I have a good friend who is just starting to learn how to sew. She’s currently making corsets and skirts, and I keep encouraging her to start making bras, because ‘they’re easy’ I say.
Today’s blog post is for all those who want to venture into bra making at home. I have provided a drawing with names of parts and pieces you may encounter, and below I’ll outline more about what I personally use and where you can purchase supplies for home bra making.
Might as well start with what I think is the most important piece of most bras, the underwire!
Getting good quality underwires, in larger cup sizes, can be quite a challenge! There are a few places online you can find different sizes, shapes and types. Wires can be made out of just plain metal, nylon coated steel, or even plastic.
I typically choose a nylon covered steel underwire, and I try to choose one that is strong, yet flexible and doesn’t contort when I ‘spring’ it open.
Wires also come in different shapes. Balconette shapes, strapless shapes, plunge shapes, etc. You need to choose the right wire for your project so that it 1) fits into the bra when sewn and 2) is the right shape for the style of your bra.
Sizing for wires is a bit unusual looking due to cross-grading or ‘sister sizing’. 34B is known as the industry sample size, so the wire size used in a 34B is labelled 34. A 36B will be 36, and a 38B, a 38. Because of cross-grading, a 34B bra is equal in cup size to both a 32C and 36A - so both of those bras will also use a size 34 underwire. Below is a chart to show you the cross-grades.
This chart shows the cross-grading, or 'sister sizing' of underwires. The 'B' cup size is the base, as the wire size matches the band. Note, there are bra sizes outside of what is listed - the chart covers wired bras that I can find available commercially, with the exception of Ewa Michalak sizes as the company produces underwires exclusively for its own use based on the designer's own theories and ideas.
It's important to note that on small bands and cups (AAA/AA/A) the smallest wire used is a 30. In these bra sizes, the width of the cup and wire remains, and the depth of the cup will be reduced. I don't personally have enough experience to comment, but find the rationing sound. The same could be said for larger cups that at a certain point the wire should stop grading wider and deeper and rather the cup should become deeper. Again, I don't have quite enough experience here to comment, but would love to research this idea further.
Straps can be thick or thin, stretch or non-stretch. A bit of stretch is nice for comfort, and it’s best to choose a strap width suitable for the size of the bra. A larger cup or band will traditionally have a slightly wider strap.
When choosing a stretch strap, you don’t want a strap that is ‘too stretchy’ or you will find that the bra feels ‘bouncy’. For smaller sizes, choose a strap in the range of 40 - 50% stretch, and for larger cup sizes, look for something firmer with 40% stretch or less.
The sides of the bra are normally made from power net or mesh. The band of the bra does most of the work, not the shoulder straps, so again, it’s best to choose something suitable based on the size or level of support of the bra. The band can also be made out of rigid materials, but you’ll need to consider this when drafting your pattern and elasticate the underarm and underhand accordingly.
Underband & Underarm
The top and bottom edges of the wing/band will be stitched with elastic. The width of elastic will vary depending on personal preference/comfort. In larger cup or band sizes, the elastic will be wider, but typically only along the bottom edge. You wouldn’t want a bulky half-inch elastic in your armpit!
Hooks & Eyes
These will come in various widths to be sewn on the back of your bra. One hook (19mm) is suitable for smaller bra sizes - although I have seen it up to a 36F! Two hooks are available as a narrow (28mm) and wide (38mm) and a 3 hook is around 57mm. Choose the width that you find most comfortable. Something to note - the hook portion of the bra will ALWAYS be sewn on the right hand side of the bra when it’s on the body, and the eyes on the left. There will also typically be 3 columns of eyes. This is so that you can tighten the band of the bra as the elastic wears and stretches.
Rings/Sliders & Adjusters
You’ll need some rings and sliders for your bra if you plan to adjust the shoulder straps. I personally don’t use rings, and instead stock up on sliders. Sliders are available in metal, nylon coated metal, and plastic. For durability, I always choose a metal slider, and to make use of limited inventory typically stick with silver and gold for easy colour matching.
You’ll need to make sure that your strap elastic fits nicely through your rings and sliders and can easily be adjusted. Choose a slider that is the same width as your elastic, or up to 1 - 2mm larger at most. If you choose to use rings to connect the strap to the front or back of the bra, you can usually get away with a ring a few mm smaller than your shoulder strap.
This can be a bit more tricky. For smaller bra sizes, you can almost get away with any type of fabric in the cup if the breast will not put a lot of strain on the fabric. Larger cups need firmer fabrics, with specialist bra fabric being ideal.
