A couple of years ago, I decided to make a bra. I’m not sure what it was that sent me down this rabbit hole, but I began cutting tiny shapes from cloth, sewing them together, and adding elastic and a bow. It might have been the proliferation of bra-making tutorials in the sewing world. At some point, I had noticed that many of the women behind my favourite sewing blogs had started sewing their own bras. The bras were very pretty, and often had panties to match. Desire for such things began to grow in me.
I should probably pause here, and warn you that this post has been brewing for quite a while. Over the past two years, I have made many bras, and purchased bra-sewing materials in great variety and numbers. And I have been having the best time ever. If you’re not into bras, alliteration, or excited punctuation, just stop. Right now. This post is not for you.
That said, there will be pictures.
Just to clarify, in precisely none of these pictures will you see me wearing my bras.
My reasons for diving so deeply into bra-making might have begun with those sewing blog posts, but I was most certainly seeking the cost savings that come with learning to make your own lingerie. The conversation in my head went something like this:
“Bras are expensive. I am frugal. I love the look of delicate lingerie, but their cost seems utterly extortionate to me. Bras require so very little in the way materials. They’re often very uncomfortable to wear. How can they charge so much and deliver so little? This is not an equitable transaction. Nope. I’m not paying money for this. I can do better.”
Once I began thinking this way, I was more than a little intrigued by idea of getting some pretty, me-made lingerie on. A quick perusal of my own uninspiring lingerie drawer – spoiled for choice, if black, white or chewing gum colour are what you’re after – provided the final push.
And so I dived head first into the mysterious world of bra-makery. I swam in its waters and embraced its delights. Indeed, one might say I’ve become something of a bravangelist. The water is lovely. Come. Join me. You won’t be sorry. Someday you’ll thank me. Start by reading five reasons I think you should make a bra.
Reason, the first: Fabric + Findings
If it’s the pretty you’re after, the seduction begins here.
The fabric and findings are where bra-making meets bra design. Once you have adjusted your pattern to fit, the world of fabrics suitable for lingerie is your oyster. A bra takes about a 1/4 yard of fabric, bringing even the fancy fabrics within your reach. I might balk at spending £30 a metre on fabric, but £7.50 for 25 cm? Sure. Why not.
POPS! OF! COLOUR! I can’t even.
This is a partially completed Boylston bra, by Orange Lingerie, my first ever purchased pattern. It’s still one I return to frequently. The fabric is silk jersey, with a wee bit of lycra, so I’ve lined the cups and cradle with a rigid mesh. I went back and forth on the findings colour. Fuchsia, or coffee? Fuchsia. No, coffee. No, definitely fuchsia. Wait, maybe black?
I finally decided on the coffee findings kit from Fit2Sew, because it was in stock, and I like having things now. But also because the bridge (that bit between the cups) is mostly pink, and the brown bow contrasts so nicely. What can I say? I love a bow. And doesn’t that fuchsia picot across the top of the cups just sing? I can’t wait to finish this one. It makes my heart so happy.
I’m on a bit of an embroidered lace kick at the moment. I can’t get enough of it, and the resulting bras are sheer and cool and lovely and just perfect for summer. I’m still waffling about findings for this one. (The struggle is real.) I’m leaning towards cream, as the pink elastics feel too pink. But maybe that soft gold colour of the leaves might be pretty? With rose gold rings and sliders?
Yes. They do make them in rose gold. It was a good day when I discovered this fact.
This summer, I discovered that printed mesh embroidered lace exists in the world, and now I want it all. I have never found the need for a red bra in my life, and then saw this fabric and instantly desired a red bra. I’m thinking the Berkley Bra pattern for this one, because it features a continuous lace edge across the entire lower band.
I know the red and green embroidery is a little late-December-holiday. Those flowers could even be poinsettias. Hello there, Christmas bra! Aren’t you festive?
As you can see, the creative potential inherent in the fabric and findings of bra-making materials is endless. Not only is it fun to mix and match, there is also method behind the seeming madness of playing with pretty things and making up your own bra kits. My sewing time is extremely limited these days. Playing with colour and fabric, and making up a bra kit ahead of time, is the amuse-bouche of bra sewing. My little kits of nascent bras-to-be are so pleasing. They mean that everything is ready when it’s time to sew. Which means I am likely to wind up with a completed bra after just ninety minutes of sewing.
Just as with sewing and knitting, bra-making begins by falling in love with your materials. Yes, they are typically man-made materials. No, that doesn’t suck as much as I thought it would.
Take it from me, a self-confessed natural fibre snob, when it comes to lingerie, man-made materials show up and get the job done. They have the correct degree of stretch, hold their shape through months of laundering, and they work to keep the girls where they belong, front and centre. If we’re putting in the effort here, I say, we might as well use materials that offer a modicum of success while we’re learning.
Now that you’ve been utterly seduced by the pretty, let’s back it up a bit. Don’t buy any fabric. Don’t by findings. Don’t buy lace. I’m sorry, but don’t. If you buy these things now, you’ll probably wind up with a bunch of things you can’t actually use for bra making. Ask me how I know this.
