If there's one thing I notice time and again teaching dressmaking and fitting classes, it's that sewists very often slip up when it comes to the crucial task of taking their own measurements (and funnily enough, they usually add inches). It may sound obvious, but without an accurate set of measurements, making a dress that fits well and feels great is impossible. In this post we will demonstrate how to take the essential measurements you need in order to choose your size when working with any pattern, plus some bonus measurements that will help you to decide what alterations you might benefit from. Once you have your measurements, check out our Bodice Fitting Companion eBook!
First things first, you'll want to strip down to your smalls - we don't want bulky jumpers and jeans giving us an inaccurate set of measurements! Do, however, measure yourself wearing the bra that you would normally be wearing. If you're making a special garment that you will wear with a different type of bra or underwear - eg. if you were making a strapless gown that you'd wear with a strapless bra, or something really cinched that you want to wear with a corset - make sure that you're wearing those specific undergarments at the time you take your measurements.
Grab a pen and a flexible measuring tape (and before you ask, no - your DIY metal tape measure will not do! And it'll probably rip you to shreds while you're at it), stand yourself in front of a full length mirror and take the following measurements (either in inches or centimetres, whatever you prefer), being careful not to twist the measuring tape as you hold it around yourself. Oh, and measure from the right end of the tape, ie. 1cm/1"! An easy mindless mistake we've all made...
Your full bust is, surprise surprise, the circumference around your ribcage at the fullest part of your bust. This is usually nipple height, but not always. It always helps to check you've got the right spot by standing side on to the mirror so you can actually see where your bust is at its fullest - and this goes for all the other lateral measurements too!
Hold the tape firmly (but not tightly) around yourself, trying not to let the tape sag down your back. Don't hold your breath as it will puff out your chest, and keep your free arm down by your side. The tape measure should be about bra strap height at the back, and parallel to the floor as much as possible.
Most sewing patterns will not give a high bust measurement in their sizing chart (our newer ones that come in both size ranges now do!), but it's an important one to be aware of as it is the relationship between your high bust and your full bust that will usually dictate whether or not you'll need a Full Bust Adjustment (FBA) or a Small Bust Adjustment (SBA).
NB: As a general rule, if your full bust is more than 2" larger than your high bust, you'll probably need an FBA, whereas if your full bust is just 1" larger or less than your high bust, you'll probably need an SBA. This, however, will also depend on the design of the garment you're making, and whether or not you're falling between sizes.
Hold the tape around your ribcage, pulling it up to your underarms and above your bust. Again, breathe normally and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. The tape measure will be slightly higher than your bra strap at the back, and on a gentle upward diagonal as it goes up and over your chest.
This can be a little confusing because a lot of people don't actually know where their natural waist is. It is not your jeans waist size, and it is not always the smallest part of your torso if you don't happen to have an hourglass shape. Your waist is located halfway between the end of your ribs and the top of your hip bones. This measurement is also somewhat subjective, so make sure you're standing in front of a mirror so you can check that you're measuring around the spot where you would like to see your waistline seam.
Pull the tape around your waist and have a little feel of what's comfortable for you. If you're making a dress or skirt with a cinched in waist, for example, the Flora dress or the Anna dress, this is where it will be the tightest.
The hip measurement is not literally taken from around your hip bones, rather, the hip measurement indicates the fullest part around your bottom. It is also known as the seat measurement. Your hip measurement is usually about 8-10" down from your waist, but it could be lower if you have a low bottom, or higher if you have a full lower belly. The thing to remember here is to measure around the part where your bottom half is at its fullest, so that whatever garment you're making will comfortably fit over it.
Taking your measurements sitting down
When we sit down, our hip and sometimes waist measurements increase as our body mass spreads. If you're making anything form fitting that you want to be able to sit down in, or you are a wheelchair user, knowing your seated measurements is essential!
Some other useful measurements to know
When I'm measuring models for a shoot, or making things for others (rare!), I like to take some vertical measurements so that I can get an idea of proportion when I'm choosing their size and deciding if I need to make any other alterations to a pattern.
Body measurements on a pattern like full bust, waist and hip, all assume a set vertical distance between those measurements, so if you are long waisted, short chested or high hipped, your garment may fit you horizontally, but if the vertical measurements are off, the fit will be all wrong.
It really helps when taking vertical measurements to tie a piece of string around your waist (where you took your waist measurement), and even around your hip and full bust (if you can do that without the string falling down or restricting your movement too much!) so that you can be more accurate in your measurement taking.
Waist to hip: As I mentioned earlier, most people's hip measurement is 8-10" down from their waistline. Measure from your waist down to where you took your hip measurement (fullest part of your bottom). If it's between 8-10" you likely won't need to raise or lower the hip line of your pattern. If it is more or less, you will probably need to shift the hip line, ie. where the pattern is at its fullest, up or down in a similar way as you would move an apex up/down (see how to raise/lower the apex on a princess seam in our Bodice Fitting Companion)
Shoulder seam to apex: Making sure that the apex of your pattern (fullest part at the bust; the word apex literally means summit) is in the right spot as your own apex is crucial to a well fitting garment. By measuring down from your shoulder seam to your apex, you can compare this measurement with your paper pattern to see if there are any major differences. Very common alterations that can be picked up at this point would be having to lower (or raise - but that's quite rare) the apex, or shorten the bodice across the chest.
Apex to waist: Another useful one to check if you're long or short waisted and might need to lengthen or shorten your pattern above the waistline.
This is a great measurement to know, as you can quickly compare it directly to the width across a sleeve pattern to check how much ease it has and whether or not you want to do a bicep alteration - full or narrow - before you make a first toile. In order for a slim fitting sleeve to be comfortable, you want at least 1 1/2 - 2" ease. Measure around the fullest part of your bicep, and then measure across your sleeve pattern piece in roughly the same spot to compare the measurements.
Shoulder point to shoulder point
If you suspect that you might have narrow or broad shoulders, this is a useful measurement to know.
Feeling for the little sticky-out bone at the hinge of your shoulder (that's your shoulder point, and where your sleeve seam should be), measure right across from shoulder point to shoulder point. Half that measurement and compare it to your pattern - from centre front out to the edge of the shoulder seam - minus the seam allowance!
Again, you can find narrow and broad shoulder alterations, as well as the most common bodice fitting techniques you need to know in our Bodice Fitting Companion eBook.
Now that you've made a note of your measurements, you can now cross reference with the sizing chart on the back of most sewing patterns (or indeed RTW sizing charts). Pay extra attention to a pattern's 'finished measurements' section, as this will give you a better idea as to how a garment will measure up when finished. Some will be very form fitting, will little or no 'ease' (the amount of extra space allowed by a garment from the body itself), and therefore the finished measurements will be similar to the sizing chart. Or, in the case of patterns like our Jackie trousers, which has a lot of ease, the finished measurements are considerably bigger than those dictated by our sizing chart.
And that's all there is to it - the first step to handmade frocks that fit as good as they look!