An adventure in bra making
This summer I finally worked up the resolve to make not one but two bras, plus co-ordinating knickers. To my astonishment the experience worked out so well I am now working on bra number three.
The incentive I needed occurred a few months earlier when I had my first big social outing in a long time and wanted nice underthings under my posh frock. Everything in my underwear drawer looked like it had seen better days, with the exception of a lingerie set that, as I didn’t like it so much, was still pretty pristine and so, by default, it became my go-to under-pinning for the occasion.
Searching online, I was pretty disillusioned with the offers from the usual high street/online retailers in my price bracket. Additionally, I was reluctant to go through the palaver of an in-person shopping trip or over-ordering online just to find something dull that fitted.
It was time to pluck up some courage and revisit my six-year old and embarrassingly-pristine copy of Norma Loehr’s book Demystifying Bra Fitting and Construction. It’s an easy read and really does handhold you through the whole process. The thing that had deterred me previously was all the various – and mysterious – supplies required for a bra and just where to source them.
The mysteries of underwires
Working out which size to make was another challenge as every pattern designer has their own sizing formula. As for underwires, they were unfathomable. I’ve now got a better grasp of what they do and how they are sized, but it remains a dark art. I ended up buying about a dozen different pairs in a range of styles and sizes to test them out till I found a good fit. Some arrived unlabelled, without any colour coding on the tips or did not have sizes marked on them, which just added to my confusion.
Once I finally identified the correct pair for me, I immediately purchased another five pairs, so I had no excuses for not completing my first bra, and then several more pairs besides.
Norma Loehr’s Orange Lingerie Marlborough bra pattern was my starting point. I chose it because the design lines are similar to the supportive bras for larger cup sizes that I used to purchase back in the days of bra shopping. And the pattern is a good foundation (see what I did there?) to be adventurous with colours and laces to turn out some very different looks across several bras.
Getting my head around fabrics – and elastics
To help get my head around the multitude of materials and elastics, I opted to start with a fabrics and notion kit: Spice Bomb from Sewing Chest here in the UK. This included one metre of 18cm wide symmetrical lace; a small piece of duoplex (low stretch knit fabric made from polyester) for the bra cups and cradle; and a small piece of power net (four-way stretch mesh) for the bra band.
The fabrics were complemented by lengths of bra wire casing, shoulder strap elastic, plush elastics for the under band and under arms, clear elastic for the underside of the lace upper cups, a bra back fastener, a selection of rings and sliders and two tiny bows.
All this was sufficient for me to make a test cup, a bra toile and the final bra. Although I did end up supplementing the kit with some sheer nylon Marquisette to line the bra, some extra duplex for matching knickers and a power mesh in a heavier (180gsm) weight because the fabric that came with the kit seemed rather light when I made my toile.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. First I had to pick a size and I got it wrong. I measured once, Mr G measured twice and we came up with different sets of numbers. Then, somehow I managed to interpret those results into three potential sizes.
In hindsight, my ego was at completely at work when I picked the smallest potential size (36 D) to assemble a test cup, complete with bra wire casing and wire. This effort was a no-hoper. Having cut into my precious Forster Rohner lace for an upper cup piece and with no chance of salvaging it, I decided not to waste any more of the embroidered scalloped edging and use the plain netting area of the lace for future test efforts.
I revisited my measurements and, taking a leap of faith, ran up a full bra toile (everything but the band and under arm elastics) in the largest potential size in my measurement range – 36DDD, or 36F in the UK, which is also my Marks and Spencer ready-to-wear size. Miraculously, it was a perfect fit.
If I was being picky I could, perhaps, pinch out some miniscule wrinkling in one of the lower cups, but it was too slight to worry about. I was also keen to get some real making experience under my belt.
I salvaged the findings, underwires and fastener from the toile and took the – ahem – plunge. After carefully cutting the upper-cup pieces from my lace, I stowed away every off-cut to cobble together sufficient trims for two pairs of Orange Lingerie Montgomery knickers. Phew.
Those pesky underwires – again
Mr G’s skills were put to good use again when it came to cutting the bra wires. I was perplexed to find they were too long for the finished bra as they had fitted okay in the toile. Then I realised that the frame and band depth had been reduced when I attached the under arm plush elastic.
Consulting my bra book, I discovered there was more to trimming the underwires than simply snipping them to fit into the casing. Wire play – or the need for the underwire to be able to flex in the casing as you move – is also a consideration. Luckily there is a formula for this. So Mr G measured, cut and sealed the ends of the wires with epoxy resin for a smooth finish. I left the wires overnight for the resin to cure and then inserted then into the casing and machined the edges to close. Ta dah – my bra was finished.
Embracing my mistakes
I was so delighted with my first bra, I immediately made a second and made a load of new but different mistakes. Normally when that happens in regular garment sewing, I find it incredibly disheartening. But this time I was uncharacteristically philosophical. I think it is because with each bra I am learning so much more about the intricacies (and the requirement for precision) of bra sewing. More about my progress next time.