Lingerie is always one of my favorite parts of pattern catalogs. The Butterick 1915 pattern catalog I recently let go from my collection had some great examples of the lingerie styles of the era, which included chemises, corset covers, brassieres, drawers, slips, and combinations.
The Brassiere of 1915
This catalog was of particular interest, though, for the brassieres. Every now and then there seems to be a mainstream cultural piece gushing about the 1914 invention of the “brassiere” and the supposed liberation from the oppression of corsets it provided, etc. This narrative defines brassiere in an extremely narrow way, ignoring breast bands that go back to Greece and are depicted in 4th century mosaics, medieval finds from Lengburg Castle dating to the 15th century that resemble modern lingerie design, and the many kinds of bust support patented during the 19th century. The Mary Phelps Jacob patent of 1914 is more of a backless bralette, which is a unique design, but far from the first bra available. (To me, it’s another example of the way that we view our historical predecessors as dramatically different from us or somehow more ignorant, confined by uncomfortable corsetry because propriety demanded it, conveniently ignoring our own modern excesses such as plastic surgery.) As long as women have had fabric, I suspect there have been ways we’ve used it to provide breast support while working or engaging in sports.
In the 1915 Butterick catalog, there are many examples of brassieres and bust support in the form of fitted corset covers. (This contradicts the “the brassiere was invented in 1914” narrative as well, since if it had just been invented a few months before, DeBevoise probably wouldn’t have been mass producing the “brassiere” in the spring of 1915.) There is an ad for DeBevoise brassieres that have the monobosom shape of the 1915 silhouette. These would have been made of mostly nonstretch fabric, and patterns for them have always seemed very plain and utilitarian to me, but I think I may have underestimated the possibilities there. Some of the lace and sheer versions are very pretty, and I’m curious enough about what kind of support they could provide that I might have to give making one of these a try.
There were patterns available from Butterick for similar styles:
The 1915 Corset Silhouette
The brassiere seemed to be gaining momentum as the corset shifted lower to give the straight, thin hipped look that was fashionable then. The brassiere or fitted corset cover would support the bust while the corset gave shaping to the lower torso. There’s a great ad for corsets in the catalog that illustrates the corset style in 1915:
I’ve seen discussions of corsetry that describe this garment as oppressive and claiming that this kind of corset made sitting difficult, but it’s clear from surviving garments from the period and patterns for this type of corset that the boning didn’t extend all the way to the bottom of this type of corset. The boning in most examples I’ve seen stops at the high hip, as a typical higher corset’s bones would. This kind of corset often included elastic panels at the hip, too. I doubt moving or sitting in it would be much different than trying to move or sit in a contemporary girdle or Spanx type control garment.
The Corset Covers, Slips and Chemises of 1915
The corset cover is a type of delicate undershirt that if made to fit closely would have provided bust support, but looser styles could be worn with other foundation pieces like corsets or boned brassieres to smooth the silhouette, too. Corset covers typically ended at the waistline or high hip while chemises usually were full body length.
There are several styles for these kinds of garments in the Butterick catalog:
Drawers of 1915
Panties or knickers as we currently know them don’t seem to have really been a thing yet as of 1915. The lower body styles featured in this pattern catalog are drawers, and they are for *open* drawers, so they were definitely still being worn in this era. For the most part they seem to still be being worn down to the knee as well.
Judging from the amount of patterns offered for combination undergarments, they seem to have been extremely popular in this era. There are also several envelope chemises, which is the closest thing to the closed crotch kind of undergarment we’re used to today:
The combination combined the corset cover or chemise with open drawers:
This simple garment could be somewhat fitted or looser fit, simple and utilitarian or embellished with embroidery and lace, gathered at the neckline or suspended from shoulder straps, gathered and trimmed at the leg or loose.
I think I need to give these a try, too. In a suitable fabric and with a close fit, these would be basically the same thing as a summery jumpsuit, and they’d have a bit of vintage elegance to them. Maybe when I’m not sleep deprived I’ll give them a go. 🙂
I’ll end this screed with just some advertising gorgeousness for its own sake from another brassiere ad. The illustrations of the time are so beautiful.
Happy Sunday! Have you ever worn or sewn undergarments in the style of this era? I’d love to hear your opinions / experiences / general thoughts on vintage styles being done with contemporary styling.
I’ve officially started cleaning out my sewing room / having a full blown not-quite-midlife decluttering crisis and ebay-ing some of my old collected treasures. It’s funny the way my compulsions come full circle given enough time. About five years ago, I was interested in minimalism and simple living and trying to clear out my possessions to have time and space for what mattered most to me. Then I got interested in sewing ephemera and collecting sewing machines, and somehow my sewing room / sanctuary space became overrun with treasures.
Some of this is Asperger’s related, or to put it in non-identity-label terms, my learning style. When I become interested in something, it becomes obsessive, and I learn by immersing myself completely in the subject. I have enjoyed the process immensely, and pattern catalogs and sewing manuals and correspondence courses appeal to so many of my interests – visual art, graphic design, antiques, cultural history, gender history, material culture, crafting – that collecting them has engaged me as little else has.
But now, the cycle of my interests is shifting back to simplicity, and with a new baby and a desire to really move into patternmaking as an action and not just a study, I find that owning all of these delicate historical things is not providing me the same pleasure that hunting and studying it initially did. We don’t have enough room for me to store these things anymore, really. The sheer volume of kids toys we’ve accumulated with one kiddo who shares my hoarder tendencies is unbelievable, so with two, there’s just not room for boxes of books.
And what I want has changed. I want a crafting room or studio space that I can share with my kids without the worry that they might accidentally get ink on some antique irreplaceable thing that I paid a huge amount of money for. (Not to mention life in tornado alley makes a girl a bit nervous about all those 19th century leaflets upstairs when the sirens go off and we all pile in the basement.) I’d rather use the money from selling them to buy fabrics and art materials to engage with. So I’m finding new homes for some of the treasures I’ve accumulated over the years.
I keep reading Marie Kondo and hoping it will stick. There’s a passage in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up that I keep coming back to:
When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure. To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.
Most of the things I’ve collected have served their purpose in my life, in that they’ve provided an education and a great deal of inspiration. I scan and reproduce some of my favorites as a history nerd / design passion project, so have the ability to return to the information they contain. So I think I’m ready to clear out the physical bulk and work toward having space and materials to put what they’ve taught me to use in making new designs, doing my own sketches, writing about what I’ve learned about fashion history.
So, if you are a collector of fashion ephemera, feel free to watch my ebay (here). I have so many things to clear out over the next few months. I’ll try to post about some of the things I send back out into the world as I go through the process, because some of the designs and information in them is really fantastic.
I put up a Butterick catalog from 1915 this weekend that has some fantastic illustrations and unique details in it that I figured I’d share here, just as fashion inspiration. I love the influence of the kimono on this era (and have been very into researching kimono inspired garments lately) that started with Poiret a few years earlier but can still be seen in the girdles and sashes and surplice necklines.
Some of these designs and silhouettes seem very dated but even the dated designs have details that could be incorporated to give personality to contemporary designs or simple garments. Others, though, if they were done in contemporary colors and fabrics and with a modern hairstyle, you’d never know they were hundred year old designs. The dress with a deep neckline, a sash and the midsection, and the ruffle detail low on the sleeve and skirt would be gorgeous in a light chiffon outer layer and a satin sash in the same color for subtlety or a bright contrasting one for drama, something like cream chiffon with a scarlet sash and maybe some scarlet ribbon detailing at the neckline.
Fashion magazines always appeal to my inner 15 year old art nerd, too. The way these illustrations are done is both pretty and illustrative in a way some eras aren’t. Personally, I like this better than some of the line drawing qualities of illustration in the 1920s and the harsher femininity sometimes illustrated in the 1930s. It’s interesting, too, because these illustrations seem to depict female faces as they would look with heavy cosmetic applications, though women would probably still have tried to keep their makeup applications looking very natural at this point in history, using maybe just a face powder, light rouge, eyebrow pencil, and a tonic on lashes.
