Draping a Madelaine Vionnet dress

I have been studying draping on the stand at Morley for nearly a year now. Each term we focused on a different area –  tops, skirts and dresses. Although we have done a cowl top, the course expressly excluded both the bias drape or draping in stretch fabrics.

On Valentines weekend I had the opportunity to specifically learn about draping on the bias. The course was organised so that we spent the weekend making a pattern for a Vionnet dress. Here is a very interesting article about her approach to design.

The dress in question was originally made up in heavy weight black silk satin and it hangs beautifully off a slim, athletic body. Notice the point at the base of the spine, the flat panel over the front and the weight and fullness of the flared skirt. It is a flattering shape, complemented by the very modern “racer” type back that looks like a swim suit. The close fit over the torso and the neat V neck allow the dress to be put on over the head which eliminates the need for a zip or other fastening.

The short course (Saturday and Sunday 9am till 4.30), taught by Lynda Kinne, was well attended and fun. As usual I met a range of exciting people including one who had come from Barcelona for the weekend. Many people had brought four or five metres of drapey fabric, but I had failed to read the instructions and had to buy calico in class –  not the best material for a job like this. Even the lighter weight calico is not soft enough to get a good result. Nevertheless I enjoyed the process very much and felt that my understanding came on along way during the intensive course.

Morley Bias Drape course
Claire and Amanda listen to Lynda Kinne giving a lecture on the Bias Drape

The process

With an intricate design like this it is essential, firstly to tape the stand.

We were given a diagram to help. It is worth noting that the exercise we followed is not entirely true to the original which was actually “moulded” through manipulating and fixing the fabric before it was stitched together. Our version was from the Vionnet book and was draped with a CF and CB seam (which could be eliminated later). The panel over the abdomen finishes much closer to the front princess seam than appears to be the case in the photograph. And our version included a bust dart. Finally there seems to be some inconsistencies between the pictures from the book (top pictures, centre and right) compared to the dress that is in a Japanese Museum, eg the degree to which the armhole is cut in on the left hand picture (top of post). In any event the tutor allowed the students to change the design as they wished – I reduced the racer back on my version.

Once the stand is taped the bias fabric is used to create each pattern piece – effectively two pieces at the front, one across the back, with the skirt created in two pieces.

Using the bias

The bias is the fabric cut across at 45 degrees. This cut edge is folded under and attached to the stand at the CF. The fabric is smoothed along the straight grain to avoid stretching, and pinned to the centre of the black cotton tape. Gradually the other bodice pieces are blocked, marked on the bias/straight and cross grains, cut to approximate size and then draped to fill the taped areas. Once all the pieces were pinned we then adjusted them, pinning the abuting sections together along the stitch line.

Finished drape

At the end of two days I brought the five pieces home and redraped my own stand (Camilla). This was not entirely successful as the stand at college is markedly different in the shoulder area. Also the hem is uneven. A large amount of calico (5 metres) is required for this project. I like the flat section over the abdomen and the flare from both the side and the front. Obviously the fabric is a little stiff but this pattern would make up a lovely dress.

Vionnet draped bias dress
Vionnet draped bias dress

Making the pattern

If I were to make up a dress from this pattern I would add the length at the paper pattern stage. Even the original has joins in it due to the lack of width in the fabric used. Sorry for the poor quality of this photograph – I took it of the image projected on to a large screen. The original is in this book if you want to look at it more closely. I found the dart essential –  it struck me was that the original dress was probably worn by a young woman with a relatively flat chest so that the lack of a dart was not much of an issue.

Madeleine Vionnet pattern
Slide of the original Vionnet pattern, showing joins

I am not sure I will  make it up. I may create a short version just to see how the bias actually works on the body. Would you?

PS There is also a book of Vionnet patterns available in Japanese. 

8 Responses

  1. That looks fascinating. Yes I would make it up, though that’s a lot of fabric for a dress I would get so little chance to wear, but I would be dieing to see how it works with the right drape.

  2. What a lovely course! I’d definitely have a go at this in a short version if there was the slightest hope of the bodice features working on me (there isn’t!). I think you would be able to carry this off with relatively few changes. Can’t wait for the posts on it.

  3. Stephanie

    Very interesting post. I have to admit that this is still beyond my capabilities but I find this very attractive. I think you would look great in this dress.

  4. A short dress sample is a must! You are learning so much! Thank you for sharing the process, Kate!

  5. If you are looking to improve your understanding you could make a maquette, it would take less fabric, trial and error on a life size model could run expensive, however, if you’re going to go for it I would opt for longer length rather than shorter as the bias cut is enhanced by lengthening.

    For those not accustomed to draping, I have used Fashion in Harmony patterns, they are influenced by Vionnet and they’re worth a look.

  6. What a fabulous time! I’m sure your course was informative and packed with ideas. I have both the Japanese book and Betty Kirk’s book on Vionnet and they are both wonderful. Vionnet truly was a master of fabric and draping and studying her methods gives you so much insight into how fabric behaves. I found a dress form which duplicated my shape invaluable when draping this way. The pattern pieces are strangely shaped and don’t lend themselves easily to standard alterations.There is nothing more frustrating than finishing a beautifully draped design only to find it doesn’t fit your body. Your design looks great. Do you plan to make it? I see the need for the bust dart: keep it on the straight grain as much as possible; bias darts don’t work well, especially in soft fabrics. Have fun with this method!

  7. I love hearing about the courses you are taking – you really invest in your creativity. Draping on a stand is something I would love to learn more about. As Mary mentioned above, having a custom dress form would allow for some interesting experimentation without the need for a pattern.

  8. I’m sure it would loo fabulous as a short dress – if my stomach was flatter I would be in line for this style. I bought a book a while back about Vionnet and really must get it out again. Your draping skills are enviable, as is your proximity to Morley.

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