#KnitPetiteProject: How did we arrive at the sizing we have today?

Our last post outlining how to take some important measurements and different ways to be petite.
The #KnitPetiteProject plan.

All other #KnitPetiteProject posts.

Buckle in folks, this is a history-heavy post!

While reading more and more about the history of sizing standards I’ve personally noticed a couple things happening to my attitude towards clothing and sizing standards:

  1. These standards are not something stemming from time immemorial. They have a relatively short history, which makes dismantling them a more approachable undertaking.
  2. My sympathy towards clothing manufacturers has grown. Trying to serve populations with clothing that delivers a satisfying fit is tremendously complicated.

I’m sharing this information with you today, so that you too will feel even more prepared to dismantle (figuratively and literally!) clothing and sizing standards to suit your own tastes.

Since the time of the industrial revolution and the first widespread introduction of mass-produced clothing the apparel industry has struggled with the inherent contradictions of providing well-fitted clothing within the constraints of economical and practical sizing systems for the variety of people in a population. People vary along many dimensions, resulting in a multitude of sizes, proportions and postures to be accommodated…The complexity of sizing for clothing is unmatched by any other consumer product.1 (emphasis my own)

How Standardized Sizing Began: the 1800s

The interest in stable units of measurement stretches back to the Middle Ages. If you’re as nerdy about this as I am, you can find all sorts of interesting info about the vast array of length measurements dotting maps from the Age of Exploration onward for centuries.

That said, in order to produce a system of standards for clothing you need more than just stable units of measurement.2

Prior to the 1800s there isn’t much evidence of systematized measurements being applied to drafted patterns. This changed through several forces near the beginning of that century including industrialization and war. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars brought great need for clothing en masse, and demonstrated that the grading that existed was insufficient. Crude and simple tactics to create grades can be seen in the 1820s; European tailors appear to have been the first to base their measurements on anatomical information and relate that to proportion and pattern drafting.

As far back as 1826 there is evidence from the French tailor Michel Bailley that the breast measurement was the most significant number  upon which many proportional drafts were based.

In the 1840s, mathematical interest in averages were applied to clothing through the work of the Aldolphe Quetelet.3 He took tools used in astronomy and applied them to people, first using data from soldiers to determine their “true” chest size. By the  end of the 1800s, dressmakers’ manuals included tables of standard measurements that were proportional, and examples in sizes that (much like today!) were based on the bust size.

Hecklinger, chart of proportional sizes, 1891.

The fashion of the mid-late 1800s played a role in the need and desire for more exact sizing standards. Womenswear was quite close fitting and based on the changing shapes of corsetry. Dressmakers needed a system that was simpler and more efficient than the complex system that existed in order to produce clothing for their customers.

Charles Hecklinger in 1891 created the first systematic method of block adaption for women’s clothing. Looking at charts like this shows us the mathematical attempts at sizing simplification and standardization, and particularly show us the idea that circumference was thought to be tied to vertical measurements.

By the end of the 1800s, the mass production of women’s clothing in America was greater than the output from dressmakers. This is important to note because it was in America that the first major standardization studies were created only a few decades later.

In Europe this process developed more slowly, with small workshops and independent dressmakers using tailors’ techniques, giving them the ability to deliver personal service and close-fitting, fashionable garments.

The 20th Century

The fashions of the early 20th century played a part in the standardization of sizing. The old, distorted shapes created through corsetry were discarded, and a move toward looser, more flowing lines was embraced. This meant you were less likely to need such precise fitting for those “flapper” fashions; the attitude toward buying mass-produced clothing changed as well.

Those averages we referred to earlier from Adolphe Quetelet were again utilized for WWI; in WWII, however, it was discovered that those averages actually ended up serving no one perfectly rather than everyone sufficiently, and as we see today, the ideas of customization/adjustment were built into things like pilot’s seats in planes.

It was in this zeitgeist that the first large-scale collection of anthropometric measurements from women was undertaken from 1939-1941 by R. O’Brien and W.C. Shelton, supervised by the United States Bureau of Home Economics. This study is immensely important because it became the model upon which measurement data was collected throughout the world, and these numbers have greatly influenced sizing standards to this day. We should note that this was undertaken by the government, and that the adoption of its findings were voluntary.

While in theory we might think this study is a great basis of information for the clothing industry, there’s a few factors we should take into account.

Many clothing manufacturers and retailers aren’t keen on utilizing information of this sort. The data collected in the O’Brien + Shelton survey was limited to 10,042 women, all of whom were white Americans, aged 18 – 30 years old.4 Restricting the data collected to this population results in a misrepresentation of information; the importance of attention paid to a variety of body shapes associated with different ethnicities is erased. This data was intended to be a recommendation for the representation of all American women, and ended up representing a very narrow field of them.

