While some simple garments can easily be made with a flat pattern alone, having a dress form can help a great deal in a lot of situations.
If you’re looking to drape a garment, test out how well your flat pattern will fit, or if you just want to tweak certain elements of your garment, like setting a sleeve properly, a dress form can be a huge help.
They have been around for a very long time – one of the earliest dress forms is rumored to be a wooden one from ancient Egypt, found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen, which was used to display elements of his grand royal wardrobe.
Today, there are many different kinds of dress forms, from plain plastic ones to complex forms that adjust to suit a multitude of sizes.
Some Tips on How to Choose A Dress Form
Here are some things to consider if you are looking to purchase one for your own use:
- The first, and probably most important question you should ask yourself when looking for a dress form is simply which body are you trying to replicate. If you’re only sewing clothes for your own body, you will want to look for a form closest to your own measurements.
- Be aware that your clothing size and a numerical dress form size may not be the same at all. Definitely measure yourself properly to find the correct size form for your body.
- If you are sewing for a wide range of people with different body types, you may want a form that adjusts or a form that can accommodate a set of pads that you can easily change out to mimic different body types.
- Keep in mind that you can always pad a form out to make it bigger, but there is nothing to take away to make it smaller than its smallest size, so it’s always best to err on the smaller side.
With all of that in mind, there are a few different types of dress forms to look for. There are dress forms available for almost any size body, from tiny children up to very stout men, and wider size ranges seem to be coming out every year.
Types of Dress Forms
Professional Dress Forms – Traditional Canvas-Covered Dress Forms
Perhaps the most traditional type of dress form for making clothing is the canvas or linen-covered heavy-style form. These are the kind most frequently used in professional dressmaking and tailoring shops, costume houses, and anywhere garments are being made professionally.
Three of the most common brands for these are Wolf, Superior, and PGM, but there are many other companies making professional-grade canvas forms out there as well.
Dress forms are generally made from heavy cardboard or other kinds of fiberboard, which are covered in batting or a thin layer of foam and then canvas or linen. They usually have heavy metal bases with casters to roll around where you need them to be. This type of form comes in a wide range of sizes but is not adjustable in size.
A big plus is that you can pin into them for attaching fabric, trim, or patterns to them for easy draping and finishing, although depending on the underlying materials, you may have to angle your pins for them to hold fabric properly.
Depending on which features you need, the canvas forms can be on the upper end of the price scale, but if properly cared for, they can last a very long time and can be repaired and recovered when needed more easily than some other types of dress forms.
Pinnable Foam Dress Forms
If you’re looking for a more cost-effective dress form that you can pin into, you might consider a foam dress form.
These foam forms are lighter weight than the canvas ones, but still generally sturdy. Being made out of foam, they have a bit of ‘give’ to them as people do, and some come with a fabric cover to protect the foam from damage.
Another benefit of foam is that you can pin straight into your form at any angle. Depending on the type of foam used and the frequency with which they are used, these forms may not last as long as the canvas type, but a good quality foam dress form will last you quite a while if you take good care of it.
Adjustable Dress Forms
Adjustable dress forms are versatile in terms of size but have a few limitations to be aware of. These usually have multiple panels that can be spread out or brought together using dials, making them somewhat customizable. Some of them not only adjust in girth but in length, which can be handy if you need a form with a longer than the standard torso.
While adjustable dress forms are usually made of lightweight plastic and relatively easy to move around, this can also make them a bit flimsy, depending on their quality.
Another issue with these types of forms is that once you turn the dials to make the form bigger, there is a gap between the panels that is then impossible to pin into.
Depending on the covering over the plastic used, it may also be difficult to pin into any part of the form as well. However, if you need an affordable form that can accommodate different sizes and you don’t need to do a lot of pinning into your form, an adjustable one might be a great option for you.
Custom Dress Forms
Nowadays, you can make a more accurate double for yourself than buying a standard size form and trying to pad it to your individual shape.
Various companies can make dress forms custom-made to your measurements. Even more excitingly, there are companies who can scan your body with a sensitive laser scanning system and make a custom form specific to you from that scan.
Beatrice Forms, Ditto Forms, and other companies are jumping into this market of scanned custom forms. Custom forms tend to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, pricier than the other types, but if you only make clothing for yourself and your body does not fluctuate a lot over time, one of these custom forms might be the perfect thing for you.
Small Scale Forms
One handy tool for designing garments is to use a smaller form that is proportional to a regular-sized form.
