De-Grading Sizes- My Thoughts

First Disclaimer: I am making this up as I go along.  This started as a vague concept, based on observations as I helped fit students in my classes.  Over time, it became more concrete- to the point where I can actually present my thoughts in a clear manner.  This is not definitive, this is an idea in progress.

Second Disclaimer: I do not care in the slightest what size or shape someone is.  The shape of a body is a function of lifestyle and genetics, neither of which is any of my business.  My business is making clothes to fit bodies and the personalities inside them.  I don’t like fruity labels like “apple” or “banana” or “pear” and I don’t use them.  I like clear, logical and descriptive words.  I am trying to help in an objective way.

Upwards and Onwards-

The more I taught sewing and fitting, the more I noticed several trends the way commercial patterns fit normal bodies.  I had petite students, average students, and plus students.  In three and a bit years of fitting hundreds of women- twice I had a student who was a straight size and needed no alteration.  Twice.  Both were 10s.

I mean- seriously- am I the only person who finds this demeaning? I know it’s useful shorthand, but I’m a *woman.* Not an item. Don’t objectify me.

Obviously, there’s something wrong with the sizing system.  Much is said on the subject, but it seems like mostly no one knows what to do about it.  Sigrid wrote a VERY interesting and well-researched post on the subject, complete with the original data.  Yep, I pored over the survey.  It’s laughable, but the fact is that most RTW and pattern sizing up to today is based in some way on this survey.

The thing that really kills me is that fitting issues put people off sewing- it’s tough enough to learn at first, but then to find out you have to learn to fit the clothes… It’s hard!  And besides, too many people get a complex when the pattern doesn’t fit them and start calling themselves hideous names. (It doesn’t help that most pattern alteration books use some truly gruesome terms to describe various alterations.)  It’s the pattern, it’s not you.

Top three problems with standard sizing:

  1. Many, many women are one size through the bust, a size larger through the waist, and one to two sizes larger through the hips.
  2. FBAs.  Most patterns (excluding Colette and a few “choose your cup” big 4 patterns) are drafted with a B cup size in mind.  The average is not a B.  I don’t have the data, I can’t say conclusively but it’s not a B.
  3. Petites and Plus: From reading other sewing blogs and through observation, I can see that mostly petites have just as tough a time fitting their patterns as plus sizes.  The proportions are often crazily out of whack.  Why is that?

Grading.  Aside from the ridiculous sizing standards we’re working with, grading is another problem.  Basically, commercial grading works like this:

The patternmaker drafts a mid-size.  The base varies somewhat from company to company, as do the precise measurements used.  From there, the finished pattern is graded.  It’s chopped apart along the lines in the picture and the cuts are spread apart or overlapped to produce larger and smaller sizes.  Computer programs streamline the process, but the concept is the same.

Why is this a problem?  Well, it’s not really, it’s an efficient way to create patterns a few sizes larger and smaller than the medium.  But it doesn’t work for petites and plus, and when the graded pattern is based on the current sizing system, it doesn’t work very well for the rest of us either.

Some measurements are more or less consistent across sizes. These are bone structure measurements- like the “between the straps” or the  “point of no return” measurements I asked for in my last post.  Others vary wildly from person to person- like the full bust and bicep measurements.  This is why grading doesn’t work well for plus and petites.

Last November, I wrote about fitting clothing as a combination of three things:

The same holds true for pattern making.  I made a couple of charts to explain what’s going on in my head-

The left side represents the way most sizing systems work.  Obviously, it makes the production process simpler for the manufacturer but ignores the way bodies change as they increase in size.  The right side is closer to my own observations of real bodies.  It’s rough and imperfect, but over the next few months I’ll fill in the blanks and refine it.

Most bodies fall in the S-M range, while fewer fall into the Large range and fewer still into the petite.  As a general trend.  The “wildcard” types defy classification.

Everyone is different but equal. Why is a small size something to brag about, and a larger size a cause for shame?

As Tanit-Isis pointed out, knits allow a lot of room for fudging the sizing anyway.  The Edwardia blouses I’m working on are wovens, but they aren’t super fitted.  They’re less fudgy, but still forgiving. Eventually, I want to make a couple of pants patterns but that’s a few months away yet.

The worst of the worst images I found when googling “Body Shapes Women.” This is unacceptable. You are not a piece of fruit! You are a woman, a daughter, a sister, a friend, maybe a partner, a mother, a professional, a carer, or even a unicyclist but *not* a piece of fruit. Fail.

I’m taking a few days off blogging to completely immerse myself in making patterns.  I like working that way, it seems to help me produce better work.  My list of patterns to make up keeps getting longer, so I want to knock a few out while I can.  The 35-40 Sisters of Edwardia is nearly complete, with the other sizes in production so I can send them to my testers.  I also have the large Kimono Wrap and a skirt pattern, not to mention this month’s hack.  I like the work, every pattern is better than the last but I need to focus.

I’m still responsive via email, and I’ll be back over the weekend to show you some cool stuff I learned about linen, my plans for the bit of silk-lycra I found in a remnants bin, and of course April’s Hack.  I’m super excited about her, and I have a new technique to show you!

Am I too hard on the fruit metaphor that proliferates in the fitting/style literature?  I really do loathe it…


  1. I’m always fascinated and awed by your understanding of patterns and sizing, and your research into pattern sizing. I’d really love to see you do a survey and develop a new standard.

    While the standards may be dreadful, I do sort of sympathise with the pattern companies. As you point out, every single body is different, and coming up with something that works for a lot of people is going to be very, very tricky. It will work for basic shapes (which is how Collette has done such a fantastic job), but as the patterns get more complicated (and interesting) the trickier it is going to get.

    I don’t mind the fruit thing. I like fruit, and while I’m aware of where my body is different and quite blunt in describing it, I’m not actually sensitive about my body itself (just the idea of being discredited as certain sizes not being ‘real’ or ‘normal’) or the different terms that are use to describe shapes – they are just terms.

