All About the Bra Band: It’s Cantilevered!

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. 

vertigo cantilevered bra
Oh, yes, Jimmy, it is a veritable marvel of modern engineering.

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.

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Anatomy of a Bra and How to Know if a Bra Fits

I’m working on an in depth guide to bra sizes, bra types, some common fit issues, and in particular, how to use all of this information to have a better idea of what to look for in a bra shop or when specifying sizing and style needs in a bespoke bra. Prior to making lingerie, this was all a mystery to me, so I thought it might be helpful to share it as I write it out. This will be the first part in a multi-part series on the intricacies of the bra. 🙂

The Anatomy of a Bra. 

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How to Tell if a Bra Fits

Start with the band, which is the part that encircles the torso, made of the center gore, the front cradle that holds the cups, and the back wings. It should fit snugly on the loosest hook when the bra is new. (The elastic will stretch over time, so the other hooks allow you to adjust for this. ) It should be close fitting but comfortable, and ideally, two fingers should be able to fit between the band and your body, but not more. It should be level all the way around the body, and not ride up in the back.

In an underwired bra, the center gore of the bra should lie flat against the sternum, unless you have very full breasts that touch at the base of the breast. If the gore is held away from the sternum, the cups are probably too small.

The cups should fully encase the breast tissue from the breast root without flattening breast tissue or having tissue spill out from the cup. If the underwires or center gore are held away from the chest wall, the cups don’t have enough depth. If tissue is spilling over the top of the cup or under it at the sides or underarm, the cup size probably isn’t correct. Cup size is complicated by a few factors that I’ll explore in depth in a few days, particularly breast shape and breast position on the torso. If the cup puckers or gapes, sometimes this means the cup is too small, but this isn’t always the case. With certain breast shapes, some brands and cup styles can gape even if the size is correct. This is an issue close to my heart and is a big part of why I started making lingerie, so I’ll explore this further in the near future as well.

When trying on bras, to ensure that all the breast tissue is in the cup, the stoop and swoop technique can really help. It can have a dramatic impact on comfort, fit, appearance, and overall functionality of the cup. To do this, when putting the bra on, bend forward at the waist and use gravity to help gather all your breast tissue toward the front and position it inside the cup. Often breast tissue that isn’t gathered up into the cup can be smashed down by underwires or out the sides of the bra. If the tissue isn’t entirely in the cup, it isn’t being well supported, and this can be uncomfortable and less flattering than a well fitting cup. This can be really helpful for the well-endowed trying to find a truly supportive bra size. It helps with smaller busts, too, though, and can make a surprising difference in cup size and the fullness of tissue within the cup. Curvy Kate has a great video here:

The cups and the frame should work together to position the breasts high on the body, and they should provide most of the support. The straps should only provide about 10% of the support and should function mostly to keep the upper cup positioned correctly. If straps are digging into your shoulders or leaving marks, the band should be adjusted to provide better support.

I hope this is helpful, and I’d love to hear any other tips and tricks to getting a great bra fit. 🙂 Check back soon for the next part, which will explore the bra band and its role in sizing inconsistency.

love set you going like a fat gold watch

I’ve always loved Sylvia Plath, though I think she is a kind of Rorschach blotch that says more about the interpreter than the interpreter can reveal about who she really was. We are all such mysteries to one another, even to those most intimate to us. Biographers and scholars and angsty teen girls, 20-something poets, thirty something mothers who don’t find time or inspiration to write anymore amongst the dirty laundry and the floor needing vacuumed and the grocery lists and the car licensing due dates are all grateful someone gives their inner state such apt utterance. Her motherhood poems speak to me at this point in my life, while her father issues and black moods spoke to me in another. I think people mythologize her in unhealthy ways because of her suicide, and that bookend has made her legendary in a way that sadly eclipses her craftsmanship, not unlike Kurt Cobain and so many others.

If I remember correctly, she wrote Ariel by getting up at something like 4 a.m. on a daily basis, to have the luxury of being a mind separate from others, to work, to think, before the children she was raising without her husband awoke. It is hard to think freely in the proximity of other people, and sometimes we have to escape into ourselves, even from those we love more than our own selves.

But the dark hours of early morning are heavy, too, with the duty of parenthood. I think often of my father rising at 5 a.m., packing lunches, stoking the fire, as well as working out in the basement before his work day began. There’s a poem by Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays, that describes his own father doing the same:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Perhaps daughters are different, because while we may have never thanked my father explicitly, we knew the extent of his labors for all of us, and we loved him for it. His hands, too, were cracked with his labors, and calloused from years of them. We sometimes helped stack the wood that he split with a Zen-like cheer and a practiced, masterful efficiency he had developed over many years of swinging an axe. My father was an artisan, in his way, and a soft spoken, gentle man, and our home was warm, though I think sometimes of his quietness, his gaze into the horizon, and I wonder who he was to himself, what thoughts were his in his quiet mornings carved out to be alone with them.

