Friday, May 7, 2010

Body shapes and attributes--designing and fitting knitwear, part 2

In the previous post, TECHknitting laid out some background considerations in designing and fitting knitwear. Today, we turn to the the most basic underlying consideration: what are the shape attributes of the body attempted to be fit?

Bodies come in all types and shapes. A quick walk through a crowd reveals tiny sausage-shaped humans in one glance, while the next glance reveals humans of such heroic height or girth that the ancients would have worshiped them as gods.

Yet, despite the continuum underlying human shape and size, we're not going to get very far in the matter of designing or fitting knitwear unless we have some categories in our minds--unless we roughly group body types and attributes into a sort of shape-vocabulary.

If you search the internet for the term "body types," you will get lots of different classification systems. The one here is a sort of a hodgepodge of lots of different systems-a hodgepodge which may not pass muster with biomechanics or anatomists, but which experience shows has been useful in fitting knitting or sewing (or even just buying clothes!)

When "shape" is mentioned with regard to fitting clothes, what is most often meant is torso shape: the shape of the body from chest to hip. This is particularly true for hand-knits, as hand-knit pants are almost never made, and hand-knit skirts rarely. The torso shape is traditionally described by its measurements at three points: The chest/bust, the waist and the hip.

The chest or bust is measured at its widest point, often (but not always) at the nipple line. Likewise, the hip is measured at its widest point, and that point is often well below where the hip socket of your skeleton is. In other words, "hip measurement" is a polite euphemism for the diameter of your lower torso around the largest part of your rear end (buttocks). The waist is measured at the smallest point, often (but not always) very near the top of the belly-button (umbilicus). This waist measurement is often referred to as "natural waist," and this is to distinguish it from the "waist measurement" of a garment which starts (sweater bottom) or ends (pants top) or sits (dress waist) somewhere between your bust/chest and your hips, at a spot which fashion dictates, and which may or may not be your "natural waist."

These three torso measurements are really in the nature of raw data: surprisingly, measurements directly from the body aren't actually all-that-useful for constructing clothing, and this is because of the overlapping concepts of ease and fashion. The reason to take your body measurements, therefore, is not to determine what size garment you ought to next knit, but because the measurements are useful for determining your "shape." Your shape, in turn, has a lot to say about what items of clothing you will find well-fitting and attractive.

Torso shape is a limited metric, of course: bodies have so many more aspects than these basic three measurements. So, after we look at shape, we'll turn to some variables which occur across every shape, such as posture, shoulder build, waist length and the like.


The tubular body shape (also called "rectangular") is the one that many children have: the chest, waist and hip measurements are substantially the same. Children are not the only ones with this shape, however. People of all ages and builds can also be described as "tubular" or "rectangular" if their three torso measurements are essentially the same, which means that the tubular figure can vary from the very slim to the compact and muscular. Limb shape (especially in children) is often correlated with the tubular shape: the arms and legs are often "straight," by which is meant that the fore-arms vs. upper arms do not vary greatly in diameter, nor do the calves vs. thighs. In other words, with the tubular shape, not only is the torso tubular, but often, the limbs are too.


If the hip measurement is the largest, while the waist and chest/bust are smaller than the hip, but fairly close in size to one another, the shape is called the "upward cone." This shape is one many girls pass through: among their first body changes are a widening of the hips. When this widening precedes the bust development, or if developed bust is slim, this shape results. Many slim women, such as fashion models also fall into this category, although it's hard to tell because models are rarely photographed standing straight, arms at sides, legs together, directly facing the camera.

Another group often found in the upward-cones are lower-body athletes of both genders. A speed skater, bicycle racer or cross-country skier may have such strong legs and well-developed hip muscles that the upper body, by comparison, is narrower in the waist and the chest/bust.


Many people, and especially many women, have their largest measurement at the hip line. If this is accompanied by most of the weight being carried below the waist, this shape is called the "pear shape." The pear differs from the upward cone because the waist-bust differential is higher --bust relatively larger than with upward cone, and usually a substantial fraction of the hip measurement.


The apple shape is fairly ubiquitous: found in men and women as well as some children. In men or children, this shape is expressed with a larger measurement at waist than at chest or hip. In women, the waist or the bust may be the larger measurement, but the smaller is generally a very substantial fraction of the larger. In apples, the weight is distributed more-or-less evenly around the waistline.


