Pattern recognition

I have a 56” chest for a shirt measurement, and either a 58” for vests and coats (one clothing layer out from the skin), or a 60” if it’s the top layer over several more layers when it’s really cold outdoors. So when I make clothes for myself, the first project is to scale up the pattern.

This is always a pain and a hassle.

You can see something of this process here, in which Andrew gamely gets down on hands and knees with non-woven pattern cloth conveniently printed in a 1” grid, and tries to lay out a pattern piece. this is something of a bit of guesswork, trial and error.

This is always a pain and a hassle.

Fortunately, this week I read George R Walker and Jim Tolpin’s book, By Hand and Eye, from Lost Art Press. It’s about using dividers and a straight edge, as well as fancy tools like a sector, to do geometric/proportional based design.

As a result, today I got on my hands and knees to lay out this particularly large and cumbersome pattern piece. It’s based on a long vest or waistcoat worn at European noble courts in the 1700s, and was often embroidered as well as fitted to the body. This time, though I brought my dividers with me.

Scaling was no longer hard or cumbersome. I’m moving up four sizes. So I simply used the dividers to transfer the measure between 52” and 46” (four sizes down), out from the edges of the pattern piece, and drew in the line to mark four sizes up. Voila!

Transferring the armscye, aka “the pattern line that demarcates and forms the window in the waistcoat that your arm goes through”, was the hardest part. Many of the lines I needed to draw were under the pattern tissue, and consequently difficult to “get at” — but I feel I’ve done a very good job of getting at the right spots on the paper. As a result, the garment is gradually taking on the right shape … at least in the pattern pieces.

Jim Tolpin and George Walker wrote this book with woodworkers in mind, but it turns out to have broad applications to craftspeople of all kinds. If I can briefly summarize — it’s the assumption on the part of craftspeople and artisans, before accurate measuring tapes, rulers, meter-and yard-sticks were widely available, that most work could be done based on a set of harmonized proportions based in basic modules. If you need to build a box, base it on the proportions of the thing going into it; if you need to build a house, base it on the proportions of the person whose house it is.

If you need to make an 18th century long waistcoat four sizes larger than the pattern allows, use dividers and a straight edge to scale up.

The last time I had to scale a pattern, it took four days to do all the parts. This time, it took a day. It was a lot easier than the first time, and it’s thanks in large measure to this book, which taught me to use the tools I have in a rather different way.

Sometimes — you learn a better way of doing things, only by leaving the standard road behind.

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