Let’s talk about clothes and the notion of “sizing.”
The reality is, we live in a society where clothes are considered a necessity. As many three year olds might tell you, putting clothes on can be a bummer. They’re restrictive, kinda scratchy, and really weigh a person down. But it’s part of the general contract humans have made with each other, so it’s what we do.
While it’s possible to have clothes made specifically to our measurements (and, in fact, this is how all clothes used to be made, but that’s since fallen out of... fashion1), most of us are used to going to a store (whether in person or online) and buying clothes based on size. For folks who tend to partake in the “women’s” category of clothing2, there tends to be two groupings for size: “misses” (sometimes called “standard” or “regular”) and “plus” (sometimes called “extended” or “curvy”).
“Misses” clothing is generally considered to be sizes 0 to 12. This is ultimately up to the designer, who might decide to go up to a size 16. (Anyone remember the store 5-7-9? That was a deliberate design sizing decision.) “Plus” clothing is generally considered to be sizes 12 to 28, which again, might vary, depending on the designer and their design aesthetic. Sometimes the sizes are appended with a “W,” e.g. “14W.” This is to denote that the sizes are specifically for a wider figure. (I hate this terminology, for the record. We're strictly giving y’all the facts.)
On the surface, it seems like everyone’s got a size, right? So everyone should be able to find something that fits pretty easily, right? If only!
Here’s where things get interesting: Most designers start with a single body in mind: it belongs to the fit model. A fit model is a person who has measurements that meet the “ideal size” for the designer’s target market. For many companies, this person is right in the middle of the range (usually a size 6 or size 8, for the “misses” range; a size 18 or size 20, for the “plus” range). A pattern is made to fit the fit model perfectly; it might go through a few iterations until it’s just right. That pattern then goes through a process called grading, which is a mathematical approach to determining the other sizes. For larger sizes, the pattern is cut into predetermined pieces and incrementally spread apart and reconnected. For smaller sizes, it’s the same process, but with overlapping instead of spreading. The size range is generally limited, so as not to distort the original pattern too much.
Grading rules are based on the fit model and target market: imagine that every human is made of stuff. As we grow, our stuff is distributed differently: some of us carry more stuff in the butt, or in the chest, or both, or neither. Between “misses” and “plus” ranges, the fit models are rather different, and the expectations for how the model might change between sizes is different as well.3
Once grading is finalized, two new fit models are found: one for the largest size in the range and one for the smallest size. The corresponding patterns are sewn into prototypes for the new fit models and re-fit. Adjustments are made to these end-patterns, and any changes are propagated back through the remaining sizes. From there, the sizing is considered complete and the style is sent to production, where each size is sewn up en masse and sent to stores.
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1Come for the adventure, stay for the puns, we always say. Right, we never said that. Except for this one time. Carrying on.
2 We don’t buy that gender is binary (e.g. men/women), but we reluctantly acknowledge that the apparel industry hasn’t quite caught up with the times and continues to use “men,” “women,” and “children” as buckets for categorizing styles of clothing. It’ll get with the program eventually, and we’ll be doing what we can to help it get there.
3 To learn more about grading and probably more than you ever knew you needed to know about manufacturing, please check out http://fashion-incubator.com, courtesy of Kathleen Fasanella. She is also the author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing, which is a must-have book if you want the nitty gritty details of the apparel industry.