Tutorial: How to choose the right sewing pattern size

How to choose sewing pattern size - Workroom Social - Sewing Studio in Brooklyn, NY

Tutorial: How to choose the right sewing pattern size

How to choose sewing pattern size - Workroom Social - Sewing Studio in Brooklyn, NY

Happy new year everyone! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are ready for 2015. The end of 2014 was a bit of a whirlwind for me, so I’m excited to get moving in the new year.

To start the year out, I wanted to show you guys a couple of things about pattern sizing. First, let’s talk about how I choose the right sewing pattern size for myself and for students.

When sewing dresses and tops there are two main methods that I use, and you’re probably very familiar with the first. The second, maybe not so much, but I think you will find you’ll get an improved fit if you explore it. More about each in a minute.

One quick note about sewing dresses and tops. Keep in mind that many sewing patterns are drafted for a B cup. If you are larger than a B, you will likely need to do pattern alterations on any pattern you choose, whether that be in the bust or in the neck/shoulder/chest area. Knowing this in advance will help set your expectations about your garment sewing projects.

I find it uncommon that any sewing pattern fits well right out of the envelope. Like ready-to-wear, sewing patterns are drafted for a fit model (or fit dress form), and that standard might not be your same size and proportion. While all the pattern companies do the best they can to create patterns that fit, they can’t capture exact sizing for everyone. I encourage all of our students (and you!) to practice altering patterns for fit. I think it’s one of the great reasons why we sew our own clothes!

things you need to choose the right sewing pattern size

table of contents

#1. Measure both your full bust and your high bust
#2. Add ease (if pattern doesn’t provide you with ease)
#3. Pick your size: Method 1 – Full Bust
#4. Pick your size: Method 2 – High Bust
#5. Last notes about choosing your size
#6. Additional resources for choosing the right sewing pattern size for you

#1. Measure both your full bust and your high bust

Before you start measuring, it’s helpful to think about what kind of undergarments you will wear with the project you’re sewing. If you’re wearing a bra that is totally different than the one you might wear with your new top or dress, I recommend you change. You will get a better fit if you measure your body while wearing the same undergarments you plan to wear with the project.

How to choose the right sewing pattern size - Workroom Social - Sewing Studio in Brooklyn, NY

Full bust – with a measuring tape, measure your bust at the fullest part, and record that measurement on a piece of paper. When measuring, make sure the tape is even all the way around your body, parallel with the floor, and over your apex.

How to choose the right sewing pattern size - Workroom Social - Sewing Studio in Brooklyn, NY

High bust – next measure your high bust and record that measurement on a piece of paper. When measuring your high bust, ensure the tape is even around your body, but instead of measuring across the fullest part of your bust, you want to measure around your chest (above apex level). The tape should go around your back, under your arms, and up to your chest.

Dress Form A
Full bust: 33 5/8″
High bust: 33 3/8″

Dress Form B
Full bust: 40″
High bust: 37 1/2″

#2. Add ease (if pattern doesn’t provide you with ease)

Most commercially printed patterns (including the indies) include both wearing and design ease in their size charts, however, if you want to choose your own amount of preferred ease (for either fit or look), or if your pattern only has finished garment measurements as the Tate Top does, you will need to add your own. The Tate Top was designed to be a fitted tank and is drafted with 1″ of wearing ease around the bust in mind. If you are making the Tate Top, add 1″ to both your high bust and full bust measurements.

Dress Form A + 1″ ease
Final full bust: 34 5/8″
Final High bust: 34 3/8″

Dress Form B + 1″ ease
Final full bust: 41″
Final high bust: 38 1/2″

#3. Pick your size: Method 1 – Full Bust

How to choose the right sewing pattern size - Workroom Social - Sewing Studio in Brooklyn, NY

This is probably the method most familiar to sewers. Take your final full bust measurement (ease added), and pick the size that corresponds with the finished garment bust measurements provided by the pattern you are using. If you are in between sizes, it’s up to you to select the size down or up. In general, on a fitted top or dress like the Tate Top, I recommend going up a size rather than down. On a loose-fitting garment, I would go down a size instead of up.

That said, Dress Form A has a full bust of 34 5/8″ which is very close to our finished bust of 34 1/2″ on the size 4, so in this case I am going to select down. If the top ends up a little too snug, I can let out the side seams a smidge for a better fit.

For Dress Form B, I would go with size 16.

In both of these cases, the top is going to fit around the bust of each form, however, as we’ll see in Method 2, size 16 isn’t going to be the best fit for Dress Form B.