    I think I’d like to be a pineapple – resilient, easy to grow, pokey and prickley on the outside, but mostly lovely and sweet, with a bit of a tangy bite and a solid core ;-). Hmmmm….not so good as a body shape descriptor though!

    • It is tricky, and perfection is a bitch-goddess and ultimately unattainable, but I don’t think a better system is beyond grasp.. Or maybe I’m a quiet nutcase.. Either way, keeps me from playing in the street.. hehe.

      I like the pineapple analogy.. Except you’re not shaped like one… Once I slice off the scales and remove the flesh from the core, I can’t eat much of it because it burns my lips… I do like nibbling on the core, though… Still tasty, less burny…

      Stephen doesn’t comment here but he does to me after reading… He said a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. Way to burn me with the Bard! So I countered him with the Bart: “Except when you call it stench blossom…” I know they’re just terms, which is fine, but it’s such a ridiculous over-simplification… Just a pet peeve. ;)

  2. Hmmm…on the petite thing…I always thought it was a proportion thing more than a size thing? As in a petite person was short, but with proportionate torso to legs. Whereas you could have another person of the same height with a short torso, and long legs who would therefore be not petite. And that’s why you can have plus-sized petites? (If that makes any sense at all…)

    • Well– it depends on where you’re using the term “petite” if you know what I mean… I’m speaking about general body types- some people have genuinely smaller frames than others, and that is the way I use the term “petite” here regardless of the proportioning of limbs to torso.. Make sense? I think what you mention has more to do with buying jeans and trousers- at least, that’s the way they did sizing when I worked at the Gap (waaaaay back in high school :)).

  3. My upper body, where I don’t carry any weight is just about a perfect size 12 in big four patterns. My lower body where I do carry a lot of weight is a whole different story. At this point, I just don’t buy dress patterns without a seam at the waist. I’m not bothered being called a pear or a triangle or whatever. It’s just the facts.

    If I could design my body from scratch I probably wouldn’t choose b-cup breasts to go with 44″ hips, but I can live with it. At this point, I just look on the bright side. At least I have a discernible waist! Good luck with your pattern drafting!

    • Lovely attitude, Karin… And you do really gorgeous work with your sewing, I like the garments you make for yourself. A lot of them have that “second skin” quality… Not tight necessarily, but they look like an extension of yourself… Know what I mean?

      It’s hard to get to that point though and I think a lot of people give up or blame themselves when the sewing doesn’t work for them, but I think a lot of the time the issues lie in the pattern work.. Not to bag on pattern makers, it’s definitely conundrum and a half to make clothes to fit a variety of bodies but I wish there was a little more thought and consideration given to sizing issues.

  4. Since starting to sew again, I feel that my size is unique to me. I have yet to grade patterns, I find this daunting. But applaud anyone that is willing to share a bit of info on this very tricky and exhausting concept.

    As a sewer, I want a garment that fits well and that looks good. This, of course, takes time to achieve. That is why when a pattern is purchased, a mock up has to be made first in order to truly find your fit. It is tedious but necessary.

    I am looking forward to seeing what you are able to put together. Thank you for your willingness to share with the rest of us :-D


    • I feel that way about my size, too… I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to go shopping, it’s been a while. I’m not even sure about the big 4 companies any more, I’d have to measure and check!

      Yes- it does take time.. Definitely. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so hard either! Maybe! :)

  5. wow what a great and thought provoking post! Even as someone who tries to be aware of body image it is hard sometimes not to feel abnormal when a pattern doesnt fit out of the packet. More power to you and carry on!

  6. I love the ‘strategically placed body mass’ , fab phrase. Apparently (according to some size charts) I am a size 12/14 top, size 16 waist with a size 12 hips, what’s going on there then? I do go in in the middle honest! I sew as I’m fed up of RTW not fitting, bizzarre petite fittings and vanity sizing, variations between stores and ranges, soooo frustrating. retrochick has a campaign for clearer sizing running at the moment. We are women with womens shapes, we are not fruit or clothes hangers after all. I think your size charts has such a great potential!! X

    • Heh heh heh… I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it…. But I think the idea comes across… I’ll go check out retrochick, thanks for that!

      Yes- as irritating as it can be to fit something when you sew, it’s got to be so so SO hard when your only option is to go shopping. I hear there’s some body scanners in US shopping malls that analyze your body and tell you where to go shopping. I must say I’m kind of suspicious but if I lived in the US I’d pop myself into one post-haste to test it out….

      Thanks. :) Work in progress, to be sure….

      • How intimidating would that be- it might flash and give off a siren and say in a loud mechanical voice “nothing here for you!” … ;-)

      • Hahahahh! It might well do that, but I think the retailers have to pay to be added to the database, so it seems like its basically a marketing tool. Which makes sense of course, but still… Makes me a little suspicious…

  7. Thanks for this, and for the link. As usual, very interesting and thought provoking. Now I know why I find my oldest vintage patterns are easier to fit to my voluptuously bootied body:).. otherwise known as pear shaped…. so they took the measurements on typical underwear – conical bras and girdles – I wondered why waists and hips went down! And the depression measurements – how racist and regionist and oh, I could go on and on…. anyway, just plain dumb! so women outside urban areas weren’t supposed to be interested in wearing the latest fashion, I take it.
    It’s also consoling to know that in all your years you only found one person who didn’t need adjusting for – years back I used to feel unhappy at the differences between my size and pattern tables – it passed, as I grew older and more confident – but still!

    The fruit analogies I find irritating beyond belief, and always have.

    Cant wait for Sisters of Edwardia – can I be a tester LOL…

    • I know.. I know… But.. Well.. It was also a WPA project, and the point of WPA projects was to employ people. Which is a great end, but I think with any kind of research and development project, you have to have someone behind it who is passionate about finding answers rather than someone who is working at a job… There’s a difference, know what I mean?

      Two. There were two. I often wondered what that meant- did I attract students who needed fit help? Does sewing attract non-standard body types? I’m not sure, because there was rather a variety of people… Not sure at all.

