What is a size break?

nested_bowlsIn Grading is not morphing, I tried to explain why you can’t grade an infant sized pattern up to adult sized. This is why you can’t take a “normal” pattern and make it larger to fit plus sizes either. I will try to explain the difference using bowls.

Bowls are functional in that they are shaped to hold contents just as patterns are shaped to fit people. The shapes and volumes of bowls can vary as much as the shapes and volumes of people. Grading a bowl to make it larger or smaller results in the set of white nesting bowls you see on the right. However, if you wanted a different shape of bowl, you would need an entirely different mold (pattern).

one_quart_bowlsNow compare these two one quart sized bowls. They hold the same contents but they are shaped very differently. You cannot make either of these bowls bigger or smaller (grading) to arrive at the shape of the other bowl. You can only modify the intrinsic shape of the bowls to duplicate the other -in other words, morphing. Grading the metal bowl to a larger or smaller size will not change its shape to match the shape of a one and half quart wooden bowl.

This also applies to pattern making. Let’s explain apparel grading in terms of children’s wear since it is less emotionally charged. The heads of infants are one quarter the length of their bodies. In adults, the head is approximately one eighth. If you were to attempt to grade an infant’s sized pattern to adult size, the result would be ridiculous because the infant size pattern proportions would be terribly misshapen “grown up” to adult size. You can download page 170 (pdf) from my book which has illustrations and more explanation.

Now, when people change proportion from one category to another -say infants to toddlers- the shape changing part (morphing), is managed with what we call a size break. A size break means we are starting from scratch to design for a new body that grows and shrinks according to a new shape. We will need an entirely different dress form, fit model and patterns to match them. Once we have designed a pattern to match the basic shape, then we can grow that size larger or smaller within its size category.

metal_bowl_size_breaksUsing bowls, here is an example. These bowls are very similar in size and even shape but the one on the right is much rounder. A size break -a new mold or pattern- will make the shape changes needed. Once the shape has been morphed or changed with a new pattern to reflect the size break, then each shape can be made bigger or smaller.

Let’s apply this to recent controversy. Consumers think it is a simple matter for manufacturers to grade an existing shape larger and it will fit them, that manufacturers have a lot of stupid reasons for failing to do so. The thing is, between “normal” and plus sizes (and even petites) there is a size break. The shapes of people in these populations change. If you are a plus size who has purchased a garment with gobs of fabric in the upper chest and shoulders, you know that just because you gain an extra 75 pounds doesn’t mean your shoulder line or sleeve length is appreciably different from someone your same height who weighs much less -and you have every reason to be annoyed or dissatisfied. If this has happened to you, it means it is possible or likely that the manufacturer took the easy way out and graded the “normal” size pattern larger instead of creating a whole new pattern for the size break. This is why plus sizes are managed with a size break to allow the shape to change in addition to being able to make it larger or smaller.

The other important thing to know about size breaks is that it requires a whole new division or label. Adding another label can be expensive as I explained before.

Most of the time, manufacturers stick to only one size category but there are a few exceptions. One is mens wear. Many producers will make the bulk of their line in “normal” sizes but will offer the most popular of their styles in Tall sizes. Each company does it differently but most companies will take the existing size medium and lengthen it about 2 inches but they don’t change any other dimensions. This tall size is then graded by itself, separate from the “normal” men’s sizes (although it is graded differently according to its own grade rules). The reason they can do this is because men tend to gain height and weight in more predictable proportions than women do (which is not to say there is not a huge hole in the market for taller women’s sizes).

Another example is children’s wear. It is very common for even a tiny company to offer infants, toddler’s and children’s sizes in one division or under one label. This has more to do with demand and expected sales than anything else. Unlike adult apparel in which the majority of sales come from an “average” body, sales of kids clothes remain constant across the spectrum because the supply of little kids is constantly being replenished. It makes sense for a manufacturer to want to keep a customer who has been faithfully buying their infant clothes, they want your purchases to grow along with your child and hope you’ll also buy their toddler’s apparel. There will always be a rough correlation of equal sales across all sizes in kids clothes. A childrenswear company will sell as many size 12 mo’s as they will size 4’s -crossing 2 size breaks- so it makes financial sense to invest in the costs of doing it. This is not true of adult’s apparel.