The shift of silhouette from the heavily corseted, tiny waistline of the first decade of the 1900s is fascinating. From what I understand this was probably partly due to the popularity of Titanic era designs by Poiret, Fortuny, and others that were inspired by other cultures with a more natural silhouette, but also due to necessity as World War I changed everyone’s lives so dramatically from 1914 onward, changing the daily activities of women, causing material shortages such that designs had to use less fabric, and so many other changes.
The corsets and undergarments really deserve an in-depth post of their own, so more on that later.
I’m excited to say I finally had my baby girl, a little more than three weeks ago now. Requisite retelling of the birth (feel free to skip): I spent a lot of time worried about preeclampsia and platelet counts, but that ended up being for nothing as that wasn’t a problem, though labor ended up being awful for other reasons (infection after my water broke, low blood pressure, fever, crappy anatomy) and I ended up having a c-section after 24 hours of labor because my poor baby wasn’t tolerating it and after five hours of pushing and a room full of nurses cheerleading at your junk, well, a c-section starts sounding pretty good. Poor kiddo had some scary complications after the stressful birth and ended up in the NICU for about five days, and I couldn’t even touch her for about two days, so that was an emotional nightmare, but I’m happy to say everything resolved and we’re all home now and healthy and happy(ish – let’s be real, I have some emotional wobbliness while pregnant / after birth that check a lot of antenatal/postpartum depression boxes, but luckily I am able to caretake and enjoy the moments with my kids despite it). Sleep deprived, of course, but content. The whole experience was identity-jarring, which has left me with an even more intense minimalism/decluttering urge for convoluted psychological reasons better left explored over coffee with a sister or bff, but eh. Despite my aspirations and birth plans and idealism and well-intentioned attempt at unmedicated labor (HAAAAAHHAHAHA. NOPE), birth is intense and sometimes horrible and sort of existentially traumatizing, at least for me, but I seem to have bad luck in that department. She’s wonderful, and worth it all, and her brother, too, who has been amazing adapting to everything, too. I’m so blessed in that.
Funny, though, that most of the women I know told me that you’ll know labor is imminent when you get a burst of energy and want to clean the house. That sensation is utterly unknown to me. I did get zoned in on working on a pattern for about 12 hours straight, though, which I’m still grading and testing, but hope to release very soon. The world is full of good bra patterns, especially in the boom of interest over the last 3 or so years, but it makes me feel better to work on something I enjoy and I feel much less isolated when I engage with the world via a craft I care immensely about. It’s helping me to really systematize my understanding of stretch reductions, cup sizing, grading different bra parts, and using Illustrator, so that feels like an accomplishment. Once I’m satisfied with the nuts and bolts of this one, I have quite a few ideas for less common, more vintage inspired pattern styles in the future. It’s a simple demi style bralette with slightly angled seam lines and an angled center front band, which works well with the lines of rectangular torsos like mine to imply a little curvaceousness, worked well with the belly I had when pregnant, and allows for a front of bra lace longline detail:
Ease amounts in commercial patterns are one of the eternally frustrating problems of contemporary sewing. The amount of ease included in designs seems to vary wildly from pattern to pattern, even from the same company, so that the home sewer finds her or himself needing to sew a muslin/toile for each pattern. It adds yet another layer of complication to the puzzle that is pattern size selection. But where does the confusion come from, exactly? I’m thinking there are a few main culprits: patterns drafted with ease amounts that don’t fit the actual garment type, inaccurate pattern photographs, and lack of finished garment measurements to give an objective way to analyze final fit. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m only going to consider patterns for woven fabrics at the moment.)
What exactly is ease?
It’s the amount of extra space added to a pattern in excess of actual body measurements to allow for movement and style. Wearing or fitting ease refers to a necessary small amount of space included in slopers and almost every pattern type (with the exception of corsets, some foundation garments, and stretch fabric patterns) that allow the wearer to breathe, sit, bend, and reach in the garment. This is usually around 2″ of additional space at the bust, 1″ at the waist, and 1.5″ at the hip, no matter what the pattern size.
Design ease is a more variable amount of space added to patterns to create different style types, create silhouettes, and to give movement to the garment. Design ease amounts are proportional and depend to some extent on the size of the garment, though there are general industry standards for different fits that are the approximately the same from pattern company to pattern company.
Ease Standards for Different Garment Types
There are about five different categories of fit that pattern companies generally use to describe their patterns. Though there is a lot of variation from garment style to garment style, and the top of the pattern may have one fit and the bottom have another, this can be helpful in understanding how much ease to expect the garment to have. The McCall website here offers a chart of ease amounts for various fits. This chart doesn’t differentiate between design and wearing ease, so my assumption is that this is the total amount added to the body measurement.
Close Fitting (includes 0-2 7/8 inches of design ease at the bust)
Fitted (includes 3-4 inches of design ease at the bust)
Semi Fitted (includes 4 1/8-5 inches of design ease at the bust)
Loose Fitting (includes 5 1/8-8 inches of design ease at the bust)
Very Loose (over 8 inches of design ease at the bust)
Slightly more design ease is added for garments that are layered on top of other garments, such as jackets and coats. The design ease included at the waist and hip varies depending on whether the garment has a waistband or where the garment hangs from the body.
There’s a great piece that goes more in depth on the subject (here), though I’m unsure about the exact design ease amounts it lists. (That chart matches the McCall chart, which I think includes wearing ease and design ease in its amounts, so the amounts of *design* ease added to body measurements are probably smaller than it describes.) It has some very helpful visual guides to what different fit styles look like on the body.
Wearing and design ease standards seem formulaic enough that it’s odd there’s so much inconsistency. So many people on sewing forums and doing pattern reviews describe problems with way too much ease for their size. So where does the confusion come in? Do pattern companies not stick to their described standards? Does grading add excessive ease for certain sizes? I examined a set of patterns to see how this works out for a few different garment fit types from different eras (because I have strange ideas about what constitutes a good time) and found a few issues I’ll examine in detail.
Grading Inconsistency and Wrong Ease Amounts for the Garment Type: Corset Patterns
Some of the problem may come from using the wrong pattern block or wrong design ease for the garment type, though this seems likely only for certain kinds of close-fitting garments like corsets and strapless bodices that require a very close fit to stay in place.
I looked at Butterick 4254 View C, sizes 12, 14, and 16, which is a historically based late 19th century style corset with a front busk and a laced up back. At the bustline, the finished garment measurements printed on the pattern match the body exactly at the bust. At the waist, for size 12, the pattern matches the body exactly. For sizes 14 and 16, the pattern is 1/2 inch smaller than the waist. So for this particular pattern, there are two fit problems. First, the ease seems to vary irregularly by size at the waist, which is problematic for predicting fit. Second, the lacing gap for most corsets is usually about 2″, so if we add that, the final corset is not going to fit as a sewist would expect it to fit. If the sewist is wanting a garment that fits something like a Victorian corset, they’re going to be disappointed, because there’s no way a period garment included 2″ of ease, and a corset would have nipped in at least an inch or two at the waist as well. Sewists using this pattern on various boards usually recommend sizing down about two sizes, sometimes more, in order to get the fit that one would want in a corset.
Butterick 5797 corset pattern.
I also looked at Butterick 5797, View A, sizes 12, 14, and 16. It’s described as a corset, close fitting, and labeled with “Making History” (though, alas, there’s no info on the specifics of that history included). This one closes with a zipper in front and has no lacing. I found that based on the final garment sizes given, at the bust there is a consistent 2″ of ease for all sizes. At the waist, for size 12 and 14, there is 2 1/2″ of ease, and for size 16, there is 3″ of ease. At the high hip, there was approximately 1 1/2″ for all sizes. For this pattern as with the other corset pattern, it isn’t going to fit like an actual corset at all, so a sewist expecting that is going to be disappointed, though they might suspect that from the zipper. (Without lacing to allow movement with breathing, the zero ease typical of a corset isn’t really desirable or comfortable). An argument could be made for having more design ease at the waist for larger sizes since design ease is proportional, but if that were the case, the ease amount should increase between size 12 and 14 by some increment as well, but a corset is usually expected to nip in at the waistline.