Some women have an hourglass shape, in which the smaller of the bust and hip is a substantial fraction of the larger, while the waist is notably smaller than either. This shape was once considered so desirable that to achieve it, women rearranged their internal organs with corsets or even went so far as to have ribs surgically removed. Today, those not born to this shape, but seeking to reproduce it in their own figures generally enlarge (or appear to enlarge) the bust, rather than narrowing the waist. At its most extreme, this shape was called "wasp-waisted"for obvious reasons. Although current men's fashions are not associated with this pinched-waist shape, it has been popular in the past and is evidently technically possible for at least some men to achieve.


With this shape, the largest of the three torso measurements is the chest or bust. The waist and hip are smaller than the chest, sometimes substantially so, with waist and hip very close in size to one another. Athletes are often of this shape, for example, swimmers, ballet dancers, weight lifters. The cone generally starts at the shoulder, which is another way of saying that wide, broad shoulders are often associated with the downward-cone shape.

Combination shapes: frame (build) differences within one person
Any of the basic shapes can be of any build: a pear can have a thin frame or a heavy one, for example. The thin-framed pear will have less overall girth than the heavy-framed one, and weigh less, but both have the same RELATIVE measurements--larger in the hip than elsewhere, bust a significant fraction of hip size, waist smaller. However, it is not uncommon to see a combination shape where the build of the frame differs above and below the waist. This is called a "frame-difference" and is generally diagnosed by comparing wrist and ankle measurements.

Why measure wrist and ankle? Well, your "frame" (skeleton) may not be internally consistent. The frame is easiest to measure where it comes closest to the skin, and this means the wrist and the ankle. Obviously, the wrist will always be thinner than the ankle, but when a relatively thin ankle is paired with a relatively thick wrist, this generally translates to a slim leg and hip paired with a heavier build in the upper body. The shape of a person built heavier above the waist than below tends to shade off into the downward-facing cone, and truthfully, the two shapes do not differ much, except that the transition between the chest/bust and the hip is more abrupt when a frame difference exists.

The reverse can also occur: a thicker ankle might be paired with a thinner wrist, and this generally translates to a relatively heavier leg and hip paired with a slim upper body shape. This shape is similar to the upward facing cone, or the pear shape, the main distinction, again, being a more abrupt transition at the waist.

The upshot is that frame differences most often accentuate one of the basic shapes: a super-pear, for example, or a super-cone.

An ankle-wrist discrepancy is the most common diagnostic tool, but there are others: because frame differences are actually fairly common, ready-to-wear clothiers have taken this into account. Many suits for men and women can now be bought as separates, as can two-piece bathing suits for women.If you've been availing yourself of this option, then you probably already know that you have a frame-difference.

So far, we've looked at some basic shapes: tubular, the two cones, pears, apples, hourglasses, as well as combo shapes. Now we're going to look at some physical attributes which can occur in ANY shape, and these attributes are often as important to fit as the shape itself.

Long-waisted and short-waisted

A common variable in fitting knitwear relates to the length of the waist. A long-waisted figure features a long stretch of torso of the same diameter, stretching from just below the bust, down to where the hips flare. In a short-waisted figure, the narrowest part of the torso may be only an inch or two long, as the hip flare begins closer to the bottom of the bustline. A long-waisted person might technically have the same bust/waist/hip measurements as a short-waisted person, but, because the waist is not the same length, a style suitable to one might not suit the other. Generally speaking, long waisted people are tall, while short-waited people are short, but this is not always the case--there are tall people who are short-waisted, although the reverse (a long-waisted short person) is rare, there being little height for a long stretch of waist.

Back/Front differentials

As a result of aging or birth condition or injury, some people have a stoop in their backs. A pronounced stoop may make the back actually longer than the front. As a result of pregnancy or a prominent "beer belly" some people may have a significant curve in the abdomen. A significant abdomen-curve may make the front actually longer than the back. These attributes are usually superimposed on one of the above shapes: a pear-shaped person who is pregnant, for example, or an older person of tubular shape with a stoop.

Shoulders: shape and posture

"Normal square shoulders"

In illustration above, we have a "square" set of shoulders of "normal" posture. As seen from the back, the shoulders describe a rectangle with a rise towards the neck--if you've knit a sweater in pieces or home-sewn a garment, you'll recognize that rising rectangle as the shape of the top of the garment back. Because these shoulders are essentially rectangular, this shape is called a "square" shoulder.

Seen from the side, the shoulder does not tilt, by which is meant that shoulder is held neither forward nor back, but in a neutral position between these two. One common way to see shoulder alignment is to examine the tilt of the chin: if the chin points slightly down, the shoulder is most probably in this neutral position.