One final word about manufacturers failing to meet market demand with specific reference to plus sizes. You have to realize that manufacturers are people who are fallible and make judgments as questionable as your own. For example, consumers and businesses alike will spend more money to recoup a loss than they will to get a gain. We call this throwing good money after bad. Two psychologists won the Nobel Prize in Economics for explaining how and why it happens. In this context it means that manufacturers -just like you- will spend more money to regain the customer they once had than they will spend to go after a new (plus size) customer. I agree that this position can be crazy or counter productive; no surprise that it took two psychologists to figure this out. Like you, manufacturers are less likely to spend money to get a new gain. This means that as sizes shift to the larger end of the spectrum, they’re going to hold onto their piece of the “normal” market like a shipwreck survivor clings to floating debris until it splinters into a thousand pieces before they ever consider spending money to get a new gain.

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  1. It seems that sizing has become the topic of the week. There was an article today on Just-Style.com with 10 soundbites from the president of Alvainsight (a division of dress form maker Alvanon).

    Here are two of the soundbites. You can click the link at the end to get to the rest.

    “[Fit issues] inevitably come down to grading: the smaller customer and the body shape of the larger customer are different, and most people would agree with that, but yet they still grade their product the way people were taught in technical school.”

    “Grading products lineally makes the product the exact same shape in the smaller size as it is in the larger size – but what happens is you end up fitting a smaller percentage of people well.”


  2. dosfashioistas says:

    In your opinion, how many sizes can be reliably covered by grading before the technique breaks down and there really should be an adjustment for a new shape. Misses sizes, based on an 8 or 10, may be graded from 0 to 20 (11 sizes). I think it is stating the obvious that this large a grade would not work. In an ideal manufacturing world, what would?

    Could grading rules be written so that a size range like this would work? Could grade rules be written with a given shape change, much like the rules for making a missy pattern into a petite or tall?

  3. kathleen says:

    Sarah: Those questions are so good they excite me. Would anyone else be interested in the discussion? I’d hate to bury it in comments, could be another post but whatever would I title it?

  4. Lisa Brazus says:

    I am interested. I was just talking about this subject to someone today. She just purchased your book Kathleen. She is trying to develope some pieces to place in botiques and she is doing her own patterning and grading.

  5. Charles says:

    Just an awesome post. This is by far the best, most easily-understood explanation of this issue I’ve ever read.

  6. Penny says:

    Excellent post!

    It’s all very interesting and yes there is a limit as to how many sizes a grade rule can encompass before it becomes too distorted to where it no longer applies. In misses sizing, after size 14 the body shape /”morph” requires adjusting the pattern shape for a different fit. In particular, angle and balance of the shoulder seam is very different. Also the armhole shape, (and balance), neck opening shape and the proportions of the across shoulder to chest width are adjusted. You can, (and most companies do), grade from a size 4-16, but I find the size break and fit of the size 16 to be extremely poor. It really belongs with the plus size fit. As far as writing these morph adjustments into a grade rule to follow, well I guess it could be done however it is just easier to draft an entirely new pattern from scratch. It’s not the same as grading a tall or petite size extention, where you would most likely only be adjusting length proportions within different areas. It really is more of a total overhaul of the entire pattern and fit.

