13. Bra Sizing & Underwires
Welcome To The Minefield
When you talk about bra sizing and pattern making in the same topic, it’s likely more difficult than navigating a minefield. This section is written from an Australian perspective so please keep that in mind before you send in American or European corrections. I'm absolutely certain this page will attract criticism anyway!
The first step in determining your bra size is to determine your band size. Thanks to the wonders of non-universal standard sizing, your band size could be assigned any arbitrary number depending on what country your bra is from and who manufactures it. Bra bands are, however, universally divided into 5cm (2inch) increments based on the underbust measurement, even in Australia where all other sizing is divided into 4cm increments. This means in Australia and in some European countries your bra band size may not be the same as your dress size.
In the swimwear section of this website you may see me use the term 10B/C. By this I mean an Australian dress size 10 with a B to C cup breast, not a size 10B to 10C bra. It refers to a swimsuit that fits an average Australian size 10 woman. Other times I'll specify an actual measurement. This is because this site is designed to help ready to wear students get used to the terminology and keep standard sizing in mind all the time they're designing patterns.
The table below shows how manufacturers from around the world label their bands for the Australian market. International manufacturers would label their bands differently again for other overseas markets, the American market for example, would start with an underbust measurement in whole numbered even (units of 2) inches. If all that isn't enough inconsistency, I’m now starting to see swimwear bras come in small, medium and large with absolutely no point of reference to either cup or band.
Cup size is estimated by subtracting the under bust (band) measurement from the bust measurement and comparing the result to the table below. Each cup has a fit range of 2.5cm. Again this table is suited to Australian bras only. International countries use different values to achieve the same task. Be careful when ordering ‘equivalent’ bras from overseas because if they use inches then the larger sizes are not actually equivalent thanks to 1” being 2.54cm and not 2.5cm!
Let’s say, for example, your client has a 91cm bust, a 74cm underbust and a 66cm waist. Assuming an Australian manufacturer made to standard, in most cases she’d best fit a size 14 blouse, a size 12 swimsuit and a 12D bra. Of course, because of a lack of standardisation, mislabelling and imports, she should really try the garment on before purchasing … which is why I’d never recommend buying a bra over the Internet unless they have a good exchange policy.
As far as making patterns goes, the next thing we need to consider are the underwires. What shapes and sizes do they come in? For a single cup size you can get a half coverage wire, a full coverage wire and even an extra-long wire. Their shapes may vary a little but for a single manufacturer they just tend to change length rather than change arch diameter. Unfortunately every manufacturer seems to have their own idea of what is the perfect wire shape, and while fashion may well have a part to play, breasts don’t change with fashion. This means you need to decide on your wire supplier before you start making patterns.
Most wire manufacturers do follow the 1” increment system meaning you will have one wire that suits several different cup sizes. For example, an 8D uses the same wire as a 10C or a 12B or 14A. They will all have their own wire labelling system that says what cup they should fit. Most label their wires by length or diameter rather than cup sizes.
12A, 10B, 8C
14A, 12B, 10C, 8D
16A, 14B, 12C, 10D, 8DD
18A, 16B, 14C, 12D, 10DD
18B, 16C, 14D, 12DD, 10E
20B, 18C, 16D, 14DD, 12E
The small problem Australian swimwear pattern makers face is how to put a device designed for 5cm band increments into a one piece garment that requires 4cm increments. Below is a table showing how I fudge the wire selection for a one piece made to our standard 4cm increments.
Below is a diagram of a complete set of full coverage wires and half coverage wires. These are by no means standard, but they are the ones I will be using to demonstrate how to make patterns with wires. Click on the links below the illustrations to download the files for your CAD software. You will need to select your wires before making your patterns and adjust them accordingly.
One thing you will notice if you look at my wire maps is that I use the same wire for A and AA cups (and indeed AAA if one should ever present). This is because they each have the same breast diameter, just a smaller breast volume. All I do is take about 5mm from each side of the seam to make the smaller (flatter) AA cup. That said, while AA cup women do wear lingerie bras (and should), they rarely buy underwired swimwear. Mostly they will buy padded/boosted preformed cups that don't need wires at all.
