I never thought I would see the day, but . . . I made a 1950’s longline bullet bra. I can’t believe it. Why did I do this, and what have I learned about vintage bras?
I have been feeling the draw towards creating a more cohesive everyday wardrobe - and that has been my draw towards creating a vintage, 40’s-50’s style wardrobe. If you’ve been around on this channel for any amount of time, you will know that I love creating historical foundation garments. Usually, this has been corsets and stays, but in the case of the 1950’s, bras, girdles, and garter belts were more typically worn. I decided to dive in and make a long-line bra, with that iconic 50’s bullet bra shape, and a centre-front closure.
If you would like to learn more about vintage bras and how they differ from modern bras, check out my previous video!
I will be sharing:
How I drafted the pattern to my measurements and made a mock-up
The type of fabric I decided to use, and how it turned out
How I sewed a bra with a vintage reproduction look, using vintage lingerie techniques
How I like the finished bra compared to modern bras
And how I did some unexpected but necessary alterations to the bra!
Sound good? Let’s dive in!
Drafting the Pattern
When I saw a stunning vintage reproduction bra from the brand “What Katie Did”, I was instantly inspired. It was a satin longline bullet bra, inspired by the fifties. I could have just bought it, of course. But you know me: I love making things myself - it is my art. And when it comes to historical or vintage pieces, there is nothing better than having an exact piece to replicate. Of course, my inspiration piece was technically a vintage-reproduction (not a primary source), but it had such detailed high quality photos showing all of the details that it made sense to work from this (at least for my first vintage bra).
I was so excited, I couldn’t contain myself. On a family trip to the beautiful Point Pelee national park (our favourite place to go to the beach), I brought a box of pattern drafting supplies and set to work. Using my trusted “Metric Pattern Cutting” book, I started with a lingerie block as a base. What is a lingerie block? If you are familiar with what a basic bodice block (or sloper) is, it is the same thing, except with less ease (more form fitting) and larger bust darts (ditto). I traced this out onto paper, and subdivided it into the rough panels I would need, based on the inspiration bra.
These preliminary lines were like sketching, and were open to revision. I used proportions to figure out the placement of each line, and the borders of each pattern piece. When it came to drafting the cup area, I first used my apex-to-underbust measurement (I forget the technical name of this). This is simply a measurement taken over your best fitting bra, starting from your cup apex (the fullest point of your bra cup) down to the underwire line, following the contour of the bust. I used this measurement to determine the approximate placement and size of the outer perimeter of my bra cups, though I played this a little on the smaller side due to the design differences between vintage and modern bras. Especially since this bra wouldn’t contain underwire, this was more open to interpretation. More on that in my vintage bras article.
The cups were divided into four panels which all met at the bust apex. This a very different bra design than those used for modern bras, which are much more rounded than vintage bras. I may make the pattern for my vintage bra available on my blog, so stay tuned!
Mock-Up and Cutting Out
After drafting my pattern, I then taped the paper pieces together to create a paper mock-up. Doing this alerted me to some issues that could be corrected before even getting to the fabric mock-up.
Then, I cut and stitched a fabric mock-up, simply using some plain quilting cotton. I stitched with a larger stitch length and seam allowances to the outside, to make fitting easier. I also added a zipper in the front for easier access. I was very impressed with the fit and supportiveness of this bra- though the mock-up didn’t have any boning, so it wasn’t nearly as supportive as the finished bra. Keep this in mind if you are mocking-up a vintage bra pattern yourself.
At this stage, I realized that for a bullet bra, the cups weren’t pointy enough (or so I thought). I decided to alter the cup panels to add some more pointy factor, and remove a little width here and there from the body panels. Looking back, both of these changes may not have been necessary. Or I at least should have made a second mock-up, especially to refine the fit of the cups. I plan on perfecting this pattern before releasing it to you all, and including options for both a pointy shaped cup, and a more rounded cup.
Time to cut out the final fabric for the bra! I used a beautiful cotton batiste from my stash for this project. I had bought it several months ago intending it for an Edwardian blouse, but I was feeling a lot more excited about this project and decided to dive in. There is always more fabric! Plus, based on my research, cotton batiste was commonly used for all types of vintage lingerie. Plus, I knew it would be breathable and easy to work with.
