Saran wrap pattern making method #1

Way back when -seems like forever ago- I wrote a version of this article for my friend Robbie Fanning, then editor of the Creative Machine Newsletter. The Creative Machine was geared toward sewing enthusiasts and this particular article was published in the summer issue of 1999. Anyway, Robbie went on to do bigger and better things and her newsletter was acquired by Threads magazine. In the meantime, it seems interest in this old article has continued -let me tell you it was funny to lurk on sewing forums reading postings about it- but it is currently unavailable to people who’d like to read it. Accordingly, I was contacted by Liana Sandin who asked if I were willing to reprint the article and this series is the result. I’d like to thank Liana who went to the extensive work of re-typing the article as I couldn’t find my copy- not on this hard drive anyway. So here is the article with some new edits. If you find it useful, please direct your thanks to Liana who prompted its re-publishing and did most of the hard work. By the way, if any of you have other past articles I’ve written that you’d like for me to reprint here, just let me know. As ever, donations are welcome.

Before I start I should mention this article will not teach you how to draft patterns per se; you’ll still need to buy a book or take a class. If you’d like a recommendation, I like Jack Handford’s Professional Patternmaking for Designers: Women’s Wear and Men’s Casual Wear. I realize other books are prettier, better known and more expensive than this one but in the industry, this is the one that gets used. It is also simpler and not as convoluted so don’t get the idea that because we use it that it’s harder because the opposite is true. By the way, a good field test for a book is the level of complication. If an author can explain concepts succinctly, cleanly and simply, it usually means they know the material inside out. If the writing is belabored, complicated, contradictory and convoluted, this usually means the author doesn’t understand the material very well themselves. And I say that as someone who has reviewed and field tested a lot of sewing and pattern making books. Also, this article won’t teach you how to grade either. For that I recommend Handford’s Grading book -again, it’s the one we use. It’s a great book. SouthStar Supply also carries these books in addition to pattern making tools and supplies.

The next most important thing I want to stress is that this was never intended as a pattern making method at all. I was looking for a way to get an anatomically correct view of the body which I intended to use as proof that most -and I do mean most- sewing patterns are not designed to fit the human body with anatomically correct precision. I was trying to find something that people could use as a point of discovery about their own bodies. Even if you don’t get a work-able pattern from this exercise, the result will be illuminating. Hopefully, you’ll begin to experiment and trust your instincts because blindly following the pattern or some “expert’s” advice rarely produces the desired result. In my experience, home sewer’s have excellent instincts -and they’re usually correct- but they hesitate to act upon them.
Once upon a time, tailors used a fast and accurate trick to fit their customers: they’d make a replica form of each one. The method was simple. Glue strips of paper tape around the client’s body, mark the reference points (shoulder line, bust apex, etc.) and cut off the paper form. Using this paper-tape model, a basic pattern block could be made to fit each client, dramatically shortening the pattern-correcting process. Here is a picture of what the process may have looked like. This illustration is page 11 of A Tailoring Manual by Gertrude Strickland, copyright 1959 (second edition). It’s a lovely little book; better hurry, there’s only 3 copies of it on Amazon.

I’ve been trying to figure out a faster and easier way to effect the wrapping part. I tried the duct-tape method but it didn’t work for me. My then-spouse thought the object of the game was to wrap the tape as tightly as possible, as if I were a lead pipe. We ended up with little pockets of flab pouching out between tape gaps-and I also couldn’t breathe. It was hot too. I also tried the paper tape thing but it didn’t work as well for me either perhaps owing to the dry southwest climate -the paper strips dried too quickly to stick well and if they were too wet, I got cold. I am not easily dissuaded however. Next I experimented with latex rubber painted over a dry-cleaning bag (another failure) aluminum foil and masking tape (ditto) and lastly, a T-shirt soaked in watered-down plaster of Paris which I molded on my body but that didn’t work either. The last thing I tried was pallet wrap. Pallet wrap is a clear plastic used to shrink-wrap deliveries, applied with a winder or tape gun (like the tool used to apply shipping tape to a package). A similar material is the 18″-wide polyvinyl film used to wrap sandwiches, sold in boxes at warehouse stores like Costco. Realizing that not everyone has pallet wrap at their disposal, this has since been modified to Saran Wrap which works just dandy although the plastic isn’t as thick.

The two advantages of this method are that you don’t need to take any measurements in order to draft a flat-pattern block of your body, and you don’t have to construct a dress form from the wrapping.