Mornings are my own, for now, until the night wakings, the haze of 3 a.m. nursings begin, the blue hours of dawn and the contented murmurs of an infant become my life again. That is not a complaint. There is something deeply content about those moments, and quiet, and transcendent.

Is that quiet blissfulness merely oxytocin? Merely, as if the brain chemicals that code are experience are somehow less real for being chemical and determined by forces other than our inner monologue that thinks it is our true self? So much of the self changes in this pregnant state and the nursing, caretaking state later, in response to biology’s programming, chemical surges that seep into and color the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and what matters, that it often unnerves me.  Another line from Plath’s Morning Song:

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.

With my son, I felt almost alien to myself, life-long brooder transformed by my body’s responses to pregnancy into a contentment I hadn’t felt before, though with a vulnerability snaked through it that found me sobbing over news coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf that had begun over the three days while I was induced and in labor (and which they’d wisely hidden from me until after the birth), news stories about the ugliness and exploitation that come so readily to us from all over the world. I felt such joy at my son’s being and yet such fear and worry for a creature that must learn about suffering and death and I, helpless to lighten the burden of such knowledge, with no answers to give, despite all my own years of wrestling with questions about what it means to be alive, to love, to try to connect with anyone in this fragile, beautiful. painful world.

For a long time, that contentment inoculated me from much of my own sadness. All it took to keep me happy was enjoying the presence and infectious joys of my happy little infant, and then toddler, and on and on. He is no less a wonder and no less a joy to me, but as the years have progressed, I could feel that biological contentment drain gradually from me and the old clouds return, but in a strange way, it wasn’t a bad thing. I felt like my mind was my own familiar dark wood again, though my son will always be the sun filtering through the canopy of leaves, the birdsong, the sweetness within it. It is easier for me to believe in my own mind and its workings when it incorporates the shadow as well as the light. I feel less sharp, somehow, when my contentments dull me.

Along with nursing comes a kind of isolation, because you and your infant are on a timetable that doesn’t correspond to those around you, and there are times when you do choose to be alone with your baby to nurse. I’m of two minds about this, because I am a shy person and I don’t want to feel vulnerable and exposed to the scrutiny or bear the burden of the intricate symbolic politics of it all when I’m waiting to pick up my son from school, for example. While I fully support women who want to nurse publicly and not feel obligated to cover and I think it’s good for us as a society to accept and support that, there are some times I don’t want to, and I feel like that also makes a certain kind of unintentional gesture of acquiescence to cultural prudishness. I don’t want my breasts to be a political arena, and I don’t want to feel like my own awkwardness with my own public nudity makes me somehow less feminist.

On the other hand, there are some places where I am comfortable enough that I feel like it should be a non-issue, with family or friends, but it clearly is going to make others uncomfortable about what they or their children are seeing and so, whether it’s right or not, you find yourself ducking into side rooms for half hour chunks of time to spare the awkwardness of relatives at family BBQs and that kind of thing. When you’re in the early phases of caring for an infant, you two are alone at home most of the time, and the majority of your discourse with the world is cooing monosyllables and listening to yourself babble and babble, though the call and response of it all and the sing song of an infant is beautiful in its own right. You often miss adults, and belly laughter, and naughty jokes, and talk about the weather, so having to shut yourself away from it when you have the opportunity to participate in adult silliness is incredibly frustrating. When family refuses to even come inside your house because you are nursing in the living room and they’d rather just wait on the porch and yet you’re too damn stubborn to move or cover, yeah, that’s awkward and sort of rage-evoking. (There’s a whole speel I could get into about the weirdly personal nature of formula versus breast milk commentary from family, and the pressure and guilt I see some women put themselves through regarding output, but that’s a rant for another day. Right there along with calling a VBAC a “redemption” birth. *facepalm*)

So here I am again, wrestling with myself and being gradually internally transitioned into and to change far more still into cow-heavy blissfulness. And I do have so many reasons to be happy. Our genetic tests all came back with good results and all seems to be well. The test revealed that we’re having a daughter, which is what I’d hoped and perhaps even intuited, and which will probably bring a pleasant balance to our home. Maybe fewer tentacles and explosions and a little bit more fairy tales and lace around here, though with my tomboy genes and our feelings that a child should choose for itself what it likes (rather than only providing traditional gender specific options), there might just be more engines and dinosaurs and toy cars to fall over, and that’s okay, too. We heard her heartbeat for the first time yesterday, and our son was with us, too, smiling and burying his face into his dad’s neck, overwhelmed a bit with it all, but happy. Same here, really. Overthinking and conflicted and broody about it all, but in my way, happy.