When beginning bra-making, it’s really best to start with a kit. A kit saves you from having to figure out what you need to buy to make your first bra. That’s handy! The fundamentals behind all the different bra making materials, what they are, how they’re used and why, can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning. It’s a lot to take in, and it fills your head with many things that are not actual bra-sewing. And you really do want to just get on with the actual bra sewing.
Making your first bra is a bit like making your first soufflé. You can wing it, ingredient wise, it’s just eggs, butter, flour and sweet or savoury flavourings, after all. However, Julia Child has made a kajillion soufflés. There’s simply no good reason to wing it when Julia can hold your hand the whole way.
Same thing with bras. There are talented designers out there, and stockists carrying precisely the fabrics and findings needed for the successful sewing of your first bra. In a convenient kit! Use one. Measure yourself meticulously. Purchase a pattern that looks like the shop-bought bra that you like wearing best. Get a kit for your size, and buy underwires in the size recommended in the pattern. Assemble the materials. Cut! Sew! Ta da! You’ve made your first bra.
Reason, the second: Fit
Just like those ready-to-wear bras you’ve been wearing all your life, bra patterns are made to a sizing standard, and you will need to alter your pattern to obtain your perfect fit. The kicker is, you won’t know where to make those alterations until you’ve made your first bra and assessed the fit. So that first kit? Buy it in white. Just as it’s easier to see knit stitches in light-coloured yarn, it’s easier to see what you’re doing on light-coloured fabric. Make your first bra a no-frills Nurse Ratchet bra in white. It’s not a waste of time or money. It’s a jumping off point to a well-fitting bra.
Sewing an oddly-fitting first bra is something every bra-maker has to go through to get to the good stuff. Think of it as a sacrifice to the bra goddess. Bite the bullet. Make a wonky bra. The second bra you make will be better. Use rigid lace for your third bra and stretch lace for your fourth. Notice how the fit changes when using different fabrics.
For bras five and six, work outside those bra-specific fabrics. Adjust your lining fabrics. If the outer fabric is very stretchy, compensate with a rigid lining. If the outer fabric has no stretch at all, it can support a wisp of very fine lining. Experiment. Play.
Your bras will begin to be wearable, and they will fit you well. For bras seven, eight and nine, go wild with your materials. Use sequins and feathers and glitter, if that’s your thing. This is how you figure out what works, and what doesn’t. One or two of these bras might be turkeys, but the ones that do work will become your one-of-a-kind favourite bras ever.
At some point, somewhere around bra number ten, you’ll realise that the patterns you’ve altered now deliver perfectly fitting bras, every time you use them. The bridge sits firmly against your body, and your bra band never flips, or rides up, or cuts into you. Your straps are placed exactly where you need them to be. You won’t need to tighten them so much they leave red marks on your shoulders, because they never, ever fall down. You can’t even feel the underwires because you’re using the right size and shape wires for your body. You will float through the world in a bra that floats with you.
This is the dream.
Remember that moment of relief at the end of the day, when you’d come through the door and couldn’t wait to rip your bra off? Well that moment just won’t be a thing anymore. It’s okay. You won’t miss it. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you begin wearing your hand made, gorgeous, lacy, sexy, colourful bras at home, on weekends.
As I sit here, writing this post on a late-summer Sunday morning, I am, in fact, wearing the lovely little teal and sienna number, pictured below. Because my custom bras are that comfortable. They’re a bit like wearing a watch. I barely feel them.
Also. Teal and sienna. In a bra. Who knew that I needed this option? The findings kit for this one was navy. Love. It.
I know you don’t believe that bras can be comfortable, and I don’t blame you. Maybe you’ve reached a point where you’ve given up on bras altogether. Or if not, perhaps you’ve forged an uneasy peace with your breasts by purchasing one of those cotton/lycra jobs. They feel way better than the bras you used to wear, but provide very little in the way of support. And you’ve maybe convinced yourself that the floppy boob look isn’t that bad, and you wear a lot of loose clothing anyway. And you’re grateful for those unsupportive scraps of cotton lycra, because at least your bra is no longer causing you pain.
You know. That’s fine. You’re happy. I don’t judge.
However, if you’ve stopped wearing underwire bras because they hurt you, but still look with longing at the pretty bras in shops, I’m here to tell you there’s another way.
First, I get it. I’m so sorry that bras hurt you. That sucks. They hurt me too, once upon time, because I had been wearing the wrong size bra for many years. Maybe decades. You probably did too. Most of us do. Somewhere between 50% and 80% of women are wearing the wrong size bra. We’ve all been living with ill-fitting lingerie, defined by the limitations of commercial garment manufacturing, since we donned our first “training” bras.
Thinking back, I have a very clear memory of how my very first bra felt when I put it on. It was too tight, and it itched. Now I wonder what, precisely, that bra was training me for. Was it, perhaps, preparing me for six or seven decades of life spent stuck in uncomfortable, ill-fitting foundation garments? Fuck the fashion industry.
