So, you have a sewing machine. You’ve gotten yourself stocked up on all sorts of other sewing supplies and marking tools. You may even have converted some space in your house over permanently to your growing studio space. This is usually the point in time when I see people start to research dress forms. But with all the options, you’re probably asking “what dress form should I buy?”

Over my years as a garment sewist and fashion instructor, I’ve worked with a wide variety of different forms. These have ranged from a cheep adjustable form I used as a design student to high quality professional forms. In this article I’ll tell you what my top picks for the best dress forms are and how to decide which one is right for you!

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Overall Best Dress Form: The Shop Company (TSC) 3/4 Body Dress Form w/ Collapsable Shoulders and Arms

If I was just able to recommend one dress form, it would be The Shop Company 3/4 Dress Form w/ Collapsable Shoulders and Arms. Depending on the size, this form costs between 389$ and 499$, which is very affordable for a professional grade dress form (They also have a 10% student discount). This form has all the important features of a professional dress form, from collapsible shoulders to a heavy rolling base. As a 3/4 dress form, it has partial legs, making it possible to use this form to drape and fit shorts, undergarments, and some types of pants, in addition to the standard dresses, skirts, and tops.

The TSC dress forms I’ve worked with in the past have held up well over time. We have some older models currently in the sewing lab a the school I teach at and they’ve held up to all the abuse that students have thrown at them.

I also like TSC as a company. A while back I needed to contact several dress form manufacturers to get quotes as part of my job. TSC responded quickly with all the information we needed. It was clear that there were real people working behind the scenes there, which always makes me more comfortable buying from an online company.

Best For Learning Design and Patternmaking: The Shop Company (TSC) Half Scale 3/4 Body Dress Form w/ Removable Arms

If you’re trying to teach yourself the basics of patternmaking and fitting, I’d recommend starting out with a half-scale dress form. And while there are many good half scale forms on the market (I personally own this one from PGM), my favorite is the 3/4 Body Miniform from The Shop Company. This form is currently priced at 139$, which makes it much more affordable than the comparable full sized form. You’ll also save money on practice fabric and other supplies by working in half scale.

They also have a full body half scale form for 299$. That’s definitely a bigger investment. However, it may be worth it if you think you’ll be designing a lot of pants.

Full body half scale form (left) and three quarter body half scale form (right). Image from TheShopCompany via Etsy.

Best Budget Dress Form: Bonnlo Female Dress Form

If you’re a student on a limited budget or don’t have a ton of money to invest for any reason, the best budget option is usually a display form. This type of form is not designed to be used for draping or fitting, so they don’t have style lines, collapsable shoulders or sturdy bases.

There is also a wide range of different styles of display form. Look for one like this Bonnlo Female Dress Form that’s made with realistic proportions (some use exaggerated stylized proportions) and has a pinnable surface.

While a display form will never function as well or last as long as a professional dress form, it will be significantly less expensive. Expect to pay around 50$ at the low end. Every time I’ve seen forms for less they have high shipping charges that make up the difference.

If you do go the display form route, you may want to make a dress form cover. This will give you a better work surface for draping and can give your form a better overall shape.

Best Adjustable Dress Form: Dritz My Double Adjustable Dress Form

While I overall prefer professional style dress forms, sometimes what you really need is an adjustable form. My favorite currently is the Dritz My Double line of forms. I chose these because of the wide range of sizes, the rolling base, and the soft grip adjustment wheels.

These adjustable dress forms come in multiple sized for women (small, medium, full figure, petite) as well as child and male shapes.

All the different variations can be adjusted at multiple points, allowing for a good amount of customization. The wheels used to customize a bit more fiddly than the large dials seen on other forms like the Singer Red Dress Form or the BHD Beauty 13 Dial. However, their lower profile also keeps them from causing weird lumps and makes it easier to use the form with a padding kit cover.

In addition to width adjustments, these forms are also height adjustable, with each being able to add 2″ of length to the torso. Depending on the size, the retailer, and any sales, these forms cost between 200$ and 500$, though most of the time you can find them from about 230$-280$. So, while these are a bit less expensive than a professional form, they’re still an investment!

