The Construction of Bras

P2031465 The Construction of Bras

I’m going depart from my usual routine of writing about various sewing and pattern making topics and focus on one topic for the next two weeks. Recently, I’ve seen and read a lot, both in magazines and on blogs, about bras, lingerie, trousseaus, foundations or whatever those pieces worn underneath clothing are called. I was never interested in sewing a bra or a panty (I hate those words, do you?) until I realized that a good fitting outfit starts with good fitting lingerie. I spent 3 months perfecting the fit of my sloper yet never thought to perfect to the fit of what I wore underneath. Yes, I wore the same bra during each muslin, which is super important, but who knew if that bra fit me correctly. I never thought to check.

Lingerie is also an interesting and fun category. Interesting in that lingerie is sewn quite differently than “normal” clothing and fun because lingerie can be sewn in a day, not weeks or months. Also, there’s no rolling up the rugs and bending over on floor to cut pattern pieces. Because the pattern requires so little fabric, the pieces can be cut on even the smallest table, which is a huge plus.

So for the next two weeks, I will be writing about all things bras – the construction of bras and sports bras (I’ve been meaning to do a follow-up post on sports bras since I wrote about the construction of “normal” bras), how and what constitutes a good fitting bra, how the shape of bras have changed over the decades (this is really cool), as well as my favorite bras (for eye candy). I’ll start today with the construction of “normal” bras. I admit that this is a repost from a couple of months ago but since posting it, I have done more research on the topic and have added a few tidbits here and there. So without further adieu, let me get started…

P20314831 The Construction of Bras

1. Bras can be sewn with many types of fabrics. Tricot (a warp knit), lace (stretch and non stretch), satin (stretch and non stretch), cotton (knit and woven), and Lycra are the most popular choices. If you are using a bra pattern you haven’t sewn before and are unsure if the fit is correct, I suggest to use a stretchy fabric. Because of the give in the fabric, the bra will more likely fit you, regardless if the fit is correct. If you are using a bra pattern you have used before and I’m assuming you have altered if the fit was incorrect, it is okay to use a woven fabric. Because a bra is so close fitting, even an 1/8″ off throws off the fit. This is why I’m against using woven for lingerie unless you know the fit is perfect.

2. Bras are sewn just as “normal” clothing except that the seams holding them together are zigzag stitches (or coverstitches in some cases), not straight stitches. This is because as we move about our day, we move, twist, and stretch. The bras we wear need to be able to withstand this movement. Straight stitches have no stretch and would pop under such stress. But zigzag stitches have give and stretch to them and, therefore, are the reason the seams are sewn with this stitch.

Also, the top and bottom edges of a bra usually (about 95% of the time) have elastic sewn to it. The elastic is cut shorter and stretched slightly during sewing to provide give. Its purpose is twofold. Its first purpose is the same as the zigzag stitch – to help the fabric stretch as we move. Its second purpose is to help the fabric recover from the stretching it undergoes.

elastic The Construction of Bras

3. There are four main components to a bra- band, cup, strap, and closure.

The Band. The band may be single ply (layer) or lined. There are different types of bands depending on the amount of support desired. A full band wraps around the entire circumference of the body, including between the bra cups at center front, and provides the most support. A partial band is attached to the sides of bra cups (there is no band between cups at center front; instead, a hook or center front piece connects the cups) and provides less support than a full band.

I also recently learned, thanks to Novita, that bands can be cut on the bias to provide more give. Neat little trick, right?

The Cups. The cups can also be single ply (layer) or lined. Although cups made from a single piece provide a good fit, cups that are made up of 2 or 3 vertical or horizontal pieces provide the best fit. The benefit of having more pieces is that the cup will contour to the shape of the breast. Although two woman may wear the same cup size, the shape of their breast are different. Having 2 or 3 pieces will help the cups fit the the different shapes of the two women’s breast (it’s the same principle as using princess seams).

Just a few tips when sewing cups…

Sew cups first, then attach band, elastic, straps, and closure. It’s the best order of operations.

Also when sewing cups, sew with lower cup against breast plate.

There are many ways to press open cup seam allowances. The first way is to press open seam allowance and top stitch each seam allowance on either side of the seam. The second way is to press open seam allowances and then press seam allowances either up or down and top stitch on one side of seam. The third way, and my favorite way, is to press open seam allowances and then top apply a straight piece of lace or organza. All methods of pressing are best done with a tailor’s ham.

straps The Construction of Bras

The Straps. The straps can be made of elastic or self.

If you have made your own bra pattern, it is okay to have self straps. Self straps do not give like elastic straps and therefore should only be used it the fit is correct (you don’t need the stretch if the pattern fits correctly). If you’re using a pre-made bra pattern and don’t know if the fit is correct, it is best to use elastic straps that will provide give in case the bra does’t fit 100% correctly.