  7. Karen Judge says:

    Kathleen, thank you for explaining (again) that there is no conspiracy against producing apparel for the plus size market. To do it right requires thoughtful planning and a serious investment. A company that enters this market on a whim will have problems. I just wrapped up the intimate apparel tradeshow in NY, where I’ve been approached several times over the years by retailers of plus as to whether I could offer some of our sleepwear styles in plus sizes. I am very grateful for the patient encouragement of these retailers. What’s interesting is that the vitriol I’ve seem amongst the comments here have (fortunately) not existed in conversations I’ve had with people on the front lines–retailers who deal with plus size women every day.

    Anyway, the reason I still do not have a plus size product is that I do not have confidence that my current pattern maker can really create a proper plus size pattern for me. I am afraid I will just get a graded-larger version of a pattern I am currently using. You have done a good job of making the case that this is not the way to do it.

    So…we now know how NOT to develop a plus-size product. My question is WHO out there can I work with who CAN contract with me to create the patterns we want? At this point, that is the only thing holding us back.

  8. Barb Taylorr says:

    At my company we have developed grade rules that do morph the shape a bit bewteen sizes. It is subtle but has been very effective. In order to accomplish this I did fit tests on as many different people as I could get to volunteer, in all the sizes we offer. It was a fun and very challenging project that took a couple years to complete. Now I often hear the comment that our styles are flattering and comfortable to all body types. (In truth there will always be models who do not like the way things fits on them personally, but we satisfy a bigger market than we used to now.)

  9. Mimi says:

    I was just explaining this idea to a custom client. Bowls are a great way to explain it, but one thing I always find myself explaining is that there is no such thing as “your size”. If a person of average height has a 34″ bust and 38″ hips, we can make a reasonable guess for her waist measurement, and would likely be correct, within a range. If I tell you a person has a 49″ bust and 54″ hips, who knows what her waist measurement will be, or WHERE (on her body) it will be? It isn’t a sizing dilemma or a hole in the market by any means… it simply doesn’t exist. That is why the larger sizes often offer caftan-like options. No disrespect, they just can’t afford to guess, and hope the right client will come along.

  10. Ann Vong says:

    The example of the bowls is a great visual–the child to adult morph pdf as well!

    I am very interested in this subject and that some in industry do include some morph in their grading.

    It sounds like Barb used multiple fit models to establish complex grade rules.
    How do you choose fit models for this process?

  11. kathleen says:

    Barb, I’m not going to out who you work for but you know I’ve said your company is one of the best fitting wise. At least when it comes to jeans which is all I know of personally.

    Ann: I’ve been working on a fit model post because my existing fit model entries are collecting a lot of comments from people who are too short for runway modeling and think fit modeling is another way to attain their fashion modeling dream. It is very obvious that few bother to read the entry they’re commenting on which is why I don’t publish the comments. It is always “tell me what I want to know, tell me what I want to know, tell me what I want to know” and hang any other pesky details of what a fit model is or what their function is supposed to be -namely, why someone would want to hire them.

    The most recent one was the last straw -the girl was too thin (106 lbs, 5’7″) who wrote me complaining that the agency she signed with hadn’t gotten her even one booking in 3 months. Imagine that. Even after I wrote her personally and carefully explained why she had to be “average” (and the agency shouldn’t have led her to believe anything), she flippantly wrote me back and said she “believed in her dream” and “knew she could create a niche for herself”. ::::sigh::::

  12. Sabine says:

    Barb, I wish I could be a fly at your work for a few months. Either way, thank you for your post, it clarified some of my ideas that were kinda foggy in my head and that is always such an exciting thing for me. :)

  13. Sandy says:

    Oh this blog is getting more interesting by the day.
    I’m learing things I have never even thought about before and I love it.
    The model story, sigh.

  14. Marie-Christine says:

    Very good post Kathleen, the bowls are obviously a less-loaded object to explain topology with :-).

    But I still have a strong quibble with this concept that grading -cannot- work across many sizes. I think the problem is that grading has become ‘simplified’ into useless dribble, not that it’s impossible.

