Monday, May 06, 2013

Does Size Matter?

Picking which size to use on a sewing pattern is a little like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Without being able to see very well, you stab at something over and over with a pin, praying you get it right in the end. (Ha! Ha! Small joke.)

I gave up expecting a pattern to fit straight from the envelope years ago. Take in, let out (usually the latter), it's all in a day's sewing now. But which do you start with - a pattern that's too big or too small? Do you pick by high bust, full bust or the biggest body measurement?

There are as many theories for picking the proper pattern size as there are sewing gurus. If it was as simple as following the pattern's size chart, we wouldn't have this controversy. 

My favorite (and the most accurate for me) is Nancy Zieman's method when using a Big 4 pattern (Vogue, Butterick, McCall's, Simplicity), outlined in her book, Fitting Finesse. For upper torso garments (shirt, jacket, coat), Nancy Z uses the cross chest measurement, from underarm crease to underarm crease. Her baseline is 14" = Size 14. With every half inch difference, the size correspondingly goes up or down. Like this:

12-1/2" = Size 8
13" = Size 10
13-1/2" = Size 12
14" = Size 14
14-1/2" = Size 16
15" = Size 18

As I said earlier, I like this method to pick a pattern size. It eliminates measurement distortions caused by narrow or wide backs. 

This past Saturday, I taught a t-shirt fitting class to members of my sewing guild. I asked my students to take a leap of faith and pick their pattern size a la Nancy Zieman.

Convincing a busty woman to go down a pattern size or two is no mean feat! They know the center front of the larger pattern strains across center front, so no way would a smaller pattern ever fit!

And they're right. It won't.

How could it? Their full bust measurement is larger than the pattern's. To make it work, more room must be added via a full bust adjustment. Sometimes a broad back alteration is needed, too.

This raises an important question. If you have to add to a pattern to make it fit, why not start with a bigger pattern in the first place? 

The answer can be found in the neckline and upper chest. A bigger pattern has a fuller upper chest. This results in gaping necklines and fabric bubbles above the high bust caused by too much material. Using a smaller pattern reduces the amount of fabric this area, letting the cloth rest closer to the body. Extra fabric is added where it is needed - the bust and sometimes the back.

Enlarging the middle of the torso is easier than shrinking the upper chest. (Reducing the collar and its seam can be a knuckle gnawing experience.) With the smaller pattern, the garment fits in the shoulder area - important when the garment hangs from the shoulders.

Is this method foolproof? Of course not. What in life is? Tweaking is needed. Sometimes lots of tweaking.

But I think it's a darn good place to start . 

How do you pick your pattern size?

                    - Lady T


  1. I totally agree with you! I tell everyone to use Nancy Zieman's method too. I am far from busty, but bigger in the middle. I start with a 14 in the shoulders and neck and add width to about an 18 in the waist area. I will say using Nancy's method (both for me and my daughter) our pattern size has been consistent across all the main pattern companies (Simplicity, Vogue, Butterick, McCalls and New Look).

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience!