How to make a top cover

Making a top cover allows a garment to sit well and protects it from the abrasive qualities of the padding.

Preparation for the Black evening gown (bodice and skirt), J. Ballantyne and Co. manufacturer(s), about 1895, New Zealand. Found in collection, date unknown. Te Papa (PC001642)

Stretch fabrics are your friends here. Although it is possible to finish a padded mannequin in any material, the use of a non-stretch textile is time-consuming and fiddly and should only be attempted by those confident with the principles of pattern cutting and draping.

You will need:

  • Cover fabric (cotton jersey) - 1m will usually be enough

  • Scissors

  • Thread

  • Glass headed pins

  • Sewing machine

  • Chalk or pencil

Step 1: Scour any bought fabric on a hot wash without detergent before working with it, especially if it will be in contact with collection garments.

Step 2: Cut two pieces of your cotton piece or jersey so it is large enough to amply cover the whole front and back of the torso. Pin the warp of the material to run stretched along the vertical centre line of the mannequin with the reverse of the fabric facing out.

Step 3: Pin the front and back panels together at the waist, bust hip and shoulders. Try to keep the grain lines of your fabric straight with an even tension in the stretch.

Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Step 4: Add more pins around the edge until both sides of the torso are fully pinned. At this stage, you should go along your pinned lines again tightening the cover and ensuring the side line seams are straight and even. The cover should be tight enough that no darts are needed and it is difficult to pinch the textile away from the centre front or back of the form.

Step 5: Cut off the excess fabric approximately 2cms away from the pin line and mark along the edges with a chalk or china-graph pencil. Remember to add balance marks at the waist, bust, hip and shoulder.

Step 6: Remove the pins and cover from the form. Repin panels together but matching up your marked line and balance marks. There is likely to be more fabric in the front than the back but always mark which piece is which to be sure.

Step 7: Machine stitch along your marked line with a tight overlock stitch or a small zigzag. Be sure to stretch out the fabric as you sew to avoid bunching and puckering and take care not to hit the pins with your machine needle.

Step 8: Once stitched, cut off the excess seam allowance as close to the stitching as possible and turn the cover inside out so that the right side of the fabric is showing. If you are looking for a high-quality finish take the time to tack your seams down. This will prevent them from twisting when you come to dress the cover onto the form.

Cut off excess seam allowance and turn the cover inside out so that the right side of the fabric is showing, for a high quality finish tack your seams down. Photos by Sam Gatley

Step 9: Dress the cover back onto your form. This involves a bit of patience and pulling but the cover should eventually sit with the side seams in the same straight position as they were pinned. Use a large running stitch with a strong doubled-up thread to pull the excess fabric around the bottom of the torso to finish. Remove any tacking thread and press the seams in situ using a fabric off-cut between the iron and torso.

Woman's bodice, 1730-1750, France, maker unknown. Bequest of Mrs Alec Tweedie, 1946. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC000044)