Re-inventing Vionnet & 24001 draft

I’ve been working on my pattern for the vintage pattern contest (links to series entries at close). Here you’ll see my first draft. If you look closely, you’ll see a “stay”. That’s a hint, you’re going to need one too.


The block I’m using is modified from a style I pulled out of _Madeleine Vionnet_ by Betty Kirke. Specifically I used pattern #19 on pg 142 -here’s the front and here’s the back. And yes, I certainly did stomp all over Ms Kirke’s copyright but I’m hoping that increased demand -which I’m attempting to stimulate- will nudge the book back into publication as it’s out of print. A quarter-scale pattern of my modified version of Vionnet’s style is shown here. Here’s a photo of the completed dress on my “dress form”. You can barely see the navy silk waist insets.
(I so detest standard dress forms because they’re not shaped like people). If you’d like to see the bias-cut dress block on me, go here. Whenever I work with this pattern, it reminds me of things I rarely get the chance to discuss because it doesn’t fit in neatly anywhere and that’s really what this post is about.

Vionnet is considered to be the historical master of draping. That said, draping is inefficient. It takes a lot longer to achieve a quality result as compared to drafting. For example, first you have to drape it -which is no big deal- and once you’ve achieved the look you want, you have to sew up the drape. Then you try on the drape. If the fit and style lines work then you have to take the drape apart and reproduce the shapes to make a hard copy pattern. Once you cut the pattern, you have to cut out a test sample to make sure the drape was rendered accurately onto paper. Continue to make intermittent corrections as necessary. With drafting, you start with paper and then cut a sample to fit. Your iteration begins there. The drafting process is much faster, cleaner, efficient and accurate.

My intention in writing the latter paragraph was not to belittle the design process preferences of others. It’s important that people understand the difference between drafting and draping. Vionnet only draped because she couldn’t draft; and if she was that good with draping, I cannot conceive how brilliant she would have been with drafting. It’s incalculable. You can get the same results with drafting and draping. It’s just that draping takes longer as it is prone to greater error. I’m trying to explain the difference not to criticize draping but so that people understand she was producing unrivaled design and doing it with one arm tied behind her back. That’s why she was a genius. So maybe you already knew she was a genius but I felt the need to prove it from a technical standpoint.

That’s why my gut says that Vionnet never had any formal drafting training. She was unschooled making her genius all the more remarkable. That’s why she draped everything. Over time, she saw patterns emerge from her drapes off an x-y coordinate (grain is the ultimate x-y coordinate) – yet her drapes were necessarily cartographic. Unable to resolve the difference between the minutia of these engineering details, she began to hang out with mathematicians. I don’t know that she ever saw the larger pattern -the one we’re all looking for- and I think it may have been one of the greatest mysteries of her intellectual life. I know it is of mine. I also think that one of the greatest tragedies is that Vionnet was not trained in pattern drafting. Vionnet learned the long way via draping, if she’d had some drafting instruction, I just can’t imagine the impact of her talent on the history of fashion.

I’ve seen the drafts in Vionnet’s book and I’ve tested several of them literally and most of them mentally many, many times. To get inside someone’s head, you have to regenerate their work enough times to get a feel of their style and their eye, and I have some idea of what she might have been thinking and how she thought to do things. Like me, she hated being called a designer -she insisted she was a technician but even that was modest. She was an engineer but that wasn’t a term affiliated with the industry at the time.

I have reworked enough of the drafts enough times to know that the patterns in the book contain 2 types of errors. One type of error was made by Vionnet and the others were made by the author, Betty Kirke. “Error” sounds like a critical, ugly thing but I don’t mean it that way. Errors are like a signature. Every artist is known for their unique fingerprint, it’s that very thin line separating them from god-like perfection. There is a degree of quality to errors and the ones in this book are very fine errors indeed. And each of these women -in their respective ways- are worthy of our deepest admiration, respect and emulation. I can only aspire to be at such a level that I could make such beautiful mistakes. Anyway, my favorite reinvented Vionnet bias-cut dress has a BK error -the quality of which defies description here- and once I made the correction, I could see how Vionnet also played with things as she was teaching herself drafting according to the mathematical patterns she observed. While she may have draped most everything, I can only think that once she saw this one on paper, she made extensive drafting corrections. The corrected skirt line is almost a pun, she was playing with geometry and there was a subtle sense of humor about it, almost an insistence to incorporating the feature into the design.

There aren’t a lot of this copies of this book available (Amazon lists 2 used copies at around $850 each) so if you do not intend to use this book, please don’t buy it. It’s bad karma to be a vanity collector. Leave it for the next person who will actually use it, learn from it and hopefully pass their insights along. If you buy this book I’d urge you to use it and go to the bother of acquiring the needed materials (dotted marker paper at SouthStar Supply) and reproduce the drafts because until you do the work, you can’t crawl inside Vionnet’s head. Until you manage to crawl into her head, you’ll never understand just how brilliant she truly was.