What’s frustrating is that two “historical” corset patterns from the same company seem to vary in the amount of ease they use for similar garments in a way that is not transparent. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt on 4254 and pretend that 2″ that should be indicated for the lacing gap are part of the pattern ease, when you compare the two patterns, the ease amount doesn’t change in the same way between sizes, so how can you predict the fit accurately? If you know the best size for you in one pattern, that same size may not work in the other pattern. Looking at the pattern envelope raises another issue as well.
Is Pattern Envelope Photography Realistic?
The photo on the envelope of Butterick 5797 seems to fit the model as a contemporary corset might, if worn without the intention to nip the waist. But if the model were wearing the size indicated for her on the size chart, it’s very unlikely it would fit this way. If a strapless boned bodice had 2″ of ease at the bust, it probably wouldn’t stay in place. If the model’s garment had 2 1/2″-3″ of ease at the waist, it probably wouldn’t appear this form flattering on her.
My suspicion is that models on pattern envelopes almost never wear the sizes of the garment they would be told to select on the pattern envelope, and during the photo shoot, clothing is probably pinned with clips to flatter body curves and hang just right. The photos of this particular pattern look lovely, but what’s the point of great product photos that don’t accurately depict the fit of the product? It creates an expectation that’s going to be disappointed.
Ease Amounts in Commercial Patterns over Various Eras
I was curious about ease amounts and silhouettes in other commercial patterns and over different eras, so I looked at several more examples of different garment styles for the sake of comparison.
The oldest pattern I looked at was a dress from 1934 from Mabs Weekly, one of the fashion magazines of the era that often included a free pattern. This one would have been a fitted bodice style. I don’t have the original illustration of the garment, but the pattern is for a 36” bust. The final garment measurements weren’t listed on the pattern, so I measured the pieces themselves and subtracted the seam allowances to find the finished measurements. The finished measurement of the garment at the bustline is 39.5″, for 3.5″ total ease.
1940s Lingerie Pattern Ease
I looked at another pattern, Advance 3067, for a slip from what I’d guess is the 40s from the envelope design and the lines. The slip doesn’t have a placket or closure and isn’t cut on the bias, so it’s close fitting but probably not as close to the body as some lingerie. (This image is borrowed from an Etsy listing here). I found that for a size listed as 32″ breast, the finished measurement (which I had to take from the pieces themselves) was 36″ after seam allowances were removed. At the waist, the garment had approximately 6.75″ of ease when darts and seam allowances were removed, which makes sense for a pullover style garment.
1950s Lingerie Pattern Ease
Simplicity 1426 bra pattern.
For this example, I examined a contemporary reissue of a 50’s era Simplicity bra pattern (Simplicity 4333). The contemporary version of the pattern is numbered 1426, and I looked at view C. *Represses rant about ugly contemporary pattern envelope design with all her might* But seriously, the 1980s wood stain exterior paint green of the Simplicity logo and the weird way the elements are balanced is just…no. NO.
There is some confusion with using the finished garment measurements in some reviews, as it’s unclear if the size represents the full bust. (My guess is probably yes, since that’s where the Simplicity site suggests measuring to select your pattern size. Personally, I think the high bust is the better starting point for accurate pattern selection, since it measures your frame rather than your breast fullness.) According to the size chart, the finished measurement matches the body measurement exactly at the bust.
Out of curiosity, I measured the pattern pieces for my likely size as well. For the size 12 pattern, the finished measurement is listed as 34″. But there is a button placket at the center back, and it’s unclear if those finished garment measurements include the amount that the band overlaps at the placket or not. I measured to the center line of that placket, essentially measuring the circumference of the garment when closed for wearing, and found that when seam allowances were removed, that size would actually be 33″, an inch smaller than the body, which isn’t going to be workable for a garment with no stretch. (Counting the overlap in the finished measurement would have given me a measurement of approximately 34 and 1/4″ full circumference.)
While there’s definitely some room for error on the part of my measuring, a lack of any ease for breathing and the lack of clarity in what the finished garment measurements actually mean are a problem. While the contemporary formulation of band size/cup size wasn’t being used in the ’50s, it seems odd to me that one of the Big 4 pattern companies couldn’t examine the pattern measurements and explain their sizing in a way that takes band size/cup size into account to better serve the needs of their current customers for the reissued version. If I could find the original pattern, I’d love to compare the ease standards and grading used in the original to the ones used in the reissue. I’m also curious how accurate the finished garment measurements printed on patterns usually are.
Contemporary Lingerie Pattern Ease
Vogue 8888 lingerie pattern.
I looked at Vogue 8888 to get an idea of how much ease is used in contemporary lingerie pattern making as well. View A is a loose-fitting surplice robe. View C is a close fitting, bias cut pull over camisole. View F is a semi fitted pair of bias cut shorts.
What I found was that for the robe (View A), the bust included 6.5″ ease and the hip had 7.5″ of ease for all sizes. For the camisole, there was 3″ of ease at the bust for all sizes I checked, which might be just slightly above what the Big 4 ease charts describe as “close” fit by about 5/8″, but which makes sense given the lack of a closure and need to be able to pull it over the shoulders. For the shorts (View F), the hip had 3.5″ of ease. (I checked the actual pattern pieces for this view and found this measure to be accurate, too.) The waist had 8″ of ease, which, along with the stretch of the bias cut, would allow for them to be pulled over the hip without a placket or opening. These ease amounts aligned pretty accurately with the stated total ease amounts for the major pattern companies for different fits, and the ease amounts were the same for all sizes I looked at.
Contemporary Pattern Ease in Loose Fitting Garments
McCall 6649 loose fitting shirt pattern.
McCall 6465 loose fitting dress pattern.
I looked at McCall 6649, a loose-fitting button up menswear style shirt in a B cup size, and found that the bust had 5 1/2″ of total ease, the waist had 6″ of total ease, and the hip had 6″ of total ease for all sizes I looked at (16, 18, and 20 for this pattern). So ease amounts were consistent, and matched the given ease chart amounts for a loose fit. I was curious, though, if the final garment actually fit as it’s depicted on the envelope or if it might be looser, especially at the waist. The model may be wearing a smaller size than the envelope would recommend for her body measurements, or it might be styled to be flattering, or maybe it’s just me.
I looked at one more “loose-fitting” pattern, the McCall 6465 loose tunic dress. For sizes 16, 18, and 20, ease amounts were consistent. It had 5.5″ of ease at the bust, 13.5″ of ease at the waist, and 8.5″ of ease at the hip. The ease amount at the waist seems large, but if the dress is pulled over either the shoulder or the hip, it would make sense for the narrowest part of the body to require more ease here. This one was a looser fit than the other pattern, so if a person was expecting “loose fit” to mean the same thing on both without pulling the patterns out to check the finished measurements, there might be some frustration with the results.
The patterns I looked at seemed mostly consistent with ease amounts described as “industry standard.” I can’t find much information on ease standards in ready to wear, so I’m curious how those industry standards are applied outside of patternmaking for home sewing.
If ease amounts in patterns are relatively standard, then where does the confusion and frustration come in? I’m thinking some of it is the stylized photography of pattern envelope photos. When we see a photo of a finished garment, there is a certain automatic assumption that the photo is more realistic than the highly stylized, exaggerated silhouettes of vintage pattern envelope fashion illustration. But the photos aren’t as realistic as they seem if the samples are potentially being selected to flatter the model and the garment rather than depicting the actual fit of the pattern if it were sewn to the model’s body size. This is compounded by the possibility that clothes are pinned in place or pinned closer to the body and that photo editing might be creating the illusion of closer waistlines or trimmer leg silhouettes than the garment really gives.
