Why larger sizes cost more or Size is nothing but a number

Inspired by a recent comment:

Please explain to me why lines that sell the exact same clothes in a 6 to a 20 charge more for the 16-20. In my example it is the exact same style and brand (pinup style clothing which tend to fit plus sizes well). PLEASE help me understand as I find it entirely perplexing!

The answer to this question may seem intuitive but the context is that she read Why existing manufacturers don’t add plus sizes in which we said the costs of adding on a plus size line were considerable, on the order of adding another division. Since the manufacturer she mentions already tacks on larger sizes to the standard sizes they offer, I can see she has a point.

It goes without saying that Lisa is new in these parts because she has not learned I cannot tell you the time without also explaining how to build the clock. Thus opens this discussion circuitously in which I explain that size is nothing but a number. 

Costing and pricing is based in part on fabric use. Because costing is so complex, it is not possible to cost per size. The costs of a size medium is used as an average to determine the cost of each unit produced. Some sizes are a little smaller and use less fabric and some sizes are a little larger and those use more, so it works out more or less. Consider:

  • Sizing in a line is based off the medium.
  • A medium is not a standard or a set of unchanging dimensions.
  • A medium is the midpoint of the range of sizes a manufacturer produces.
  • The medium is the average size sold. More mediums are sold than any other size.

Which explains why the measures of a medium are constantly evolving. If a manufacturer is selling more larges than mediums, it means their medium is too small. The large becomes the medium and the other sizes are adjusted accordingly.

In short, the size medium is determined by financial constraints rather than opinions of various individuals as to what they think a medium is or should be. Otherwise, the company goes out of business.

I realize some might think that one could use the large for costing instead of the medium but it doesn’t work for reasons I regretfully must omit at this time but for which you will or should thank me.

Here is the costing breakdown with respect to fabric use. Imagine if  you will, that all of the pattern pieces for the various sizes are laid out (we call this a “marker”) on the fabric. In the example below, I’m showing the pieces for sizes 6-14 which is what Lisa asked about.


If you notice, the size 10 (the medium) fits evenly. This is not because medium size patterns are specifically cut to fit fabric width this precisely only that the size 10 is the basis for costing, the zero point as it were. Costing wise, the 10 or medium is the average. Off to the right of the size 10, we have a size 12 and a size 8. Cost and fabric wise, the 12 costs +1 over the size 10 but the size 8 costs -1 so these two sizes average out to a ten. Off to the right of 8 & 12, we have the size 14 and the size 6. Again, the costs of size 14 are +2 over a size 10 but the size 6 is -2 as compared to the size 10. I really hope you all are following me.

You may also notice there are 2 mediums cut for 1 of every other size. This is also typical but not quite. Usually the order ratio is roughly 1-2-3-2-1 -or should be because this marks the distribution curve in the same way that the average IQ is 100. It is always 100 (IQ is also not static in the same way sizes aren’t). Anyway, if one’s sizing distribution doesn’t follow this bell curve, that means a whole lot of other stuff I’ve also written about (sizing analysis) and needs to be fixed. In other words:

    1 size 6 (or XS)
    2 size 8 (or S)
    3 size 10 (or M)
    2 size 12 (or L)
    1 size 14 (or XL)

Now I’ll return to Lisa’s question, why do the larger sizes cost more? Well, below is the fabric costing for those sizes. As the necessary point of comparison, I’ve included the size medium too (larger version of the image).
The point being that the size 16-20 do not fit neatly into the marker, accordingly there is waste and so the costs for those sizes are higher. Which brings me to another point.

A lot of women are upset that larger sizes in styles they like are not available. They say that the manufacturer should drop some of the smaller sizes and cut larger ones instead. Sure, that could happen but then we run into increasing the costs as the image above shows. This is the point, in order to cut larger sizes, you need smaller sizes on the opposite end of the spectrum in order to reduce fabric waste and thus cost.

Below is another marker I made showing sizes 0-20 (larger version)


The end result of this long drawn out explanation is that large sizes for which there is no correspondingly smaller size (to take up the waste left behind) will be more costly. The summary is that for this manufacturer to produce sizes 16-20 at no additional cost, they must also produce sizes 0-4. They probably don’t produce those sizes because that’s not their customer.

