Structural engineering you can wear
Whether or not you wear them, chances are you probably don’t realise just how complicated bras are to design and how difficult they are to manufacture. Many people, confused by the low prices and speedy turnaround of fast fashion retailers, expect that all brands should offer all sizes and that anything over £20 is horribly expensive. Not only does this make it difficult for mid-market brands, but it means luxury brands have a seemingly impossible task in simply finding a customer base that fully appreciates their work. Karolina Laskowska, Director of The Underpinnings Museum, wrote about this in a post for The Lingerie Addict back in 2015:
“The lack of understanding into the fashion industry has led to a total lack of reasonable expectations. Many consumers simply have no idea how much fabrics like silk and Leavers lace cost, let alone the arduous process that goes into developing a well-fitting bra. Expecting every lingerie brand to offer their products at a price that suits your personal budget just isn’t fair.”
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a lingerie designer. Once you have developed a pattern for a design which adequately covers and/or supports the breasts, you’ll need to use a complicated process called grading to make it available in other sizes. Next, you’ll need some pattern layout skills to achieve the most economical use of fabric and to work out which pieces need to be cut on the bias (where the warp and weft threads are on a diagonal, to give a tiny bit of stretch to non-stretch fabrics), and which need to be cut on a straight grain. Pattern cutting isn’t as simple as it is for home sewing of larger garments either, as fiddly small pieces need to be cut extremely accurately. This can be particularly difficult on stretch fabrics.
Bra manufacturers will perform quality checks on the fabric and also on the the individual pattern pieces, looking for flaws and good colour matching. Then the bra’s cups have to be moulded or stitched together from several pieces, wiring has to be inserted in channels stitched underneath the cups, and elastic has to be inserted on the band (and sometimes across the top edge of the cups too). Shoulder straps need to be cut, stitched and inserted – with the right rings and adjusters – and the centre back fastening has to be sewn in place. Almost all of the pattern pieces will be lined and all stitching needs to be firm and flat. Nothing should poke, scratch or rub against the wearer’s skin.
Knowing all this is one thing, but actually doing it is quite another! Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to get my own one-to-one bra making workshop with a lingerie expert. Using the pattern from the bespoke bra I commissioned a few years ago, Karolina talked me through the making process for a simple lightly padded balconette bra. I have to admit that, when I had finally cut out all the pieces and we laid everything out for a photo (see the image on the right), I was utterly terrified at the prospect of stitching so many small pieces together! Having only previously successfully made larger garments like dresses, the margin for error was terrifyingly small. However, 3.5 hours later, I had a finished bra (see photo at the top of this post) and the only fit problem was that I’d stretched the elastic too much when sewing the wings. Not bad for a first attempt, but my bra would definitely not pass quality control checks to go on sale!
Many small independent lingerie brands are now extremely open about how their bras are made. They want to explain to their customers how much time and effort has gone into developing their products so that what is often perceived to be high price can be justified. Fans of a brand requesting styles in larger cup sizes can indicate that there is a market for expansion but, as they require different patterns and construction (plus more expensive fabric and components in order to provide extra support), design teams have to plan carefully and start slowly. These things take time and, of course, time is money. Not many companies can afford to sell bras as cheaply as Primark does!
Even once you’ve got a sample to test the fit, making tweaks is very tricky because modern underwired bras are extremely complicated in construction and are often made from 20 or 30 parts. The packaging of a 1996 black lace Gossard Ultrabra Perfection that I viewed in the V&A’s Clothworker’s Centre during my research has a diagram on the back, showing the number of elements that go into the making of what they call the ‘Ultrabra Perfection Miracle System’. In this image, I counted 41 individual components. Even a simple non-wired unlined lace bra is more complicated than you might think. In series 4 of The Great British Sewing Bee, the contestants were tasked with making one which comprised of 9 stretch lace pieces plus lining fabric, three types of elastic (including for the shoulder straps), back fastenings and other hardware. Lots of pieces, plus this was not at all easy to stitch for people who are not used to sewing lingerie.
As you might imagine, accuracy of stitching is extremely important in underwear, in part because the garments are so small that wonky seams are instantly noticeable. The choice of seams and finishing is vital too, especially structured garments like bras and corsets or girdles, because they need to be incredibly strong and also because they need to be comfortable, as they will be in direct contact with the skin. Machinists who work on lingerie are so accurate that, when NASA were developing a space suit in the 1960s that would enable Neil Armstrong to survive in the vacuum of space and walk on the moon, they called upon Playtex seamstresses who had the skills needed to construct and sew extremely precise seams without the use of pins.
So, next time you wonder why a bra costs more than you were expecting, spare a thought for the time and effort that the design team, pattern cutters, graders, machinists, and fit models have put into developing and making it. Not many garments need to offer this level of fit and support, yet we also expect them to be beautiful. When you really stop to think about it, that’s a pretty reasonable price for structural engineering you can wear.