Beyond career and intellect, her personal life was always in the shitter. Such pattern emerges that one could almost think she was autistic. And Balenciaga too but that’s another story.

Related entries:
Vintage pattern design contest
Vintage pattern design update
Re-inventing Vionnet & 24001 draft
Vintage pattern post #4
Vintage pattern post #5

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  1. Toby Strasser says:

    I actually bought that book as soon as it came out. I saved my Waldenbook coupons to help set off the price ($95 at the time). I can’t believe it went out of print so quickly. Vionnet is such an inspiration to me. I too like to drape, but I also understand drafting (I find my mind works well in dimensional situations, I guess I should have been an architect or engineer) I also have puzzled greatly over Ms. Kirkee’s patterns. I’ve only tried to make her mobias scarf according to the book and pulled my hair out repeatedly. Since I haven’t even been able to make the simple scarf, I haven’t dared attempted a dress. But I think I’m going to just plow ahead like you did and use a combination of drape and draft. I’m planning a few pieces for a small collection I sell that are going to be on the bias so I’m studying Vionnet and Kliebacker extensively. Having been a skinny minny with no curves all my life, the first time I put on a bias cut dress (a dress that my great-grandmother wore in 1919) I discovered the beauty of bias and what it can do for my shape. And it doesn’t look bad on women with a figure either.

  2. Reverse pattern puzzle

    For those of you up to a challenge, I present a reverse pattern puzzle. By that I mean you should examine the garment and draw what you imagine the pieces to look like. To inaugurate this sometime ongoing series, I…

  3. Deerskin says:

    Hum–i have to differ that drafting is quicker than draping–so much of drafting is to start–do a basic design of the garment and then make it up in fabric to see what needs to be tweaked. With draping you can do all the tweaking while you are draping–
    In the end with both drafting and draping you have to make the garment in the fabric that you will wear it in to really see what’s going to happen with fit and style lines etc.
    And for some kinds of garments drafting is quicker like men’s tailored jackets, for other types particularly bias garments draping is better–especially because draping can take the different in stretch between the lengthwise and crosswise grain into account.

  4. Bob Welton says:

    I’m catching up on your postings and have just now read your “Re-inventing Vionnet & 24001 draft” post from April 5, 2005. I’m taking Draping I at a local community college and my professor, who is from FIT, drapes stuff so fast yet I am as slow as everyone else in class. I liked your comments on drafting, which I took last semester and liked. Anyway, enough about me. In this April, post you ended with a closing comment on Vionnet with the: “Such pattern emerges that one could almost think she was autistic. And Balenciaga too but that’s another story.” Can you or do you plan to write one on Balenciaga? Your perspective is very refreshing and I’d really like to read your thoughts on her too.
    I saw a large exhibition of Balenciaga’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and found her designs intriguing. Great exhibit with very faint light to preserve fabrics with dress forms in two sided glass cases so you could see the back and front. Would appreciate your thoughts on her too.
    Until then, I’ll keep saving pocket change to get the Vionnet book.
    Thanks. Bob

  5. dawn says:

    Kathleen, *Why* aren’t dressforms shaped like real people??? I have four of them. 3 are the standard adjustable types in various sizes. One was given to me by a student. She’d had it made, in Germany I think, to her figure, but it doesn’t “fit” her anymore. That is the best one. I’m not exactly sure why….the bust is higher and bigger, the shoulders are narrower, the back has more shape? I’m not sure what it is about my dressforms that’s off, but there is definitely something. I don’t have any “professional” forms, like Wolf. I like the adjustability (even though, to get an accurate depiction of me, I’d have to use all three!)

  6. Kathleen says:

    When I say “dress forms”, I’m talking about the professional forms (consider my audience). I’m not talking about the adjustable forms used in home sewing. I haven’t assessed their sizing accuracy because they’re unsuitable for our purposes being flimsier and not well weighted. Of the four you mention, I’d think that the custom form from Germany is the best.

    There’s a whole laundry list in the ways most forms are not anatomically correct (I don’t know why they don’t make them anatomically correctly -tradition?). Where’s the hollow between the ball of the shoulder/arm and the front breast bone? There isn’t one. My biggest beef is with armholes tho. On dress forms, they have the armhole at the side of the body. Your arms are on the *front* of your body. If you don’t believe me, raise your arms above your head in their most natural position. Your armpits will be facing you front and center. If your body resembled a dress form, you’d have to turn sideways to see your armpits dead on.

  7. Steph Green says:

    Kathleen, I am right there with you in my fascination with Vionnet. Her genius was introduced to me during a draping class. After purchasing the Betty Kirke book, I was able to calculate out the scale of the Mobius dress, which I built and wore at my wedding (always, of course, giving credit to the master who designed it)! I updated the design by building a bra in above the lower skirt (needed some coverage under the sash ;D). I’ll have to send you pictures; I feel that I may be wrapping the upper mobius section incorrectly, though the manner in which I did so still manages to look fantastic. Perhaps you can offer some advice on proper wrapping. Mind-boggling, yes, at times….though studying her work is absolutely inspiring and I love meeting other admirers!

