To any home sewer and pattern-drafter, the appeal of a custom dress form is obvious. Commercial forms don't resemble the human body in the slightest: nobody I've ever met has that weird, smooth monoboob like on the Wolf forms, nor that cleft-less so-called "ass." Plus, those things are like $400 used. Adjustable forms, though cheaper, are if anything even more limited. They collapse when you're trying to pin things to them, their articulated planes wobble out of alignment, they are riddled with gaps, they suck.
To anyone who makes her own patterns or often adjusts commercial sewing patterns, the whole idea of a commercially made dress form becomes questionable. A body's circumference measurements — bust, waist, and hips — are of much less importance when draping a garment than a body's specific shape and posture. The shoulders are key, since most clothing hangs from them. And as Yohji Yamamoto once wrote, "The shapes of the human shoulder are as numerous as the types of faces." So why not have a form that has your shoulders? If you, like me, sew mostly for yourself, then you have certainly craved a dress form that mimics not only your dimensions, but your body's particular way of holding itself. Your distribution of heft. Your scoliosis. All the asymmetries and features you've spent years taking into account when altering commercial patterns. (Perhaps you've craved such a dress form during one of those long sessions spent in front of the full-length mirror, trying to pin a bolt of fabric to your polypropylene long underwear in order to drape a garment? Oh, that's just me? Okay.) A custom dress form is not the easiest thing in the world to make, but it's within the grasp of any home sewer with two weekends to spare. Come see how I made mine. This is Part I of a two-part tutorial. For Part II, click here.
This is part one of a two-part project. To complete both parts and make one dress form, you will need: 6-8 rolls of plaster bandages (I used some brand called "Carapace," which I bought in a twelve-pack on eBay for like $15); 4-6 cans of expanding closed-cell insulation foam (I used something from Home Depot called "Great Stuff Big Gap Filler," helpfully marked "For Gaps Over 1 Inch"); strong thread or twine; polyurethane varnish or other sealant; eye protection; a face mask; a set of rubber gloves; an old putty knife you don't mind getting wrecked; an old paintbrush; an old pair of craft scissors; a pair of bandage scissors; a container of water; a hacksaw; extra hacksaw blades ('cus why not); a large drop-cloth. And, not pictured: a meter or so of plain, medium-weight fabric, such as canvas or muslin; an adjustable-height IV stand on castor wheels; and a friend, activity partner, or assistant.
The process is pretty straightforward. To make a durable, springy, handsome dress form, we're going to first cast the body in plaster, then create a mold from the plaster cast. Then, we'll fill that mold with foam, mount it on a base, remove the plaster once the foam cures, and cover the resulting form in canvas or a similar fabric.
Part one, this week, covers the plaster casting and the making of the mold. Part two, next week, covers the filling of the mold and the mounting of the form. Both parts together will take about a week — only fifteen or so hours of which is active, crafting time. (Catch up on a bunch of podcasts — I love Julie Klausner's! — or set your music-delivery system to "shuffle.")
Part one, step one is to cut your plaster bandages into usable strips. I found that a mixture of 12" strips, 9" strips, 6" strips, and 3" strips was perfect. On your drop-cloth, arrange the strips within easy reach, and fill your container with water.
If any animals are present in the crafting area, now is the time to exile them. Can't you just see she's up to no good?
You will have to remain very, very still during the body-casting process. To aid in this, draw around your feet with a pen or pencil. Don't move from these marks. Find a mark on the wall that you can stare at. I have these Ikea birch-print curtains in my living room, and I stared at a certain knot in one of the birch trunks until it kind of looked like an eye in a face.
A note on underthings: to cast your torso, you'll want to wear the nastiest, oldest, most ragged, totally D-list underwear you've got. Don't lie to me! I know you keep unmentionables of such calibre around — just in case. We're talking a pair of period panties that you want to demote. Because these are going to get ruined. Whatever you wear under that cast is going to get plaster-encrusted, sticky, and snagged. This roadworthiness standard would apply to any bra you wanted to wear, too. I personally didn't wear a bra to cast my torso in plaster to make my custom dress form because I have never really bought into the whole bra-industrial-complex "thing," and wearing one now would only make my dress form look weird. (You know that bit in Look Who's Talking Now when pubescent angst-y Young Kirstie Alley's like "I'll never have breasts!!!!"? Well, that's me in my mid 20s.) But if you do wear a bra in real life, wear a bra to body-cast, I guess? An old bra. You do you. Slather your exposed skin with lotion before applying the plaster to keep it from sticking. Pin up your hair if it is long.