reset the 1 days without pregnancy tears counter, gorilla newborn bonding is trending on twitter *sobs*

I was doing pretty well for awhile. I almost lost it earlier this week when I went to the grocery store and brought home a seedless watermelon with every intention of eating half of it in one sitting, cut it open, relished the smell, bit into it and almost puked because it was overripe and mushy. I cannot convey with words the depth of my disappointment as I silently carried it out to the trash.
But then this morning, this:

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Had an appointment yesterday for an ultrasound to screen for any potential genetic issues, and a short rehash of high school biology class re: chromosome duplication in the human reproductive process, although I didn’t  really process much of it because 85% of my brain was concentrated on not peeing on the genetic counselor’s couch. For the ultrasound they say that a full bladder is required, and that one should drink 24oz of clear fluid an hour before the appointment. To which I think every pregnant woman could respond by paraphrasing the Hulk: My bladder is always full. Combine a constant need to urinate with a ton of water and an hour of wait time and then my bladder was so full it was pushing the uterus back and away from view, so then I had to go empty my bladder anyway in a shared bathroom with three doors, one of which I noticed from my seated, out of reach position was opened into a hallway, but I was operating on pure lizard brain by then and relief > shits given. Such, such are the joys.

The ultrasound was really neat, though, because most of the utter bewilderment and raw panic had been burned through the last time we had an ultrasound, and because it was abdominal rather than via a big phallic rod up jammed up in my business (though they would have resorted to that if needed to get a good image). The baby was visibly bouncing off my uterine wall and it gave me all the squishy mommy feels, because it seemed so much like exuberant little bouncy house bouncings in there that I could feel sort of awed and something like happy about it all.

The genetic testing was new to me this time around, and since I’m above x age for certain statistical probabilities of risks of x,y, and z to increase, we opted to screen for everything. This is a bizarre process, because these tests are done early enough in the pregnancy that you have the feeling that if certain results come back, that there are certain very hard choices that people have to make, but even though you get a 20 minute slideshow of what human chromosomes look like and a brief lesson on trisomy, those possibilities are never mentioned and you feel like a monster for even assuming  some people do choose to end pregnancies when testing shows certain conditions about which nothing can be done. If it were only me, I think I’d not test for anything, because if a screening shows a chance of something, I’ll make myself sick for six months worrying about it, and the cortisol onslaught would probably be more harmful than any genetic potentialities. I also know that even if tests came back showing something, I don’t think I could choose anything other than continuing on and hoping against everything in my cynical nature for the best, though I don’t judge anyone’s choices to do otherwise. Heavy shit for a Monday morning.

The way they do this particular test, the NIPT (non-invasive prenatal testing), is to have blood drawn so that they can count fragments of the baby’s DNA that are in the mother’s bloodstream from the placenta. Having watched Alien: Covenant this weekend, let’s just say that thinking too much about sharing a bloodstream with another creature, even my baby, makes me queasy. Thinking too much about the mechanics of the biological structure housing me as a person makes me queasy anyway, which is why I could watch the baby during the ultrasound but when they started checking out my ovaries I stared at the wall. I know consciously I’m just the illusion of a self delicately tethered to this meat, but I don’t want to think too much about the actual status of the meat, k? And I am a huge baby about having blood drawn. Huge. I once tried to give blood in high school and passed out during the health questions they ask you *before* the needle was even in view.

So despite having had a triumph of self control and having blood drawn last week like A Grown Ass Adult without incident, unless you count staring at the wall and stress babbling like a manic standup comedian, yesterday’s blood draw was rough. Bedside manner is everything; the wielder of the needle should not try to drag me back from my disassociation from my own body by meta talk about the process which she is doing, the status of my skinny veins, or any potential difficulties she foresees ahead, lest she drag me back from my vacation in Camp Denial of Reality. This lady was a nightmare, patting my veins and sighing, rattling tubes, et cetera, while I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing for four counts in, four counts out like just I tell my poor anxious kiddo to do when he’s stressed out. Luckily my significant other was with me holding one shaky hand and with the other steady in the middle of my back in case I lost it. We aren’t much for explicit discussions of big feelings, but I have to say that feeling a steady hand on my back even when I’m upset about something that seems silly from another person’s perspective was a pretty big deal. As is being comfortable enough to be vulnerable and visibly under duress in front of another person. I don’t do that well.

