Sizing is the most common question I get, by far, when I teach a sewing or a fit class. And it isn’t really a question. It’s more of a complaint. Sewing pattern sizing can be so confusing and frustrating! I know it and I hear you. Let me see if I can explain and clarify how sewing patterns work for you.
In the U.S. there’s never really been a standard for women’s sizes, but once upon a time pattern sizes and ready-to-wear sizes were more or less the same. But over the past 30 years or so the sizes we see in stores have changed quite a bit. As a population, we’ve gained weight, and our sizes have gotten bigger as well. This change in sizing is often called vanity sizing, and I’ll give you an example to illustrate how the numbers have changed. When I was in high school and was really thin I wore size 8 pants. Now that I’m a lot older and a bit wider I wear either a size 4 or 6. Sizes have gotten larger so we don’t feel bad about getting larger ourselves. Crazy, but true.
Before vanity sizing, sewing patterns used to be closer to ready-to-wear sizes, but as sizes changed it would have been a huge challenge for pattern companies to change the sizes of sewing patterns to keep up, since the entire catalog of available sizes would have had to be redone. (Especially since some sewing patterns stay in print for years.) It would have been enormously confusing to change the sizes of patterns, too, which isn’t to say it shouldn’t have been done, but it wasn’t. So now our sewing pattern sizes don’t match up with the size labels in our closet, and this causes an enormous amount of confusion, especially for new sewists who aren’t familiar with the old sizing.
But as frustrating as it is to try to determine your size based on your usual ready-to-wear size, it can be even more frustrating to determine your sized based on the measurement charts, and there’s a simple reason for that.
For a good fit, you need the shoulders and bust to fit well, first and foremost. Most sewing patterns are developed for a B-cup bra. All the sizes through the size range are graded for a B-cup, so if you’re a larger bra size and you buy a pattern according to your bust measurement, the rest of the pattern won’t fit properly. There’s a simple reason for the B-cup sizing; even though one’s bra size tends to increase as one’s overall size increases, it’s not possible to grade for a larger bra size as the sizes increase. In other words, for a larger cup size the entire size range would need to be developed and graded to that larger size range. So the smaller sizes have become the standard, and fuller busts need to make adjustments. (No one said life was fair, right? On behalf of patternmakers and the fashion industry as a whole, sorry about that!) The sample size for most patterns are developed for a B-cup, and if you’re a larger cup size you need to make alterations to adjust for this. I know, I know.
So how do you determine your dress or blouse size if you’re not a B-cup? It’s actually pretty simple. The most straightforward way to find your best size–that is, the size that fits best through the shoulders–is to measure just under your arms, above your bust, like in this photo. This is referred to as your high bust measurement.
Use this measurement instead of your bust measurement to determine your size. Then compare your actual bust measurement to your high bust measurement, and if the difference between the two is more than 2 1/2″, you’ll probably need to make a full bust adjustment. But don’t be frightened; this is not so hard as it might sound! (And by the way, to find your size for fitted skirts and pants, use your hip measurement–the widest part of your hips–to find your size. Use your waist measurement to find your size for full skirts.)
In our new Liesl and Co. patterns we’re using contemporary (vanity) sizing to simplify the process of determining your size. I drew on my own fashion industry experience as both a designer and a technical designer, and I also spent quite a bit of time researching and analyzing various brands and stores to determine the most common specifications for women’s sizing. We developed these patterns and sizes based on that research. We also used grading techniques that are commonly used in women’s fashion today, so the sizes will be closer to ready-to-wear than most women’s sewing patterns are.
And since that full bust adjustment can be a bit confusing, depending on the shape of the pattern pieces, we’ve included instructions and diagrams to help you through that process. Don’t let the bust adjustment part overwhelm or intimidate you; these patterns are loose-fitting and more forgiving in terms of fit (I wanted to keep things simple for your first experience sewing for yourself), and the full bust adjustment is a very simple, quick cut-and-tape process that’s explained and illustrated, step by step. (And there aren’t that many steps.) Try it and you’ll see that it’s not as scary as you might think! Here are some of the diagrams from the Weekend Getaway pattern. Not so bad, right? (And remember, we include full written instructions to accompany the diagrams, so they’re even less scary when I’m explaining what to do with each step.)