The era of the survey also reflects a skewing of data; you can see this skew through the desire to update O’Brien + Shelton’s work in the publication of Voluntary Product Standard PS 42-70 (pdf here). One of the reasons there was a revisit of this data was a push from the Mail Order Association of America. After the association implemented the 1958 standard created from O’Brien + Shelton’s data, it found that this standard did nothing to reduce returns from customers due to poor fit.

The MOAA saw the then 20 year old information as unrepresentative of contemporary female body proportions. By the 1960s, data from health surveys showed that women were taller and heavier than they were in the time of Shelton + O’Brien; that said, the PS 42-70 revision was more a shift in size designation rather than a full undertaking of new data collection.5 Which of course means that changes were limited and accuracy was not particularly increased.


Throughout the second half of the 20th century there was much work done in countries around the world to develop standards, all voluntary, and many undertaken by non-governing bodies.

ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) was formed in 1898 and is one of the largest voluntary standards development systems in the world.6 ASTM is the group that administers the standard today, and it’s believed to be the basis for womenswear made by US companies today.

It’s “believed to be” because clothing manufacturers and retailers have their own, defined target markets, and want to serve those markets by developing sizing standards which create consistency within their store to build trust and brand loyalty. This is why you may enjoy the fit of a size X in one store, but find that the same size X in another store doesn’t fit at all. Companies develop their own standards through their choice of professional fit models who reflect the target market, related banks of information (eg: automotive industry), sizing charts from competitors, and their own data collection surveys.7 These differing standards can be understood fundamentally as a marketing tool.

Attempting to serve all American (Canadian, UK, Australian, etc…) women is a nearly impossible task – just imagine all the different factors of human body shape that would have to be taken into account for such a system to function. Dividing the population into smaller groups based on differing factors helps make this task more manageable. For example, ASTM administers a Standard Table of Body Measurements for women who are 55+ years old. This standard, ASTM D5586, shows differences in measurement from the PS 42-70 data, many of which were related to posture, body carriage, height, weight, and change in the shape of flesh and muscle as women age.8

This 2016 article (PDF) from the Journal of Textile and Apparel Technology and Management shows the continued importance of ASTM’s standards by using it as a comparison point against which data from SizeUSA is measured. The study compares regular sizes rather than petites, but is valuable to us in highlighting how the prevailing sizing system, even for regular sizes, is not reflective of the measurements of the population.

Developing a New Standard

ASTM developed the data for D5585 in 2011 not through a new anthropometric study, but instead by comparing apparel company and military anthropometric information. This feels frustrating to those of us on the receiving end of the information, though it’s important to note the difficulties in undertaking a brand new data collection survey. It’s expensive; it requires trained individuals to do the measuring (and/or expensive 3D body scan technology); the survey itself must be carefully designed to reflect a variety of peoples and shapes across ethnicity/geography/age and other factors; volunteers must be gathered; and a method must be developed to analyze the collected data.

When looking at the data to create standards, you can group the information based on the average (giving a reasonable fit for the majority near the middle of the distribution, eg: one size fits all garments like t-shirts, socks, tights), a range (which accommodates a larger percentage of the population which is where most ready-to-wear sizes are developed), or extremes (where very small or large sizes would be served, eg: petites, plus, etc).9

A particular population and their key dimensions have to be chosen to give structure to a sizing system, and then used to help predict other measurements, create size intervals, and distinguish body shapes. One hope for the future is the new technology of 3D body scanning.

Body Scanning Technology

This new technology is very exciting for academics in the field of apparel study. It can serve many functions, including offering new ways of analyzing body shapes, solving problems in sizing of apparel, evaluating the fit of garments, and eliminating the need for size charts and grade rules.10 On this website from Cornell University, you can see a comparison between a traditional fit-model based system of sized garments and the possibilities opened by body scanning for mass customization.

Countries that have undertaken studies using 3D scanning technology include Japan, the Netherlands, UK, USA, China, South Africa, Mexico and France.11

“Why do the designers think that if my bust is larger, my arms and shoulders have also grown immensely?”

This is a question asked in the first #KnitPetiteProject survey, and one that is perfect to address right here.