Lace, embroidery, firm nylon denier, simplex and duoplex are all fabrics that are traditionally used in bra cups - along with pre-shaped or moulded polyurethane foam.
There are many names for this part of the bra, and it comes in many shapes, sizes and forms. This part of the bra, that connects the cups, is rigid and has no stretch. Typically, you would use a coordinating or matching cup fabric and stabilize the back with a layer of non-stretch fabric like the nylon denier, or with double-sided fusible interfacing, you could laminate two pieces of fashion fabric, alternating the grain lines for increased strength.
A ‘cradleless’ bra will not have any fabric at the bottom of the cups, and the wire casing would be sewn directly to the bra cups, and not the cradle or frame of the bra. It will have just a small strip of fabric connecting the cups, or a small triangular shaped piece to attach them together.
To complete your bra, it’ll also be helpful to pick up such things as wire casing if you’re making a bra with wires, bows for covering stitch lines at the apex, where the strap connects to the cup, and coordinating thread. If you’re wanting a truly professional look, you may also want some narrow denier to cover seam allowances, although I’ve not found a successful way to apply it without a specialist machine.
I wanted to include some other words that you may come across when looking at bra patterns or tutorials. One thing I noticed studying in the UK was the fact that the APEX was where the strap connects to the cup of the bra, and the POINT OF BUST was the deepest part of the cup, where the nipple would sit. In North America, and possibly other countries, the APEX would be the fullest point on the bust, so do follow instructions carefully.
I also find that there are many names for a cup that has a panel on the side of the breast for an increased projected shape. Some may call it a side panel, power bar or sling.
Below are some links where you can find the supplies needed to make your own bras at home. If I’ve missed anything, or you have a shop I should add, please leave a comment or send a message!
Note: I’ve only listed sources that I have personally used before. Searching online you’ll be able to find other retailers that have small accessories and a variety of fabrics.
Made by Niki eBay Shop (unit427)
Vena Cava Design
Bra Makers Supply
Etsy for lace & embroideries
PRESS RELEASE: SMALL TOWN ALBERTA WOMAN FOLLOWS BIG DREAMS: Canadian studies lingerie design in UK, returns for Western Canada Fashion Week before starting dream design job in Germany
As a young woman, Kimberly Hamilton of Lloydminster, Alberta struggled to find bras in larger cup sizes. A selection of lingerie beyond a DD cup wasn’t widely available and in 2001, she discovered European brands at a small independent bra boutique in Edmonton and was hooked. Kimberly worked there during her Business Administration studies at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and continued to work in the bra boutique after her graduation in 2003, as a seamstress and bra-fitter for five years.
Always passionate about sewing and fitting garments, she studied locally in Edmonton with designer and pattern drafting instructor, Trudy Jansen, as well as travelling to Humboldt, Saskatchewan to train with Canada’s own bra-sewing guru, Beverly Johnson of Hamilton, Ontario.
In 2012, Ms. Hamilton decided to move from Edmonton to Leicester, United Kingdom, to pursue a Contour Fashion Degree at De Montfort University (DMU). The program, established in 1947, was created to support the local corset industry. Contour Fashion at DMU is the oldest and most successful degree-level course in intimate apparel and is widely regarded by industry experts as one of the best in the world. In July 2015, Kimberly graduated with First Class Honours and is working to establish herself as an intimates designer with her brand, Kimtimates.
“Returning to studies later in life was certainly challenging,” says Kimberly, who left a stable marketing job at the corporate offices of a regional bank, and her eight year marriage to pursue her dream to design lingerie. “The journey was certainly worth it. I had a clear idea in my mind that I wanted to learn everything that I could about designing larger cup bras, and how to create better fitting bras. I’ve had many incredible opportunities to work with people in the industry, and found a supportive mentor to guide me, and now I’ve landed my dream job, straight out of university. It’s never too late to follow your dreams, no matter how big they are,” she says.
Kimberly’s degree collection of six outfits, The Enigma Collection, is inspired by WWII codebreaking technology found at Bletchley Park, in the UK. It features highly detailed laser cut elements she custom-designed for the collection, silk trims and sheer panels, along with braided cord strap details and Swarovski crystals. The collection has been designed with the fuller-busted woman in mind with garments produced in 32GG and bottoms offering more coverage than most commercial lingerie designs.
The Enigma Collection will be featured on the catwalk Tuesday, September 22nd, as part of Western Canada Fashion Week (WCFW), held at the ATB Financial Arts Barns in Edmonton. WCFW is Canada’s second-largest fashion week and is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
In October, Kimberly will relocate to Flensburg, Germany to join LACE GmbH as their Designer, working on full-busted blouses, lingerie and swimwear in bra sizes 30 - 38 E - H.