Best for Corset Makers and Lingerie Sewists: Royal Dress Forms Penelope

I haven’t mentioned Royal Dress Forms until now because they don’t check a lot of boxes for me when I’m looking for a general use dress form. The base is a bit light and doesn’t have wheels, there aren’t collapsible shoulders, etc. Also, they’re on the expensive end, usually over 1000$, though I have seen them for around 700$ on sale.

However, if you’re doing a lot of corsetry, their forms, especially the Penelope model may be the perfect option. These forms are made too be soft and squishy, allowing them to compress when needed. They’re going to react the most like the body of any form I’ve seen.

Where to Shop for a Dress Form

Dress forms are a specialty product, so in most cases the only way to get one is to order it online. Professional dress forms are usually sold directly, however you can find some on specialty websites. Sewing Machines Plus offers form from Feiyue and French European.

Generally, your best bet is to order directly from the manufacturer. Companies like The Shop Company, PGM, and Royal Dress Forms all sell directly to consumers via their websites. You also can find some of their product lines on larger sites. The Shop Company sells some of their products via an Etsy shop and on Amazon. However, if you want an industry focused company like Alavanon you may need to request a quote and deal with a sales person before ordering.

If you really want to buy a professional dress form in person, I’d recommend looking sewing related conventions and trade shows. I spotted the French European booth when I was at H and H Americas this year, and it was nice to be able to check the quality and shape out in person!

Non-professional dress forms can be found from a wider range of retailers, however even the big brick and mortar stores seem to only sell them online . At the time of my last search, Joann sells over a dozen different dress forms, but none of them were available in-store in my area, which includes a major US city.

Online retailers like Amazon also sell adjustable and non-professional dress forms, as well as a few nicer looking forms. These usually aren’t my favorite forms, but if you’re more comfortable ordering from a familiar retailer, they may be a good choice for you.

Types of Dress Forms

Professional Dress Forms and Industry Grade Dress Forms

Professional or industry grade dress forms are designed for dressmaking and design. Most of them are intended to be used in professional settings, and so are built like professional equipment. So, even if the other types of dress forms on this list look superficially the same, a professional dress form will nearly always function better.

There are, however, a few downsides to using a professional form. The first is cost. It’s hard to find a professional dress form of any size for under 400. They also do tend to be quite heavy, which makes them difficult to transport. And the mechanisms that work the foot peddle and the shoulders do occasionally break with heavy use. So, you should always look into the repair policy before getting a form.

Even with these downsides, a professional form would still be my go-to for design work.

Adjustable Forms

Dress forms that use dials or wheels to change key dimensions. These usually are limited to the bust, waist, hips, and neck. Some will also have the ability to adjust the torso height by an inch or two.

Adjustable forms do have a few big upsides. They usually are very light, making them easily portable. Most can be disassembled for storage too. They can quickly change sizes, which makes them ideal if you work with garments for multiple people or if you tend to fluctuate size a lot. They’re also usually the most affordable option.

However, there are a lot of downsides. Adjustable dress forms is aren’t really suitable for draping. When draping, you need to have a clear and solid center back and center front to work from. Adjustable forms usually have a large gap there and at other key points. It is possible to add a cover and pad them out so that draping is possible, but when you do that they no longer are easily and quickly adjustable. They also don’t have collapsible shoulders, making it difficult to get some garments on and off.

Adjustable dress forms don’t have legs or partial leg options, which means they can’t be used to work on pants, underwear, swimwear, or any other type of bifurcated garment. Adjustable dress forms usually come with very light weight stands, making them less stable. They also may not have wheels or a foot peddle to adjust the height, which makes them difficult to maneuver, especially once you have a garment on them.

Adjustable dress forms are really only adjustable within a small range. You aren’t going to find a form that can go from a size 2 petite to a size 16 women’s. And they tend to adjust in a pretty linear fashion. If you try to adjust a form to be a size 14 on the bottom and a size 8 on top, you may run into issues with some models. They also generally don’t adjust for differences in posture or weight distribution. So, if you’re dealing with lots of different body shapes (like as an alteration or theater seamstress) your adjustable form may only work with a fraction of them.

I had an adjustable form as a design student (similar to this one) and it honestly didn’t get a lot of use. I would mainly use it to mark hems. Sometimes I’d put half-finished projects on it when I needed to step back and look at them for a bit. Or I might display something I was proud of on my form. But I wasn’t getting any real work done on it.