      Sure, I’ll put you down for a tester… The tester patterns are slightly less pretty than the digitized patterns, and the instructions are probably less thorough…. but at least the scaling is right and all the lines match up! I’ll let you know.

      • It may have been te non standard thing – when I made wedding dresses, I made easily 80% of them for size 6 women under 5′ 2″ and size 18-30 women of all shapes and heights. I think this reflected my approachability, but also that these women couldn’t get a friend of relly to make for them, and couldn’t make for themselves, and RTW was totally out of the question.

      • Two! Now I’m depressed ;). No, seriously, I don’t think you attracted people who needed help and thus skewed your proportions… I look around me at work and see masses of different body types. One of my colleagues has what to me is a perfect hour glass body – could model for underwear – and she finds it hard to buy clothes off the rail because of her supposedly too-broad shoulders.

        Really? I thought all the testers were taken! What fun! i would love it – never been a tester before! But I would eventually buy the “real” pattern…

      • Y’know, I’ve sewn for years, not so much for others as myself, but recently have been sewing way more for friends and family. That said, I have discovered that there really is no “standard” body. The measurements may be similar – even in those who wear the same RTW sizes, but there are a myriad of other fitting issues that are unique to a body – sloped shoulders, one hip higher than the other, etc., etc. I recently made up a few dresses for a friend who is comparable in size/shape to my eldest daughter, but when one tried on the other’s dress, my eye instantly saw a myriad of fitting issues! I think the marketing beast and the bottom line are to blame for the woes of sizing, as well as general ignorance of what constitutes a well-fitting garment. If we could all afford haute couture, they would never refer to our “size”. We’d just be measured and the garment would be made to fit the body proportionately. That used to be the only way you could get a garment – get measured and a seamstress/tailor would make it up for you and only you.

      • The best latest example I can think of is the royal wedding last year…. Person after person who appeared on the camera had perfectly fitting clothes. It was amazing. I loved it. Regardless of body shape. Pippa’s now legendary bootie at the wedding has as much to do with proper fitting as it does with her exercise regime.

  8. Actually, the fruit anaologies don’t bother me that much. Measurements mean very little to me – I cannot judge any distance bigger than one inch with any degree of accuracy whatsoever – so stating that someone has x-sized hips and with a y-sized waist makes me nod and smile while my eyes glaze over, but saying “apple shaped” or “pear shaped” conjures an shape I can match a body type to. And they’re nicer sounding than the label of “barrel chested” that my dad gets. Having said that, there are SO MANY different body shapes, that many people simply don’t fit the labels, which can make it confusing.

    What DOES bother me are the ridiculous rules that go along with the labels. “If you have more than 10inches difference between your hips and waist…” well ok, but 10″ on someone with a 26″ waist is proportionally a lot more than 10″ on someone with a 42″ waist, and either one will look vastly different on someone 6’2 compared to someone 5’2. A percentage difference would make a lot more sense, but the height thing would still mess with it.

    • I hadn’t thought of it that way, Sarah… Interesting! I’ll think about that, and probably hate on the fruit thing less… Though I still don’t like it much because it’s often used to tell people what to wear and what not to wear. Which is kind of sensible if you’re at the mercy of the shopping malls but I pretty firmly believe that most bodies can wear most styles provided it’s well made, in a good fabric and a color that flatters, and it fits properly.

      I think you’re right, but the percentage might be harder to grasp… Hmmm…

  9. I don’t mind the fruit statements because there is no implied good/bad. An apple isn’t better than a pear. I dislike the “real” lable because if you are one you are good and if you another you are not. It only works if the distinction is between an airbrushed photo and a non airbrushed photo.

    I have found the patterns I have used for Victorian clothes (Truly Victorian) easier to get a good fit because they look at the solid parts of your body, like the width of your back separately from the more changable parts (girls and gut). I have a very middle of the road size for my back but need a bigger size for my front. I still have to take in larger darts at the waist than recommended because, corsetted, my waist comes in a lot. But, it is easy alteration that doesn’t mess with other parts that then need to be altered. For this reason, I am contemplating taking my Victorian patterns and using modern materials and a few modern techniques to make modern clothes.

    Enjoy your work days! I wish you no aggravation!

    • Hmm- neither good nor bad. That’s true. Except when I hear someone describe themselves as a piece of fruit, there’s often a hint of disgust in their voice. “I’m a pear…” “I’m a banana” No… You’re a lady! Now come over here and let me measure you so we can get some clothes that fit!

      I laughed at the girls & gut line! Love it! I’m studying more into Victorian type pattern making for later on down the road when I want to get into fitted wovens… I think the concept makes a lot of sense.

      I say go for it… I like using old patterns with modern techniques and fabrics too, playing around with it… And I very often LOVE the resulting clothes. You love the era, and besides when done up in normal fabrics I think a lot of the old styles would slip right in to a modern wardrobe…

      Besides… the more I push the envelope with weird clothes, the more I discover I can get away with it. When I feel self-conscious and awkward, I think that comes across… But when I am comfortable and forget about my clothes, it seems like other people do too…

  10. I worked for the Wrangler company in the early 1980s. At that time, our womenswear division was struggling with size/fit descriptions, and completely re-working pattern standardization. (Designing for women is vastly different than designing for men). From in-house, the designers pulled female employees with a variety of body shapes, but who all wore the same size, to tweak their designs and to model the finished garments. They designed subcategories of jeans for women who had the same measurements, but whose weight was distributed quite differently: A. Wide from side-to-side but shallow from back-to-front. B. Deep from back-to-front but narrow from side-to-side. C. Evenly cylindrical, about the same side-to-side as back-to-front. Once they’d finished, I could finally buy a pair of jeans (I was a C) that fit, without any alteration except length. Then the VF Corp bought us, and that fitting program was scrapped.

    • LinB- This has really gotten inside my head.. One for it’s rationality. I can’t deny it. That makes the best sense. And second because even a big company like Wrangler just pulled ladies off the floor to work with their measurements. I love that. It’s a crying shame that the sizing system got scrapped! I tucked this into my “pants pattern inspiration” file… Can I email you for a brain-picking?

