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Pattern Sizing Experiment: Part 1 – Grading vs. Ratios

This post was a long time coming. I knew I wanted to try this sizing experiment for more than a year; and over the last 6 months or so, I’ve been trying to work on it in between all my other work and personal projects.

(Warning: this post involves lots of words and math.)

First let’s talk a little about body measurements and standard sewing pattern sizing. Sewing patterns tend to be labeled with larger size numbers than mass produced clothing.

I talked about sewing pattern sizes vs. ready-to-wear size numbers and vanity sizing a couple years back in this post (but that was probably before many of my current readers found my blog).

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that the standard measurements used in the clothing industry have shifted over the decades. But they really haven’t changed as much as people think. The only thing that has really changed is the size number on the label – known commonly as “vanity sizing”. The standard body measurements have barely changed from year to year.

Here’s a section of a spreadsheet of my vintage patterns showing sizing for a 34-inch bust. Notice that the biggest change from year to year is the size number not the measurements used:

Years in italics indicate decade when exact year is unknown.

You’ll see that in the 1940s and ‘50s, a 34-inch bust was considered a size 16 in sewing patterns. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, that same bust size became a size 14 with a slightly smaller waist and hips. Then in the 1970s, the 34-inch bust became a size 12 while the waist and hips went up a little in proportion – proof that there is a bit of psychological vanity sizing in sewing patterns, but not as drastic as it is in the ready-to-wear industry.

Today’s sewing pattern size 12 is the same as it was in the ‘70s with measurements of 34-26.5-36.

Most patterns are drafted in a mid-range size and then graded down for the smaller sizes and graded up for the larger sizes. This method involves some math and a whole bunch of measuring. (Threads Magazine provides a good explanation of grading here and a quick-guide chart here.)

Now, on to my experiment.

I admit I’m lazy when it comes to grading patterns. The math isn’t complicated, but all that measuring is a lot of work.

I started using my cheater’s method years ago when I needed to increase the size of flower-girl dresses for little girls who were larger than a standard pattern but proportionally still the shape of a standard girls’ pattern. (Part of the reason I started doing this stemmed from last minute clients who didn’t give me the time to do much patterning.)

I compared the differences on the pattern’s standard measurement charts and used ratio computations to find the percentage of the needed size increase. Then I just copied the pattern at the larger percentage on my home printer.

This enlarging method also helped me make a quick bodice pattern for a cousin in my sister’s wedding, who was really tall for her age but still not shaped like a woman yet. So far, this method for enlarging a kid’s pattern has worked for me every time with very few (if any) alterations needed.

When I wanted to sew a vintage pattern for myself but only had it in a size that was 2 or 3 sizes too big, I used my ratio method to shrink it to my size on the copier.

I did this for myself for a few years, getting a nearly perfect fit every time I shrank a pattern. For a long time, I thought vintage patterns were just drafted better, or differently.

But then I discovered that a vintage pattern in my actual size had as many fit issues as most modern sewing patterns. And I began to reexamine why shrinking by a percentage seemed to work better for me.

I think it’s because I am proportionally smaller than the average size used to draft most patterns. (I am small but not petite by clothing standards.) I don’t need merely a few areas changed, or some areas changed more than others (like when grading). I need everything equally shrunken down.

I had decided to test my theory by doing a real comparison of a vintage pattern that I owned in both a bust size 34 and a bust size 31 (my actual size).

I chose the Simplicity 7136 pattern from 1967 for a couple of reasons – I had it in two sizes and it had very basic style-lines, making it easier to compare small differences.

Simplicity 7136 Dress or Beach-dress & Shorts

I made three mockups – one straight from the B31, one straight from the B34, and one B34 copied at 91%.

NOTE: Most vintage patterns have actual stitch lines printed on the pattern pieces. If you are using a pattern without marked seam allowance, you will need to either cut off the seams allowance before copying or make a line to measure what the new copied seam allowance ends up being. You will want to sew on the actual copied stitch lines, so adjustments to seam allowance may be required.

Three mockups or muslins.

Here’s the math I used with the bust measurements printed on the pattern envelope to determine the scale factor:

Bust 1            31
Bust 2           34     =     91%

My theory was that I could also apply this percentage to both of the larger waist and hip measurements to obtain the corresponding chart values:

Waist 2 x 91% = Waist 1:
26 x 91% ≈ 24
Hip 2 x 91% = Hip 1:
36 x 91% ≈ 33

I’m obviously rounding to the nearest whole number because that’s the precision on the pattern envelope.  And look!  It’s pretty darn close.  Here is how my exact ratio computations compared to Simplicity’s size chart:

Scaled 91%       Simplicity
Waist                23.66                24
Hips                 32.76                33

My experiment worked!

On paper.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

Bieber wears Girly Pants – So?

A couple of days ago, I read an article about Justin Bieber wearing women’s jeans. As a costumer, I just kind of shrugged it off, since costumers dress actors in whatever’s necessary to get the look a designer wants. But then my husband asked me about the difference between men’s and women’s pants, and I was reminded that a lot of people don’t know the history of clothing & how it’s constructed.

First of all, I can’t believe that Bieber admitted that he wears women’s jeans – he MUST know there are haters just waiting to eat him alive for comments like that! As expected, most opinions of this news are that it’s just wrong or that he’s got to be gay. I have my own theory, but first let’s look at some more clothing history.

