizontal line (G-H) down a quarter of the nape to waist measurement from A-C, then measure down that same distance and draw another horizontal line (I-J). These lines are not part of the actual pattern, but are giving us landmarks to use later. It will all become clear.


We’re going to draw the front of the body block first, and we start with the neckline. Start at C and measure 1.5″ to the left and up .25″ – mark this K. Mark L 1.5″ down from K. Mark M 1.25″ down from C. These are all standard measurements for drawing the neckline – double them for a full-sized person. Connect K-L and L-M with straight lines.


Next, we’re going to draw in the curved neckline from K to M. Use your French curve or wing it.


Another standard measurement – draw a horizontal line down 0.68″ (that’s 1 3/8″ for full-size) from A-C. Now this next bit is a little wacky. We need to draw the shoulder seam, which is going to start at K and needs to be as long as our shoulder measurement. We’re going to use the horizontal line we just drew to figure out the angle of the shoulder seam. We know it has to be 2.5″ long (our shoulder measurement), so we put one end of a ruler at K, then angle the ruler so that it hits that horizontal line *at* 2.5″. This will give us the right shoulder length and put it at the right angle. Cool, huh? Mark the spot where the ruler hits the line as N, and draw line N-K.


The next bit is to draw the front of the armhole. We need to use one of our landmark horizontal lines to start, so draw point O where I-J crosses E-F. That’s going to be the bottom of the armhole. We’ll use another landmark line and draw point P half of the front width measurement to the left of H. This is going from a point (H) on the center front line and determining where the armhole should start (P) at that height. We want the first bit of the armhole to be a straight line (and as much a right angle to the shoulder line as possible), so we’re going to draw a straight line N-P. Now we need to draw the rest of our armhole, which needs a curve to fit under our arm, so we use our French curve to finish it.


Now we need to move to the waistline, so we’re going to measure a quarter of the waist measurement (remember that this piece is only half the pattern, and the other half of the waist measurement will be in the back pieces), plus the width of the front waist dart (1/2″ for Bess – it’s based on the difference between bust and waist measurements (see Chart 2 on p. 110). Add 1/8″ to that, and mark it as Q, which is going to be the bottom of the side seam.

Next we deal with the bust. We’re using a modern drafting method that uses modern bust darts. We’re going to start by finding the bust point. We can find where it is laterally relative to the center front by measuring out half the bust point-to-point measurement to the left of D, then drawing a vertical line straight up to I-J.

We also need to figure out how far down the bust point should be, so we need to use our center shoulder to bust point measurement. To do that, we first need to mark the center of the shoulder (mid-point between N-K) as R. We’re going to use the ruler trick again to put the point as far down and over as it needs to be. Put the end of the ruler on R, and move the ruler until the shoulder to bust point measurement falls on the vertical line you drew a minute ago. That’s your bust point, and we mark it as S.

Now we need to draw the bust dart. We don’t want the bust dart to end right *at* the bust point because that would look wonky (sorry, Madonna), so we draw a horizontal line through S (between E-F and C-D), then measure 1/4″ to the left of S and mark it T. That’s where our bust dart is going to end.

Now that we know where the dart is going to end, we need to draw in the lines to show where it will start. We’re going to take the depth of the bust dart (1/2″ for Bess) and measure down that far from the bust point line that runs through S. Mark that spot U. Connect T and U with a straight line – that’s the center line of the dart. Now we need to measure half the depth of the bust dart (half of 1/2″ is 1/4″) and mark that distance above and below U. Connect those two marks with the bust point (T) to finish the dart.


If we sew the dart as it is drawn now, we’ll get wonkiness in the side seam, so we’re going to make the bottom leg of the dart the same length as the top leg of the dart. To do that, we first measure the length of the top leg of the bust dart. From our dart point (T), measure that same length on the bottom leg of the dart, and mark it as V. Connecting V and Q with a straight line gives us our side seam (not shown yet in the pic below – oops), and connecting V to U finishes the bust dart. To make things tidier, you can erase the little bit of the bottom leg of the dart that’s to the left of V and no longer part of the block.


OK – we’re almost done with the front. We just need to draw the waist dart. We already have the center line for the dart – that’s the vertical line that runs through the bust point (S). We want it in line with the bust, but we don’t want the dart to end *at* the bust point, so we measure down 1/2″ from S and mark the point of the waist dart as W. We used Chart 2 to determine that Bess’s waist dart would be 1/2″ wide, and we measure half of that (1/4″) along B-D on both sides of the vertical line that runs through the bust point (S). Connect those marks with W (the waist dart point) to form the waist dart.


Whew! That’s the front. We’ll do the back tomorrow.

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