The Black Magic of Boob Math

This is the first of a series.

Alright folks this essay is going to be as genderfree as possible. Women make and wear men’s clothing, men of a certain size also have to navigate this issue, and third gender or gender eschewing folks need clothing too. To that end I’m avoiding terms like ‘the girls’ ‘the ladies’ ect. I’m also making the conscience choice to refer to the body parts we’re navigating around as ‘boobs’. Yes ‘breast’ is the more scientifically accurate term, but that (to me at least) reads as decidedly politely-feminine in a way boobs just doesn’t. I also just like saying boob. I am a cis woman, so I’m not going to even pretend that I know best, just explaining my choices here. Feel free to substitute your favorite word of choice, gods know the internet is full of ’em.

ON WARDS!

What is ‘boob math’?

Boob math is the complex calculations needed in order to make clothing fit correctly and as intended over boobs. Whether that intent is to downplay their existence, draw attention in a flattering manner, or  just support them so you fricken back isn’t killing you after a couple hours, determines what kind of structural physics you need to do here. You’ll note that high fashion uses models with fairly straight lines, even they acknowledge boob math is hard. It’s not just as easy as throwing more fabric in the boob-zone, it’d be awesome if it was.

Today we’re going to start going over how to alter existing patterns designed for those folks without boobs to fit properly with boobs. This is the most simple kind of boob math and why we’re starting here. This will also work for adjusting patterns meant for the boob’d that don’t fit around *your* boobs. I’m assuming you are starting with a commercial pattern. I do not use them (I draft everything every time like someone who refuses to let love into their life) so my photos and such for this are all hand drawn with the shapes you’r’e looking for. Excuse the laughably terrible art.

You will need:

-Your pattern

-Paper to draft on (no special kind, you can use printer or notebook paper and tape it onto your commercial pattern if need be)

-Measuring tape

-A pencil

-Scrap paper for writing measurements on

-Comfort beverage or food of choice

Ok, so the goal here is to be as non-disruptive to the original pattern as possible for ease of sewing it. That being said there’s a bit of pattern drafting involved here. Don’t run away! It’s ok, I’m going to walk  you through how to make 2D shapes fit a 3D body. First we’re going to take measurements. I’m going to have you take measurements on both sides of your body, the beauty of pattern drafting means custom fitting and boobs are never the same size. The difficult bastards.

If you intend to wear a bra with this garment, put it on now. For each side of your body you are going to measure:

(A) -From the top center of your shoulder to nipple

(B) -From outer side center (or wherever the seam of your pattern lies) of the rib cage to nipple

(C) -STRAIGHT UP from directly under the boob to nipple (do not follow the curve, trust me)

(D) -From center top of shoulder straight down the side body to directly under the boob (do not follow the curve of the boob, you want a straight line)

(E) – Straight across the front of the boobs from nipple to nipple.

Now look at the bodice pieces for your pattern. There should be a front piece, and a piece with the arm hole cut in. Modern patterns generally give you one of each and say ‘cut 2’. You may need to make a copy and label one Left and one Right. Measurement D is how far down the pattern pieces we’re altering. Clearly mark that on each piece by measuring from the top edge (shoulder) of the pattern down.

Starting side (left) and front (right) pattern piece examples.

Grab the side pattern piece (the one with the arm hole cut out). We’re making adjustments to the front of it. Now, using measurements A, B and C you’re going basically make a triangle on the side piece of your pattern. Starting from the bottom of measurement D (so as far down the pattern as we’re adjusting), measure up C. Make a dot or a line or some mark you can see. Measure down and out from the top of the shoulder on the pattern for the length of A, adjusting the angle until the point of it lines up with measurement B straight out from the point we made by measuring C up from the bottom point of D. Make a dot or a mark at this point.

Now what you’re going to do is draw a line from the top of the shoulder to the mark made where measurements A and B meet. Then draw a curve down from that to meet the bottom of measurement D. Smooth out where the curve meets the line from the shoulder into a curving transition to avoid awkward nipple points.

Repeat this process for the other side. Grab your measuring tape again and measure how long the total curve your just made is, from shoulder, around the nipple point, down to where it meets the pattern again.

