Tailoring – A Casual Approach

A good friend of mine entered one of her antique dolls in the UFDC competition several years ago. The doll was wearing a dress my friend made. I don’t know if she was happiest that she won a blue ribbon or that the judges thought that the dress was original to the doll.

That is the goal, isn’t it, to create new garments that look like they were made 150 years ago, but are in mint condition. 

Other than fabric and trim choice, poor fit is one of the best ways to spot a reproduction outfit on an antique doll. If you want the garments you make for your dolls to appear original, they must fit beautifully.

You have to alter your patterns. There is no such thing as a perfectly fitting pattern for an antique doll. If you make a costume from a commercial pattern for your antique doll, especially a fitted garment, and it actually fits the doll, you just won the lottery.

When I was making antique reproduction dolls to sell, I used new composition bodies and could reuse my pattern pieces for multiple dolls because the bodies were all the same. I think this is why the new, reproduction Huret dolls are so popular. You can just buy a pattern, cut and sew. 

But with antique dolls, even dolls that are the same size and made from the same material, the bodies and limbs can vary greatly. 

Then take into account different body materials (composition vs. kid vs. cloth vs. wood bodies) and the difference can be drastic. Patterns for dolls are usually sold by the height of the doll.  My FG* and Jumeau are nearly the same height, but the same pattern would not work for both.

For beginning seamstresses, this can be so very challenging and can stop them from even trying. I know I was frustrated (and a little indignant) when making my first antique doll costumes that I couldn’t just cut out a pattern and sew them. Okay, so maybe I was a lot indignant. But I just had to get over it.

The internet is a wonderful tool for researching costume history. But looking at the the garments others have made for their dolls and how fast they seem to make them can be very intimidating. Self-doubt sucks. It can literally suck the inspiration and motivation right out of you.

Then there’s the snobbery. When checking out a lovely doll outfit recently on Facebook, I was put off by how the person who made it explained, with much self satisfaction, how intricate and difficult it was to fit the garment on the doll. Phooey! Yes, it’s sometimes challenging to get it right, but don’t let the self-congratulators scare you.

I do believe that some people make this much harder than it needs to be. Don’t let them intimidate you. It doesn’t have to be difficult to achieve a good fit. 

Some pieces, especially basic undergarments, aren’t meant to fit exactly. If you are making a slip or gathered skirt, you just measure and multiply or divide. (See Beginning Hand Sewing for Dolls Part 2.) If you’re making undies that will gather at the waist, you can make them a little larger and adjust the size with the gathers. Just make sure they fit over the hips and the leg openings are wide enough to go around the legs.

Books usually recommend making a test garment, a “muslin” or “toile”, out of an inexpensive fabric before cutting into the pricey, final fabric.  I’ve always thought, “that’s a good idea”, but I’ve never done it. I’m too lazy for that. And I know I wouldn’t want to discard the muslin after all that work. 

A lot of doll costumers swear by Bounty paper towels to make their patterns. Yes, they specify Bounty. I’m not sure why. But I find the paper towels to be too flimsy and the texture makes it hard to mark the lines. With my new 29” Lily Auguste, paper towels are a bit dainty. 

I make my patterns out of Pelon Tru-Grid. It’s an inexpensive, non-woven fabric with a 1” grid printed on it. Don’t trust the grid unless you measure it first. It becomes easily distorted with handling. But the material itself is pliable enough to pin the pattern pieces onto your doll to get a rough fit.  It’s easy to mark and it’s strong enough for multiple uses.

Pin the pattern onto your doll by pinning on the seam allowance. For example, if you will be sewing 1/4” seams, pin 1/4” from the edge. 

It is always easier to make adjustments to the pattern than to the garment itself. 

If, after fitting your pattern, you need to move a line in, perhaps to widen an armhole or open up a neckline, it’s easy to trim away a bit of the Tru-Grid and fit again. Just remember that you must take your seam allowances into account when determining how much to take away. If you need to add width or length to the pattern, tape on a patch and remark the lines. 

So far, this method works for me most of the time. I try to err on the side of “too big” or “too long” and make adjustments as I sew. This is especially important when using a heavier, denser fabric. 

If the garment is too loose after I sew it, I just sew another seam line outside the first one, refit it, then trim away or unpick the original seam. If it is too long, I trim away some fabric or make a deeper hem. 

If the garment is too small, that requires a bit more creativity. You can make smaller seams, add trim or a ruffle to an opening or hem line or add a panel to each side seam. You can recut just the tight piece(s) if you have enough fabric. With smaller dolls, this usually isn’t a problem. I have occasionally had to start over, but only as a last resort. That’s when I learned to make my patterns too big.

So now you have the basics of pattern alteration for antique dolls. It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that. Be patient with yourself and remember that you’re doing this for you. Perfection is both unattainable and boring. 

But what do you do if you don’t have a pattern from which to start?

I’ll tackle starting from a photo, finding inspiration, and doing some fancy geometry to make LA’s bodice next time. 

*No, my block-letter FG doesn’t have a new dress yet. I did finish her underwear, though.


Tailoring – A Casual Approach — 11 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this – very ‘encouraging’. I’ve been putting off sewing for a new doll I haven’t sewn for, before. I subscribed to continue my learning. Thanks!

  2. Great advice. Have dressed a lot of dolls but just finished my first reproduction. Trial runs first lots of practice. I’m happy with my outcome. Lots to learn. Lots to fine tune. About to start no. 2 this weekend. Thanks for your advice

  3. Fantastic post, I’ve just found you blog and an new to sewing for antique dolls and have been finding it difficult. I’ve actually now had a 12″ reproduction doll made so I can practise making clothes for her before moving onto my antique dolls.

  4. I don’t have many antique bisque dolls, the ones I do have are miniature four inches high and I crochet their dresses.
    I can’t wait to start on machine sewing dresses for my 22 inch 1950 s HP Walker Dolls, thanks for the tips they are very encouraging!

  5. I never thought about using Pelon, I agree paper towels are too fuzzy! Hi to you and your other half. Missed you at convention this year, I was too sick with pneumonia to socialize! Maybe, you weren’t even there, but I always think about you two!

    • Hi Karen, We haven’t been to convention in a few years. Pneumonia sucks. Hope you’re well now.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with you sewing and fitting philosophy. Neither muslins nor Bounty for me just some non fusible interfacing. I also “frankenstein” a lot of my patterns, I use a sleeve from one pattern the bodice from another to get the look I need.