So what’s a sewist to do to avoid pulling her/his hair out? The best indicator of final fit is the finished garment measurements. You can check the total ease amount by subtracting actual body measurements on the measurement chart from the finished garment measurements printed on the tissue, if they’re present. If not, it’s worthwhile to measure the pieces at least at the bustline to get an idea of whether the fit the pattern is said to be is the fit you’re expecting, and the waist and hip measurements are helpful as well. If you have a sloper that you work with for pattern fitting, you can rotate the darts to the approximate position of the sewing pattern you’re comparing it to to see how much the additional space the sewing pattern has, and whether this works for you for the fit you’re seeking.
Finally, it’s a good idea to know what kind of ease you prefer in your garments, and a great way to do this is to measure ready to wear clothing you already have that fits the way you’re wanting your sewn garment to fit. For example, if you have a skirt that is just long enough and has the amount of ease you want in a close fit, measure its actual dimensions and compare with your body measurements to get an idea of what desirable fit is for you. I’m incredibly picky about how pants fit, so as soon as my pregnancy belly resumes a more semi-permanent, somewhat back to normal state, I will be measuring a few of my favorite pairs of jeans for exact inseam length, favorite boot cut flare amount, and crotch depth that is tight enough to give some curvy definition to my back end without being pinchy or uncomfortable. In my own patternmaking future, I hope to help with the ease confusion issue by listing final garment measurements clearly and offering consistent descriptions of fit or an explanation of the amount of ease so that, hopefully, the sewist can know what they are getting into without having to sew muslins of every pattern.
If you have frustrations with pattern fitting because of excess ease, I hope that this was helpful. Do you have any tips or strategies that help you to get consistent fitting results from commercial patterns? I’d love to hear them!
I thought it might be useful to share the process of adapting a sloper pattern to actual body measurements, and what more extreme sport version of this could I do than showing how I adjusted my usual sloper size to fit the ever shifting, radical transformations of the pregnant bod? Things have shifted, swollen, and rapidly expanded in ways that I have never drafted for before. These changes are specific to certain body parts, so simply sizing up till something fits wouldn’t give me anything that fits my actual skeletal structure. I have to bust out the scissors, tape, scrap paper, and all the best swear words I learned from my time in the restaurant industry for this transformation.
I’m starting with my high bust measurement, which pre-pregnancy was 36″. (With swelling and rib cage expansion as everything gets displaced upward, my current measurement is *slightly* larger, but I’m choosing to disregard the slight discrepancy since the bones of my neck, shoulders, and upper chest are still basically the same. These bony structures are the place that most garments will hang from, so I’m choosing to prioritize this over the softer fleshy areas that have slightly swollen (or vastly expanded) where adjustments are easier to make because fewer planes of the body are intersecting.
First, I check the vertical positioning of my front waist length, back waist length, and bust position. For my size, the front waist length of the sloper (taken from the high point of the shoulder to the waistline) is approximately 16.25.” My body measurement from high point shoulder to the area previously known as my waistline is approximately 15″. Since this is imprecise at best given my current shape, and because I know I’ll need additional length in the bodice front to cover my baby bump, I’m choosing not to adjust the waist position.
For the back waist length, the sloper measurement is approximately 16.75″ and my body measurement is 17″, so I’m not going to make any adjustments here.
For the bust position, I measure the pattern from the high point shoulder to the bust point/apex/nipple, and the measurement is 9.5″. My actual body measurement is 10.5″, so for this area, I’m cutting the entire dart area out and shifting it 1″ lower and redrawing the side seam, and comparing to make sure the length still matches the back side seam length.
Then I move on to the horizontal girth measurements, where things get really intense. The total waist circumference of my sloper is approximately 30.5″. My body measurement is about 41.5″ right now. The sloper measurement includes .5″ total ease at the waist for this size, so my total desired waist circumference in my adjusted sloper should include .5″ over my body measurement as well, so the total width of my personal sloper after adjustment should be 42″ total. The majority of that difference is in the front of my body, so when adjusting the sloper, most of the adjusting will be taking place in the front. From previous pattern work, though, I do know that my waist is proportionately larger than most patterns’ standard sizing, so for the sake of balanced distribution, I will add a bit to the back waist width as well.
The front waist measurement of the sloper is 16″, .25″ of which is ease, and my body measurement is 23.75″, which is 7.75″ of difference. If I add .25″ of ease, the total front adjustment I need is 8″. (I want to maintain at least about a half inch of wearing ease in my pattern, I want to be sure to add about a half inch over my total body measurement at the waist.)
24″ actual body and ease – 16″ sloper measurement = 8″ adjustment needed to full front bodice at the waist.
So I’ll be adding 8″ of extra width to the front waist, total. Since I’m working with the pattern piece that covers a quarter of the body, I’ll only be adding 4″ to the actual pattern piece. (All of these changes will be doubled in the actual fabric since this piece is cut out twice.)
For the pregnancy shape, the front waist darts are definitely not needed, (unless you’re going for something super fitted at the underbust, in which case you could shorten the dart to the length needed and end it higher, well above the waist). For my current purposes, I don’t need the dart at all. It’s 1″ wide at the waistline, so eliminating this dart adds 2″ of total width to the front bodice, or 1″ of the needed 4″ width in the quarter body pattern piece.
I still need to add 3″ to the quarter body front bodice piece, or 6″ to the full front bodice, at the waist. To determine where and how to add this extra width, I’m going to consider what amount I need for the back as well. The sloper measurement is 14.5″ in back, which is .25″ ease. My body measurement at the back waist is 17.75″. If I add .25″ to that body measurement for ease, the width I want the back waist to be is 18″. So for the back, the total adjustment I need is going to be:
18″ actual body and ease – 14.5″ sloper measurement = 3.5″ adjustment needed to full back bodice at the waist.
This means I’ll need 1.75″ added to the quarter body back pattern piece. The back dart is 1.25″ wide at the waist line, so one possibility would be to eliminate it, but I don’t want to do that and entirely lose the shaping it provides. Though my waist is wider than typical proportions, my back definitely does have curvature there that a dart allows the fabric to follow. I may narrow it slightly to add some width, but I’ll wait to see how much. Another possibility would be to slash and spread the pattern along something like a princess line hinged at the underarm area, but this is probably more complicated than what I need, and would involve changing the hip, too.
For the sake of simplicity and trying to add girth to the pattern in a way similar to the rectangular body shape I actually have, I’m going to reduce the waistline at the side seam by straightening it, making the same adjustment to the front bodice side seam, because those pieces must match in length and their alignment is crucial to the balance of the final pattern. This adjustment adds 1.25″ width to my quarter body pattern pieces in back and front. The remaining amount I need to add at the waist is .5″ to the quarter body back piece and 1.75″ to the quarter body front piece.
To finish the waist adjustment to the back, I’m going to narrow my back dart width by .5″, leaving me with a .75″ back dart for shaping. To finish the waist adjustment to the front, I’m going to add to the center front by essentially slashing and spreading along the line where the dart was to add space for the additional body volume here.
I want to slash and spread enough to make the waistline 1.75″ larger. (Interestingly, in historical patterns, the center front seam often was curved along this line. To me, this seems like a potentially more accurate two dimensional depiction of the actual body shape in the front of the torso, which is rarely flat, unless you’re very athletic and far more disciplined about food than I.) Another benefit to this pattern adjustment is that in the future, when/if/to whatever extent my body does return to normal, having a center front bodice seam will allow for easy repeat alterations, so my maternity wear isn’t necessarily going to be relegated to the back of the closet for the rest of time, but can shrink back down with me as needed.
