Specification drawing for one of my designs, the Falling Leaves sweater

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Why designers need to be more explicit about the body shapes they design for – not just the sizing range

You can read Part 1 of this series here.

Our systems and models are changing.  As we continue in the direction of more community-oriented businesses, where designers have a closer and more personal connection with people buying our patterns, it feels natural to disclose more information about how patterns fit.  This goes beyond the schematic diagrams that convey the key measurements of a pattern. It includes and elicits more frank discussions about body shapes and sizing.  These conversations can help both designers and knitters.

On one hand, people who make their own clothes regularly have a deep understanding of their body measurements.  They can relate them to any given pattern – providing the technical information is available – and pre-emptively adjust the fit, if not anticipate these changes.  Over time, the fit factor is one reason for sticking with particular designers: minimal changes, minimal stress.  This loyalty and investment can result in makers waiting for their favourite designers to release a specific style, even when alternatives are out there already. 

There is something resonant and comfortable about that designer’s work that inspires patience. Some folk even ask designers when/if they are going to release an XYZ.  These requests aren’t necessarily granted – and when they are, they don’t necessarily translate into sales for the designer, either.  But this kind of communication does exemplify trust and loyalty.  Makers want reasons to keep coming back to a designer they like, and requesting patterns is one way in which they show this.  “Your designs are a cornerstone of my wardrobe and I’d like you to continue kitting me out, please and thank you.”

A pair of handknitted sleeves featuring a cable and basketweave textured pattern.
A pair of sleeves, which are a mashup of my Assembly and Unite patterns.

Body shapes and sizing: The designer’s view

On the other hand, it takes designers decades of experience to learn about fit and be confident enough to apart or create size charts.  This training, which is separate from learning how to design, involves two major routes: professional training in fitting, or lived experience of not having clothes that fit.  Both routes involve:

  • intensive problem solving, fieldwork and research to arrive at the same destination;
  • being prepared and confident about fitting any body type that comes your way;
  • interpreting the data provided by body measurements; and knowing how to engineer a pattern accordingly. 

Arrival at this destination leads to another inevitable realisation for garment designers: Their patterns are not going to fit everybody, nor every body.  Some designers try too hard and too long to achieve the impossible, particularly if they are conscientious and/or self-taught.

The nuances of fitting ALWAYS boil down to shape.  At the moment we are concerned about size and the equitable representation of fat bodies, but it goes far deeper than this.  Body fat distribution is the number one control when it comes to womenswear design, and we all owe fat makers an immense debt for demonstrating this beautifully and unapologetically. Body shapes and sizes have never been as diverse as they are now. Regardless of the size you select, your personal body fat distribution will have influenced your choice.

Accepting the fullness of our bodies

Our distribution of body fat is what gives us shape, and our shape is what determines our chosen size in clothing.  Life experience with clothing standards tells us to pick the size that fits us at the largest part of the body.  It’s why trousers may fit around the hip and thigh, but gape at the waist; why tops fit around the chest and belly but hang off the shoulders; why skirts strain around the thighs but fit well from the hip upwards.  Muscle usage and development also plays a part, but comes in second place.  Muscles are also relatively predictable and well-behaved.  They respond quickly and readily to training and regime.  Fat does not behave like this.

Fat is disobedient and rebellious because it settles wherever it wants to.  You cannot expect the body to retain the same proportions when this happens.  Genetics may give individuals a clue; industries mine data ever more deeply, looking for trends they hope will accommodate a wide range of people.  For the latter, the success of this is limited.  In the long term, it is better to be more explicit about the body shape you cater to, especially at the upper end of the sizing range.  Uniting people according to their body shape or patterns of fat distribution is the way forward – and by designing for particular body shapes instead of trying to accommodate several, we can look forward to a less stressful and more emotionally sustainable culture of clothes making.

A hand in the process of mattress stitching a knitted garment seam.
Mattress stitch seaming of an orange knit in progress.