      I’d be a B. Definitely.

  11. Great post, very thought provoking. I’ve never been upset by the apple/pear thing but some of those pictures are a bit… distressing. Pet peeves don’t have to be shared by the general population and I think your reasoning for disliking is quite logical.

    I love your thoughts on adjusting cup size with sizing. The way you displayed that in the table makes a lot of sense to me. My D cup feels proportionate to my overall body, I would actually fit in your size range well.

  12. I’ve been teaching myself to fit my ‘wildcard’ body, and I’m starting to wonder if I should just make my own patterns! Well, anyway, the commercial patterns are a starting place. I think there are 2 problems: 1) many are based upon measurements taken decades ago; 2) they are based upon a mean, not a ‘typical.’

    My background is in art, and many years ago, when taking a figure sculpture class, the complexity of the body became quite apparent to me. Art class models are not recruited from modelling agencies. Just ordinary people willing to get naked in front of a bunch of students. That kind of study makes it obvious that there are interesting differences. Bodies have a depth factor, not just width, and the depth can vary at different points too. In regard to clothing/pattern fit issues….If a bust measurement is 40″ e.g., it matters how the 40″ is distributed around the circumference of the body.

    Ya, the fruit is stupid. (Why don’t they classify men this way?!) I’m probably classified as an “apple,” but it doesn’t make sense. In reality, I have a “short” back, boobs, and not much of a waist (irrespective of weight). I’m finding that for Burda patterns the shoulders are too big (typically a “pear” issue) even when based upon my under-the-underarms chest measurement. Pattern measurements are just too simplistic and the alteration lines are often insufficient as well. What to do, I have no idea either!

    • That’s interesting- an artist’s perspective. And you’re right, there’s a definite difference between a mean and “typical.”

      Maybe men don’t get fruity labels because they’re somewhat less varied than women? Sure, there’s bone structure differences, but they don’t have the same curves to contend with… Hmm!

      • I suppose the fruit is suppose to be ‘cute’ or something. I’ve made artwork about women’s bodies, clothing, and fruit — coincidently. Different perspective though! One of the underlying issues that the artwork dealt with the connection between (one’s) body perception and the form of the clothing. Mostly I was working with dresses then. It’s still a fact that women have a different social position than men. Despite progress in some areas of life, we continue to (often) be perceived based upon looks. Our clothing reflects this, for better or worse– in necklines, hem lengths, waistbands, frilly details, etc. Each of these considerations means something, ‘femininity’ (whatever that is!), and mostly sexuality. Men don’t worry about these kinds of self-image issues and so their clothing is more utilitarian. Regardless, I’m not going to start wearing their stuff anytime soon!

  13. Oh, I just love this post–especially the idea of more realistic cup sizes and more sensible grading–I hope you do come up with your own system on this! I’m neither petite nor plus, but the B cup for all sizes really gets to me! According to this fascinating article from the the Guardian UK: “in recent years the average bra size has expanded from 34B to 36D”–and there are more and more women with narrow band and large cup sizes. Theories as to why range from hormones in the environment to better nutrition.

    I actually don’t mind the fruit so much–easy visual metaphor, though since when are hourglasses an edible fruit?!–though I HATE it when women are compared to meat or other edibles. What I DO mind are dictates like “pears should wear this, apples should wear that.”

    And what I REALLY REALLY hate are books that talk about “ideal” or “perfect” types and actively hate on the rest of us… unfortunately a lot of otherwise excellent sewing and fitting books. Adele Margolis’s books, for example–which advise that the best way to look good in sewn clothing is to lose ten pounds… Or then there’s Helen Joseph-Armstrong’s Pattern-Making for Fashion Design… scroll down this post for a screen shot of HORRIBLE mean fitting advice about “ideal” types.

    • Yes- I think the breast growth debate is very interesting… Years ago, a friend of mine from the Leventine told me all about Lebanese women and how they all have big breasts because the chicken they eat has so much hormones in it… Hehehe. But maybe…

      She DOESN’T say that??!! I have never heard that but where does she get off? Like it’s any of her dang business. Wow… Thanks for the links, I’m off to go explore.

      I mean… wow. What a bizatch. I don’t mind some direct, clear advice, but that’s just rude and unnecessary…

      • Oh, she (Margolis) DOES! I think it’s in “How to Make Clothes That Fit and Flatter: Step-by-Step Instructions for Women Who Like to Sew.” I have a ton of her books and love them but that one just got me so angry.

  14. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head : ‘I’m not a piece of fruit or an object – I’m a woman!’.
    So many times I’ve tried and failed to fit myself into generic fruity shapes in order to try and understand my body, but I just don’t fit! I’m not a pear nor an apple, nor a rectangle nor hourglass. Years of not quite being this or that has driven me to sewing for me – for my bust, for my waist and for my hips. I’m still not quite there with fitting, but I do a hell of a lot better than shopping for rtw.

    Really interesting post, and really well done for all the research and clever mindthoughts. I hope you can get a better sizing system out to the public.

  15. I don’t mind the fruit comments too terribly, but I *do* mind the connotations that come along with them, “oh… I’m a pear, that won’t fit me ‘cos my butt is to big” or “well, it’s easy for you to say, you’re an hourglass and I’m an apple.” Really ladies?? Every body is beautiful regardless of what fruit we have labeled ourselves with.

    I do understand your frustration though. I’m extremely petite in nearly everything, but as one of the younger generation (I’m only 20) , it’s hard to find cute/fashionable RTW clothes in stores. I’ve resorted to sewing my own skirts because then I don’t have to worry about it being too long for my own short legs! I’d love to see the logic in clothing companies minds that equate to petite-ness to older women, especially in the US. I go to a clothing store and try on petite clothes and I leave the dressing room looking like my 70 year old grandmother!

    Good luck with your new patterns!


