How To Make A Custom Dress Form: Part Two


Having a custom dress form that matches your body shape is a boon to any home sewer. Especially any home sewer who’d like to more precisely alter commercial patterns, or venture into pattern-drafting and draping. The problem? Cash money.

This is the second in a two-part series on the insanely daunting and complicated task of making a dress form. For the first half of the how-to rigamarole, go here.

Making one from a commercial custom dress form kit is nearly as expensive as buying one of those featureless, and very overpriced, Wolf forms. Alternatives like duct-tape dress forms and paper-tape dress forms lack for exactness and have an annoying tendency to melt and lose their shape over time. (And pinning into duct-tape results in gummy pins.) The good news is, you can make the best kind of custom dress form out of durable, light-weight, waterproof, closed-cell insulation foam, injection-molded from a custom plaster cast of your body. You can pin into this kind of form, you can drape on it, and you can leave it in the sun all you want without risking its shape. I made the form pictured above in two weekends for about $95 worth of materials. Last week, I showed you how to make the plaster cast. This week, it’s time to get molding.

As I mentioned last week, here are all the things we’re going to need to complete Dress Form Phase Two, Electric Boogaloo (A.K.A. the molding phase): One, the plaster mold. Two, a drop cloth. Three, rubber gloves. Four, a mask and protective goggles. Five, 5-6 cans of expanding, closed-cell insulation foam. (I used something called “Great Stuff Big Gap Filler.” It was at Home Depot.) Six, some WD-40 or other mold lubricant. Seven, a putty knife. Eight: A hacksaw and extra blades. Nine, not pictured: Approximately 1.5 yards of light-colored fabric, such as medium-weight canvas (a smidgeon of Lycra helps). Ten, not pictured: A sturdy needle and some heavy, non-stretch thread (I used the linen thread that I also use for bookbinding and leather work). Eleven, not pictured: a hot-glue gun and extra sticks of glue. Twelve, not pictured: A base with wheels (I used an IV pole).

>I would love to say I came up with the idea of using an IV pole for a dress form base myself, but I’m pretty sure I read it on one of the body-casting and sewing forums where I’ve been lurking for, oh, about the past six years. (This has been a project long in the making.) My stand cost $28.99 but has since gone on sale for $22.99. ( can eat a bag of dicks.) It arrived in a long, narrow cardboard box, and I assembled it in a few minutes.

Using the tiny wrench that came with the kit! Isn’t it cute? I was pleased to note that the pole was extremely sturdy, with quality castor wheels and a nice, thick tempered steel pole and cross-bar. Since the base and the form are going to be fused together for life, you definitely want a base worthy of supporting your body double.

One thing which was bad: the adjustment knob on the IV stand was too high for my form. The knob would have to be covered in foam, and my resulting form could not, as I had hoped, be adjustable in height. I had to find the right height — I made her about three inches taller than I am, to facilitate the hemming of imaginary future floor-length evening gowns. After I’d locked in the pole at that height, I placed my form over it. The cross-bar nestled nicely in my form’s shoulders.

Working over the drop-cloth, lay the form on its back to fill it with foam. To get clearance for the form’s base, I used cardboard boxes and stacks of plastic-bagged books to support my form. You could also unscrew the base from the pole and just rest the thing on the ground, with maybe a couple books to keep it level.

From cardboard or other similar material, cut three disks. Two will go on the arm holes, and one will go on the neck hole, to prevent foam spillage. Cut lengths of thread, in preparation to tie the cardboard in place once you’ve filled the upper torso with foam.

Now comes the fun part! Suit up in your protective goggles and mask, wear old clothes, and pull on your rubber gloves. I cannot explain why I have one yellow glove and one orange glove; strange things happen in my tool closet.

Spray the inside of the mold with WD-40, or the mold lubricant of your choice. Spray it thoroughly.

Attach the nozzle provided to the first can of foam, and spray away. I worked from the upper torso on down. This stuff continues to expand over the eight hours it takes to cure, so be careful not to over-fill your mold. I found it useful to spray the foam in successive layers, allowing each to cure somewhat before adding the next.

To be on the safe side, I let the thing cure for 24 hours. Then I snipped the whip-stitches holding the front of the mold to the back.

With your protective goggles and mask on, because of the dust, peel off the plaster mold. Despite the preventive measures taken — the sealing of the mold with varnish, and the WD-40 — some parts will inevitably stick; you may need to use the hacksaw to cut off stubborn bits of plaster.

This part results in a large messy pile of used plaster mold parts, and if you do not clean it up promptly, your dirt-loving cat may decide to nap in it.

