My Bra Making Adventures
First, a warning: this post is super long! But I wanted to be really complete in my experience thus far, as to possibly help anyone else starting out with their own bra making! So get comfy, grab a cup of tea, and read on...
I don't remember who I saw sewing up bras first on the internet, but I remember seeing them and thinking to myself, no, really? I've been sewing for decades, and yet the idea of making something like a bra sincerely never occurred to me. Not because I didn't think I could do the sewing, but because a bra has to really perform a job! It's not just for placing on top of your body, it's shapewear meant for a key task. And well, if it doesn't perform its job, it's pretty useless. It seemed totally intimidating to think I could get the fit right to make the effort worth my time and money.
The first bra that I thought, yeah, I can do that, was the Watson Bra from Amy of Cloth Habit, pictured above. I have a feeling that this was the "ah ha!" lightbulb bra for a lot of other sewers too. It doesn't have an underwire, so it removes what seems like the scariest part of bra making from the situation. I have since learned that the underwire is hardly the hardest part, so why the lack of underwire should comfort me is silly. I stocked up on kits from Blackbird Fabrics, found more notions along the way, and before I knew it, a year or so had passed and I had a huge bin of fabric and notions, and no bras sewn.
Fast forward quite a while, and I still was collecting more and more bra making fabrics, elastics, and notions. I knew I was going to do it at some point, but when, who knows! Then last fall I went to Camp Workroom Social. I met Amy in real life, (who is a hilarious firecracker by the way), and then proceeded to watch students sew up their own bras. More than a few of Amy's students ran into my classroom to lift up their shirts and show off their newly sewn bras to my entire class. Which of course was met with a huge round of applause! That's what this camp is like, the kind of place where you can run into a classroom full of strangers, whip off your top, and show off your boobs in your new bra to a supportive round of cheers! Yeah, it's pretty magical!
Needless to say, I left camp inspired and totally determined to sew my own bras too. I thought, if these students could do it, I could do it too! Of course, they had Amy by their side to help them, but still, I was absolutely determined to go home and give it a shot!
Step One: Research
First thing I did was read every blog post on bra making I could find. I highly recommend doing this if you've never sewn bras before, because learning from others is hugely helpful. If you'd like a shortcut, here are the people I found most helpful:
I know there are a TON of blogs that are writing about lingerie and bra making, but these are the ones that helped me the most. Amy and Norma have great tutorials on their blogs that go along with their patterns, and Erin, Lauren, and Ying all have tons of information on the things they are personally sewing.
Step Two: Patterns
Next, you need to decide what pattern(s) you want to try. I knew for sure that I wanted to give the Harriet Bra from Amy a shot, and I knew from friends (and my research) that both the Marlborough Bra and Boylston Bra from Norma were great. I bought all three, and figured that just like when you're trying on bras in department stores, they're all going to fit differently and one will likely be better than the rest. I didn't plan to make multiples of each, rather make muslins and see which I liked best and go from there.
To my untrained bra making eye, the seam lines seemed quite similar between the Harriet and the Marlborough. The Boylston seam lines were the most different, and also it uses a handmade strap for the upper portion. So I decided to try the Marlborough and Harriet first, and see which I preferred.
Step Three: Fabric & Notions
Yeah, this is probably where most people come to a screeching halt, because even for me, this part still makes my head a bit nutty! Learning all about bra making and lingerie fabrics is a whole new thing. It doesn't matter if you've been sewing for a long time, because for the most part, these aren't fabrics you've used before unless you've made bras and lingerie in the past.
First thing I had to do is figure out what I actually had, because since I was gathering things haphazardly over many years, I really didn't know if I even had the right stuff to sew up these bras. After some inventory, it turns out that I did in fact have most of what I needed. But I still had a lot to learn. If you are just starting and aren't sure what to do, I highly suggest buying a kit where everything is included. This will give you everything you need to try out a pattern and learn what's what. And honestly, I'm still figuring it out, because what one shop might call one thing, another shop calls it something different! There is much trial and error to be had, and that is just part of the deal, so get comfortable with that idea from the start.
Once I figured out what I had, I then made a list of what I still needed. I ordered some fabric and notions from a few shops, and really had a great experience with all of them. These are the shops I bought everything from:
I also bought a few notions locally, but the bulk of my bra making materials came from the three shops above. There are a ton of other on-line stores, many of which I'm sure are lovely, but these are the only ones I tried and I was very happy with them all.
So, let's talk about the fabric and notions you're going to need, bit by bit.
I am still learning all there is to know about underwires, so I'm hardly an expert on this. But here's what I've learned. First, don't assume that what you're buying from a store is what you actually should be wearing. Second, don't assume that what the pattern tells you is right either! What I would suggest is to measure yourself as instructed by the pattern, then buy a range of underwire sizes in that ball park to see what really works best for you. I know you can buy long ones and cut them down, but honestly, I'm not doing that. I like buying the finished wires and I bet a lot of you do too.