Next, I want to look at the high hip. The industry standard for this measurement is approximately 4″ below the waistline, with the full hip approximately 8″ below the waist, though of course this varies from person to person and between different figure types. I want to compare the high hip of the sloper (36″, .5″ of which is ease) to my high hip body measurement (39″), remembering to add .5″ of ease to my body measurement. I know from previous pattern work and from my belly bump that the entirety of this discrepancy is in the front of the pattern.
39.5″ actual body and ease – 36″ sloper measurement = 3.5″ adjustment needed to full front bodice at the high hip.
This will be 1.75″ needed in the quarter body front pattern piece. If I weren’t pregnant, I would probably slash and spread outward at the side seam to add the needed amount, but since the protrusion of my figure is along the center line, I’m going to add it to the center instead. Since I already slashed and spread at the waist to angle the sloper pattern outward and didn’t yet adjust the hip area, I can just measure this amount and alter the center front curvature to add or reduce as needed here. The amount that was already added at the hip by my previous waist adjustments works just fine here.
Then I want to look at the low hip measurement, which is approximately 8″ below the waist, give or take based on height and figure type. In my case, and in the case of any full abdomen to some extent, since the belly bump expands both vertically and horizontally, it will be a bit lower than this, especially in the center front. I’ll be adding extra length to the bottom center front to cover everything. The sloper measures 39.5″ here, with .5″ of that being ease. My body measurement is 41″ here. So I’ll add ease to the body measurement and then calculate to find my needed adjustment:
41.5″ actual body and ease – 39.5″ sloper measurement = 2″ adjustment needed to full front bodice.
So I only need to add 1″ horizontally to the quarter body front pattern piece at the low hip. My previous waist slash and spread adjustment angled the low hip line outward more than this, so I’m going to curve that line back in towards the original center front line a bit. I’m also going to add length here, too. My sloper measures vertically about 9.75″ from waistline to low hip, but my current body measurement is 12.75″ here. I’m going to add about 3″ vertically to cover this.
And that’s it for the major adjustments for the pregnancy belly. I’ll have to add more to the center front as I continue to expand, but the principle is the same. This is by no means the definitive way or the only way to do this in the flat pattern. Most patterns I’ve seen for maternity tend to add extra room/ease at the side seams, which works too, but in a much more drapey way that feels a bit too much like a shower curtain to me. The shape here hugs the curve, much like the cup of a bra pattern curves to encase the shape, rather than just draping over it. The downside of a center front curve like this, though, is that if the curve is bigger than the actual body shape, there will be sagging and wrinkling like a sagging bra cup. But that center seam allows a lot of adjusting as needed to happen during fitting, and changes made there are more independent of the rest of the garment than altering at the side seam might be.
I hope this was helpful, and I hope that my hormone addled brain didn’t make any blatantly obvious, embarrassing simple math errors. 🙂 There are some other adjustments I do to my own sloper for a forward shoulder and broad back that I’ll probably cover in a different post soon. Happy Friday!
I’m super excited to say that I have FINALLY designed and fleshed out a website that I feel good about. And on this website, you will find the *free downloadable sloper patterns* that I have been working on for approximately a year and a half. Why so long? Let’s just say that there are a lot of opportunities for screwing up some seemingly minor thing in the process of choosing sizing, developing grade rules, drafting, applying said grade rules, and modifying for cup sizes, not realizing it for a very long time, and then having to go back and start completely over because one thing affects 37 other things! 🙂 Which is not to say that I can guarantee these are perfect, but I’ve learned so much in the process of creating them that it has been time well spent, and I hope they can be useful.
These are the starting point for my pattern line, and I’m making them available as a potential fitting aid for my future patterns for anyone that chooses to use them, but mostly as my way of trying to contribute something that I hope can be useful to the online sewing community. The online crafting/sewing crowd is so inspiring and generous with encouragement and help and tips and tricks that it’s been a huge part of making this craft what it has become for me. So thank you, friends!
A nested version of the pattern that includes all sizes is available on my Etsy shop here, if you’d prefer it for grading between sizes or your own drafting purposes.
WHAT IS A SLOPER?
A sloper is the basic starting point for pattern design. Also known as a fitting shell, it is a baseline with enough wearing ease to allow for movement and breathing, but no design ease and no details. (It isn’t quite the same as a moulage, which fits even tighter, like a second skin, and it isn’t the same thing as a block, which is a basic pattern for a specified style, with design ease included, that can then be elaborated with details.) Slopers don’t include seam allowances.
WHAT IS A SLOPER USED FOR?
Patterns almost never fit right out of the envelope. This isn’t a failure of the pattern. All patterns (except bespoke ones) are drafted to an average set of measurements that falls somewhere in the middle of the vast spectrum of human shapes and sizes and body types. Unless your body dimensions happen to be very close to that average set of measurements used in drafting, your pattern will need adjusting to better fit your body. A sloper or fitting shell can help you to work out and keep a physical record of those adjustments.
A sloper is like a two dimensional dress form. You can use a sloper as a basis for designing your own patterns, or you can use it as a fitting aid to adjust patterns to your body measurements and preferred fit. In adapting a sloper to your own measurements, you establish a known minimum requirement for garments to fit, and you can establish the fit adjustments that you know you need to apply to every garment, instead of figuring them out anew for each pattern. The sloper provides a baseline for fit, where the pattern uses additional design ease, design lines, and detailing to give style, structure and movement to garments.
I wanted to draft my own set of slopers as a starting point for a few reasons. First, I wanted to start from a more realistic shape than the body model commercial companies usually assume. The industry standard body model is usually hourglass shaped, though statistically, most women do not have this shape. I wanted to use as a starting point a somewhat fuller waist and hip measurement than the Big 4 for a more rectangular body type, which statistically is more common, at least in certain European population samples. In developing grade rules, I tried to incorporate statistical measures of actual bodies rather than dress form increments or standard grades for tricky areas like shoulder length. My hope is that this will yield a better, more realistic fit, but the downside is that finding the right one for you will probably require taking your measurements and may not translate directly from what you’re used to using in a pattern from one of the Big 4 companies.
I also wanted to draft my own slopers to start with a very fitted baseline, and going forward, I want to offer patterns that are very clear about the amount of ease they include. Mostly this is because one of my recurring struggles in sewing from commercial patterns, especially trying to sew a historical range from late 19th century to 30s and 50s patterns to contemporary ones, is that the amounts of ease change so much over time and between manufacturers that it’s hard to know how something will fit without making a muslin of everything. And making muslins isn’t the best use of fabric and to me is the. most. boring. thing. ever. Personally, I prefer patterns that don’t include a ton of ease, and patterns from the Big 4 almost always have too much for my liking. So in my future drafts, I expect to use ease standards closer to the lower end of the industry standard range, and I intend to be super clear about that ease so that sewers know what to expect without having to try it and see quite so much.
In other news, I added my first underwired and nursing bras to my etsy shop, because holy manic nesting impulses channeled into my creative pursuits instead of my godforsaken hoarder house, Batman! Pregnancy makes me feel like a crazy woman, but throwing myself into work is extremely therapeutic right now.
Coming soon to the blog: how to adapt a sloper for maternity, in which yours truly shall snarkily narrate an exploration of the changes pregnancy has wrought upon this physical form and how I deal with them in the flat pattern format. It will also serve as an extreme example of how to adapt a sloper to your body measurements. 🙂
Have you used slopers in your sewing? Have very strong opinions on the amount of ease one way or the other included in commercial patterns? I’d love to hear your experiences! 🙂
made this today, out of nylon bra tulle, a blush floral lace, and a self drafted pattern drafted around a demi wire. I wasn’t really thinking about proportions when I altered it for the wider wires I’m using now (thanks, pregnancy body), but could have expanded the cradle / reduced the back band for a little more front band real estate, but the fit is good. My wire size is significantly larger than what would be typical of my cup size, so the proportions aren’t standard. *shrug*
Here’s an internal view:
making this one is complicated! I do the band and cup separately, leaving the underarm elastic for almost the very end of the process. For the band, since doing the gothic arch in the center requires flipping the elastic, but you want to preserve the scallop edge of the lace and still enclose the seams, i find it’s easiest to work with the tulle layer separately from the lace overlay for most of the construction process. I sew the tulle cradle and lace cradle separately, only joining at the center front top edge between the cups. Then I add the elastic to the bottom edge. Once the first pass of elastic is finished on the outward facing side of the tulle, I turn it to the inside and then pin the ever loving crap out of everything to keep it in place, using the second pass to secure the lace in place. Then I baste the edges that I’ll be adding elastic to or setting cups into, because it’s easier than dealing with multiple translucent layers slipping around.
