Thursday, October 9, 2008

Small Bust Adjustment (SBA)

Let me first state that I feel that I am in no way qualified to provide any advice or information about alterations. I have no theory, only practice. Over many, many years of owning and operating both a small bust (32AA) and a sewing machine I have worked out my slapdash ways to alter patterns to fit my bust. I am sure anyone with actual knowledge and education will be appalled.

I should say the lack of theory is not wholly my fault. I have tried many books and websites to get more information. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of literature out there about the SBA. Most books carefully explain the FBA, and then say, "And an SBA is the opposite." Totally not helpful. There is one huge exception to the lack of SBA information and that is Shannon's tutorial on Hungry Zombie Couture on how to alter a standard darted blouse for a small bust. It is excellent, clear, well-illustrated, and extremely useful.

I get a fair number of questions about SBAs, so I know I'm not the only one out there looking so I'll share what little I know, with the caveat that it's just stuff I made up, mostly.

I would also like to formally object to the term "Small Bust Adjustment." It does make an easier acronym than, say, "Petite But Well Shaped Bust Adjustment," "Mine Will Stay Perky Longer Than Yours Bust Adjustment," or "I Can Buy Cheap, Cute Bras Bust Adjustment," but those accentuate the positive rather than making us sound inadequate (and my positive needs a lot of accentuating, let me tell you).

I generally choose patterns that are easy to alter with my bust in mind. Despite Shannon's fabulous tutorial, it is very rare for me to make a standard darted blouse because of the difficulty in altering it to fit the bust. Other styles are much easier, and at the top of the list is princess seams. I looooove princess seams (as if you couldn't tell from this, this, this, this, etc. ad infinitum). It makes no difference to me whether it is shoulder or armscye princess, I love them all. Shoulder is less common, and I wonder if that's because it's less curvy--which means it might be better for us. I haven't tried out enough shoulder princess patterns to tell (because there are so few).


To alter a princess seam all you have to do is shave some width off the bust curve on the side front pieces. Super easy.



If it's not princess, I usually go for something in an empire line with a bodice that hits right under the bust. I generally reduce the width of the gathered section or of the dart, and if the bottom of the front bodice piece is very rounded I flatten that out a little, as I did here for Vogue 8386; here's a comparison between the final altered bodice and the original pattern. If you don't flatten, you get what I call "Empty Bag Syndrome," where the extra fabric spills out over the underbust seam; it's like the opposite of the pencil test:

Traced front bodice with edit marks


I have a short distance between my bust and my shoulder; I don't know if this is related to my small bust or my frame, but I suspect it's a little of both. I often shorten the front strap, usually taking in a little more at the neck edge than the shoulder edge (thus shortening the front neckline, which prevents gape). You can see that in the photo above for Vogue 8386, and here for New Look 6394. This is kind of a touchy alteration because it can create serious drag lines running from neck edge at shoulder to the armpit; this is especially a problem for styles with sleeves. I haven't found a way to deal with that problem and only go with the slanted front shoulder if there's no other way to get rid of the gape. I'd rather have drag lines than gape.


Wrap styles were always off limits to me until I discovered how to alter them by realizing that the problem really was as simple as the crossover neckline being too long. By taking out some length, I opened up a whole world of new styles. I am petite but have a long torso; Cidell was startled to find that our torso measurements are nearly identical though she is several inches taller than me (and well into the average height for which patterns are drafted). So I think this is not related to my shortness and the principle applies to SBAers regardless of height. For crossover necks, I take out a wedge of width at a 90 degree angle to the neckline. Don't forget to alter the facing if it has one, as with Vogue 8379 (though frankly I didn't love the facing on this pattern and will leave it off next time I make it). This one is still a work in progress because the angle of the marked pleats is wrong for my bust, I just haven't figured out which way to aim them:

Pattern Alteration

For McCall 5314, a woven wrap, the line got too distorted when I tried to take all the length out at one go, so I shortened at about 1/3 and 2/3 of the neckline distance:

Altered Front

I mean seriously! Check out how ridiculous that alteration is! I took out about three inches of length! I really don't know who that *wouldn't* gape on. But the pattern looks fab on me now and is as snug as a bug in a rug along that wrap. No gape at all.

