The duct tape sloper
Last time, I learned that all my pants (1) don’t fit and (2) make my backside look like squashed peaches in a paper sack.
After exhausting the usual methods to try and fix the problem (ready-to-wear, altering commercial patterns, mathematical pattern drafting, virgin sacrifices, and so forth), I decided that duct tape is once again my best friend. Felix would cover me in tape from the waist down, and I would use the resulting shell to create a sloper for all my future pants.
The duct tape sloper
If you’re wondering, a sloper is a very basic pattern based entirely on your body shape and measurements (without any design ease or features) that you can use to create other styles that fit.
At Felix & Kitty, we’ve always used the duct tape method to make custom corset patterns for complicated bodies, including mine. Plus I’ve already made a T-shirt sloper for myself using this method. So Felix is an old hand at taping the female torso, and I assumed it would be pretty simple to do the same thing for pants.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Preparing to tape
If you’re doing this with us, You want to make sure that you haven’t just eaten a big meal, and that you’ve used the bathroom before you start. Trust me, there’s no quick way out of the duct tape once you’ve started.
We usually use a disposable T-shirt as the base layer for taping the upper body. For taping the legs and hips, I ran up some leggings out of scrap knit material. It’s some kind of thin, hideous, stained polyester knit I kept for testing patterns. Since we’d just be cutting it up, I didn’t want to use anything nice. Nor did I bother finishing any of the raw edges.
If you don’t have any sacrificial leggings, you can use plastic wrap as a base layer. Simply wrap your lower body with it, being very careful not to pull it too tight or cut off your circulation in any way. Or you could use a large lawn bag, cutting it up the middle and taping it to more or less conform to your legs. Anything will do, as long as it’s not so thick that it will throw off the fit or so loose that it will bunch up under the tape.
Have a long ruler or other straight edge on hand, as well as a few sharpies, maybe in different colours. A plumb bob could be useful if you’re not good at judging what “perpendicular to the ground” looks like. You can improvise one by tying any weight to the end of a shoelace or string; a key ring works well. Or an L-shaped ruler will do the job too. Some extra string or long shoelaces are nice to have as well. And of course, duct tape.
The taping process
To wrap the legs, the wrapper can’t just walk around and around the wrap-ee the way you do with the torso. Also, you don’t want to risk significant compression in the groin-adjacent area by pulling against the inner thighs, partly because it would distort the fit but also because you really don’t want to compromise blood flow in this region.
That meant I did NOT want long pieces wrapped like doughnuts around the upper legs. But we really had no experience of what the best method would be. In the end, being the anatomy nerd that I am, I decided that we should follow the major leg muscle groups with the duct tape, which worked pretty well.
The crotch proved the tricky bit, since you need to try and maintain the same posture throughout while making room for the person doing the taping to get in there. You will need the tape to go pretty much all the way up and cover everywhere with no bare fabric/plastic wrap showing. Using narrower, shorter strips of tape helps.
However you do it, it’s going to get quite intimate, so your wrapper had better be someone you’re comfortable with rummaging around your privates. While they’re working, remember not to suck in your gut or stand unnaturally erect, or you’ll get an inaccurate fit.
We covered the entire relevant area (from the high waist to above the ankle) with one or two layers of duct tape, then finished with a single-layer “skin” of duct tape, off-set from the “muscle” layer for reinforcement against separation. You don’t want any more layers than this, since too much thickness will make it hard to flatten the taped form for pattern-making later. It looked like this when we finished taping:
The duct tape needs to cover a little more area at the waist level than your finished pants will, so you can draw on it. We decided to tape all the way down to the ankle because I have extremely prominent calves from strength training and the way I stand with my knees locked, which I thought might have a carry-over effect on the fit higher up (this turned out to be an excellent call, as you’ll see later). If you have normal calves, you can probably get away with just taping to the knees.
We chose to wrap only one leg because my legs aren’t noticeably asymmetrical. If your legs are very different left to right, or if you just want a spare half shell to use in case you mess up with the first side, by all means wrap both sides.
Either way, I recommend that you wrap all the way around the hips and abdomen; if you try to do only one half, things may be pulled off centre by the taping process.
Marking the side seams
The next step was to carefully mark all the important reference lines, plus some I thought might possibly be useful. The first one was the side seam, which should have been the most straightforward.
The side seam should run perpendicular to the floor from your waist to the hem at (surprise!) the sides. It should bisect your body and legs, or divide them evenly, front to back. In an average person, if you draw a straight line downward from the midpoint of your hips at the side, it also more or less divides your legs into front and back halves — think where the side seam of your pants fall when you’re wearing them.