For the cups, I didn’t want to split the lace in two and then have to match up the patterns in the lace, so the lace is a darted single piece cup over a two piece tulle cup, and the lace has stretch that the tulle doesn’t. So I treat each separately, join at the top edge, and then pull and stretch the lace just slightly over the rigid tulle to align the shapes and seams as much as possible, pinning it like something from a Hellraiser movie, and basting. A lot. 🙂 From that point, setting the cups in and everything is pretty typical.
these complicated tulle/lace underwired pieces have been a great distraction. i’ve spent a few days working at being mellow. I’m in my third trimester now, which is both good and bad. i will be happy to have my body back as a sole proprietorship, and yet am keenly aware of creeping ever closer to delivery, which sucks any way you slice it, especially for a doctor/hospital/needle/invasive body procedure-phobe. not helping that my first birth experience was so terrible I swore I’d never do it again (pre-eclampsia, induced labor for 53 hours before giving up and having a c-section, endless throngs of well intentioned visitors in my room while i had no pants and no sleep, and a kiddo who refused to nurse or take a bottle and had jaundice, etc). but as al swearengen says, announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. (I may soon be the first person in human history to whip out her phone and loop Deadwood clips on YouTube to get through labor.)
this time around, i have a doctor i have more confidence in, and she’s been monitoring things pretty closely. my labs in earlier months have been good, except protein in the urine, which means i won’t be surprised if another bout of pre-eclampsia is in store for me a bit further down the road. this week’s labs also showed low platelets, which is a horrifying thing to google. If it continues to trend downward it probably means no epidural because of the risk of spinal hematoma and an elevated risk of bleeding problems with delivery that make a c-section less ideal. (but really, the epidural was useless the first time anyway.) it can also be a symptom of a particularly dangerous variety of pre-eclampsia called HELLP syndrome. UGH. So I’m trying to balance wanting to be an educated patient aware of symptoms and things to act on if they happen, and trying to stay the f**k off of google because, ummm, holy hell, I don’t need to raise my blood pressure worrying about all that. my doctor plans on watching all the physical stuff closely, and I see her in a few days, so there will be quite a barrage of questions for her. my nesting instinct is shit, but it’s kicked in a bit now that I know induction is a distinct possibility if my health gets wonky over the next 12 weeks.
on a happier note, Fetus is bouncy and seems to be coming along contentedly in there. she kicks extremely hard for 28 weeks, which I’m choosing to take as an early indicator that she is a strong, fierce little critter. she reacts to music and seems especially responsive when her brother talks to my belly, which is the most heart melting sweetness. I couldn’t ask for a more loving, gentle spirited son, and he’s so happy about it all.
so today is for researching how to make newborn onesies (i have dreams of mother/daughter ziggy stardust bodysuits, not gonna lie) and mellow, soothing tunes and playing with watercolors and trying to distance myself from stressing about things out of my control. i’ve been trying to enjoy the small moments this summer, and playing with a camera a bit more to capture them.
we spend a lot of time playing on the kitchen floor.
happy saturday, everybody. I hope it’s been a relaxing one all around.
There are a wide variety of breast shapes that sometimes don’t correspond to the shape used in designing most ready to made bras, and underwires can both compound fit problems and help to work around some fit issues. Knowing which underwire works best for your breast shape can dramatically increase the comfort level of ready to wear, and for custom made lingerie and sewing your own bras, it opens up a lot of aesthetic possibility. Obligatory disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m just sort of obsessed with body geometry and fitting issues, and some of what I’ve picked up along the way might help people to attain better bra fit. I defer to people like Beverly Johnson (site here) for advice on fitting large busts and bloggers like Emerald Erin (great tutorials here and here) and Natasha of Arte Crafts for the more technical intricacies of underwire mechanics.)
With that said, on to breast shapes. Breasts come in a vast array of shapes and sizes and projections and levels of firmness or relaxation, and any shape of breast can be asymmetrical in size (in which case, a good workaround for support and comfort is to select a size that fits the larger and adjust the smaller with padding as needed or desired). Any breast shape can have certain placements on the torso, such as being wide set, narrow set, or with an outward or east/west placement on the torso. But most bras are drafted for the standard round shape, full on bottom, full on top, much like the shape of a breast implant, with a standard distance between breasts that point straight ahead.
If you have this breast shape and positioning, then you’re probably going to be able to fit well into most ready made bras without a lot of spillage or cup gape or underwire poking if you have the correct size. To illustrate this shape:
For other shapes, however, a standard bra drafted to fit a round breast might pose a variety of bra fitting problems. Breasts can vary in the shape of the breast root or base as well as in the way that the fullness is distributed on that base, and for these other varieties, a round cup often will gape, pucker, not provide the right support, or not correspond to the actual shape of the breast root (or inframammary crease).
Two shapes in particular, the breast with a narrow root or wide root, might find standard bras to be uncomfortable at the wire line/breast root as well as ill-fitting in the cup.
The narrow root shape (or sometimes called the slender shape) has a smaller diameter than the standard proportions assumed when designing underwires, so in an underwired bra, the underwire will rest below the actual breast root, and it won’t be as supportive or comfortable as it should. Standard underwires usually aren’t a good fit, though a custom bra maker can adjust cup fullness as needed to fit the wire that best fits the actual breast root. In ready to wear bras, different shaped wires like plunge wires might be more comfortable, and other possibilities like using cookies, padding, or full foam cups can help get a better fit.
The wide root shape (or sometimes called shallow projection or broad based) has a wider wire diameter to cup fullness proportion than the standard proportions assumed when designing underwires, so in an underwired bra, if the cup fits, the underwire will be narrower than the actual breast root, and may rest on top of the actual breast tissue or dig into it. If the wire fits, the cup isn’t completely filled by the breast tissue. A custom bra maker can adjust cup fullness as needed to fit the wire that best fits the actual breast root. In ready to wear bras, the best approach is to choose the bra with an underwire that fits correctly and then to add cookies or padding to fill out the cup. Cups made with stretchy fabric or lace can conform better to this shape than cups made with rigid fabric.
Other breast shapes vary in the way the fullness of the tissue is distributed, and these shapes may find that typical bra cups don’t fit them well.
The teardrop breast shape (or sometimes called swooping or fuller on bottom) has a distribution of breast tissue that is fuller on the bottom half and less full on the top. Standard round bra cups usually aren’t a good fit and tend to gape or pucker at the top. A custom bra maker can adjust the top cup fullness as needed to fit the breast shape. In ready to wear bras, choosing certain cup shapes can help achieve a more satisfying fit. Cups with stretchy or elasticated upper cups can conform better to the breast shape. Choosing cups with lower necklines and shorter cup heights such as demi or half cup styles and possibly some plunge styles are good choices, because the upper portion that would otherwise gape is absent or much shorter than fuller coverage styles.
The full on top breast shape has a distribution of breast tissue that very full in the top half of the breast. Standard round bra cups usually aren’t a good fit and tend to be too small at the top, causing spillage or “quad-boob” where the upper edge of the cup digs into the breast tissue and makes it look divided. A custom bra maker can adjust the top cup fullness as needed to fit the breast shape. In ready to wear bras, choosing certain cup shapes can help achieve a more satisfying fit. Cups made with stretch or elasticated upper cups can give somewhat to conform better to the breast shape. Choosing cup styles with lower necklines and shorter cup heights such as demi or half cup styles with vertical seaming (rather than horizontal) can avoid cutting into the tissue of the upper breast, though there may be a trade off with spillage potential.
