Thursday, January 30, 2014

Just My Size

After yesterday’s rant, I thought I would explain how I figured out the proper size pattern for my figure after years of guesswork.

The McCall Company Sizing Chart

My very first apparel pattern purchase was McCall’s 8100.  I ended up with a pattern that contained Sizes 8-10-12, although my measurements were probably something like 35-30-36 at the time and I expected that the finished dress might be on the small side.    

The design has no zipper or button closure, but even so, it is horrendously oversized.  The finished bust measurement on the pattern is 41.5” – that means they are allowing a whopping 7.5” of wearing ease over and above the 34" full bust measurement for a standard Size 12.  If you would like to see the result, here is photographic evidence of the dress; the tie-back design is the only reason it fit at all.  

Sometime around 2008 I discovered  Suddenly I was exploring a fabulous online sewing community where thousands of individuals were well versed in a whole new language of FBAs, SBAs, and UFOs.*  I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about!  

In the ten years prior to finding the online sewing community, I was busy making dresses and costumes, and worked with an incredible costume designer in college where I picked up hundreds of random tips and tricks.  In the costume shop, I was the girl to go to if you needed to get a knot out of a length of thread, or if you needed a hem quickly hand stitched or a zipper unstuck during a quick change.  But I had never dealt with fitting anyone other than myself.  I was capable of putting an entire garment together, but never had to deal with choosing a size for someone or drafting a pattern. 

After years of trial and error, I confirmed that my frame was perfectly suited to a size 12 in Vogue/McCall/Butterick/Simplicity contemporary patterns (exclusive of a couple of minor alterations).  But why was that?  My bust and hips got a bit larger, and my waist smaller, but according to their fit chart, a Size 14 still looks like it should be the best fit.

Over the years, I have learned that The Big 4 (McCalls, Butterick, Simplicity, & Vogue) generally have masses of excess ease built into the designs.  Vogue patterns give me less of a problem in this regard, and Vogue designer patterns even less.  The most common exception to the over-ease rule is a strapless design – those follow the body measurement chart quite closely.

So why do Size 14s turn out too big, especially around the upper edge of the bodice?  I am rather long-waisted and usually add from ¾ to a full 1 inch to the torso length, have a slight swayback, and my upper back is straight up and down without the standard bit of forward slouch, but that does not account for the sizing problem. 

Years and years into the sewing game, I started hearing about something called the “upper bust” or “high bust” or "chest" measurement being the thing that should determine which pattern size is appropriate, rather than the three numbers given on the back of the envelope – who knew? - and where the heck are they hiding that number if it is so darn important?!  This upper bust measurement, after all, gives a much more accurate fit.  Gaining or losing weight will not significantly alter this measurement, just as losing twenty pounds does not narrow wide shoulders, or vice versa.  Altering those areas can also be a bit of a nightmare because you have to deal with shoulder widths, necklines, and most importantly, the armscye, so starting off with a pattern that fits through this area is much more important than the full bust, waistline, or hip measurements.  For a dress maker, the full bust measurement is probably the worst indicator of overall body size of a woman.  Which is ironic, since many vintage patterns are only stamped with that single measurement. 

According to McCall’s chart, the upper bust measurement is 2” less than the full bust on their patterns (this is standard for most patterns as they draft for a B cup, which equates to a 2” difference between the high bust and full bust measurements).  My upper bust measurement is 34” which would put me in a size . .  .14.  Aargh!  That can’t be right?! 

However, it takes more than four or five basic measurements to create a standard bodice block and to describe a person’s complicated three dimensional form.  My upper torso seems to be narrower than average for my size (having to take in just about every halter design I have sewn up at the upper bodice has confirmed this fact for me).  

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the culprit: 3-4" of ease for a "fitted" dress - are they out of their minds?!

Instead, it works much better for me to start with a Size 12, which fits through the shoulders and upper torso, and make adjustments such as adding length to a bodice, or width through the hips.  As a dress enthusiast, I like to think of the shoulders and neckline as the foundation of my garments – of course, a skirt or pair of pants requires a different perspective (for those separates I start with the hips and alter to fit the waist as necessary, and for strapless designs I use the waist as the foundation.)

Some new "Custom Fit" designs offer a range of cup sizes in a single pattern envelope: A/B, C, D.  While I am technically a C cup these days, my attempts with the C cup bodice blocks have been rather dismal - probably because my torso is shaped like more of a rectangle than an inverted triangle.  The extra ease given to the C bodice turns out much too wide through the upper bodice/back area for me.  

Vintage patterns are especially tricky because all you get is a single size option.  I generally will only purchase vintage patterns with a 34" or 36” bust because I am lazy and would rather spend my time sewing than grading pattern pieces.  A 34" vintage pattern generally works as well as a Size 12 contemporary Vogue for me - that upper bust measurement is still at play and I rarely have to add inches for a bustline that measures three inches over the 34" sizing.  

For better or worse, every single pattern design is going have variations in ease chosen by the designer or the pattern drafter, which may or may not turn out just like the idealized illustration shown on the envelope.  Whether or not those finished measurements are appropriate for an individual body is what makes sewing challenging and a whole lot of fun!