    • Oooh! Yes! That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about… I guess its an unavoidable part of human nature, but still…

      Are there any rtw companies that make youthful petite clothes? I know from reading sewing blogs and etc that finding decent petite clothes is a huge huge nightmare…

      • I don’t think there are any rtw companies in the US that make youthful petite clothes. Occasionally I can find short pants from companies that run by waist and inseam size but even then the proportions are still off… Tops aren’t that big of a problem, excluding long sleeves (I have to roll them up three to four inches), but it’s a bigger problem with pants/skirts. Regular capri pants on someone else look like pants on me. Making my own skirts is a much better option…

  16. Fascinating ideas and comments. makes me wonder if there could be something modular, a base pattern intended for a certain bone structure, then to be padded to desired measurements. I guess that’s really what a pattern drafting system is, duh.

    But you’re right, without real data, it’d be tough to make good guesses about what the groups of sizes/proportions should look like. Ethnicity is a huge component of that. talks about that a little in discussing Asian vs. western swimwear blocks. The scatter-chart of body proportions would look very different in Vietnam, England, and South Africa…. so how do you deal with a population like Australia or the US that’s very mixed? Is specialization the only answer?

    I guess the whole apple/pear thing does kind of bug me too, partially because it just doesn’t seem that relevant except at a gross generalization level. I suppose it’s convenient shorthand. As one of the terminally skinny, I’ve never really felt I fit any of those categories. But hey, I’m not really trying to follow Marie Claire’s fashion advice either, so maybe that’s not an issue! :)

    Good luck with your sizing/patternmaking fun.

    • I’ve noticed this too, about ethnicity and body proportions. I’m an American of mixed European descent, and the one time I have EVER walked into a clothing store and stuff just fit me I was in a small town in northern Sweden. It was a normal women’s clothing store! A miracle! Unfortunately I was a poor backpacking student at the time and could only afford two shirts, but I wore them for years.

      And oddly enough I recently discovered that Japanese patterns are easier for me to alter than anything else I’ve tried. I may have to change everything else, but at least the waist is in the right place and the darts aren’t too deep, and for me those are the most annoying re-draws.

      • How interesting! I find that kind of thing fascinating… I guess it’s not possible to take a trip to small town scandinavia just for some shopping. hehe. The things I couldn’t buy while backpacking that I kick myself for now.. Sigh.

        I really want to play with Japanese pattern books, but there’s only so much I can do at one time. One day!

    • Yes- the base. That’s where I am right now. At the base. And I think it’s almost where I want it. But maybe not.

      I do have some data, once I started noticing trends at work I kept some data and documentation, but in rather a lackadaisical way… But I have been keeping better records lately, and maybe int he future I’ll do something of a wider sizing survey… Though it’s likely to be bits and pieces at a time…

      Sigh… Marie Claire… They’re kind of the best of a bad lot though aren’t they?

  17. Steph, thanks for linking. I find the fruit type analogy pretty annoying too, especially when women are described as “a pear.” The silly thing is that although I graduate up in size as every measurement moves downward, I really don’t feel pear like at all.

    I think that chart you made with all the size groupings linked to cup sizes makes so much sense. I really would expect there to be some hard data about this, but your “anecdotal data” is probably as good or better than anything out there.

    One gigantic issue that I didn’t get into in my post was that the original measurements categories in the 1930s study I reference were created by physical anthropologists who had been trained to define population groups (or racial groups) based on body (and head) measurements. They had no interest in the problems of fitting clothing, or understanding how women’s bodies proportionately changed in different sizes. They were looking to define a prototypical “American” women from a very biased perspective. I think the women who had to carry out the program probably tried to do their best, the project was flawed from the start.

    Can’t wait to see what you draft up next!

    • Well, I keep testing my ideas against actual data and through patterns, and mostly it seems to work out…

      How can I not link to such a great article? Thanks for writing it. :) The methodology in the survey made my head want to explode, it’s really biased and weird and not helpful… That what made me think “Right- the sizing system is all kinds of screwy, has been from the beginning, let’s do something else…”

  18. I can’t sew my way either into or out of a paper bag despite two years of trying, but I will be grateful for sewing forever for teaching me which of my measurements shift according to whether I’m going for nice swims and eating vegetables or focusing on more sedentary hobbies and which of my measurements have nothing to do with how I spend my time and are just parts of me like my eye color or my nose shape. For instance, I discovered that most RTW clothes and unmodified patterns don’t fit me well not because I’m “chubby” (I am in fact round in the middle, but that’s fine and they make clothes that fit that measurement well) but because my bust point is an inch tall and my shoulders are an inch wide for standard measurement sets. For years I assumed I must be some kind of mutant who was doomed to a life of ill-fitting shirts because I didn’t have the skills to see the problem. Now I do! Thanks, sewing!

  19. I don’t mind the fruit metaphor, I think it gets the point across clearly to those whose eyes glaze over comparing numbers! I don’t mind size numbers either, although I wish they were all the same internationally. I really can’t get my head around a size 0…!
    As an industry patternmaker I would never grade a size range of 0-46 in the manner you suggested! I would grade two sizes up/down (3 at a pinch) before the pattern requires redrafting to account for the three-dimensional form. This is sort of what you have identified with cup size in your groupings.
    As an aside, it is also why smaller manufacturers usually only produce a limited size range, something I often hear complaints about! The patternmaking production costs virtually double to provide a range of larger sizes, and this increases the garment cost considerably.

    • Yes… There’s certainly a lot that goes into making patterns that are even remotely useful… You sound very sensible with the grading, I have read all kinds of things from different sources about the process so I guess like anything else it varies widely…..

  20. So interesting! I have never thought about the pear- apple thing much, except when Trinny and Suzanne came out with 12 body types ( I think it was) to help women understand their body shape better (and then tell them what to wear, in order to look as slim and young as possible, which unfortunately is the unspoken definition of ‘what suits you’.) And all their rules mean nothing to someone who has more fat than muscle distributed on their body, as that is a game changer for fit and shape of clothes. Which is why I think what you’re doing is SO important and exciting and fresh and clever out the wazoo.
    Speaking of uber clever, is it just me or does it also peeve anyone else that sewing, pattern making etc is not considered a fit pursuit for an intelligent woman? When women consider clothes so damned important and we all wear them, I’d have thought they were THE top issue. And yet, it is all associated with either vanity and ridiculousness and fame, or domestic drudgery. Why for goodness sake are rocket scientists and brain surgeons so admired when so few rockets are built and so few brains need operating on, but everyone wears clothes?

