Pattern Alterations: Weight/Muscle Distribution

Hills or Mountains, it's all just topography

I may not have been as clear as I could yesterday about my approach to fit issues.  In discussing pattern alteration, I prefer to ignore the body image aspect.  We can talk about it later.  Instead, I want to lay out a basic introduction to pattern alteration before I plunge headfirst into writing how-to tutorials.

Pattern alteration is a technical, hands-on skill.  It’s translating the topography of your body into lines and curves and coaxing a flat piece of fabric to fit and drape beautifully.  It’s just a brain-puzzle.  It is not an emotional struggle between woman and pattern.   Words like “sway back” or “forward rotated arm” are not death sentences or judgmental criticisms, they’re useful existent terms to help sort out fitting issues.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Good fit and proportion can make even Paris Hilton look smart. Who would have thought?

Besides, I find wearing a well-fitted garment trumps all those niggling worries about size or shape.  Think about it- good fit visually communicates one of two things: cleverness or wealth.  You’re either nimble-minded enough to make clothes to your individual specifications or rich enough to pay someone else to do it.  ;)

On to Weight/Muscle Distribution:  This is the most individual type of pattern alteration as it focuses on muscle mass and fatty deposits.  Weight Distribution is a function of genetics and habits.  Through working with hundreds of individually shaped women, I noticed a few basic “types.”  These won’t apply to every person on earth, but I find this to be true most of the time:

  • “Petite” body type- A-B cup, usually with a “straight up and down” silhouette.   This person may not need to alter commercial patterns much for fit, and when they do alter it’s often to make adjustments for bone structure rather than weight distribution.
  • “Average” bodies.  Often a B-DD cup, this type encompasses most women.  Colette Patterns caters to this type of body very well.  This person may have one or two “bone structure” type alterations, and any number of “weight distribution” alterations.
  • “Plus” bodies are often the most unique, which is part of the reason that pattern companies and retailers aren’t that great at dressing larger women.  When I am working with a plus-size woman, I try to nail down any “bone structure” issues first.  Then I focus on the main “weight distribution” alterations.

Common “Weight Distribution” Alterations:

  • Full Bust Alteration or FBA– This is an alteration that adds length, width, and changes the shape of the armhole so it lies flatter against the body.  If you are a C or larger, you may notice rumpling in the from armhole, wrinkles pointing from your arm to your bust, wrinkles below the bust, or the back of your tops are too big.
  • “Narrow Shoulders”- Kris mentioned this issue in comments: “I have ridiculously narrow shoulders for my size. I usually cut an 18 at the shoulders and adjust to a 22 at the hip...”  I would say based on experience, this is completely normal.  A LOT of people have to do this.  Shoulder length (from neck to where your arm starts) doesn’t change much as a person puts on weight.  It’s relatively constant.  Patterns forget that.

  • “Sway Back”- Of course, true sway back is a bone structure issue.  Sherri at Pattern Scissors Cloth did a truly magnificent post on sway back, including all the other issues which may be creating those lower back wrinkles.  I think “juicy booty” may be much more common than actual “sway back.”
  • Full or Thin limbs- I sometimes alter for a full bicep, as do many people.  Thighs are another area which may need attention for comfort, mobility and drape.  These are often simple “slash and spread” type alterations.

I plan a post for each of those alterations.  It’s the main points of Weight Distribution fit issues, please tell me anything else relating to weight and muscle distribution you’d like to see.  If I don’t know how to do it, I’ll find out.

Also, I forgot to pick a giveaway winner!  I’m so sorry!  I got absorbed in this t-shirt project and lost track of time.  After printing the comments and putting them into a hat, I let Lila draw.  She picked LizaJane from LizaJane sews.  LizaJane!  Send me your address!

Next Up: All About Ease, and perhaps something pretty and fluffy after all this technical stuff.


  1. ‘It is not an emotional struggle between woman and pattern.’

    Beautifully expressed, Steph.

    I’ve discovered I like my body so much more since learning how to make patterns. I can now create a garment that fits my body – with all its unique features – almost perfectly, which makes me more comfortable in my clothing and therefore happier.

    I’m no longer trying to squeeze myself into ill-fitting and poorly designed off-the-rack pieces.

    I’d identify with having an ‘average’ shape, with an emphasis on larger hips/backside (‘childbearing hips’ in the old lingua franca). Oh, and large armpits!

    And a sway back, which, even though I’ve just said my hips and backside are large, the incredible arch in my lower back makes them look even bigger again.

    • Thank you. :)

      Hmmm… Sometimes I think it would be interesting to set up an interview with a doctor or chiropractor and a very specific list of questions I have about bones. Just ask them their observations…

  2. Steph, I truly appreciate what you are doing here. I strive for a good to excellent fit in each garment I make and don’t really care what terms are used in discussions. My body has been very lean up to fluffy and back to sort of lean (this is matched by weight fluctuations) and its shape has stayed relatively the same. My overall shape is genetic and out of my control.

