Patterns, Sewing

The last 10% for women

This is a living document. As I do more fittings, identify fixable issues and receive more questions about fitting I will be adding that to this blog entry. Please let me know if anything here is confusing or if you have any helpful hints/tricks to add to this.
– Sylvie

“Breastband” outlined in dotted lines

The first 90% (see here for cotte pattern or here for waisted kirtle pattern):

  • Draft the pattern on paper (grid back wrapping paper works splendidly)
  • Cut this out of medium/heavy weight linen (leave generous flair below the waist). Do not add sleeves or the full skirt until after the bodice is fully fitted.
  • Sew this up with a zipper on the center back seam
  • Check the general fit. If it’s good and you’re planning to get support from another garment (another bodice or a modern bra) you are done and can skip directly to the point where you adjust the neckline to match the version of bodice you’re trying to recreate, true the pattern and draft/attach sleeves.
  • If instead THIS is going to provide final support you will probably need to make adjustments. Without adjustments this will probably be too loose under the bosom. This may cause the weight of the bosom to twist the bodice pulling the shoulder seam forward into something that will probably be fairly uncomfortable.

If the bodice is wrong nothing else will work. Make sure you’re done with a step before you go on to the next step. Skipping ahead will only compound your fitting problems.

One of my goals with this pattern was to create a draft usable for making a self-supporting bodice that you could draft and then fit without requiring a second expert to help you and easily get a flattering supportive bodice. To that end at least 98% of the fitting on this will be isolated to the center front seam. In most cases this will be the ONLY seam you will need to adjust. In some rare cases you may need to make slight adjustments to the side seams (to eliminate some pesky side boob) or to the center back seam (for swayback, dowager hump or scoliosis).

General steps:

  1. Pull the breastband portion as tight as it can get without being uncomfortable. Make sure this stays on-grain. The bodice will want to ride up in the back to compensate for the weight of the breasts. It’s important that you prevent this during the fitting. It may be necessary to do the initial fittings over a well fitting sports bra or to lay down to remove gravity from the equation. This will make the initial adjustment easier to make.
  2. Once your breastband is tight and on-grain and not riding up, smooth the fit over the bosom above the breastband (relieve any stress lines or pull the bosom into a more pleasing shape)
  3. Adjust the neckline to match the images which you are trying to recreate.
  4. Adjust the fit below the breastband. Adjust this to remove any stress lines and to skim the body shape without being too tight.
  5. Make final adjustments (see esp: side boob, point of shoulder)
  6. Truing your pattern. See here:
Iterations on my mockup

This is the mockup I’m working on for myself. On the right side at 1/2″ from the edge you can see the original seam allowance that was included in the pattern draft. If I were planning to wear this over a supportive garment (already made well-fitting kirtle or bra) I could have stopped there.

Moving left you can see each of the iterations I have made on this as I futzed with the fit to get rid of wrinkles, bulges and stress lines. Note: I did lay on the floor at one point (to take gravity out of the equation) and pinned the front (which is much harder to do to yourself than I remember).

At this point I think I’m probably 98% there. That’s marked in red.

Right now I have a slight problem with a bit of side-boob which I think will be fixed by tweaking the side seam slightly.. and a weird stress wrinkle that I think will be fixed by moving the very bottom of the center front seam out to the edge of the seam allowance (and then adding more seam allowance on the final version). I’ve drawn this in marker on this version but had not yet moved the stitching.

Once I’m completely happy with this fit I’ll trim this to 1/2″ seam allowance and then transfer these updates back to my paper pattern.


The breast band is a ring of fabric directly under the bosom. It should be at least 2 inches wide top to bottom and needs to be on-grain (so it won’t stretch) and as tight as it can possibly be.

The breastband is tight around the body. Because it is tight breasts cannot creeping(ooze?) down into the breast band area.

The breastband is on-grain so that this part of the bodice has the least amount of stretch possible in the fabric. Because the breastband is on-grain it will not stretch to allow breasts into the breastband area.

If you can slip out of the mockup/dress without unlacing it, the breastband is too loose.

There is a tension line which runs across the belly (at the breastband), under each arm and up to the straps on the back pattern piece. This tension line is what will hold the breasts UP. It will also prevent the bodice from twisting forward due to the weight of the breasts. If the breastband is too loose the breasts will not be well supported and the bodice will twist forward to an incorrect position.