    • “does it also peeve anyone else that sewing, pattern making etc is not considered a fit pursuit for an intelligent woman?”
      Yes. Not only is clothing extremely important, but requires a great deal of intelligence to make: spatial thinking, 2-d and 3-d visualisation skills, working with numbers, mechanical affinity, problem-solving skills and a well-developed aesthetic sense. See? Intelligence.

      • Well… I will chew on that. You’re right, both right. I kind of play with the patterns and numbers and etc because I can’t help myself… But I have always had the tendency to be faintly embarrassed about the things I do with fabric. In fact, up until a few years ago it was something I tried to keep quiet about… Because it was so “weird” and not “important” if you know what I mean… I studied something else entirely when I was at university (which I don’t use now except to bore people to tears with political discussions)- I don’t regret it exactly, but I wish I had played to my strengths and studied design or something along those lines, valued the sewing more. Nevermind!

        But you’re right- how many rockets are made? And everyone wears clothes… I will be thinking about this…

      • Don’t ever let yourself be even slightly embarassed! I have the greatest respect and admiration for anyone who can draft patterns – I am lucky enough to usually only have to go out at the waist and then at the hips – like another poster, I usually try to buy dress patterns with a waist seam :) – and can handle that – my other issues – like bagginess across the shoulder blades (and i’m broad shouldered) – and a pattern I’m trying out where the darts end too much to the outside of my nipples – well, those I am flummoxed by.
        Furthermore, I work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – like the Department of State or Foreign OFfice – the majority of us have at least first and second degrees, with many having more levels and/or degrees in other subjects – and I get treated with great respect by all the colleagues who know I sew – they’re always asking if something is my latest creation or to look at my hems (I’m into finishing with lace and stuff) and saying how I am wasted here! Even my DG comments on “smart and stylish” – because I don’t fit the tight grey or black short skirted suit but nonetheless fit the dress code, with my 50s dresses – easier than 30s to fit to a juicy pear :)… and when I recently told him I sew said wow, that’s why you are one of the most elegant diplomats. It’s always “how clever” and never” omigod how oldfashioned or brainless”. So please, oh brilliant and innovative pattern grader/designer/sewist, please say goodbye to any hints of embarassment or whatever and embrace your multi talents!

  21. I love your thoughts on this!

    I must admit, I can get a bit dismayed by the list of alterations I’m racking up, which seems to get longer the longer I sew… although I knew I had a few chronic fit problems (long arms and legs being the most problematic, although I always knew it was only the fashion for low-rise pants that was getting me by in the waist/hip department), I had no idea all the other little differences.

    That being said, my particular proportional anomalies aren’t the ones you’re describing in your general chart, and I’m not expecting pattern-drafters of any stripe to magically start producing short-waisted, long-limbed, square-shouldered, sway-back-altered patterns any time soon ;). From my point of view, the best thing a pattern-designer could do would be making sure bust and waist are marked on the patterns, and maybe providing a ready-made “petite” line through the armscye as well as the more standard lengthen and shorten lines. As someone who really enjoys drafting my own patterns (and occasionally sharing them), I know that adds an extra layer of complication to things, but it really lessens the frustration when I go to make my standard alterations.

    I really like the idea of drafting a larger cup-size for the larger patterns and small for the smaller—obviously it’s not going to fit *everyone* but it will probably get a larger proportion than B-cup for all (that being said, “cup size” is rather deceptive, since a 38B is a considerably larger breast than a 34B… working with raw bust and underbust measurements would probably be more effective). One method of grading I’ve run into is to draft the smallest size, draft the largest size, and then divide off the intervening sizes between those two—I think that would be an easier way to get a proportion difference between the extremes of sizing. I’m curious how Jalie does it, since most of their patterns go from toddler all the way to adult plus-sizes—there have to be at least three or four different basic body-shapes in there (toddler, child, “normal” women’s, and “plus” women’s) blended more-or-less seamlessly.

    Honestly, grading seems to be the biggest “secret of the trade” in all pattern-drafting—there are eighty-bajillion texts on drafting, and most of them have at most a page or two on grading. The few grading-specific books out there seem to be insanely expensive.

    • Hmmmmm…..

      Hmmm…. I think what you’re saying about ribcages and busts is conceptually close to what Wanda pointed out about Victorian fitting… I’m pleased there’s so many clever people out there willing to talk to me about this stuff. :)

      I understand about keeping things like grading secret, I do. A lot of thought and work goes into it. And you’re so right, it’s really expensive to buy books like that. But so far my make-it-up-as-I-go-with-a-bit-of-trial-and-error is working ok. And I think as I keep working at it, I’ll land closer to my target… Especially if I work with testers who tell me clearly exactly what works and what doesnt… We’ll see what happens!

  22. I’m with you on hating the fruit metaphor. Could be that the metaphor itself is innocent, and that we’ve attatched value and judgement over the years to things like “apple” and “pear”, the same way we’ve attached value and judgement to other neutral, descriptive concepts such as “Small”, “Large”, “4”, etc. Maybe it’s not the fruit metaphor to be hated, but the inevitable denigration of appearance that eventually attaches itself to any descriptor. This is *definately* a problem when talking about women, clothing and fit, but I have to say the poor men out there suffer with this too. I do a lot of sewing for gents, and I have been amazed to discover that they usually hate their bodies as much as we do. They talk about it less in daily pubic life, but when faced with a measuring tape or a muslin, the insecurities come pouring out. I’ve worked for a lot of people-female, male, gay, staight and trans, shy, outgoing, and I have NEVER ONCE made it through a fitting without someone saying something terrible about their appearance.

    So maybe the problem is that it doesn’t matter what terminology we use or how neutral it is. So long as we live in a culture that heavily shames people about their physical traits, every descriptive term will become nasty and undignified at some point. But we still need to have a vocabulary for sewing and clothing….what to do?

