by Daughter Fish

Ballet top with built-in bra and covered cups

When it comes to clothing, I’m a huge fan of form meeting function. It might be my protestant roots, or pure pragmatism, but I want my clothes to work for me. Perhaps this is why I’ve so enjoyed reading about  Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet,  and Claire McCardell in  Secrets of the Couturiers, by Frances Kennett. While their male contemporaries, like  Balenciaga and Dior, made extremely tailored dresses that fit their ideal of female beauty (which I do, indeed, find beautiful), these three women designers made comfortable and beautiful clothes that solved real womens’ problems*.

The shirts and maillots I’ve been making with built-in bras came from a similar, practical need: I want to wear low-backed shirts without tacky bra straps. It’s been exciting to see that many other home sewers  like this idea, and in many cases have perhaps already thought of this but have yet to try it. The great thing about sewing blogs is the constant exchange of information and ideas on how to make patterns or techniques better. And I’ve gotten a few great ideas on my built-in bra technique from some of you this past week.

Amy posted about a beautiful unitard she created using my tutorials on drafting a unitard and sewing in a built-in bra with cups. One of the hiccups she found was that her bra cups showed through her unitard. I had a similar issue when making a ballet top out of a thin black rayon jersey:

Cups showing through:(

Meanwhile, Lavender asked whether I ever line my cups with something soft to make the scratchy/cheap feeling cups more comfortable (which, until this weekend I hadn’t even thought of doing!).

I realized that lining the cups, on the outside and inside, could address both issues that Lavender and Amy brought up. So I tried it out:

Cups lined in the same jersey fabric as bra

After experimenting with lining the cups, I tried covering the outside of the cups on my black ballet top. I used the same fabric as the shirt, and the cups are no longer visible (as you can see from the top picture of this post). This technique would, of course,  only work on a solid colored fabric (probably wouldn’t work well with stripes, like Amy’s unitard), but I think it’s a good fix if you find you want to make one of these shirts with a solid jersey that is a little thin/see through.

Here’s how I lined the cups:

Step 1: Flip cup inside out

Step 2: Lay fabric RIGHT SIDE UP over the cup and tack

After laying fabric over the cup, use thread and needle to tack the fabric to the high point (a.k.a. nipple point!) of the cup. This will keep the fabric from slipping, and the tack will also serve as the end point of the dart.

*Note: Laying the fabric right side up is particularly important if your bra cup is asymmetrical.

Step 3: Pin fabric to cup and make dart

As you pin, make sure the fabric is laying very smoothly over the cup, without stretching the fabric. I like to start at the top edge of the cup, then work my way halfway down each side of the bottom of the cup. As you pin, you’ll have excess fabric that needs to be taken up in a dart. Gather the excess fabric from the center tack, working toward the edge of the cup. Pin the dart together and pin around the rest of the bottom of the cup. Your dart should be at a slight angle.

Step 4: Trace dart with chalk and cut away excess fabric

Trace over the pins you’ve used to close the dart. This will provide guide marks when you sew the dart on the wrong side of the fabric.

*Note: Making a dart on the right side of the fabric, then sewing it on the wrong side, will ensure the dart is positioned correctly when you sew it back to the cup.

Step 5: Unpin fabric from cup and sew dart

When you lay the fabric on a flat surface,  right side up, you should see a triangle drawn in chalk where your dart will be sewn. Flip the fabric wrong side up, and use the center tack and the chalk marks at the edge of the fabric as guides for the dart. Pin the dart closed and sew from the outer edge (the “start points”) to the center tack (the “end point”).

*Note: When sewing the dart, I use a medium stitch length (2 on my machine) and decrease the stitch length 1/2 inch from the end point, and sew directly off the edge of the fabric. (Instead of stopping a few centimeters from the end point and tying off the thread.)

Step 6: Press the dart

I like to press my dart over a tailor’s ham to press the curve in the cup. If you don’t have a ham, you could probably use a rolled/folded towel.

Step 7: Baste fabric to inside of cup and sew

Flip the cup so the inside is concave again. Tack the end of the dart to the center point of the cup, to keep the fabric from slipping. Pin the edges of the fabric to the cup, smoothing the fabric as you go (if you try to do this step while the inside of the cup is still flipped out, you’ll get weird ripping action inside the cup when you flip it). Baste the fabric to the cup with long hand-sewn stitches. Basting will keep the fabric from sliding much better than just pins as you machine sew the fabric to the cups.

Finally, machine sew the fabric to the edge of the cup using a small straight stitch (you don’t really need a stretch stitch, since the cups don’t stretch). Remove basting stitches and cut away any excess fabric that’s hanging over the edges of the cup.

Cups lined in charmeuse and jersey knit

When I tried this with silk charmeuse, I did it on the bias, so I’d have more give in the fabric.  To cover the outside of a cup, you can use the exact same technique, but  you won’t need to flip the cup inside out in step 1 or right side out in step 7.

If anyone tries this, I’d love to hear how it works. And if you have an alternate technique, I’d love to hear about that too!