It was good he was spotting me, too, because even though I made it through the draw process just fine, after she was done and had me hold the gauze chunk on my arm, she drew it back a few times and said, “Oh, you’re a giver.” That blew my fragile little mind and I started to feel pukey and floaty and to feel an urgent need to get off the exam table and onto the cold floor where I had nowhere to fall, which came out as a seated person insisting that she needed to sit down, so they just laid me down for a few minutes. Vasovagal response, maybe, where your heart rate slows and blood pressure drops in reaction to certain triggers. Since anxiety increases the heartrate, it’s unusual to actually faint from it, unless you experience a vasovagal syncope, which I think might be why I once passed out and crashed through a book display at a Barnes and Noble job orientation. (And never went back, despite working in a book store being a long-coveted job of my youth.) Yikes. My mom does the same thing over stuff like her kids getting injuries, changing earrings for the first time, or stabbing herself in the finger sewing, which is kind of hilarious, because she’s pretty damn invincible otherwise.

But we made it through the process, and we’ll have results relatively soon. What’s also cool is that we get a gender reveal out of the deal, since the chromosomes will make that obvious. I’m glad we’ll know that soon, and have been brooding a lot on what potential differences there might be in parenting a boy and girl as a person with a lot of complicated thoughts on gender and society. More on that after I stew, for sure. Also fun was that they think from the fetal development I’m a bit farther along than the initial LMP based estimate, and my due date is now Halloween, which brings joy to my black Morticia Addams heart.

images of mothering…

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This photo is from my book stash, a Mode Illustree from the 1880s, if memory serves. I love it because it seems so candid for a fashion illustration. The woman’s hair is down, which seems a rarity in these old illustrations, and the affection depicted is something universal and warm, one of the best feels motherhood has to offer, really.

But there are many feels in motherhood, and people don’t usually talk much about the not-so-pretty ones outside of Roseanne reruns or feminist discourse about the economics of human labor. Somehow it seems rude to talk about the less than blissful elements without airbrushing them away with platitudes. It is all worth it, of course, but for those of us with a gloomier turn or problems with touch or physical proximity, there is much to keep to ourselves.

I have my first doctor’s appointment in about two weeks, at which point I’ll be nearly 8 weeks, and I have a laundry list of things to tell her. Please don’t worry if I cry every time I get off of the scale, it’s fine, I just get upset. I always get upset after a pelvic exam, please don’t be alarmed. It’s an invasion of body boundaries thing. Rationally, I completely understand the necessity of what you’re doing and I want it to be done, but I can’t help crying at the feeling of being overrun physically. My pulse goes crazy at the doctor. It’s an anxiety thing, I promise. I’ve had an EKG done with my GP over this. Needles sometimes make me pass out. I’m sorry I’m so intense. I don’t want to be this way and am deeply embarrassed by all of the above.

Maybe it would be different if my being felt less defined by its physicality than it does at this moment, but somehow, pregnancy makes me feel reduced to it, caged by its hormonal upswells and digestive tempests, an automaton that can’t help dropping into sleep mode when resources so often deplete. Capsules to take, pressures to measure, fluids to fill. I wonder if it’s similar to the frustrations of aging, when the will is strong but the body takes primacy with pained joints, physical constraints and dangers, easier fatigue.  I can sympathize with that kind of frustration.

I have a sister who loves being pregnant and who is master of her domicile in a way that I can only marvel at. Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to be allergic to progesterone and that’s why I fall into an almost immediate depression while my sister beams with excitement and enjoyment of the feeling of bringing another person into the world. I understand her reasoning for her feelings, but those buoyancies and happy forward lookings can’t cut through the fog of whatever it is that descends on me when I’m gestating a kiddo. People admonish me, “Oh, enjoy it. It will be the last time. This is a precious experience.” None of those things are wrong, but there’s also a shit ton of pain involved in this experience, and somehow, no one used this logic to gloom-shame me when my wisdom teeth were extracted, even though that was the last time I’d have that particular experience.

I feel like even writing that sentence is somehow a shameful thing. My great aunties would be appalled that I would compare a miraculous event like bringing another precious life into the world to something like having a tooth pulled. I am being flippant, really, but the fact that a certain range of feelings seems unutterable among polite people is strange to me when it’s a process that also involves me being pantless in front of strangers. I can’t feel excited yet, and I certainly can’t will myself not to be afraid. People act as if it’s a waste that I feel such apprehension. There is some truth there, in the same way that feeling any anxiety is a waste of energy. Anxiety is a deep, dark well of anguish that you fall into and climb out of over and over and over again, and though you know the process is a waste, you can’t brick it over. You know that anguish lies waiting to receive you, and there’s no vigilance or act of will that will stop your fall back in.