Even if a manufacturer does produce sizes 0-20, difficult decisions remain. You can’t cut a 20 without a 0 so the question becomes, which of those two sizes are the bigger driver and is it worth cutting extras of the opposite size for which there is no demand?

Let’s imagine you have 100 buys for the size 20 but only 50 buys for the size 0. You can’t keep costs down by overproducing 50 size 0’s so there will only be 50 size 20’s cut to match the order of the size 0’s. Now let’s explore the opposite situation. There are 100 buys for the 0 but only 50 for the size 20 -what happens? Call it discrimination all you will but all of the size 0’s will be cut because the extra size 0’s can fit in the space of the size 20. The amount of waste incurred by cutting size 0’s is less than the waste incurred by cutting size 20’s for which there is no size 0 to pair it with. In real life, one can cut 3 size 0’s for every 2 size 20’s so there is not as much waste as one would think. So again, it’s not discrimination against overweight people. It’s purely a matter of reducing waste and keeping costs as low as possible.

In truth, sizes are better described as medium plus or minus which is why size is literally an arbitrary number with very little meaning attached to it at all beyond sizing commensurate to other brands one hangs with on the same rack because customers become angry if there is too much size disparity between a 10 of Brand A and a 10 of Brand B. Sizes could be described more accurately like this:

  • Medium -2
  • Medium -1
  • Medium -0-
  • Medium +1
  • Medium +2

[This is theoretical, no professional pattern grader I know recommends a size range of 0-20 without some tweaking of size breaks but I omit that discussion as well in the interests of brevity.]

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  1. Paula Hudson says:

    I got into this discussion about a friend who is doing a T-shirt to promote her business and her passion is weight discrimination. People were taking her to task first that the shirt was only available in something like a 2x (maybe 3? I can’t remember), and those larger sizes were upcharged. No matter how much I have a personal wish for beautiful clothing in larger sizes, I really do get it why it costs more, from the absolute get-go of fabric allocation. People don’t even remotely consider something like folding, or shipping. I don’t take it personally. It’s a business decision, not a personal attack!

    And I love how everyone (myself being guilty) on being so sure what a business “should” do! I have to take my own anti-hubris pills every so often…

    The graphics are great, though. Thank you, as always! Such a great way to get the point across.

  2. Kathleen says:

    I can’t fix this right now but the last sentence should read:
    [This is theoretical, no professional pattern grader I know recommends a size range of 0-20 without some tweaking of size breaks but I omit that discussion as well in the interests of brevity.]

  3. MandySA says:

    Interestingly there was a court case in the UK a few years ago where a consumer won her case: she challenged being charged a higher price for a larger size. I don’t know what happened after that: having read your explanation I suspect the retailer may have appealed the decision and won. Thanks for the clear explanation.

  4. Sahara says:

    Wow. This is a better explanation of the breakdown and reasoning than I received in a manufacturing workshop. I had an intuitive understanding of marker and waste, but this will enable me to explain a “business” decision to plus size women. It will also help me explain the use of cheaper fabrics in plus size, to keep cost down.

    In full fashion knitting, this isn’t as much of a problem due to the lack of waste–pieces are knit to the measure. But yarn yardage is. And certain design details (yarn types, stitch patterns, engineered striping), just doesn’t look as good on a 20 as on a 10.

  5. Bente says:

    Very interesting post. But it is still quite theoretical.
    It explains about the bigger sizes fabric use versus smaller sizes which was the main issue here, but there are for sure other factors that would interfere in the marker/cutting process.
    I feel there are so much more to it and that I don’t understand even half (not a pattern-maker; just trying to understand the cost process). From my poor knowledge about cutting/markers I would think that the graphs would be different if you width of fabric was less and also if the grain line is vertical. I just don’t get the logic.
    I have worked with several manufacturers in Europe. Some are strict about the order ratio and others let me do whatever I ask for (that should make the items more expensive in production-and I am sure I pay that extra without knowing as they do full package)

    In children’s manufacturing some brands would add $2 on the bigger sizes if they have a wide size range. Say from T2-6+ one price and from 8-14 +$2.

  6. Not at all theoretical, Bente. It would be clearer if Kathleen had shown some actual markers, but we’re lucky to get the time she puts into what she posts.

