Drafting vintage block patterns with Inkscape – A tutorial

Hello everyone,

Today it is time for another tutorial. As I have mentioned in my previous post, I found some early-1900s block patterns at the library. Now I finally got around to enlarging them. Usually I would have done this on a sheet of brown paper. But, right now, I don’t have my foot-long ruler and French curve with me. So I decided to try out a different, more tech-savvy way. For this, I used Inkscape, a free line-draw software you can download here. It is pretty basic and not always straightforward to use, but still very recommendable for patternmaking. It has an option to save your drawings in PDF format. Further down, I will explain how to turn these files into a tiled print-at-home-style pattern.

In this tutorial, we will draft this pattern piece from Antonie Steimann’s “Ich kann schneidern” (“I can tailor”) first published in 1908. It is the first side gore of a 4-piece corselet skirt. As it is a German publication, all measures are in centimeters. Length measures are indicated down the vertical lines of the block and the width measures are on the horizontal sides. Actually, this bit is quite universal and intuitive. ;)

1908 corselet skirt gore

Before we start, I should add a word of warning. The following steps will be pretty picture-heavy. But I hope things will be easier to understand this way, especially for the less computer-loving people among us. So, here we go:

Drafting the pattern:

Open a new document by selecting “File” -> “Default”

Now, select “Document Properties” from the same menu to get your block ready for drafting.

In the dialog that pops up now, you have to change the units used in the document to those indicated in your pattern. This one is in cm, but you can also set it to inches, or whatever else you need. Set the length unit in both the “Default units” and the “Units” drop-down menu. This way you will later also see the length of your lines in the right unit.

Next you have to set the dimensions of your sheet. For this, you enter the maximum width (from point b to the right edge) and the maximum length (from point b to the bottom edge) of the block. In this case, the sheet will be 34 cm wide and 110 cm high/long.

In the same window, go to the “Grids” tab. Here we will create a grid to guide our lines later. Click on “New” to get started. Next, change the units to the same ones you used before. Now pick a spacing. Usually, the equal amount on both axes makes sense. I picked .5 cm and added a major line every 1 cm (or every 2 units as it says here). On the two lines below, you can set the grid lines to a different color to be easier to distinguish.

Now jump to the “Snap” tab. Here you set the “snap to grids” option to “Always snap”. Leave everything else as it is and close the window. Later this option will help you adjust your lines.

Now zoom into the top left corner of your document with the magnifying glass tool. Then select the line tool from the sidebar.

Move the tool tip to the top left corner of the page. Wait for the little cross and the text “Handle to grid intersection” appears underneath it. Then click once. Important: For an accurate pattern, always wait for the cross to appear before you click anything. Otherwise your measurements will be off by a bit…

Now we draw our first vertical line. It will end 7 cm from the corner point (point b). For this, you move the line tool straight down the edge. At the very bottom of the window, where it says “Line segment” you can see the angle and length of the line you are just drawing. For vertical lines the angle should always be at (-) 90 degrees. The angle for perfectly horizontal lines is 0 degs. When you reach the desired length, snap the line to the matching grid square. For this, just make sure the length stays as it is and the line stays straight and wait for the little cross to appear again. Then you double-click and your first line shows up.

Next we repeat the same steps for the first horizontal line which ends 11 cm from point b.

Next we will work down the right edge of the page and draw the horizontal guides you can see in the pattern above. For this, we will use the line tool to measure the distances along the edge. For this, you click on the right corner point once and draw a line like before. Only this time, you will click on the end point just once when you reach the desired length (5 cm in this case).

Moving right on from this point, draw the first horizontal guide line, finishing it off with a double-click, once it reaches the indicated length of 22 cm.

Now it is time to draw the first two lines of the skirt’s top end.For this, you first connect the end point of the guide line with the end point of the first side line we drew. In a next step, you connect the same end point upwards, with the end point of our first horizontal line on the page’s top edge. For the last of these three lines, you have to measure down 2 cm from the top left corner, like you did before. After clicking once, draw a line that connects with the end point of the previous line to form the skirt’s waistband.

Starting from the top right corner again, create the second horizontal guide. When the line is finished, connect its end point with that of the previous guide line.

Next our skirt will get its bottom edge. For this, scroll down to the bottom right corner of the page. As it is easier this way, we will now measure up 2.5 cm to reach the 107.5 cm indicated in the pattern. Now, connect this point to the one at the very bottom of the page’s left corner. Double-click, as always.

Now, go back to the other end point of this last line. Scrolling back up, connect it to the end point of the second horizontal guide line.

Going back to the top left corner again, draw the 20 cm long line shown in the pattern. From the end point, draw another, all the way down to the bottom left corner. For the next step it is important to draw these two lines separately. Now we will bend those lines in need of rounding. For this, select the “move nodes” tool from the sidebar. It is the second one from the top.

When using the nodes tool, use it gently and wriggle your lines around a bit. If you pull too hard, you will get some quite funky-looking curves. ;)

And we are already done drafting our block. Now you first save it in Inkscape’s default format (.svg) by selecting “Save” from the File menu. To get our PDF, select “Save as” from the same menu next.

In the dialogue box, select the “PDF” option from the drop-down. Then click “Save”. In the next section, I will show you how to turn this file into a printable pattern, using ye olde Adobe Reader.

Printing the pattern:

Open the PDF file in Adobe Reader and select “File” -> “Print”.

In the print dialogue box, set the sizing options to “Poster”. The tile scale should always be at 100%. You can customize the page overlap you will need to tape together the single “tiles”, or printed pages, later. I usually go for the .01 inches you can see above. Make sure to always check both the “Cut marks” and “Labels” boxes! One will help you when aligning the pages, the other will name and number the pages to help you sort them.
Click “Print” and enjoy your pattern. :) If you need any help taping up the pages you just printed, please let me know. It takes some practice to go smoothly, but you can do it.

