Making A Body Form
How To Make Your Own Body Form Mannequin
A body form is a life size replica of the human body around which you can drape fabric for making patterns or use as a guide for assembling a garment to a particular size. While these are great for draping non-stretch fabrics, they aren't particularly useful for swimwear, lingerie or corsetry. You cannot really drape stretch fabrics under tension and, let me repeat, you really shouldn't do this. So being someone who works predominantly with swimwear and lingerie I haven't had a great need for a body form. There are times however where you may not have access to your client or an equivalent sized person and you'd like to test or tweak a stretch garment. Its times like this that a body form may be useful. Even a standard size 10 body form may be useful in a design room (or whatever size you grade up or down from).
The big problem (at least for the swimwear and lingerie people) is finding a proportionally accurate body form that has a crotch area and accurately shaped breasts. Most, if not all, sewing forms you can buy from the sewing store do not have legs. Commercial mannequins are completely distorted and exaggerated, and as such useless when it comes to tweaking.
So you'll need to make your own. There is a very fast and highly accurate way to do this. Search the internet for somewhere that does body scanning. Get it done while mostly naked and then take the disk/CD Rom to a place that does CNC polystyrene or polyurethane model making. They use the digital scan to computer cut a perfect replica of you in foam. That's it. They can even tweak the digital data to make it symmetrical left to right or adjust your figure on the computer if that's what you're after.
Of course it's expensive and there aren't many people out there with that sort of technology just yet. For the average home sewists or small sample room that means making your own body form the long and messy way. There are a few ways to do it. There are a few websites which explain the process of making your own body form. Never having made one previously, I read these before having a go.
These sites all work on the principle of duplicating a body shape by covering it with several layers of duct tape (a bit like paper and tape draping). The objective is to get as close a duplicate as possible. Most suggest wearing a loose fitting T shirt or rubbish bag to protect your skin from the tape and making it possible to remove the body form when you're finished. I don't believe this allows you to get a close fit, especially around the bust. The T shirt bunches up and doesn't stretch around the bust without distorting it. If you really want a close fit and hence a better duplicate, I suggest wearing a body stocking. These are thin, soft and very stretchy. You can buy them at most lingerie stores (or adult clothing shops) in the 'cheap and trashy' one size fits all packets. Get one with arms and legs. If it's really thin or the mesh holes are a bit open then wear two stockings at once. You may even need to stitch up the open crotch area first as well. You can cut a tube out of a stocking to cover the neck as well. Preparation is everything.
The next step is taping. The best tape to use is the one with cloth reinforcement. Many tapes labelled as duct tape are plain PVC tape which stretches and distorts when warm ... which will happen when it's on the body a few hours. There is a metallic foil tape which is fairly rigid (and very stiff when layered up) but this doesn't wrap around curves very well. Scotch Brand cloth adhesive tape is by far the best tape for the project, although a little more expensive, you'll probably get away with 3-5 layers rather than 6-8 of a cheaper brand or PVC.
When applying the tape it's useful to have a few 'fixed' lines to make sure the next piece of tape stays in place. Most people seem to start with a line around the waist. I also run a number of lines in various directions and then begin to join them up being careful not to apply a tension that would reduce a body measurement. I do apply a tight strip at the underwire line, in order to create a base for the breast shape. When going around tight curves like the breasts, underarm, neck, crotch, and between the bottom cheeks you should narrow the tape by cutting it lengthwise in half or even thirds. That way it goes around curves easier without wrinkling.
After the first layer of tape, change your taping direction to tape at right angles to the first. This helps to stabilize the tape and make it stiffer. I actually changed tape colour with each layer so I knew where I had already taped. Completely unnecessary but useful if your hardware store carries the same tape in different colours. Apply at least three layers of tape. The more layers you can tolerate or afford the better.
If you take a look at the photos above you'll notice a couple of things. Firstly I didn't tape up the neck on this body form. I actually forgot. I have since taped up the neck and added it to the finished form.
