Fun With Apportioning Rulers – Bodices

I’ve been so busy this month I’ve barely paid this blog any attention at all.  And to make matters worse, my computer died on me.  Ugh.

Anyway, we’re finally clawing our way out of the summer humidity here in Texas, so it’s time to prep for fall and winter costuming events.  In honor of that, and also because I’ve finally got a semi-steady paycheck after over a year of unemployment and contract work, I bought myself a copy of Frances Grimble’s Bustle Fashions 1885-1889.  I’ve heard some good things about this book, and for the number of patterns you get, it’s an excellent price.

Also, I’ve been perusing the National Garment Cutters available online, and wanted to understand the secret of these apportioning rulers. They seem like mysterious, secretive things, but at the same time, they seem like a geometric solution to pattern making. I’m all about geometry in sewing.

I figured these would be some super complicated tool that required in depth, detailed instructions to put together and use, but as it turns out, they’re literally just rulers.  Rulers with different units than a normal ruler.

In other words: ratios.

(Although Grimble has multiple books on the subject, many of the National Garment Cutter books are available online for free, so I do not consider this breaking any kind of copyright.  It’s publicly available, which is another reason why this is so cool!)

This is what a pattern looks like:


If you look at the patterns, they’re laid out on a x/y plane that tells you the width and length of the garment. What you’re supposed to do is use the rulers to measure out the x and y coordinates of the dots, with the help of a tailor’s square, and then connect the dots. But the way I see it, there’s no need to use the rulers at all.  (Especially not when you have to copy and cut them out yourself.  Too much room for error there!)

I wanted a set of combination underwear, and awesomely enough, the book has it.


My bust measurement is 38″, so I went to the apportioning “ruler” for 38″ and discovered the ratio is 2 5/8″:2. That is, two units on the apportioning ruler equals 2 5/8 inches. That gives me a ratio of 1.3125.

I laid out the pattern and multiplied every number by 1.3125, rounding to the closest 1/8″.  As you can see – in this terrible out of focus image – those bottom x-coordinate measurements of 7.5″ and 26″ become 9.875″ and 34.125″.


These are the numbers I would use. Then it was just a matter of laying it out. As is my standard, I used architectural buff taped over my cutting board, my clear quilting ruler, and a pencil. A little more work up front with the math, but I got to use my normal tools.

One thing I failed to take into account here was that this sized up not only *around* but *down* – it effectively gave me a back measurement of 19″, and I have a short torso! These patterns are also sized for women of the day, who had a lifetime of corset training to keep their waists in natural proportion, which I do not.  This left me with a set of combos that were too long, too tight with the darts, and far too baggy in the leg area. You don’t want that open crotch section hanging down!

A great deal of editing has taken place, but it was a good experiment on cheap fabric, and I’ve got a wearable garment:


I’m going to add an attached knee-high “modesty” petticoat so all the mistake areas will be hidden. No big deal.

But will it work for fitted outerwear?

I decided to try another pattern – this time, the cut-away jacket at the top of the page.

I still used my 1.3125 ratio for the x-coordinate numbers (the width of the garment). For the y coordinates, or torso length, I measured my back (15.5″), checked the pattern for the distance between neck and waist (15.25″), and realized this was fine. Therefore, I only sized up my x-coordinates.


The pattern pieces looked a bit more “my size” when I finished:


Since this is an open jacket, I can’t say for sure if a closed bodice would be perfect as drawn. The fit was much better, though, especially through the back. I did have to do some adjustments to the waist (brought it down half an inch), fiddle with the back and armholes, manage the darts, and of course, cut the muslin up to get the shape I wanted out of the bottom. Might sound like a lot of work, but I have to do all these things for normal commercial patterns.

I was quite impressed by how well the seams matched up and went together, even with me free-handing the curves. Seam allowances also translated over just fine (in most seams) which really surprised me. It produced a useable pattern within three iterations, which is standard for me, with far less frustration than usual.

Application: So, all that being said, can you use the open source National Garment Cutter patterns (1884 and 1888) yourself without buying the Frances Grimble book? Yes, I believe so.

It appears that the bodice patterns are sized for a woman with a 15.5″-16″ neck-waist measurement, and a 29″ bust measurement, assuming a period standard bust-waist-hip ratio for all women, with measurements taken ON TOP OF one’s corset and underclothes.

To draft these out yourself, you take your bust measurement and back measurements and divide them by those numbers. This will give you a ratio you can then use to scale the patterns. Apply the correct ratio to ALL numbers (bust ratio to x-coordinates, back ratio to y-coordinates). Round to the nearest 1/8″. Draft out on dotted pattern or see-through drafting paper. 1/2″ seam allowances are already included in the patterns.

Tip: When cutting your mockup, DO mark the outline and center line of the darts, DO NOT cut the darts. You’ll probably need to adjust these to your own body. Very few of us have that squished Victorian figure!

I have not tried the skirts yet. I imagine that’ll be a lot simpler. I have also not tried a polonaise, and I imagine that will be much more difficult. (I have 7 yards of cotton that’s screaming for a project though!)

Also, please note, the apportioning scales apparently changed in the mid 1890s, so this might not work for later patterns.


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