The cultural image of mother in our time seems a cheery, breezy thing, laughably neurotic about nesting urges or food cravings or teary-eyed at silly little domestic spats, but on the tv and the ad spread she is dressed in Breton stripes with whitened teeth in a sunny kitchen in a sleek, orderly beige house, yelling through a smile for her kids to come to a healthy, gourmet dinner that she either whipped up in a spasm of uncomplaining efficiency, or better yet, crockpotted on her way out the door to work that morning and plated up on a dish set that perfectly coordinates with her carefully curated decor.  She’s heath conscious enough to make her own baby food, but not opinionated enough to be off-putting or difficult.  If she breastfeeds, we never see the tension when she has to decide between making people with old school ideas about it feel uncomfortable or having to isolate herself and the baby for half hour chunks of time when everyone else is at the family BBQ enjoying themselves. We certainly never see her snarling obscenities at her breast pump at work, while she sits cross legged on a dirty bathroom floor to reach a power outlet and cringes any time someone tries the door.

Clearly I have nothing in common with this woman, except maybe the occasional Breton stripe. But imagine my surprise and my happiness to find this portrait among the Schlesinger Library portraits of breastfeeding women, alas unnamed:

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That expression speaks volumes to my heart, somehow. I’m unclear what cultural images of motherhood were during the Victorian era, though I suspect it must have been seen as a celebrated role if it would be photographed in this way. I know that the seriousness of her expression is probably more about the way people carried themselves in portraiture of the era. But I can’t help but love that look and relate to something in it more than the plasticized expertise or earthy granola joy imagery of contemporary maternity. That expression says I love being a mom but this shit is complicated and I have a lot of feels and I will cut you if I have to.

 

 

3,078 random maternity feels.

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It’s been a week since I found out I was pregnant, and my feelings on the matter depend on the day and the intensity of my caffeine withdrawals. I’ve resolved to write/sew/rant my way through it, mostly because I have way too many feels not to grasp for catharsis wherever I can find it, but also because my experience seems so out of step with that of most women I know that it makes me feel like (even more of) an alien outlier, and it might be of some comfort to other women who don’t find their experience reflected in the usual cultural apparatus of motherhood. While I’m not crazy about labels and pigeonholing of human experience into isms and DSM criteria, it also feels relevant to mention that I have an Asperger’s diagnosis, and suspect that my experience might align with others who identify on the spectrum.

I hate being pregnant, though I love being a mother. I have one child already, who I love with an intensity I’d never have thought possible. He’s nearly eight. I hated every moment of being pregnant the first time, and maybe some of that was because I was younger, less emotionally prepared, less certain of my ability to enjoy motherhood or be a good parent. Or maybe it’s because pregnancy is invasive and terrifying, among other things. The pregnancy went smoothly until the last three weeks, when I had pre-eclampsia and had to be induced. I was put on magnesium sulfate that swelled me up like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka, and spent 53 hours in induced, miserable, terrified labor before I was given a C-section, which I was so exhausted I mostly snored through. They had to wake me up to give me my baby boy, and it took me a few minutes to wake up enough to be into the experience, but the rest was what my grandfather aptly calls “joyful stress.”

Both times, I had some inkling before taking a pregnancy test that something was off, accompanied with the distinct sense of being sent on the long walk to the gallows by my boyfriend’s penis. He stuck around the first time and actually kind of wanted another kiddo the second time, but there’s a big difference in saying, “I’m there for you through this,” and having another consciousness embedded in your uterine wall for the next nine months. Each time, there has been the feeling of a cage door closing and shrinking walls, not because I don’t love and maybe even want more children, but because it’s inescapable, and because I will be weakened and reliant on the help of other people to function and be healthy and, from a certain point of view, to survive the next nine months myself. As a stubborn, private, recalcitrant woman, this is an unbearable feeling if I linger on it too long.

When my significant other prods our son to cooperate with going out to eat by suggesting that we need to help mom, mom will get sick if she doesn’t eat, my being chafes against what I know is intended as thoughtfulness. Mom is not a delicate flower. Mom is a force of nature to be cherished and feared. I want my son not to feel any worry and certainly no responsibility for my well-being. I want to roar like the strong tiger mother I am, but in the same moment this damnable weak body demands I sit my crazy ass down because my blood sugar is being crazy and I have the shakes and don’t want to humiliate myself in the parking lot of Denny’s.

Speaking of humiliation, let’s talk about pregnancy gas. After taking the pregnancy test and the sobbing and the alternating waves of almost acceptance, terror, grave responsibility, and tiny rays of almost-excitement, I had this really sweet moment cuddling and fell asleep with my son resting on my chest and my significant other playing video games beside us. I awoke suddenly, scared awake by my own blast of flatulence, to find my significant other right there laughing and no way to deny it. We have been together 12 years. He has heard this happen exactly once before, because I will usually herniate myself rather than fart in public, (unless it’s in front of my son, because he finds it hysterically funny).

Goodbye, dignity. Maybe I’ll see you again in 2019.