Bosom and Neckline

Once your breastband is tight you will want to review the fit over the breasts. Pin the center front seam until the fabric sits close to the breasts without creating stress lines where it has been pinned too tightly or creating gaps where it has been pinned too loosely.

The bodice neckline in the pattern draft is intentionally conservative.  You will need to adjust this based on the style of dress you are hoping to recreate.  Once the breast band is tight enough and on grain and the bosom is fit correctly you can start adjusting the neckline. You can either have a wide neckline or a deep neckline. Trying to do both will not work. When you are making adjustments to the neckline do it slowly.

Mark a proposed neckline (taking off 1/2″ to 1/4″ inch at a time), remove the mockup, trim to the new neckline and try on the garment again. Be sure to keep the left and right half of the neck line the same.

Note that all of the adjustments to the neckline will release pressure which is suppressing the bosom. If you adjust too quickly (or if you attempt to go both deep AND wide) your bodice may stop being supportive as your bosom springs forth enthusiastically. Trim with caution.

Cotte Skirt

The flair shown in the pattern at the bottom of the bodice is fairly hand-wavy.  Some body shapes may require more flair at each of the seams. It is worthwhile to cut a mockup with generous flair below the waist-line and figure out the necessary flair by draping the pattern.

If you can I’d recommend laying this out so that the center front of the skirt is cut on a fold.  This will eliminate the seam down the front of the dress. The top 4-5 inches of the center front fold will be split open to allow the wearer to get in/out of the dress and I recommend that the edges be folded back to make a finished edge.

If the side of the back skirt is cut on the straight grain then this will prevent stretching in the bias cut on the front side edge.  In the skirt it is recommended that any bias edge be butted against an edge on the straight grain. The exception to this is the center back seam. That seam will end up bias-to-bias. This will probably allow stretch at the center back BUT that is the spot on the skirt that will cause the least amount of issues (think of it as a natural train). It may be necessary to use gores to widen the skirt. You’ll need to use your best judgement if you decide to use gores.

If you have a large difference between your waist and hip measurements you will find that if you start the skirt flair exactly at the bottom of the bodice and flair out directly from there to accommodate the hips then your skirt circumference (and fabric requirements) may be HUGE (in blue on the left in the image). One way to cut down on the skirt circumference (and fabric requirements) is to introduce a stair step jog at the bottom of the bodice (in red on the right). This jog will allow you to use a less drastic angle and yet still be able to accommodate wide hips. When sewing the final dress, this “jog” becomes an inverted box pleat centered on the seam.

The image below is from the Bad Leonfeld tailoring manual. It’s dated to 1590 so it’s MUCH later than the time period we’re reproducing. That said, the method shown here for cutting a dress with a cut-on bodice is still useful. I do not have any proof that this method was used in the late 14th/15th century and I have not seen images that indicate the use of this inverted box pleat. *shrug* I’m willing to chance it.

Leonfeldner Schnittbuch: Bad Leonfeld (Austria) 1590 Leonfeldner Schnittbuch, 16 Jh. Oberosterreichisches Landesarchiv, Linz Austria Zunftarchivalien Sch. 96 (link)

Fitting issues:

I can slip the dress over my head and get out of it without unlacing it. Unless you’re an A cup or smaller, this should not be possible. If you can do this it means that the breast band below the boobs is too loose. Tighten this up.

The shoulder seam is too far forward. The shoulder seam should occur slightly on the back of the shoulder. If the breastband below the boobs is too loose then the weight of the breasts will drag this seam forward. Fix the breast band tightness first before you start messing with the shoulder seam.

My dress fits well when I put it on but after I wear it for a while it’s too big. The heat and moisture of your skin will cause the fibers of your dress to relax and stretch a bit. When you initially put on the dress it should be difficult to lace it entirely to account for this expected stretch.

No matter what I do I get gaps between my buttons. I do NOT recommend using buttons on your support layer. It’s a much better plan to use a spiral lace for this. If you’re getting gaps between buttons on your gown then you may consider making the gown a bit larger to remove the stress on the button closure.

My breast band is tight enough but I’m getting a large bulge right in front of the arm. Your shoulder slope may require a different angle at the shoulder seam to eliminate this bulge. Seam rip this on your mockup and then pull the fabric and change the shoulder seam angle until that bulge disappears. Pin it back together and then mark the new seam placement. Trim to 1/2-inch seam allowance and be sure to copy this change back to your paper pattern.

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