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  • Writer's picturejemahewitt

Cutting Down to Size (Part1)

In this essay I shall examine the historical significance of pattern making in social history, reflect on its position within archive research and examine how the concept of a three-dimensional body may influence digital pattern creation and design by artificial intelligence with reference to my methods in creating the sculptural piece entitled “Fractured Bustle Gown”. I shall be taking a holistic approach, exploring how various fields have impacted upon each other to give context to the artistic work.

Clothing can be perceived as a simple visual indicator to era, class, culture, status and age of wearer; even without the added considerations of what might be considered “fashionable” within any or all of those contexts. Therefore, it can be understood to be of great significance in sociological and anthropological research, with the aesthetics and technical limitations of an era as well as which fabrics were available, being of consideration to the student (Aldrich 1996).

When designing a contemporary garment similar factors must be taken into account, including the techniques required in construction, the colour, decoration, fabric, size, fit and silhouette. In pattern creation, while all of these must be thought about to some extent, I would suggest it is the last three which are of primary concern, because they alone can be determined by the shape into which the individual pattern and fabric pieces are cut and manipulated.

The art of Costume Design (as opposed to fashion design) is one that relies significantly on the ability to notice and interpret visual clues of status, era, culture etc and present them to an audience in order that the subconscious deciphering of them will allow greater insight into the characters and story of the piece; our clothing is inextricably tied to memory and identity (Landis 2012). In my creative practise I am presenting similar clues for a contemporary gallery audience, allowing questions to be asked about our future selves and the society in which we may live.

Fig 1 Fractured Bustle Gown (J.Hewitt 2018)

For my exhibition piece “Fractured Bustle Gown”, I was initially interested in the swiftly changing silhouette of womens dress through 1860-1890 – the Bustle Era. I was investigating concepts of artistic style, historic notions of female beauty, conforming to and restriction by society rules. In the same way the Artificial Intelligence Deepart algorithm is following programmed boundaries and rules, we also traditionally follow algorithms within pattern cutting. The final piece is inspired by Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) mathematician, inventor, suffragette and physicist, chosen for her enthusiasm in breaking through societal norms to create a better and fairer world (CWP 2003).

Fig 2 Jones machine Circa 1890 (Panijgally 2010)

This period is considered a most interesting one by costume historian Janet Arnold (1968), she particularly notes the invention in 1846 of the mechanical sewing machine, which directly influenced the speed at which garment pieces could be joined and decorated and therefore changed the patterns and silhouettes of the gowns.

Prior to this invention, hand sewing was laborious and time consuming, bodices were the items most easily shaped and decorated as the pieces and therefore the seams, were small. An outfits voluminous skirts however mainly consisted of long straight pieces, often with only one or two straight seams as demonstrated by Mikhaila & Malcom-Davis (2006), the fabric being mainly manipulated into smaller volume by pleats and gathers. This later bustle era skirt is typified by shaped, gathered and frilled pieces, now made far more affordable by the labour saving device.

The application of science to artistic toolmaking is obviously not without precedent, as the industrial revolution of process within textile mills will attest, but it was the first time such a transformative machine was available domestically, therefore it can be readily understood that this is a classic example of a technical innovation directly influencing women’s clothing design. I ask, in our modern age might a creative Artificial Intelligence also influence design?

Fig 3 La Mode Illustree and Pattern (J.Hewitt 2018)

Christopher Breward (1994) notes the drastically increased circulation of women’s magazines during this late Victorian time period, due in part to “changing economic, social, and techno logical circumstances, including the introduction of more sophisticated printing equipment, decreases in newspaper tax, and rising literacy levels” (p71). He also points to the change of focus from articles of homemaking and pure domestic entertainment of the 1850’s and 60’s to “an opening-up of the feminine sphere, allowing for greater social participation and revealing a need for the social guidance and interaction that periodicals could supply” through the women’s journals of the 1870’s (p.71) These provide a valuable insight to changing attitudes and preoccupations of women, unashamedly written predominantly by women, for women.

From the earliest fashion focused paper in 1806 La Belle Assemble to the contemporary SimplySewing Magazine, this changing arena of feminine influence and technological development can be directly experienced through illustrations and patterns.

Ornate patterns for fancy embroidery on domestic household linens give way to tailored skirts and jackets suitable for a woman who would spend time out of the home, travelling and working. The readership of these magazines would presumably be predominantly middleclass although servants and working dressmakers would inevitably also come into contact with them, Breward (1994) comments on the lack of readership figures for analysis of London based Myras Journal of Dress and Fashion, but also suggests that the editorial style gives an idea of the target audience. Amy Pearce, a young middle class woman, writes in her diary of 1873, “We have taken lately to making all our dresses and jackets at home, & this summer we have trimmed our own bonnets and hats.” Beazley (2001) p72. Different magazines may have been aimed at different readerships obviously, but an element of disposable income for the purchase of such papers was a necessity and therefore the fashions contained not universal representations.

