Drafting Patterns, Dress Forms, Uncategorized

Building a Custom Dressform

Ever wish you could clone yourself? How much easier to make fitting adjustments if you could just step outside your own body and work on you. Here’s how: pad a standard dressform to your measurements and cover it with a custom drafted muslin to replicate your own shape.

Why construct your own form? Once you have a duplicate of your body, fitting becomes SO much easier. You’ll also have an understanding of pattern drafting so style/ fitting changes to commercial patterns are less of a mystery. If your size changes you can adjust the padding and cover to reflect those changes. Couture houses create custom forms for their clients so why not do it for yourself?

The process begins with accurate measurements. Those numbers are used to draft a custom pattern which duplicates the body.


The pattern is cut in muslin and any adjustments made. It’s a skin tight fit.



The pattern is cut apart and transferred to heavy weight muslin. Additional seaming is added to the bust area for better shaping.



Use a dressform that’s SMALLER than you. If you start with a form by bust measurement, it’s invariably too large across the back and shoulders. I usually chose a form that’s at least 3-4 inches smaller than the bust.

The cover is sewn together at the shoulders leaving the side seams open. That makes it  easier to get the cover into place without dislodging any of the padding. Start at the shoulders and work down the body. Bra cups fill out a larger bust; shoulder pads can be used to fill out the hip area. Polyester quilt batting works well to smooth out the shape. Tear rather than cut the batting to eliminate ridges. A small steamer helps compress the batting and makes it stick to itself. This is like sculpture. It can be helpful to have a photo of your body: front, back and side views. Work from the top down. Fold the cover down to check if you have padded too little, too much or in the wrong place. Pin the sides closed to check. When the cover is filled out you’ll hand sew the sides closed.

Fold seam allowances under and whip stitch the sides together using strong upholstery thread. Draw some registration marks every couple of inches to keep the sides aligned while you’re sewing.

imageSteam the cover well. It will shrink slightly and tighten up. Draw balance lines (bust, waist and hip) with a permanent marker. Vertical balance lines at center front and back can also be added.

For a custom arm, here’s the pattern I use. There are NO SEAM ALLOWANCES. I use either heavy muslin or cotton drill cloth for the two main arm pieces and shoulder. Lighter weight muslin covers the cardboard ovals.

Mannequin Arm Pattern: arm-11

I’ve traced the stitch lines in blue dashed lines and am adding 3/8 inch seam allowances. Transfer the vertical and horizontal balance lines also. I use washable marker. Notice the vertical line down the upper arm pivots at the elbow.

There is ease on the upper arm at the elbow point. If you try and match up the stitching lines there is excess fabric which needs to be eased in to create the elbow shape. Stitch the back seam first.

Elbow EaseElbowElbow 2Completed Seam

If your balance lines are slightly askew at the elbow, blend into a smooth line across the seam. The marks will dissolve with water after you topstitch the line. Press the seam open. I use a topstitching (has a larger eye) needle and two strands of black thread to trace the balance lines using a 3.5mm stitch length. There are three horizontal balance lines, one at the elbow, one at the underarm and another about 2 inches up from the underarm. Extend the upper balance line to cross both sleeve sections.

Elbow with corrected lineCompleted Seam

Close the remaining seam matching the stitched balance lines. Press open. Close the dart at the top of the sleeve. Cut the shoulder piece (looks like a shoulder pad) from drill cloth. It needs a seam on one side only. I serge the outer edge to prevent fraying. Using a 4.5m stitch, sew along the top of the sleeve. It will gather up slightly which is all you need. Don’t try and ease it like a set-in sleeve.

Top DartAdd SeamsCap Ease

Clip within the seam allowance on the shoulder section. Mark the mid point and attach it to the arm, matching the mid point to the dart on the sleeve. Make sure you have right sides facing each other. It should look like this.

Completed shoulderCompleted shoulder right side

To stuff the sleeve I use soft polyester fleece. I cut a piece the length of the sleeve plus about 2 inches. Roll up the fleece, not too tightly, and gauge about how much is required to fill out you sleeve. I want the sleeve to be full but not tightly packed and stiff. The wrist and lower arm needs less fill than the upper arm so I shape the fleece like this. I’ve used about 30 inches an have cut off one corner so that the lower arm has less stuffing than the upper.

Cut Fleece

Begin rolling at the shorter end forming a soft cylinder which is fatter at one end. I safety pin a length of ribbon onto the slimmer (wrist) end, insert the ribbon through the top and pull it through. If you want more or less fill pull out the roll and adjust the amount of stuffing.

