Lowering pattern costs in bra cup sized lines

Back when I wrote the entry If I were to produce a line, one of the criticisms of visitors was that my size range was too narrow. I had said I would cut 32 A/B, 32 C/D, 34 A/B, 34 C/D, 36 B and 36 C/D. Other than that I have rethought the sizing which I’ll get to in a minute, I find that I didn’t explain the factors of cost in the pattern making process (in that entry) as being the reason for the limits on sizing. In the interim, a lot of people have used that entry for guidelines so I really should explain the real costs of cutting for cup sizes.

First the rethinking of my sizing: I agree it’s dopey to cut A/B and C/D. In reality, the A/B would have to be a B cup and the C/D would have to be a D cup and is no different than the fit limitations of unisex sizing which I dislike (so consider me properly chastised). If I were to produce this line, I would cut in cup sizes of C and D, not C/D combined. That is still limiting, now I will explain why.

It is much costlier in the pattern process to cut different cup sizes, you need an entirely new pattern for each cup size. This is because grading is not morphing. By morphing, I mean shape changing. Grading can only make an existing shape larger or smaller. Cutting for a different cup size is morphing.

Each row represents a new pattern.
Each column represents an additional grade of the existing pattern on that row.

Pattern Cup Base size
1 C 32 34 36
2 D 32 34 36

So, if you wanted one particular style in two cup sizes, you would need to have two separate patterns made, one for each cup size. Then you have to have each pattern graded for sizes 32, 34, 36 for each cup size. So, to put out a given style in various cup sizes, you’d need twice (or more) as many patterns for the “same” style. Summary: there was a reason why the sizes of the line I described were so limited. Your costs are much higher than someone who’s not sizing their products for cup sizes.

Obviously your second or subsequent patterns for the various cup sizes won’t take as long to develop amounting to a bust adjustment on your base size (the median size of the size range) but the costs are still greater than someone who’s using basic sizing (2, 4, 6, 8 etc).

Pattern Cup Base size
1 C 32 34 36 38
2 D 32 34 36 38
3 DD 32 34 36 38

It costs less in pattern development to expand the range of sizes by column than by each row. Below is a crude estimation of how your costs would work.

Pattern & Cup Grade 32 Grade 34


Grade 36 Grade 38 Total grade cost Pattern Cost


Total per cup
#1 C $15 -0- $15 $15 $45 $200 $245
#2 D $15 -0- $15 $15 $45 $200 $245
#3 DD $15 -0- $15 $15 $45 $200 $245


Your total pattern costs would be $200 per cup size ($600 C-DD) plus $45 per cup size to grade each. If you needed to keep expenses low at the outset, you should add more sizes by column, not by row. Each size/column you add will only cost you the theoretical $15 more but each row (cup size) will add $200 plus the requisite grading. This chart illustrates that cutting one “identical style” pattern in three cup sizes with four sizes per cup, would cost a total of $735. That is three times the cost of someone cutting in regular sizes (no cup sizes). As you can also see, the price of grading is quite low, seductively low which is why people think they can just grade the cup sizes in there from one pattern but it will not work.

The other reason cutting for cup sizes is costly is making minimums and style management. If I need to remind you, I am a pattern maker and could cut all these patterns and save myself the money of hiring it out. So, if I’m limiting the cup size ranges, there’s good reason for it, namely more hassle and more costs. If you have a normally sized line, you take orders based on sizes (6, 8, 10 for example) and figure out your cut. Maybe you have ten of each size, no biggie, you can get a marker made for a small run like that. However, if you are running cup sizes, and all things remaining equal (as compared to another designer), your orders per size will be lower. It will be more difficult to hit economies of scale. Sure, you might get ten orders for a 32 ( a size 2 or 4) but that will be spread over three cup sizes. If you only get 3 of each size/cup ordered (to make the math easy), the most fabric plies your marker can have is three. That’s not going to be very cost effective although it can be done particularly if you’re the one doing it. Add to that the cost of managing those cut pieces so each unit stays together. Then there’s the matter of three times as many sizing labels and hangtags. All told, this can be quite complex for a start up to manage. Anyway, knowing all I do and in spite of knowing how to do it, is why I limited my sizing to just two cup sizes. Even so, two cup sizes will double my product development costs. Starting with only two cup sizes at the outset is the only recommendation I would be comfortable in making to a startup owner/operator. As you become increasingly experienced and your accounts increase, add on other cup sizes as you feel competent to manage them.