  23. Over the last few years of perfecting fit for myself I have come to the realisation that these fruit metaphors fool inexperienced sewers into thinking that refining fit is easy. It is anything but, as you well know. I am relatively slim and a regular B cup, so I am closer to the fit of some patterns than many other women, but still I have a lot of alterations to make to a pattern. For most patterns I cut a size 8 through the shoulders and sometimes I even have to nip the front in if the neck is too wide. I often have to lengthen by one inch between shoulder and bust (or at least drop the bust point by an inch), but REMOVE an inch between bust and waist. Depending on the garment I will cut an 8 or 10 waist and grade out to a 12 at the hips. I sometimes have to lengthen between waist and knees but shorten between knees and ankles there is an obvious knee. In a Burda I can usually cut a 36 on top and a 38 on bottom as they seem to fit me quite well. What sort of fruit would I be? Once I stopped focussing on the fruit and actually looking at my body and comparing to the garment I was trying to make, it became much easier. It also made me stop feeling guilty that I didn’t fit one of the shapes. We need to remind each other that the problem is not with our bodies, but with the pattern companies. Sorry for the long ramble!

    • Hmmm. We seem to have the same proportions down to the leg ratios even though I’m a 36 bust – what’s that, a US 14? And thanks to what you wrote, I’m thinking I need to nip the back in a bit and that might solve my baggy upperback syndrome – and maybe besides shortening the waist, lengthen the bust to shoulder…. I too go up one or two sizes as I move down the body but find one size difference in Burda is usually enough – strange, no German blood – mediterranean and mostly Italian descent – but I do find that German clothes and patters fit rather well….

  24. I love these posts! They make me think, which is good. :) I’m mostly at a point where I find my fitting troubles to be more amusing than anything else, but that might be because I’m finally understanding what I need to do to fit my shape.

    (I just picked up some lovely charcoal linen twill, to become another pair of plus-fours, even though my first pair still needs a waistband! I’m totally copying you, because they look SO comfortable.)

    • I am dying to see your plus fours by the way. I love mine so much, I’m severely tempted to make another pair… Mostly because I wear them so much but they don’t fit into my MMM challenge so I have to either make another pair or quit wearing them for a month (as if)…

      • SOON! :) Today was sunny, and I skipped out on blog photography to go for a walk/jog in the forest. It was glorious.

        I actually made a new Blank Canvas Tee last night. I picked and chose features between the original hand drawn, and the new 45″ bust. I had to go with the scoop neck, though, as the crew was much too tight. I think for the next one I’ll shave 1 cm off the top of the shoulder seams as I’m apparently quite short above the bust. FYI, it works beautifully in French terry.

        The plan is to do a “photo shoot” once the top and plus fours have been washed, and I’ve removed as much cat fur as possible…

  25. Interested in a cad program for design and pattern making for my self . Do you recomend them and if so which one do you like or use. I have had pattern drafting many years ago but will almost be a relearn project

  26. It’s not so much the analogies that bother me, but what they do to our heads. I carry my weight around my middle with more slender arms and legs. Do I focus on my fabulous ankles that look amazing with a strappy shoe? No. Do I lap up the comments about my slender feet and ankles that I often get when shoe shopping? No. Do I smile serenly when people complement me on my long slim legs? Not at all.
    Shall we discuss all the awful things I have to say about my midriff? Let’s not!

    Add that to the fact that at 5ft 8ins tall I’m 2″ taller than standard sizes and 2″ shorter than tall sizes and it’s a wonder I get dressed at all.

    This is why I sew.

    I can make clothes that fit me, in all my imperfect glory.

    But that then opens up another can of worms because fit is the holy grail. And when
    you can’t buy clothes that fit you are stumbling in the dark to work out what good fit looks and feels like on your body.

    I love that these discussions are available to us now. Not only do we develop our skills and become better fitters and seamstresses with more beautiful clothing as a result. We also become kinder to and more accepting of our bodies. More willing to celebrate the job of work they do for us daily and less willing to hold ourselves up to the unrealistic photoshopped “role models” we are bombarded with daily in the media.

    I, for one, am grateful and celebrate this shift.

    • Evie- you naughty girl! Revel in your compliments, and play them up! I love everything you wrote. I’m also happy that we have sewing blogs, real people, real bodies, all un-airbrushed and available in real time. Let’s change the world, yes?

    • My looks are changing as I age. I’m heavier because I am no longer bulemic but I still like food and hate exercise! I’m getting arthritic and stiff and my skin isn’t holding everything up any more. And even if I was an exercise goddess, my body is still aging and will still sink. I’m learning to ignor comments good and bad about my appearance and I’m focusing on the comments about who I am on the inside. Because if I live to be 100 and I’m scooting around in a wheel chair, no one is going to give a rip about where my boobs sit and how round my tummy is. It will be who I am on the inside that will count. My clothes no longer are used to hide in, or to diguise myself with, or to fit in with the crowd or even just to cover my nakedness. I want my clothes to reflect my life style, interests and personality. If someone gets hung up on how they make me look then they are not worth my time. That is like looking at a dress in a shop and thinking about the hanger instead of thinking about the dress and the message it is sending (bright, happy, sexy, slutty…excetra).

      • Firstly congratulations on conquering the bulemia. I cannot begin to imagine the strength it took to achieve that.
        I love your point of view. It’s an incredibly sane and healthy attitude and one I am working towards. It’s a work in progress but I’m making headway.

        I salute you.

      • I don’t know how I missed this before. Wow Wanda, thanks for sharing. It must have been quite a hard road out of it, but I’m glad you found your way. Very glad. If you can do it, then others will know they can too.

