Apples, Oranges, Pears, Bananas

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Would a size by any other name fit the same? I know I’m badly mis-quoting Shakespeare here but listening to a programme on iplayer the other day prompted me to think about dressmaking pattern sizing as opposed to commercial clothing sizing.

Surfing through iplayer to find something interesting to listen to the other day I stumbled upon a programme called More or Less. One of the topics covered in the programme was on clothes sizing, something that I get asked about a hugely in our workshops.

It was only a short piece but rather interesting, you can listen to the full programme here and the piece about sizing starts at 19.45.

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Commercial sizing hasn’t been around that long at all really, as before the Second World War clothes were mainly tailor made, made at home or were bought from department store or catalogues and then altered.

In the 1950’s the UK Board of Trade did an enormous survey of women’s measurements in an attempt to try and standardise it all to encourage women to shop for stuff and aid the flagging economy after the war. However, due to the huge number of sizes needed to cater for the majority of the population, that was just unworkable.


This is one of the main reasons the fashion industry has to work with averages. If the bust size of the smallest customer is X and the Largest Y then the measurements in between need to be divided pretty evenly to create a ‘range’ of sizes to cover most people and are usually labelled 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 etc.  But to be honest it might as well be apples, oranges, pears, bananas, as the name of the size has absolutely no bearing on the actual measurements.

So, if we can accept that the names of the sizes are not directly connected to our body measurements and don’t really mean anything relevant,  it all sounds pretty doable – right? Except when you bring into consideration the more modern concept of the ‘target customer’.

Designers and manufacturers all have their own specific target markets. Top Shop’s range is about age 16 -25 young slim and athletic frames. While White Stuff is more 25 – 55 with a slightly more mature figure (that’s euphemism for a fatter tum!). Evans and other brands may cater for even more specific demographics, but each has their ideal customer.


Going by exact body measurements the population would comprise of the 126 different sizes mentioned int the Radio 4 piece, but do you really want to be described as size 114 or size 0? I don’t think I would to be honest. Each group of customers, rather than being differentiated by individual size, has appropriated the ‘normal size’ banding of 8 -26  so a size 12 from Top Shop will of course be different from a size 12 in White Stuff or Evans, yet they are still all called ‘size 12’.  And so ‘vanity sizing’ has appeared to become the norm.

Although I don’t necessarily think this is all bad. I am careering headlong into middle age with breakneck speed and have the grey hairs and extra inches to prove it, but even if I still had the figure I used to in my twenties I don’t think I would want to shop where my teenage daughter does. My attitude, lifestyle and general outlook on life have guided me to find my own ‘Style Tribe’. I know the brands of clothing that suit me and I know roughly what size I am. I’m not that bothered if the size 16 I wear should really be a size 24 or anything else. If it fits and I feel good – that’s alright with me.


Perhaps this is where us Independent Pattern Designers have the edge on the ‘Big Boys’. While they are still trying to be all things to all people we can be more specific. Our branding and size charts also reflect who we design for – usually people like us.

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I love the aesthetic of Sew Over It patterns, they have a wonderfully distinct vintage look to them. The same applies to Tilly, her pretty colours and 60’s inspired silhouettes again feed another group of dressmakers. A lot of the time we dip in and out of different ‘Tribes’ too, depending on our moods or occasion. I buy from White Stuff, Boden and Hobbs as well as M&S.  

So does it really matter that sizing is different from one company to another? Granted it’s hard to navigate the choppy waters of sizing on the High Street, but should it make that much difference to us if we are going to be making our own clothes? The information supplied with each pattern includes the body measurements for the different sizes. After all we measure and fit and alter the clothes to suit our own shapes and bodies.

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Don’t we?

Or do we just expect it to fit if we make up a specific size? Most of the time I make up a Toile to check the fit before I make up the final garment.

So what do you do?

Jules x


4 thoughts on “Apples, Oranges, Pears, Bananas

  1. There are typically 3 areas on a pattern that I’ll pay particular attention to before cutting into anything – the bust (since I’m a 36FF and understand most tops are sized for a B cup), the shoulders (mine are narrow for my height and size and slanted forward – at 62 what can I expect?) and I’m tall (5’8″). All that considered there is no pattern yet I’ve come across that doesn’t need adjusting in these areas. Pants will be a whole new experience. I’ve made very stretchy pants which fit reasonably well but I’ve yet to make a woven pair 🙂 My next step is a toile or practice run (last time I made 2!) and then see what needs to be done further from there. You do have to love that drafting fiddling work if you’re going to sew your clothes to fit, be comfortable and look good on you too 🙂 I don’t mind. I’m not ever in a big hurry since at my age I don’t NEED clothes, I have enough to certainly meet my necessities. I sew for fun, challenge and ultimately to have a garment I love in a fabric I love against my skin that fits me like a charm and looks great too 🙂

  2. I thank God that I discovered your patterns! I saw a photo on Instagram of someone wearing your pinafore dress and my life changed for the better that day. I contacted the poster to ask where she got the pattern and the rest is history. I have my fingers crossed that my other half will buy me a dressmaker’s dummy for Christmas and then I can spend a bit more time adjusting the fit. I have a similar shape to PsychicSewerKathleen above but without the height unfortunately. I realised when I saw your photo and read some of your blogs that you were the woman for me, I adore linen for starters! I’ve also made 3 of the Julia Pocket Top and that has to be the most perfect garment ever! Thank you and one day when I get to Stratford I’ll pop in to buy some fabric!

  3. I always alter the pattern when tracing it and then make a (hopefully) wearable toile. I always have to lengthen the armscye on woven patterns, along with the bodice, sleeve and skirt length, and I usually have to move the bust dart as well. I haven’t tackled trousers yet, but I already know I’m going to need to substantially alter any pattern as ready to wear never fit properly. You’d think that would make me more keen to make my own, but…
    As for what size I make, I don’t really care as long as it fits nicely and is comfortable! (Having said that, I still find myself paying more attention than I should to ‘that number’ in shops, but can now see that it’s often the fact that clothes are designed for someone much shorter than me which makes ‘the right size’ not fit. No wonder, trying to get a 5’9″ body in clothes designed for a 5’5″ish body is rarely going to work!)

  4. I totally agree that we have become hostage to numbers. One of the reasons I sew is in the hope of achieving a good, or ideally, a perfect fit. The more fitted a pattern the more tricky it becomes but I have found that fitted designs suit my body shape better.I often do make up a toile, but if it needs several changes, I dont know where, or how to make that process,and end up being too discouraged to continue.
    I have no idea how pattern designers begin to address issues of variable body shape ( bust, bottom, shoulder width, sloping shoulders, as well as sizes, so an average skilled sewer can make a bespoke fit outfit. Only admiration that you try. Perhaps there is a niche for pattern designers to have computer programs that will adapt a pattern to create an individually drawn pattern which the customer could then download?

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