    There are a lot of (justified) hidden costs in a full package. If what you ask for has a lot of wastage, but you’re willing to pay for it, then there’s no problem. That brings us back to lean manufacturing where everyone involved at least understands what’s going on. The best way to keep your price points competitive is to use your allotted time and labor wisely.

    If you’ve been working with a children’s line, then remember that a range of sizes of little pieces are easier and more efficient to fit on whatever your standard width of fabric is, than big ones.

  7. Jay Arbetman says:

    The other way that size scale can be reworked to accommodate demand requirements is with single size markers. (or did I miss something here)

    Just as an aside, some fabrics lend themselves to smaller sizes and others are more versatile. One of the most distinct problems that large size clothing departments suffer from is the lack of an appropriate sized hanger and possibly rack height.

    Also, large size customers tend to like fabric with a softer surface. Thus, a stiff melton fabric may work for a missy customer but a plush fabric may be more desirable to the large size customer.

  8. Tina says:

    This is a great post! And it clearly illustrates why we need to pay attention in our math classes. My degree is in math, so this entry totally appealed to my geek side. :)
    Anyway – now I understand why in mens shirts, the 1x, 2x, etc are usually more money. (My husband is a 2x, and I had always wondered about that).

  9. Renee says:

    This is why I always ended up cutting more 1Ts than I needed; to balance out the size 5s. Of course, since there are as many children in the US who fit the size 1 as the size 5 and they even use more diapers, I actually view the surplus 1Ts as a marketing opportunity. Life can be so interesting when you’re the manufacturer and the retailer…

  10. Quincunx says:

    Even now, the word “medium” is proving as slippery and ambiguous as the word “level”. Thank goodness the nice graphs of total fabric area make the point without ever, not even once, using That Misleading Word.

  11. Bente says:

    I think I got it! Oh so slow..I am so sorry I waisted your time!
    When you do your marker you fill in the ratio of sizes so it fits each layer to cut, meaning you have the pattern pieces doubled and tripled for some sizes according to the ratio.
    I can see I have been spoiled rotten with full package production for more than a decade LOL.
    Thanks for the lesson of today!

  12. Grace says:

    Great post, Kathleen. I accidentally learned the offset trick when I cut knit pants for both myself and my 10 yo out of the same fabric. It was so efficient.

    BTW, IQ doesn’t fit a bell curve. You can’t get lower than 0, but you can get higher than 200. ;-)

    It’s more of a power law relationship.

    This is good news because we need all the smart people we can get, yourself included.

    Thanks again for fighting the good fight.

  13. Carrie says:

    This is so interesting to read right now. . . I literally have pattern pieces lying all around and a spreadsheet with widths and grade rules to see what sizes get us into trouble. Because we’re doing made-to-order, our sizing/cost problem is slightly different. I’ll try to explain (with apologies off the bat that I don’t have Kathleen’s gift for clear articulation!): there are many pieces in our patterns that nest side-by-side quite well. However, at some size, these pieces no longer nest side-by-side and must be laid end-to-end. As some of these pieces are quite long, having to lay a piece end-to-end means adding something on the order of another yard of silk per garment (ouch).

    Aside from the cost implications, we found that some pieces were so wide (those that included trains on dresses) that it would be impossible to grade up normally beyond a given size. One thing we’re considering on those is “tweaking” the grading a bit so that the pattern doesn’t increase evenly in width beyond our size 12 (this would yield a slightly shorter, less full train for each size above our 12, but would at least allow us to offer the larger sizes). Other than that the options are to not offer the larger sizes or change the pattern for all the sizes (which would then mean a less attractive product- in my opinion- and a higher cost for everyone due to the increase in sewing).

    I never considered any of these factors before. . . it would be very interesting if this kind of thing were better explained to consumers (and naive DEs!).

  14. Russell says:

    As a fashion designer and now a technical designer that has worked with factories all over the world for the last 35 years, you should also note that in time studies it takes longer to sew, press and finish larger sizes. Plus there is more thread used in these larger sizes, not to mention the extra yardage for interlinings, fusibles and additional trimmings. Every little piece in the making of every garment is added up when you sit down with the costing engineers. It is fascinating to watch them work up the price. We sometimes only think of the additional cost of fabric and not the other items and labor that go into making a garment.