Some independent sewing pattern designers, most notably Cashmerette, are already there.  Founded by Jenny Rushmore, the inclusion of cup sizes was a big deal at the time!  The jeans fitting block (you choose according to your waist/hip ratio first and foremost) is exemplary.  Cashmerette was created especially for fat people outside the standard sizing range, and the company has been equally sensitive to nuances and variations of shape.  This changed standards of acceptability, and standard sized folk with an unrepresented body shape saw themselves in Cashmerette.  The company is gradually working to make all its patterns available in US sizes 0-32 (previously 12-32) to represent and dress even more bodies with ‘unruly’ fat distribution.

I’ve held Cashmerette up as an example for the knit and crochet world because this is where we are headed.  Hand knits and crochet garments won’t require the same level of detail when implementing this change. Unlike sewing patterns, they are generally not worn next to the skin and do not need to follow the body contours quite so closely. However, patterns and pattern designers do need to be better at stating what their grade rules are and how they’ve been applied. 

If the full chest grade gets incrementally larger as you go up the sizing range, say so!  That way, knitters with fat on the chest or belly know that they won’t drown in your sweater for the sake of fitting the fattest area of their body.  Having a particular shape in mind as your benchmark means that you can grade the rest of the pattern with less anxiety. You’re not making any presumptions about overall shape based on a single area of the body: a larger belly or chest does not equal larger upper arms.  Remember, fat does not follow any rules!

And finally…

To return to makers and schematics, this kind of information is appreciated upfront.  It means we spend less time analysing spec drawings and more time creating a symbiotic relationship between designer and (prospective) customer.  Deep down, we designers know that they cannot please or dress everyone, but we need to be more confident about walking the talk.  New and established designers can serve their customers and community better if they’re more open about the body shapes and sizing they design for.  There’s nothing to lose except another piece of a system already doomed.

The Shape of Things to Come, part 2

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Natalie in Stitches

I design for confident knitters who are keen on getting their garments to fit well. My catalogue includes knitting patterns for lace sweaters, cable sweaters, shawls, cowls, and the occasional scarf. These designs are ideal for building or curating an inspiring wardrobe. I am also a qualified teacher and share my favourite tips, tricks and techniques on my blog, where you can also find advice on garment fitting, alterations, knitwear design and sewing pattern reviews. Courses are also coming soon - sign up to my newsletter for updates.

6 thoughts on “The Shape of Things to Come, part 2

  • July 27, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    ‘Fat is disobedient and rebellious because it settles wherever it wants to’. well that cracked me up and is SO true. Another interesting article. Thank you.

  • July 27, 2022 at 6:43 pm

    Hi Natalie, As always you have brilliantly stated things. This bit here was the part that set me dancing with joy!

    “it takes designers decades of experience to learn about fit and be confident enough to apart or create size charts. This training, which is separate from learning how to design, involves two major routes: professional training in fitting, or lived experience of not having clothes that fit.”

    I may not be a professional designer now, although I did do designs for theatre in the past in my own tiny way, BUT I have certainly put in the decades of experience. And to my joy, I’m still learning new things.

    Thank you so much for this article which has made me feel so good as I keep experimenting.


    • July 27, 2022 at 6:54 pm

      😘 thank you Brenda! But see, your costume experience is invaluable too: you have no choice BUT to fit the actors into their clothes. They’re cast for the ability to interpret the role, not their body type – and their shape is often a huge part of the casting, too.

      All the costumiers I’ve met have been fascinated at the notion of commercial patterns. They understand them fine, but their technical knowledge of fit and the 2D/3D relationship is outstanding. I’ve learnt plenty from them over the years 💕

  • July 27, 2022 at 9:12 pm

    I have the opposite problem – my upper arms are huge and my chest comparably small. To get a button down off the rack to fit, it bags around my torso. If it fits my torso, the bicep and shoulders are tight. This drives me crazy. I wear a lot of sleeveless tops. I appreciate this in-depth discussion of fit issues.

    • July 27, 2022 at 9:16 pm

      My pleasure Meredith – it’s the least I can do, and I hope to do more by teaching designers in the not-too-distant future.
      There are so many examples of fit issues I could’ve mentioned…and it has taken years of professional experience for me to be confident about fitting people in my classes (anybody can walk in!). If I can bring some of that to the knitting to help others, I’ll be happy 😊.
      Thank you for commenting 🙏🏾


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