Rolling fleecePull through

Trim the fill at the armseye end leaving enough to fill out the top.

Fleece at top

Cut ovals from cardboard for the wrist and armseye covers. I use lighter weight muslin (the drill cloth is too stiff to gather) and add about 3/4 inch seam allowances. Stitch around the edges, insert the cardboard and pull the threads up to create the covers.


I place the armseye cover against my form and mark the shoulder seam point. Notice that I’ve angled it towards the front to better replicate my arm position. Human arms tend to fall slightly in front of center. Line up the wrist oval to simulate the wrist shape. Again wrists aren’t circular; they are wider when viewed from the top of the hand than the side.

Scye cover rotatedAttach Wrist

Hand sew the covers in place with a whip stitch. Your new arm can be attached with a few pins (I use flat head pins and push them at an angle to avoid snagging the garment). This pattern is for the right arm. If you would like two arms just flip the pieces and make a matching form for the left side. See how easily her arm bends and I’ve found this version much more workable than the premade ones.

CompletedBendable Arm

This will make a fairly slim arm. If your arms are larger and you want to adjust the pattern I would suggest this method. Trace the pattern onto your preferred paper and slash the upper and lower arm sections. I don’t cut up my master pattern until I’m happy with the changes. If the first alteration doesn’t work I haven’t destroyed the original and it’s much easier to start over.


Divide the amount you want to adjust by 4 and spread the pattern sections by that amount. It doesn’t need to be the same for the entire length of the pattern. You might want an extra inch at the wrist and an extra 2 inches at the bicep. Overlap the sections if you need a smaller arm. Likewise the length, both above and below the elbow can be adjusted. The ovals for the armseye and wrist covers will need to be adjusted and I would just use trial and error. There is a mathematical formula for figuring out the circumference, long and short axis of an ellipse but you don’t want to see it. Anyone with a math background will understand..

I’ve received requests to teach this and have done several workshops. With the current stay-at-home situation, on line classes are a necessity. I’ve taught this remotely using Zoom and it worked well. Those who participated had a buddy to help with measurements but it is possible to fit yourself. I’ve done it and it’s not impossible. There are a few tricks like putting a separating zipper at center front to make the cover easy to get on and off. When the fit is perfected, the zipper is removed and side seams opened. It’s also more accurate than pinning. A few measurements (like the cross back width) will need to be calculated rather than direct measure.

The dressform cover pattern can also be adjusted with ease added to create a custom size master pattern block. You can use this to either create your own designs or help with adjustments to a commercial pattern.

If you’re interested and want more details, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch. Everyone stay safe.







47 thoughts on “Building a Custom Dressform”

  1. The thing I wish I’d known at the beginning of my alteration journey: “I don’t cut up my master pattern until I’m happy with the changes. If the first alteration doesn’t work I haven’t destroyed the original and it’s much easier to start over.”
    This is a FABULOUS tutorial and post. Bookmarking and forwarding around. Bless you.

    1. You are so right. I tell students: NEVER, EVER cut up the master. Trace it off, make changes to the traced copy. Way too much work if you cut up your master copy. Thanks.

    2. How do I sign up for video classes? How much do they cost? Is there a class listing with descriptions?
      Jen W

  2. I bought a new dress maker form this year in January. I would love to attempt this….after 48 years of seeing maybe it’s time. Can you tell me how long this process takes about….would you say maybe a full day?

    1. Unfortunately it takes longer than a day, especially if this your first one. I schedule my in-person workshops for 3 days and it takes a good 2.5 days working from 9-5. Doing it via Zoom takes 1/2 day to measure and draft. Participants sew their first draft together and we meet the next day for a look at the fit. Then final changes are transferred to the pattern and a final draft is cut, sewn and final fitting. I’m available via Zoom to assist with padding the form and sewing the cover on. I can do either private sessions or groups of 2-3.

  3. Wow – this is fantastic. I’m still in the process of finishing my custom 3D printed one, i.e. making the cotton cover for it – I will incorporate these ideas and also make some arms. Thank you so much.

  4. This is a great tutorial. I did something like this years ago, but your instructions will help me do a better job when I redo it. My woman’s dress form is bigger than me underbust, and I have changed shape slightly since then so need to do make a new one. I didn’t bother taking front zip out. It’s handy when stuffing needs adjusting. I also found it helpful to line me and dress form up in front of a mirror – side, front and back – which helps get stuffing in right places. When you have it right both outlines match in the mirror.