Fig4 May Alcotts original illustration for Little Women Laurie and Meg at the Ball (Houghton Library Harvard 2014)

The evolution of the female stereotype and her dress is noticeable in physical descriptions in the most popular literature of the period. Initially, there are the Dickensian heroines who are placid, sweet, submissive and domestic and often described as little or childlike. These gentle girls are contrasted with the undesirable woman of the same time frame, sometimes seductively beautiful but often either mad or bad like Estelle of Bleak house. Other authors created heroines who are considered clever but are simultaneously usually described as plain, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre(1847) or the Wilkie Collins investigator Marion Halcombe in The Woman in White (1859) . This is reflected in their choice of dress, Jane Eyre is constantly in grey, shunning worldly fripparies and Marion remains most sensibly attired in contrast to her “pretty” fashionable friend Rachel.

Ten years later, Louisa M Alcotts (1869) feisty sisters in Little Women demonstrated a new reality and a conflict between the traditional female roles and the New Woman as typified by tomboy Jo. Drama over dresses was a constant theme through the popular books, with sensible Megs moment of glory as a fashionable lady sadly brought down to earth by (male) neighbour Lauries rude reaction to her transformation. Complex women like Tess of the D’Urbevilles are presented as both flawed and heroic by Hardy (1892) and once more her journey from simple country girl to irrevocably fallen woman is described by him with reference to her clothes.

However, by the middle of the 1890’s playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde’s witty, smart, elegant, fashionable women held undisputed court. Smart, a word which means both fashionably well turned out, and also intellectually adroit. High Fashion was no longer a sign of moral bankruptcy, or if it was, intelligence and wit was valued above the earlier submissive feminine virtues. This a simplification of course, but it serves to show how attitudes to acceptable and desirable femininity had changed over a fairly swift period and was reflected in acceptable female dress.

Fig 5 Symmington Corset Study Day (J.Hewitt 2018)

The digitisation of many previously inaccessible Victorian fashion journals and their patterns has been a great boon to the costume historian. Digital Archives are easily accessed online and many collections such as the Symmington corsetry patterns from Leicester County Council (2014) can be purchased for a small fee in large file format ready for download and examination or use. The Symmington collection was established to record both the corsets of the manufacturing company and to investigate its rivals. Many pieces were taken apart upon their purchase by Symington’s to see how they were constructed, which is ideal for a costume historian as no further damage need be inflicted on the garment, but a comprehensive study can still be made. The Symington archive can also be viewed in person and my visit with close examination of both archived corsets and the original archived drawings highlighted several limitations.

An original pattern and the fashion illustration of a garment can vary considerably from the actuality of a finished product, and it is important to consider all three things as worthy of separate and combined investigation. Even an excellent line illustration of a historical garment can give a misleading idea of what the actual garment looks like, as it is still only an interpretation.

Fig6 Sketchbook page of pattern research (J.hewitt 2018)

On the other hand, patterns taken manually from a completed historic piece will also be subject to the individual historians’ physical limitations of measurement and re-drawing without damage, which can be difficult when dealing with extremely fragile fabrics. Fabric may warp and stretch though wear and use, distorting the patterns original shape. Even an exact pattern when constructed and placed on a modern figure may look different to the way an original would have, as human body shapes, sizes and posture are many and varied.

Whilst digitisation means these archives can reach a much wider audience, they are also fragile. Destruction of servers through war or accident means destruction of data as readily as a fire in a library. Privately owned websites may go offline due to rising costs or lack of interest. Although our electronic age has given us unprecedented access to knowledge, a new dark-age could also result if electronic access was interrupted. Tangible, physical archives therefore remain important as no intermediary technology is required for their deciphering. Archives of fashion journal ephemera are essential for students of historical dress, especially as Ginsberg (2017) comments, many original copies of the magazine have now been plundered for the easily framed and sold coloured fashion plates, the patterns and descriptions thrown away and lost.

Fig7 Colouring Original Pattern in photoshop (J.Hewitt 2018)

In the creation of Fractured Bustle Gown, I used a digital download of an 1873 pattern from French fashion magazine La Mode Illustree at Frenchcreavintage (2016) which has an archive of issues from 1870 to 1929. This Paris journal had its first issue in 1959 and continued well into the 20th century.

When viewed simply as lines on paper, these historic patterns reflect beautifully the fashionable silhouettes – pattern pieces are curved when fashion loves curves and have straight-lines when the silhouette is angular.

Like a computer programs script, the pattern lines themselves form a code for the skilled pattern maker of what the finished piece might look like - even without a guiding illustration. I have an emotional connection to La Mode Illustree as I own a treasured original copy from 1904, It was one of the first original costume records I purchased 30 years ago and still has all its patterns intact. I debated using it as the originator of the artistic work but after comparing the two illustrations and patterns side by side, I decided the silhouettes of 1904 dress were not as aesthetically dramatic as those of 1873 for this particular experiment.

The physical appreciation of an archive cannot be underestimated for an artist. In the same way that the smell of the madeleines brought back involuntary memories for Proust (1913), so can the sense of touch inspire new directions in the work of a textile artist. Quite apart from being able to examine the details I felt were important, rather than those chosen by a photographer, actually physically touching patterns and garments gave an emotional connection hard to replicate with digital down-loads. This is obviously a consideration for the creation and enjoyment of future digital works of art within virtual and augmented realities.