Fashion has customarily been very gender-based – men wore pants & women wore skirts or dresses, which means trousers of all kinds were originally for men only.

Also, you may have noticed that men’s & women’s shirts button in opposite ways, with men’s shirts closing left over right & women’s closing right over left. Before the 20th century, men commonly dressed themselves, while women usually had assistance with their elaborate undergarments and multiple layers.

Clothing makers believed that it was easier to button a shirt on yourself when it closed left over right, but trying to button a shirt like this for someone else would be difficult because it would be reversed. So, by that logic, the direction of women’s buttons was changed to make it easier for those who were dressing them. (There is something to that logic – have you ever tried to wear a shirt that buttons for the opposite sex? It’s hard when it’s backwards!)

Fast forward to the 20th century with women’s rights accumulating in the unisex fashion of the 1980s. Most basic sweat suits (the ’80s version of the ’70s leisure suit) still look unisex regardless of the tags on the inside! Pants have always been – and still are – fastened as if they are only for men, with only the occasional women’s dress pant buttoning backwards (usually much to the annoyance of the lady wearing them).

I’m sure you’ve heard of modern women raiding the closets of the men in their lives. One day it may not be considered so weird when dudes borrow from a girl’s closet. Skinny jeans? Boyfriend sweaters? Wifebeater tanks? They’ve all traditionally been for one gender but have since appeared on the other’s racks at the mall. And lots of other famous guys (especially in the music world) have learned to view clothing by style and cut before they even glance at the tag. It’s all about the overall look.

So Mr. Bieber found something he likes in the girls’ department that just happens to work as a men’s clothing piece. Not surprising. My theory is that he likes the fit of women’s jeans better because he isn’t wearing them the way a girl would – therefore, they fit him differently.

For some reason, many young men still think they look cool when they wear their pants way too low & much too big – a style known as sagging. (It’s been at least 30 years! Why hasn’t this ridiculous prison trend died yet?!) Bieber seems to be conscious of wanting droopy pants without the side effect of them being too big in the waistband to stay up well. See, females have curvy hips, whereas males are generally straighter. So he probably likes the way women’s jeans are tighter in the waistband but cut bigger in the hips. This would give him the feeling of larger pants without worrying about losing them in front of an adoring fashion-conscious crowd.

How he wears his pants may look silly to some, but at least in his words he’s “comfortable”. So let’s not worry too much about which section of the clothing store he buys his pants. It’s just a tag on the inside!

Related posts:

I’m a size WHAT?? Let the Mind Games begin…

I’m a size WHAT?? Let the Mind Games begin…

Misconception: If I wear a size 10 store-bought dress, I need to buy a size 10 sewing pattern.

True! – if you’re talking 1976, that is.

But seriously, this is the 21st century, and women’s clothing-makers have since resorted to a type of “psychological” sizing.  (You may have already sensed this was the case.)  Let’s look at this simple example:

Brand A sells the same type of garment as Brand B.  They may even be in the same price range.

But to compete with Brand A, Brand B starts labeling its clothes with smaller numbers, all while keeping its prices roughly the same as Brand A’s.  So a Size 10 at Store A becomes a Size 6 at Store B.

Now B’s size 6 is selling better than Brand A’s 10 because, after all, what woman wouldn’t rather (claim to) be a 6?

The result:  “big designer” clothing labels often have smaller size numbers – and higher prices – than the mid-priced department stores.  And consumers buy into all of it!  Seems the clothing industry changes the size systems as often as the women change their clothes, doesn’t it?

(By the way, you also may have noticed men’s clothing isn’t as grossly affected by these mind games, partially because of the way men shop, but also because men’s clothing has traditionally been labeled by actual measurements anyway.)

Luckily, sewing patterns are different.  Their size systems don’t change as often as retail clothing’s do.  Pattern sizing was first standardized in the 1940s, but those standards were not universally accepted until the 1960s. 

Thus, sewing patterns you find in the fabric store today are most likely using the same system in place since Kennedy was president, and the size numbers have not changed either. 

Rule of thumb:  It is best to take your current body measurements before buying a pattern because it is common for your pattern size to go up as much as 6 numbers from your store-bought size.

Let’s look at another example:  a woman shopping at the mall buys clothes in the 0-4 range for Womens and 1-3 range for Juniors, her size shifting slightly depending on whether she’s at Banana Republic, Old Navy, or Delia’s.  (Check out those links to see what I mean.)  But according to her measurements, her pattern size at a store like JoAnn Fabrics winds up being a Womens 6 and a Juniors size 7 or 8. 

To top it all off, any given sewing pattern may even need to go up or down by a size, after the pattern style & included amount of ease (or “breathing room”) are taken into consideration.

I have sewn for multiple women who have given me a pattern they’ve purchased, believing it to be their size.  In most cases, they’d chosen something way too small, and then I’ve had to discretely buy them the correct size so they wouldn’t freak out.  Seriously.

So remember:  whether you’re shopping “off-the-rack” or looking for a sewing pattern, don’t become obsessed with a size “number” – no one will think about your garment’s numeric size, as long as what you are wearing fits correctly on you.  (And besides, custom-made clothing won’t even have a size label for anyone to check!)


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