Sometimes you need to alter the pattern along more than one axis, as here for Simplicity 3775. I shortened the V neck/mock wrap to avoid gape, and narrowed the width of the gathering. When it comes to gathering, I also find it better to gather more toward the center front than to follow the markings. I don't know if it's my body in particular or general to a small bust to be more centered on the chest, but my girls seem closer together than patterns are drafted for.

Altered Bodice Pattern


For other miscellaneous styles, always, always, always narrow the width of a bust dart, whether it is vertical (a fisheye dart below the bust) or horizontal (a traditional dart to the side of the bust). It is invariably a mistake not to do this, and I made this mistake recently! Before I had any idea what I was doing I tried to deal with bad bust darts on the garment by taking in more fabric to try to reduce the bagginess. While that sounds like it will work, making a dart bigger makes it worse by increasing the difference in circumference between the bust and below the bust! It is essential to alter the pattern before cutting so there is less fabric to begin with.

Front Alterations

You might also need to reduce the length of a bust dart. It's worth it to do a quick tissue fit and mark your bust point (i.e., center of your bust, i.e., nipple) on the pattern piece. If the dart apex is going to overshoot your bust point it needs to be shortened.


This post is still a work in progress, because I think there might be something to shortening armscyes in some patterns. I just made BWOF 02-2008-103 and it looks pretty bad under the arms and across to the bust. I think a higher armscye would deal with that, and I think it has something to do with a small bust (since a larger bust would displace that extra fabric and prevent the bagginess under the arm).
Luckily, a small bust is usually fairly high so we don't have to worry about lowering the bust point. That's some consolation, right?


Meg said...

Ha! "Petite But Well Shaped Bust Adjustment," "Mine Will Stay Perky Longer Than Yours Bust Adjustment," or "I Can Buy Cheap, Cute Bras Bust Adjustment" V. funny.

cidell said...

Cidell... is several inches taller than me

If by several, you mean six, then yes. Yes, I am.

I am kind of jealous of the cheap, cute bra thing. My bras haven't been cute in a long, long, long time.

CraftRage said...

"Over many, many years of owning and operating both a small bust..."

LMAO!!!!!! Not sure why, but that hit the funny bone, probably because I had to fight the image of a person "operating" their bust.

I'm VERY jealous of the cheap, cute bra thing. Unless you're willing to take out a second mortgage, it's hard to find a larger sized bra that doesn't look like it was invented for use in an insane asylum.

Anonymous said...

I am with Cidell--I want a cute and cheap bra...mine have to be practical, expensive and structurally sound!
How did you like Chicago? Any fabric shopping...we are limited but there is a small district!

Melissa said...

Ahh, opposite of a FBA - what the heck does that really mean??? Nothing for us, clearly! Very great suggestions for how to alter the bust line. I'm currently taking a class from Marta Alto (Fit For Real People co-author) and last night in class when I tried on my blouse pattern she said I absolutely don't need a SBA. I was shocked! I am very small in the chest, however I will say the only reason I must not need a SBA is because I wear a padded bra. If I had to wear an unpadded ones I'd totally have to do the adjustment. Now this is just one blouse pattern so we'll see after we tissue fit a few more next sesson. Thanks for the great info!

marysews said...

I used to be a 32-double-flat! Those were the days ... After having 2 kids (both breast-fed), I have me some real boobs (no, not the kids, but they are 26 and 21, so what can I say?).

I used to not be able to find a bra to fit; now I just can't find a bra to fit ...

Carry On!

Sue said...

..and don't forget the "I can get away with wearing a pretty strappy dress without having to work out the logistics of wearing a bra under it"... as per Vogue 8386... lucky you!

kasizzle said...