Every woman deserves a bra that fits. YOU deserve a bra that fits. If you’re not interested in making your own bra – although, since you’re still here I have to assume you’re into it – then please, at the very least, learn how to measure yourself correctly, and how to shop for a bra that fits you. It’ll never fit as well as a custom-made bra, for more reasons than I have space to write about. But if you haven’t given any thought to finding your actual bra size in years, it’s time to start. So start here: http://reddit.com/r/abrathatfits
Reason, the third: Frugality
In the UK, a really good bra costs between £50 and £75. Yes, you can find 2-for-£25 Plain Jane bras, but they’re not made to last, and they’ll need replacing more frequently. You get what you pay for in the lingerie department. On the other hand, £75 will buy you a very nice bra. One that’s well-made, and designed to last, as long as you’re nice to it.
Being nice to your bra means never wearing it for more than a single day running, and picking a different bra for day two. It also means never wearing a bra more than twice without hand-washing, and line-drying it. These are the rules. They’re designed to protect your bra’s elasticity.
Wearing a bra for only one day allows the elastics time to recover their stretch before the next time you wear it. Washing after two wearings removes the oil and dirt that will, over time, degrade bra elastics. Washing it in a machine – yes, even in a lingerie bag – will wear a bra out faster than if you wash it by hand.
Even when being super nice to your bras, and following the rules, your bras will last, at most, between six and nine months. When the clasp is at it’s tightest setting, but the band is feeling loose, the party’s over.
Here comes some math.
Adherence to the rules means you’ll need at least three bras in regular rotation, and really, four would be better. So, with four bras in your lingerie drawer, each getting about six month’s worth of wear, you’ll need six to eight bras a year, at a minimum. At a cost of £75 each, you should be spending between £450 and £600, per year, on bras.
That kinda sucks, but that’s the math. I’m afraid we can’t argue with it.
This explains why, until I began making bras, my lingerie drawer had only ever contained four bras. One each in white, black, and nude, and then one in a fun colour or print. It’s not that I don’t love pretty bras. I’m frugal. Once I found a bra style that worked for my body, I only ever bought the bare minimum I needed in that style. For the whole of my adult life.
Spending that same £450 to £600 on bra-making materials would, if I wished to spend it this way, give me enormous bang for the same buck. You could buy some serious bra caviar with those kind of numbers. But you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much to get started. I’ve been making bras for two years, and haven’t spent more than £100 a year on materials and patterns.
Ready for some more math?
Bra Maker’s Supply kits from my UK stockist cost £17.60, all in. Add a set of under wires for £1.50, and that’s a per unit price of £19.10. Add postage, and let’s call it £25 even. Which means, for the cost of eight ready-to-wear bras, I can buy twenty-four kits, or three year’s worth of bras for the same money.
But wait, there’s more! Once you begin to understand your materials, you won’t need to buy kits any more. This is when making bras becomes super fun, and even more cost effective. Picot elastic by the roll, for instance, instead of by the metre offers huge savings. Buy a roll of white, cut off what you need, and dye it to what ever colour your heart desires. Pick up elastics in weird colours, and then hunt for fabric to match. It’s okay. You know what you need to make a bra now. There are bargains to be had.
Fun fact! Acid dye works on nylon, which is what most bra fabrics are made of. (Do check those labels though. Bra materials are also often made from polyester, which will not take dye.) The process is no different than exhaust dyeing wool. And those white nylon-coated rings and sliders? You can dye those too.
Finally, when you factor in the fabric you probably already have on hand, which you can now use for bra number ten, because you’ve put in the time, well, now bra-making to save money becomes a no-brainer. By bra number ten, you’ll have become so very wise in the ways of bra-making that you can make most fabric work for you. And then the per unit price of your perfectly fitting, hand-dyed, one-of-a-kind bra drops below single digits.
Did you get chills? I got chills.
Case in point, this bra in Liberty Tana Lawn was made entirely from off-cuts leftover from a blouse project, and leftover fabric and findings from other bra kits. Except for a .75p clasp, this bra was basically free to make.
And, just look at it. It has knitting on it. CAN. YOU. EVEN.
Reasons, the fourth and fifth: Freedom + Fun
When it comes right down to it, freedom to make the bras that I want to wear, and the fun I have through the process are why I have taken to bra making in such a big way. For most of my adult life, I have deeply desired those expensive, “confectionery” bras, and never given myself permission to have them. There are just too many other things I’d rather spend the money on. (Yarn, anyone?)
This has now changed. My once boring lingerie drawer is a riot of pleasing colour, texture and pattern. The bras I make are so lovely, I often wish I didn’t have to cover them up with my clothing. This summer, I’ve even taken to wearing the most brightly-coloured of my beautiful handmade bras beneath semi-sheer white blouses. Yes, they show. I want them to show. I’m beginning to think of them as accessories.
So there you have it. Fabric + findings. Fit. Frugality. Freedom. Fun.* Five excellent reasons why I make bras, and why I think you should have a go at it too.
Go on then. Let me know how you get on.
*I warned you there would be alliteration.
Leave any questions you have about bra-making in the comments, and I’ll do what I can to answer them. And seriously? Thanks for reading this far.