For Decision Making Use the Golden Ratio

Sometimes in the course of garment construction or design, the sewist must make a seemingly arbitrary decision about sleeve length, depth of ruffles, or perhaps the length of a coat.  This applies to those of us who use patterns as a jumping off place, rather than as The End All.  The person who sews religiously from a pattern will never have this problem.

A poor judgment call on one of these seemingly random decisions can render the garment dowdy or ridiculous, or you may hate it without being able to place your finger on why.   How can you know you’re making a good call matching a garment to your body?  Besides good fit, I want my clothes to be proportional to my particular measurements.

The ancients faced a similar problem in architecture, and artists often turn to the golden ratio in their work.   The Golden Ratio stems from a desire to contain aesthetics within mathematical principles.  Why not?

I am not a mathematician.  I juggle measurements for alterations just fine and can work out meterages for quilt borders, but that’s about it.   Several weeks ago I saw a documentary on the Parthenon which planted the idea of Golden Ratio applied to sewing in my mind.  Husband is a “scientician,” I managed to get him interested in my questions.  He found the equations and figured out how to apply them, then taught them to me.  I’m not really a feminist so I’m ok with that.  *wink*

Historically, this ratio challenged some of the brightest minds in art and mathematics.  I can not pretend that my simplistic exploration into these numbers can compare with Pythagoras or DaVinci.   I find them fascinating.  For the sake of simplicity, I round my results to the second decimal place.  Perhaps the third would be better.

Basically, the Golden Ratio is 1.618(….) to 1.  Commonly, this can apply to rectangles.  If one side of a rectangle is 1.618, the other side will be 1.  While digging around about Golden Ratio, I discovered that Apple computer monitors abide by a 10 to 16 ratio- Golden.

Another Golden Ratio application is the Golden Section.  I think this may be most useful for sewing to individual proportions.

(Handy diagrams stolen from Wiki.)

I can explain using the Frock Coat and Husband’s measurements as an example.  Obviously, if I put so much work into a garment, I want it to be as perfect as possible.  That means flattering his frame through fit.  He is also petite, rather taboo for a man; I wanted a length that looked meant for him, not for someone several inches taller.
Using the idea expressed above in the diagrams, I took his height.  I find metric easier to play with mathematically, I don’t have to convert fractions to decimals and back.  His entire height is equivalent to a+b above.
Full Height = 1.78 m = a+b
1.78 / 1.618 (Golden Ratio)
Result = 1.1 m = a
1.78 – 1.1 = .68 = b
I’ll stop here and note that when you take the height and ratios of a human being, the b measurement corresponds to the measurement from the head to the waist.  The human body is riddled with these ratios; apparently even our DNA strands abide by the ratio.
(Stolen from an interesting site)
So, narcissistic creatures we are, we automatically see our own human proportions as perfection.
Back to the coat.  According to our calculations, we thought the coat should be 1.1 m (110 cm) long.  Clever man that he is, husband pointed out that he doesn’t wear a coat on his head, but rather from the shoulders.
We faced a conundrum- do we measure 1.1m from his head, mark that place on his body, measure from there to the top of his shoulder and then make that the length of the coat (.89 m, for those keeping score)?  Do we make the whole coat 1.1 m?
Then we had a brainwave.  If the coat is meant to be worn on the body sans head, would it make more sense to make the measurement from his shoulder to the ground the a+b line, and then work out the length?
Shoulder Height = 1.55 m = a+b
1.55 / 1.618 (Golden Ratio)
Result= .96 m = a
1.55 – .96 = .59 = b
According to this, .96m from his shoulder would be the best length.  The other coat length came out .89m; a difference of 7cm.  Let’s see what a difference 7cm makes:
We both prefer .96m; .89m looks to cut him in half which makes him appear shorter.   Therefore, to use the Golden Segment to determine your optimal lengths for clothing, measure from the shoulder.  The head sits on top looking pretty.

I could further apply golden segment to decide where the waist seam should be:

Length of coat = .96 m = a+b
.96 / 1.618 (Golden Ratio)
Result= .59 m = a
.96 m – .59 m = .37 = b
In this case I could use .37 for the top part of the coat, and .59 for the skirt.   I don’t think I will, because I started working on the fronts, but I could.
Take another example- using my own height to find the optimal top to bottom ratio.
Shoulder Height = 1.47 m = a+b
1.47 / 1.618 (Golden Ratio)
Result= .91 m = a
1.47 – .91 = .56 = b
According to this, .56 m measured from the shoulder is the most flattering length for a top on my body.  When I am wearing pants (which goes to the floor).  As it happens, I am wearing my favorite sweater and some ancient jeans today.  I measured the sweater, it is .57 m from my shoulder.  Close enough.  I have to wonder if the perfect length is part of the reason I hate taking it off.
The next question I ask myself is how to apply this to skirt lengths and then to the division point on different outfits.  Should I use my “a” measurement, applied from the waist (or wherever I want to wear the skirt)?  Should I take a measurement from my waist to the floor and use that as my a+b line?
Can you think of other ways to apply this?  I like the idea of falling back on a mathematical constant for pleasant proportions when I find myself faced with what feels like a random stylistic decision, but I can also see how it could take over your life…


  1. Fantastic post! I've struggled with this type of thing to figure out where to put the waistline of shirts, and there are a few that I'm just not happy with at all. Maybe this is why. Thanks for the lovely post.

  2. I'm liking what this means in terms of dress and skirt lengths, but the math still confuses me. Perhaps it's because you are using meters and not inches or yards? But then that's me being an American. Oh why didn't we convert to the Metric system when I was a kid?!

  3. Take a deep breath and tell yourself it isn't hard. After calculating, find the measurement on your tape measure and then flip it over to the inches side. I'm an American, too, and had to convert over after moving to a metric country…

  4. I love this discussion. I struggle constantly with the proper proportions of garments for my DD, who gets the benefit of most of my sewing due to her very large bust, which of course makes absolutely nothing RTW fit her. She is about 5'8" or 5'9", taller in heels. When I made New Look 6808 with the "flutter" sleeves, I lengthened them by 2 inches. That makes them even with the bottom of the armscye, or right at bust level. I can't imagine how dorky they would look if I'd made them shorter – they would stick out, I should think. And she prefers her tops almost tunic length. Is it really to cover her "tummy", or is it because that looks better with her long legs? Hmmm. I'm going to play with this in my current wardrobe and see where my favorites fall on this measurement scale. I think you're on to something! BTW, I see your name pop up on PatternReview a lot – it seems we frequent the same areas. I also have a love for vintage clothing, and agree with another of your posts that flys on women's pants are unnecessary. I don't like the additional bulk at my tummy, and find the fit much more flattering when the zipper is at the back or the side.Also, Steph is spot-on with her suggestion. I frequently use the metric side of my tape measure when altering, since it's much easier to divide and multiply, then flip over for the inches. It's especially handy when altering pleated skirts, where you have to divide by 14 or 16 (or such) to get the amount to apply to each pleat. :-)Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  5. How interesting!! I have heard of the golden ratio applied to all sorts, but never clothing proportions. This is fascinating. Thank you for explaining it to a non maths brain like me!

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  7. Another fascinating post! As per measurements – as an ex-Brit colony, we use metric – switched over when they did and we were still a colony. For a while inches hung around. so I’m comfortable with both. I use whichever is easier to calculate with. It’s great to have both options :)

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