Friday, August 24, 2012

Brilliant basics: sizing

It's naptime here on Granny Lane, so while Nicole is sleeping, I'd like to talk about something I see people frequently asking questions about on the 'net--pattern sizes.

Pattern sizing and RTW sizing aren't related.  I can see the skeptical looks now, but it's true.  Just because they're in 24 month clothing doesn't mean they're in pattern size 2, and it does not equate to 2T.  The same follows for pretty much every pattern size!  For example, my sister, Sarah, is a size 4 in RTW, but a size 8 in patterns.  Grace is in 5T and starting to get into 6 in RTW, but she's a pattern 3 on the cusp of getting into 4s.  Ready-to-wear sizing differs by company and while to a certain extent, this is true in pattern sizing, due to the fact that patterns are all about measurements, it's slightly closer to universal. The Big 4 patterns are fairly standardized, and many independent companies use the same system for convenience. 

Last year, Oliver + S released measurement charts.  (Available for free download here.)  I'm only posting these because they do show some basic measurements--but I find them incomplete.  Especially if you're using a vintage pattern.

My first vintage pattern had me laughing at the instructions.  Grace was barely 2 at the time, and hated being measured.  And they recommended a tissue fitting.  Riiight.  Like that's gonna happen!  At that age, measuring her usually involved tantrums.  Nicole is better about it, but that's because I learned from Gracie and started measuring her when she was tiny, so she's used to it! Another common instruction is "fit the sleeve to the child's arm" because in vintage at least, cuffs were meant to be custom cut and often don't have a separate pattern piece.

Let's talk about what these charts have listed.  We'll skip the name, though if you have more than one kid, it probably needs labeled! ;)  Height isn't really useful.  Instead of height, I'd recommend measuring the child's torso--that is, neck to crotch, neck to knee, and neck to ankleChest, waist, hip, outseam, and inseam are all useful, as is arm length.  However, if you're doing short sleeves, you also need shoulder to elbow and if you want to make sure that it fits in the shoulders, you need neck to shoulder, and shoulder to shoulder.  To be thorough, you need the front and the back because as kids grow, their back gets a bit bigger than the front.  It's why "child" patterns are an inch or so bigger in back than they are in front.   For babies, weight is useful, because like RTW, sizing is all done by weight.  However, that doesn't mean that you don't need measurements for them, too!  Because of elastic, you'll need an upper thigh measurement, a waist measurement, and an upper arm measurement.  If it's long sleeved, you also need a wrist measurement and if you're making a hat, a head measurement as well!

It all depends on what you're making.  For shorts and skirts, it's incredibly useful (and necessary) to know waist to knee (or hip to knee depending on where your child wears it.)   Neck is a good measurement to have too, especially if you're sewing vintage!  Shoes size, well, if you're making slippers, I suppose it's good to know, but for the most part, unnecessary. 

What to look for in pattern measurements

Most patterns have finished measurements on the envelope.  These are very important for length!  You have to know how long something is going to be to know if it's too long or too short for your intended recipient.  I tend to follow the carpenter's rule--measure twice and cut once!   

In vintage patterns, dresses were short.  Right now, Grace needs a minimum of 16 inches in a shirt.  Sixteen inches hits somewhere around her hip, which leaves a little bit of growth space.  Most vintage patterns in her size have a finished length of 17 inches.  Which means that if I made it without alteration, everybody would be able to see which pair of My Little Pony panties she wore that day!  Pattern alteration, however, is a topic for another day. 

If you're using an independent pattern company, the sizing may differ from Big 4 sizing.  That means that you might need to measure the pattern itself to make sure of fit.  For say, bodices and shirts, you measure the widest point and then subtract the seam allowances and 2" for wearing ease. Do it for the front and back, add them together, and you have a general idea if it'll fit.  While not perfect, it's your best bet for guessing sizes!  I would also recommend measuring shoulder seams and comparing them to shoulder measurement just in case they need adjustment, and to check things like cuffs and collars.  The shoulder seam measurement is something I do with Big 4 patterns, too. 

Grace won't wear clothing from vintage patterns unless I adjust the neck holes.  As time has passed, necklines on children's clothing has gotten to be looser instead of right up against the neck.  I think it must feel like it's choking her, because she'll tell you the whole thing is too tight if the neckline isn't adjusted. 

As a seamstress/sewist the first rule is to ignore everything you know about RTW sizing because chances are if you make a pattern in the same size as RTW, the wearer will drown in fabric!  Pattern sizing doesn't correlate with age, either--Nicole measures a size 1/2 (that's six months!) in patterns and she's almost 16 months old.  Gracie was in pattern 2s until she was 3 1/2, and it's looking like she'll stay in 3s until she's 4 1/2!  In short, it's the measurements that matter if you want your hard work to actually be useful clothing.


  1. I had to laugh when you mentioned fitting a tissue to a toddler...HA! I tried measuring my daughter last year when she was 21/22 months old - when I was ready to start making dresses for her and I think it took me two days to eventually get all the measurements I needed at the time. I'm about to embark on making a heavy winter coat for her...and need to take new measurements. She's 2.5 years old now and she likes to use my tape measure to measure things because she sees me doing it - so hopefully she'll have a bit more patience this time!

    The Oliver+S charts are super cute - but they do seem a little lacking in the amount of measurements needed. I've been planning on making my own measurement charts based on the measurement recommendations in some of my old 30's sewing books, which seem a lot more thorough than today. Maybe I'll do the same for Lily :)

    1. That was my reaction, too. My second thought was that whoever wrote the instructions 1) doesn't have children and 2) doesn't know any and has completely blocked out their own childhood! Most vintage patterns have that instruction, though, as well as the "fit the sleeve to the child's arm". Sooo unhelpful! Bribery helps. Offer candy for measurements. But she has to let you take all of 'em before she gets the sweetie. Telling her that you need to see how big she's gotten works with Grace, too.

      I have a notebook that I write the date and kid's name in and then make a list on the page before I start measuring. Nikki doesn't have as much patience for it as Gracie does, but with time....