Now take your front pieces. These should be more or less rectangles since most of the fiddly bits on patterns are the side pieces. There may be a concave curve on the edge that meets your side piece, that’s fine and is useful. We’ll get to that. The measurement you just took off your side piece curve is how long the new measurement of your front piece from shoulder to point D is. The concave curve is added to avoid having odd darts and ruffles along where the front and side pieces attach on that curve. You’ll need to rough in a concave curve that matches the convex curve you made on your side piece.

Where all your measurements go. Side (left) and front (right)

Repeat this process for the other side.

Measure from the center point of one of your concave curves to the center point of the other. This needs to be AT LEAST as long as measurement E. If not you will have that dreaded button gaping boob pull situation happening. If there are no buttons or front closure then you’ll still have uncomfortable boob flattening/tugging going on.

Altered side (left) altered front (right)

WHEN YOU GO TO CUT THIS ALL OUT DO NOT FORGET TO ADD THE SEAM ALLOWANCE SPECIFIED IN YOUR ORIGINAL PATTERN TO YOUR FINAL LINES. This is the pitfall I make most often and how I end up with poorly fitting tops even though I know how to draft for boobs.

What we just walked through is basically drafting a princess seam.

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Birka Gown, The Making of and Documentation

Here it is! The moment you’ve all been waiting for! And by that I mean I’m actually writing down the last week and providing you my paperwork.

So 8 days prior to Birka I decided to do the fashion show. Why not? I had a woven silk table runner (it was supposed to be something else and epic failed) that I could wear as a front panel, and the simple plan I told you about before. So without further ado, my write up:

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Brief:

A hand stitched blue wool dress sewn with handspun wool and using a bone sewing needle. Dress is embellished at the seams with purple, gold, and blue silk and strapped purple and gold linen and blue hand spun trim adapted from an arguably 10th century Saxon belt find.

Long form documentation:

The dress itself is commercially available wool. The thread count matches the 10th century scraps found under the brooches of “The Lady In Blue” (Ketilsstathir Iceland, uncovered in 1938) of an almost balanced weave of 11 warp threads and 10 weft threads per CM. Chemical analysis of the dress found in the burial indicates a blue dye with a lighter tablet woven band around the top. To mimic such a starting band I have chosen to leave the contrasting color selvadge along the top edge of the gown. The wool selected also follows the Icelandic convention of weaving with unplyed yarn.

The creation of a checkered pattern by alternating different colored yarns in either the warp, weft, or both, is found in early textiles wherever we have existing examples. The commercial wool forming the basis of this project follows the same pattern by having an entirely white warp and alternating pale blue and antique gold weft.

It is unconfirmed whether the textiles in the find were from a blue dyed apron with linen under dress, full gown with linen under dress, or gown with a linen lining. There is also debate as to how the gown, if it was an over gown rather than apron, was constructed.  The three common interpretations of such a gown are:

  1. A pair of rectangles, stitched together at the sides, with side panels inserted for movement, suspended from straps at the shoulders
  2. A pair of rectangles, not stitched together, suspended from straps at the shoulders.
  3. A long tube suspended from straps at the shoulders

I have chosen to create the first option as I find it the most practical for everyday wear. A pair of rectangles, unattached, would flop open. This creates a fire hazard as well as exposing more of the linen under layer to cold air, rather than keeping the torso and body core protected by the warmer wool. A long tube without any gores would need to be baggy along the top edge in order to allow freedom of movement of the legs. This creates the same draft problem as well as making it more likely to bunch and become uncomfortable under the arms. A dress tight enough to avoid armpit bunching and drafts would bind up the legs, making walking and daily work difficult.

The over dress is hand stitched using a bone needle and handspun wool thread. The thread itself has been processed from a raw Icelandic top coat, using combs rather than hand cards in order to produce a hard woolen spun thread. This matches the extant 10th century finds of Icelandinc textiles for spin style (S-spun and used as a single rather than being plyed) as well as type of wool used. The spindle used is a bottom whorl soapstone spindle, with a weight roughly matching the weight of an extant 10th century stone spindle whorl I have in my possession. I have used a stitch length found in Dublin caps of 3-5 mm.