If price is the only reason why you’re looking at an adjustable dress form, I’d recommend either waiting a bit, until you can afford a traditional form or going with a half-scale form. However, if you need a lightweight, portable form for quick alterations work, an adjustable form might be right for you.

Display Forms

If you see a dress form in a store window, odds are good it is a retail display form, rather than a designers dress form. However, these can be used for design work in a pinch. They also tend to be much less expensive than professional forms. And if you know of a store that is remodeling or closing, occasionally you can find them for very cheap or free.

Most display forms come in a very limited range of sizes and these are not intended to conform to any industry standard scale. Most will come in just one, very small, size. If you’re lucky, there may also be a plus size option. They usually don’t have wheels and have lighter bases than professional forms. They may or may not be height adjustable.

If you do want to use a display form, the first thing to check is whether or not you can pin into it. Forms that are made of hard plastic or metal won’t work, but if you find a form that is covered in fabric it usually will. If you have a form that is pinnable, you can use a dress form padding kit or another DIY option to pad the form out to your desired size and shape. Add style lines using twill tape or draping tape and you’ll be ready to go!

Half-Scale Forms

The form I currently own is a half-scale professional dress form. This is a dress form that is made using measurements that are exactly 1/2 of what the form would have been produced at if full size. This results in a form a little bigger than an American Girl Doll.

Half-scale professional forms are surprisingly useful if you’re trying to learn pattern making and draping. They have professional style lines and are pinnable right out of the box, just like a full size professional form. They don’t usually have wheels, but those are less necessary on a small form. The base, however, is usually quite heavy. This means they’re not really portable, but they won’t fall over as you work either.

Patterns developed in half-scale can be brought up to full scale either by hand enlargement techniques or by digitizing the pattern and enlarging it that way. You likely will need to make some small adjustments, but overall a half-scale pattern should smoothly convert to a full scale pattern of the same size.

The big downside of working on a half-scale form is that you can’t use it for directly draping a full scale garment or doing finishing tasks like marking a hem. But given the significant difference in both price and space requirements, it may be a tradeoff that works for you.

My current dress form is a size 6 PGM half-scale form and I love it. It currently is dressed in a copy of the half-scale machine-knit sweater that we make in my in-person intro to knitting class. I also used it when I was training to do a live demonstration of the One Hour Dress. In both cases, working in half-scale allowed me to experiment using significantly less materials than I would have used working in full scale. I also can more easily store my samples, because they take up about 1/4 of the space.

There also are plenty of half-scale display forms on the market. I generally don’t recommend these for pattern making. They have all the same downsides as a full-size display form, but with the added complication of being half-scale. However, if you get really into working in half-scale, you may want to consider buying a few half-scale display forms to showcase your designs.

I used half-scale display forms to showcase my knitting student half-scale sweaters in the lobby before our annual fashion show. For some reason, I find that half-scale garments get even more attention than full scale garments when on display!

Half-scale sweaters from a beginning machine knitting class on display at the Harper College Annual Fashion Show.

Dress Form Features

Whether you end up buying a professional dress form or looking for alternatives, there are a few features you should be looking at. I’ve gone pretty in-depth here because for most people a dress form is a significant investment. As you read, think about what is important for you personally when buying a dress form and how these different features will impact it’s usability for your own work.

Collapsible Shoulders and Hips

One thing most non-sewists don’t know about dress forms is that a good professional form will have collapsible shoulders. There isn’t a visible mechanism for this. All you do is press firmly and evenly on the shoulders and they compress in a few inches and hold. To release, just press the shoulders in again firmly. This mechanism is one of the main reasons that professional dress forms cost more than similar looking display forms.

This feature is useful, because unlike real bodies, dress forms can’t bend or otherwise maneuver themselves into a garment. A garment that may be easy for a human to wiggle into, can get damaged if you try to pull it over fully extend dress form shoulders. Collapsible shoulders are one of my non-negotiable features when looking for a full size form.

Much more rare are collapsible hips. I’ve only seen that feature on this PGM form. Since most garments are pulled on over the top when using a dress form, I don’t think collapsible hips will be useful to most people, but you might be a special case!