  8. gd lk betty says:

    I, too, disagree with the conception that draping is less efficient than drafting. They each have their pluses and minuses, but it is really a matter of what works best for the individual. My experience as an educator leads me such a conclusion. Drafting starts two dimensionally. Some people “get it”, and have an innate sense of how that two dimensional flat will look wrapped around a body. But for really great fit, lots of measurements must be made, a muslin prepared to fit and correct, and then a pattern re-drafted. Alternately, some people are more 3 dimensional thinkers or simply more tactile, and get better, more accurate results by starting with a muslin on a body. Really good drapers don’t have to continually fit and re-fit, often having a perfect pattern after the first drape. Efficiency will come for the draper or drafter by determining what they’re naturally best at and then refining those skills.

  9. Kathleen says:

    Saying drafting is more efficient is not an edict pronouncing drafting to be better. I am talking about efficiency. Let’s assume we have a perfect example of two workers. One excels at drafting and the other excels at draping. Let us further assume each worker gets a perfect result on their first draft or drape.

    In absolute terms of comparison, the drafter will have a completed production ready pattern before the draper. Here’s the idealized work path for each:

    Pattern drafter:

    1. Draft pattern.
    2. Cut a prototype.
    3. Fit and approve it.
    4. Cut the production pattern.


    1. Drape the style.
    2. Make a pattern from the drape.
    3. Cut a prototype.
    4. Fit and approve it.
    5. Cut the production pattern.

    There is one extra step under draping, this is why it is less efficient. When I say that draping is less efficient, I am not saying draping is bad or inferior to drafting, I am merely stating a fact. Or you tell me, can you cut out one of those steps under draping so it ends up even?

    By the same token, drafting is not an inferior result as compared to draping either. Just because one prefers draping or cannot draft well, does NOT mean that a drafter cannot get the same results or better than the draper. Also, just one cannot draft as well to get the same result they do with draping, does not mean that drafters can’t or that their work is not as good as the draper. I can’t run a six minute mile but that doesn’t mean no one can. Someone who runs a six minute mile is more efficient at getting from point A to B than I am.

    Now, if on an individual basis one is more efficient as a draper because they can’t draft as well and would have to do however many iterations, then that is another story -but one must realize that is a skills deficit. You do what you have to do with the skills you have (like Vionnet, the whole point of this entry) but it is patently untrue to say draping is just as “efficient” in absolute terms when one has to take an extra step to compensate for their skills deficit.

    I stand by this: just because it is easier and faster for you or people you know to drape or to drape certain things, does not mean that everyone needs to drape to get a great result. Many do not need to. In absolute terms, draping is less efficient.

    • Alison Cummins says:

      Kathleen, If you’re doing one-offs draping might be more efficient.

      Pattern drafter:
      1. Draft pattern.
      2. Cut a fitting sample.
      3. Fit and approve it.
      4. Make the final garment from the pattern as drafted.

      1. Drape the style.
      2. Make a pattern from the drape. [Perhaps literally, using the muslin as the pattern.]
      3. Make the final garment from the pattern.

      It depends on your goals. For production you would want to draft.

      Still… might there be some elements of « draping » used in drafting patterns, at least for a new client? If they give you a shirt that fits how they like but with various design changes, isn’t that shirt serving a similar purpose to a drape?

      • If I make a one-off, it is something I need immediately and will draft on the fabric. These items are usually utilitarian and even so, I usually open my program and rough it out for dimensions and transfer those to cloth.

        If a customer wants a knock off of the fit for a treasured item, I do a rub off.

        I reiterate that some people draft well enough that they don’t need to drape. Perhaps that skill is an increasing rarity but it did not used to be unusual.

      • Alison Cummins says:

        If Deerskin does a one-off it’s a costume, not a utility item. Drafting directly on the final fabric might not always be appropriate.

        Yes, I believe that a skilled patternmaker never needs to drape and that in a production environment-where the production pattern is critical-drafting is always a more efficient process.

  10. Jess Radford says:

    Hi Kathleen, just going through the archives after reading your book and my head is about to explode from trying to absorb information, lol.
    I’m so glad I hit on this entry, I have the Betty Kirke book and while I treasure it and have found it inspirational for design, I’ve always been to scared to try any of the drafts as they are so beyond my understanding.
    I had a ‘duh’ moment reading this post, that of course that’s why I need to try them! I really want to improve my bias drafting skills and here I am with a master of bias sitting on my bookshelf.
    So thank-you :)

  11. Lisa Brazus says:

    Kathleen you look great in the dress! And you say you are not fashionable bah! I would love to try your pattern puzzles but at the moment I am dealing with a flooded basement.

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