The  construction of straps used to confused me. They wrap this way, then wrap that way, then loop through this and then loop through that. Confusing right? But once I broke it down (as I did in sketch), it was actually quite simple to understand.

The Closure. The closure of a bra can either be at the front or the back. If the closure is at the back, it is usually has 3 hook and eye closures for to accommodate different widths (see second image).

4. Lastly, and this is a little tidbit but an important one, all major stress points are tacked with a zigzag stitch. Again, this has to do with withstanding our movement. It’s simply a reinforcement to prevent the straps from ripping.

tags: Construction, Fashon, Pattern Making Comments: 34

34 Comments
  1. sallie

    How timely! Lingerie has been taking up a lot of my thoughts recently. I’m on the quest for the perfect fitting bra! Thanks for the link Maddie! Great post!

    Reply
    • maddie

      Thanks! I learned a ton and had a lot fun researching it. I can’t wait to get started on perfecting the fit of my own bra patterns.

      Reply
  2. kathy

    There is a really good “bra store” in south Jersey if you are insterested in a field trip for more info for your blog, let me know!
    I am planning to go there within the next couple of weeks to get my wedding ” lingerie” or ling grrr ray.. as I prefer to call it because men linger at it.. hence the name..only one man from now on for me!….
    THey have bra fitters there who know how to really fit bras to the woman…that’s al they do there!
    Kathy

    Reply
  3. Heather Lou

    The word “panties” makes me want to retch. Can we please come up with a better word?! Excited you are doing this love – I am going to start doing the make your own underthings route and I can’t wait to see what you have to share about it! My problem with most underwear is that if you have a bit of a booty it can be really hard to find stuff that is cute and comfortable and that doesn’t leave VPLs if you don’t want to wear a thong. It’s an eternal search. Need a good boy short pattern for just this reason. Would love to see if you have any advice for minimizing seams so they don’t show up under tight fitting clothes!

    Reply
    • maddie

      Heather, I am so glad you brought up this question because I honestly don’t know. Because all p’s (I’m not writing or saying the word panty again; instead, I’ll call them p) have elastic sewn to it at the top and bottom edges and the elastic is stretched while sewing, it will always dig into your skin just a little and thus, leave VPLs. But have you seen or investigated the so called “seamless” bra’s and p’s (I think Victoria Secret sells them)? Because you asked this question, I am going to research a little more on the topic and write a follow-up post. Thanks!

      Reply
  4. Claudia

    I love lingerie! I hadn’t ever given much thought to sewing my own, but seeing that vintage pattern you posted a link to at the bottom really has me itching to try.

    Reply
    • maddie

      I never thought about it either until I read how easy it was. 1/2 yard of fabric and a couple of hours to complete… I’m in.

      Reply
  5. Antoinette

    I’m determined to sew my own swimsuit(s) this year, and lingerie doesn’t seem too farfetched to sew once you’ve tackled a swimsuit. I did click over to the vintage bra pattern you referenced, but the smallest bust size is 35″…. I wouldn’t feel very confident grading to 31″…. LOL

    Reply
    • maddie

      There are many vintage pattern shops on Etsy. I simply found the ones I liked. I encourage you to click around the site as well until you find a pattern you like so that you don’t have to grade it.

      Reply
  6. Amy

    Cool post! I’ve really been into the bra adventures lately, too (starting with the pin-up girls pattern, too) and love it so much! I still need to perfect the fit a bit. My favorite is the last one I made of nylon jersey and lace, but it came out too big because the jersey was a bit stretchier than the nonstretch nylon I’d used before. (Here it is — http://clothhabit.com/2012/01/byzantine-lingerie-set.) But I’m so into playing around with it! My latest thing is definitely how to make that cross-cup seam a little prettier. I cut some sheer nylon strips on the bias to sew over that seam, but I like the idea of using organza, too.

    For some reason I don’t mind the word panties… it just means what it means to me, but there’s always that across-the-pond term, knickers. Kinda cute.

    Reply
    • maddie

      Knickers! I like the word knickers so much better than panty, although, for some reason I associate knickers with men’s underwear and I by no means want to wear mens underwear!

      Finishing the cross cup seams with a strip of lace would also be pretty. The interior of a garment, including a bra, is as important as the exterior.

      Reply
  7. Lady Danburry

    brilliant. I can’t wait to check out the patterns you’ve found!

    Reply
  8. Nethwen

    I can’t stand the p word for underpants. When I say it, it feels like a stranger threw their dirty socks into my mouth. I always say underpants or underwear.

