Saturday, March 16, 2013

Getting the most out of your material

Thank you, everyone, for all your encouraging words and support for my recent posts on plus-size lining fitting. I'm incredibly thrilled that you have found it helpful, and I'm grateful for all the bits of wisdom you've given!

Whether you're using your lining as a pattern or not, at some point, you'll obviously need to lay the pattern out on your dress material. Over the years, I've tried out a number of layout methods with very mixed results. There are a lot of variables, including the width of the material, whether it is directional, if there is equal stretch both with and across the grain, and, of course, how many yards of it there are. There are also variables that come with the dress pieces themselves. How wide are your pieces? Do you want separate gores? How long do you want the skirt? What kind of sleeves do you want?

When I got to laying my lining pieces out on the orange 100% linen I planned to use, I came face to face with this topic. When I measured out the piece I had of the tabby-woven material, I discovered that I had barely 4 yards (143", to be exact) at only 55" wide. There is no give with the grain, while across the grain it is fairly elastic. This is pretty typical of most tabby-woven fabrics, which is why being 'on-grain' is such an important element of successful dress making. It is non-directional, since it is a solid color, and the finish is the same on both sides. For my larger frame, this piece just barely cuts it for a long sleeve kirtle. I don't normally order 4 yards of fabric less than 60" wide, but this piece came from somewhere else, and since it's such a lovely color, I don't want to pass it up. It will allow me to recreate this outfit fairly faithfully:

Arsenal MS 5070 reserve, The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1432, fol. 164v.
Whenever I'm calculating yardage, I over-estimate all my measurements and make sure I'm including seam allowances. I give myself 60" for the height of my main panels as an absolute minimum, 16" for the width of each panel, and this time around, with longer gores than I've done in the past, 42" for gore height. I recently decided that a calculation of twice my bust, divided by 4, was a good gore base width calculation to get a minimum ideal. For me that comes out to about 28" for a full gore base. A 28"x21" block will be enough for a single sleeve.

I like a piece 56" wide and 4.5 yards long. Pushing my panels to the corners, that leaves me plenty of room to get full gores at 35" wide, and plenty of room for regular long sleeves. I don't get long skirts this way, but I do have a bit of wiggle room, which is always nice to have. It also leaves me good pieces for finishing the sorts of random embroidery projects I do. Here's what that layout might look like:

If that 4.5 yard piece was 60" wide, by comparison, I'd have enough to create a fitted dress with sleeves that included a flap off the elbow (blocked out at 24"x36"), but I'd sacrifice some of the fullness in the skirt to do that, with gores at 30" wide, as well as any extra length in the skirt:

If, however, I had a 60" wide piece that was only 4 yards long, I could do simple sleeves with cuffs that drape over the hand, but I would loose fullness in my skirt (with gores at the minimum 28"), as well as any room to length it. I would, though, be able to get a tunic for my 1 year old out of the remaining pieces. The layout might look like this:

What if I had a piece with a 56" width, but with an ample 5 yards? I would have length to create long streamer sleeves that are typical of higher class fitted gowns in the early 15th century. That sort of yardage would also allow me to make a longer, fuller skirt, with gores 38" wide. It would certainly be an ideal amount. I'd lay it out like this, with panels at 64" long and gores at 44":

Let's say, however, that I was interested in doing a full houppelande. In the early 15th century, houppelandes were not incredibly full across the shoulders and chest (the iconic pleating came into fashion around 1430), but they did cover the full length of the body pretty much from chin to floor, usually with very full sleeves.

BnF MS French 598, De claris mulieribus, by Giovanni Boccaccio, circa 1403, fol. 155v.
Cutting my panels as trapezoidal blocks with extra length for the skirt, my block would be 64" long, with a top of 21" and a base of 39". Leaving myself two full yards of full widths for the sleeves, using a collar block of 8"x15", and including a pair of gores at 40" wide each to really fill out the skirt, I would need 6 and 3/4 yards of 60" wide, non-directional material:

But I don't have any of that. I have a pretty dinky piece of fabric 55" by not quite 4 yards long. Since I have to stuff my gores in between my panels, they can only be 22" wide- less than my ideal. I also don't really have the option of lengthening the skirt, so it will barely graze the floor. My sleeves won't have any extra room, so nothing fancy is possible there. I will be left, however, with some pieces that might be barely enough for something cute for my baby boy:

As you review these layouts, be aware that my proportions are considered to be both plus-sized and petite (in the US at least). If you are differently proportioned, your fabric needs will be different. You may be able to get all four of your panels out of a single row of 60" wide. Or if you're taller than 5'5" or don't have short legs, you might need more yardage, regardless of width.

Theses are also not definitive layouts. In the course of putting these together, I came up with several permutations, each resulting in a slightly different finished dress style. I suggest getting your "block" measurements figured out and creating little scale cut outs that you can move around on a scaled block that represents your material. I did all that on the computer, but you can do it old-school if you don't have software that will do the sort of thing. Play around with cutting full gores versus half gores, and see what happens when you put everything together as close as possible. I try to use the edges as much as possible, so my layouts tend to be symmetrical, but sometimes that isn't the best layout method. The ideas here are meant more to get a visual of the major differences that different fabric widths and yardages can have on your layout. What you ultimately do, obviously, can't be accounted for here.

When you're shopping for material, make sure you get swatches, at least until you're familiar with the nature of the fabric you can get from that particular seller. I like to get swatches for color, even if I'm familiar with the fabric itself. When you get your swatch, tug on it, hold it under lots of different lights, and look at both sides from all angles. All these elements will determine your layout restrictions. Get an idea of whether the fabric will act differently across the grain than along it. If not, and if it's at least as wide as the height of your panel block, snatch that fabric up a fast as you can! In my case it would need to be at least 60" wide, so with 30" wide gores, that layout might look like this on only 3.5 yards:

Buying enough fabric to get a beautifully sized dress can be costly. It's important to weigh your layout against the cost of the material so you can get the best value. If I'm particularly in love with a certain material, I like to have enough left over for the kids, but I also don't want to break the bank. If it costs too much to get enough for that extra piece of garb, I'd rather try to limit my waste.

Waste certainly isn't a problem I'll have with my puny piece of orange linen.


  1. I don't know if you thought of it, but you could piece it a little. It's period to do so and might give you the extra length or more movement in the sleeve.

    Can't wait to see the finished piece!


    1. Oh, yes, certainly. Thanks for bringing that up. There's plenty of evidence for piecing, and in a case where you really have too little fabric, piecing is your only salvation (without resorting to adding a second fabric). That's a whole topic all on its own! In my case, with my barely-enough linen, I don't need to go that route, but if I did want more length, I could easily cut the leftover pieces into strips and add them to the bottom of my skirt for that extra inch.