I lay my pattern pieces on the fabric, and traced around the outsides. This pattern was “nett” meaning it didn’t include seam allowance. I prefer to make corset (or bra) patterns this way, as it makes marking the stitching line so easy. A clearly marked stitch line equals more accuracy! Then, after adding my seam allowance (1.5 cm for the body seams, 1 cm for all other seams) I cut out these pieces. I also marked all of my notches, which are very important for bra making! But where to begin with all of these confusing bra panels?
Preparing the Body Panels
The first step? Stay-stitching ALL of these panels. What is stay-stitching, and why is it important? Stay-stitching is usually done on pattern pieces which require accuracy and which are liable to stretching due to having edges cut on the bias of the fabric. This was true of every panel in this bra pattern, especially the cups! Using a short stitch length on my machine, I stitched just outside of the marked stitching line on my panels.
But wait, I forgot something! Before I stay-stitched, I actually did some flat-lining. What is flat-lining? Flat-lining is where you hand or machine baste two layers of fabric together around their edges, usually keeping in mind “turn-of-cloth” to create a thicker piece of fabric that you will work with as if it is one layer. In the case of this bra, the cotton batiste I was using was quite thin. It may have been fine on its own, but since this was my first bra-making foray I decided to play it safe and use two layers of the batiste - especially since there would be boning in this bra.
Back to the bra-making. I could now attach all of these panels together - all of these seams were simple straight lines. I stitched the seams to the inside of the bra, pressed them flat with a mini iron and a pressing cloth, and then created flat-felled seams.
These flat-felled seams serve three purposes:
1) They finish the edges and make them smooth and streamlined.
2) They double the strength of these seams, important for any form-fitting garment.
3) They create boning channels. We will talk more about boning later!
I should also mention that this bra design had a top frame that went around the top of the cups, provided support and lift, and formed the neckline of the bra. It was comprised of a centre-front band, and a side band, that met at the centre top of the cups, forming the peak that the straps would later be attached to.
But what about those bullet bra cups?
Creating the Bra Cups (a Vintage Reproduction Look)
It is time to make our bra cups! At this point, it was imperative that I knew which panel was which - there were 8 bra cup panels in total, and they all looked quite similar. This was why I had clearly labelled them, and marked notches earlier, so I knew which panel attached where.
For this section, I could have simply stitched them together with a regular turned seam and then top-stitched (I will try this on my next vintage bra) but I decided to use a vintage lingerie technique called “bridging” (also known as “fagoting”) to join the bra cup panels in a decorative way. This is done by first pressing under the seam allowances of the edges that will be involved, and I decided to top-stitch these. Then, using white embroidery floss and a needle, I created my interlocking stitches, bridging the bra cup panels together, two at a time.
Next, it was time to do the circular stitching. What on earth? Circular stitching on a bra? Why do we do this? Circular stitching was just that - concentric circles, or spirals of stitching that were done - centred at the bra cup apex and working outward. This served to create a conical shape in the bra cup, but it also gave a more structured and supportive quality to the bra cup fabric, as well as unifying the different panels together to create one cohesive bra-cup shape.
First, I traced out a toonie (Canadian two-dollar coin) in the very centre of my bra cups. Taking this to the sewing machine, I stitched carefully along this circle, using a small stitch length. Then, I stitched a larger circle around this first one, using the width of my sewing machine foot as a guide for how to distance this. I repeated this process until the entire cup had been filled with concentric circles.
But how to get these bra cups into the bra band?
Attaching the Cups into the Band (How on Earth?)
So. We now had a bra band, and bra cups. It was time to attach them together! I began by pinning, then basting the bra cup into the “bra frame”, making sure to match notches and to match the seams of the bra cups with the seams of the body panels. Then, I stitched this in place at the sewing machine. This was done in two passes - I got most of the bra cup stitched to the body, then attached the side band to the front band of the bra “frame” (we mentioned it in the body panels section). After the side band was attached, I was able to stitch the remainder of the bra cup to the side band.
Now, it was time to complete the top “frame” of the bra. I basically created a facing for this frame, so it was doubled up. Earlier, I had used fusible woven interfacing to stabilize this facing. Then, I stitched the facing to the top frame of the bra, right sides together, pressed, under-stitched, and turned under to the inside of the bra. I completed stitching down the bottom edge of this facing to the top of the bra cups using hand catch-stitches - invisible from the outside.