Since I’ve parted ways with my fabric stash in the UK to return to Canada, there won’t be much sewing the next few weeks. I’ve put together a couple posts on my favourite things, machines and equipment, but I have to tell you, at the end of the day, I spend more time on my computer than I do sewing - so here’s the last little bit of information that I have to share with you that relates to the ‘tools of the trade’.
The great thing about being a student and attending university is the access to computers and software. My three years at uni saw three different laptop computers, and a desktop computer, and I paid the price multiple times over in not investing in a proper computer to do my studies. Having a laptop repeatedly die on you is not a fun feeling when deadlines are just around the corner.
I’m not sure who my blog is tailored to - but if you’re a student, I’d recommend getting the best and most powerful laptop you can comfortably afford. I struggled my first two years with hand-me-down laptops that didn’t have enough RAM to even work Photoshop properly, which led to me avoiding it at all costs…and there’s now a little ‘gap’ in my knowledge. Having something with enough power to run the Adobe Creative Suite (you’ll use Illustrator & Photoshop like crazy, along with InDesign) will make you slightly less crazy.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been gifted a brand new Mac Book Pro as my graduation/birthday/Christmas…whatever else holiday/gift-giving event we can jam in there, as it was a very extravagant gift (thank you Andy!). To be honest, I should have bought one sooner. This laptop was made to run the fancy graphics programs that graphic designers use, and it seamlessly connects with the other Apple devices I have in my life, like my phone and iPad.
Buy yourself a good computer/laptop. It’s not something you’ll regret. Oh, and get a warranty, or make sure you’re covered. Laptop #3 was brand new, and it still imploded within weeks.
As I’ve mentioned before, we use a lot of Adobe Creative Suite for our studies. On the first two laptops I had versions of the software on there, but as these laptops started to die, I had to rely on the University. Going to and from the library wasn’t the most productive way for me to work as I get distracted easily. In the end I decided to subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud to get access. It’s that free 30-day trial that sucked me in.
The first year the subscription was barely affordable. They tempt you in with a student discount, after the free trial, and for the first twelve months I was paying $23.58 CDN per month…and then after the first 12 months…that price then jumped to $42.52 CDN. **gulp**
I can’t imagine my life without Illustrator though. It’s where I draft all of my patterns. The advantage to designing lingerie is that most of the pattern pieces will fit on A3, so you can easily print everything you need. All of my portfolio pieces and my resume are in Adobe Illustrator or InDesign, so I feel that I need to keep up with this subscription. The biggest advantage with the subscription, is that I can keep adding it to all these new laptops (LOL!) easily enough. You download the software and sign-in. You can actively be signed in on two computers - so I’m also able to access it on my partner’s computer as well. Easy peasy.
With that said, if you can invest in an A3 printer, your life will be so much easier. Print your pattens at home, cut out and sew. You’ll have a copy on the computer that you can just hit ‘print’ again if you need another copy, and can make edits in Illustrator as you work.
There is an add-on that I’ve bought to make my patterns in Illustrator easier to check. It’s a measurement app, dynamic measure, part of Vector Scribe, from Astute Graphics. Again, you can get a free 14-day trial, and then spend something like £50, and then with a quick click of the tool on the tool bar you can measure your construction lines and make sure pieces will match up.
Another thing that I subscribe to is Foundations Revealed. It’s not software, or technology, but I thought I could share this resource here. It’s a fantastic website where fellow designers, mostly corset related, will share information about their projects with detailed instructions, as well as business knowledge and advice. It’s a great little community, and I am not on there enough. One day, I’ll make more corsets. I pay in US dollars, and it’s roughly between $6 and $7 a month - although I also believe that this is my student subscription price.
Alright, back to software & technology.
Another bit of software that we have access to at the University is Lectra Modaris. This is the fancy-pants CAD program where we can develop our pattern pieces and grade them. It’s widely used in industry…and is expensive. It’s not something I can afford on my own for home use. If I was having stuff made in a factory, they’d want my files in software like this, or Gerber, so that everything would come out rosy. I did have a lecturer that did freelance at home, she had invested in the system. Rumour had it, the system is about a £10,000 investment to start, and then about £1,000 per year after that for the licence and service contract. The investment is so large because you’ll need a high-spec computer to run the program, a pattern digitizer to get your patterns into the program, and if you want to print anything off, chances are you’ll also need a plotter printer - so, it’s a hearty investment for most.
