Wearing Ease

(Edited to add a comment/question written by Kara.  Thank you, Kara, great observations.)

I received an interesting phone call last week from the alterationist that I send folks to, Hsiao Fang. When I gave up a school account a year or so ago, she started taking the measurements for the new company as this was a long distance operation. I hear from her periodically when she calls to discuss altering ID dresses that I send her way.

This time, she called to ask me if I, as an ID dressmaker, add ease to my patterns and if so, how much. I said yes, and that I add 2 inches at the waist, 3 at the bust, and a bit in a couple of extra places. (My specific amounts come from Susan.) Hsiao Fang breathed a sigh of relief and went on a rant about how that was how she was trained (as a tailor), and about moving bodies, and about dresses coming in from this company with ABSOLUTELY (her emphatic emphasis) no ease at all, and that parents were coming to her to alter brand new dresses that could not be zipped when they arrived. The parents are complaining about this and about sleeves that do not allow any movement at all and are so tight at the armscye that the dancers get rubbed raw! The parents and the TC want Hsiao Fang to add ease when she takes the measurements, but I was in total agreement with her that that is not her job! She was in quite an understandable snit and last I heard was going to stop taking the measurements.

She asked me several questions about the company making the dresses…I really know nothing about them…but I was just as bewildered as she. She told me about her conversation with the dressmakers about how they did want exact measurements from her with no extra room added into them, and then her surprise when the dresses would come in with those exact measurements and sometimes smaller! She asked me if I thought they were using generic patterns, “…grabbing the one with the 36 inch bust measurement if that was the measurement sent with no thought to the other measurements or wearing ease!” The last straw was a dress just brought to her that had been made to the exact bust measurement with no attention to the large waist measurement, and this brand new dress had a 6 inch gap at the zipper at the waist…Hsiao Fang was beside herself because there was absolutely not that much fabric in the seams to let that out!

Most home sewers do not really think about wearing ease because it is built in (along with design ease) to the patterns that we buy at the store…could this company be employing a dressmaker who does not know about wearing ease?  Susan wrote the following on her website:

 A Note About Ease
Dress and pattern makers talk about two kinds of ease: “Fashion (or Design) Ease” and
“Wearing Ease.” “Fashion (or Design) Ease” is the first kind. This is the extra fabric that
the dress designer puts into a garment to achieve the desired look. Sweat pants have a lot
of fashion ease. A bathing suit does not. Fashion ease is what has traditionally made
determining a pattern size difficult for the consumer. You select a pattern based on your
body measurements and sometimes it fits you well. Other times you find the same sized
pattern is “too big” or “too small”. That’s because you really don’t know for sure how
“baggy” or how “tight” the fit has been designed.

The second kind of ease is “Wearing Ease.” You need your dress to be bigger than your
measurements so you can breathe, turn, sit, raise your arms. In the real world you’d want
to be able to tie your own shoes and comb your own hair. In Irish Dance dresses, you
need at least an inch in the waist and about 2” in the bust extra. You really do want to
keep the waist snug so that the weight of the skirt is carried on the hips rather than on the
shoulders. If the waist is too loose, the skirt collapses inward and won’t hang right. So,
no matter how much you want to leave some “extra for growth,” the waist isn’t the place
to do it.

Susan does not add any hidden ease into the Feisdress Pattern.  What does that mean?  If I get a pattern at the fabric store, the measurements on the back are actual body measurements, not pattern measurements.  So, if I buy a pattern that has 3 inches of ease in the bust, if I have a 36 inch bust, the measurement on the pattern envelope says 36 inches, not 39.  The measurements that Susan publishes for her pattern are PATTERN measurements which means you have to decide on the ease you want.  If you have a 36 inch bust and buy the pattern that has a 36 inch bust, you will not be able to breathe (if you can manage to get the bodice zipped in the first place) unless you add ease.

