Process diary: Bodies and blocks

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Creating pattern blocks is a matter of matching up numbers with reality. Making ours better and more efficient (more consistency, fewer fittings) is a project we’ve been working hard on.

I’ve been thinking of this learning process as “zooming in and out” to truly understand an issue. We zoom out by looking at the big picture data, then zoom in to look closer at individuals. It’s the combination of these views, refined over time and with testing, that’s helping us adapt our blocks.

Blocks defined

First, let me explain what I mean by “blocks.” A block is an existing basic pattern that you modify to create various styles, either by manipulating and moving darts, adding or removing fullness, transferring seams, or adding style lines.

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A block can really be any pattern you use for this purpose. As home sewers, we usually think of this as a very basic, fitted woven dress since this is a very versatile place to start. But you can really have all kinds of blocks.

A pattern like this could be draped, or it can be drafted from measurements. Either way, it’s created for a specific size. Patterns are drafted around the middle of a size range, then graded into larger and smaller sizes. We have two size ranges, what the clothing industry would call “misses” and “plus.” The reason is that these represent two different body types, not just sizes.

So before diving in to create a new block from scratch, you have to understand the body (or bodies, if you are creating different blocks for different body types) that you are designing for in a few different ways.

This is what I meant when I mentioned “matching up numbers with reality.” I’ve come to think of this as big data and little data. It’s like zooming in and out.

Big picture: zooming out

We zoom out by first looking at the measurements of large populations of people and seeing what the standards and averages are. ASTM is a standards organization and a great place to start for learning how the measurements of a large population can be translated into apparel sizing.

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But there are other resources too. Books and published papers cover studies on this sort of thing, and you can really geek out on what they tell you about the human body. These were particularly useful when studying populations over a size 18, because much of the information out there is out of date or conflicts with more modern studies.

That is the zoomed out view. It’s the big picture, which can still sometimes be a little fuzzy in places. It’s where we started, since all of this “big” data has been used in our sizing from the beginning.

But when we decided to update our whole fit system and revisit our blocks, obviously a bunch of numbers is not enough. We wanted to see how these numbers play out on actual bodies, and then we needed to test the new blocks we drafted on real women.

Smaller picture: zooming in

We started to zoom in. This is the part where we look at real people, real bodies, and make sure that we’re understanding what we’ve learned correctly.

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A while back, we invited a whole bunch of women to our studio to be measured. We asked for women who are close to or matching our base sizes, recorded tons of horizontal and vertical measurements, took photos, and charted them all. We wanted to see how real women compared to averages (which are just that), how they tended to pick their sizes, and also to get a hands-on feel (literally!) of what those measurements really mean and what they look like.

Even though it was a small sample size of about 20 women, we did notice some interesting patterns that perhaps were not as easy to grok when looking at a chart (especially with regard to curves).

So that was how we started to zoom in, which is all well and good for getting initial measurements to draft blocks with and understanding those measurements. We could use the measurements to draft new blocks, a standardized process of charting measurements in order to adapt from 3D to 2D.

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With those in hand, the patterns could be tested on fit models. These fit models are selected to match up with our base sizes, which is based on all the information we’ve collected. So now we have gone from a very wide perspective to a very specific, individualized human perspective.

We began testing drafts on them, now with help from our senior pattern maker. We began with skirts and bodices, saving sleeves for last. Because as our other patternmaking consultant cheerfully said during one of our fittings, “perfect armholes make perfect sleeves,” which could maybe be a metaphor for this whole process.

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(Above is a block in progress.)

This is perhaps the most zoomed in view, making tweaks and adjusting the fit on the body until it’s just right. I plan to write another diary post on learnings around fit process, which applies to blocks and any other patterns. It’s definitely the biggest piece of the puzzle.

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Key learnings

Here are a few of things I’ve taken away from revisiting our blocks:

  • Data isn’t enough. It’s important to get a hands-on feel for what that data means. Measuring women in real life and coordinating this with the numbers was helpful for bringing the data home before drafting.
  • It’s hard to find people who fit “standard” sizing – even harder than we thought.
  • There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about plus size apparel and sizing. Working with real women (and finding the right fit model) was vital for understanding the patterns and similarities and representing all body types well.
  • Working with one piece at a time (bodices, skirts, sleeves) helped us avoid conflicting changes among pattern pieces.
  • The most important part of all this is the actual fit process, which deserves its own post. That’s what I’ll talk about in a later process diary.

I hope you enjoy seeing some of the thinking and processes we’re working through behind the scenes here. I’m hoping to use this series to share some of the learnings we’re taking away from the apparel industry, which may even inform your own sewing or creative processes.



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