Secondly, I've added some wire mesh to my form. I've used 1" by 1" soft metal bird cage wire cut into little 4 by 4 square pieces. These pieces are easy to shape around the broader curves of the body and then tape to the form with another layer of tape. Do not add wire down the sides where you'll end up cutting to remove the form. The wire helps to stiffen the form if you're going to end up filling it with expanding foam. If you look at my bodyform in the photo above you'll see it's held it's shape very well. Of course, if you plan on filling it with a soft cushion like material instead of spray foam, then don't add the wire.
Once you've finished taping and adding mesh you need to get out of the form without distorting it. Because it's stuck to a body stocking it doesn't stick to your body so it's really a simple matter of cutting along the side seam and shoulder seam with a pair of strong scissors (no wire) or tin snips (if you used wire), being very careful! I cut by first pushing my finger between the body and the tape and resting the snips against my finger ... that way there is no risk of cutting the person in the form. You don't need to cut the crotch as you can easily get out once the side seams and shoulder seams are cut. When the person is out, remove the bits of stocking and re-tape the seams together with a few layers of tape. If you used wire the shape will hold its form easily... if you didn’t you'll need to be careful not to distort it.
Next is the polyurethane spray foam. Read the instructions on the can. Wear gloves and old clothes!! This stuff is very sticky and expands rapidly. It can make a mess so choose somewhere easy to clean up. The foam comes in cans of varying sizes so buy the smallest cans you can get. Reason being, once you start spraying, if you stop, the can (sometimes) seals itself closed. The smaller can means you get to create a thin layer in your form and give it a chance to expand and set (cure). The foam will not set if it has no access to air so most importantly you never want to spray a layer of foam more than an inch or so thick.
Some people have suggested filling the inside of the form from the bottom up but if you use the whole can the volume of foam will be so thick that it won't set on the very bottom. It's a good idea to put a series of holes all over your form to allow the foam to breathe and if necessary expand out the holes so your form doesn't distort. If you start from the waist it can set from both sides, and then you can put half a can in each end meaning a thinner layer. There's probably a dozen ways to do this and all of them have their particular benefits.
Some spray foams require you to lightly wet the surface you are spraying with foam ... do it! Water does seem to accelerate the hardening process which is probably the most difficult thing to achieve all the way through. I even suggest buying a trigger spray bottle so that when the foam looks like its stopped expanding you can spray it lightly with water again and it will set much faster and harder. The benefit to this is you don't have to go away and wait for an hour or more between layers which creates the biggest temptation to create thicker layers of foam which will not set. A mist of water inside the form, a thin layer of foam, wait a few minutes, another misting of water, wait 10 minutes and go again.
Here's what my form looked like after I cut it out of the tape and gave it a good sanding. Any little holes or gaps left behind from the foam not expanding completely into all the space (air pockets) can be filled with a little more spray foam. In fact I've found you can almost sculpt with spray foam and sand paper. The foam takes about an hour to set but you need to leave it at least 24 hours before sanding.
Once your foam body form is neatly sanded you'll need to seal it with something like diluted PVA glue (woodworkers glue). This apparently helps stop it absorbing moisture and crumbling over time. I find this counter intuitive as the glue is mostly water but nonetheless that's what I've done. Lastly cover the form with a sheet of 2.5mm thick soft foam to protect any delicate fabrics you might hang on it. If you use foam sheet you'll need to stick it on with something. Alternatively you could use 1 inch wide sticky backed foam tape and simply wrap the form like a mummy. You can buy this at the hardware store.
The last little bit that's uncovered on the left leg is because I ran out of foam tape just before the end. You can easily see how effective the foam tape can be and how professional this homemade project can look!
NOTE: The spray foam I used is polyurethane based foam in a premixed spray can. You can buy this at almost any hardware store. Ask the shop assistant for urethane foam that sets hard, not one that sets soft or rubbery as that's not going to work. All polyurethane sprays or two pack cans set rock hard if they have access to air/moisture. If yours does not set hard then there are only three reasons. One, it's not polyurethane. Two, it does not have access to air/moisture. Three, the product is deficient for some reason. I cannot suggest a specific brand as my brand may not be available where you live ... spray polyurethane is packaged differently everywhere but is still chemically the same product.