    I started sewing my own underpants last year. I started by tracing my best-fitting pair and it took me four muslins to get the pattern the way I want it. Now, I have the most comfortable underpants I’ve ever had (I have a large booty and RTW unders always crawl up) and there is minimal VPL. I don’t want to ramble on, but if anyone’s interested, I’m happy to share my experiences.

    Reply
    • maddie

      I can say underwear without a problem, but underpants is almost as worse as P

      I commend you for making your own P pattern. From all the feedback and comments, it seems like this is one garment where making your own pattern is almost necessary (because bras and P’s are so close fitting and because everyone’s body contours differently, regardless if their the same size).

      Reply
  9. Amanda

    LOL i giggled when I read this because I don’t care for the ‘p’ word either, and I have a coworker who fully despises it too LOL… I like calling them ‘p’ – that’s much cuter and cheekier, although i’ve been known to call them ‘pants’ – British style – or ‘undies’ to avoid confusion…. still I think P wins the day!! LOL

    I’ve been researching corset making for ages, because I’ve a deep love of them, and it’s on my list of things to do this year to draft my own corset pattern :) if you can find a good P pattern though, I’m so down with making up some – you’re absolutely right, because of the tiny amount of fabric needed, one could totally splurge and make something just decadent! :)

    Reply
  10. StephC

    Oh! This is so perfect and timely for me. Thank you for all the info! I’ve been trying to motivate myself to make some lingerie for a while, then yesterday I *accidentally* found some silk lycra in a remnant bin (cherry red, came home with me, natch) and now this! I’m really looking forward to your next posts on the subject, then I’ll get cracking on my own panties and maybe venture into bra territory… (yes, agreed, icky words)

    Reply
  11. Rochelle New

    Undergarments are so intimidating to think about making yourself!! One day I’d like to give it a go…

    Reply
    • Nethwen

      “P”s are so, so easy to make! Yes, you might have to make a few versions to get the pattern to fit you just right, but really, try tracing your best fitting pair for a pattern. You can practice with any fabric with a bit of stretch – I use old t-shirts for practice. All you need is a machine with a zig-zag stitch. The only hard part is finding the lingerie elastic. Once you’ve made a few pairs, you can whip out a set in less than an hour, from first thought to last thread snipped.

      I don’t know anything about sewing bras, but I would consider P sewing to be intermediate beginner level.

      Reply
      • maddie

        Wow. An hour? I’ll sign up for that project, please and thank you

        Reply
  12. ginny

    Gosh, I thought I was the only one who was creeped-out by the word “panties” LOL!. It’s just icky for some reason that I can’t quite define. I tend to say “unnies” instead — undoubtedly because my sisters and I always gigglingly called panties “unmentionables” (I think we watched an inordinate number of old movies ;-)).

    I plan to closely follow your series of posts devoted to bra sewing. I’d love to sew myself some pretty bras and matching unnies. I wear a 34DDD, which can be difficult to find and is rarely available in anything but most basic, utilitarian (which of course are useful nonetheless) styles and colors. Any suggestions for bra patterns for larger cup sizes? I’ve yet to find one in my size, so I expect some serious pattern fitting is in my future.

    Reply
  13. Tina C.

    I am JUST plunging into this myself! I thought I’d treat myself to something pretty for my birthday (and I’m really sick and tired of my blah Victoria’s Secret bra)…

    Reply
  14. Christoper Ysbrand

    I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the great works guys I’ve you guys to blogroll.

    Reply
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  18. searching

    I have been searching for a completely cotton(not knit,no elastic,no spandex,no foam) bra no one seems to make them any longer so guess I’ve got to sew my own any input would be helpful

    Reply
    • Maddie

      A bra with no elastic, no spandex, and no knit? I don’t know where such an undergarment exists. Almost all bras today have a stretch factor in it (elastic, stretch fabric, etc)

      Reply
    • Marie

      I also have to make my own bras. I’m allergic to polyester, nylon, and other synthetics. You need cotton knit fabric. If you are ok with rubber, there is cotton ‘swimsuit’ elastic, but you have to hunt for it, and you may have to get it online. I still don’t have a working bra to wear, but each failure brings me closer to success.

      Reply
  19. maria

    I know it’s been a while, but can you share the name/location of that bra place in SJ? I’d love to check it out!

    For those larger breasted women, I have a friend who works in Lane Bryant who reports that they do bra fittings there – she says most bra problems are due to improperly sized/fitted bras. They have LB’s all over, so maybe you could inquire at your local store.

    Reply
    • Maddie Flanigan

      Hi Maria – I wish I knew the place in South Jersey but Kathy never told me. I’m sorry. Thanks for the info about Lane Bryant – I agree that most bra problems are due to improperly sized/fitted bras.

      Reply

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