    Specifically, I’ve been using Burda patterns for something like 30 years. When I started, they used subtle grading, and their patterns were very easy to grade up or down drastically. The standard range is usually something like 36-44. I’ve personally taken these patterns and graded them up to a 60, or down to a 30, and not had to do a single alteration to the final product. In pants, even, which is usually more complex. Then, in the early 90s I think (I have a major emotional block about the exact timing), Burda decided to add seam allowances to their envelope patterns, and also changed their blocks, and bungled up their grading. Since then, they’ve been still better than the Big US 4, but nowhere near as good as they used to be. For instance, my same body. now has to go down FOUR sizes to keep the neck consistent, while I used to be totally standard.

    Among other idiocies, their patterns used to increase cup size as general size increased, while they now conform to the stupid thing of “B for everyone”. While you’re not likely to gain 6″ in breast when you gain 6″ in butt :-), still you’re not likely to change body type radically as you get larger, in that if you have significant breasts they’ll remain that way in proportion. A B cup is 2″ more than your rib cage, that’s significant in a slim woman, but barely anything in a large-size one. So you’d need to increase cup size as you enlarged even if your proportions stayed rigorously the same, just to keep up.

    And I recently found in an old-style magazine a page on how to convert a pattern to a taller/smaller size. They advocated adding/subtracting 7mm in length above the armhole, and 13mm in the torso. Current instructions for the same simply have you add 1cm at each spot. Now 3mm doesn’t seem like a whole lot of difference, and probably rounds to ‘close enough’ for most people. Not to mention that it’s much easier to remember 1cm everywhere. But if you’re talking about sideways measurements, and consider a 3mm rounding off for each size, obviously you’d run into trouble if you went down to a 30 (3 sizes= 1cm) or up to a 60 (8 sizes=2.4cm).

    While I haven’t really tested this tape measure in hand, I’m also almost certain that the old Burda used proportional ease http://fuzzygalore.biz/articles/ease.shtml which made grading much more accurate. A very small or very large person appeared to have the same amount of ease when wearing the clothes, which makes it necessary to be adjusting as you go.

    In short, I think the notion of not being able to grade gracefully between standard and plus sizes is more a matter of loss of skills rather than a real impossiblity. Sadly. But we have historical records, we could do better :-).

  15. Barb Taylorr says:

    To clarify: I use one paid fit model. All revisions of all styles are fit on her. Once I was satisfied with a style I ordered the size set. Sizes were fit on unpaid volunteers. (Luckily this is a big company & the ceo encouraged participation so I had a great pool of people try stuff on). On size fittings I was just checking for major comfort issues, confirming or denying my hunches about how the grade might be improved on the end sizes. If you gather enough data patterns emerge. This would be too time consuming to do in a regular production cycle. It was a one time project to improve the fit of our product.

  16. Dana says:

    Barb, I too have used this type of fit review process in my “employed” past when it was critical. Including occasionally adding a wear test element when the $$ stakes were high. You’re right that it is time consuming and expensive. However, any company that has fairly static design variations can use this process for select high volume bodies even if you are reviewing production inventory and making the modifications for a future season. You’re absolutely right that patterns emerge. The more you see your garments on real women the better, regardless of the size of your company.

    Now as a tiny company on my own, I’ve sought out retail sales venues intentionally so that I can see lots of women try on my stuff. It’s not scientific data, I can’t measure the women, do proper fittings, etc. but when you see 100+ women try on your clothes over a couple days, see how they shop, what they touch, what they look at, ask about… you learn volumes. Any of us can do that as one more piece for the data puzzle.

  17. Sandy says:

    Kathleen, I’m wondering if you also lathe bowls? The one you have pictured is a beauty. I had my hubby come in and look at it which started a conversation on how to do a segmented bowl. He is in his lathe shop now.

    I know you are not going to reveal who Barb works for, where the best fitting jeans are made, but I wonder if there is a good website or place which discusses this issue. Jeans are expensive RTW.