My goal is to guide you through the process of sewing for yourself gradually. We’ll tackle things one at a time, OK? And remember, one of the wonderful things about sewing is that you really can customize your clothing to fit your body, and it’s not nearly as difficult as it might seem once you understand a few basic principles. It’s also really rewarding! You’ll see.
Stick with me and I’ll get you there, one step at a time!
A close friend and I joke with one another during projects at work: stick with me and you’ll go places. That’s exactly how I like to think of my experiences with O+S and now Liesl and Co. You’ve taught me so much, and I look forward to more!
Melani, thanks so much! Time allowing, I’ll do my best to take you places, too!
Thank you for this. As a full-busted woman, I never know whether to fit my bust or the rest of me when buying a pattern. Now I do!
Mindy, I’m so glad this helps! I think you’ll find you get a much better fit this way.
Yay, thank you for this! It is nice to hear more about your process and the history too. I usually get frustrated by patterns when I measure myself and select a size, and then I sew it and it’s HUGE. Or yeah, I measure something crazy like a 2 in one place and a 16 in another and i’m totally baffled what to do about it. This is usually from the major pattern brands, though, not indie patterns. Your sizing seems more “true,” which is much appreciated. 🙂
All I can say is… “us poor small-busted girls” There is a plethora of high quality tutorials for conducting FBAs and an absolute dearth for small bust adjustments. Sigh, I wish us small busted girls would get recognised too! There is only such much bra padding that will even vaguely get us to a B-cup LOL!
Jillian, you’re all sorts of lucky! You can use those same tutorials and just decrease instead of increasing. Do the opposite of the full bust adjustment–it’s that easy! (And small bust is great, really, because you get such a nice line with your clothes. You’re a fashion designer’s dream!)
Oh courage! That we need! Liesl you are so brave to hold all our hands through this! I have only just worked this technique of bust alterations out properly. I’ll be very interested to see what tricks are up your sleeves for the waist and hips! I probably know them already but there is always something new to learn.
I just need to be patient. About a year ago, I purchased the Collette Peony. I measured and choose the size based on my biggest part. I was (am still but less so) overweight, and petite. I cut out a 20, and of course, did it fit?
I took tissue fitting classes to try and learn to alter it to fit me. Constant frustration. Nothing would go right. I would tissue fit. It would work. I would muslim fit and disaster.
Going to my sewing group a lady with tons of experience looked at me and said…”throw the entire thing out.” I wanted to cry.
She said 1) when you are curvy, petite and full busted, just measure your high bust and use that size. YOU must fit your shoulders and bust above all else. The rest of the fabric drapes away. 2) do a full bust adjustment, and 3) grade out the rest of the dress for your hips.
She was right, but it has been such a depressing experience and colossal waste of hours and material, that I haven’t tried to sew for myself again.
If only I had had you a year ago! 🙂
Sewing is the only time I long for the body I once had before children. That body was a pattern fit model for my wedding dress designer. My body at the time of my marriage is the body form for all size 2 wedding dresses for Janelle Berte. Or at least it was.
Nevertheless, I am terrified to sew for myself, and may dip my toe in with an every day skirt and late lunch tunic. If I can find the courage.
Oh Jenny, I’m so sorry you had such a frustrating experience! I hope you won’t give up. Where do you live? I teach fit classes and would love for you to come to one of my classes sometime if I’m teaching near you. If not, take things slowly and easily so you don’t get frustrated. I’ll try to tackle issues one at a time, so stay tuned and let’s get you feeling confident and good about yourself again!
That is why I am thinking of dipping my toe in the everyday skirt. Start simply with learning how to sew for this body and then move forward. The late lunch will give me some experience with bust without too many “fitting” issues.
And one day I just might show up on your door! 😉
Compared to many others here I am “local” in Buffalo, NY. It is only an 8 hour drive.
Hi Liesl, I’m one of the small-busted ladies! I just made your everyday skirt with great success. (It’s the red linen one in the flickr group.) I’m excited to tackle the Weekend Getaway blouse next. I was planning on making a size 2. I have a AA cup. From what you’ve written it sounds like I can do the FBA in reverse. How do I know how much to decrease the width and dart by? Thanks in advance!!
