Altering a bra for better fit and support

On Twitter, a protracted discussion of the fit and durability of ready-to-wear commercially-made brassieres arose in the comments to someone's exasperated complaint about the fact that all modern bras pretty much fit poorly, regardless of size or material used. Because of the significant positive response to my threaded contribution on bra alteration suggestions, I'm writing up the gist of my thoughts/methods.

First, know that I significantly alter every bra I buy before wearing it in public. (For reference, I wear a 34F--narrow ribcage/large bust--and I've found that Freya brand bras fit me best.) Also, please note that  a well-fit bra is a complex structural garment which requires customization for most all body types in order to fit and function at its best, & at present this level of sophisticated structure isn’t found inexpensively/ready-to-wear.

How am I qualified to write this post? I taught a graduate level course in structural undergarment construction last semester, in the costume production MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Our graduates typically go on to successful careers as costumers for Broadway, opera, ballet, and A-List film talent. On the bustline front, one of our alumni is Dolly Parton's personal draper, so yeah.

Some of these alterations will be outside the realm of possibility for those who don't own a sewing machine, but some are things you can do with a little determination and a needle and thread.

First up, I stabilize the straps, which is something anyone who can sew a strong sturdy tack by hand could accomplish. Few people have enough monthly deviation in breast size to need adjustable straps. (Sliders just allow a readymade bra to "fit" a wider range of buyers.) Stable straps = better support. Adjust the sliders to where you need them to be, then safety-pin them. Wear the bra for a day or so and see if you have the right length, then stitch it to stabilize.

Second, almost all bra bands need reinforcement. Stability in the band is a major element of fit. How I stabilize the band depends on the bra--sometimes I stitch a stronger piece of elastic in with a serpentine stitch (by machine, domestic machines often have this option on the specialty stitch dial), sometimes I flatline the whole bra band with girdle mesh, either by machine or strong whipstitch by hand. Sometimes I do both. We stock girdle mesh as a standard material at my workplace, but you can buy it by the yard from specialty fabric stores, or cannibalize a girdle for it.

Next, I machine-stitch concentric arcs into the underside of the cups to give more stability and lift. I do 6 rows (see pic) but a smaller cup may only need 3, 4, or 5 rows. These rows of stitches are 1/4”-ish apart following the curve of the underwire, like in these pics:




You might recognize this kind of spiral/concentric stitched cup structure from 1950s bullet-bras and contemporary pin-up photoshoots. That's because this kind of stitching helps buttress the breast for lift and shaping. Nobody has torpedo-boobs naturally, but concentric/spiral stitching on a torpedo-shaped cup helped 1950s women achieve those shapes. You can use that to your advantage for helping a modern bra cup keep its shape, too.

And lastly! Another way to help stability in the band is to add a bone to the side seam. Plastic, Rigilene, spiral steel, flat steel, depends on the size of the bust which is best. As someone with a narrow ribcage and large bust (34F, remember?), I get the best result from 1/2" flat steel bones. This might seem like it will make your bra uncomfortable, but the more structure an undergarment has, the more comfortable and supported I feel. Caveat: I spent ten years of my life wearing a corset to work five hours a day, so YMMV.

And now, textbooks! Want to read some reference titles? Beverly Johnson’s The Bra Maker's Manual and Ann Haggar’s Pattern Cutting for Lingerie, Beachwear, and Leisurewear are the two most relevant to this discussion, and two of the required texts for my class.

Hope this was helpful, and if you have any other recommended bra alterations you like to do, please drop a comment!

Comments

  1. These are great items to consider!

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  2. Other alterations I do:
    Hook and eye at the center front between the underwires. This is especially helpful with front close bras when the elastic back tends to pull the cups apart too much.
    Adding/replacing the straps. I will snip bra straps to add an extra inch of elastic to the length- wow the difference for this tall wearer. I will also occasionally add another set of elastic underneath, beside, or at a sexy angle.
    Darts in the top of the cups. A small dart in the top half of the cups can give a slightly loose bra the right fit- even half an inch makes a big difference in all-day comfort.
    Tucks in the back elastic- a couple of small tucks to the back of a bra right next to the back closure will move the straps in just a bit and stop it from riding up the back- see above- making the straps longer.

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  3. Such great info! IMO, the straps should not ever be supporting the breast itself, but are for keeping the structure in place on the body. This is why bra wearers in an improperly fitted bra get shoulder divots. I also use a tuck between the underwires in the gore at times, to reset the angle of the underwires. As a 34FF in Freya, I feel your pain in finding good fit, nearly every other bra has underwires made way too wide making the cups too shallow for me. I stick with finding Gorsenia (I wear a 75H best in their bras, they use European sizing) that I find for less on eBay, and the Ewa Michalak S model for my best ready to wear fit. (I prefer a 80FF in her bras, due to her bands being quite tight).
    My experience comes from (mumble) years of refitting and making bras and tops for bellydance, because believeyoume, I didn't want the girls bouncing around in an energetic dance! Elastic bands were super reinforced if they had any stretch. I reconstructed bras for a front close, and like Yosa, an extra hook and eye works wonders. I used steel coat hooks for stability instead of regular clothing hooks and eyes.
    I look forward to reading more of you blog now!

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  4. I want to try some of these things! Two questions: got a source for the girdle mesh? I've seen a few sites with something similar, and I'm not sure exactly what I'm looking at. As for the reinforcing with elastic, how much stretch should be put on it as it's being sewn down? I'm not sure you can describe that, but just a little? Thanks for the article, I have ideas!

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    Replies
    1. Girdle mesh: I don't do the ordering but i'm pretty sure we get it from Spandex House in NYC. If you describe it to them as the super-powerful girdle stretch they will prolly know what you mean.

      Regarding the bra band reinforcing it depends on the bra, and how much it deviates from your ribcage measurement. I can't categorically tell you how much stretch to put into it, but i can recommend maybe using a long stitch length/wide zig to baste it in with what you think is a good amount of stretch? The last one i reinforced, I didn't stretch it at all when i put it in--the measurement of the bra band was good, it just needed to be beefier/wider elastic.

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