Pattern Cutting 0.5 – The Contour Guide

posted in: Pattern cutting | 23

Well my pattern cutting class just got exciting! I know! A life with diagrams, brown card, a set square and a compass sounds as fun as basic maths for adults. But the possibilities are endless.

Do you know what a “Contour Guide” is? I expect some of you do, but I had never heard of such a thing, but now I am a total fan.

Basically the bodice block is constructed so that it fits well at the shoulder, bust, side seam and waist (the touch points) but it ignores the indents of the body – the concave curves above and below the bust, the curve between the breasts, the indentations in the middle of the shoulder and so on. Even if your bodice block is fitted to your exact measurements if you try to make something like a halter top or a low-cut neckline you will get gaping. I have had this issue many times and I didn’t really understand why it happened. And now I do. This diagram of a pouty 80s model dressed in a graph-paper dress reveals all.

Couturing patterns
Diagram of body contours (from Pattern Making for Fashion Design)


The fitting problems that we experience with gaping at the neckline and armhole when we create cut away looks (assuming the straightforward bodice pattern fits) are due to the fact that the body measures less in those areas that the garment does. As Helen Joseph Armstrong explains: “These differences are measurable and compensation can be made for them by the using the Contour Guide Patterns”.

When I was a student we created what we (being English, rather than American) called our “Lingerie blocks”. To do this we made more or less the same adjustments that are described here. As a result the lingerie block was much closer fitting and allowed us to make evening dresses, petticoats and, for those who wanted to, brassieres and camiknickers etc. But I like the idea  of “contouring” although these days that seems to involve putting different colours of make up on your face to create an illusion. 

OK! Let’s do it.

Start with your bodice blocks and draw a circle that represents a breast. The exact radius can be found by measuring from the bust point to the top of your underwire or similar. Once the circle is drawn (and a hole created so that you can trace this circle on to a pattern) you basically reduce it at various points,, reducing the darts to the waist, neckline, armhole etc. I measured the actual indents on my own figure to try to get the best possible fit. I was not very different from the average measurements, except in terms of “Empire styleline” (the indentation under the bust) and the “contour between the busts” as the book puts it (cleavage). As I wear a relatively large cup size this is what you would expect.

I have used green and red to distinguish some of the seven guidelines. There is also a back bodice Contour Guide pattern with additional ease taken at the shoulder, side, and a longer dart up to the high back line.

Contour Guide patterns
My Contour Guide pattern

With my new guides I am ready to tackle all those looks above. Neither I nor my teacher knows exactly how to pronounce “surplice” but now I know how to make one. Below is a photograph of me in Butterick 3636, a charming 1970s style with a surplice. Can you see the gaping? Now I understand how to avoid this I will  make a pattern for a surplice dress, or maybe a halter dress, or maybe a classic empire dress, or something with cutaway armholes, or perhaps a strapless dress (brain explodes). Stay tuned to see what happens next….

Butterick 3636 dress with a "surplice"
Dress with a “surplice”

23 Responses

    • fabrickated

      I am sure that anything you teach would be a laugh a minute dear Elaine. It was a gentle sport at your expense. I am actually someone who has tried to do A level maths as an adult and I found it quite a challenge.

  1. Kerry

    Kate, your dress is gorgeous and a great style on you (even with the surplice?) And I get your excitement over discovering WHY the gaping occurs (and how to fix it) but I am still completely in the dark about the Contour Guide! It’s a foreign language to me – I do hope I’m not the only one of your readers?!

  2. Joyce Latham

    Look out world!
    Your excitement is contagious. Looking forward to future posts about this contour guide -mastering the surplice….. You are so inspiring!

  3. Jane

    I was temporarily distracted by clicking through to your blog post about the college course you attended in the 80s which I’d not read before – what a great experience that must have been. My mind was slightly boggled by the Contour Guide but on second reading it has become clearer. I shall await your experiments with interest!

  4. Stephanie

    Quite interesting, Kate. I was wondering how to tackle neckline gaping on a dress I made a couple of times a couple of years ago, too. Very helpful.

  5. Mary Funt

    I use Armstrong’s books frequently and she gives a wonderful explanation of this concept. Too bad many of the commercial patterns don’t address these issues and you are left making the adjustments on your own.

  6. Sew2pro

    This is news! Contouring to me is the all too real and frightful spectacle of young women going round the local shopping centre with war-like stripes drawn on faces.

    I will have to research this: I’ve not made underwear before and will definitely have to increasingly ‘scoop out’ the hollowness around the bust as I age but I’m not sure I understand how to do it. Is this the final adaptation to the bodice block or a separate one for certain styles?

  7. Annieloveslinen

    I haven’t come across this before, I’m not quite understanding the concept yet I need to get my head around it. Your enthusiasm is exciting and I’m ready to learn new stuff from your experience.

  8. Anne

    I used these contour guides for H’s dress. They worked well as a starting point at least. It made perfect sense however my tutor said that the basic measurements (which I was using on the whole) would depend on the amount of ease in the block and I wasn’t using the same starting point.

  9. Sue

    I’d love to know more about how to use a contour guide when you have the time. Your posts are so helpful in my fitting journey.

  10. Feyisayo

    Please, I have been trying to do this contouring but to no avail, I have the book but I just don’t understand it. So please can you update the post and make that diagram more clear and if possible in a step by step fashion. I love sewing but this hitch does not help me to get the desired result I want. Thanks.

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