The conical breast shape has a distribution of breast tissue that is more cone shaped than round. Standard round bra cups usually aren’t a good fit because although the wire line placement and projection amount may be the same, the amount of tissue volume to fill out the cup is less in a conical shape. A custom bra maker can adjust the cup fullness as needed, and in fact may find certain conical vintage cup styles to be a much better fit for this shape. In ready to wear bras, cups with push up padding in the bottom and sides of the cup can help the cup fit better, as can using padding inserts (cookies). Brands with shallower cup depth can be helpful, though this tends to flatten the tissue into a more rounded shape, which may not always be the most comfortable or supportive fit.
The omega breast shape (also called bell shaped or ball shaped) has a distribution of breast tissue that is one size at the wire line or breast root but becomes larger farther down the breast. This shape occurs over time and tends to happen with larger sizes. Standard bras are usually not a great fit for this shape because the standard relationship of wire size and cup fullness isn’t quite right for this shape and the wearer may find the wires of a cup that fits well are too large to stay at the inframmary crease. If wires are pushed lower by the breast tissue, this can cause discomfort against the chest wall and at the the underarms. A custom bra maker can adjust the cup fullness as needed and build in greater support to create a better fit for this shape. In ready to wear bras, full coverage styles with supportive, rigid cups that push the breast tissue towards the center front of the body are a good choice.
Underwires tend to take a lot of blame when it comes to ill-fitting bras, and in mass produced bras, it’s easy to see why. If your breasts vary from the standard shape and placement, it can be difficult to find a bra that has wire with the correct spacing in the correct sized band that also has the correct cup fullness. This is where sewing bras at home or having bras made to your measurements can make a world of difference. Lingerie manufacturers use wires made to their own standards, and shapes and lengths can vary greatly between them. These standards are usually not transparent to customers who are left to guess and experiment with fit at their own expense.
But custom bra makers and home sewists can choose underwires by relatively standardized shapes and sizes and get the fit and the style that they want. When an underwire fits the breast root and is placed in the right placement in a bra band that fits correctly, it shouldn’t shift, pinch, or chafe, and in my experience, can be even more comfortable than a soft bra. It can take a lot of measuring and a few iterations when you begin bra making to get this combination of factors balanced just right, but when you do, those results can be replicated again and again without the guesswork and fitting frustrations of ready to wear.
When shopping for ready to wear bras, the shape and style and flexibility of underwires are set by the manufacturer. But when you sew your own or have a bra made, you can decide if you want lighter gauge or heavier weight underwires, if you prefer them to have a lot of give or to be relatively unmoving, if you prefer wires with high sides or short sides, lower or higher center styles, and whether you prefer a narrower or more splayed curve.
For my own bras, I prefer shorter wires with a wider, more splayed curve, and these are some of the wire types I keep in my stash:
These wires are from three Etsy sellers that I find to be great sources for lingerie hardware supplies in general, and they seem to consistently stock all of these wires. I’m not affiliated with anyone in this list or anything, so my enthusiasm is quite genuine. 🙂 The regular heavy wire is a thick gauge, rounded wire from Porcelynne. This is the heaviest of the wires I usually use, and I’ve found the lack of a defined wire edge can actually make a big difference in comfort in partial band designs. The round and orange wires are from Emerald Erin, and these are flat wires in a shape I’ve bought from other sellers, too, but the ones from her shop have a heavier gauge and are more sturdy than most flat wires I’ve seen. She also offers a fitting pack for each of her styles where you get three sizes to see which is the best fit and this can be a bra fit game changer (because printing out pdf wire charts and cutting them out and scowling at teensy wobbly pieces of paper held up to your chest in your bathroom mirror is, in my experience, actually not all that helpful in finding the correct wire size). The plunge, shallow demi, and demi wires are from Arte Crafts, who has some great deals on larger quantities of wires and offers some harder to find wire shapes. These wires are the more standard, lighter gauge wire, which has a bit of flexibility to it.
When I started bra making I had some confusion trying to find exactly what I was looking for in a wire since wire naming conventions vary from seller to seller, and because it’s hard to know which shape is best for your body type. But it seems like there are a few sort of wire shape subtypes that most wires fall into. (I’m leaving out monowires and separator wires because I haven’t worked with these as much.)
There’s a “regular,” standard, day bra kind of shape, which has a moderate to high center front height and an underarm height that’s sort of high with a little bit of a splayed underarm curve. This is the kind of wire you might find in a fuller coverage, everyday style bra designed to be somewhat supportive and comfortable. Sometimes you can find variations of this wire shape that specify that they have a shorter wire at the underarm curve. (In Emerald Erin’s shop, this would be the “Round” and the “Orange” wires). These wires are great for standard bras and round breast shapes.
Then there’s a type of wire that is a taller, narrower version of the regular day bra, sometimes called vertical or strapless. The center front and underarm comes up higher and it may be a narrower curve with less splay at the underarm than in a “regular wire.” This kind of wire is great for providing support, and in strapless bras, they provide the structure needed to keep cups positioned where they should be. (In Emerald Erin’s shop, these would be the “Bliss” and the “Omega” wires.) This kind of wire would be great for omega breast shapes and narrow root shapes.
The plunge or push up wire shape has a low center and a regular height at the underarm, and is great for bra styles that plunge low and push breast fullness toward the center. This kind of wire would be great for a variety of breast shapes because the low center front eliminates certain cup fit issues, and helpful with breast placements that are closer or wider than the standard or for east/west breast positioning, since bras in this style tend to push tissue to the center front.
Demi wires are low at the center front and low at the underarm, and the curve is a wider, more relaxed curve than some standard wires. This is a wire that seems common in fashionable bra silhouettes with lower necklines. (In Emerald Erin’s shop, this is the “France” wire.) Arte Crafts offers a shallow demi wire that has an even more relaxed curve than regular demi wires. This kind of wire can be a great fit for breast shapes with a wider root or teardrop shape.
For part three of my informal exploration into the elements of bra fit, I want to look at bust position and torso shape. A lot of bra advice focuses on the breast itself, and while that is hugely important, the torso that provides the base for the breast can have a dramatic effect on fit and comfort, too.
Since bra manufacturers are attempting to sell their design bra to as many people as possible, they have to settle on one averaged sizing standard that hopefully (sort of) fits as many of their customers as possible as a basis for their bra designs. As anyone who sews knows, it’s hard to fit a wide range of bodies with a specific sizing standard without the fit being off somewhere for most people, which is why patterns rarely fit perfectly right out of the envelope. The proportions of certain body measurements like back torso width to front torso width, breast diameter, and breast spacing can vary widely between women, but for production purposes for any given bra brand, there are only a single, averaged set of measures being used, unless the brand specializes in a particular subset of body types (petite, curvy, tall, plus sizes).
What this means is that if you have body proportions that differ dramatically from that standard, you may have certain fit problems. A simple, very common fit issue happens when bust spacing is different than the assumed standard, which is one to two finger widths apart. If your breasts have less space than this or are touching in the center, underwires in a standard bra don’t rest against the sternum, but instead sit painfully on top of or jab into the breast tissue, and there may be some gaping at the outer side of the cup. (A possible solution to this is a plunge style bra or a bra with a very low, narrow gore.) If your breasts are more widely spaced than the assumed standard, this will usually mean that the cup gapes in the center front near the gore while wires jab or rest on top of the breast tissue on the outer edge of the breast. (Bras with a wider center gore can help with this, and shorter wired styles like demi bras can help with wire issues on the outside of the breast.) Some other common bust position issues arise if your breasts have a wide or narrow root (more on this in a hugely-relevant-to-this-stuff future in-depth look at breast shape), or if your back is particularly broad or narrow. Both of these may throw off the proportions of the bra wings to the cup placement, landing underwires in the wrong place relative to the breast.
