By: Misty Huber @ StyleSalt

When you first learned to sew, you probably started with patterns, where you traced and measured fabric, sewed and constructed it to your finished garment. You may have even learned to do your own pattern making, a major step in becoming a fashion designer. However, if you want to get out of your 2-dimensional designing box, even just for fun, it’s time to learn how to drape.

Draping is a design method where you hang fabric over a dress form, and construct the garment directly on the mannequin, so you can bring your creation to life while you’re working. It is a much more dynamic way of designing, as you can see your piece in motion, so it’s often used for more dramatic pieces like dresses and skirts, but also for blouses, suits, coats and trousers. The most commonly used fabrics for draped construction are silks, satins, chiffons and jerseys. Draping is also a good tool when making body-conscious clothing, as you can work to flatter and contour to the silhouette you want in real time. Both of these reasons make it essential for evening gown and bridal designers to master the skill.

While the Greeks and Romans may have made draping design famous (toga party, anyone?), Madeleine Vionnet brought it up to 20th century speed with her introduction of the bias cut, cutting across the grain of the fabric to give it a softer drape. 

Vionnet did her mock-up draping on a doll model

Despite what die-hard patternmakers might tell you, draping can be every bit as precise as flat design, even more so when getting the exact placement you want on embellishments, seeing how the fabric floats,  and how small tweaks change the silhouette.

How to drape

Sketch your design so that you have an idea of what you’re going for, even though the beauty of draped construction means you can make changes as you work. Measure the exact center line of the dress form and run a contrasting color of tape down the vertical line of the form. This is so you don’t lose track of the center line and go unintentionally asymmetrical.

You probably want to choose a muslin material to do your mock-up in, as it’s relatively cheap and easy to mark. Some designers prefer to choose other fabrics, especially if the finished product will be done in silk or other fine material. If you are just learning, I still recommend you start with muslin, as your results will be close enough and you won’t be wasting your better fabrics.

Hang your material on your dress form to start, pinning it to keep it secure as you work. You can alternatively drape on a model, especially if you are tailoring it to fit someone specifically, but this can be a long and arduous process so you’ll want to find someone who doesn’t tire easily.

Begin pinning the fabric where you want gathers, tucks, twists, folds, cascades, etc. Make sure you are letting the material fall naturally and aren’t pulling or otherwise manipulating it as you work. Use a permanent marker to label areas of the dress that need further sewing or identification. After you feel you have the general shape you want, you can start cutting and further contouring and smoothing as necessary.

Ideally you have a second dress form that you can use your actual fabric for when you’re finished with your mock-up, so you can keep the first as a sample, unpinning it only when necessary. But if not, you can remove the muslin from the form and stitch the parts that you had pinned together.  If you need to make a flat pattern from your draped construction, you will have to take apart any pins, marking everything well, before tracing it onto pattern paper. This is necessary if you are making several dresses using a similar pattern.

Once you’re skillful at draped construction, you can mix the flat and draped methods, for instance using a flat pattern for the bodice of  a dress, and draping for the skirt.