Arrow Fat Left Icon Arrow Fat Right Icon Arrow Right Icon Cart Icon Close Circle Icon Expand Arrows Icon Facebook Icon Instagram Icon Pinterest Icon Twitter Icon translation missing: en.general.icons.vimeo Icon Youtube Icon Hamburger Icon Information Icon Down Arrow Icon Mail Icon Mini Cart Icon Person Icon Ruler Icon Search Icon Shirt Icon Triangle Icon Bag Icon Play Video
How to take your measurements

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 boyfriend's/husband's/dad's/DIY-obsessed-BFF's 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...

Full Bust

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.

High Bust

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.

Waist

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. 

Hips

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.

Bicep

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!

Comments on this post (6)

  • Mar 11, 2020

    Hi Caitlin, thank you for bringing this to our attention – yes, this post was indeed written a good five years ago, but times have changed (for the better!) and we totally agree that that kind of language does not inspire body positivity. We have now deleted that sentence from this post.

    Thank you!
    Elisalex xxx

    — Elisalex - By Hand London

  • Mar 11, 2020

    I wonder if you would consider omitting:

    “We definitely advocate sucking in a little if it means we can shave half an inch or so off our waistlines!”

    This has a potentially harmful undertone of body shaming and fatphobia. I realize this post was written several years ago, but the sewing community has become one where so many people come to get to know their bodies and seek acceptance with what they find. Shouldn’t we make that process easier where we can?

    — Caitlin

  • Feb 05, 2019

    BTW – I can’t imagine that modelling for your photographer would have taken too much bravery by your beautiful lemon bikini clad Victoria as she has a truly gorgeous figure & lovely skin to show off for this article…! Oh to have those days back again – Hmmm … maybe not, as I wouldn’t have had all the incredible, but not always pleasant, experiences that life has sent to me … I think that at 66 each wrinkle & stretch mark are the scars from the many war wounds (or perhaps medals?) that I’ve gained from some difficult periods battles that we all experience during our lives, some just had skirmishes, while others of us seemed to be at the front battle lines of world wars of life. I now contentedly & without guilt, admit that the ‘rounded’ areas are the result of all the chocolate that I’ve used to ‘self medicate’ when needed (or just plain ‘wanted’ lol) to assist me to come out the other side of those battles! Although I occasionally wistfully admire those with their lovely figures & still fresh faces, I’m not ashamed of my size 16 now either. Who knows, I may even manage to reduce my intake of chocolate, which I admit has been my Waterloo for the last three years or so since I discovered just how much I adore quality dark chocolate (& of course we all know that dark chocolate is good for us … I’ve just not managed to find the line marked ‘moderation’ …yet! 2019 here we come … & now with a far better insight into pattern measurements & how we can ‘manipulate’ them so that they actually look as though they were quite literally ‘made for us’! . Thanks for listening to my blurb, but I had to comment on your lovely model … & well, once again, moderation eluded me. (maybe the heat has finally cooked my brain!)! :) Cheers … again …. Wendy.

    — Wendy Maxwell

  • Feb 05, 2019

    Thank you SO very much to both you, Marsha Gibson and to you, Elisalex – By Hand London! That was an excellent question and one that I’m sure that I wouldn’t have thought to ask … maybe because I haven’t sewn any clothing for many years, and even then, I was a ‘perfect 10’ according to all of the patterns, so I never had to consider having to alter something to fit me properly. Unfortunately, as the years have passed by, so has my ‘perfect 10’ figure! :) I’m sure that I will now be altering patterns thanks to an increased bust measurement, as well as a ‘more rounded’/‘curvier’ tummy!
    I loved how you answered the question Elisalex as I doubt that I will have any problems working out how to upscale any patterns that need it before I begin cutting out my fabric! I’’’m sure that I’m not the only person who you will have saved frustration, cutting out too skimpy fabric by blindly but faithfully following the pattern to then discover that the item is too small (in may case) or too big in others. It’s not too difficult to take in an outfit that is a little too big, but it’s not so easy to let something out if the fabric was cut to suit that smaller figure.
    Once again, I thank you both very much for your thoughtful question & for the equally well thought out response! I’ll certainly be signing up for email updates from this site in future!. Kind.regards, Wendy M. suffering in a VERY hot summer here in the sub-tropics in Oz! I may whine for about 2 to 3 weeks in January, but for the rest of the year the climate is perfect for me, especially as I know what ‘cold’ can be like in the UK after having lived there for 5 years! :)

    — Wendy Maxwell

  • Mar 18, 2014

    Hi Marsha, we draft our patterns to a B cup – which is not necessarily the same as a B cup in bra sizes… If your high bust measurement is 2" less than your full bust, then you would fall into a B cup in dressmaking terms. For every inch extra difference between your full bust and high bust, you would go up or down a cup size. For example, if your high bust is 3" less than your full bust, you would be a C cup; and if your high bust is 1" less than your full bust, you would be an A cup. Hope this helps! x

    — Elisalex - By Hand London

  • Mar 15, 2014

    What cup size do you use when drafting your patterns?

    Many thanks!

    M <

    — Marsha Gibson

Leave a comment