Thanks for the info. Quite helpful. While I don't need an SBA, I am somewhat petite and am finding I need to adjust the shoulder to bust on most patterns.

Little Hunting Creek said...

great tutorial, and very educational. I will no longer whine about doing FBAs, since SBAs look like an equal pain. Your methods are working because your clothes look great!

DanainDFW said...

I think you're right about "shortening" the armscye for a SBA. I'm one who has to do the FBA and we have to add length to go over the girls, so it makes sense to decrease the length if it isn't "all filled up." Makes sense to me, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Holy Schmoley Batman- there is some important reading in this post! In our household we like bras that come with their own boobs, cause we sure don't have any!

Anonymous said...

Hi Trena,
Thanks so much for a fabulous post on SBA (although your alternate terms are sooo much better!). I have read through once and am printing out everything you wrote; it's exactly what I need as a self taught sewer. I have never had anyone to look over my shoulder or to answer quick questions, so your explanation are very user friendly. I agree Shannon's info is fab, but I think a little technical/advanced for me! The two articles together are just perfect.
I returned from the US a couple of days ago with 60 yards of fabric, so I'm ready to have a new go at some patterns that need bust "petite-ing". I laughed when I picked up a copy of Fit for Real People at Barnes and Noble on my last day ... the SBA is so not helpful!

Thank you and all the best, Natasha

katherine h said...

Me, I'm a 34AA, which is actually quite a rare not even the cute bras. I too have been frustrate by a lack of info on well as a total lack of info on skinny arms adjustments. Like you, I am short from shoulder to bust and long in the torso. I have totally given up on wrap patterns...even if they fit, they don't look as good as other styles on me anyway. Lately, I've had a lot of success by skipping the small bust adjustment and doing a narrow chest adjustment instead...slash in from below the armhole and up to the shoulder, not cutting through the shoulder seam allowance...pivot the armhole piece in (I overlap the pieces by 1.5 - 2 cm). This reduces the chest measurement by 3 - 4 cm, whilst still alowing room for those never-sag beauties! Thanks for your methods...I'll have to try them out.

Anonymous said...

You are hilarious....I like all of your alternate names but I think that "PBA" "Petite Bust Adjustment" is my new name for this....inspired by your view of the cup as half full (pardon the pun) and inspired by Natasha who is listed as anonymous in this comment section. It brings to mind visions of daintiness(is that a word?). Small Bust Adjustment brings to my mind a bust that you have to make a "small adjustment" to. Nonetheless, thank you all for the laughs and the inspiration for new terminology. I have an old picture (why do I torture myself) that a full busted schoolmate looked at(back then), busted into laughter, pointed, and exclaimed WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR BREASTS!! WHY ARE THEY SO FAR APART???? (insert humiliation) However, I laugh now because my breasts aren't sitting on my waistband or covering my belly. There have been many a time I used to wonder if I could to a lipo-transfer. Transfer belly fat into my breasts. Over the years, I have come to like my breasts because after all, they are a part of me. Now if I could only like (a little more) my size 10 man-looking feet....I digress. Anyway, does anyone besides me recall the "itty bitty t---y committee". Didn't you just LOVE that? In summation I'd like to say all jokes aside, we are all beautiful regardless of shape, size, etc. So some of us never had a need for training bras, so what. My "petiteness" (which by the way is attached to my 5 foot 10 inch, size 12/top and bottom, with size 10 feet frame) does not define me. all hail the PBA !!!!!! LOL!!!!

Live Luv and please, laugh!!!

Anonymous said...

Can I just say thanks? I hate having this fitting "problem" - what I wouldn't give to require the knowledge of an FBA - and your instructions are clear and infinitely helpful. So Thanks!

LakshmiRP said...

Thanks for the info, i use almost the same method, whenever i googled i landed up on FBA and devised my own version of its exact opposite. Glad to know that i am not alone doing this.... keep up the good work

Mea said...