I found that I had in fact over-filled part of the mold — the middle of my torso. The force of the expanding foam had even cracked my plaster, and because the mold had been lying on its back while it cured, the form had developed a misshapen back. That was obviously not ideal.

Which is why, after removing all of the plaster, my form looked a little bit lumpen around the small of my back. And the force of the expanding foam had pulled the sides of my waist sharply inwards, giving the form an exaggerated wasp-waisted look I do not in fact possess. What to do?

This was a problem for the hacksaw! Referring to my own body measurements, I sliced off extraneous bits of foam until I lost that hump-backed look. Reserve the shaved off pieces of foam.

Equally unfortunately, the IV pole cross-bar had, during the curing, migrated from my shoulders to my, um, pectorals. Which meant the form had these protruding steel bolts, Frankenpec style. I sawed them off.

Which is why you always want to spring for the extra blades.

Now, using the hot-glue gun and the reserved pieces of foam, build up the form in any areas it needs — I concentrated on widening my waist, and I applied two small pieces of foam over the sawed-off ends of steel to cover them. I worked largely intuitively — I have a pretty good sense of what my body looks like, where it’s wide, where it’s flat, and where it’s round — but also referred to measurements. When I was done with these small adjustments, my form looked like this.

Now it’s time to make the form’s cover. The cover is going to have shoulder princess seams and two-part raglan sleeves. As I said, I used a medium-weight canvas with a bit of stretch. Cut eight pieces to start with: two center front pieces, two center back pieces, and princess-seamed front and back side pieces. I draped the canvas directly on the mounted foam form to cut this pattern.

I gave myself nice, wide seam allowances. Don’t bother finishing the edges.

Working from the center front around, after each seam has been sewn, pin the cover to the form and check the accuracy of the fit. Adjust as needed. We’re going to do this seam by seam: sew, press, pin, adjust, sew, press, fit. Until we’re done. Do not machine sew the center back seam — leave it open for now.

Obviously, you’ll want to press open your seams and iron the cover to keep things smooth; wrinkles in a dress form are bad news.

When you’re satisfied with the fit of the cover, pin the whole thing onto the form securely. Working directly on the form and using scrap fabric, pin out two pattern pieces for the raglan sleeves.

Trim the princess-seamed torso part of the cover so that it’s even and points straight up to the neck. Sew the raglan sleeves, attach them to the torso part of the cover, and press the seams open. Pin it to the form again to check the fit.

When you’re satisfied that everything about this cover is a precise fit, pin together the two center back panels. Thread the needle, and with small whip-stitches, close up the back. (Alternatively, if you wanted to make your cover washable, you could attach a two-way zipper on the center back. I decided against it because I didn’t want the zipper to affect my future draping; I wanted a smooth dress form.) Now your cover is attached to your foam double. We’re almost done. (Pour a drink if you want. I always recommend drinking while building things.)

Pull the hem of the raglan sleeve caps down onto the underside of the arms, and pin. Cut a piece of scrap fabric roughly to size, and pin it over the raw edges of the sleeve and underarm seams. Whip-stitch in place.

Turn your form upside down and pin the hem of the covering onto the bottom. Then, using a long piece of thread, sew side-to-side and back-and-forth across the bottom of the form, pulling the fabric cover in tightly. You could, if you are the kind of person who regularly uses, say, hand-made bias tape to finish interior seams that are going to be hidden from view with a lining, you could use scrap canvas to make a bottom cover for your form, like a tree-skirt but upside-down. I am not that kind of person, so I left mine looking like this.

Our last step is to use a small oval scrap to cover the neck hole. Pin in place and whip-stitch. You know the score by now.

And…ta-da! One handsome, professional-looking and fully customized dress form. Finally, a way to present everyone who visits my living room with visual evidence of my scoliosis and unusually long waist! The foam is basically indestructible, but squishy. The canvas cover fits snugly. The shape and measurements are entirely my own. I now have no excuse but to get to work on the towering stack of beautiful fabrics I’ve pack-ratted away at going-out-of-business sales, second-hand stores, and jumble sales the world over.

Because I was proud of my form, and because I was still kind of in awe that the whole process actually worked, I put my best-fitting handmade dress — pretty much the only thing I’ve ever bothered to make a muslin for, the pattern for which I drafted from scratch and laboriously fitted one Iowan winter by pinning the pieces to my long underwear in order to make the necessary adjustments — on my new dress form. What do you know, it fits her just like it fits me. I therefore judge that a custom dress form is a most awesome addition to the sewing life. Go on and make one already.

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