Over dress stitches and needle

Seam Treatments:

There is little evidence for seam embellishment on extant textiles, due in part to how rarely they are found. However I have chosen to add silk herringbone stitches to the seams of the over dress due to references in period texts of rich adornment. Herringbone, being a very simple embroidery stitch, is an excellent candidate for use in seam embellishment as it is unobtrusive to the modern eye. The small stitches on the underside of the fabric also allow it to double as a seam finishing technique as it can be done as part of the period finishing practice of flat felling. This is what I have chosen to do on this gown. The use of a bone needle, rather than a modern metal needle, is carried throughout the seam treatments, back stitched hem, and strap attachment.

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Seam treatment detail.

Tablet Weaving:

The straps of the dress was woven using the Cambridge Diamonds pattern. My recreation is a 17 card pattern using the Saxon technique of only turning every other card, every other pick. In other words every odd card was given a quarter turn forwards, the weft was packed, then every even card was turned in the same direction. This elongates the center diamond and creates a sturdy band that has the same pattern on the front and back, making it perfect for structural bands such as straps or belts. In order to ensure the edge was bound correctly to the piece the two edge cards were turned every pick, rather than every other.

The fragment itself was unearthed in 1931 as a double sided linen strip attached to the end of a belt fixture. There is some debate as to the age of the extent example, it is unknown whether it is 10th century Anglo-Saxon or a later medieval piece, but as diamond patterns in textiles are common to nearly every time period and region I am interpreting this pattern as reasonable to the 10th century.

The scrap unearthed shows what appears to be a diamond pattern done in three colors, a dark background color, a second diamond color, and a light color as a highlight and outline around the center diamond. The original find was woven in linen or another bast plant fiber, potentially nettle, and measured roughly 1cm wide.

My textile was created using purple and yellow linen, per the original find, with the addition of hand spun blue wool to create the diamonds. The blue wool was S-spun on the same soapstone spindle used to spin the internal sewing thread. My recreation is wider than the original at 1.5cm wide on average. I elected to use part of the band showing my attempts to reverse engineer the pattern as the back half of a strap in order to show my process in recreating the original.

Original fragment unearthed from St. John Crick’s Field, Cambridge (left) my recreation (right)

Front Panel:

This was woven using a starting band. Starting bands are strips of tablet weaving, from which an extra long “fringe” is suspended, creating the warp for the final textile. This allows the warp to be evenly spaced without the use of a reed, which is required for modern horizontal looms, and is the hallmark of warp weighted loom woven textiles. This piece was woven on a modern horizontal table loom, but with a vertical loom starting band, to mimic the look of 10th century Northern European textiles. The starting band features a common greek key pattern.

The front panel itself was woven as a balanced tabby weave of 30 ends per inch. Tabby was chosen, rather than the more appropriate diamond twill, in order to create stripes with mild iridescence. This is also the reason silk, rather than linen or wool, was chosen as the fiber. Due to contact, through sites such as Birka and trade routes through the Byzantine Empire, with China silk was known to 10th century Northern Europeans. The samples we have are small in size and point towards the thread being used to create trims that could be easily removed and added to new garments. It is unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibility, that a garment the size of this front panel would have been made of silk.

Front panel thread count and starting band

Citations:

  1. _Viking Age Headcoverings from Dublin_. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2003

Smith, Michèle Hayeur Excerpt of Bundled up in Blue, the re-investigation of a Viking grave, Publications of the National Museum of Iceland; pp.25-43. 2015. Located under: The Lady in Blue-Bláklædda Konan: the textiles. National Museum of Iceland. https://northernwomen.org/project-2/

Crowfoot, G.M. (1952). “Anglo-Saxon Tablet Weaving”. The Antiquaries Journal. 32 (3-4): 189–191.

Starting band pattern located at http://mimbles.com/tablet-weaving/pattern-library/

Østergård, Else. Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2004. Print.

Christensen, Arne Emil; Nockert, Margareta. Osebergfundet IV, Tekstilene. Universitetet i Oslo 2006.

Geijer, Agnes. Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Birka: Untersuchungen und Studien III. Uppsala: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akadamien, 1938.

Lehtosalo-Hilander, Pirkko-Liisa. Ancient Finnish Costumes. Vammala, 1984.

Barber, E. J. W. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: Norton, 1994.
Barber, E J. W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1991. Print.