        • It was a tough road and I have to think of it in terms similar to an alcoholic. I am not cured. Dieting triggers the crazy thinking that got me on that crazy train in the first place. And it doesn’t take long for the crazy thinking to get the crazy behavior going. I simply do not diet. Even the concept of healthy lifestyle can get the cravings/guilt/shame/self loathing thoughts churning. I’d like to get to the point that “healthy life style” doesn’t get me going but who knows if I ever will. Most diets comming out these days claim you will lose weight but more importantly they are healthy and sustainable. But, they all have rules and it is the rules that get the cravings going. Yeah, my joints would be happier if I were lighter and yeah my odds of getting something nasty later in life will go down if I am lighter and yeah I’d fit into societies definition of beauty better if I were lighter…who doesn’t want all of those things. But, for me the cost to my sanity and health is to great at this point in my life. May be if I could afford a life coach who could follow me around 24/7 (ie get myself committed to a pshyc ward/half way house/fat farm) I could manage. Easier to just love being me-tummy and double chin and all-and cultivate the personality.

  27. Thanks so much for this post! On starting the Sew Weekly challenges, I’d sussed that my top was a different size to my bottom, but it’s only been sewing each week that’s helped me suss I’m an 18/20 at neckline, armholes and bust (depending on type of neckline and whether there are sleeves or not), a 22 at waist and 24/26 at hips (depending on fullness of skirt)…..I thought I was a freak of nature…..a wonderful freak of nature but still out of the norm. This is why I’m so jealous of the people who’ve either sussed all this already or are less dress-sizes who can knock up dresses in 3 hours…..where it seems to take me forever adapting every single pattern I use and worrying as I cut that I’ve got it rightish this time. I’d never ever considered that the grading up is based on a mid size and all that encompasses. Thank you so much for all this extra info. to help me on my journey.

    Ps. I’m a Christmas tree (shape) ;)

    • Socrates’ guiding rule was “know thyself.” I think it brings wisdom. I don’t think you’re a freak of nature– I love seeing what you make every week and the way you write about it. You have a gift. And I love it. :)

  28. Great post! I don’t sew much, so i had no idea this was as much of a problem. Alsmost as much as with shop bought clothes by the sounds of it!

  29. I have sewed off and on my whole life – often because RTW was going through a horrible phase that didn’t suit me at all. (hiphuggers come right to mind). I am no expert and have not got much experience in altering patterns; but I am going to start to try. I have huge breasts, a protruding stomach, but no ass. So I have NEVER been able to buy a dress. I have to shop in the most extreme of large sizes for tops, but I can wear an 18 pant. I am getting into Mennonite and “plain” clothes and am curious to see if the sizing problems hold true there as well. It occurred to me that older fashions were probably going to work better for me, and many of these “plain” clothes are based on very old styles.

    • What do you mean by “plain” clothes? Is that a particular defined aesthetic, or do you mean simple and practical clothing? I like simplicity and practicality myself, but I usually want to take it a step further into being pretty or at least interesting… I always admired the Amish and Mennonite aesthetic- stark lines, use of dark and light, quality work. Truly beautiful.

      If you could have any garment in the world, just snap your fingers and it would magically appear and fit perfectly, what would it be?

      • “Plain” clothes are worn (typically) by members of the Amish and Mennonite (religious) communities (in the United States). It’s a very distinct “look”, very different from the more “normal” styles we see today (there is at least one Mennonite community not too far away which dresses “plain”, I sometimes see members at the fabric store near my house).

        Think American West/frontier –

        The girls’ and women’s dresses remind me of the clothing we associate with the people who moved into the western parts of the United States (mid-late 1800’s) – plain, servicable, no frills – long sleeves, round neck, calf length skirt, usually in a dark color, plain apron, prayer covering (small cap).

        The boy’s and men’s clothing is similar, drawn from the same era – long pants, long sleeves, dark colors, suspenders, hat.

        Specific details are often dictated by the particular church community or leader of that community – the “strictness” varies depending on the particular community.

        Which, more or less, exhausts my knowledge, I think!

        I’ve enjoyed reading your original post and this following discussion!

      • By plain clothes, do you mean classics? Fads used to last a season, trends a few years and classics could always fit in your wardrobe. Fashion has been speeding up recently, but may be finally slowing down as more people are disappointed with fast fashion. Please read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline.

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  31. I started sewing when I was 11 years old and I am now 65. There have been lots of ups and downs during that time. I had a good teacher who taught me how to alter commercial patterns – I needed to take shaping out of the pattern as I was very flat chested when I first started sewing. I also have long arms, long legs and a long torso. This has produced lots of difficulties when using commercial patterns.

    When I was about 26 I took a course of lessons in Pattern Cutting with a Fashion Designer in Nottingham, UK. It was a real Eureka time. I have loved Pattern Cutting ever since. The year after that course I designed, made the pattern and the dress for my wedding.

    Since then I have made patterns for myself, my children and clients as I am a designer/dressmaker specialising in Bridal wear & evening wear.

    Commercial patterns fit very few people – there is the cup size (larger or smaller), body length, arm length, leg length, etc. I also teach dressmaking and it is quite a surprise when students find the toile made from my basic blocks fits them without any alterations. I also have basic blocks for each of my daughters and myself because we all have different body proportions.

    I have found my clients come into one of a number of categories:

    1. people who find it impossible to buy clothes that fit them RTW

    2. people who want to have more than one dress in the same design

    3. people who want a wedding dress or prom dress that costs less than they would pay in the shops

    4. people who have a specific design in mind and cant find it in the shops. Often they come with a sketch of the style they want and ask can I make the dress from that.

    A comprehensive set of measurements is the first MUST.

    • I think the thing with the B cup is that it is easier to adjust a pattern up than down. Sandra Betzina makes a nice book called Fast Fit to help with fitting issues.

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  33. Regarding retro clothing. As a child my mom could go shopping, pick out the size I was wearing at the time, and it would fit. I’m not sure when standard sizing was gotten rid of but it used to be if you wore a 14 in one brand it was a 14 all brands or a 20 or a…………. Well you get the idea. Once standard sizing was deregulated everything went out the window. Now I can try on a different color in the same brand and it may or may not fit. Unfortunately I have never been able to follow directions on any type of pattern unless there are detailed pictures to follow along with. Just my learning style.

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