Accurate measuring is, arguably, one of the most crucial aspects of garment construction. Without accurate measurements, sizing is impossible. (Sizing is largely imaginary anyway. Inches and centimeters are consistent, and will not lie to you like S-M-L, or even 6-8-10.) Even the simplest garments with no sewing at all still require measurements in order to make sure that the right amount of fabric is used. If you make a mistake while sewing something together, you can always take it apart and re-do it, but if the shapes are wrong it will not fit, and it might not even go together properly. You’ll have to re-cut it, or trim it down, or add more material (this is called piecing, and while it can be used as a style accent, it’s better to do it intentionally than as a fix-it for a mistake). So measure twice, cut once. Measure three times, cut once.
Now that we’ve established the importance of measurements, let’s talk about how to actually take them.
You will need a flexible measuring tape— made of cloth, plastic, fiberglass, or some combination of the three. Do not use the stiff kind from the hardware store. It will not help you.
Types of measurements– Circumference, Length, and Width
When measuring the body, there are three directions one generally needs to go– around (circumference), up and down (length), and across (width). Most bodies have helpful dips and protuberances that allow one to find the same spot to measure from, which is important for the sake of consistency.
Learning your way around circumference
The most common circumferences you’ll see called for by a pattern or drafting tutorial are:
Chest— Measured at the widest point of the chest or bust, regardless of where that is. Easiest to do with the arms out to the sides.
Waist— Measured at the narrowest point on the torso, usually near or above the belly button.
Hip— Measured at the widest point of the hip area, including the butt.
If the garment has a collar or high neckline, you may also be asked for your neck circumference. This should be taken at the base of the neck. It will not be level with the floor, because your neck is set slightly forward.
If a pattern has a fitted bust line, it should also ask for your underbust measure.
If it does not, and you are particularly busty, you will probably need to make alterations.
The natural waist is different from the fashionable waist
Where we put the waist of a garment varies depending on its style and our personal preferences. This is called the fashionable waist, and it may be the first thing you think to measure, since it is what you are used to. Currently, the fashionable waist is at the high hip– about halfway between the natural waist and the hip, below the belly. There is nothing wrong with this. It will just require a shift in thinking, because while the fashionable waist goes up and down with the seasons and how we feel about our figures, the natural waist does not change. This is why when you are measuring yourself for a garment, you want to measure to, from, and around your natural waist.
The Breadth of the matter
Unless you are drafting a pattern or working in a theatrical costume shop, you probably will not be asked for the following measurements, but they are still good to know:
Armscye— Measure around the arm at the shoulder. Easiest to do with a friend, and with your arm out to the side.
Bicep— Measure around the widest part of the bicep, with your elbow bent and your fist clenched.
Wrist— Measure the narrowest point of the wrist.
Thigh— Measure around the top third of the thigh, while sitting down. Most people’s thighs flatten out a bit when they’re sitting, and an oval has a larger perimeter than a circle of the same area.
Calf— Measure at the widest part of the calf muscle.
Ankle— Measure at the narrowest part of the ankle.
Foot— Measure from the instep to the heel and back. This is useful for pants that are fitted at the ankle.
Lengths to Know
Lengths aren’t always called for in patterns, which is silly, because people come in different heights and proportions– two people may both have a 38” chest, but one could be 5’2 and the other 5’10. It is very unlikely that they will have the same length measurements.
The following are the most commonly asked-for length measurements.
Overall length— Self-explanatory, yet inconsistent. This is the overall length of the garment. On a shirt or a dress, this will mean the distance to the hem starting from the bone at the back of the base of the neck. On trousers or a skirt, it will be the distance to the hem from the fashionable waist, which will vary from garment to garment.
Back length, or neck-waist— Measured from the base of the neck to the natural waist. Can be done on yourself, but it helps to have a friend do it.
Front length, or neck-waist— The distance from the hollow at the base of the throat to the natural waist. May or may not be the same as the back length.
Sleeve— Measured from the bone at the top of the shoulder to the wrist, with the arm down and slightly bent. Difficult to do on oneself. Since the mannequin’s elbow doesn’t bend, the tape measure is bent to compensate.
Rise— The natural waist to the top of the crotch. Easiest done while sitting down, using a ruler. The chair will act as point zero, with the number you’re looking for at your waist.
Inseam— The distance from the top of the crotch to the floor, the ankle, or the hem of the garment. Rely on context here. This is generally a two-person job, so have the person being measured hold the end of tape at the crotch level while the other person reads off the number.
Armscye depth– The distance from the base of the neck to the bottom of the armscye. Usually 1/8 of your height.
Widths and Breadths
This third category of measurements rarely appear on commercial patterns, but they are important for good fit, and when drafting patterns.
Shoulder width— from the bone at the top of the shoulder, across the back of the neck, to the other bone at the top of the shoulder.
Shoulder slope— The distance from the side of the neck to the bone at the end of the shoulder.
Shoulder to apex— The distance from the shoulder to the highest point of the breast on the same side.
Apex to apex— The distance from the highest point of one breast to the highest point of the other.
Apex to waist— The distance from the highest point of the breast to the natural waist.
Once you have your measurements written down, you can compare them to pattern measurements, use them to draft a custom pattern, or even bring a tape measure with you while clothes shopping and skip the guesswork of figuring out what size you need. Re-measure yourself when starting a new project, especially if it’s been more than a few months. You don’t want to make up a garment and then discover that your measurements have changed!