Shaping and Sizing

Dress forms are offered in three different body shapes: male, female (aka missy), and child. It’s also possible to find specialty forms for petites and plus size, and to get fully custom dress forms from some manufacturers. Size ranges vary from one company to another and size numbers don’t typically align with the sizes you buy in ready-to-wear garments. Always reference the size chart before ordering.

Even if two forms are the same size in number, that doesn’t mean they’re the same shape or measurements. Dress forms made by different manufacturers can be shaped very, very differently. And dress forms made by the same company can change over time. For example, forms from French European (formerly Wolf) are known to be on the flat side, but they are curvier now than they were when I went to school in the 2000s. In my experience, these are more popular with people making custom clothing, in part because the flatter shape allows them to be padded out to the shape needed.

But if you want a really curvy form, the best are Alva forms, which have the most dimensional shape. These are considered some of the best forms for developing designs for modern mass production. In mass production, you want a standardized but realistic shape, and so you wouldn’t be padding the form to custom measurements.

While size adjustable dress forms exist, they do have downsides that I’ve discussed above. There also are padding kits available for getting a fully customized shape on any type of form.

Legs

Forms are categorized as half, three-quarters (also known as torso or half-body leg forms), or full based on what the leg situation is. Half forms are the classic style, often with a cage at the bottom. These are intended for fitting dresses, bodices, and skirts only.

Three-quarter forms are generally my favorite form. Whatever name they go by, they’re easily distinguished by the presence of defined thighs on the lower half. Sometimes, you’ll only get an inch or two of thigh bellow the hips, but the best ones have about 8+ inches of thigh. Either will allow you to fit or drape garments like swim bottoms and short shorts. the longer thigh version can give you a better idea of how pants will fall or help you fit tight skirts. These forms are usually sold with a stick stand similar to a half-form, but sometimes they come with hanging stands like a full form.

Full forms will have fully shaped legs. Usually one will be removable to make it easier to dress. These forms are great if you tend to make a lot of pants and jumpsuits. However, they have a few downsides. Full forms tend to be the most expensive of all the forms. They also take up the most floor space because they use a hanging stand. They also can be a bit cumbersome to dress if you need to put anything on by pulling it over the top. Full forms are suspended from the neck, so you have to remove them from their stand and awkwardly hold them to get an over-the-head top or dress on. I also don’t love to drape on them, as the form can swing around a lot when hanging on its stand. Generally, I’d recommend a full form as a second or third dress form unless you’re really focused on pants.

It is also possible to source forms that are just the lower half of the body. These range from full leg forms intended for fitting pants to small forms intended to fit panties and swim bottoms. These might be good alternatives to a full form, depending on what sort of garments you’re making. They are harder to find, but much less expensive than a full form.

Arms and Arm Caps

In most cases, dress forms don’t come standard with arms or arm caps. Without these, the shoulders of the form only extend through the torso, meaning the part of the shoulder that makes up the top of the arm is missing. Some dress form systems have snap on magnetic arms and arm caps that you can purchase, while other forms won’t have any arm options.

If you buy a form that doesn’t have arms, it is however, pretty easy to sew a set of arms yourself that you can pin on at the shoulder. These work fairly well, but they’re not quite as good as full, professional arms.

Style Lines and Markings

The seam lines and twill tape on professional dress forms aren’t just there for decoration. Being able to feel these markings through the fabric is vital when draping a pattern. With professional forms, these lines are placed to aid in pattern making. If you go with an alternative form the seam lines may be missing or stylized in ways that don’t work well for patterning. You can get around this by adding your own using draping tape or twill tape.

Some forms also have additional markings for things like the bust point printed onto the form. I personally haven’t found these particularly useful, because I can’t see them when draping. However, they can serve as useful guides for placing twill tape lines to prepare for draping.

Stands

Stands are usually the least interesting part of buying a dress form, and so they get overlooked, but are still very much worth paying attention to. A good dress form is easily raised and lowered, ideally using a foot peddle. The base should be heavy enough that you don’t have to worry about the whole thing tipping over while you’re working. At the same time, you want it to have smoothly rolling wheels so you can easily turn it around and move it as you work. Non-professional forms aren’t intended to be used as heavily, so they often have lighter bases that aren’t as easily adjusted.

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