#4. Pick your size: Method 2 – High Bust

How to choose the right sewing pattern size - Workroom Social - Sewing Studio in Brooklyn, NY

As an alternative to using your full bust measurement, I encourage you to try choosing your pattern size by using your high bust measurement. By using your high bust measurement, you ensure that the neck, shoulders, and chest of your top or dress are going to fit your body well, though your bust may not. I find that altering the bust of a sewing pattern is generally easier than adjusting the shoulders, chest, and neck of most garments, so why not practice doing a bust adjustment to get a correct fit?

To choose your size sewing pattern by using your high bust measurement, you want to match your final high bust measurement (ease added) with the finished garment bust measurement provided by the pattern you are using. When using the high bust measurement, I will most often go down a size if I’m in between, unless I’m very close to the next size up.

As you can see in our example, Dress Form A’s size stays the same (she’s around a B-cup lady), but Dress Form B’s size goes down to a 12.

So what’s the difference between a size 12 and 16 for Dress Form B? Size 16 is going to be 2 sizes too big in the neck, shoulders, and armholes for Dress Form B. Size 12 is going to fit much closer in these areas, but, you guessed it, not around the bust. Her boobs are going to be downright squished! Never fear! We will take care of that minor problem with a full bust adjustment a.k.a. an FBA.

#5. Last notes about choosing your size

In this tutorial I focus on choosing a sewing pattern size using a pattern’s finished garment measurements, but you can also use both of these methods to pick a size using the designer’s size specifications for their garment. To do this, simply skip step #2. Then, when you go to pick your size, match your measurement against the designer’s size chart instead of the finished garment measurements. Keep in mind that the size chart includes the designer’s intended ease (both wearing and design).

In the end, both of these methods will work to pick a size that is will to fit. Method 1 is a little simpler and a garment made using Method 1 will definitely fit around your body, though it may not fit well. With Method 2 you’ll get a better garment fit above your bust level, but you might need to do some bust adjustments if you are larger or much smaller than a B cup. If you’ve never tried Method 2 – High Bust, however, I invite you to give it a try especially if you have a bust larger than a B cup.

Stay tuned this week for instructions on how to do an FBA on the Tate Top. The method works on other tops as well!

#6. Additional resources for choosing the right sewing pattern size for you

Want to read more about measuring yourself and choosing your pattern size? Here are some other articles to consider:

  • Thank you so much for this post! I’m going to try method two on my next garment. 🙂

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  • Charlene

    Hi Jennifer, thank you for this tutorial. I am unclear on one thing. My upper bust is 36 and my full bust is 39.5. According to method 2 I would need to select size 10 with a 37.5 finished measurement and do a fba. However since technically 37.5 on your chart lo is the finished bust measurement and the pattern is drafted for a b cup, wouldn’t the size 10 produce a garment where the upper bust measurement is too small? If the finished full bust measurement for a 10 is 37.5 wouldn’t the finished upper bust measurement be 35.5? (Minus 2 for the cup size)

  • Charlene

    Hi Jennifer, thank you for this tutorial. I am unclear on one thing. My upper bust is 36 and my full bust is 39.5. According to method 2 I would need to select size 10 with a 37.5 finished measurement and do a fba. However since technically 37.5 on your chart lo is the finished bust measurement and the pattern is drafted for a b cup, wouldn’t the size 10 produce a garment where the upper bust measurement is too small? If the finished full bust measurement for a 10 is 37.5 wouldn’t the finished upper bust measurement be 35.5? (Minus 2 for the cup size)

    • Hi Charlene! Thanks for your question. I think I understand your logic here. You’re saying that the difference between upper bust and bust for a B cup is 2″, is that correct?

      While those are commonly accepted body specs/proportions, they aren’t necessarily garment specs/proportions because garment specs vary based on style and suggested fit.

      That said, this is a snug fitting top from the shoulders to the bust, so if you are concerned about it possibly being too tight around your chest (not bust) you may want to go one size up to 12. Based on your measurements, though, it seems like there will be enough ease in a size 10 that it won’t be pulling on your chest.

      I’m sorry I’m not super specific here. For this pattern, we did not include a finished upper bust measurement, so I can’t say for certain. We will consider offering this spec in the future.

      I hope this has been helpful! If you have any additional questions, please let me know. You’re also welcome to email me at hello @ workroomsocial.com.

      If you make the tank, I’d love to see! Send me a note. 🙂

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