Dress Forms

Should I buy a dress form?

March 31, 2017

Want to try an experiment? Grab a cup of tea, pull up your laptop, and spend an hour perusing all the sewing groups on Facebook. Doesn’t matter where you go – I guarantee someone will ask about dress forms. It comes up time and time again because a dress form represents that perfect storm of “seems like it would be super useful” and “whoah, that is not cheap.”

Without fail, someone pops up every week in our own (completely awesome, btw) facebook group to ask “Where can I find the best adjustable dress form?” or “Do you have to pad up a dress form?” or “How do I make my own dress form?” so in spirit of being able to say “here, this is everything we know about dress forms”, here, this is everything we know about dress forms:

Where can I find a dress form?

You’ve probably seen dress forms at Joann but with the exception of 99c pattern sale days, Joann is not exactly bargain central. If you have Amazon Prime (and therefore don’t have to pay shipping), you’re probably going to find a find a better deal on amazon and without worrying about how to wrestle your new doppelgänger home in a Mini Cooper or on the subway.

That said, I’m a big fan of buying large niche sewing objects secondhand. Don’t write off garage sales, flea markets and everyone’s favorite way to date a serial killer: craigslist. For example, I  pulled up my local craigslist, typed in “dress form” and there’s eleven dress forms within reasonable distance. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s ten more dress forms than I actually need.

Those prices look a little high to me and I expect you could offer significantly less with reasonable success because people who have a dress form for sale on craigslist are either

  1. not sewing people but they stumbled into a dress form, don’t know much about it and will shoot for the moon on price until someone who knows about sewing comes along to explain what it’s worth, or…
  2. sewing people who have already got a better one or need to downsize and now this huge thing is taking up space in their garage. They know how much they paid for it new and therefore don’t want to let it go for peanuts but still there it sits, taking up space, taunting them…

It’s like sewing pattern cabinets – priceless to the pattern hoarders but a nuisance to 90% of humanity.

The secret to shopping second hand for something like a dress form is to set up an email alert for yourself. To do this on craigslist, just perform your search and then hit ‘save search’ on the results page:

The main reason to do this is because they’re not going to be posted frequently enough to make it worth your sweet time to keep checking manually and if you don’t respond quickly when one does come up you might find yourself fighting another local sewing enthusiast for it. Imagine the rumble from West Side Story but with seam rippers…

If you find a secondhand dress form for an absolute steal, don’t automatically reject it if it’s not the right size for you. In this case, too small is easier to work with than too big – you can and should pad it to more closely resemble your own shape.

How do I find a dress form that matches my body?

If you have an existing dress form and just need to make it look a bit more like you, you can pad it. Is it lacking in the boob department? Put one of your bras on it and stuff it to fit. If you’ve been inexplicably hoarding lentils (stay with me here), Threads magazine explains in detail  how to turn your stash of legumes into bellies and butts in their article here. If you’re feeling a little giggly today, brace yourself before glancing at the below photo:

It’s like MacGyver made an adult diaper while high on Percocet. Don’t let non-sewing people see this in your basement because it is just a tiny bit crazy, but hey your clothes will fit great so those people can shut up.

[Edited to add: I’m sat here watching a Craftsy class (Patternmaking Basics: The Bodice Sloper) and Suzy Furrer just mentioned that an industry dress form is generally about 1/2″ to 1″ wider in the shoulder than most women and also 1″ to 2″ smaller in the waist than most women. She recommends padding a dress form with cotton batting or elastic bandages from 3″ above the waist to 3″ below the waist in order to compensate for this. I also notice there is a Craftsy class specifically geared to customizing a dress form here – I haven’t taken it but there are customer reviews on the class page. ]

If you’d rather see the process in action (with not a lentil in sight), here’s sewing legend Connie Crawford giving a demonstration:

Another method you can use is to make a cover for your dress form (like a fitting shell – a muslin bodice that fits you tightly) and then pop it on your form and pad out the spaces between the form and the cover. Laura of Sew Chic Patterns gives a well documented step-by-step of this method in three parts here: Part 1: Preparing the cover | Part 2: Fitting the pattern | Part 3: Padding the mannequin

Similar to this approach, you can purchase a Uniquely You dress form which is a squishy foam torso (with Madonna-esque boobs that you get to shave down…) and a cover that you fit to your exact shape following the instructions provided. Once you’ve got your cover customized, you jam the foam torso up in there and the squishy foam conforms to it. One advantage of this style of dress form is that because they’re not hard like layer-upon-layer of duct tape, you can jab pins directly into it. Here’s Shona with a demonstration of the Uniquely You dress form system (plus you get to see her cut off an arm with a breadknife)…

Is an adjustable dress form worth the money?

First, who are you sewing for? If you’re regularly called upon to act as the neighborhood fashion designer for Aunt Maud, your coworker’s wife and your best friend’s sister’s cousin’s fiancee, then you probably do need something that can handle a range of sizes. But if you are the only wondrous creature wearing your creations and your weight stays fairly stable, how much adjustment do you really need?

That said, if you deviate from an average size/shape (and don’t we all, somehow…) then adjustable dress forms allow you to lengthen the torso or squinch in the hips to better match your own proportions. non-adjustable forms are going to be more standardized in shape, unless you make your own.

How do you make a dress form?

If you want to build your own dress form from scratch, you’re going to need a free afternoon and an understanding friend. Also wine, but that goes without saying.

The essential concept is this: put on a thin, form fitting t-shirt/dress that you hate and then place strips of duct tape over it as though you were doing papier mache on a balloon. A sexy balloon, if you don’t like the comparison. Don’t start this process if you’re feeling unwell as it’s liable to get hot and annoying, at least until your understanding friend can cut up the back to release you from the duct tape version of yourself. To give some structure to what is basically a duct tape skin, you can use a can of expanding foam but as Deby explains in her demonstration here: go easy on the foam lest you overfill yourself.


Phew! Intense, right? Whichever method or product you choose, you’re going to have to put a bit of work in to get a personalized fit. Here’s a soothing edition of How It’s Made so you can prop your feet up and watch the professionals make one…

  1. Wow. This is a terrific look at dress forms and how to get one that fits. Threads also had an article on how to make removable covers so that you can use the same base form for different people, which, since I have my daughter and husband to sew for, might be a really good idea for me. Still, this gives me even more to go on.

  2. My experience with a dress format rests on the shoulder measurement. I did all the research and settled on Uniquely You. After working with the rep on several emails and a couple of phones calls, I made my purchase. Sadly, I don’t use it as much as I’d hoped, because it’s too big. Word to the wise. Measure measure measure and buy smaller.

  3. Wish I’d known about the duct tape trick, but as it turns out, I’m almost the same size & shape as a large bag of cat food! With a yogurt container neck, lots of stuffing, an old fan stand & (of course) lots of duct tape- voila! My funny home-made dress-stand! I’m actually quite proud of it!

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