More on this to come, for sure, and much related to sewing for maternity, as I’m currently learning all about sewing for a rapidly expanding belly and hoping to strategize so that I can cut clothes wide now and reduce them later as needed, rather than buy or make clothing strictly to wear while pregnant. Maternity fashions and existent patterns make me very sad, so there will be much pattern drafting to come. Also to explore at length: were maternity corsets an evil instrument of the patriarchy, or did they provide some much needed back and belly support in the way that currently marketed belly bands do? I process all my emotions through sewing and historical rambling, so pregnancy the research project, here we go.

Bicyclists and Cersei and Oz, oh my!

Happy Saturday. A morning of bright, clear light here. Drinking coffee as the rest of the house wakes up.

As sewing goes, I’m happily sewing up little samples of lingerie for different sizes to test, learning about the legalities of garment tags, etc. I’m also mulling a jacket project, in part because Game of Thrones will be back on soon and I’ve wanted to make something power-dressing Cersei inspired since the last finale. And also because suffragette bicyclists in spats and bloomers and epic riding habit style suit jackets has hooked my interest.

 

Remember Miss Gulch from Wizard of Oz? Sure, she was a horrible wretch in the movie, but if Frank L. Baum was writing a story set in 1900, could she also have been a caricature of the New Women of the day? Game of Thrones and bicyclists may not seem to have much in common but in my mind they relate because a) I love cinematic representations of women that involve them not always being perfect and good and angelic but instead as creatures capable of the full range of complicated humanity and as straining in various ways against their prescribed societal roles and b) fitted bodices with high collars as activewear for the WIN. Structure wise Cersei’s ruling with an iron fist wardrobe is not so different from the traditional riding habit/”sportswear” of the 1800s. I’ve always found her wardrobe fascinating; even in her more feminine garb of earlier seasons there was often an element of armor; arguably for Cersei her femininity IS a kind of tactical wear. Cersei as a character is fantastic. We feel for her earlier struggles and can understand why her life made her what she now is, although we can’t condone it. We almost root for her strength and defiance when she is imprisoned and powerless and still threatening Septa Unella. But then she gets power, and she’s terrifying. She’s a complicated representation of human ambition who happens to be female. In 50 years I wonder what humanities scholars will have to say about that in relation to the Clinton campaign. Not that I’m equating Cersei and Clinton, but she’s the closest thing we’ve had to a female president, and the reactions to Clinton are so intense it’s kind of fascinating.  I think especially in her earlier days in the White House the world preferred her playing dutiful wifey and baking cookies and not hyphenating her name, and some of the casting of her as shrew figure by the right (then and now) seems loaded with gender symbolism. She’s got a different field of symbolism to navigate than a man, and, well, the rest is history.

But bicycles…the women circa 1900 seem to have been subjected to a lot of mockery and derision for their chosen mode of transportation. Some things I read talked about people looking at it as scandalous because of the physical exertion, the physicality and the fact that (oh lordy) women were sitting on a seat in such a way, that it meant more outings with the opposite sex. And given the eternal strain of youthful generations against the prohibitions of the old, it must have had some subtly sexy, defiant undercurrents that resonated with some subset of the population because there are some great advertisements of women riding bicycles floating around the interwebz. (There are also a large number of topless Grecian goddess type bicycle women?) Here are some from the era that interest me at the moment:

 

And there are a few surviving garments in exhibitions that have me drooling:

 

So I’ll have to play around and see what kind of GoT watching garb I can come up with. 🙂

 

(Photos are all from Pinterest searches of things like “Victorian bloomer bicycle” etc. Most are uncited. Some of the great extant garments are originally from The Met exhibitions, and some of the advertising is originally from the French Gallica website.)

Vintage Sewing Library: W. D. F. Vincent on Shirtmaking; early 1900s shirt miscellany

 

I’m having a mini-obsession at the moment, trying to learn to make a proper shirt. The boyfriend is in dire need of some new ones, so, armed with a Craftsy course by David Page Coffin on shirtmaking details, this book from late 1890s-early 1900s? by the W. D. F. Vincent, prolific editor of Tailor and Cutter, and a heavy dose of Boardwalk Empire = weekend filled!

Parenthetically, I should say that really, really love the David Page Coffin Craftsy courses. He has an interesting way of approaching his areas of interest, which I find relatable with my usual pattern of get obsessively interested + read a bajillion things tangentially related to subject –> try to synthesize firehose of information in way that makes sense and breaks subject down into components. Of course, I think my process is complicated by attention deficit/distractability issues (which is why I sewed a pair of pants and a cut-on Mandarin collar kimono experiment blouse a whim this week, instead of, oh, say, a SHIRT). But I really enjoy his way of breaking down the problem of shirt or trouser making into a core pattern and interchangeable detail elements, rather than being another dressmaking sew along this is how you do it from start to finish kind of course. This course doesn’t really cover how to construct or draft the bare bones shirt pattern itself, but that’s where the W. D. F. Vincent comes in.

sacshirt

 

yoke-back-fronted-forepartfronted-part-variationsdirectmeasureshirts-from-lounge

Detachable collars are familiar enough to me from Peaky Blinders and the mini-obsession with them I had while binge-watching that show, but I wasn’t fully aware that the shirt fronts (or “detachable shirt bosoms”) were also detachable. Apparently these were made in detachable and even disposable form:

1912-fiberloid_shirt_dickey

Apparently they were made in cardboard, paper and other materials for kinds of work like waiting tables, where it was easier to just trash the false front rather than launder one.

