The Bra Dilemma Solved
by Cynthia Elam
from Threads #71, pp. 36-40
For some women, it's easy to find bras that fit in styles they like. But many others aren't so lucky, spending endless time and money in search of that elusive perfect style and fit. And even if they do find it, chances are that the style will be discontinued the next time they shop. (In fact, it's estimated that 85 percent of women who wear bras are wearing the wrong size.) And others of us are just tired of spending so much money on so little fabric.
|Just because you want a bra that fits, doesn't mean you have to wear beige. You can fit and sew your own bra to get just the style, size, fabric, and features you want. From left, above, a stretch-satin basic bra resembling a Victoria's Secret classic (Élan B530); a navy polka-dot swimsuit top that's easily adapted from a basic bra; and an orange-lace padded push-up bra that flatters a smaller-busted figure (Élan B540).|
Well, if any of this sounds familiar, you'll be pleased to find out that making your own custom-fitted bra can be a quick and rewarding project. And rest assured, if you're able to cut accurately and sew a precise 1/4-in. seam, you can make a bra.
For the first bra, plan to spend an evening or so. After this one is fitted and finished, you'll find that additional bras take two hours or less. Best of all, once you perfect the fit, you can keep the pattern forever, secure in the knowledge that you've solved one of a woman's trickiest wardrobe problems.
The four elements of a basic bra include a bra band, cups, straps, and a closure (see Anatomy of a bra). Variations in these key elements determine the bra style. A full-band style, for example, offers the most support; it has a continuous band that extends around the body, with the cups set into it (see Styling options). A partial-band style has a band attached at the sides of the cups, with a center-front piece or hook separating them. The bra band may be a single layer or lined.
|Variations in the four basic elements of a bra—bra band, cup, strap, and closure—determine bra style. This basic bra has a partial band, a two-piece cup with underwires, wide comfort straps, and a back closure (Élan B530).||In addition to the basic bra style, other style variations include full band, padded push-up, front closure, and sports bra, based on the patterns in parentheses. You may find similar features on other patterns.
Cups can be made of one, two, or three lined or unlined sections, with two being the most common. Cups may or may not include underwires for shaping. Lace cups are often lined with sheer tricot to add stability and reduce scratchiness. You can even add padding to the cups to make a push-up bra like the orange lace one in the photo above.
Straps can be made of strap elastic (less stretchy than regular elastic), nonstretchy strapping, or self-fabric, with or without an adjuster (the most common is a ring-and-slide adjustment). Nonstretchy straps usually have some elastic at the back for ease of movement.
Bras close in either the front or back with hooks, and back closures usually have two or three size adjustments. Many sports bras pull on, with no closures at all.
Each of the bra patterns available from Kwik-Sew, Sew Lovely, and Élan Patterns, made for sizes ranging from 32A to 48FF (see Bra-making sources by mail), will guide you through the construction for that style. To determine what size to start with, see the box below. The pattern will list the fabric options, findings, and notions you'll need, like the plush elastic (cushiony on one side), strap elastic, back hooks, and underwires and their channeling. Or, to make gathering the parts easier, you can buy a kit with all the fabric and findings you'll need; some kits have everything dyed to match.
Good fit starts with accurate measuring
Taking exact measurements is the first step in making a bra that fits. You'll need to calculate your bra-band size and your cup size by measuring around the rib cage and full bust, wearing your best-fitting bra. (Large-busted women especially need support for accurate measurements.)
To wire or not to wire—For maximum shaping and support, an underwire bra is the best choice for most women. The underwire shapes and holds the cup to a fixed diameter, which can benefit even a small-busted woman. Complaints about underwires are due mainly to poorly fitting bras, which can cause pinching and poking wires.
Fabric ideas—You'll see bras sewn from a wide variety of fabrics, including tricot, lace, stretch satin, cotton/Lycra, and all-cotton knits and wovens. When making bras, you have the freedom to choose bright colors, jacquards, polka dots, or plaids, if you like. I suggest starting with a stretch fabric like two-way stretch nylon/Lycra satin, which makes fitting easier and forgives small errors.