So I suppose the solution to finding the right size is patience, and lots of trial and error - at least, that has been my experience!  Oddly enough, that first guess was the right one for me (regardless of the horrid fit of that first dress, and the changes in my body shape and measurements over the years, I keep coming back to a size 34).    

Keep in mind that simple alterations like shortening or lengthening bodice pieces, adding or subtracting width from a waist or hipline, and playing with full or small bust adjustments are much more likely to yield a proper fit than blindly following a measurement chart that may or may not contain your body measurements in a single size.  It took some time for me to realize that dropping the waist seam down by one inch would also solve the fit through my hips by moving those curves into the proper place on my body.  

And most important, remember that the full bust measurement on your pattern envelope is much less important than the upper bust.  And I haven't a clue as to why they would not include it on a basic sizing chart!

*SBA:  Small Bust Adjustment; FBA:  Full Bust Adjustment; UFO:  Unfinished Object


  1. I wish I had read this weeks ago! According to pattern envelopes I am, top down 14, 16, 14. Returning to sewing after a number of years I made an A Line skirt using a 16, it was massive and had to have a considerable amount of altering. The next project, a straight skirt for Burns Night, was a narrower fit pattern with a high waist so again I cut out and sewed the 16. This was even bigger, despite being a straight skirt! All very tricky and confusing. I had sort of come round to the idea of buying to fit the bust and adjusting the rest accordingly. This problem has nothing to do with age and girth, I can remember my mother juggling sewing patterns when they only came in one size. In those days I was a 10 on top and a 12 at the bottom! Thank you for all of the information on sizing, I have found it very helpful. From now on I am steering clear of 16!!!!!

  2. I tend to use the sizeing on patterns as a rough guide anyway. (If I went by it I'd be three different sizes) I'll cut out biggest size then pin it on my dress form to change the fit.

  3. This is exactly why I don't sew with any of the big 4 and mainly with Burda and style Arc. I'm willing to make a muslin to tweak the fit but not to determine which size i need! I know you can do flat pattern measurements, and take ease into account, and all that, but that depends on me knowing how much ease I would like in each part of my body for each particular design. if i knew that, i could design my own patterns :-). I do admire people who have persevered and figured it out.I think the incentive to do that is less here in New Zealand, because big 4 patterns are usually in the range $17 to $30, and are seldom found for less than half price. For $30, I am too lazy to do a whole lot of guesswork about sizing.
    I just don't see how hard it can be to make patterns that fit the stated measurements. Style Arc, Burda and ottobre are all pretty consistent like this. And my one lekala make was good too. I see people on PR saying 'oh, of course i always sew one or two sizes smaller than it says'. It's a good solution for individuals but as a commercial concept it's pretty weird! (I'm not talking about buying the right shoulder size then doing an FBA and adding for hips etc, I'm happy to do that - I'm talking about what you're describing above).
    Sorry to rant on your blog! Anyway thanks for this post, i agree wholeheartedly. This must put lots of people off sewing.

  4. In my experience, nothing beats pulling out the measuring tape, measuring the pattern pieces and comparing them to my body. My high bust is also 34", and I generally end up sewing a 10 or 12 in Vogue and Vogue designer.

  5. Why isn't wearing ease given as a percentage? Say 6% for a fitted garment. This would be like imagining the whole garment circumference had to stretch by a certain amount for movement. I don't think 4 inches of ease on a 25 inch waist looks or fees the same as 4 inches on a 35 inch waist.

  6. I'm still in the infancy stages of sewing and fitting, so this post was so insightful and necessary for me. I've been lucky so far, but I know it won't last! =) Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  7. Thank you for this post! I've found that one pretty good clue as to knowing when you're picking the wrong size (in modern patterns) is when the chart says you're a size or two larger than you ever are in RTW clothes.

    I am forever frustrated with how much ease is calculated into different patterns. I have sort of unknowingly apparently done the smart thing for years, and picked the size that fits my shoulders, and then just altered the rest as needed. I have a pretty short, very hourglass torso, so picking the size according to a chart usually forces me to shorten every damn pattern piece as well as taking in all the vertical seams. Once, when I was foolish enough to try and make the bodice of an evening dress according to the size suggested by the chart, the mock-up actually fell off me entirely... Luckily the pattern also included a one size smaller, but even that had to be taken in somewhat. I was not happy at all, especially since nowhere did it mention anything about how much ease they calculate into the sizing.

  8. great post, I agree the high bust is the measurement to use. Also I always recommend people look at the finished measurements on a pattern, or if they aren't there, to do them and then compare to your own measurements. this is invaluable. My recommendation for ease is about 2-3 inches but I like garments to skim the body, not be tight. You get a great fit but I totally understand that it really does take years and practice to be able to do it with ease.

  9. Thank you so much for linking to my Pattern Month articles (through the Standard Body Measurements illustration). I agree with so much of what you are saying, it really is trial and error. I am tall and hip-py so have been drafting my own patterns for years because the commercial patterns I was buying needed so many alterations is was simply easier. With the advent of indy pattern companies (like Colette) this has become slightly easier but I still have to make many, many adjustments. I hope you continue to draft your own!! x