Then I vaguely remembered seeing the Bugs Bunny opera skit and suddenly the world became comprehensible:

When the singer’s layers start to unfurl, you see his detachable collar come off, his shirt front roll up, his suspenders holding everything in place. Apparently these detachable shirt fronts were typically held in place with buttons to the trouser front. Thank you, google patents! Also, fun fact, apparently they didn’t incorporate this into the elaborate, very accurate costuming for Downton Abbey and you can sometimes see these formal fronts bunching up on the actors where they would not have if buttoned properly. (citing my source) Apparently shirts of the era would have had a button there, where loops like this could fasten:

trouser-button-detachable-front

 

Patents reveal a variety of fronts and fastening configurations (I have a patent fetish, not gonna lie):

 

And the cherry on top–did I mention detachable collars in the Vincent book? Because this is sewing porn right here.

collars-and-cuffs

 

I think that’s about all the overcaffeinated tangents I’ve got. Happy weekend!

Fitting Woes and Effin Slopers.

Grumpycat_meme1

I’ve sewn three slopers in the last two days. The only explanations I had left were a) I’m deformed b) I’m deformed and a terrible measurer or c) I’m deformed, a terrible measurer and I suck at digital drafting.

Let me show you why I am deformed. This is my dad:

dadbeingstatuesquelol

Don’t get me wrong, he was the best dad. He was funny and smart and so very, very kind. I miss him every single day, and credit him with what little patience and persistence I have. While my dad’s physique was quite the accomplishment, and while I am, of course, ever appreciative of the glorious blend of Arnold Schwarzenegger-isms and raw egg protein concoctions that comprised my childhood, THOSE BACK PROPORTIONS THOUGH. I inherited those lats, and I curse them every time I sew. (Alas I inherited neither his motivation to be super fit nor his abs, although I do okay–no sugar, healthy eating, etc. I just loathe any exercise that isn’t walking or dancing around my living room like Thom Yorke. Don’t do this barefoot; it’s a good way to break your foot. Ask me how I know this.) Also: my posture plagued my dad. He designed workouts to fix my forward shoulders, which back then I didn’t care about, being a stubborn kid who stooped mostly out of shyness. I still notice myself doing this when the social anxiety kicks in. The combination of broad man back I inherited from a long line of farmer strong brawler folk and my grunge era forward stoop means that fitting a bodice is a nightmare. NIGHTMARE. I also have pretty much no waistline and narrow hips, so that’s not fun when all my vintage patterns are drafted for someone who wore a girdle from age ten. I have been stubbornly fighting with the various pattern fitting possibilities since I began sewing. In the last few days, in a veritable paroxysm of determination, I have tried:

-a forward shoulder adjustment
-a round back adjustment
-a broad shoulder adjustment
-a sloped shoulder adjustment
-lowered armhole
-shoulder seam darts
-neck darts
-drafting a bodice block from my measurements using two different systems

It has been so incredibly frustrating. I can get a block to fit my torso, kind of, using these methods. But as soon as I add sleeves, my broad back renders any forward motion of my arms impossible. The fit is uncomfortable AF. So after the failure of attempt number 3, I broke out the duct tape dress form and tried draping again. I tried this in the past, but wasn’t very practiced, so my results weren’t the best and I sort of let it fall by the wayside. But this time, after all the math and all the frustration, it was easy as pie.

I was going about it all wrong. I’m not deformed; I just have a manbody. And I’m not even that bad at drafting, but all the formulas I was using were based on creating blocks for a much more stereotypically feminine form. The final blocks I came up via draping look way more like this:

mensvest

than anything even vaguely resembling this:

woman's sloper2

and I wonder how many other women with petite, larger waisted, broad backed figures are also making themselves crazy trying to make the formulas work for them when (it would seem) the basic proportions involved are wrong from the start. From now on for myself it’s all man-blocks. I actually had already gone this route for a few pairs of pants, hellbent on not risking the cameltoe look. They work great, actually. And since most of what I want to sew channels Lilith from Frasier and the tailored suit look, blocks designed for men with a slight bust adjustment might be far less of a headache for me.