Tanya, you’ll make the same marks and cuts on your pattern piece as for the full adjustment, but instead of spreading the pattern as demonstrated, you’ll close up the dart to eliminate it. This will effectively make the tunic a little narrower and shorter, since you have less bust to go over and around. Does that make sense? I’ll do a quick photo demo if you need extra help!
HI Liesl! Thanks for the explanation! It totally makes sense. And even better, I won’t have to sew a dart. 🙂 I look forward to trying it out. Thank you again!
See, Tanya? Life is good when you’re small busted! (Or that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway…)
Is there a limit to how much you can alter a pattern for a full bust measurement?
Liesl, Success on the SBA! I just posted a picture to the flickr group comparing the before/after version of the pattern. Doing the SBA brought up 2 questions: 1. Should the grainline of the blouse still be parallel to the center front? 2. For pocket placement, should I just use the left side dots (which didn’t move in the SBA) as the guideline for the pockets? Thank you so much!
Bernadette, I’ve heard and read different theories on this, but according to the book The Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting, by Sarah Veblen, which seems to be a really good book (from a very quick look-over), I think you can safely increase to at least a DD cup. Beyond that you may need to do a few more alterations than usual, but if you’re willing to fiddle a bit I think anything is possible. One of our testers increased more than a DD and needed to lengthen the yoke on the Late Lunch Tunic so it didn’t hit her mid-bust, but she was really happy with the result. So if you’re patient, I think you can make it work. I hope that helps?
Tanya, that’s great news! And you’re FAST! To answer your questions, 1) yes, the grainline should always be parallel to center front, and 2) I’d say use your eye to position the pockets. You might want to hold up the pattern piece to your body to determine your best placement. Chest pockets can be a small-busted woman’s best friend…
So helpful! Now if only I could figure out how to adjust for my wider shoulders. I always feel like if I draw my shoulders forward I’m going to tear straight down the back like the Incredible Hulk 😉
Hi Marlene, I’m very keen on a book called The Perfect Fit. It has clear photos and instructions on how to adjust for broad or narrow shoulders. We use it in my sewing and pattern cutting classes as a reference.
Best wishes with the shoulder adjustment!
Sew In Brighton sewing school, UK
Marlene, wide shoulders in general, or just across the back? If your shoulder are wide overall, you’ll want to select your size to accommodate your shoulders. It’s much easier to adjust through the torso than to adjust through the shoulders and armholes. If you’re wider just across the back, that’s a pretty simple fix, too. There are several books that give really helpful photos and instructions for all these changes, and I’d recommend them for all sort of questions like this. I refer to my copies all the time. I’ll talk about them in a post soon. And I’ll cover as many questions as I can on the blog, too. Cheers!
It seems to be just across the shoulders since my shape tapers down as you get closer to the waist. I find that if I fit for the shoulders, I get a very boxy garment on the sides so I’ve been practicing on getting that to fit better. I’m 6′ tall so I usually have to make things a little longer as well. It’s so much more fun to make clothes for my little straight as an arrow 7 year old!
This is awesome. I’ve been fiddling with patterns for years because of my DD/E cup coupled with body petite size, and now I have a method to work from. PS I found this post via Pinterest.
Thanks, Liesl for the response. I guess if I want to sew for myself, I need to purchase a LOT of muslin 😉
Great post and such clear explanations! I would love to see you write a post on small bust adjustment too – it is the main thing that puts me off sewing patterns.
Hi Debbie, I teach pattern fitting and we just do the exact opposite for a small bust adjustment ie overlap instead of make space. Keep the side seam the same length, maybe closing the dart completely in the process or making it smaller. You will probably need to even out the hem length afterwards.
Best of luck! Kat
Sew In Brighton sewing school, UK
That’s exactly correct, and if I recall correctly we address that in the pattern instructions as well.
So total noob here, but do I measure my bust with or without my bra?
Yes, you should always wear the same undergarments you plan to wear with your garment when you take measurements and do fittings. With more fitted garments this will make a bigger difference, but even a less fitted garment will look and fit differently if you wear a sports bra vs. a push-up bra, for an extreme example. I hope that helps!
