The Shape of Things to Come

My bespoke bodice blocks, with some improvised paperweights. Although I own commercial patterns from a few companies, I rely on these for drafting my own sewing patterns. Detailed work, but extremely worthwhile!

A few weeks ago this Ny-Lon article came into my Twitter feed, and although I commented on it at the time, a few thoughts still linger; specifically, about how to move the sizing conversation forward.  One of the things I mentioned in my Twitter thread was that body shape can be a means of uniting people who might be separated by size.  In my experience of fitting people, and especially when teaching my adult learning students, I group people according to the alterations they need to make.  Good fit is not only about size.

From a design point of view, it’s important to build in features for customisation.  The size the person chooses is a starting point, not a box to fit into.  This is one reason why having a good size range is so important.  When I wrote that shoppers were “getting shafted by RTW”, this is what I meant.  There should be more transparency about the body shape the brand or designer has in mind, and more detailed measurements to refer to.  Some companies state the height of the model and the size they are wearing; occasionally more detailed measurements are given, but these tend to be the typical bust-waist-hip.

Like others who commented in and quote tweeted the thread, I found out the hard way about shape.  The subsequent frustration is why I’ve knitted and sewn most of my clothes for years.  The bust-waist-hip trio is not enough if, for example, the product is a sleeved dress with a fitted waistband.  The prospective customer needs to know the garment’s nape to waist measurement PLUS the shoulder measurement to waist via the bust point to get an idea of whether the waistband will land in the right spot.  Knowing this in advance would allow the person to decide whether the dress is worth altering – or buying – because it might not fit perfectly, and save time and money on returns.

Incidentally, returning a garment bought via a brand’s online store to their bricks and mortar shop has the unfair and unfortunate effect of showing as a loss on the store’s takings, which – depending on how merchandisers interpret the figures, is bad news for the profitability of physical shops.  The service they provide – fitting rooms, conversations with helpful staff, a chance to inspect the goods in person – is invaluable.  This is not measured or quantified as much as it should be, and masks the flawed communication and incomplete information from product listings online.

Knitting and crochet patterns have not had quite the same benefit of traditional shops and sales staff.  Larger yarn companies can arrange for sample garments to be sent to yarn shops, but in any case, yarn shop owners deserve a big hug for the work they do to fill this knowledge gap.  If we take their efforts out of the equation, historically the communication standards of knitting and crochet patterns have been weak.  The recent efforts of technical editors and graders should also be applauded; so many of them have highlighted the need for better communication, accessibility, and improved user interfaces.  It’s great to see principles of product design applied, and long may they stay.  But it is one thing telling people how the garment fits – or how the designer intends it to fit – and another thing supporting them in getting it to fit.

This is something that I spent a lot of time thinking about before I released two patterns last month, the Bonnie sweater and Aneeta cardigan.  Aneeta was designed with bust alterations in mind, and the pattern comes with a separate modifications guide for knitters with larger cup sizes.  I also prepared tutorials for both, which are emailed to knitters within a few days of purchase.  The tutorials feature topics such as length alterations and design customisations, and support details given before purchase such as measurement charts and schematics.  I also have a Helpful Notes section near the beginning of each pattern that I use to discuss ease, fabrication and styling.  So far, I think this has been appreciated, but I’m acutely aware of being on a steep learning curve and I’m waiting nervously for knitters’ feedback. 

One of the photos from my pattern tutorials, supporting instructions on how to convert a sleeved armhole to a sleeveless one.

I got a clue about my position on this learning curve thanks to another Twitter conversation. This knitter, Cathleen, pointed out that more detail about yarn usage would be helpful for people who need to make length alterations. One possible solution – as I understood from the question I asked – involves breaking down the total yardage/meterage requirement by garment piece as well as giving the grand total needed to knit the garment as is. This would allow knitters to make better estimations about extra quantities of yarn. If you study the schematic or measurement chart and establish that you need to lengthen the sleeves – as per Cathleen’s example – how can you safely work out the extra quantity of yarn needed? A fair guess would be to have an extra skein on standby, but you can run into trouble if a) the skein costs an extra £20, and you don’t need much of it after all; or b) you’re substituting yarn. My stomach sank a little; I wished I’d had this conversation earlier. It would have improved my tutorials a bit more.

There’s a lot to chew on if, like me, you’re a designer who likes working with pattern and is not a big fan of acres of stocking stitch.  Questions of scale, placement, proportion and shaping need to be answered, but ultimately this is a more scenic route to the same destination.  Again, this later conversation circles back to the idea of sizes being a starting point.  When we say that “one size does not fit all,” we also mean that “one size does not fit all shapes”. Nobody seriously expects one sweater design to fit everyone straight out of the box, but it is fair to expect some initial guidance so that you can go off and do what you need to do.  An inclusive size range can be more than a starting point, but only if enough people can get out of the blocks.

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