The essential good fit
Let's look at what constitutes proper fit in a bra, which will help when you're measuring and deciding on your size. A well-fitting bra is comfortably snug around the body, with the breasts filling the cups completely--no excess fabric in the cups, and no breast tissue spilling out of the cup at the top, side, or bottom. The bra's center front touches, or very nearly touches, the breastbone. The bra band doesn't ride up in back, and the straps stay in place without slipping or digging into the shoulders. Ideally, the bust level is about halfway between elbow and shoulder, although this may not be practical for a heavy-busted woman.
To check the fit, make a sample cup with the pattern and fabric you plan to use, and hold it up to yourself. It should completely cover the breast from the center front to the side, and under the breast to the rib cage, with a little extra all around for seam allowances. Check that the breast fills the cup completely, without bulging at the sides or bottom. Can you pinch any excess fabric at the bust point? If so, make a note of how much and adjust the pattern pieces accordingly. (Two women may have the same rib-cage and full-bust measurements, yet still be different cup sizes. If you have a wide, shallow bust, use a larger cup size and take the fullness out of the cup. For a solution to this and other problems, see the box below) Now try the cup on the other breast. Many women aren't symmetrical, so it's important to check both sides. If your left side differs noticeably from your right, make separate pattern pieces for each side and label them.
Common fitting solutions
Most fitting problems are easy to remedy and often result from the mismatch of cup and band size.
|Cup needs reshaping: If cup is too small, you can go to larger cup size and reshape tip, if needed, to remove excess fabric. Pin out excess on test cup, as shown above, tapering to zero. Make same changes to pattern.
|Bra band rides up in back: Band is too loose, cups are too small, or both. Try going up a cup size or down a band size. Larger bust needs wider, closer-fitting band to support weight of bust.
Straps won't stay on shoulders: May be too loose or set too far apart for narrow or sloping shoulders. Adjust straps to give some lift to bust. If you like, stitch straps to stay in place. (A custom-fitted bra does not really need adjustable straps. Manufacturers use them to fit more women with fewer sizes.) You can move the straps closer together in back, or choose a different pattern.
Straps dig into shoulders: Also indicates loose band or cups that are too small. Wider band and wider, padded straps help.
You can really customize the fit with the help of a family member or close friend (you'll need four hands). Hold the fitting cup up to yourself and have your helper hold the underwire against the cup in the correct position. Trace the entire bottom edge of the wire, using a pencil or fabric marker. Take it off and add 3/8 in. to the bottom for the channeling and seam allowance.
Get ready to cut and sew
Before you begin, read all the instructions for your pattern, put a new size 60/8 or 70/10 universal or ballpoint needle in your machine, and make sure your machine is lint-free for good stitch quality. Test your stitching on a swatch, using a straight stitch of about 12 sts/in. (2.5 cm). For Lycra blends, stretch the fabric slightly as you sew to add a little give to the seam. If your machine skips straight stitches, try a finer thread in the top and bobbin, or use a little silicone lubricant like Sewers Aid on the needle and thread spool. If you still have problems, try another new needle. For skipped zigzag stitches, change to a three-step zigzag, if you have one.
When laying the pattern on the fabric, pay special attention to the "grainline" mark. On a pattern designed for knits, this is meant to be placed in the direction of the fabric's greatest stretch, which may be lengthwise or crosswise, depending on your fabric. Your best layout may differ from the one in the pattern's instructions.
Because a bra is so fitted, a 1/8-in. cutting or sewing error can throw it off a whole cup size. I find a rotary cutter, mat, and weights to be the most accurate cutting tools. To mark dots and notches, make tiny 1/8-in. clips for notches and use pins to mark dots.
Add support for a large bust—Large-busted women can add support to the lower cup to help lift a heavier bust. Use a double layer of fabric in the lower cup or add a light-to-medium-weight interfacing, like a fusible tricot knit. Or use fusible web to join two layers of fabric for the lower cup. You can interface the entire lower cup (excluding the upper seam allowance), or only the outer bottom portion.
To sew a bra, you'll first make the cups and join them to the band, then add elastic, straps, and, finally, a closure. I'll explain a few tips to help you get started on the construction for the basic bra style, shown in royal blue.
Stitch the cups first—To construct each cup, place the upper and lower cup pieces right sides together and pin at each end of the seam and at the dot or notch. Sew with the lower cup against the throat plate, stopping often with the needle down to reposition the edges, instead of using lots of pins.