As you can see in the text above, systems of sizing standards have to take something as a key defining measurements. For Shelton + O’Brien in the 1930s, their recommendations were based on a correlation between weight, height, bust, waist, and hips. Because their findings were applied and mildly altered throughout the rest of the 20th century, they were wide-ranging and influential. That standardization requested by the MOAA in the 1950s (CS215-58) created a cascade of other countries developing such systems for themselves; a great example is the report published in Canada, using exactly the data from the United States.12

Anthropometric studies generally show that horizontal body measurements (girths) correlate well to each other, that vertical measurements (lengths) correlate well to each other, but that horizontal and vertical measurements do not correlate well.13

The ideas of correlation between those numbers of bust and shoulders traces back to that original Shelton + O’Brien (flawed, limited) data; of course, depending on where you got the garment, it may be a combination of that manufacturer’s own collected data, fit model, and target market.

Also of note is the petite fit paper we discussed last week, and that it states no study has analyzed petite size women’s body proportions and figure types using the recent and larger amount of anthropometric data currently available.14 Since we’re relying on that old data (unless/until 3D scanning technology builds a thorough database and academics sort through, make recommendations, and retailers apply that data), we’re all stuck in a place where the existing system, flawed as it is, presents itself as the overarching source of information.

As far as knitwear design goes, designers have to rely on some sort of standards to create their size ranges. As I alluded to in last week’s post, many knitting publications ask you to use the CYC standards, which include a relatively wide range of information, though it is limited in height data and has been found by some to be lacking in accuracy, particularly in the larger sizes.

Ysolda’s sizing chart, Feb 2017.

A great example of how a variety of sources can combine in the creation of a sizing table is Ysolda’s new chart. For this new chart she lists the ASTM charts for misses and plus, as well as information from patternmaking manuals. She also notes, importantly, that these are body measurements intended specifically for knitwear (rather than, say, sewing). Ysolda’s chart is another popular option for sizing charts among knitwear designers, though, like the CYC, doesn’t separate out information for petite measurements.

All of this is to say that it’s very likely (especially if you’re in North America) that the clothing you’re wearing or designs you’ve made can trace their sizing back to that O’Brien + Shelton data, the CS215-58 standard, the PS 42-70 charts, ASTM’s standards, and any such charts with influence from these sources, and until there’s a significant revision of these standards with new data, then this is the information we all have to work from.

Fun Fact

Shelton + O’Brien believed it was necessary to consider stature along with the other circumference measurements; they chose to base their numbers on circumferences such as bust and the key dimension of the “standard” size of 64″ (5’4″, 162.5 cm).


Are there any stores you shop in mainly because you prefer the fit of the clothes?


1 S. Ashdown, Preface to Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg xvii.

2 W. Aldrich, “History of Sizing Systems and Ready-to-Wear garments”, Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg 2.

The rest of this section is drawn from this chapter, which is pages 1 – 56.

3 99% Invisible podcast.”On Average“. Episode 226, August 23, 2016. accessed March 6, 2017.

4 Marie‐Eve Faust, Serge Carrier, Pierre Baptist, (2006) “Variations in Canadian women’s ready‐to‐wear standard sizes“, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, Vol. 10 Iss: 1, pg 72.

5 K. L. Labat, “Sizing Standardization”, Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg 95.

6 Ibid, pg 92.

7 J. Bougourd, “Sizing Systems,fit models and target markets”, Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg 118.

8 K. L. Labat, “Sizing Standardization”, Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg 96.

9 J. Bougourd, “Sizing Systems,fit models and target markets”, Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg 119.

10 Ibid, pg 146.

11 Ibid, pg 122.

12 M. -E. Faust, “Apparel size designation and labelling”, Anthropometry, Apparel Sizing and Design. edited by Deepti Gupta, Norsaadah Zakaria. Feb 15, 2014. pg 261.

13 A. Petrova, “Creating Sizing Systems”, Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007. pg 67.

14 Youngsook Kim , Hwa Kyung Song , Susan P. Ashdown , (2016) “Women’s petite and regular body measurements compared to current retail sizing conventions“, International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology, Vol. 28 Iss: 1, pg 49 – 50.

#KnitPetiteProject: How did we arrive at the sizing we have today?

6 thoughts on “#KnitPetiteProject: How did we arrive at the sizing we have today?

  1. Oh man. You asked about stores we like because their sizing schema fit us better, and I have so many for different body parts. Lane Bryant has the underwear that fits me best, but the rest of their clothes are too big in the bust. Old Navy for years had the only jeans that would fit me (large hips but tiny waist) but at some point they redid their sizing charts and changed the cut of their jeans and now they don’t fit me at all – I’ve switched to Riders by Lee. Finding dress pants or khakis is an ongoing nightmare. Bras have to come from the Hanes/Playtex outlet and nowhere else. And the shirts I wear are almost exclusively men’s shirts – I have broad shoulders but a relatively small bust, so I would wear an XL in most women’s shirts but then the bust is too big. I also like to wear my shirts long (even though my torso is pretty short), and men’s shirts are cut longer. So I wear mostly “unisex” tshirts from American Apparel (R.I.P.) and Threadless. Every time someone updates their sizing standards, I have to try on a million things in a million stores to figure out what will fit. It’s quite the experience.