  5. Wow, this is a huge amount of great information. It must have taken you ages to put together. I studied pattern making at Apparel Arts in Oakland California with Suzy Furrer years ago. So appreciate what you have posted. 🙂

  6. This is a treasure! You encouraged me to go ahead with the purchase of a used dress form a couple of years ago and to not worry too much about the size because I could pad it out to fit me. I look forward to reading this wonderful information again and getting on with it.

    1. I’ve used all sorts of forms from inexpensive plastic to vintage Wolf. As long as the form, especially the shoulders, isn’t larger than you it will work fine. A sturdy, heavy base is important to keep the form from tipping over. I’ve switched out unstable bases with vintage cast iron ones.

      1. Mary, I would like to learn more about your Zoom workshop for making a dress form. Is that something you can email? Can you perhaps tell me where to get a canvas worktable cover marked in square inches? I think I see one in your photographs.

  7. Hi, Mary! Thank you so much for sharing this! How can I learn more about your virtual Zoom workshop on building a custom dress form?

  8. Hi, Mary! Thanks so much for sharing this! I’d love to learn more about your remote Zoom workshop on creating a custom dress form – I’m very interested!

  9. Hi Mary!
    Great post on building a personalized dress form. I’ve yet to make the arms for my own mannequin…but have the pattern cut and at the ready! I would like these done for when I tackle a Chanel inspired tweed top…(Currently working a silk skirt on the bias.)
    Take care!

  10. This is wonderful post. But I wonder if I could adapt it to my case as I am too tall – 185cm, and 60cm from neck to waist. On patterns I usually need to lengthen 6-10cm at the waist. I haven’t seen a mannequin with such height. Will this method work for my case?

  11. This is wonderful!!! Thankyou so much! I’ve seen a few different versions of this type of concept online, have always been meaning to try one day, but your expertise I trust. The detail you’ve provided and the end result are fabulous!!

  12. Dear Mary, I have been reading your blog for quite some time and I think it’s really interesting. Unfortunately I live in Holland. I would love to make a personalized dress form.. is zoom class an option? Good luck over there stay safe and I will keep on reading your blogs!
    Thank you bye! Sophie

    1. Sophie, Thanks so much for your feedback. I will check but think Zoom isn’t limited to specific country so that is definitely be an option. I’ll send details via email.

  13. Hi Mary,

    I recently found your blog as I am in the middle of working on padding out my dress form! I would love more information on the zoom class you mention. I am working on my moulage right now but would love to add in the additional bust shaping!

  14. Hi Mary, I’ve done Suzy’s moulage class and am pretty stoked with the fit but am very interested in how you added the extra bust shaping, Could you also send me details for your zoom class please? Thank you!

  15. This is wonderful. I wish I had seen this sooner. I am in the process of making mine. Not having someone with the patience to do the measuring on me, I went a different route. I did the ‘wrap in shrink wrap, mark it, cut it off and then transfer to paper and clean it up’ method. I did a rough mock up and then to a heavier muslin. The husband helped with fitting and I put in a back zipper.
    I would love to know how you did the bust shaping because I think that would help mine.
    Did you find just padding it out it stayed fairly true? I’m experimenting with fabric stiffeners on scrap material. I am thinking that treating the cover while it is on my body will help it keep it’s true shape a little better. I have an ancient adjustable dress form that will be the base underneath. I’m just winging it at this point.
    I just want to be able to make clothes that actually fit me. I am interested in the Zoom class as well. I need some other like minds to collaborate with.

  16. Hi Mary, I am also interested in the details on how to take your zoom class on custom-shaping a dress form (including pricing, etc.). Is the new, custom-fitted cover designed to be removable from the form? Thank you, Lyndee Breeding lyndeeb@embarqmail.com

    1. Thanks for inquiring Lynndee. The cover can be either permanent or removable. Both methods are shown in the class. I’ll send you a private email with further details.

  17. Love this post. I’m almost ready to re-do my current dress form. My question is: Do you recommend pre-washing the heavy muslin prior to making it up?? Or do you let the steaming process do the “shrinking?”

    1. I don’t pre-wash the heavy muslin. I do steam it lightly prior to sewing but want the ability to shrink and tighten it up with steaming after it’s on the form. Good luck with your form.

  18. I would love more information on your zoom classes! I’m in love with your blog and wealth of knowledge. Please send me more info!

    1. The pattern for the dressform cover is drafted according to body measurements. Everyone’s body is different, so there is no general pattern I use; every cover is custom. I teach a course which walks students through the steps of custom drafting. Thanks for asking.

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