So, this marks the end of today’s little monster post. I hope it was insightful, and not too monstrous, for you. Let me know what you think. :)

Best wishes, Nessa


16 thoughts on “Drafting vintage block patterns with Inkscape – A tutorial

  1. Robyn says:

    Hi Nessa – I have followed your tutorial but one thing puzzles me. Your grid is different to mine and I would like mine to be like yours. Yours is nicely laid out but mine is very small and in the one colour. I have changed the colour of the Major Grid Line but that is the colour my grid is.
    Snap to Grids is at 50 but greyed out…can you help please?


    • Nessa says:

      Hello Robyn,

      My guess would be that Inkscape is showing you its default grid, which you can’t manipulate. You can change that in the “Document Properties” window. It’s the one in which you also find the page size and “Snap” tabs. To the left of the “Snap” tab, there is a tab called “Grids”. Select it and up where it says “Creation” there is a drop-down menu that is usually set to “rectangular grid”. This is the option you want. Now click on the “New” button next to it. You should then get a grid you can space to larger sizes. First you have to set the grid unit to the one your pattern is in (usually cm or inches). Then you can put in the distances you want next to “Spacing X” and “Spacing Y”. You should enter the same amount in both for an even grid. And you can change the line colors below that.
      If you go to “Grids” though and there is already a grid in place (that’s the case when you first click on it and more boxes than just the “Create” one show before you changed anything) you have to click the “Remove” button at the very bottom. This leaves you with a blank page. Then you can just go through the steps I described above, to create the grid you want to use.
      As for the “Snap to grids” option. It is usually set to 50 and that is just fine. All you have to make sure about in the “Snap” tab, is that “snap to grid” is checked as an option.

      I hope this helps. If not, please feel free to e-mail me or contact me through the Facebook page. :)
      Best, Nessa

  2. Hana - Marmota says:

    This is pretty much exactly what I do, except that I don’t bother changing the size of the sheet – you can choose to export “drawing”, which will have you covered even when it’s much larger than the default page/sheet. And with PDF Creator (which is a virtual printer that “prints” into a PDF file), you can take that Adobe Reader printing step and use it to create a tiled PDF. (That works for Windows. I’ve also played with a tiling program in Linux the name of which I’ve forgotten, but I never could get it to retain the correct size.)
    I’ve also tried to take it a step further and grade in Inkscape, using percentages for length and width I derived from Burda size charts. So far, this crude method I came up with seems to more or less work for smaller sizes / sizes close to the size I start with, but to deliver some increasingly odd shapes as I go up. Which would support the grading wisdom that plus sizes need a separate basis pattern.
    The great thing about it all is that I can digitise my own patterns this way as well – I just have to mark/measure strategic points on them in the same perpendicular manner.

    • Nessa says:

      Thank you for sharing how you do it, Hana. :) And that is a great method to export the drawings. Since I’m so used to it, I usually save as .pdf and then tile it using doPDF, which is a similar virtual printer. But that way I end up doing an extra step indeed. Your method is much more elegant. I shall try it in future. :)
      I have also scanned and digitized a few of my smaller patterns this way so far and I am also quite happy with how that turns out.
      The problem you mention about grading to bigger sizes has recently hit me as well. In general, I find Inkscape a bit clunky and tricky when trying to enlarge drawings. The last time I had to enlarge an embroidery pattern by a certain ratio, I tried doing it with Gimp and then cross-importing it to Inkscape to work on the graphics a little. So far, I find that Gimp is one of the few image editors that is halfway true to image size when used for scaling, once you get a hang of the dialog boxes and shortkeys. And it integrates with Inkscape well enough. But this is only a one-off experience and I definitely need to work on perfecting it. Yet, this once, I was satisfied with the outcome.

      • Hana - Marmota says:

        You do always need that extra creating PDF step for tiling, as far as I know, even when instead of printing it, you just create another PDF out of it.
        I don’t even scan my patterns, though – that step can be safely skipped with something like a grid paper or so, when I just measure on the actual pattern pieces. I guess it depends on whether you prefer to work/refer paper-computer or computer-computer. :D

      • Hana - Marmota says:

        Oh, one more thing hit me: When Inkscape resizes, it also resizes the thickness of the lines, for some reason. You just have to set them back as what you want them to be; once you do that, it is just as neat as you would expect a vector graphics program to be. I am assuming that is what your problem with resizing embroidery designs was.
        The problem I had with my crude grading method had entirely to do with the proportions of the human figure, and it is not Inkscape’s fault that I, not being an actual patetrn grader, haven’t figured out anything more precise than that.

        • Nessa says:

          There is a pattern grading tutorial that shows in much detail how to grade avoiding that. I’ll see if I can share it with you later. And the embroidery pattern issue had another source I found out now: I used Photofiltre to pre-process the image and the sizing was incompatible so scaling was extra hard. Should have imported that raw file to Inkscape right away before messing it up with a pixel-based software. ;)

  3. Hana - Marmota says:

    … you create a large PDF from the Inkscape file, and then out of that large PDF you create a tiled one with the help of Adobe Reader’s poster printing and a virtual printer that takes the printing instructions and instead of paper puts them into another PDF. To be hopefully absolutely clear.

    • Nessa says:

      That is one way of doing it. The virtual printer step can be foregone, unless you only want to use certain pattern pieces. Otherwise you can just go from the initial PDF created in Inkscape and tile that or have it printed out in the original dimension.


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