Awesome! Thanks so much- I have Shannon's SBA instructions somewhere in my sewing hole, er room- and so together with yours I should be able to finally tackle this! I would like to also say that it would be nice if the VS salesladies would stop trying to squeeze my 36A girls into a 32B!! "Its the same size" they all say- but if I can't breathe in the second size and can in the first, doesn't that say they aren't the same? Me, I prefer breathing!

Michal said...

Great post! I was very excited to see you post the SImplicity 3775. I just made that as my first dress ever. And it does sag a little. Any tips on how to alter the one piece bodice? And skinner sleeves? I sewed a 2" allowance but they are still loose. Thanks!

Michal said...

Great post! I was very escited to see Simplicity 3775 as an example. I just made it as my first dress and definitely had sagging issues on the wrap part. Any tips for the plain bodice alterations? Also for making the sleeves skinnier? Thanks!

Kyle said...

Soooo glad you wrote this!! Antoinette directed me to this posting when I asked her for SBA advice. As Vogue 8379 is next on my dress list, it was GREAT to read this!!! Trena, you rock!

Anonymous said...

Wow thank you so much for this! I have been trying to alter my dress for so long, i have been sewing and making my own dresses for a while now, but have had so much trouble with altering around the bust. After reading this page it was just so easy.
Thank you for your help:)

Jilly said...

Great info. My favorite fitting advice for a SBA was "wear a bigger bra". This was from a fitting book! Ugh. Thanks again for the info, my goal for the summer is to fine tune the SBA and I think I can do it with your advice.

Anonymous said...

As a decades-long wielder of a small bust (can't leave home without it), I found this post very informative and even better, funny. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful information, and in particular all the pictures that you've made available on your flickr account that show exactly how you made the alterations.

Anonymous said...

^^ Or the 'Mine Stay in Place Whether I'm Wearing a Bra or Not Bust Adjustment'?

Anonymous said...

OMG! You have just completely made my day! I am only too familiar with the empty bag syndrome and the wrap-gape-problem so I avoided to sew these styles. But now I know what to do I will definitly try. Thank you so much for posting this!

Anonymous said...

I know this post is old but helpful- I recently decided to start making clothes for myself after I shrunk back to my teenage size (34A/32B) after having 3 kids and then losing weight. I can buy clothes aimed at teenagers (yes lots of cute bras now!) but I was frustrated when I tried to by shirts or dresses for the over 40's. thanks again.

Anonymous said...

FYI, although I do not need the large ones either, for those who have larger busts and have trouble finding cute bras, I usually send people to online Roaman's, Woman Within, or Avenue. They have gorgeous and/or MUCH better looking bras than one can fins elsewhere, and usually reasonably priced. I used to shop for my Mother In Law, 48D. Also check Sear's & JCP ONLINE.

Unknown said...

This is an excellent post. I always tell anyone who complains about clothing not fitting them because they're too skinny or too fat, or too short or too tall that ALL BODIES LOOK PERFECT WHEN THE CLOTHING FITS PROPERLY.

Once you learn to tailor your clothes to your body type, the world of fashion really opens up!

What a great website, I'm going to have to really dig in and see what else you've written.

roma said...

What an amazing find! I don't think of googling nearly enough. I have just made Burda 6567 dress from my stash before cutting into some much more expensive new material. The bust darts aren't very long and so the middle area sort of balloons, between and above my bust. The only way I could fix it was to pin another dart down from the middle of the armhole to near the point of the other one. As I can't get a mental picture of this on a flat pattern piece, I've been out in the garden trying to ignore it.

Susan said...

For a crossover-style bodice, you might try sewing clear elastic in the seam, stretching slightly as you sew. This draws up the bias seam without stretching and molds the fabric against your chest instead of gapping.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this article! I've been sewing for decades and knew the princess seam and dart fix, but not the one for underbust gathers. Your solution has corrected a dress that was about to take a bad turn. I also look forward to making wrap dresses that fit. Ready to wear ones are always so wrong and add insult to injury when fashion circles proclaim them to "flatter everyone!"