    It is a slow process to get companies to buy additional larger sizes. However, as more research is done in consumer studies and marketing, many companies are adding additional larger sizes to their size ratio in their buys. The average size consumer now in the USA is a 14/16 depending on the brand. But, the interesting fact is that in all of the companies I have worked for (many major main stream brands) the sampling and fitting is done on a size small. Of course today’s size small is what back in the 70’s was a size medium–but that is another topic of discussion.

  15. Adrienne Myers says:

    It’s difficult to take a complicated subject and reduce it to simple terms. The subtleties of it matter. The starting point of costing should be a pretty high priority for manufacturers, but consumers concern is more with the styles available to them and their cost on their end. They are necessarily at odds for goals, and too far apart from one another in literal needs will lead to the companies dissolution. Not that I think there are a great deal of good choices for plus size as it is (I’m an 18- 20), but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

  16. Judy Gross says:

    I just saw this post and find it interesting (as with this entire blog). I will soon be making a unisex hiking kilt. The size range will go from womens xs to mens xl, I don’t have a marker for it yet as the designer is still tweaking the pattern, but it will be interesting to see how it all works out. The womens medium will be a mans small, the mens medium will a womens large etc. I may be able to get a good/ even spread –

  17. Penny says:

    If fabric came in widths wider than 60″ a lot of the problems would be solved. I can’t tell you how much fabric I could save if I had just 4 more inches of width to work with. Size matters.

  18. Quincunx says:

    It bent my brain to realize that manufacturers’ fabric usage and costs are calculated by the length of fabric (ideally) remaining the same to keep the price the same, and then widening the width for larger sizes. That’s exactly the opposite of the average home sewist’s thinking, as we are buying fabric and laying out on the lengthwise grain and not much caring that we have to spend more per larger size layout. Thinking about it like that, and realizing that factories aren’t going to be laying out fabric on the generously wide floor like those of us at home, was illuminating.

    Incidentally, if ever-wider width of goods helps keep the costs down, no wonder some plus size fashions look like they were made out of sheets and home dec fabric. Those kinds already ARE much wider than what we’re used to working with.

  19. Avatar photo

    Quin: I’m not sure I understand this:

    and then widening the width for larger sizes

    Are you saying that you think manufacturers are buying wider goods for the plus size sets? While I can’t say it is false for all manufacturers, I would think it would be false for 95% of them.

    I also don’t understand this:

    realizing that factories aren’t going to be laying out fabric on the generously wide floor

    It is true we don’t lay out on the floor but we do lay out fabric on generously wide tables. Mine are 72″ wide. The most common table width is 60″ to 66″ wide. Mine are too wide, it was a take it or leave it auction deal.

    Ever wider goods won’t keep costs down, it will increase them in direct and indirect ways.

    Direct cost: The mill arrives at the unit cost of fabric per yard based on width. For example, one can buy a 45″ fabric for $5 p/y but the identical fabric in 60″ widths would be $6.50. Since it is common to already use 55″-60″ goods, wider fabrics would be on the order of 72″ (usually). I personally don’t know someone who can cut fabric that wide. Their tables would have to be 78″ wide to handle 72″ goods (table widths increase in 6″ increments and the table has to be wider than the fabric).

    Indirect cost increases related to wider fabric is infrastructure. If everyone had to start using wider fabrics, we’d need wider tables (each 4 ft length is $450), wider spreaders ($500-$500,000) and would require the cutting area (and possibly the plant) to be reorganized. Many shops are so cramped as it is that even if they had the money to buy new tables, spreaders etc, they would have to move into a new facility. Even if they didn’t move, there is significant downtime to reconfigure the plant to adjust to wider fabrics.

    Last of all… no one thinks about this (much to my dismay, hence my continual reiteration)… but how are we going to cut these extra wide lays? People’s arms are only so long. If the lays are so wide that it is difficult to move a knife into the lay, it is only logical that style complexity will remain stagnant as cutting difficulty can’t be resolved. And if one were fortunate enough to find people who were 7 feet tall to cut fabric (only they have arms long enough) the tables would be too short for them so they’d have back pain.

