Mannequins, and is it worth owning one?

An object synonymous with sewing our own clothes, or a typical sight in a fashion atelier, is the mannequin. A dress form, dress stand, tailor’s dummy, call it what you will, it is a representation of a human form frequently in an idealised way and often without any of our bodily idiosyncrasies.

They are used for fitting and draping, for working out tricky styling or seam lines, for planning, frequently for sticking pins into, or they can stand silent in the corner of the room under-used and gathering dust.

Mannequins aren’t a new idea, they have been used for a long time to assist in the display or manufacture of clothing, as these antique examples will testify. In a domestic setting women had to make their own, or their families, clothes so the dress stand was a familiar sight in the home.
The British-based company Kennett and Lindsell was established in 1877 and are based in Romford, England. They still supply the fashion industry and colleges with high quality dress stands, and will recondition old models too. The body is glass-fibre polyester with a layer of padding and finally encased in linen fabric. A useful attribute this level of product can have are collapsible shoulders, they push in to allow very form-fitting garments to slip on over the shoulders, and then they spring back out into position again.

The Parisian company Stockman was established in 1867 and still supply the French couture and fashion industries with their own version of the mannequin, this time being a papier mache base with padding and cotton fabric over the top.

I’m fortunate to own two dress stands, although I didn’t set out to have two! My Mum bought my first stand for me when I was studying for my A levels at school and I kept this mannequin for decades! I padded her out and encased the padding with an old T-shirt which I sewed onto her tightly to try and achieve a smooth outline. I carried on with her like that until the poor thing was falling apart from the inside-it was only the T-shirt holding her together in the end! (She had one last outing before heading to the dump when I used her as the base for a ‘Christmas tree’ at a Christmas tree festival at our local church) )
Doris as a Christmas Tree!

Once you start looking you will see there are lots of options for the home sewer when it comes to mannequins and it really boils down to how much you have to spend.

For this article I’ve researched some of the options for you, believe me when I say it’s a bit of a rabbit hole! I’ll give you some idea about each of them beginning with my own purchase of an adjustable stand.

I opted to buy another adjustable mannequin from Adjustoform here in the UK, there are probably similar products worldwide too. Rather than me repeating particulars here I suggest you take a look at the company website because they had loads of useful and helpful information there including what size to pick, how to adjust it successfully and how to pad it to meet your own particular measurements.
There is no benefit in vanity when it comes to padding the mannequin, if it is to be any use to you then it must have all of your figure traits whether you’re happy about them or not. First take your measurements accurately (or get someone to take them for you) and adjust the mannequin using the dials. You could also get someone to take a few photos of you wearing something close-fitting so that it’s clear if you have one shoulder higher than the other, asymmetrical breasts, or a magnificent booty!

I used a bra I didn’t wear much and, as you can see, I also used pieces of wadding. you could use those chicken fillet ‘bust enhancers’ that might be lurking in the back of a drawer too although you can’t easily stick pins into them if you need to. While researching for this post I also saw suggestions to use dried beans, this could be useful if gravity has taken a hold of your attributes. I added extra wadding where my fatter areas around my midriff are, on the tummy and also on the butt to give shaping (I guess you could put a pair of briefs on her too and pad them if you have a particularly luscious booty!)

Finally I invested in a smooth, tight-fitting cover to go over the whole lot. This has proved to be a worthwhile investment because fabrics and half made garments slip easily over it, the original T-shirt was cotton jersey and put up a bit of a fight trying to slide things over it. (yes of course you could make your own cover but the cost was the same as buying fabric and sewing it up, without the hassle of getting the thing to fit properly) I saw a suggestion to wrap the padded-out mannequin with clingfilm so that might be another idea, although it might be a palaver if you need to make adjustments at a later date.

I should tell you that very shortly after buying my lovely new dress stand 3 years ago I won the second one in a raffle!! I had thought that I wouldn’t keep it but it’s actually been very useful when I do bridal and other alterations. She is Indoor Doris because she’s in the house whilst my body double is Outdoor Doris because she lives in Threadquarters-simples!

