Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Bust-Fit Tutorial (Of Sorts)

I considered entitling this post "My Short Waist Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to My Big Boobs (When It Comes to Wearing Clothes)" but I sensed it was a bit cumbersome. Mind you, this post isn't exactly a light read.

I don't know what's more questionable: that I'm about to recommend a sewing FBA (of sorts) or that I'm doing any sort of tutorial on fit at all (given my level of experience) - and this without so much as a photo series to accompany it.

Let's start with the requisite proviso: Reader beware. I am not expert on: sewing, fitting, alterations or tutorials. Hell, until recently I hadn't sewn much in 2 months. I am an expert on certain other things in my universe - let's not be all down on me - but you see where I'm coming from. Furthermore, as I learn more about alterations as my skills improve, I reserve the right to advise you all that this was a crude and/or crazy idea.

I'm calling the alteration, for want of a better term (please tell me if there's one that already exists): The Narrow Frame / Deep Bust Adjustment (NFDBA "for short"). In fact, if you can tell me anything about this method - someone else already made it up, you've tried it and it works on you (or doesn't), you think it's stupid etc., I'm happy to hear your feedback. In large measure, I've written this post in the interests of discovering someone else who may know more, different or better. And, natch, I'd love if it were to have some actual merit or to help someone.

Background: You know that S and I have worked on bodice fitting for quite some time (though we have been on a bit of a hiatus due to life responsibilities of late). It sounds trite to say that I have learned a vast amount from S and the experience. Truly, it's changed my perspective on practically everything three-dimensional. Additionally, I have read a number of useful fit resources, amongst them (and just to name a few):
We know, from many a sewing post on this blog, that I have struggled with the standard (FFRP) version of the FBA, generally applied to a darted top. I've struggled with all kinds of FBAs but let's focus primarily on this one. Every time I've given it a go, though I've been quite restrained, I get a baggy garment under the breasts and a weird one over and above them.

I did work out a very useful FBA method on princess seam garments (in which Taran and the Singer book were instrumental).  But what about all those other tops in the world I want to make and wear??

Who's the NFDBA For?
  • A woman with a proportionately large bust on a proportionately narrow, small- to medium-boned frame
  • The size you'd make to fit your full bust should probably not be more than one size larger than that which you'd make to fit your high bust i.e. if you're a 12 in full bust but a 10 in high bust, that's fine. If you're a 12 in full bust but an 8 in high bust, that might be problematic. I can't say with certainty - I've only had the chance to try this on my own body.
  • The bust should be DEEP, not wide, and breasts should not splay excessively to sides (see why below)
  • A short waist is preferable
  • An hourglass shape is also preferable i.e. a waist that indents, though it doesn't need to indent a tremendous amount
As you can see, it's a bit of a niche market - but I'm sure there are enoug of you out there who fit this description.
What Kind of Garment Does this Work On?
  • A bodice with bust darts in a woven.
  • A bodice with bust darts (or without them i.e. T shirt) in a knit 
  • In addition to the above, it's best to work with a pattern that highlights the waist
  • It's easier (as are all things) on a pattern that has no sleeves, but you can do it with sleeves, you just have to note if the shape or size of the armscye changes
  • It's also easier to work this on a knit
This isn't, as far as I can tell, a useful "method" for princess seams or other sorts of bodice shaping.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

You'll start by making your muslin in the size that fits your full bust. Oh, I know - this is HERESY. You're supposed to fit the upper chest and then FBA and make other required alterations. But seriously peeps (and I'm having a blog-writing deja vu!) I'd rather make everything else smaller, if that's what it takes, and get a garment that fits in the end, than do an FBA that ends up wrecking the line of the garment.

Pls. note: I suspect that many of you are feeling queasy right now. I respect that. I, too, feel queasy. But stay the course. I'm going somewhere with this and, really, in the end, it all comes down to whether this will work for you, if other FBAs have not.

I'm positing that, for the small framed-large busted woman, it's actually easier to adjust from the larger size than the smaller. Of course, I could be out of my mind.

OK, What The Hell Is This Adjustment And How Do You Make It Happen?

The adjustment is a way to allow for extra room in the bust  without adding extra width in the bodice. The reason you need a narrow frame, deep breasts and short waist is that the depth of your breasts will be compensated for by the length of the front bodice. If your torso is not narrow, you won't be able to maximize length in the front bodice. If your torso is long, you can still do this (I suppose) but it may be more complicated.

What's the salient construct of the alteration? You shorten the back bodice above the waist and below the bust.