    And sure, one could say the manufacturer should use automated CAM cutting to eliminate those problems but now the barre is very high -cost wise- with a lot of risk. Considering the risk, the manufacturer is going to stick with best bets of the market (what many might consider pablum) and of course, fabric selection in wider goods is extremely limited.

    In sum, I don’t see how a manufacturer can easily and with commensurate risk, resolve the problem of cutting plus size clothing by using wider fabrics. Either way you slice it, with direct or indirect costs, the cost of goods increases.

  20. Judy says:

    Kathleen, I’ve been thinking about this for a bit – can’t you do a ‘mixed’ layout/marker? by that I mean – in your second diagram, with the ‘white space’ – you can put some of the smaller sizes pieces to fit in the area and use the fabric, (or even some patters of the larger sizes that may fit.) I know this gets confusing when you start cutting and you have some small sizes then cut X-L sizes etc, but it does make better use of the fabric. Perhaps what I’m cutting is on the smaller scale so I am able to keep track of the different sizes. It can be hard to plan the layout this way as I don’t have a computer program to do a marker – just cardboard patterns that I shift around to see how it works.

  21. Avatar photo

    I think that by depicting a marker, it made this too literal as opposed to conceptual. [In my defense, I used a marker since people thought fabric was the only hang up -altho it is a big caveat.] Consider garment complexity; if there are few style lines, just a flat body (consider a tee), there aren’t any smaller pieces you can stick in with the larger sizes if you don’t have the aforementioned 0’s and 2’s to fill in with the size 18’s and 20’s.

    But that is a distraction, it is closer to a concept. Once you consider cutting, bundling, handling, thread, pressing, finishing etc, the larger sizes cost more. Sure they use the same tags but they take longer zips and more buttons.

    For example, let’s say a medium costs $10.
    A small would cost $9, extra small would be $8, a large would be $11 and the xl would be $12.
    All of these average out to a cost of $10 -the base size which is what you’re using for costing.

    If you were to add a range of still larger sizes but no smaller sizes, the average garment cost wouldn’t be $10, it would be higher. Theoretically, the costs would be an average of $11.
    XS-$8, S-$9, M-$10, L-$11, XL-$12, XXL-$13, XXXL-$14
    However, the real cost would actually be higher because there wouldn’t be XXS or XXXS to pair with the XXL/XXXL so the larger sizes might actually cost double ($20 ea), raising the average price of the style by 30%.

  22. I highly encourage all of you to read Geoffrey Moore’s book, “Crossing the Chasm”. Every one of you who is developing clothing is in essence a product manager in some form or fashion. Any product manager worth their weight, knows that a successful product launch and continued sales are based on critical market research.

    Some samples of the average consumer may be typically on the L / XL scale. But you might be missing out on an entire market of customers who have money they would gladly spend if they could ever find a garment in their size.

    Research your market – you don’t have to pay some high end marketing firm, you can just run a poll on people in a few cities. You could go to a store and ask people to fill out forms, or post a poll on your website, then email all your friends and family and current clients.

    If you don’t spend time understanding it up front, you miss out on potential revenue. The plus sized community is hungry for good clothing. It’s either sold out or in dreary victorian mourning colors. I’m sure there are other markets (petite’s, etc.) who would be glad to be served if they were made aware. It might seem very overwhelming, especially in light of manufacturers declining to cut anything beyond what they deem is acceptable, but if we start in the direction of serving our target market, things will begin to change and likely we will make customers for life.

  23. Oh, and if a larger size costs more and you add more to your line up, then factor that cost across the entire line. Fast & cheap fashion won’t last for long. All consumers are going to need to shift in mindset. Yeah, it costs a lot for good quality clothing, for a reason. Watch. It’s going to go the way of publishing and newspapers. And I’m going to take a gamble and say that people are already buying fewer clothes, looking for pieces to last longer.

  24. nnya says:

    I don’t think it is equitable that people who wear smaller sizes are invariably asked to subsidize clothing purchases of the larger sizes, including medium. If the size small is 50 cents cheaper, it should cost 50 cents less. While the cost difference with certain products might be minimal, the cost difference on other products is most certainly significant. For example, an article of clothing that uses very expensive fabric or embellishments will certainly result in the smaller sizes paying a great deal more than their cost to produce in order to have a one price for all pricing model.

