Breast Shape

Welcome To The Minefield - Part Two

Every breast is a different shape. Even from left to right a woman is rarely symmetrical. So how then can anyone reasonably be expected to solve the problem of the perfect fitting bra pattern? Is there an 'average shape'?

Before we talk about sizing we need to understand a few things about the purpose of a bra. Firstly, and most importantly, the bra functions as a support device to limit the motion of the breast during activity. Excessive motion can cause discomfort and even pain. Secondly, the bra serves to redistribute the forces of breast weight to the back and shoulders. The breast mass tissue is supported by ligaments beneath the breast and not by the skin. The skin moves and flows over the breast tissue and stretches with the ligaments. A bra is supposed to lift the breast and take the weight off the ligaments preventing sagging and stretch marks.

So now we've established we need to be able to carry the weight of the breast we need to ask how. Typically this has done by 'encasing' the breast volume in some form of cup and then positioning that cup in a specific position on the chest using straps or close fitting bodices like corsets. The cup needs to encase enough of the breast volume to hold it in place during the anticipated activity. In most cases, encasing the lower two thirds of the breast is adequate for normal daily activity, with more coverage required for sports.

Unlike other areas of the body, the breast has undercut shapes that require close fitting in order to create the correct supporting shape. In pattern making, unless you surround the entire breast, the only way to maintain this closeness of fit is with a stiffened former called an underwire. An underwire is a device, typically made of steel, which is inserted into the garment to force it to stay in a predetermined, though mostly semicircular shape. As the average home sewist or small manufacturer does not have the machinery necessary to make an underwire to their own design specifications they need to work with whatever they can get. The section on sizing and wires discusses the size and shape options.

So with a semicircular wire available in incremental sizes, how do we decide the shape of bra? Should the bra conform to the natural shape of the unsupported breast? Once we support the breast it's clearly going to change shape depending on how we've supported it. Is there an ideal shape for comfort? Is the comfortable shape the most aesthetically pleasing, either in an intimate environment or as a foundation garment under clothing? Historically the breast has been distorted into so many shapes it's a wonder we have any consensus over what is correct or incorrect at all. But this is indeed the attribute which separates the breast from all other areas of fitting ... it can be shaped to whatever we want it to look like (within reason).

The breast can not only change shape, but can also literally have its centre of gravity moved up or down and side to side relative to the chest. I'm not going to say whether or not I think this is a good or a bad thing, but in the pursuit of aesthetic values over function we have certainly pushed breasts into shapes and positions they were never intended to go. Thankfully, the current aesthetic optimum has remained unchanged for a the last few decades and resembles that of a young healthy natural breast, only higher up on the chest. Supplementary to this, fullness by way of extra lift, padding or pulling the breasts closer together is another aesthetic pursuit. Irrelevant of what's happening underneath the bra, the external shape, and hence the pattern remains the same.

There is a great amount of debate in which purists say manufacturers should create bras to fit dozens of different shaped breasts and not just volumes. As it is we have several cups for each band size, and if we went to several shapes for each of those cup volumes for each band the sheer logistics would spiral into economic and practical impossibility. Not to mention that we already have enough argument over garment sizing ... if we change the undergarment even more then the fit compared to the over garment will vary more also. The breast can change shape reasonably well for its volume, and the amount of discomfort usually increases with the degree it’s distorted. If we assume an aesthetic optimum for a set volume then anyone too far outside of that will need to look toward a customised option as they would for other areas of fashion.

This 'aesthetic optimum' consists of a lower quarter spheroid and a slightly elongate upper quarter spheroid. If your breast doesn't suit this shape it means you end up looking for a bra cup to suit your breast volume which will have a wire that doesn't properly fit the natural curve of your breast. Fortunately there is some variation among manufacturers and even a few speciality bra makers that can cater for people too far beyond the 'average' commercially viable standard sizes. Either way you will always be limited by the available wire options.

It's about this point in the classroom environment that we call for the least self-conscious person to volunteer to be class model. A demonstration of how you can lift and shape the breast helps everything to fall into place (no pun intended). What we try to demonstrate is how we can shape and support the breast. If we can hold it in place in the supported position then technically it's possible to take a pattern by draping.

To do this we create what's called a 'former' (I've also recently seen it referred to as a 'sling'). There are many ways to achieve this, but I find that a hypoallergenic medical grade paper adhesive tape to be the best to use as it’s easy to tear, doesn't hurt the skin but sticks well, and most of all it's as flexible as fabric. Some people achieve the same result with a combination of wide elastic or ribbon while someone physically holds the former at the shoulder. Whatever technique you use is fine and it really is self-evident and very helpful. With the breast finally fixed in place, you drape the breast with paper and tape, or fabric and pins, to form a cup. Once the cup is made you take it off the body and flatten it out to create the customised bra block. The whole process is demonstrated on the bust form page.

Home sewists have actually used this method to create custom fit bras for as long as there have been bras ... it's not at all a new 3D pattern making system ... pretty much every home sewist bra course does this assuming they are doing more than teaching you how to simply copy an existing bra. The method is a very valid technique; however it's obviously not something you can use to make a ready to wear range. I also don't think it's really appropriate for more than the home sewist and I certainly don't advise it for dressmakers doing made to fit garments unless they have a great deal of experience and professionalism or at least a comfortable familiarity with the client.

So how do we make a bra block from which we can make any bra pattern? Obviously the paper and tape technique is not going to be something the professionals and industry can use, so how do they do it? This is covered in the section on making the bra block. The bra block is based on the assumption of:

•    an aesthetic optimum shape.
•    a wire that is principally semicircular.
•    a uniform diameter increment between wire diameters.
•    a uniform volume increment between wire diameters.

While the purists don't seem to like the aesthetic optimum, there does need to be an acceptable start point that will function as an undergarment. Remember it's only a start point and you can tweak it. It's all well and good wanting a perfect unique custom fit but home sewists just don't have the facilities to make their own wires so they're already compromising before they even get to the pattern. The secret to making good patterns is not being upset with compromise.


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