Hi, I am attempting my first full bust adjustment for the weekend getaway blouse. I just wanted to check, does the dart point finish at the point of the original dart point or do you redraw the dart lines to be at the point on the split section closest to the middle of the blouse? (? I hope you are able to interpret what I am trying to ask :)). Thank you! Sorry I am new to posting so not sure if this is the best place to post.
Hi Skye, the dart should end about 1 1/2-2″ from the fullest part of your bust, and the dart should point to the fullest part of your bust. So if you hold the pattern piece up against your body you can find that point and make the dart from there. Does that make sense? If you need additional help, you might want to try our discussion forums, too. Best wishes!
Commercial patterns don’t give the upper bust measurement so how do I know which size to cut from the tissue paper before I make a full bust adjustment. Like many I have cut the pattern according to my bust size so garment ends up too big on the shoulders.
Also how do you work out how much to “spread” the tissue on the pattern to accommodate the bigger bust? Is there a calculation?
Regards the bust point and the end of dart. Is the end it the dart supposed to be exactly on the bust point or 1.5- 2″ below. I didn’t quite follow one of the answers on this.
Thanks for the help.
Evelyn, when there is no upper bust measurement given most pattern companies suggest that you refer to the full bust measurement and compare that to your upper bust measurement. I hope that helps!
I thought I had this but on looking at the size chart for the cappuccino dress I am feeling a little confused.
My measurements are upper bust 35″, full bust 37.5”, waist 30″ and hips 40″ so an exact match for a 10. But according to the above and my upper bust measurements should I be making a size 6 and making adjustments?? And presumably not just at the bust? Also a little confused because although there is a 2.5″ difference between upper and full bust measurements I am certainly not a B cup, I wear a a DD or an E.
Hope you can help
Hello Ms. Gibson,
My daughter has a G bra cup size and I am about to cut out a costume that has a fitted corset bodice. In ready-to-wear clothes she is a size 12 but as you stated – it’s a vanity size. I bought a pattern up size 12 but I will return it to obtain the size 14 which upon looking at the sizing chart a 14 is her actual bust measurements of 36″. I knew about making this FBA from my high school sewing teacher in 1972 because I was a DD. My question, will I be making the same type FBA on a strapless corset bodice? I am considering making an adjustment for a F cup just to keep it a little snug on her to minimize slipping or wallowing in something too big. I did notice you said this FBA was up to cup size DD. Is there another suggestion for those who have cup sizes E,F,G,H,I,J (double with all those letters) and above?
My British bra size is 30 G which is 30F American size. Upper bust is 34 1/2″ and bust 36 1/2″. According to the Vogue website the 2″ difference in upper bust and bust makes me a B cup! I wish !!
So now I’m really confused cause no way am I a B cup bra. I’m a small frame and full bust.
So my question is- if I cut my patterns to the upper bust measurement , do I need to do a FBA? Am I a “B” or a “G”?
I too would measure as a B cup if I went by this method. But my full bust to underbust is a 6″ difference. I am making skirt for the moment 🙂
I have finally made a Metro t-shirt for myself, using the high bust measurement. The shoulders fit great, however there are diagonal drag lines under the bust indicating I guess that it’s a bit narrow at the bust. The difference between high bust and actual bust is a bit more than an inch, so in principle I wouldn’t need a full bust adjustment, but drag lines are drag lines…. So, how do I add a bit of bust width to the Metro t-shirt pattern? What are the rules for knit fabrics in this sense?… It’s a stretchy cotton knit.
Oh and yes, I’m obsessed with perfect fit =)
I keep wondering why is the high bust measurement not listed on Your patterns as You develop them and have got the information. It would make decisions on the FBA/SBA adjustments so much easier! There is a chart of high bust measurements by Nancy Ziemann (http://www.sewlisette.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/right-size.jpg) that You have recommended before… Does it apply to Your patterns as well?
Looks like a great and easy FBA. Just wondering, though, oftentimes I need a little extra length as well as the width needed — so do you recommend adding say 1/2″ as well?