I'll use my latest project as an example: When I constructed muslin 1 (unaltered bodice) in the size that fits my full bust (apparently, 38" when measured recently), I found the following:
  • It fit nicely in the bust BUT
  • The shoulders were a bit too wide
  • I needed a symmetrically wider seam allowance in the side seams (it's slightly to big around the true waist to high hip) - this means I'll need to take about 1/2" symmetrically out of each side seam, pretty easy and the line of the top is retained...
  • This it the thing I noticed most of all - a scant inch of fabric pooled at my lower back!
That fabric is the excess (given my short waist) that's taken up by the profile of my breasts on the front bodice. It's like I get a free pass in the boob area because my waist is short. But there's nothing to uptake that length on the back.

Seems pretty reasonable that I should simply hack out that amount of fabric from the back bodice and go. But, it's not entirely that simple. 

When one removes length on one side of the pattern only, it screws with the alignment of the side seam. Now, there are various ways one can deal with this, I imagine. But since this seems to work for me, I'll suggest that you add back the length just below the armscye. Walking your pattern will tell you how much you need to add (or at least act as a guide); there's a certain amount of intuition in this alteration - which is to say, at this point, I don't know how to explain why I go off-road when I do.

What's walking the pattern? This is simply aligning the edges of the seam allowances (on the paper pattern) of adjoining pattern pieces. For example, your side seams on your actual garment, will need to line up when you sew that seam. Perhaps you take it for granted that this should automatically occur. You did pay for your pattern, after all. However, some patterns are inaccurately drafted. Also remember, once you start to make alterations on a bodice, those alterations are likely to impact the length of one or both side seams, rendering them unequal. 

So, I walk the pattern from the hem, see where it stops at the underarm, note the discrepancy between the lengths of front and back, and add on to the back piece / sometimes take away a bit from the front piece. It's 2 parts engineering, 1 part intuition. Sometimes it doesn't work on the first try.

Big Time Note: Once you start screwing with the armscye, if your garment has sleeves, you're going to have to factor this in and adjust them to fit. Also: For good fit, most sleeves and armscyes already, and independently of other alterations, need to be adjusted - so I see this as part of the process, not an extra alteration. And I promise not to write a tutorial on that!

Other Big Time Note: Before you walk the side seams, always close your dart. Darts impact the length of the side and they're closed in the garment, so you'll need to close them for measuring the pattern length.

Order of Operations Recap:
  • Walk side seams on unaltered pattern to make sure they align (optional). If they don't, alter the pattern so that they do.
  • Make an unaltered muslin in the size that correlates with full bust - as long as it's not more than 1 size larger than your high bust size would be. (You might still try this if these ratios are more extreme, I just don't know what the outcome will be.)
  • Try on the garment and review. You probably need to make a small shoulder adjustment, take in the side seams a bit, and symmetrically i.e. just increase the width of your side seam allowance, and remove pooling from the back waist. If this isn't the case, email me. I really want to talk about it.
  • Reflect the required adjustments on paper (as indicated above). Note that I haven't talked about marking up the muslin and pulling it apart in the interests of altering the paper pattern. That's cuz you might want to wear your existing "muslin" i.e. that top you've been making for a while. This allows you to make an altered new version without deconstructing the original one. According to whom you ask, it's a good plan or a less good plan. I vacillate between the two perspectives. Right now I'm into wearing things for a while till I have a better fitted version. Unless, of course, the muslin is a disaster.
  • Try it on again. If the alterations didn't quite get you there, refine them.
So, I'm putting this out there for your consideration. I would welcome any feedback - positive or negative (but friendly, of course!). Have you ever tried this? Did it work?

Pattern designers and Experienced Pattern Alterers: Are there flaws in this reasoning we should discuss? I mean, does it just work on me - or should it work on others?

Let's talk!


  1. An interesting post. Now I think I have the opposite problem, but it's really interesting nonetheless! I get what you're saying which is nice, lol! Only thing I'm not sure of is what the back bodice alteration looks like!

    1. I mean that I just fold up an inch of the paper pattern. It's a very simple alteration. But then I need to make sure that the side seams line up on front and back (which requires adding a bit more length on the back side seam just below the armscye.

  2. It sounds like an interesting method to try. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people who can read through something and work it out in their mind, so I have no idea how it would work for me.

    1. Honestly, I know this post would be much better with pics but I just don't have the wherewithal given a full time job, knitting, sewing, blogging, parenting and dealing with a reno. I don't know how those tutorial bloggers do it. Really, my hat is off to them. Sorry!

  3. Weirdly I have had luck in going up a size for the front bodice and reducing a size in the back since my shoulders are not broad. In the Colette Peony I made a size 18
    front bodice, and a 14 back bodice, and the reduced the length for both since bodice-length never fails to be at least 1" longer than necessary for me.. This alteration method reduces the shoulders enough and keeps the arm scythe fitted.

    1. Oooh, that's a really interesting idea. Do you cut the armsyce in the 14 on the back and the 18 on the front? Fascinating. I might have to try this.