One of the little tools I’ve taken a slight interest in, is this little Wacom drawing tablet. I really don’t enjoy drawing, and thought that I might like to use it to draw straight into the computer. A year later, I’m still learning how it works, but it’s great to draw little freehand gathers, and it’s brilliant for drawing hair. If I left it plugged in more, I’d probably use it more. But again, if I did more drawing that’d also do the trick!
I can’t think of anything else that I’d recommend to get your hands on from a software & technology point of view. The only other thing I can suggest is to always have a half-decent camera on you to take photos of things that inspire you! My tutors would say a mini-sketchbook, but we all know that’s not going to happen with me! And last but not least, these tired eyes don’t do well with laptop screens, so I’ve always added monitor, having even two monitors with my desktop PC so that I can ‘multi-task’. You know how that works…
You don’t need fancy machines and accessories to make beautiful lingerie at home. Most modern domestic machines will have a variety of stitches for you to use, and a quality machine will be able to handle the lightest and most delicate fabrics.
Here’s a breakdown of the machines, stitches and accessories I have for sewing lingerie at home.
Bernina Activa 130 in Canada
Bernina Activa 140 in the UK
This is my Activa 140 in the UK. She's my lovely Swiss Miss and handles delicate and stretch fabrics with ease. I picked her up off Gumtree and she's been a fantastic purchase. I bought my Activa 130 back in Canada straight from the dealer in 2000. These machines are a worthy investment. Note: the Activa 130 just has a few less embroidery stitches.
Brother Innovis-30 in the UK
All three machines have the stitches that are commonly used in lingerie.
Here’s a breakdown of what stitches you’ll need for lingerie design.
2.5 for seams
2 – 3.5 for top stitching
4 – 5 for basting
Industrial Equivalent: Bartack Machine
I use this as a bartack and a way to finish off raw elastic ends because it's really just a tiny zig zag stitch.
Zig Zag/Cross Stitch
Industrial Equivalent: Zig Zag Machine
Various widths for different needs such as stitching on elastic.
3 Step Zig Zag
Industrial Equivalent: 3-Step Zig Zag Machine
Also used for stitching on elastic.
Janome Coverpro 100 CPX
Industrial Equivalent: Coverhem
This machine just opens up your designs to more finishing options on the hems of camisoles and nightgowns, as well as leg openings on knickers. It has various configurations with either 3 needles, 2 wide, two narrow, or a single needle for a chainstitch.
I leave mine set up as a wide twin needle for leg openings of knickers.
Toyota SL3335 4-Thread Overlocker
Domestic 2, 3, 4-Thread Overlocker/Serger
Industrial Equivalent: 3 & 4-thread overlock
Having an overlocker is a necessity for things like side seams on knickers and you’ll find lots of other uses for it as well. When I picked apart a pricy Belgian bra, I was shocked to find that the cut raw edges of all of their embroidery had been overlocked. Might give that a go here too!
Polyester (Gutermann 120 Mara)
In my ‘favourite things’ post – I shared with you what I love about the Gutermann Mara thread. When you’re using an overlocker and coverhem – you will also need to invest in nylon/bulk/wooly nylon threads. These threads have stretch in them, and they are the bottom thread of the seam and are fed through the machine’s loopers.
Accessories you’ll want to invest in:
Zipper Foot & Invisible Zipper Foot
Most sewing machines likely come with a zipper foot. For my Bernina, I invested in an invisible zipper foot that makes life substantially easier for sewing in an invisible zip.
This little foot is fantastic for adding a strip of bias binding on places like top cups! Love this creature! With this foot I have to cut small strips on the bias, about 25mm wide, and then fold over and press into the strip to stitch in place.
I’ve played quite a bit with this foot, but haven’t used it yet in any of my garments. I think it would add some fantastic pleats to a camisole or skirted knicker. I tried to sew a sample for you today as well - but I just couldn't get it to work. **cries**
Rolled Hem Foot
Making silky camisoles, nightgowns or French knickers? You’ll want one of these to do the hems to make your life much easier! These come in different sizes, and I chose the smallest one as it seemed more appropriate for lingerei.
What machines or accessories do you need to make your favourite designs?!
Educating women on the benefits of proper fitting bras is important to Kim. Designing lingerie that complements the fuller figure, and is comfortable, on-trend and beautifully constructed is her mission.
We are in charge of our bodies, and we make the decisions that are right for us, with no judgement. Kimtimates supports those who make their own choices about their own bodies. #yourbodyyourchoice #mybodymychoice