    I keep reading that it does not really cost more to product larger size clothing. That most certainly is NOT true. Not only is there extra fabric cost but there is also additional costs for lining, threads, longer zippers. Plus sizes especially cannot be cut out of the fabric in the same way so there may be extraordinary fabric waste involved because that is just physics. There is also extra time to sew larger sizes because there are more stitches, more to be ironed, and so on. It is just ridiculous to say it does not cost more to produce them.

    I am currently annoyed with Modcloth for having the same pricing for all their sizes. I KNOW I am being made to pay extra to subsidize the cost for the plus sizes. Why should I have to do that? In fact, I won’t. I will shop places where I am not expected to do that. If I went to the grocery store and bought a quart of milk and was asked to pay the same price as the person buying a gallon because after all the price difference is only a buck or so and someone thinks I should be morally compelled to support whoever is buying the extra milk, well, I would be angry. But at least in that case, I could choose to just buy the larger size milk so that I am not being ripped off. But in the case of clothing, it would make no sense for me to buy the large size that does not fit me so I either have to choose to be ripped off or not buy. I choose not buy.

    I think that stores that up their prices for the smaller sizes in order to give an artificially low price to plus sizes will lose some of their sales because there are people who are price conscious who will just go shop where the clothes are cheaper. Most of those people will not realize that the prices are inflated to kiss up to the plus size women, they will just see they can get the same item cheaper elsewhere. This won’t happen overnight but gradually as they start to notice that they paid more at store X than they would have at store Y for the same or similar items, they will lose brand loyalty for store X and stop even looking there.

    I expect to be fully flamed for this opinion as plus sizes will be a politically correct issue that people cannot treat without being illogically and emotional. Please, justify to me LOGICALLY why someone should pay more for clothing than that clothing really cost so that someone else can pay less than their clothing cost to make? Plus sized people seem to think they deserve to be on some sort of welfare pity program that gives them discounts at the expense of smaller people. I always resented the same price scheme when it was just mediums and larges included and the price was less hiked up, but now including sizes so large that they cause a dramatic increase in the subsidy that I am made to pay is just beyond what I am going to stand for.

    • James Watches says:

      It’s a shame so many people will view you as a bigot. It’s a shame that logic, is now akin to bigotry, If you also don’t take feelings/emotions into account. Two things that couldn’t be more diametrically apposed. Welcome to the 2010’s….

  25. Andrea Letourneau says:

    I think that the issue really is why are they using size 10 as “medium”. According to recent statistics, the average American is a size 14… Why don’t they move up the medium to the correct size?

    • kathleen says:

      The increments of a size 10 or any other size is not static. It’s sizing inflation or what some people call “vanity sizing”. I could have just as easily used the example of SML instead of numbered sizing. It does not matter what you call a size. You could describe each size as a color if you wanted. The point is the median and how other sizes of the curve affect costing.

      At one point, there was much hoopla in these parts about size 10’s not remaining true to size so I polled readers as to what they thought a size 10 was. There was no agreement, none whatsoever. My point is, if consumers cannot agree to the measures consistent with a size 10 (or any other size), how can they expect manufacturers to uniformly meet the expectations of such widely divergent opinion?

  26. DJ says:

    Screw the businesses we know they are trying to make money, but then explain to me why children’s clothing cost more than the plus sizes? If your math adds up then I shouldn’t be paying so much for a year old outfit. Ya it comes down to the supply and demand, but why let the business decide everything? Business will screw over the consumer all they want without regulations. So regulate discrimination against it. Men should pay the same as women, do not let the free market determine this, otherwise we get this sexist, and discriminatory bull crap.

    • James Watches says:

      Lol what a bunch of self-righteous nonsense. Said from someone that’s clearly never had to run a business. If you honestly think more regulation will lower prices, you don’t understand how the real world works. Regulations always end up raising prices, because it kills competition. And without competition, no one will lower prices to compete. Companies WANT regulations, because they know it will get rid of competition. Walmart, has been fighting for minimum wage increases. Why? Because whatever they’d lose from paying people more money, they’d gain by getting rid of all the smaller competition that can’t pay people more money. If you make everyone have to charge the same price no matter the product, you’ll get rid of all the smaller competition that can’t afford to do that. As someone that escaped the Soviet Union, people like you, disgust me beyond belief.

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