  18. Liz says:


    To repeat what others have already said…great post! You’ve made it so easy to understand with the bowls. Thank you!

  19. Sonia Levesque says:

    Plus size grading? Plus size grading! Yeah, I’ve been working with this in my made to measure endeavours, and it IS tricky…

    Burda (the magazine, with the patterns to trace – no seam allowances, you should check it out Marie-Christine!) DOES grade the 36-44 differently than the 44-54. The ease changes and certain areas like armholes, necklines and crotches don’t look “super weird” as do some styles that can be purchased in the big chains and box stores.
    I strongly recommend to check them out. Even if I myself have modified a few grading rules to match the proportions of my “super plus” clientele (over size 24)… Still they offer a great base.

    That said, one CANNOT design plus size clothes that will fit ALL FIGURE TYPES… unless they are of the caftan-drawstring-big-square-type-of-clothes (*shudder*). Do you feel sexy and at your best in those??? Emmm, non merci!

    When I had my little line, I created a style for a specific type of silhouette. You deal with it as a designer; you cannot please everyone. A designer should target a specific market. It’s easier for everyone! Clients know what you offer, you can refine your fit, you know

    I believe some designers want the whole planet to wear their clothes. Well, it’s not viable, and a whole lotta work to catch up with everyone… lol

    Thanks Kathleen for another cool post, and talking about all this in your book. Precious. *feels like gollum*

  20. Marie-Christine says:

    Sonia, yes size breaks in grading is the way Burda works -now-, but it isn’t the way it used to be. I mentioned the seam allowances in envelope patterns because they happened at the same time at the big US-market upheaval, not because I don’t know or use the magazines. If you can get your hands on a really old Burda magazine or patterns, you’ll see what I mean. Early 80s isn’t necessarily the best for examining fit issues though :-). But still, when Vogue would lengthen dropped sleeves on larger sizes so that you’d end up cutting off a foot in size 16, Burda did much better than that.

  21. kathleen says:

    Marie-Christine, I disagree. Burda is a german firm; their engineering has always been stellar. If their size range for given styles is 36-44 as you said, this is only 5 sizes (36, 38, 40, 42, 44) which is the optimal size range for a good grade. Sure there are size breaks -by absentia! Those would be 34 on the small end and 46 on the large end. They didn’t create those sizes because they’d need a whole new body -iow, a size break.

    Consumers are frequently frustrated that Burda’s size spread varies according to style. Some are 34-42, 36-44 or 38-46 etc. That’s because Burda has the integrity of matching given design details to fit the optimal body for that particular design. Not all details will translate well across the same size spread which is why their size range varies according to style. As much as it annoys customers who don’t understand why, it would be an engineering mistake to do anything else. Ideally this is what every producer should do (and some manufacturers do to a limited extent, they don’t cut the sizes the style doesn’t translate well to).

    It is also important to clarify a few things. Science has proven exactly the opposite of this:

    you’re not likely to gain 6″ in breast when you gain 6″ in butt …you’re not likely to change body type radically as you get larger, in that if you have significant breasts they’ll remain that way in proportion.

    You cannot assume a body does not change body type radically as it gets larger because that is precisely what happens. It may not be true for you but it is definitely true for me. At 18-20% BMI, my bust is at least 2″ larger than my hips. The skinnier I get, the more top heavy I am. However, the heavier I get, the more my hips spread. It is not coincidental that I have been so obsessed with body sizing for so many years. That bodies change so dramatically as they gain weight is the entire purpose of targeting a given body type within petite, regular and plus sizes. If what you said were true, then we’d all grade up the hips of garments 6″ in plus sizes and be done with it, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But it’s not true. Some women gain more in their busts, some in their trunks and waists, some disproportionately in their arms and still others in the hips. Even then you can’t assume that those who do gain in the hip also gain it in their thighs. Come to the Southwest region of the US, you’ll find tons of people with heavy hips and skinny legs.