So I take exact measurements (see Measuring for the Feisdress pattern & Measuring the Upper Chest & Troubleshooting Sleeve Issues ), plug them into my excel sheet which adds the ease that I want, and then decide which Feisdress pattern to start with (I alter this to make sure all measurements are as they should be).  I fit solo and school dresses differently in that the solo dresses fit closer.  For school dresses, unless a dancer has stopped growing, I actually make them a bit loose to begin with because parents want to see visible growing room when the dress is delivered!  I do admit that seeing the dress loose to begin with offends my dressmaker’s pride, but I totally understand the parents’ perspective.  I add ties inside the dress so that the waist fits snugly…any looseness in the back is hidden by the cape.  And, I make sure they also understand that there are huge seam allowances at the sides of the bodice and zipper, at the top of the skirt and at the bottom of the bodice so that the dress can be let out and down perhaps a couple of times…I actually add the same to solo dresses.

So fellow dressmakers, how do you deal with ease?  What do you add and where?  Do you fit school dresses differently than solos?  Do you build in large seam allowances for future alterations?  Would love to hear from you on this.

Kara wrote:

Since I have been making mostly off the rack dresses, exact fit to a particular body has not been an issue.  However, as I am selling these dresses and getting questions about fit, I’ve had a couple of thoughts and questions of my own.  Say I am selling a dress with a 32 chest measurement and a 27 waist measurement and someone emails me and says “I love the dress but the chest is too big for my 30″ daughter”  Am I correct in advising them that if the 30″ measurement is an exact chest measurement than this dress should fit fine in the chest?  An example that I just experienced was an OTR that was the exact measurements of a dancer.  She tried it on and of course it was way too small because the measurement the mom was going on were her daughters exact measurements not accounting for wearing ease.   So are there a bunch of people out there looking at used solo’s and rejecting them because they might seem too big because they are basing their decision on their daughters exact measurements and not allowing for movement and wearing ease?

I would say that yes, a 32″ measurement at the chest on the dress should fit a 30″ chest just fine.  As we all know, there are always posts on the boards about how to measure dresses, measure dancers, etc…have there been specific conversations about the need to be aware of ease when choosing a dress?  Since I do not do OTRs, I have not had to deal with this.  Dressmakers, how do you advise clients?

Measuring the Upper Chest & Troubleshooting Sleeve Issues

Now the following is written as support for the Feisdress pattern as many folks don’t really measure the upper chest correctly.  But, regardless of the bodice pattern that you use, this is just good information for making sure your bodice fits well.  

(Author: Susan; Models: the reluctant Divas)

It is easy to mis-measure the upper chest and shoulders. These measurements are used to determine your pattern size, so it is important that you get them right.

Start by marking the body landmarks. Yes, I mean MARKING. You have to consistently measure to the exact same points, otherwise your measurements are guesses and your pattern alterations won’t line up and make sense. If you don’t want to actually put marks on skin, put a little piece of adhesive tape on the area and put a measurement dot point on it.

You want to mark the upper chest points and back shoulder blade points (RED), the neck center front and back (PINK), and the outside and inside shoulder points (YELLOW). I’m going to be using photographs here, and these points are difficult to determine without a real body in front of me.

Here is our first example:

To mark the upper chest points, I’m looking at the creases that come up from the armpit. Often they angle inward, around the line that would be the armhole. Here, they point outward, so I’m going to come in from them slightly. Look at the second photo, you can see a the slight dent between her chest and shoulder muscles. You want your point to be in that divide. Too far over on the arm and movement will be restricted. Too far into the chest and it is too constricting. Our little gal here is fairly wide-chested. The upper chest is the measurement between these marks.

The pink dot is placed at the base of the neck. Technically it falls at the base of the clavicles, but go ahead and mark your finished neckline point.