Lets Talk Documentation

So a while back, over a year at this point I talked about recognizing good vs less reliable sources. But I neglected to point out one very key thing:

Getting documentation in the first place is half luck, and half circumstance. But wait! You’d put a lot of time and energy and effort into your research! It’s work not luck! Allow me to be clear for the rest of this: I am not discounting the work and effort of research and writing. It’s hard, it’s time consuming, and if you’re not a research nerd it’s damn near torture.

But if you’re able to document what you’re doing as historical and appropriate to a specific place and time? You’re lucky. You’ve got sources to work from in the first place. The closer you are to present day the easier your research will be due to availability of sources in the first place. If you want to have, say, an accurate 1980s party you can talk to people who lived through it, and raid their closets for extant clothing. Having an 1880s party is a bit harder, but you have patterns and paintings and sketches and journals. You’ll need to compromise on what fabrics and techniques you use, but you can make reasonable substitutions fairly easily. 1780s has you relying on paintings and journals, still doable, but more wiggle room. 1680s? 1580s? The further back you go the less accurate and available your sources become. That’s not even getting into if they exist in a language you can read or a country that didn’t actively try to destroy them.

I do 950’s-ish Saxon. My sources are sketches in bibles, loom weights, a couple records of how we paid priests, and some bits of thread stuck to the back of metal that got mineralized rather than rotting. I’m lucky! I have sketches of how women’s outfits looked! I have scraps of thread and cloth that lets me guess at thread count! I have a hat with needle holes to tell me how big stitches were at a different place but within 100 or so years. I’ve also got contemporary textiles unearthed in Greenland, and a book about them that was translated into English.

I also have very fortunate circumstances that allow me access to sources that do exist. I’ve been given or loaned books, people have put the images online, I can get to them. I had the money and access to buy text books, and the materials to practice.

Compare that to someone trying to study Korean or Chinese or (gods help you) Tibetan anything. Sources either don’t exist because they were intentionally destroyed,  or they are so expensive to get a hold of that they may as well not exist.

So what can we do about it?

Share your sources. No, don’t put whole books of copyrighted information online. That’s bad, legally and will get you in trouble. But talk to people. Teach. Lend your books and articles, tell people where you found the information.

But dear sweet marshmallow fluff on toast don’t just tell someone they’re doing it wrong and walk off without offering to help.

And one more note, just because you *can* document something doesn’t mean you should recreate it. Lead make-up is a poor life choice, hemlock drinking bowls also a bad decision. Some things belong only in research papers, don’t hurt anyone.

Birka garb challenge

I wasn’t going to do the Birka garb challenge. Challenges (at least dictate by other people ones) aren’t really something I generally enjoy. I’m much of a “I do what I want!” kinda girl. So I didn’t look at the theme. Which has been posted for a while.

I was talking to one of my favorite enablers on Thursday, and found out she was doing it, and decided what the hell? I’ve got some fabric I’ve been meaning to make a dress, this is as good an excuse as any. I decided I’d make a machine sewn wool apron dress on Monday, as I had a memorial out of town that weekend. It’d be maybe an hour of work and I’d be all set.

You all know how this goes. We’ve discussed scope creep before. Don’t even pretend to be surprised.

Currently I have a wool apron dress, hand stitched with my own hand spun Icelandic wool top coat. That I processed using combs and the appropriate weight and style of drop spindle.

Because that wasn’t enough I’ve run two lines of herringbone stitch down each seam in silk. Still using a bone needle. I’m currently working on a running stitch of gold silk where the lines of the herringbone cross. No metal needle yet.

Once that’s done I’m going to warp purple and gold linen with my own dark blue wool hand spun (done on the same soapstone spindle) and weave 150 inches of tablet woven trim for the hem and straps.

I also have a purple and gold iridescent striped silk front panel with a knotted fringe. That I wove. With a starting band so it looks like it came off of a warp weighted rather than horizontal modern loom.

Yesterday I started what has now become a 4 page mini research paper, with a page of sources and a bunch of photos. I’ll post that on Sunday.

The challenge is on Saturday. As in I have 2 more days to finish this to avoid sewing in the car.

Thanks scope creep imp. I was doing just fine without you.