    In short, I think the notion of not being able to grade gracefully between standard and plus sizes is more a matter of loss of skills rather than a real impossiblity. But we have historical records, we could do better

    I agree we have increasing skill deficits which contributes to fit degradation. However, historical records (sampling here, here and here) show that the need of plus sizes is unprecedented today. I would argue that plus size grading skills are in their relative infancy, we didn’t have much to go on from before because there was little marketable need to develop them. So it is less a matter of graceful skill loss than it is that we never before had the need to develop the skills. As such, we can’t have lost what we never had.

  22. First, simply illustrating Kathleen’s point of inappropriate grading.

    1a. basic body
    1b. “bowl graded” – slightly more around torso, but still increasing shoulders
    1c. same, but dropping incremental bodies
    1d. same end result, but scaled vertically as well as horizontally

    The next set shows a more reasonable shift when weight is gained. The breasts are slightly lower (they’re usually a LOT lower).

    Lower right: this woman has been the apple on a stick for a long time. I was startled to see in an old video to see how wide her shoulders were. When she currently buys tops big enough for her bust and stomach, the shoulder seams STILL ride at her biceps!

    Lastly, a comment on bowls. It’s possible to buy sets that increase circumference without height. I’m going with the children’s clothing model here, that you keep the loyal clientele you’ve built up as they change shape (growing out rather than up). True, there may be many, many more potential buyers in the taller-as-well-as-heavier crowd, but the problem with “go to another line” is that there aren’t a number to choose from.

    In a discussion elsewhere, we’ve been looking at large bras – bras for large women, bras for large (unaugmented) breasts, bras for large women with large breasts. There are companies that make them (we’ve research about sixty versions), but they’re badly designed, or so sloppily engineered that they don’t continue to provide support after an hour or so’s wear. So, to tie this back, just because someone might make the size you want doesn’t mean they have a clue about your preference for style, color, fabric – or workable fit.

    Various drawings

  23. errihu says:

    I’ve seen what happens when you just increase the size of the pattern without accounting for shape differences. You end up with Ladies 6X underwear with a foot across the crotch. Women who wear 6X underwear definitely do not have an extra foot of space across the crotch!

  24. Naomi Reyes says:

    Kathleen: On Burda’s limited size spreads — I’ve often dreamed of doing this for my customers, producing certain styles in only certain size ranges (or very similar styles with slight changes in detail proportion and fit for different body types, like #5011 is for busty customers, #5012 is for hippy customers), but I’ve wondered how well it would be received by the customer, or even buyers. If sewing customers have a hard time accepting it, how will my layperson customer entertain the idea?

    Carol: Your illustrations and design aids on flickr look super appealing. I’ve seen your work on the forum. Such a needed tool!

    Barb and Penny: I love reading your comments. That is all. :)

    • Sarah Turnbull says:

      Hello Naomi,

      I’m a customer and I would *love* to buy a style designed and marketed for busty customers! I’ve held back from trying the companies that offer this (e.g. Pepperberry, Biu Biu) for various reasons. One being that I’m in Australia (high shipping costs, hard to organise returns), the other being that the styles and fabric don’t appeal to me (thin jersey, or thick man-made fabric that makes me feel sweaty just looking at it!). They seem to be successful (or at least still in business).

      The style needn’t be anything complicated – I’d just like a plain jersey top with 3/4 or long sleeves that was cut to fit a larger bust, offered in a few neutral colours, in a medium weight fabric.

      In terms of being hippy, I have had one pair of jeans in recent years that fit me in the hip and the waist – Levi’s bold curve. Again I loved the idea as a customer but I guess I was in the minority because they went out of production.

      I know indie pattern designers are a tiny market segment, but Sewaholic Patterns, designed for pear-shape figures, seem to be doing well. It seems to be a case of people designing to suit their own body type. If someone started selling well-drafted sewing patterns for D cup wardrobe classics, I would snap them up.

      Cheers, Sarah

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