Fig8 Evolution of design from different Data input into DeepArt (J.Hewitt 2018)

This pattern utilises the popular Victorian overlaying technique. What looks like a jumble of abstract lines is in fact many pattern pieces for a variety of garments overlaid on top of each other. Each pattern is ascribed its own particular symbol for its line, a dash and dot for example or a series of X’s. The seamstress places tissue paper over the original pattern and traces their chosen garments pieces. This cuts down on quantity of paper used, enabling many garment patterns to be inserted as supplements in a fashion magazine for less cost. The reiterative process of pattern making involves the “writing over” of previous shapes – like replacing/recreating digital memory as described by Christian&Griffiths (2016)

The most obvious difference in these vintage patterns and a modern pattern is the lack of grading. In Victorian magazine patterns no adaptable consideration is made as to the size of the person for whom the garment will be made, it is provided for one specific measurement (usually bust or waist in inches) only.

While some proportional measure charts for patterns were attempted in the 1940's, Standard modern sizing of 10/12/14 etc was only established in 1958 and has frustrated “non-standard” women ever since.

Prior to that, in order to make one of these patterns up to fit correctly, measurements would be taken and adjustments would be made directly onto the paper. Fittings would then be had at different stages in the garments creation, which would allow for seams to be taken in or let out as required. Professional Victorian dressmakers may have used a different and more specific method of creating custom block patterns for their clients. There is great skill and knowledge of anatomy required for this, as well as an acceptance that body shapes are and should be varied, not standard.

Fig 9 DeepArts design for Hertha Ayrton (DeepArt 2018)

Modern home dressmaking patterns are sold for a design of only one or two garments with a multitude of sizes to be chosen and cut, individually laid out. Modern Industrial processes may use digital means to grade a pattern before release to a factory.

Only for couture and custom work a specific pattern may be created for a specific client or showpiece with no ambition for wider dissemination. I wondered how might a future digital/bodiless hybrid cyborgs self-image may shape fashion?

When I coloured in the pattern I was immediately struck by its similarity to futurist artist Kandinsky… whose interest in geometry and the mathematics of the natural world gave his abstract work meaning beyond pure decoration as Chadwick (1992) notes. By randomly colouring the pattern, I created new shapes which would ultimately inform Deep Arts creation of the final design.

Fig 10 Fractured bustle Gown first Toile (J.Hewitt 2018)

My practical work started with draping, but I was not replicating the flowing curves of the original design – I was now referencing the new image created by Deepart, there were geometric fractured shapes transforming soft feminine shapes of the original pattern into an explosion of straight edges and angles. I used small pieces of fabric, with grain lines are aligned to at least one straight edge in order to maintain stability. The pieces were then reinforced to make them stiff – counter intuitive to traditional practise, it was more like folding origami paper, as clothes that use origami techniques are often adapted to soft fabric as demonstrated by pattern cutter Shingo Sato with his Transformational Recreation techniques (StitchlessTV 2015).

The transformation continued, from ergonomic form, now broken into pieces, sharp angles, edges and corners, changing the original draped and ruffled gown grown into a hard bodied cocoon informing the materials chosen to reinforce the hardness of the image, and finally emerging with many facets as machine sewing and handstitching combined in contemplative practice to create the sculpture.

Fig 11 Sketchbook Page - Construction of Final Fractured Bustle gown (J.Hewitt 2018)

Cutting apart of an ordered pattern, already formed and subject to its own rules of construction to make a new work, gives new meaning to a vintage garment that might be considered constrictive, reductive. As the lines of both fashion artists Thayats futuristic illustrations (Kirke 2012) and Deep Arts algorithms flow beyond the figure and across the illustrations page, so the creative cutting, and emerging presence of women extends beyond the body.


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Aldrich, W. (1996). Fabric, Form and Flat Pattern Cutting. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Aldrich, W. (1987). Metric Pattern Cutting (4th ed.). London: Unwin Hyman.

Arnold, J. (1968). The Cut and Construction of Women's Dresses c. 1860-1890. Costume, 2 (1), 21-31. doi: .

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Fig1 Fractured Bustle Gown (J.Hewitt 2018)

Fig2 Jones machine Circa 1890 (Panijgally 2010)

Fig3 La Mode Illustree and Pattern (J.Hewitt 2018)

Fig4 Fig4 May Alcotts original illustration for Little Women Laurie and Meg at the Ball (Houghton Library Harvard 2014)

Fig 5 Symmington Corset Study Day (J.Hewitt 2018)

Fig6 Sketchbook page of pattern research (J.hewitt 2018)

Fig7 Colouring Original Pattern in photoshop (J.Hewitt 2018)

Fig8 Evolution of design from different Data input into DeepArt (J.Hewitt 2018)

Fig 9 DeepArts design for Hertha Ayrton (DeepArt 2018)

Fig 10 Fractured bustle Gown first Toile (J.Hewitt 2018)

Fig 11 Sketchbook Page - Construction of Final Fractured Bustle gown (J.Hewitt 2018)

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