This is the display in my local department store which gives you a small idea of some of the options available of this type of mannequin, including the base. It all starts with your budget, most of these will probably retail for around £220 or less
I chose casters on my mannequin which has been handy to roll her about but one major issue is that the base isn’t heavy enough so she tips if I don’t keep a foot on the base if I’m pushing against her. One fine day I’ll address this with weights of some kind…

If you don’t have loads of cash to spare I discovered that there are quite a number of tutorials out there to make you own using various different methods. They all involve wrapping the body in some way, starting with wearing a close-fitting T-shirt or dress to protect the skin of the model and then encasing the torso in duct tape or plaster-soaked bandages. Try searching Pinterest or YouTube, or Threads magazine had a number of articles on how to make your own. These probably won’t last a long time as they aren’t very robust but if you are a cash-strapped student for example then it might do the job for a while. I also found patterns to sew your own which looked pretty good but you do need patience and tenacity to get a good result.

Since publishing this, and as a result of lots of comments on the SewOver50 account, Beatrice Forms got several positive mentions, as did Bootstrap fashion so I’ve created links to their websites.

If doing things on a budget isn’t an issue then you can go to the other end of the spectrum and have a custom-made mannequin to your exact needs and requirements.

This company, Alvanon, creates their products by taking body scans to produce tailor-made dummies to exact requirements.
If you’re spending big bucks on a dress form you might consider adding both arms and a head. I also found that this brand would customise the mannequin to your exact requirements for an additional fee.
Melissa Fehr of Fehrtrade activewear patterns has this specialist mannequin to help her design and assess the fit of her products. She’s called Eileen…(think about it)
If you want to create elaborate designs and shapes but want to keep fabric usage to a minimum then a half-scale dress stand could be very useful-Vivienne Westwood has always used one as part of her design process.

Once you have your mannequin what will you use it for. My friend Theresa Hewlett is a pattern cutter and tutor extraordinaire and one of her favourite methods of making a pattern is to drape, or model, on the stand. This often involves pinning flat pieces of cloth onto the stand and manipulating them to create pleasing and original shapes which might not be possible by flat pattern cutting alone. Try it sometime, it’s great fun and very liberating and creative.

Theresa created this style by using the draping method
And of course you can use your mannequin to assess and adapt in response to your own personal fitting needs, like Elke is doing here. This does go back to having an accurate stand to reflect your own body type though.
Even if you only ever use the hem marker then that’s better than nothing, it can be so difficult to get a level hem without assistance from a someone else especially on flared or bias-cut skirts. This marker is attached to the support pole
Des Whitehorn of @sew.professional has a little video of exactly how to use the hem marker, thank you Des, I had no idea before this and I’m sure many others didn’t either! This is a fee-standing version of a hem marker, I’ve seen homemade ones too using a long ruler and a large cable clamp.

So before you buy a mannequin it is wise to have a budget in mind to start with, and to understand what your needs might be from it. There shouldn’t be any need to spend loads of cash because there are plenty of cheaper options, secondhand or reconditioned could be a good bet too. Shop around, there are lots of models to choose between so pick the one that is best for you and not just the one that looks pretty. This is one of the more expensive pieces of equipment that a home sewer can buy so choose wisely. My first mannequin lasted many years, although the base had been replaced before she gave out altogether.

For me personally my mannequin is a very useful piece of kit which I use often, and I’m happy with the adjustable kind because I’m a person whose weight and body size has always tended to fluctuate. Even if I had the money to buy a beautiful professional mannequin I don’t think I would because there would often be periods of time when it wasn’t actually ‘me’ which would be both irritating and depressing!

If you have the room and the budget for one though it’s well worth considering.

What have been your experiences with using a dress stand or tailor’s dummy? Have you found it an invaluable piece of equipment, or is it a home for spiders in the corner?

Until next time, happy sewing

Sue

3 thoughts on “Mannequins, and is it worth owning one?

  1. I acquired mine from a skip when I was about 18, and she happened to be my exact measurements (although she had a “mono bosom”). I carried her home on my bicycle, riding slowly with her tucked under one arm. The stand was missing, and she was very old, with a non-adjustable calico-covered body. She now has a new stand and I’ve made her some arms…..but 30+ years on we are not the same size anymore!
    I admit I don’t use her often, but she’s very handy for displays.

    Liked by 1 person

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