Mark the outside shoulder points. To find these, you’ll have to ask the dancer to let her arm go limp and allow you to manipulate it. Place a finger at the shoulder point and move the arm up/down/around. Move your finger until you find the point where you don’t feel the shoulder movement. You want to be completely on the body side of the shoulder joint, not on the arm side. For team dresses, where there will be overhead arm movement, it is better to come a little further away from the arm. This will give you more arm freedom. Measure from the outside shoulder points to the neck center front point. Yes, it angles, but you have your “landmarks” for pattern alteration, so you can handle it.

Mark the inside shoulder points. Ideally, you would like this point to fall straight below her ear. You will probably need to move it towards the back so the seam won’t show from the front – especially if you will be using different colors in the bodice front and back around the neck. The point you mark will be the spot the shoulder seam ends at the neck line. Measure form this point to your outside shoulder point. This will be the length of your shoulder seam line.

Mark the neck center back. This will be the neckline point. Measure from the outside shoulder points to back neckline point.

Mark the shoulder blade points. This determines how wide the back of the dress will be from armhole to armhole. She is standing in “dance” posture and very straight, you’ll need to add more ease than if she’s standing casually, or rounded, so note her posture when you measure. This gal is wide across the back and not forcing her shoulders back and blades together. She won’t need much ease added in for movement.

Second example:


Note that her creases point inward, and I’m able to just follow them around to mark the upper chest points. She is standing without her head jutting forward, so her inside shoulder point is pretty much straight down from her ear.

Third example:


Although she isn’t standing with her head jutting forward, because of the slope of her chest/shoulders, the inside shoulder point has been moved back so the seam falls on the top of her shoulder and won’t be seen from the front. (I think she may have her head turned away from us rather than facing forward in the photo).

So you can’t move your arms…things to try:

1) Arm movement can be impaired if the bodice is too big. Check to make sure it is not too wide across the upper chest, that the shoulders aren’t dropping and/or that the armhole is too low or too big. You want the sleeve/armscye seam to fall at the pivot point of the shoulder joint. If it falls on the sleeve side, movement will be restricted. If it falls on the bodice side, it may feel uncomfortably small.

2) Is the armhole cut high enough? You want a high armhole – an inch at most below the armpit. Make it as high as you can without feeling like it is cutting into you. Depending upon the shape of the dancer, you may have to pivot the whole armhole more towards the front. (The FeisDress Designs™ pattern already has done this for you, but you may have to adjust the pivot or scoop out some more in the front if the dancer has muscle build up – tennis player or swimmer for instance. Remember, any changes you make to the armhole REQUIRES changes to the sleeve cap. There is no extra ease in the sleeve cap to accommodate any alterations in the size of the armscye.)

3) Shoulder seam length – make sure it doesn’t extend beyond the joint. Dropped shoulders decrease movement. You may even have to make the shoulder seam slightly shorter than actual body length. (If you are accustomed to only seeing your dancer in loose/casual clothing, a fitted shoulder might look “too short” to your eye.)

4) Widen the sleeve. If you are using a FeisDress Designs™ pattern, the sleeve cap is already rather low. Just add on to the width of the sleeve at the underarm sleeve line. If you are using a standard pattern, try lowering the sleeve cap and widening the sleeve keeping the cap seam the same length as before. (Pivot at the center point of the seam.) If you widen the sleeve and lengthen the cap seam, your resulting sleeve will be puffier. This may or may not be acceptable – just bear it in mind.

5) A gusset. No matter what you do, sometimes on some girls your only option will be to add a gusset. You can add a gusset to the normal sleeve bodice or you can experiment with cutting the gusset as part of the sleeve. Usually, it should be off-center, with more of the gusset in the front bodice than in the back. An oval is the best shape. Start small and gradually increase the size until you achieve the desired results.

If you are adding a gusset to an existing dress, open up the under arm sleeves –the sleeve cap, sleeve and bodice side (4 open seams). Do it a little bit at a time and them will all probably have to be opened different amounts. Have the dancer try to raise her arm. Open it up some more if you need to. Keep going until she can comfortably lift her arm. Look at the size and shape of the resulting hole that gaps when the arm is up. That will tell you the length, width and placement of the gusset for that dancer.