Depending on your posture, you may find that this line does NOT hit the midpoint of your legs. In which case, just do your best to imagine where you’d want your pants side seam to be and draw a straight line downward at that point.
In my case, it was a whole lot more complicated than that. It turns out that when I stand normally, my calves are thrust so far back that a straight line going down the middle of my side hip wouldn’t even BE on my lower legs:
This was patently ridiculous. I couldn’t put my side seam anywhere close to the mid-hip without going off my legs completely. Since I had no clue how to deal with this, I asked Felix to mark several potential “side” seam lines, as well as a line down to centre front and centre back leg. I’d just have to sort it out later in the pattern-making process.
Marking the other lines and points
The other reference lines were considerably less eventful. We managed to get the following drawn on without too much kerfuffle:
- The centre front/crotch curve/centre back line, which is exactly what it sounds like. You start at the middle of your tummy area (about belly button level, where your jeans fly would be) and go straight down, between your legs and up the back. It may help to pass a string between your legs and hold it taut in place (centred at front and back) while your helper draws the line by following the string.
- Your preferred waistband position. Just draw on the duct tape where you’d like the top edge of your pants to sit. If it helps, tie a string around your waist at the desired location first.
We also marked the fullest point of my gluteus maximus, the big butt muscle. If, unlike me, you actually own real buttocks, this is where the back darts will point on your pants. I asked for a vertical line down the centre back of my leg that passes over this point, which will be useful later if I want to make pants that cup snugly under my bum.
For all of the above lines, we marked several cross-hatch points to make matching easier (if/when the shell gets cut apart into panels during pattern-making). We also labelled the front, back, and sides, because once the shell is off your body, it’s going to look like a mess of shed snakeskin, and it can be hard to tell which way is which.
If you can think of any other possible points or lines, go ahead and mark them. If you don’t need them later, no harm done, and you never know which one might prove useful.
Finally, we marked the horizontal circumference line above my knees as a future reference point. For some people with prominent calves like me, the back pants leg below the knee may need to be longer than the front, for the same reason that the front of a shirt needs to be longer than the back in large-busted women — you need more length to go over a taller “bump,” as I explain in more details here. So I reasoned that it might be handy to know where to start adding length later.
Escaping the tape
When I had checked and double-checked that we had made all the markings I could think of, Felix (very gingerly) cut me out of my duct tape shell, being extra careful not to slice through my underwear or my skin. If you’re not experienced at using shears, blunt-tipped scissors are probably your safest bet. It may be easier to cut from the top down part of the way, then go from the bottom up until the cut meets in the middle.
In my case, I needed the full length of the leg cut open because I have massive weight-lifter quadriceps, which meant my leg would’t easily come out through the top opening alone. If you have thin or less muscular legs, you might find it easier to cut the shell along the centre front or back by sucking in your tummy to make a nice hollow for the scissors, and take them off the way you take off a pair of jeans.
Either way, the thing to remember is not to pull on or distort the tape shell any more than absolutely necessary while you wiggle yourself out.
Now you have a duct tape double of your waist, hips, and leg.
You can’t just use this as a pattern for pants, of course, unless you use an extremely stretchy fabric and want skin-tight leggings. If you’re like me, you can’t use it as a pattern at all, because it simply won’t lie flat. Also, this looks nothing like any pants pattern anyone sane could ever imagine.
Look at the taped shell of my calf. You could hide a watermelon under there!
I can hardly believe this is for real. I’m very, very glad we decided not to quit taping at the knees, because if we had, I never would have learned how bonkers my lower legs and calves really are.
Having seen this, I think that my pants fit problems weren’t due entirely to the shape of my bum. Quite a lot of it MUST be due to the peculiar angle of my legs and my knees-locked posture, which seriously accentuate my already uber-muscular calves.
On the one hand, I’m a little dismayed at how abnormal my body is. But on the other hand, I feel better about failing so utterly at getting a conventional pattern to fit me! At least now I know nothing off the rack, whether ready-to-wear or in sewing pattern form, ever stood a whelk’s chance in hell of fitting me.
Next time on the quest for unicorn pants
In the next instalment of the pants fitting adventure, I will attempt to make some kind of sense out of my duct tape shell and turn it into a usable flat pattern. Truthfully, I have no idea exactly how that’s going to happen, because it bears no relationship to the shape of any pants pattern I have ever seen in my life. But it will be exciting to try.
If you too have never found a pair of pants that fit exactly as you wanted, I highly recommend giving the duct taping process a go. Even if you don’t make your own pattern or sew your own pants, you WILL learn loads of things about your body — and demystify some of the things that makes you so uniquely you.