Considering all the above, would you think it wise for a start up to start with 4 or 5 cup sizes? Probably not. The start up costs will be four or five times more than the costs of regular sizing. I completely understand why people want to do it. They’re trying to optimize their chances in the market because they must compete for sales on the basis of more highly defined sizing and styling.

If cutting for cup sizes were as (relatively) easy and low cost as it is for comparable products and sizing, more people would be doing it. Anyone who manages it certainly gets my respect.

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  1. oah says:

    Kathleen, I was reminded today of how I found your website. It was your photo of the hinged grading ruler I had been looking for. I used to have one years ago which I am sure I bought either at FIDM or LATTC along with a book. I lent them out never to see them again.
    Have you found a source for it? I did try your information on the original maker, but like you couldn’t come up with anything.
    It was such a great ruler and I have been thinking of trying to print the photo on a transparency. Better yet I wish someone would try and make it again. Hint, hint.
    One of my students, who has bought your book, has been trying her hand at grading so this ruler came up again. Oriole

  2. Natasha says:

    El Camino College’s bookstore has a few left from way back when. They never offer the grading class anymore but still have the leftover supplies

  3. kathleen says:

    Natasha, really? I thought we were friends. You could have just told me so I could have cornered the market on those. Heh. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind another back up just in case mine gets lost.

    Oriole, FIDM is now selling a version of the ruler but I do not like it. It’s this thick hard plastic thing, shiny, so you can catch glare on it when you’re working and have to reposition yourself to see through it and make the moves. Does anybody know the name of the material of the original? Mylar possibly? It’s a thin plastic sheeting, matte finish, you can easily see through it but it’s not clear, more opaque-like.

  4. Natasha says:

    I didn’t realize they were important. They just looks dusty. El Camino’s bookstore will ship. If not I’ll be on campus in a few weeks

  5. dosfashionistas says:

    At one time I tried to work out in my head a way to make the pattern to the largest cup size and have set corrections to the pattern for the smaller cup sizes. My idea was to have a pattern for cutting the smaller sizes down. In a lean manufacturing setting, have all tops cut to the larger cup size and individual orders trimmed to fit. If you had a formula for fit, it would be less pattern work than grading each cup size, much less. And it would solve the cutting problem also. I’m sure there are all kinds of holes in my idea, but it might work for a tailored shirt that was not a tight fit. Please note also that I was planning to do this with plus sizes, where I would be going from big to really big rather than from small to big.

  6. Carol Kimball says:

    Excellent explanation, Kathleen.

    May we have a post/discussion following this on how to deal with production schedules, inventory management, how to promote, etc. on lines that provide a greater assortment of “the same” garment?

    Or would it be smarter to have slight changes in the different cup size designs, as you’re having to rework the patterns anyway? Customers would scream, “but I want the “B” design in my “D” blouse, but if whatever the “D” one is FITS…

  7. Dawn B says:

    As always, another very informative post. Thank you!

    I like Carol’s point. Not only is the narrow sizing/pattern range important to preserve sanity, but if you offer styling variations its best to offer them across the board. Everyone will want the style that doesn’t come in their size.

    [I don’t know what it says about me that I often wish the prints offered for little girls came in my size]

  8. carissa says:

    Yes, those sizes are quite intimidating. Companies out there doing bra-sized shirts or shirts for girls with a full bust are producing 27 sizes, which scares me as a start-up. We went with seven sizes, knowing that we can adjust if necessary.

    Cup sizes are so varied across manufacturers & styles that we avoid them and instead just go with measurement in inches.

  9. Cymru Llewes says:

    This reminds me that I’ve been looking at making my own bras because I’m tired of wearing shelf bra camisoles. I had my husband measure me and my chest size was 32″ and over my breasts was 38″. That was wearing a bra that makes me look like I want. The bra is a 36C. What happened to the woman in Toronto (I think) who was doing workshops on bra creation?

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