But there are also other, less obvious factors of body anatomy that complicate bra fit. Overall ribcage shape, both vertically and horizontally speaking, can dramatically affect how a bra rests against the body and whether the breast tissue can then fully supported by the cups. Since the majority of a bra’s support is provided by the bra band and the cups, if these aren’t positioned in a way to effectively hold and distribute the weight of breast tissue, the bra is unlikely to offer much support or comfort. Most mass bra production uses a horizontally oval shaped, vertically gradually tapered to the waistline type of rib cage shape as their baseline for shaping the bra band and positioning bra cups within it. But, of course, not all rib cages are shaped this way.
Here’s a great illustration of rib shapes viewed from the side that comes from a site (Butterfly Collection Blog) that seems down at the moment. (I don’t agree with the shape terminology used here, because I’ve seen rib flare describe something else in other contexts, curved vs. rounded is confusing, etc, but the visual is great).
Vertically speaking, rib cages can be very straight, and barely taper to the waist at all, especially in more rectangular torso shapes without a very defined waistline. Rib cages can also be rounded or what might be called barrel chested, which means the ribs don’t taper inward toward the waistline as much as the standard but are more curved outward. Rib cages can be very dramatically tapered inward toward the waistline, especially in dramatic hourglass type shapes with a very small waist. Each of these variations will change the ratio of band to cup, and can require different adjustments to the vertical shape of the band to help it fit more closely to the body as it must in order to give adequate support..
Horizontally speaking, rib cages can have a variety of shapes other than oval that can mean the way breast tissue fills cups is different than with the standard oval shape. Here is an illustration of rib cage shapes in cross section that might help explain. It happens to be male, but you can get an idea of how breast tissue stacked on these shapes would cause breasts to project differently:
The “standard” chest has an oval shaped front and relatively flat chest wall on which the typical bra can rest evenly against the body. On a more barrel shaped chest, the chest wall is more rounded, and when a standard bra is positioned on this shape, bra cups may point outward in what is often called an east/west position. I’m not an expert on anatomy and my knowledge here is limited, but I’d expect that bodies exist in a continuum of shapes, and that the projecting rib cage (pectus carinatum) and inwardly curved rib cage (pectus excavatum) pictured here are probably extreme examples of shapes that occur to a lesser degree in plenty of people.
My intuition is that with a chest wall that curves in a more concave way in front, the fit problems in a standard bra might be similar but reversed. My guess is that a standard bra would be tilted inward in a way that it would smoosh the cups together. The problem then is that the cups will be positioned differently than the breast tissue is actually distributed on the body, so there may be some gapping in the center front of the cups, and they might not be full enough to contain all the breast tissue at the sides. I suspect underwires might be especially uncomfortable in the center for this body type.
This is a lot of information and it seems a bit overwhelming, but my belief is that better fit begins with a better understanding of one’s own body shape. Knowing the physical factors that affect bra fit can help you know where to begin to look for answers. The internet has some amazing resources that deal with issues like these in depth, like Her Room, which links to recommended bra brands known to work well for specific fit issues, or Bratabase, which is a community dedicated to finding good fit and reviewing bra brands by actual wearers. There’s even a reddit community dedicated to A Bra That Fits.
I also feel like there is a huge amount of psychological baggage that comes along with bra fitting. A bra that flatters us can make us feel not only comfortable but attractive and confident. Trying on 37 bras and not ever being able to feel good about the results has this nasty way of eating away at your confidence. Never being able to find a standard bra that fit well or looked good on me for at least a decade of adulthood (along with a ton of jokes about being small chested in the era of cleavage and push up bra fashion) gave me a lot of negative feels about my appearance. Sadly, I know my experience is very, very, very common, and that no matter what shape or size they are, it’s all too easy for women (and men) to feel that there is something inferior or inadequate about their bodies. I’d like to yell it from the rooftops now that just because a person’s body doesn’t fit the “standard” doesn’t mean it’s somehow lesser or there’s something “wrong.” All fit standards are abstractions, not ideals. And even the fit “problems” I describe above aren’t “problems” so much as merely shape differences that just require style tweaks or certain adjustments in order to achieve support and comfort.
For part two of my exploration of the bra, an in depth look at the bra band, its relationship to cup size, and its role in complicating everything about finding a bra that fits.
The bra band is really the base of the bra. It’s where the vast majority of the support comes from, and the support it provides is cantilevered horizontally from the close fitted band and the cups holding the weight of the bust up, rather than support by suspending weight from the shoulders, which hurts and doesn’t work very well.
The bra band also establishes circumference of the torso at the underbust (for simplicity, I’m disregarding for a moment the way that the old plus four inches issue muddies the waters for certain sizing systems). Bra band size is the starting point for how we describe bra sizes. Cup sizes are relative, and the letters actually have no meaning without a bra band to give them context. Even though we talk about double Ds or B cups as if they describe an objective size, they actually don’t mean anything, because they are relative to the band size that defines them. Here’s a better visual explanation of how cup size relates to torso/band size:
The way that we write bra sizes as a numerical value and a letter is kind of like a little math equation where the bra band is the base circumference of the body at the underbust, and each letter increase adds an inch to this to end up with enough room for the circumference of the bust at the fullest point:
AA = .5 inch
A = 1 inch
B = 2 inch
C = 3 inch
D = 4 inch
DD or E = 5 inch
And upward, though the specific letters used sometimes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer or European system versus American sizing system, etc. If you wrote it as a math problem, it would be something like this:
Numerical band size/underbust circumference + letter to specify extra cup inches = full bust circumference
So for a 36B, it’s basically an equation that says: 36″ rib cage + 2″ total added in the cups = 38″ full bust measurement. This is why sister sizing works, where you can go down a band size but a cup letter, or up a band size and down a cup letter, to approximate a fit like your exact size (more on this another day).
This sounds simple enough, but then everything gets complicated, because A) different fabrics are reduced by different amounts depending on stretch and recovery properties, so a band designed for a 36″ rib cage probably will measure smaller than that, B) all bodies are not the same and the broad backed and non-standard torso-ed among us (*raises both hands*) are statistical outliers who can’t find an appropriate size this way, and C) the plus 4 phenomenon.
The plus four thing is an often repeated piece of advice bra fitting – take your actual rib cage measurement, if it’s even, add four inches, and if it’s odd, add five inches to get your band size. To me, this seems illogical and stupidly complicated, and it seems more intuitive to just use your actual rib cage measurement. There are interesting historical reasons that this developed that I’m reading up on and will write about, but it seems to have been a vanity sizing tick that happened around the ‘50s or ‘60s when bra sizing as we now know it began to emerge as an industry standard. Things get really, really complicated these days, because sizing standards vary by market (American, UK, EU, Japanese, Australian, to name a few), and because in the US market, some companies no longer add these inches into the band sizes, and some companies do. This means a 36 band brand A might not be drafted for the same rib circumference as brand B, so your 36B is not the same size across brands. For those of us who don’t want to try on 37 bras at the mall to find one with a good fit, this is exasperating.
This isn’t exactly the bra manufacturer’s fault, since it is very hard to accommodate the wide range of bust shapes, sizes, and body proportions that exist in the real world into a single approximation. It’s a complicated supply/demand and consumer knowledge problem. Even if there were more variations available, most of us (my pre-lingerie-addiction self included) would not know where to begin to understand our particular shape and support needs. That being said, some kind of standardization on band measurement seems to me like it would make it much easier for all of us. (In my own drafting and bra sizing, I use an exact rib cage measurement as a starting point, since the plus four model assumes a certain standard tapered rib cage typical of more of an hourglass shape than the vast majority of women have. Statistically most of us are much more rectangular.)
I’ll be rambling about bust position next in my sprawling Ted talk on the mechanics of the bra. 🙂 I’d love to hear any thoughts, and if anyone knows more about the weird history of bra size standards, I’d love to hear more on this.