  4. I´m curious- why doesn´t this method result in a waist that is too big? I tend to do traditional FBAs, and then take the added width back out of the waist and hip at the side seams, if the garment is loose-fitting, or add vertical darts if the garment is close-fitting. If it´s princess seamed, I take the extra in at both the front and side seams. I haven´t tried your method, so I am not sure I´m understanding it correctly. But here´s my question: if you make a bigger size and then symmetrically take in the side seams, how is the ratio between the bust and the waist any different? Wouldn´t it stay the same as the pattern was drafted, rather than accommodating the greater ratio between a large bust and small waist? I hope this makes sense!

    1. Good question. I think, and again I'm just figuring this out, that the reason the waist isn't too big is because my waist isn't super tiny right now :-) I'm going to have to think about this more though, and return to it when I have better info. The reason it works is because a narrow back allows for the extra width to be taken up by the boobs on the front. I'm not sure if this makes sense to you. I'd be happy to continue this discussion in email, Lanie. Maybe I can be more articulate if we chat in more depth.

  5. Wow, this is detailed! I'll have to re-read when I'm not drinking merlot ;-)

    I think I fit into the NFDBA category. No matter what I do at the front, the entire back is always floppy if I don't do major adjustments.

    1. Merlot is the death of comprehending this post. Read it again and let me know if it works for you :-)

  6. I have a book I really recommend because it's definitive on pattern alteration and fitting: "Fitting & Pattern Alteration: A Multi-Method Approach". It's expensive but it is without question the best fitting book out there because it encapsulates the various pattern alteration methods (slash-spread, pivot-slide and seam allowance slide) and it also covers every conceivable alteration issue and discusses how to combine them. And there is also instruction on how to make changes based on the style of a garment (e.g. an FBA on a princess seam pattern is made differently than on a traditional bodice block). I think this books is actually a textbook hence the high price tag although Amazon does have some used for about 50% less. Incredible book, really the best one out there.

    1. OK, I'm going to go online and check this out / order it if isn't too insanely expensive. Getting it to Canada will up the price, likely substantively...

      I really appreciate the info, Phyllis.

  7. I think I'm in this category - I'd guess my bust is one size bigger than my high bust. I've certainly had this fitting issue, the one demoralizing time I tried to REALLY fit a woven top (mostly I can get away with using the high bust size and narrowing shoulders and waist). But I definitely had the pooling in the lower back.

    I think what you are saying is: use the larger size, and the alterations are: narrow the waist and shoulders and shorten the back. Then you talk about adding back to the back, but it's not clear where exactly. The question I've always had is: is the pooling because my back(waist) is short (it is) or is it because the hip curve in the garment is too low? ie short waist or high hip? I think they're the same thing mostly. Taking length out of the back waist would be appropriate for me, but I'd need to add it back below the waist (wouldn't everyone with this body shape)? And in that case, isn't it the same thing as simply raising the hip line? Maybe some more information about where you add the length back would help.

    Love your post, I've been waiting to have this discussion with someone!

    1. The part I'm least clear about (because I've done this a variety of ways on a variety of occasions) is getting the side seams to line up. The back is slightly too short, after the alteration, and I choose a different method, depending on the garment, to account for this. I'm going to try to understand this better so that I can articulate it more clearly in the future. (You're not the only one confused by that part of the post...)

      I will def return to the topic, armed with better info, hopefully. Thanks for your comment Erika!

    2. I wonder if you could also use the fisheye dart technique that I usually see for pants- that would remove length at the waist without affecting the side seams, and obviate the need to adjust the armskye.

  8. I'm wondering if you could use the smaller back and larger front, and deepen the dart to keep the side seams the same... but I know nothing of the perils of the FBA, being more on the opposite side of things.

    I've recently been reading "Fitting Finesse" by Nancy Zieman and I noticed her FBA methods were quite different, and seems to involve adjusting the width/length and adjusting the dart separately. Not sure if it would help but it's another alternative... if I get organized I'll email you a pic of the pages or something...

    1. I wonder too. So many fun (and risky) options to look into! I have heard that NZ's bust alteration is quite different than the standard. I should get that book...

  9. Hey there, I also second the recommendation on the Fitting & Pattern Alterations. There are a lot of torso alterations and I appreciate that there are some for those with more structural narrowness beyond just bust width. I also have a narrow ribcage (altho mine is small bust w/short waist). It doesn't always go into the why's, which I like to know, but it covers a lot of ground. Anyhoos, I can visualize the alteration you're talking about. Good thinking!

    1. And I think I saw someone else speak about it on her blog in the last couple of days. Problem is, the cheapest one I can find is 90 bucks before 25 bucks of shipping - and it's used.

      And I'm so glad you can visualize the alteration! I am not in my comfort zone when writing these kinds of posts...