Pattern making, as we know it, originated in Europe in the medieval period, when tailors began cutting pieces of fabric to be shaped for the anatomical contours of the body. The tailoring method of cutting garments – i.e., starting from flat, shaped pieces – has been developed in Europe over the last 500 years. Tailoring and fit, as we know them today, developed gradually. The tape measure was introduced in the beginning of the 19th century (Waugh, 1964:130), and with it, various drafting systems were developed, as were theories of how to reproduce known styles to fit different body types.
The tape measure was introduced in the beginning of the 19th century, and with it, various drafting systems were developed
In 1863, parallel to the shift towards mass-production, German mathematician Dr. H. Wampen published Mathematical Instructions in Constructing Models for Draping the Human Figure, which outlined a scientific system for drafting and introduced principles for grading. Beginning with studies of proportions of the Greek statues, Wampen – in collaboration with his tailor – developed his influential system of general human proportions of height and breadth (vertical and horizontal measurements) to be taken into consideration when drafting patterns (Waugh, 1964:131).
Western tailoring has had a huge impact on dressmaking worldwide, and the near-universally dominant flat-pattern cutting methods taught today are derived from it.
Western tailoring has had a huge impact on dressmaking worldwide, and the near-universally dominant flat-pattern cutting methods taught today are derived from it. The pattern of a tailored sleeve depicts the shape of an arm, and a front body piece depicts the shape of a chest.
Rather than working solely with the fabric and the body, the focus of the cutter shifted towards the pattern. Consequently, the introduction of the pattern established a form of notation which allowed ways of cutting to be documented, in turn making it possible for knowledge to be shared and spread in trade journals, etc. Craftsmen learned to envision the body while shaping the patterns with which they were working, and “a sound knowledge of the human form” became a requirement for the experienced cutter (Hulme, 1945:23).
it became possible to work with an abstraction of the body – a template – and by altering the pattern, new variations of garments could be created.
Hence, it became possible to work with an abstraction of the body – a template – and by altering the pattern, new variations of garments could be created. This allowed for new possibilities and refinements in cutting, but also introduced an aspect of alienation to the work – a risk that the awareness of the body became lost in the act of cutting, since there was less need for the body to be physically present.
Drafting a flat pattern in the absence of the body of the intended wearer demands high accuracy in terms of drafting methods. There exist numerous mathematical systems based on vertical and horizontal measurements of the body that assist in drafting a foundational pattern that may then be transformed into any kind of garment. These measurements are generally taken from a person who is standing still, in an upright position, as Simoes (2012) notes and examines; consequently, the spatially moving body is abstracted into a series of fixed numbers, and from these, a diagram of guidelines is drawn on a flat surface, and pattern pieces are drafted within this tailoring matrix.
the spatially moving body is abstracted into a series of fixed numbers, and from these, a diagram of guidelines is drawn on a flat surface, and pattern pieces are drafted within this tailoring matrix.
It is a process for repeating specific styles or yielding a block pattern, as accurately as possible, in relation to the body measured – simply “a ‘join the dots’ form of drawing” (Campbell, 2010:352). The order of work normally follows that order of taking measurements; for example, the centre back neck is a common starting point for both measuring the body and drafting patterns, which is logical, as it is the initial point of balance for garments resting on the shoulders. Measurements are typically taken of chest width, waist width, seat width, shoulder width, length of the front and back, and the width and length of the arms.
Some systems generate a basic block that adheres to the shape of the body – i.e., a representation of the body – which is then altered into specific styles (cf. Aldrich, 2008), while other systems are designed for the drafting of patterns of pre-defined garments (cf. Doyle, 2005; Friendship, 2008). The general character of these systems is not experimental, though they embody the developed understanding of everyday work in the cutting room. They are a mathematical extraction of a spatial knowledge that is systematized so that it is reproducible and can be shared.
Drafting systems that incorporate vertical and horizontal lines, connected at right angles in this manner, imply a certain quantitative approximation of the body, which has little to do with how the body interacts with the fabric, but which is easy to communicate with precision, facilitates reproduction of patterns and styles, and is thus widely spread because of its practical applications.
This grid of straight lines applied to the body may thus be understood as the theoretical framework for the construction of the vast majority of contemporary garments.