With your trusty assistant/activity partner/friend/lover/debtor/bet-loser/random Internet buddy, begin wetting the plaster strips in the container of water, one by one. Run your fingers down the length of the strip to shake off excess water. Apply the strips to your body, taking care to keep them smooth — every wrinkle in the strips will be a wrinkle in your mold. I started around my hips and worked up. I was able to help apply the strips myself until I reached my own bust line, at which point it was better to leave the rest to my partner, because the movements of my arms were affecting the set of the plaster. So from then on, I kept still.
It's easiest to make the strips adhere to each other while wet, and two layers of plaster strips is sufficient to create a solid mold. Work quickly to get a second layer of strips down before the first begins to dry. You want to wrap from your neck down to below your ass. Including the tops of your shoulders, like on a cap-sleeve.
Here I am giving my best impersonation of a store mannequin. About breathing: I read that it helps to exhale fully when plastering your lower abdomen, and inhale when plastering your rib cage. I followed this advice, and experienced no dizziness or difficulties breathing as the plaster dried. The feeling was constricting, but it wasn't agony. Though I had been warned that having plaster drying next to my skin would be uncomfortably — even potentially dangerously — hot, I found casting my torso to be an extremely cold, clammy, shiver-y experience. I had a big cool glass of water (with a straw) ready to drink if I started to feel faint and my windows wide open to the cool spring air, and instead I spent most of my time trying not to shake.
At this point, the plaster mold was completed and I was waiting for it to dry. I tried to imagine I was wearing some kind of complicated Hussein Chalayan minidress and left it at that.
After about an hour of drying time — the last 30 minutes or so you can move around — the cast is ready to be cut off your body. Have your partner use the bandage scissors. Do not use regular scissors — you will get cut. Bandage scissors cost like $4 at a stationery store; just freaking buy them. Before starting to cut, make marks on the plaster parallel to the floor; you will later use these marks to match up your mold halves. I found it possible to cut straight down from my pits to my hips and from the tops of my shoulders to my neck, essentially separating my cast into a front and a back half. You may have to also cut down the center back or center front to extricate yourself. Once you're free, take the two halves of the mold and lay them on the drop cloth. They will be a tad damp, so prop them up to keep their shape. I used old pillows, unused rolls of Carapace bandage, and was running out of bottles of lotion with which to hold up the edges of the mold halves when I realized that, duh, bottles of liquor would do this job perfectly! They're round, substantial, and steady. So I raided the bar. Now is also an excellent time to pour a drink, not coincidentally. Cheers to being able to move again! Once you've had a drink, take a shower, wash all that plaster residue off yourself, and take this opportunity to toss the underwear you've just ruined.
When the two halves have dried — I left them overnight — it's time to seal your mold. You do this so that the insulation foam doesn't stick to it too badly. Using the old paintbrush, cover the inside of all your mold pieces with polyurethane varnish, shellac, or other sealant. (I used three coats; the first coat, the plaster pretty much just soaked up.) Without a sealant, the plaster will absorb the moisture in the insulation foam and create a kind of inseparable monster foam-plaster awfulness and all your hard work will be for naught.
Once the varnish has dried completely and the mold pieces are hard, fit them together. Match up the lateral marks you made before cutting yourself free. Thread a sturdy needle with the twine or linen thread, and whip-stitch the mold halves together. Make the stitches nice and tight.
Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a plaster body mold the exact size and shape of your own shoulders, torso, abdomen and thighs. Next week, I will show you how to fill your mold with insulation foam, mount it on a wheeled base, and cover it in canvas — just like a commercially bought dress form, but so much better. For now, make yourself a big drink. Next week, we'll be using the goggles, the rubber gloves, the insulation foam, the putty knife, the hacksaw, the wheeled IV stand (the cheapest one I found was $29), the face mask, the thread or twine, and the canvas-type fabric. To Be Continued! UPDATE: For Part II, click here.