· sewing ·

Marlborough Bra

I was planning to give everyone a break from my rattling on about sewing this week and write about something else, but then I went and made a bra, and apparently, I can’t shut up about it1.

If you wear a bra, you know that all bras go bad. It may start the day feeling comfortable, but by the end of the day, you feel as if you’re being pinched and stabbed by tiny, bad-tempered demons. It’s hard to find one to fit in the the first place, and if you do, it’s often not the style, colour or material that you would choose. In one of my favourite episodes of the TV series ‘The IT Crowd’ called ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, our geeky hero Moss, provoked by Jen’s assertion that all bras go bad, invents a bra that will never go bad: the Abracada-Bra. Unfortunately, the beta version of his bra has a little bit of an overheating bug that he doesn’t quite resolve before going on Dragon’s Den. Despite Moss’s excellent example, I hadn’t really thought about making bras since I started sewing until I watched Beverly Johnson’s2 excellent Craftsy class, Sewing Bras: Construction and Fit, and found the Marlborough pattern by Orange Lingerie, and got a bit obsessed about it.

When friends and acquaintances know that you sew, they often ask what you’re working on at the moment. The response “I’m making a bra” seems to elicit universal disbelief and wonderment. For some reason, people seem to think that — like a nuclear reactor — a bra is not something that you can reasonably expect to build at home. However, it’s not only possible, but great fun. Bra-making also sits at the perfect intersection for me, between sewing and engineering.

I’m extremely ashamed to say that despite wearing a bra for many years3, I had completely the wrong idea about how they work as engineered structures. When I thought about it at all, I think I assumed that the shoulder straps played a major structural role in suspending the load. In fact, the straps should play very little role in support: the bra is a cantilevered structure, with the frame around the cups and the underwires supporting the cups, anchored by the band around the ribcage. The straps are just there to put the fabric of the cup under a bit of tension and stop the fabric flopping down.

Some things about bra-making are much easier than for other kinds of garment sewing. There are only a few pattern pieces for a bra, and they are very small, so cutting out the fabric is quick and easy, and doesn’t require you to clear the dining room table in the way that cutting out trousers or a long dress does. The seams are also quite short, so while there are a lot of construction steps, each one is quick to complete. However, despite the fact that you don’t need much fabric, you do need to buy lots of different supplies for bras: at least two different kinds of fabric, three different kinds of elastic, lace, rings, sliders, hook-and-eye closures, underwires, and underwire channeling. And that’s if you don’t line the cups. It seems easier for the first bra to buy a kit, then you know you have all the elements you need, and that the widths of elastic will work with one another. I decided to go for a kit from Merckwaerdigh, which had a lovely print fabric with feathers on. Frankly, the pink elements wouldn’t be my choice (we all know how much I hate pink), but the navy and feathers sold it to me.

Bra-making uses much smaller seam allowances than is usual in sewing other garments, so you have to get used to sewing a ¼″ or 6mm seam. I didn’t find this too hard once I had got used to it, and it definitely makes it easier to sew curves, of which there are many on a bra. At one point, you find yourself having to join together a concave and a convex curve, which is a bit baffling until you actually try it. This is where it’s really useful to watch a class like Beverly’s, because it’s a tremendous help to be shown how to handle the fabric and manage sewing these kinds of curves. In the end, I found that these seams went together quite easily, and what I had trouble with was sewing on the elastic. You sew it on the right side of the fabric to start with, sewing a zig-zag on the edge of the elastic furthest from the raw edge of the fabric. Then you turn the elastic to the wrong side, so that the decorated edge of the elastic just peeks out from the edge of the fabric, and then stitch down the free edge of the elastic. The key thing is that you can’t stretch out the elastic as you do so (or only very slightly, at the underarms and under each cup), or you end up with wavy elastic.

I had a bit of a fight with my fabric, as the feed dogs kept wanting to chew it up, and in wrestling with it on the underarm elastic, I did end up stretching it. It looks pretty poor on the hanger, but smooths out when I’m wearing it. That was the first bit of elastic I had ever attached, and by the time I got to the bottom band elastic, I had got the hang of it a bit more, so that’s much smoother (but not stitched in a very straight line). One thing that I’m learning about sewing is that you need to develop a feel for the way to do things: watching videos and reading books helps to draw your attention to the relevant things, but you need to actually do it a few times to get a feel for the best way to guide the fabric, how much tension to maintain and so on.

The final part about bra-making that is difficult is that you can’t really try it on for fit until you have finished it. I had more or less convinced myself that this bra was going to be comically small, but was astounded to find that it not only fit me well, but was wonderfully comfortable and supportive. It probably won’t stand the test of time long term because of the way I stretched out the elastic, but as a first go, I’m very pleased with it. I had unwittingly made life a bit difficult for myself with this kit, because the fabric was very stretchy, whereas the pattern called for low- or no-stretch material for the cups and frame. I therefore had to double the fabric in places, or line it with a mesh material (that also came in the kit), so I was having to deal with more layers of fabric which wanted to squirm away from each other.

I’m already sourcing the components for a couple more bras, now that I know the kind of thing I need. This pattern fits me very well with minimal changes (I narrowed the bridge a bit at the top), so the next couple of pairs should be much quicker to make. And I’m completely sure that I’ve absolutely sorted out the overheating problem, yes. Unless I’ve made it even worse

  1. Even though I’m old enough that showing a photo of my underwear (even though I’m not in it at the time) to Everyone On The Internet feels a bit weird. ↩︎

  2. AKA ‘The Fairy Bra-mother’. Beverly is a brilliant teacher, and makes it all seem very straightforward. ↩︎

  3. Not the same bra, you understand… ↩︎