What happens after size 16? A discussion on plus-size grading.

Much talk has taken place in the sewing world on plus sizes, inclusivity and diversity, both in size ranges offered and models photographed. I was very conscious of this while doing my new book, Zero Waste Sewing, and this blog post by Song of the Sewing Machine reminded me again how frustrating is it to desire a pattern that doesn’t come in your size.

There are a variety of reasons why ready-to-wear clothing brands and sewing pattern companies offer the sizes they do. Legitimate reasons or not, I offer no judgement or opinion:

  • It costs money to get patterns graded, and the more sizes, the more it costs. Some small businesses can’t make the investment to include all the sizes they want, especially when they’re starting up.
  • The patternmaker/grader may not have experience with larger sizes.
  • The company doesn’t think certain sizes fit the demographic of their customer.
  • They don’t sell enough (or any) of a certain size/s to make money.
  • Their clothing designs don’t translate well into a wide variety of sizes.
  • And (this is currently rare but it happens) their designs are zero waste and only available in a narrow size range due to fitting everything on the fabric width.

Not all patternmakers have experience with fitting larger sizes. This subject was only touched on when I studied, but several years doing made-to-measure fittings sure brought me up to speed. After about an Aussie size 16 (42″ bust), the body begins to change proportions and what applies to a regular size 8-16 (34″-42″ bust) grade changes. There is further change if the plus-size person happens to be over 50 years of age, but we’re not going to get into that here.

So what happens when we get bigger?

Cup sizes get bigger

Sizes with a 42″ bust or bigger pretty much always require a full bust adjustment for a larger cup size. Note that size (measurement) isn’t the same thing as shape (cup size); two women can have the same bust measurement but be different cup sizes, as we all know. For more thoughts on this see my blog post on bust adjustments (it’s about small bust adjustments but the theory is the same).

Some things stop growing

Shoulders and necklines don’t get any bigger/wider beyond size 16. It’s not unusual for a size 22 woman to have a size 14 or 16 width shoulders, for example. Also, bigger people aren’t necessarily taller with longer arms and legs; often they’re shorter.

Proportions of details change

Patch pockets, flaps, shoulder strap widths, tabs and other details need to be made proportionally larger to match everything else. This is sometimes done to some degree in a regular 8-16 grade, sometimes not.

Is a style change needed?

Bigger people sometimes (but not always) like to wear their tops longer (5cm/2″ or more) and often prefer a sleeve rather than sleeveless (especially older people). Double breasted garments, crop tops, high necklines, miniskirts, strapless tops, shiny fabrics, fake fur, boxy/short waisted, halternecks, cap sleeves, spaghetti straps, peg top trousers, to name a few, generally don’t translate well to larger figures.

Curves change shape

Armholes follow a different curve, requiring re-fitting of the armhole on a larger fit model. Tops/heads of sleeves also change shape, becoming steeper at the front and more sloping towards the back.


What advice can I offer if you’re a plus-size and require sizes beyond what the sewing pattern offers?

Having your own personalised block/fitting shell pattern can be a big help. Take a sewing class and get it fitted correctly – it’s difficult to fit yourself. For dresses and sleeves some examples are: Vogue 1004, Butterick 5628, McCalls 2718, McCalls/Palmer Pletsch 7279. For trousers: Vogue 1003, McCalls/Palmer Pletsch 6901. You could also draft your own from a patternmaking book or use any plain garment pattern that you know fits you.

To use it, pick the largest size on the sewing pattern and place your own pattern over the top to compare. Leave the neckline and shoulders as-is, and see how much you need to add onto the sides and sleeve.

Best wishes for your plus-size sewing adventures,

Cheers!

10 Comments

  1. Rebecca on October 13, 2019 at 11:28 pm

    Nowadays there are tons of plus sized patterns and pattern makers who realize that plus size is actually average and are expanding their size range on a curvy block. Most indie pattern makers go up to size 24 now. I think it’s important for my fellow fat people to know that there are fat sewing resources out there and you don’t have to learn pattern drafting as a beginning sewist.

    • lizhaywood on October 14, 2019 at 1:00 pm

      You are right, there are more and more resources all the time.

  2. Amanda Jensen on October 15, 2019 at 1:58 am

    Quick note- to quote a recent fashion design grad, “zero waste isn’t a size, it’s a strategy.” If you work with the right fabrics, ANY size can be zero waste. Thanks!

    • lizhaywood on October 15, 2019 at 9:02 am

      Yes, any size can be. The trick is being able to produce a wide range of sizes for one style in zero waste. Thanks for commenting on that.

  3. Charlotte on October 15, 2019 at 2:58 am

    An Australian size 16 is the same as a UK size 16. In the UK (and I can’t imagine it is so very different in Aiatralia) a size 16 is the average ladies dress size. How then can anything over a size 16 be plus size?! In terms of only being able to do a small number of sizes I get that, but if that’s the case then surely your best bet to maximise sales is to keep that range clustered around the average, ie a 16?

    • lizhaywood on October 15, 2019 at 9:33 am

      I’m with you there. I don’t consider size 16 (which is what I’ve called a 42″ bust here) a plus-size but when grading anything beyond that, the grade rules start to diverge from the ones used for smaller sizes. When fitting wide ranges of sizes, you start to notice patterns in the way bodies grow proportionately and a 42″ bust seems to be, in my experience, the point where bodies begin to change.

  4. Yvonne Post on October 15, 2019 at 6:42 am

    The Woman is right. It doesn’t seem quite nice but it is just the way it is.

    • lizhaywood on October 15, 2019 at 9:36 am

      That’s what’s so great about making your own clothes.

  5. Karen on October 15, 2019 at 9:27 am

    What is your list of things that “don’t translate well to larger figures” based on?

    • lizhaywood on October 15, 2019 at 9:54 am

      It’s based on working for fashion designers who design for plus-sizes, albeit older women who were probably more conservative. However, some plus-size women look great in these, so it’s just something to bear in mind.
      I would also add that clothes that look gorgeous on curvy plus-size women generally look pathetic on flat chested, no-waisted women like me.
      Thank you for asking about that, and yes it is a subjective subject.

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