Boning and Front-Closure
It was time to add our boning and front-closure to the bra. I measured strips of synthetic whalebone to length, trimmed with scissors, rounded and filed the edges smooth, and inserted into those flat-felled seams we had created earlier. If you are making something similar, don’t worry about using synthetic whalebone - any type of plastic boning should work fine for this.
Based on my original inspiration bra, there needed to be a strip of diagonal boning along the neckline area of the bra. This served to stabilize the centre-front, and help support the bust through an “over-wire effect” (over-wire in bras is actually a thing and this strip of boning works through the same effect).
I stitched a channel in this centre-front neckline area of the bra frame, cut a strip of boning to length, heated and bent it a tad to fit better into the channel, and inserted it.
Finally, I used white hook and eye tape as a front closure. After stitching it to the centre-front, I was able to use this as a final boning channel - inserting boning directly into the hook and eye tape.
Later, I added “stops” to the tops and bottoms of all of these channels - a small back-tack of stitching across the boning channels. This prevents the boning from shifting around and making holes in the fabric with wear. If you are familiar with my corset-making processes, this is the modern equivalent of “bone flossing”.
Time to finish of the top and bottom edges of this bra!
Finishing the Top and Bottom Edges (a Rare Foray into Elastic)
Whew! We are almost done. Let’s talk about the bottom edge. Nearly every longline vintage bra I had seen contained elastic at the bottom edge, though not necessarily all of them did. The elastic was for good reason - it could help to cinch the waist, but it mainly provided comfort to the wearer as it prevented the bottom edge of the longline bra from “cutting in”. It provided cushioning. I used a good quality of waistband elastic for this.
What made this tricky? I didn’t want my elastic to be visible, either on the outside or inside of the bra. How did I accomplish this? Through an elastic casing! I cut a strip of white fabric (scrap linen, to be specific), and stitched it the bottom of the bra, right sides together, like a facing. I should note that I did this before adding the hook and eye tape to the centre front edge. I pressed this seam, and then attached my elastic to the facing only using a line of zig zag stitching at the top and bottom of the facing. I pulled the elastic fairly tight as I was doing this, and turned the top edge of the facing under to finish it. Then, I turned up this facing against the bra, and used hand catch stitches to attach the elastic casing to the bra. I held the elastic taut while I was doing this.
I finished the top edge of the bra with bias tape. Most of the top edge had already been finished through the process of adding the top frame to the bra cups, but the centre of the top edge was still raw. I chose to use my bias tape like a facing, turned to the inside.
Finally, I added my straps. I had made my own straps with strips of cotton batiste, cut on the straight grain, interfaced, and folded in half with the edges turned in and stitched. I used hand stitches to invisibly stitch these straps in place, and of course tried on the bra at this point to determine the correct fit of the straps. Done!
How Do I Like it?
After completing the necessary alterations to the finished bra which I will talk about in a moment, I love this bra! It gives a very similar bust silhouette and shape to my historical corsets, which I love! In my mind, this instantly makes this better than my modern bras.
I will say that due to its waist cinching effect this bra will ideally need to be paired with a vintage boned garter belt or something of that sort, to balance the effect on my lower body. It is a little tricky to get on and off, which I talk about more in my previous vintage bra article.
Despite this being a bullet bra, I did decide to alter this bra to make it a little less pointy. I did the alteration with invisible hand stitches in such a way that I can undo it later if I so choose, which surprisingly makes no visible lumps or bumps when the bra is worn. Why did I do this alteration? Is there something inherently wrong with bullet bras? No, of course not! I did this alteration partly because of my own taste and comfort level, but mostly because I could have done a better job with the pointed cup shape if I had done another mock-up or two and refined the shape a bit more. It wasn’t an attractive bullet bra shape, it just looked kind of strange because the pattern could have used some more refining.
Also along the same lines of needing more mock-ups, the bra turned out uncomfortably tight, especially considering that it didn’t even land right on my actual waist, but a bit above my waist. I decided to do the scary thing of cutting the bra open at the sides and adding in some extra godets of fabric.
What Do You Think?
Would you ever try making a vintage bra, or wearing one? If you did, would it be as complex as this one, or more simple? I think I will be trying some more (simpler) designs in the future! Will you be interested in the pattern for this vintage bra?
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