    What is in my control is my fitness, and that is what I focus on. I have some good muscle mass and that creates a few issues with alterations. Biceps (thanks for the link!), some upper back, thighs…I’d love to see a discussions and pictures with a swimmer’s body or a horseback rider’s body. My tummy is not as firm as I would wish but it has been that way my whole life and age/experience have not improved that situation. I don’t let language in fitting books/discussions make me feel bad for this. It is what it is.

  3. I’m excited about this series. I find I have all these plans to alter patterns, and then when the time comes, I sort of balk and don’t actually know what to do or how to do it. I think this is why I need to make a series of garments from the same pattern to work out the fit issues. Muslining, I suppose. It’ll be interesting to see your thoughts and suggestions on these topics.

    But I’m super excited about the PR meet-up here in Manitoba! We’re going to work out everyone’s actual measurements and discuss fitting. It’ll be good, since I don’t actually know anyone else here who actually sews and can help me work this out. And I will, of course, report back my findings on SoP. :D

  4. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but I like the separation of structure and weight to help focus your alterations. Your bone structure and type won’t change over time. Girth alterations are applied to your basic shape.

    I think seeing descriptions of body types (and there are a number of different versions!) legitimized for me whatever shape it is I am. There’s no too wide, too long, too this, or that, because I “fit” a certain type, and share that type with a lot of other people (:

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  6. My torso seems to be quite “long” in relation to my height (5’2″), and I tend to carry weight on my tummy, but still be comparatively slim elsewhere. I’ve always altered knitting patterns to accomodate this but sewing pattern alteration is new to me. My approach has been cutting out to a “larger” size all over, then using pins and tacking to get the right fit for me. Seems to work ok, but I am so looking forward to seeing tips on alterations to a pattern, as opposed to a garment! X

  7. I really appreciate these posts–great food for thought.

    I’ve wondered about swaybacks a lot and went through a phase of staring at the back of women’s jeans for awhile (trying to be secretive about it!)… I wonder if we all have to some degree. A tailor I know says trouser alterations for that back gapping is their most common alteration next to hemming. Unless we train otherwise, most of us lean forward on our hamstrings (watch a toddler walk for an exaggerated version–they are literally using their hamstrings to keep from falling down). And the pelvic bone tilts forward from the the top causing the pelvic floor to thrust backward. Things like Pilates and yoga may help re-align but gosh, after three years of Pilates I still lean forward and put all that stress on my lower back. My husband has a dancer’s posture and I’ve noticed a lot of dancers who trained from a young age tend to not have it–pelvic floor rotated forward and leaning more on the quads. As far as weight distribution, the bootie drops as one ages and so that “sway” changes shape.

    You should totally do an interview! I have a PT and massage therapist friend who works in a chiropractor setting and has really taught me a lot about bone structure and muscle mass (and specifically why I get back pain, where my alignment is at, which muscles I overuse and which ones are underdeveloped, what happens during pregnancy, etc etc.) One fascinating thing she talks about is how people’s shoulder shapes are changing because of computer use.

    Sorry, that was long, but I like thinking about this stuff, too! ;)

    • Long, but all of it very interesting. I never thought about the hamstrings/quad thing, but now I’ll notice…. I watch the way people’s clothes fit them, too. Most people seem to wear very badly fitted clothes indeed, and well-fitted clothes stand out though not for obvious reasons.

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  11. Interesting post, especially the part of narrow shoulders, now that you mention it, it is weird that the grading of home sewing pattern make them grow so much.
    I have one comment though, being petite is more about height than curves. I think that it is a specific problem that petite women are systematically assumed to be non curvy. You can be “tiny” with a 31″ bust measurement but still be a C cup or/and have a 1.5 hip to waist ratio. I would love to hear your thoughts !

    • Yes, to be sure- but that’s not the “norm” if you know what I mean. Generally, most people who aren’t 16 and have a 31″ bust measurement will be “petite” individuals all over. I’m not saying everyone is like that, but generally that seems more the case. Petite can refer solely to height, but here I use it to mean “small-boned with relatively little body mass.” A smallish person in general, not just height. Make sense?

      • Thank you for writing this blog, I do enjoy reading and learning more about fitting and how body shape variations leading to different challenges in pattern alteration.

        I also had a different definition of ‘petite’ in mind, and feel there might be another body type category. I felt my body type does not fit easily in any of the categories you listed: that for small underbust / large busts, e.g. 28F bra sizes. My high bust measurements is 30″ and I do not consider myself ‘petite’. According to an informal bra-size survey that brings your perfect T fitting mission to mind, and that you may find interesting (, this body shape is not that rare and not necessarily tied to age, weight and being small all over. Personally, I have a lot of trouble adjusting patterns to fit bust, underbust and waist (admittedly, I am pretty much a beginner).

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