As a lingerie designer and maker, one of my greatest pet peeves is hearing bras dismissed as “just two small pieces of fabric.” It totally disregards the complexities and skills required to create these garments, as well as just being factually incorrect!
I’ve been running my lingerie brand for nearly a decade now, and still individually hand make my bra designs. It can easily take a few hours to create a single underwire bra. Laying out all of the individual components is an incredibly striking illustration of how complicated even a relatively ‘simple’ design can get. I’ve broken down each part of the bra here, as well as its purpose within the design.
1. Satin Elastic – 14 pieces
I use satin elastic for shoulder straps and to form the adjustable bra ‘wings’ (a signature design feature of my brand). The satin finish gives the design a luxe appearance, and the stretch of the elastic allows the bra to move and adjust with the wearer for greater comfort. We take the comfort of elastic shoulder straps for granted now, but it was only in the mid 20th century that these became a standardized feature of bras.
2. Metal Adjusters – 14 pieces
These are pretty self explanatory; they allow you to adjust a strap. This can account for different body shapes as well as individual fluctuations. It also allows straps to be shortened if the elastic stretches out with long term wear. By crafting the bra ‘wings’ entirely out of adjustable straps, each bra has a variance of up to around 6 inches in the band, and can fit a range of different bra sizes. This has a double bonus for a small indie designer like myself. It reduces the number of sizes that I have to offer (as each bra covers four different sizes). This feature also makes bras easier to fit for different clients.
3. Metal Rings – 2 pieces
These are attached to the apex point of each cup, with the strap looping through each ring. The ring allows the strap to have some flexibility in position, to better suit the body of the wearer. The rings are slightly oversized, which was an aesthetic design decision, and another brand signature.
4. Underwire Casing – 4 pieces
This underwire casing is manufactured specially to reduce wire poke through during washing and wearing, and has a plush finish for comfort against the skin. As well as encasing the underwires themselves, the casing is also used at the side seams to encase plastic bones.
5. Underwires – 2 pieces
Underwires give the bra structure, and help to ‘scoop’ the breast tissue into the cups of the bra. Wires are normally slightly flexible, with the tension of the bra body pulling the wire snug against the three dimensional ribcage of the wearer.
6. Polymer Bones – 2 pieces
Plastic bones at the side seams help to keep the vertical tension of the garment, so that the bra doesn’t collapse on itself and remains smooth on the body. The bones are hand filed to smooth the edges and reduce the risk of poking through the channels.
7. Plush Elastic Trim – 3 pieces
This trim is used at the underarm and underbust, and gives the garment a small amount of stretch for greater fit flexibility. The plush finish on the interior sits against the skin for comfort. A decorative scallop finishes the edges.
8. Stretch Lace Trim – 2 pieces
This trim is an aesthetic design choice, but the slight stretch of the elastic in this lace also means that the cups can fit a wider range of bust shapes.
9. French Leavers Lace – 7 pieces
This lace is used purely for design reasons. It is extremely fine, so needs to be lined in order to have the strength to offer significant support to breast tissue. This is particularly important for larger cup sizes, which require stronger textiles to provide lift.
10. Rigid Mesh – 7 pieces
High performance mesh is used to line all of the leavers lace panels. This specialist mesh is used in bras to offer greater support and structure. It has very little give to it and is strong enough to offer lift and shape to breast tissue, whilst remaining lightweight and slightly sheer.
11. Hook-and-eye Fastening – 1 piece
Hooks and eyes are the most common form of bra fastening, with the typical three columns of eye allowing for a little extra adjustability and fit flexibility to the bra. These fastenings are typically pre-made in a range of fixed widths.
12. Labels – 3 pieces
Most of my garments will have three labels stitched into them: a brand label, a size label, and a care and composition label. The final label gives detailed instructions on how to wash the garment, as well as information about the fabric composition.
I will admit, 61 individual parts is rather excessive for an underwire bra, and my designs fit firmly at the luxury end of the market. A fast fashion, molded foam cup bra might be able to cut down to around 23 individual pieces. But that’s still a lot more than a t-shirt, which can have as little as 2 panels total.
Underwired bras are engineering marvels at every end of the market, and require seriously skilled human hands to sew. And yes, that includes $5 fashion fashion bras! They’re still hand made by skilled labourers, and they still require phenomenal accuracy and tiny 5mm seam allowances. Bras are incredibly complex garments, and it’s frankly kind of amazing that they’re so commonplace and affordable!
Readers: Have you ever tried to make a bra? Did you realise how many different parts these garments can contain?