If you are making garments in a design setting, this can be a useful way to work out new patterns or draped designs without using the quantities of paper or fabric that a full-scale dress form would require. They are often sold in 1/2 the scale of a regular dress form.
These half-scale forms are a great economical option in size and in price and could be a great companion piece to a standard dress form in your atelier.
Finally, if you’re looking for a dress form that is just meant for display, there are quite a number of well-made display forms out there. These are usually lighter weight than most of those used in tailoring and dressmaking, and sometimes are more stylized than those used for sewing.
They can also be much cheaper, depending on what you’re looking for. They tend not to be as suitable for draping or sticking pins into to add trim, but if you just want a pretty form to display a garment, a display form may be perfectly suited for your purposes.
DIY Dress Forms
Another option for a custom dress form is to make one yourself. There are many tutorials online that can instruct you on how to make your own form based on your own body using everything from duct tape to Papier-Mâché to spray foam.
Some of these designs and techniques may last longer than others, but most DIY dress forms are not going to stand the test of time as well as a professionally made one.
If you’re in a pinch, however, it’s an option that still might be worth looking at as a stop-gap measure until you can afford the dress form you really want.
Special Features to Consider:
Sometimes called bifurcated dress forms, these types of forms come with legs, or at the very least, a crotch and thighs. These can be very handy if you are constructing pants or leggings, as it is rather impossible to get a pair of trousers on a regular dress form that sits on a regular stand.
If you know you are going to be building a lot of pants, you may want to look into the leg options available.
They often come on a hanging stand that lets you remove the whole “body” of the form if needed, or some have a stand that just goes through one thigh and can be removed to dress the form.
Another super helpful feature in some dress forms is to have one with collapsible shoulders.
If you’ve ever tried to pry a slinky bias dress over the broad, unyielding shoulders of a standard dress form, you can begin to imagine how helpful it would be to have those shoulders able to collapse in.
This isn’t as much of an issue with a squishy foam form, but if you’re working with garments that have small necklines or slim circumferences and want to use a harder canvas-covered form, collapsible shoulders may save you some cursing.
If you work with long dresses that need a bit of height to clear the floor, or if you are just a tall person, you might want to look for a dress form that has the ability to be raised and lowered.
Many of the forms with cast-iron bases have this capability, and it’s very helpful for pinning hems for long gowns.
The opposite is also true- if you are a shorter person, or would like to work sitting on a stool, the ability to lower your dress form can be equally helpful.
There are also dress forms that are meant to be used on a tabletop. These are quite portable and very versatile for shirts and blouses, but obviously, have some limitations without a stand to drape or work on longer garments.
Often, dress forms come with a chopped-off armscye with no real shoulder curve. A few come with a tiny shoulder but not much of an arm.
If you need a full arm to help in your project, there are several ways to accomplish this. If you have a dress form that you can easily pin into, then you can add arms from companies that offer pin-on limbs. Some varieties even sell arms that can bend.
Other dress forms come with a slotted system on the armscye that allows a corresponding arm to slide in securely. Still, others have the option to add arms on with magnets.
If you want to save some money or if you have a very specific arm or leg shape that isn’t commercially available, you can always make your own out of a sturdy fabric and stuffing.
As we mentioned earlier, a good way to make a non-adjustable form more accommodating for multiple sizes is to pad it out to larger sizes than that of the form. There are a few companies that make sets of pads to add as needed to make the measurements of your form bigger.
One of the most popular of these is Fabulous Fit, which also makes dress forms as well. While you may be able to just pin pads on to get the shape and size that you want, it’s best if you also cover them with a stretch fabric to smooth out any lumpiness and to bring all of the form and padding together in a cohesive unit.
And if money for commercial padding is not in your budget, it’s astounding what you can do with a few bags of fiberfill and some stretch fabric to cover it.
Some other articles you may want to read:
Before asking this very important question lightly, I would suggest you read a little bit more about all the dress forms available out there. Once you know what type is your best choice, you’ll be in a better position to pick the one that suits your needs. You might want to check this guide about the Best Dress Forms.
You can start by reading a little bit about the different types of dress forms there are. Once you know all of your options you’ll see how choosing one for yourself becomes an easier matter.
Some of them are adjustable, but not necessarily. Read all about it in our Dress Forms Guide.
A pinnable mannequin is basically a dress form that can be pinned into. This way, dressmakers can hold different pieces of fabric onto the dress form and design new clothes. Check this article if you want to know more about pinnable dress forms.