Choosing Your Pattern Starting Size

In this article, you will learn how to use your body measurements to choose your starting pattern sizes for dresses, blouses, jackets, coats, and skirts. You will also learn about the importance of finished garment measurements (FGMs).

Now, that you’ve taken your measurements and the angst has subsided, it is time to put them to good use.

You will be comparing your body measurements for your bust, waist, and hips to the standard body measurements on the back of the pattern envelope.

Choosing Your Starting Pattern Size

To choose your starting pattern size, simply circle the measurements that are closest to your measurements for bust, waist, and hips.

And do keep in mind that it is unlikely that all three measurements will fall under one size.

Dresses, Tops, Jackets, & Coats

Choosing Your Starting Pattern Size

The Big 4 pattern companies –Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity, and Vogue– draft their patterns for a B cup?!

This can present a huge fit problem if you have generous bosom — C cup or larger — but a small frame. In other words, choosing your starting pattern size based on your FULL bust measurement could result in a garment that is too large for you in the neck, shoulders, and armholes.

So what is a woman to do?!

I am a C cup with a smallish upper body. So here’s what I do…

I compare my HIGH bust measurement to the standard bust measurement listed on the back of the pattern envelope to choose my starting pattern size.

For example, my HIGH bust measurement is 32½ inches but my FULL bust measurement is 36½ inches. That means, that there is a full 4 inches difference.

So if I was to choose my starting pattern size based on my FULL bust measurement– a size 14, the finished garment would be a HUGE ugly mess on me around my shoulders, neckline, upper back, chest, and armhole areas!

Sew a Dress - Vogue 9237 - Step 1

Instead, I choose the bust size that is closest to –but not smaller than– my HIGH bust measurement. For me, this is a size 10. This helps to ensure that I get closer to achieving a good fit in the areas above my bust, regardless of my cup size.

So the key to fitting our actual frame is to remove our breasts from the equation and use our HIGH bust measurement.

Failure to do so will result in a Gaposis — a gaping, hot mess around your neckline, shoulders, chest, and armholes! And you can’t flaunt that!

In addition, depending on the silhouette, you may have to do a Small Bust Adjustment (SBA) or a Full Bust Adjustment (FBA). A SBA removes fullness while a FBA adds fullness to the bust area.

Sew easy tip: Many patterns from the Big 4 pattern companies now offer a range of cup sizes in one pattern. In other words, they are kind enough to do the SBA or FBA for you. Just keep in mind that when choosing your pattern size with these types of patterns, do NOT use your bra size as the guide. Instead, follow their directions for choosing your pattern size!

RELATED: Nancy Zieman has a very interesting technique for choosing pattern size. She calls it the Right Size Measurement. I tried it. And I’m a size 10 with her method too!

Two-Piece Dress: Top & Skirt

If a pattern is a two-piece dress, which is just a skirt and top, then use your HIGH bust measurement to choose your starting pattern size.

Because it is so much less frustrating to adjust waist and hip than it is to fuss with the fit at the neckline, shoulders, chest, and armholes!


To choose your starting pattern size for FITTED skirts, use your full hip measurement.

And for FULL skirts, you can use your waist measurement.

Okay, now that you’ve got your starting pattern size, it’s time to consider your preferred fit…

Finished Garment Measurements (FGMs) & Preferred Fit

Some of us like our clothes to passionately hug our bodies. Others of us can’t bear for them to touch us anywhere. And still others, like myself, are all about our clothes lovingly skimming our curves, but definitely not clinging!

This is all about ease and your preferred fit.

And the best way to get a fit you love is to refer to the FGMs, which are the actual size of the finished garment at the bust, waist, and hip.

FGMs provide clues to how the constructed garment will fit!

You can often find them on the back of the pattern envelope.

What Are Sewing Notions

And if they are not there, you can check the actual FRONT tissue pattern piece. Look for this symbol…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Once you’ve decided on your starting pattern size, get out your fiberglass tape measure and test out the FGMs listed for that size. This will help determine if the starting pattern size will result in a garment with your preferred fit.

Just place the tape around your bust, waist, or hips, using the FGM stated for each. Then, look at the amount of space between your body and the tape measure. And ask yourself:

Is this  too much ease for me? Or is this too little ease? It’s your choice!

Sew easy tip #1: If the FGMs aren’t listed on the back of the envelope or the tissue pattern, you can also measure the tissue pattern pieces yourself. Just make sure to exclude seam allowances, darts, pleats, and tucks from the total measurement. Click HERE to learn more about ease and FGMs.

Sew easy tip #2: FGMs are the most useful to you if you know the amount of ease you prefer for the silhouette you will be sewing.

The Good News

Once you’ve determined your starting size, it is usually the same for patterns from the Big Four pattern companies.

This is because they all use the same standard body measurements. Where they vary is in the amount of ease they draft into their patterns.

Okay, then…

You’re now ready to adjust your sewing pattern!

The End

Well, look at you!

You now know how to take your body measurements accurately and how to choose your starting pattern size.

And do you know what this means?!

It means that you’re ready to learn the definition of a good fit and tips for making basic fit alterations to your sewing patterns that will allow you to sew garments you are proud to flaunt!

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!

RELATED: Click HERE if you’re ready to unleash your dressmaking superpowers and learn how to sew a simple dress! Warning: This is a MEGA 5-part series!