If anyone else has been through the gauntlet of these particular fitting issues and knows of any solutions, I would *love* to hear about it! I’m also very curious about the theoretical differences in drafting for men vs women. It seems like the tailor / couturier-dressmaker traditions were historically quite separate industries, which I don’t fully understand the reasons for and will have to read up on.  But it seems like the basic methods of drafting should be universal, regardless of the figure? I’m also curious about how many people have fitting problems because of the standard male vs standard female figure used for drafting…

 

Woman’s Institute Sewing Books Editions and More Vintage Library: Designing by Draping, 1936

I feel this maniacal compulsion to make myself expert on all things Woman’s Institute. To shout its wonders to the world. To missionize. Because holy freakin crap do I love these books. And today, discovering minor differences between editions, I was positively mad with book lust. (See: The 9th Gate. It’s what my life would be if I were glamorous, rich, important and in accidental league/sex thrall with the devil. So not like my life at all except for salivating over old books and caressing them lovingly, creepily, way too much for normal people to find comfortable.) There’s a scene where Johnny Depp starts examining illustrations for tiny differences all wide eyed behind his big glasses–that is me, today.

9thgate

The most fascinating example of this was the lingerie and underwear instruction books and booklets. I have three different versions–a two part paperback booklet set, and two hardback volumes printed in Britain. I assumed they’d have the same content, but it turns out they are all different! One features Edwardian type lingerie (corset covers, brassieres, knickers), one of the undated booklets features 20s era lingerie, and the final one contains 1930s more contemporary styles. It’s a fascinating transformation and I find it so interesting that around the era of suffrage, the silhouette was loose, unrestricted and free.

At least one other book has multiple versions with completely different designs–“Draping and Designing with Scissors and Cloth” (1920s version, later renamed “Designing by Draping”), “Designing by Draping” (1928) and Designing by Draping” (1936). This one is extremely rare, though reproductions are available. (Which I refuse, utterly, to buy. I know that the sellers of these are probably just hoarders like myself trying to fund their addictions, which I respect, but I require a facsimile reproduction or nothing. My compulsions demand the satisfaction of vintage page design, typeface, the exquisite yellowing of pages. And if the cover features any kind of crappily rendered, computer-drafting looking piece of crap line drawing for a book FULL of exquisite period illustrations then, um, NO.) And the Woman’s Institute books are all exquisitely designed–except, it seems, the 1936 version, which is available in PDF, for free, courtesy of the lacouturieredimanche blog (here). The illustrations have a different feel, and the text is typewritten…??? The book is genuinely a production of the Woman’s Institute, as the logo/name printing on the cover looks right, and the subject matter and instruction is definitely their kind of book, but maybe it was a very limited run not meant for wide dissemination or it was produced during the era when they were winding down their correspondence lessons. Not sure. But it’s fascinating. (Did I mention the designs are frickin’ amazing? This is my favorite era to date–the collision of art deco and the coming 40s power suit trend. Love love love.)

designingbydraping1 designingbydraping2 designingbydraping3 designingbydraping4So where was I? Oh, yes. I want to devote vast amounts of time, energy and money toward becoming an expert about something that no one else but me is really that interested in. So kind of like being a philosophy major all over again. Except more people seem to care about vintage sewing and if I want to sew for customers I could, maybe, perhaps, make a decent living at it without suicidiality and/or having to confront daily the silences of the vast empty spaces. Even writing, which I also wasted years of my life and thousands of dollars in formal education for, isn’t a pleasureable existence for me, mining one’s own psyche for arbitrary meaning and all that. My happiness moments have been working with my hands at a craft, baking pies at 7am in a restaurant, staining houses in the middle of the woods, etc. There is such a pleasure in craft work–tangible, puzzle like problems and cultivating a specific skill set seeking mastery even though you know you will never fully get it. (If you’ve never seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Netflix that shit STAT.) *lost in swoony reverie*

My hoard of books is amassing at a ridiculous rate. I’ve happily sort of stalled on amassing sewing machines, though my recent trip to the backwoods of cell-service-black-hole-of-despair Missouri to take Ray White’s AMAZING sewing machine repair course has me dangerously close to backsliding on that. Over the course of his class, somehow I went from being a girl with a hobby to a girl with a dream of her own sewing machine/historical fashions business. That’s some heavy shit, that is.

So for now I’ll have to wait (the old day job beckons) to scribble some annotated bibliographies, which is sort of one of the greatest pleasures of human existence. And to sit waiting by my front door eagerly awaiting the arrival of the mailman (who knows me and my obsessions so well that he actually gave me an old Kenmore–thank god he’s a patient sweetheart, because a lesser person might resent all the things he has had to lug to my house. When I joked about being a hoarder, I think he believed me.) ALSO: in bouncy bouncy news, I just won what looks to be the abbreviated version (shorter books) of the 12 vol. Isabel Conover dressmaking set circa 1921! More on that very soon!