This grid of straight lines applied to the body may thus be understood as the theoretical framework for the construction of the vast majority of contemporary garments. The same type of matrix is often applied on the dress-stand to be used as a foundation while draping, and these applied lines on the dress-stands insinuate that contemporary draping as described by Duburg (2008) is based on the same theory for understanding the body as the one used in flat construction. Thus, despite the fact that working in two dimensions on the table or in three dimensions on the dress-stand is often considered to be two different methods for garment construction, the methods are arguably based on the same theoretical framework or paradigm (see Section 2.4).
It is clear that when measuring the body and drafting a basic pattern to represent the body according to the measurements taken, a predisposed template for the notion of fit is created. This seems to fuel a perception that a well-fitted garment is one that accords to the shape of the wearer’s body, creating a minimal number of creases while nonetheless allowing the body to move about comfortably. This understanding of fit is arguably one-dimensional and debatable, as it places little emphasis on the living body and its expressional and biomechanical qualities and demands.
However, the tailoring matrix and the manner of cutting from block patterns based on the body’s static upright position – is disputed, and several improvements of it have been suggested. Wang (2011) and Simoes (2012) both present alternative ways of constructing foundational patterns based on different studies of bodies in motion: Wang, by altering tight-fitted blocks after studies of runners in motion, and Simoes, by tracing distorted forms of tight-fitted costumes with plastic qualities that are worn by eleven different women. Both methods are intended to better support the biomechanical functions of the body, and though they question the prevalent approximation of the body, they are both still developments within this theory of garment construction.
The block pattern tradition encapsulates the shape of the body and transforms it into basic pattern blocks. Hence, the body is abstracted – taken apart and turned into flat, graspable parts such as the top front, top back, the sleeve, etc. These parts are then joined to create a layer that shapes to the body like a second skin, and this layer is constructed with varying volume or ease, depending on whether the cutter is aiming for a tightly or loosely fitted garment.
Methods of altering basic block patterns into various garment types have been explained and clarified in various ways (cf. Aldrich, 2008; Fisher, 2009). Such instructions can be useful in developing variations of already existing designs and in understanding and altering patterns of various garments.
If we consider fashion design as an act of further developing new bodily expressions – i.e., inventing new types of garments – the techniques and methods for altering flat patterns may be a productive, practical way of developing shapes and expressions. As Nakamichi (2005) and Sato (2011) illustrate, it can even be used as a method of finding and developing radically new shapes. However, it is questionable, from two points of view, to propose this as the principal working method for the construction of garments.
The first one regards the physical or biomechanical functions of the human body. As Burnham (1997) discusses, the body is a moving variable which constantly shifts its physical appearance. It is a changeable, varying, and by all means inconstant variable, and then as the alterations and transformations of the block patterns are removed from the living body on an abstract level, the result may be that of rigid, static creations that are not made for a living, moving body, but for a static one.
The second point of view that questions block pattern manipulation as a cutting method arguably has to do with its tendency to cause users to repeatedly attempt to reinvent the wheel. In the current stage of fashion industry, with wide access to numerous types of well-cut garments, it is notable that, while constructing classic garment types, the emphasis in education and industry is still focused on altering basic block patterns. Reverse engineering, or knock-offs – i.e., extracting the pattern from an already existing garment – is, if one is equipped with a tracing wheel, paper, and pencil, a simple task for most garments. There is no need to unpick the garment, and in merely a couple of hours, a pattern is created that can be used to make further adjustments or for new prototyping.
Copying earlier masters or contemporary competitors is an excellent way to learn and find one’s own artistic voice. Such works may become the foundation for development, deconstruction, and reconstruction. The ability to distinguish the potential of new developments from an existing piece of work – whether it is historical, one’s own work, or someone else’s creation – is arguably a key skill for a fashion designer. Using block pattern transformation to recreate historical or contemporary designs may be seen as an easy and efficient way of working, but potentially also a methodologically discrepant one. If the copying process is not performed well, but, rather, filtered through, say, basic block patterns, the actual essence of a garment – i.e., how the garment interacts with and changes the expression of the body – might be lost, transferring details rather than shapes. The work of the designer would then be comparable to that of the stylist (i.e., moving known parameters around), instead of focusing on possible developments of shape and bodily expression.