Fitting a bra is an art in itself. I strongly recommend being professionally fitted but here are a few hints:
If your bra is riding up it means the band may be too loose. Start by trying a tighter hook. If that isn’t enough you may need to try a smaller band size (which means you may need to go up a cup size).
If your bra is digging into your shoulder you may have the straps too tight so start by loosening them or trying a padded strap. A bra should be supported by the band so you may need to go down a band size. This can be a serious balancing act for women with larger breasts.
If you are falling out of a full coverage bra you need to move up a cup size. Any amount of swelling or spilling means the cup is too small. Even push up bras should fit comfortably by creating shape without overflow. Plus size women may need to look at designs created with wire shape in mind because as the breast gets larger it varies in shape a great deal more and what shape is comfortable for one woman may not be for another, even in the same cup size!
If your bra is baggy, wrinkled or hollow in any area you may need to look at a smaller cup size.
If your wire is poking you, you are probably wearing a band which is too small. Try a bigger band (and hence a smaller cup).
Lastly something you need to consider is litigation. Breasts are sensitive and easily hurt, people are stupid and lawyers are getting cheaper all the time. Simply because you put washing and care instructions into a garment does not mean your client will read them, let alone follow them. Let’s say, for example, your client machine washes her swimsuit in concentrated bleach to get out a stain and she causes deterioration of the wire casing. A few washes later the casing starts to tear. One day she is out in the sun, the wire heats up and then penetrates the casing causing her injury. Don’t be surprised if you get a letter from a lawyer threatening to sue. This is a reality you need to consider. Unfortunately the polycarbonate and plastic wires are not as stiff as traditional wires. Thanks to more advanced preformed cups, underwires in swimwear are slowly becoming a thing of the past.
I often get questions asking why an underwire is even necessary ... and much of the confusion seems to arise because complex modern sports bras don't use wires. Everywhere you search on the internet you'll find people saying that underwires help create shape, lift and separation. They may well play a part in that purpose but that is not at all their role. It's completely wrong and misleading. It's saying that without a wire there can be little or no lift, separation or shaping.
A wire serves one purpose ... it stiffens the shape of the fabric section below the bust. It holds that shape and helps it from opening or twisting. That's it. Full stop. Nothing else. So the real question is why would the section below the bust open up without it ... and the answer is quite simply that there's nothing holding it closed from above the bust ... ie; it's an open arc and not a circle.
Look at the image below of a neoprene based garment ...
This garment does not need an underwire to hold its shape, lift or separation because it has two important things. Firstly it has a body hugging component both above and below the breast (the green and blue lines ... the blue line is anchored by way of the armhole). When you unzip the garment you will obviously lose some of that support but there's a second thing helping keep the shape. If we assume the blue and green lines are snug to the body, then so too will be the orange line ... and by definition both the diagonals at CF Bust (the 45 degree angles that emanate from where the orange and red lines cross) ... this was the old cross you heart bra adage from the 80's and indeed its the theory used in most wireless sports bras.
You do NOT need a wire if the garment is anchored to the body, under tension, all the way around each breast ... it's that simple. It's hard at first to wrap your head around this concept but believe me it's a fact.
The easiest way to demonstrate it is by looking at latex catsuits which have shaped cups or lower cups only (eg; the following image). These do not require wires because the garment is anchored everywhere ... indeed you could cut out two circles for the breasts and while they might open a little at the side seam side of the cut-outs, the center vertical would stay in place ... all you're then doing is adding cups to create breast shaping. I've done this a hundred times in heavy weight Lycra, neoprene and PVC ... haven't had a chance to do it in the thinner latex but I've seen it everywhere so I know its possible. It works even better in sports bras because they use multiple panels of varying stretch or reinforcement.
The problem arises in this type of construction when the garment is too tight across the bust causing the orange line to lift away from the chest .... this is because either the pattern is sized wrongly or because the wearer has as bigger bust than the pattern allows for the underbust measurement ... my response to those that think this is due to no wire is to say: well what happens when you try to put a bigger bust in a smaller wire ... you get the same problem.
Unidentified image found on Pinterest used for illustrative purposes only. I'm happy to credit the creator if you can show who they are. Thank you
14. 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.