To finish the cup seam, you have several options. You can press the seam to one side (down for a single-layer lower cup; up for a double one). A tailor's ham makes pressing curved seams easy, as shown in photo 1; make tiny clips in the seam allowance, if needed, so it lies flat. Then topstitch 1/8 in. from the seam, through the seam allowance, as shown in photo 2, and trim it close to the stitching. Or you can press the seam allowance open and topstitch on each side of the seam, then trim.
|1. Press the cup's curved seam over a tailor's ham to preserve shaping.||2. Topstitch to neatly finish the cup seam.|
Another option often used by bra manufacturers gives a soft, nonscratchy finish. Press the seam open and center a 1/2-in.-wide lengthwise strip of sheer nylon tricot, Seams Great, or soft lace over the seam and stitch 1/8 in. from the seam on each side.
Add elastic to the band—The elastic that finishes the band edges is usually cut shorter than the band and stretched slightly to fit during stitching. It helps to fold and mark the pattern piece and elastic in quarters, as shown in photo 3. When you sew the first line of stitching along the picot edge, the left swing of the narrow zigzag should just touch the edge of the elastic (photo 4). After trimming close to the stitching, turn the elastic to the inside and zigzag again along the straight edge, stretching the elastic as you sew. Or use a wide, three-step zigzag to sew down the center of the elastic.
|3. Mark the band and elastic in quarters before stitching (stitched section shown at right).||4. To begin attaching elastic, start zigzagging just along its picot edge.|
When you attach the band to the outside edge of the cup, continue stitching around to the center front. This stitching will serve as a guide when you apply the channeling to hold the underwire.
Comfy channeling—The nicest ready-made channeling for underwire consists of several layers, and provides lots of cushioning. Or you can make your own, if you like, with a finished width of 3/8 in. Two layers of bias-cut cotton flannel inside a layer of the bra fabric makes comfy channeling.
To add the channeling, lay one bra cup right side up on the table, fold the bra band and other half of the bra out of the way on top, and align the stitching on the channeling with the stitching guide on the cup, as shown in photo 5. Pin, covering the side seam, lower cup, and center-front seam, and leaving at least 1/2 in. of channeling at each end. Stitch close to the inner edge of the channeling (photo 6), pulling the channeling snug as you sew, which helps it roll to the inside. An option, after pressing, is to stitch close to each long edge of the channeling to prevent it from rolling to the outside, which gives a topstitched look.
|5. Match stitching on channeling with stitching on cup...||6. ...then sew just inside the stitching.|
Be very careful when you sew the underwires into the channeling (photo 7) -- stitching over the wire may result in a broken needle and possible eye injury. With the wires fully inserted, you should have at least 3/4 in. of space between the end of the wire and the center-front edge of the bra. On the right side, sew a line of very narrow satin stitches at the center front of the upper cup, 1/8 in. from the top edge, as shown in photo 8, and trim the channeling even with the cup's upper edge. Or you can turn the channeling under before sewing.
|7. Insert an underwire into the channeling.||8. Carefully sew across the top with a narrow satin stitch to secure it, as shown. Then trim away the excess channeling.|
From bra to swimwear—Once you successfully complete a bra you like, it's easy to make a few adjustments to get a perfect-fitting swimwear top, like the polka-dot one. You'll need to lengthen each back band about 2 in., smooth the shape of the upper band, and trade the bra hooks for a swimwear slide closure. Add swimwear lining to the cups, and substitute 3/8-in.-wide swimwear elastic for the plush, cutting it to 90 percent of the band measurement. Sew the elastic inside the edges of the band, then turn and zigzag again, so the elastic is enclosed. And replace the strap elastic with a narrow, self-fabric tube with a strip of elastic inside.
I think you'll find that making your own bras opens up an exciting new era of personal underwear fashion. What have you got to lose, except that frustrating feeling of being a fashion victim?
Cynthia Elam of El Cajon, CA, teaches bra making and designs bra patterns and kits under the name Élan Patterns. For more on bra construction, check out Beverly Johnson's article, "Clone a Favorite Bra," in the February/March 2002 issue of Threads (#99).
Photos: Scott Phillips; drawings: Robert LaPointe