    1. Wow! So much investigation, trial and error! Your note about jeans reminded me: I read somewhere in the course of the KPP research (but can’t remember where now!) that Levi’s began to make use of some of that SizeUSA body scan data a few years back with their “custom fit” jeans line. I’ve never tried them, but as soon as I read that I was SUPER curious about how that works out for people and the level of satisfaction customers do or do not get. (http://explore.levi.com/news/style/complex-video/) I think that link is the product I read about.

      I’m glad you also mentioned personal preference too: that’s another aspect of fit that causes frustration for people (ie: women’s tops are consistently cut shorter than men’s). I read this really interesting quote in the Sizing book I’m relying heavily on for KPP, talking about how one of the hurdles to delivering good fit to populations may be that these people have, over the years, become so accustomed to the usual level of “mis-fit” that they don’t know/can’t recognize/actually accept the ill-fit issues as “just the way things are supposed to fit”. It’s a very interesting idea to me: fit is subjective AND objective!

      Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

  2. heatherknitswordpress says:

    I am loving the KnitPetiteProject so much! Thank you for all the information. Having only recently found you I am still catching up.

    As Shanna mentioned above finding a retail store that makes clothes that are a reasonable fit is an ongoing challenge! At the moment I am finding that Land’s End petite range is often a reasonable fit – although I think their fit model is not as curvy as I am. Pepperberry (the clothing wing of Bravissimo the underwear shops we have in the UK) is good from the curvy perspective (they make three different curvy fits), but you have to hunt out which pieces work well on short people. Fortunately my experience has been that their staff are very helpful in this quest!

    I would agree with your observation that the petite plus size market is one which is seriously underserved. Yet despite eating much cake over the years it has never made me any taller 🙂

    On the subject of being accustomed to mis-fitting. All store bought sweaters made in regular sizes are too long in the arms for me and require turning up of the cuffs. For an embarrassing number of years I knitted my hand knit sweaters to the pattern and so made the sleeves long enough to turn back the cuffs (since that is how sweaters work!?!). It is only in the last 10 years since I have become more obsessed about fit that I have finally been altering my sleeve lengths 🙂

    1. You’re very kind! I’m happy you’re digging the KnitPetiteProject 🙂

      I am SO GLAD you mentioned how you knit the sweaters to the pattern, long sleeves and all. I was just reading a bit in my “Sizing in Clothing” book I’m relying heavily on for this part of the KPP. It talks about how petite women (ESPECIALLY petite plus women) are simply used to clothes fitting incorrectly, and so continue with the belief that that is simply the way things are meant to fit. Incredible, isn’t it!?
      This was mentioned in a chapter about the efficacy, importance, and realities of creating good fit. They were talking about if it was even worth it, because some people have no idea that clothes aren’t fitting them the way they were intended to. Another valuable point mentioned was that many people either don’t know, or have a very incorrect idea as to what their measurements are.
      The thought was that sizing labels should at the very least represent real body numbers, but ignorance of actual size AND vanity were cited as reasons that this would be at least complex, at the most, too confusing and a source of dissatisfaction in customers.

  3. heatherknitswordpress says:

    The Sizing in Clothing book sounds really interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing lots more of your thoughts on it! I can completely see how we become habituated to poorly fitting clothes. If clothes that don’t fit are all that you are used to then you become very accustomed to them. Also since they often all don’t fit in the same way (ie. sleeves too long) it can be easy to believe that clothes are supposed to be like this. Or alternatively that it is our bodies that are somehow wrong rather than the clothes.
    I really believe there is a market out there for more properly fitting petite clothing – and especially plus size petite. But the difficulty is in first of all convincing people that there is a problem, and that something can be done about it, and then in convincing people to possibly pay more for better fitting clothes in our cheap disposable fashion world. I hope that we will see more interesting advances in technology allowing designers to use 3D scanning and computer controlled cutting to create more semi-bespoke clothing. At the moment the difficulty seems to be that this would still be expensive compared to mass production in a sweat shop in a country with low pay rates for textile workers. (sorry that turned into a bit of a rant!)
    What really drives me nuts about sizing labels is when a company can’t even stick to its own sizing descriptions. I bought a pair of shorts from Land’s End last year. Their sizing info on their website gives sizing in inches and what dress size that should correspond to. I have a 33in waist and a 41in hip so that puts me at the top of their size US12. However the US12 size shorts were massive round the waist, and even the US10 are a little big on the waist and ok on the hip. If companies are going to give their sizes in inches they should at least stick to them!

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