The neutral shoulder position paired with a "square" shoulder is the basis for much patternmaking, and that's why it's considered "normal." In fact, if you see someone whose shoulders actually look like this, you'd probably say to yourself "my, that person stands straight." In other words, even though this is the standard shoulder assumption for patternmaking, it isn't necessarily the way many people stand, so the "normal square shoulder" may very well be the exception rather than the rule.

b. Round shoulders due to posture.

There are two types of "round" shoulders. The first stems from posture. Illustration b actually shows the identical person as illustration a, but in illustration b, this person is standing slumped over, shoulders forward, chin pointing up. The measurements and shape of the body obviously hasn't changed between illustrations a and b, but the posture makes the body look very different.

Posture is important to design and fit: clothes that show off the bust would be a mismatch to a person who habitually stands so that the bust is hardly visible. In other words, although these two shapes are identical, and have the identical measurments, posture makes a vast deal of difference in fitting and pattern selection or design.

c. Round shoulders not due to posture.

The second kind of round shoulders are shoulders which, although held in the neutral position, appears round from the back. In other words, this kind of round shoulder is not a function of posture. This sort of rounded shoulder is common in men and women, especially of the apple type shape; also women of the hourglass shape. However, it can appear with any of the basic shapes.

d. Triangle shoulders.

When the body has a thick wedge of muscle over the collarbone, this raises the top of the shoulder rectangle so high that the upward rise becomes a triangle. Such heavy muculature is often accompanied by shoulders being held in the back position (the classic "shoulders back, chest out!" posture so beloved of gym teachers) and so that the chin usually points out straight, rather than up (as with slumping) or down (shoulders held in the neutral position). The figure is illustrated with arms crossed because this is a typical posture adopted to counterbalance the weight often put on the heels by the backward shoulder slant.

e. Shoulder width.

Shoulder width is a very important consideration in choosing a sweater style. Many body types are highly correlated with shoulder size (downward-cone, for example, often has wide shoulders) but sometimes shoulder width is an independent variable (one which can pop up with any body shape). If your shoulders are unusually broad or narrow for your torso measurements, you probably know that about yourself by now, because ready-to-wear garments do not fit properly in the shoulder area.

It is my opinion that shoulder width, shape and posture and the related choice of shoulder styles in sweaters is among the most important make-or break aspects of fit, as important, or even more important that figure shape.

Temporary shapes and situations
Pregnant women are a common temporary shape, as are folks whose shape has been altered due to a medical intervention--a broken limb in a cast, or a breast removed surgically, for example. Folks suffering hairlessness from chemotherapy are also in this category--losing hair alters the shape of the head. Knit garments really shine in these situations being both stretchy and capable of being custom-fitted.

If we drew a scattergraph of human shape distribution, there would be clumps of dots around each of the body shapes described above. But there would also be lots of dots not near these shapes. In other words, lots of people don't match these descriptions, and lots of these shapes shade off into one another.

For example, even the hourglass-that most distinctive of shapes--can shade off into other shapes. A short-waisted hourglass, especially when paired with rounded shoulders, looks an awful lot like an apple, the narrow waist being hidden by the bust above and the hip below.

For another example: is the figure drawn below a pear? An hourglass? Long-waisted, or short-? Upward-cone? Downward-cone? Maybe even wide-shouldered tubular? It would take some careful work with the tape measure to answer that question. These examples show the limitation of the shape-classification.

Of course, the closer is your dot on the graph to the pure type of any of these shapes, the more useful you will find the system, but the point really isn't to pigeonhole every person, nor could it be. Really, this is only a sort of a basic shape-vocabulary to make talking about fitting knitwear easier.

Knitting and fitting
The wonderful thing about knitting is that any shape at all can be accommodated very readily, and a good deal of this flexibility comes from knitting's stretchy nature. However, it is not necessary to rely only on stretch. Knit garments come in many traditional shapes and new shapes are being invented all the time.

Future topics in this series will lay out some of the different shapes knitted garments generally come in, and consider which garment shapes might be most advantageously paired with which body shape and features.

'til next time (and it might be a serious while... lots of non-knitting type things to do!)


PS: Grumperina notes in the comments a very similar series now ongoing on a different knitting blog called "Stash, Knit, Repeat." The other series is illustrated with photos, so if you find photos handier or easier to understand than drawings, head on over and check it out.