Would love to see your FBA on the Maritime top!
Thank you so much for all your tips. I just might try sewing again.
Hi Leisl not sure if you’ll see this as post is old, but I have a question about the difference between high bust and bust and when to do the Bust adjustment.
I’ve found that some students (and myself) with E-F cup boobs (ie big) actually only have a 4-5cm difference between the hb and b,which is 1.5-2″… But definitely need a bust adjustment as otherwise get gaping at armhole and too tight across bust.
I just wondered what you think, as I’ve read elsewhere you only need to adjust if difference is 2.5″ too, but I’m adjusting from 1.5″ difference.
Sew In Brighton sewing school
Kat, the measurements are only a guideline. Different bodies will have different needs. And yes, I have found that a fuller bust you often do still need to do a FBA even if the measurement isn’t greater than 2.5″. But it very much depends on each person’s body shape, as it sounds like you’ve found as well. I think this is why I enjoy teaching fit workshops–every person is different, so it’s endlessly fascinating to help each person!
I have been running an understanding patterns and this article is so helpful! A lot of the students get a bit downhearted that their pattern size bares no relation to their store size. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. I have only used your baby patterns but I will definitely look at your women’s ones.
I have just found you! your explanations are so clear and understandable. I am learning about the FBA and was wondering: my high bust measurement is 39 and the actual bust measurement is 42. Sounds good but I am basically sponge bob square pants. Should I still go with FBA? Thanks so much.
My patterns do not indicate a high bust measurement. Do I replace high bust for the bust measurement?
You don’t really need a high bust measurement to determine your size for most patterns. Just refer to the regular bust measurement using the technique I described in the post. You’ll want your own full bust and high bust measurement, but you don’t need a high bust measurement for the pattern itself. I hope that makes sense!
Hi Liesl, it’s been almost three years since the last post but I am hoping you’ll get this. I’ve started your Classic Shirt and determined my size based on my bust 37 1/2 (10). However, I have very harrow chest and back and shoulders, slim arms and looking and measuring the pattern feel it would be way too large for me. I’ve measured my high bust (34.5in) and compared with my full bust measurement, the difference is 3in. I made it size 10 cup C. But as I said the pattern looks too large.What am I doing wrong?
Thank you very much
Kate, it sounds to me like you’ve done the right thing with taking your measurements and selecting the C cup. Having a narrow chest and back and make fitting a little more difficult. Without knowing you and seeing your body, I can’t really make any specific suggestions. But I always recommend that people who want to improve their fitting buy a copy of the Palmer Pletsch book Real Fit for Real People. That provides a host of techniques for improving fit for just about every body shape and size. You’re sure to find techniques there that will help you alter any pattern to make it fit your specific shape and size perfectly.
Thank you for such a quick response Liesl. I have Fit for real people book but right now it’s not what I need I am afraid. I generally don’t have to do many alterations, it’s mostly narrow shoulder adjustment. I’ve never sewn anything with different cup size options, and find that it’s throwing me. Maybe I just need to compare the finished garment sizes to my RTW shirt and choose the size from that. Size 10 (based on my full bust) is way too wide. But thank you for the reply.
I’m in the process of tracing the new Saint-Germaine dress, and I am not sure what size to use. My upper bust is 37 1/2”, full bust is 40”. I have used a size 10 on previous patterns and done a full bust adjustment. Works great. Also I’ve made the classic and recital shirts in a 10,D cup. They fit fine. The problem is the 10,D cup for the Saint-Germaine only finishes to a 39 3/4” bust. Not quite enough! Am I missing something?
Hi Mary! My measurements are similar to yours – 36″ high bust and 40″ full bust. I made the size 8D and did an FBA and added a bust dart to get the extra width I needed. It worked very well. You could also adjust the bust and add the excess to the pleat, but I didn’t want that much extra fullness in the pleat.
I certainly understand that sizing has changed over the last few decades. When I first started dressmaking in the mid/ late 60s. My mum was a size 14 Australian which was 36/26/38 now the same measurements are around an Australian 10. As a dressmaker I find it difficult to tell a lady the size she is, so making my own personal patterns per customer I just say it’s my sizing range not mentioning their size.