In addition to the size, there's also shape to consider! Yay! This is one reason I really liked the shops I bought from listed above. Both Tailor Made and Emerald Studio, where I bought my underwires, know the indie pattern scene and are helpful with telling you which shapes work with what patterns. There's a lot of the guess work removed for you. So don't hesitate to ask them or to ask the pattern designer either. They're all so very helpful!
The shape I needed for the Marlborough and Harriet were the "classic". I also have some of the "demi" that I needed for the next pattern I tried, the Fenway Bra, also from Orange Lingerie.
You can see the clear difference in length and shape between the two when stacked together. The "demi" is shorter and dips lower, as the Fenway Bra is frameless and this fits the shape better. How will you know which you should use for which pattern? You won't! Nope. The patterns don't tell you this exactly. I get why, because there are so many factors to consider - size, shape, etc - so it's really good to have a few different ones on hand. Or get into the cutting thing.
2. Elastics & Channeling
OMG you guys, so many elastics! First lesson to know: the elastic along the neckline and under the arm, for the straps, along the bottom, and along the lace edge, are all different! Yeah, seriously. So again, if you've never sewn a bra and want to see how it goes, buy a kit! Don't buy a bulk spool of one elastic and think you can use it on every part of your bra, because you can't.
So, what's what? Here's a little cheat sheet:
- Fold Over Elastic (FOE) - this is elastic with a groove down the center that is to help you fold it in half for sewing. This is used for finishing edges on undies and some bras too.
- Lower Band Elastic - this has a plush side that goes against your body, and a non-plush side that goes against the bra. It likely will have some sort of picot edge, but not always. It is slightly wider than the elastic used for the armhole and neckline.
- Armhole & Neckline Elastic - just like the lower band elastic, but narrower.
- Strap Elastic - this ranges a lot from type to type, but the key difference I've found is that it's usually a bit thicker and more stable than the elastic used on the bra. Many are shiny on one side, and some have decorative picot edges. Note that this has to fit with your hardware, so be sure to check the width to make sure they're the same.
- Underwire Channeling - not actually elastic, but the other similar notion that you will need if you're sewing an underwire bra. This goes under the cup and the underwire feeds into it. More on that below...
If like me, you've never done anything like this before, you too might make the same rookie mistake I did with channeling. Just like with the elastics, the plush side goes against your body, and the underside faces the bra. Here's what no one told me, what no blog post mentions, and what all the patterns I have do not say: this is not just a flat piece of notion, but rather this is two layers sewn together that your underwire fit into. Okay, maybe the word channeling is a giveaway and I just missed the obvious, but I sincerely thought you sewed this to the bra, and the underwire went between it and the fabric. So the "channel" was made by sewing the notion to the fabric. Nope! The end opens up. But just looking at the end, you'd never know this. There's zero gape and at least to me, it wasn't obvious. And again, it's never mentioned anywhere on anything I read. So if you did this too, you're not alone! But obviously feeding the underwire into the channeling prevents it from being seen through the sheer fabrics, and also prevents it from poking through lace etc. Okay, moving on...
Every bra I've ever owned was made with a fabric that stretched, so it was a total surprise to me that the Harriet and Marlborough both called for non-stretch fabrics, except for the back portion that went from the side seam to the center back. Being completely stubborn on this, I totally ignored this and gathered up all kinds of stable and stretch fabrics to see what I liked.
I had a hard time remembering what was each fabric was called, and what pieces came from which store, so as each thing arrived from various shops, I labeled each piece of fabric, and made myself a swatch chart, pictured below:
Before you know it, "ivory", "beige", and "nude" all look the same and you'll forget which was which! So I found that this method helped me remember what was what, and where each piece was bought.
I also stocked up on gorgeous stretch laces, bra foam, and all kinds of fabrics that I thought I might want to try. The good news is that bras take so little fabric, so while you do need a lot of bits and pieces, you don't need much of each! All the lace on the left below are from Tailor Made Shop, and the lace and mesh on the right are from The Fabric Store in LA.
4. Hardware & Closures
Lastly you will need rings and sliders, as well as the hook and eye closures for the back of the bra. Again, I found a lot of variance out there. Things to keep in mind:
- Your rings and sliders must match the width of your strap elastic
- If you plan to move the straps around as I did (more on that below) you will need more than one set of rings per bra.
- Not all patterns are designed for all closure widths. So make sure you're buying the one that fits your pattern. They come in many sizes, but most bras will call for 1, 2, or 3 hook and eye sized closures. (Norma has a pattern for making your own if you'd prefer it all to match perfectly. Find it here.)
- The actual hooks and eyes come in a range of metal colors, so if you want them to match your rings and sliders, make note!
- And lastly, some hook and eyes have a little pocket for sewing, and some you have to fold over and form the pocket yourself. I didn't notice that they weren't all the same, and was surprised by this.
The red one on the right has a pocket to slide the bra end into, where the one on the left does not, and you have to fold the left side under the right side to fit the bra end into. Both are fine, but they are quite different to work with and as a new bra maker, I didn't notice the difference when I was buying them.
