Keystone Jacket and Dress Cutter – Charles Hecklinger – Part 1 – Measurements. (Or how to interpret a Victorian gentleman vaguely describe female anatomy)

Keystone System for Victorian Pattern Cutting

I stumbled onto the Keystone guide, available free as a scan of the original 1895 book as above, through Bernadette Banner’s Lady Sherlock project last year. I bookmarked the page and filed it in my head under “Future Projects”. As lock down continues I have plenty of time to indulge the reading of obscure Victorian dressmaking books, as you do, and realised it’s pretty flipping complicated.

To those who might be new to this book I’ll give a quick overview. The Keystone Method uses a set of measurements from your body to be able to draw out a complex dress pattern from scratch with just a ruler, pencil, paper, and a set square for good measure. This method differed from the growing range of paper patterns available through magazines at the time because of the fit. Paper patterns were very good for loose fitting garments like shifts and chemises, but the outerwear had to fit snugly to achieve the desired silhouette, so a number of “Systems” were devised. The Keystone System is only one of many.

I decided to write an overview of the Keystone Jacket and Dress Cutter as a primer to anyone who wanted to dive into this very rewarding resource. Going through it myself there were many points at which I was baffled, bewildered and befuddled. So I wanted to “translate” the key parts for a modern reader.

In this post I’ll only be covering the body measurements. Foolishly thinking this would be the easy part, I soon discovered that even something as simple as tape measure could be overcomplicated by the Victorians.

A few things to consider before we dive in. At first I found the illustration in the book unhelpful, an 1895 woman in full corset, petticoats and floor length dress with leg of mutton sleeves makes it difficult to find the physical marker points underneath. I concluded at first that this was prudishness on the part of the publication. However after I sat and stared with complete puzzlement at the assumption that a figure with a 28” waist would have a 46” hip measurement I realised that the illustration was correct. Measurements are taken over the clothes. Specifically, over the corset, shift, bum-pad, petticoats, corset cover, etc. that creates the hourglass silhouette and drastically changes the measurements taken.

For this pattern drafting I’ll be using my own “normal” measurements. I want to create patterns that fit me without any Victorian shapewear so I can wear them as my normal clothing, modern with a historical edge. I hope to show that this system can be translated into a modern setting, making clothing that fits without a commercial pattern.

The natural waist is smallest part of the torso and will be in different places on different people. The book recommends putting elastic around the waist to make sure the measures taken are precise and level. The waist is the most important part of the silhouette and the basis from which all the measures are taken.

The mystery of the “small square with a short tape measure attached” was complex. It seems to have been a common enough to not really be worth elaborating on in the book. I found an illustration in another book Which showed a rigid ruler joined to a flexible tape measure at a right-angle in a “T” shape. I’m not sure if it’s useful to make one, but just knowing where it puts the end of the flexible measuring tape for the two following measurements is helpful.

Taking your measurements

Back Length – measure from the bottom of the back of the neck, where a collar seam sits, down the spine to the natural waist. If you don’t want a high neckline, don’t be tempted to adjust now as this is a set measurement in drafting. You can always adjust the drafted pattern later.

Front Length – from the top of the back of the neck, same as for the back length, curl the measuring tape around to the front and over the side boob (I’m sure there is a better way of expressing it but currently I’m at a loss) to the waist line. This strange measurement is used to check if adjustments need to be made for a “Stooping” (petite) of “erect” (tall) form as these have their own separate instructions. I usually class myself as petite but didn’t need to go for the Stooping drafting option as the “Height under arm” measurement shortened the pattern for me.

Keystone Front of arm – blade measurement

Front of Arm or Blade Measure – This mystified me for a long time. It seemed to measure neither the front nor the arm, but across the shoulder blade to the spine. Blade measure is a better name but the two names are used interchangeability throughout the book. The 1891 edition has a better description this is the shoulder blade measurement from the “front of the arm” to the spine. The “front of the arm” is not where you would expect the side seam of a garment to be, but further forward to include the width of the armpit. Using the “small square with measuring tape” hold the ruler vertically against the shoulder with the tape running under your arm to the back.

Height under arm – from the armpit to the natural waist. It’s worth noting that historical garments fit quite high under the arm. Place the end of the tape measure higher than in modern clothes but not right in your armpit. With the ruler of the “small square with tape” hold it horizontally under your arm and let the flexible measuring tape hang down along the side seam.

Breast measure – all round the fullest part of the bust.

Waist Measure – The book tells you to take this measurement tight. This is because the waist is the smallest part of the Victorian silhouette and they wanted clothing to be smooth and taight in this area. For modern clothing I’ll just take a standard, not too tight, not too loose measurement.

Hip Measure – this is taken 6″ below the natural waist which may or may not be where you are fullest in the hip. This won’t be too much of an issue as with all these patterns, they all flair out backwards over the hip to accommodate a bustle. It is instructed to be taken loosely but I’ll do the same standard measurement as the waist.

Arm Measures – Measurements are taken from the body around the elbow and wrist as well as the length from the underarm to wrist. The top of the sleeve head isn’t taken from the body but from the bodice pattern after drafting. Arms are drafted separately to the bodice.

Next I’ll start using these measurements to draft the pattern. I’ve done this several times now and I think I’ve worked out all the kinks. I hope this blog post helped solve some Victorian mysteries for you.

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