Materials and Supplies
In addition to the pallet wrap, plastic wrap or film, you will need
A wrapping buddy
String or elastic for waist
Permanent marking pen
Tape: masking or artist’s tape -use what you have handy
Strapping tape (reinforced mailing tape) is helpful
A ruler
Also helpful are a fan, a collapsible ironing board, and a rolling chair for the person who will be wrapping you. For pattern drafting, you will need paper, pencil, pattern making tools, and a grading ruler. I don’t think grading rulers are available for purchase anymore :( . One of the delays in finishing this post was related to trying to locate a source for these. There may be something you can use as a substitute from the office supply store but I won’t know that till I go after work today. As it is, I had planned to post this entire topic today but due to these and other unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to finish it. Check back in tomorrow for the rest if the topic interests you. Oh, and if any of you will be discussing this in a forum off site, please use the comments form to post the link so that others can follow your discussion. Thanks

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  1. Liana says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. It’s definitely more detailed than the original so far, which is great! I will be pointing people to it now that it’s up, although I’ve been hinting mightily already.
    I’ve used my wrap to make patterns successfully, although as you say, it’s a wonderful way to finally get a handle on your own actual body shape. It seems to be very hard for most people to accurately “see” their own bodies, even while looking in a mirror, and this is a great tool to be able to take a step back and really “get it.” It’s especially helpful if one is more asymmetric than the average.
    Thanks again!

  2. Jenny says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest when you finish. At the moment I have Kathy Bates and Fried Green Tomatoes (the movie) on my mind. LOL!

    Just a quick question, is this wrapped over clothing or just over the undergarments? I’m guessing just the undergarments.

  3. Cinnamon says:

    I just might try this method which will help immensely with making bodices even since I’m very, very asymmetrical and the trial and error method is annoying me very quickly.

  4. Julia says:

    Kathleen, I’m looking forward to your instructions on this….I’ve had Karmen’s version for several years. I have taken the liberty of posting info and a link for this site on The Creative Machine Newsletter email list (formerly Robbie F’s list and now owned by Threads). I’ve owned a copy of your excellent book for several years – having purchased it from a friend who was downsizing her sewing/business library. Thanks for all you do!

  5. Saran wrap pattern making method #2

    Continuing from the previous entry. Before we start, the processes illustrated by photograph will be different from some of the instructions because I used a male model. I hope you appreciate this -as does he- it took some barter (a…

  6. Debbie Soles says:

    I have never understood this concept, it’s absolutely ridiculous to go to all this trouble, whether you use saran wrap (my mind images of sewists doing this are hilarious), paper, tape, whatever! If you have someone there to “wrap/tape” you, it would be much more effective to put a tape measure in their hand, rather than a roll of saran wrap. Have them accurately measure the body, transfer that to paper or cad…now that’s accurate. That’s what we do in our shop, that’s what I’ve done for years. Measure the body you sew for, become initimately aware of the body you sew for…that’s what works. If you think about it, if your “helper” can accurately “wrap/tape” you, then why can’t they accurately measure off your body??…and no one has ever passed out from using a measuring tape!:))

  7. jinjer says:

    The problem with measuring, is that witout exception those measurements are converted into usuable pattern shapes throught the magic of algorithms. All algorithms make a certain number of assumptions which may or may not be correct for your or any body. I have noticed, for example, that most algorithms that even admit your front half is not equal to your back half assume your front half is bigger all the way down. I’ve flipped through books and magazines from the 1950’s, and I think the posture* this assumption requires is singularly unattractive.

    Kathleen’s directions were not intended to give you patterns, but to help you understand the connection between the three dimensional shape of your body and the two dimensional shape of the patterns that fit it…without any assumptions.

    I personally can’t wait to do this–I’m getting a roll of pallet wrap, though, saran wrap seems annoying.

    *My peronal hypothesis is that posture determines the algorithms necessary for the conversion of 1 dimensional measurements into 2 dimensional shapes that accurately describe the 3 dimensional body (whew!). My posture might be called “swayback” by books that list “fitting problems,” but after 11 years of bellydance training, I have beautiful posture, the “problem” is in the algorithmic assumptions. My bulk is just in the back from the waist down, and in the front from the waist up.

    (Before all that training, I DID have swayback which I think is caused by the bulk-in-back overpowering the strength of the lower stomache muscles that hold it forward/up and exacerbated by the fact that when you have that posture, it’s easier to power your walk with the soaz muscles, which shorten as they strengthen from the constant exercise [remember physiology: strong muscles are short muscles] and pinch your posture even more to the back. But I digress, tee heee…)

  8. Alice says:

    RE: Saran Wrap Pattern Making #1: Was the conclusion to this article ever posted? I’m seeking explanation of the actual method.

    Thanks very much.

  9. melssa says:

    I found this article very helpful. Thanks! About the grading tools mentioned; I’ve found some drafting curves at my local artist supply shop. :)

  10. Paul Villforth says:

    Jack Handford’s Pattern Book is now about $300+ with some copies listed for $700 on Amazon. I have that but it is in storage in China. Fortunately I have the Chapter on men’s shirts and pants. I would like to find an explanation of the different shaped sleeve head you show in one of your posts.

    The comment made to you back in 2015 about the grading book being $7,000 was a gross exaggeration. I have seen it selling for as much as $500 but it is on Amazon now for $100.

    I repurchased the book you wrote so I can rejoin the forum. I am seriously considering starting my own shirt line and manufacturing facility.

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