Step Four: Making Muslins
Phew! Okay, now that you've picked a pattern and gathered everything, it's finally time to sew up a bra! For the sake of science, I decided to sew the Marlborough Bra and the Harriet Bra in the exact same fabric and notions, so I could clearly see how they were different.
The first step is to measure yourself and figure out the size. If you've read anything about bra making already, you likely know this fun fact: you cannot test the fit until you've sewn the entire bra. The reason is because the fit is entirely dependent on each little bit. So while you think you might be able to test the bra without finishing the bottom or adding the straps, you simply cannot. So like I mentioned above, just get comfortable with the notion that you will have some waste and not all of them are going to be winners.
I followed the measuring advice of both Norma and Amy, and decided to go (mostly) with their suggestions. In real life I buy and wear a 36B. I've never been professionally measured and this size was chosen because it felt the best to me. Is it the "right" size? Honestly, who knows! So I didn't just assume that this was the size to sew. With Norma's measuring I was to make a 38B, and with Amy's it instructed me to sew a 34D. Clearly these are hugely different. But what I've learned is that the volume from one size and letter to another is the same, and that because these bras are designed differently, they fit differently.
I decided to sew up the Marlborough in the suggested 38B and the Harriet in a 34C, going down one cup size from the suggestion. Also, it should be noted that unlike the pattern suggestion, I chose to sew them using stretch fabrics and not non-stretch fabrics. This will of course change the fit tremendously, but since I knew I wanted my finished bras to be sewn in stretch (I just find that more comfortable) I wanted to test it in this way too.
So here are my first two test bras! The Marlborough is on the top and the Harriet is on the bottom. I used the exact same fabric for each and sewed them exactly as instructed, with the exception of swapping out non-stretch for stretch of course.
Honestly, the fit on both of these right out of the envelope was better than any store bought bra I owned. I sincerely couldn't believe it! I was shocked and excited! Since both fit great, the big difference was how they actually made my boobs look. To determine this, I took a series of photos: first me straight ahead in a mirror in just the bra, and then the same thing but from a profile. Then I did both of those same shots with a t-shirt on. (Sorry, you're not getting any photos of me in my bra here! So you'll have to trust me on how they fit!) Both were really great, but the key difference was this: the Harriet pushed my boobs forward and the Marlborough pulled my boobs up. Both are good, depending on what you're wearing. For example, if I were wearing something that showed cleavage and I wanted a more "up and out" shape to my bust, for sure the Harriet is perfect. But for more everyday "hiked up" support for my 46-year old bust, I liked the Marlborough more. If I had just tried one or the other, I would have been fine with either one. But I did ever so slightly prefer the Marlborough. Though note: the Harriet is a wee sexier if that's the game plan for the bra! Anyway...
I then set out to make a few more! First, I sewed one up in the suggested non-stretch fabric, using a black dot mesh from my stash that I think I got at Mood ages ago:
Because it didn't use stretch like my muslin, the fit was of course, quite different! It technically still fits, and I could see wearing it for dinner out and then for someone special, but it's for sure not an all-day kinda bra. For that, I know I prefer stretch.
The only change I made to this pattern was to move the sliders (the adjustable part of the strap) to the back of the bra. I didn't like that on the original muslin, the slider part hit my body right at the top of my shoulders, so I knew I wanted to move that to the middle of my back. This is just personal preference.
Next up, I went back to stretch fabrics and decided to try something almost completely sheer:
I used a nearly sheer mesh for the whole bra and lavender colored elastics for the top and bottom. This is a pretty bra to wear, but obviously it doesn't hide anything at all! I also found that despite sewing a 38B, the 36 underwires fit my bust better, so I stocked up on size 36, knowing that this was for sure the one that fit me best.
And then the last Marlborough Bra I made is the one at the top of this post, the one made entirely in black lace. This one fits me the best and has totally become my everyday bra.
Pictured above is the bra, after a solid month of wearing it non-stop. It's held up really well, but since I only used stretch lace and didn't line it with either non-stretch mesh or stretch mesh, the lace is starting to stretch a bit. But, honestly I haven't washed it yet, and have worn it a lot, so I bet it will bounce back after a wash. I really wanted to test its limits and see how it would hold up. And I must say that I'm seriously impressed.
I absolutely never bought non-foam bras from the store, because I couldn't get the same support from those only made with stretch, and I'm so glad that I tired this, because wearing bras without foam, but with enough support, is a serious game changer. They look and feel gorgeous, and they are so incredibly fun to make. Once you get over the hump, they become really really fun. And once you get the steps down, they actually sew up super fast. This black bra probably took about 2 hours from start to finish. But that's because I'd sewn a few by then, and knew all the steps, and had all the fabric and notions on hand and ready to go. If you stick with it, you will get there too!
I have since also sewn Norma's newest bra, the Fenway, and love it too!
This version above was my first attempt at it and I need to make a few pattern alterations before I try my second one, but it's super pretty and I am excited to keep making more!
I hope this helps some of you on your bra making adventures as well! And please feel free to ask me anything in the comments below! I'm happy to give you an insight I've learned along the way. And HUGE thank you to Norma and Amy for designing these amazing bra patterns, and for showing us that we can do it!