There seems to be some confusion these days as to where waists are located. Taking a waist measurement at the proper place is a crucial step in pattern making, especially for historical periods that emphasized the waist as a central point of the feminine silhouette. We’re going to talk about the right way to take a waist measurement, as well as some “cheats” for specific body shape issues.
The first thing you need to know is where, exactly, your anatomical waist is. We all have one, regardless of our body shapes or sizes, and it technically resides somewhere between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your pelvis. For a girl like me, who has a long torso and tends towards curvy, it’s pretty easy to locate. (My body shape is why I love corsetry and historical costume so much – it looks pretty good on me. I suspect that if I were built differently, say, perhaps with length in my legs instead of my spine, I’d prefer eras that were all about the mini. I’d have been stoked about the April Vogue, instead of flipping through pages in disgust wondering who ok’d the return of the 80s. But I digress…) If you’re not absolutely, completely, 100% positive where your waist is, here’s a trick that will find it: Put on something that doesn’t have a super-tight muffin-top-inducing waist band. Put a piece of elastic braid snugly (but not spine-tingling tight) around your body, level with your navel, and tie it. Now, standing with weight equally on both feet, place your right hand on your right thigh. Slide your left arm up the side of your body to shoulder level, then straighten it upwards and reach towards the heavens, while sliding your right arm down the outside of your right thigh towards your knee. Optimally, you’re doing this without moving your hips or bending forward or backwards at all. Slide back to where you were, and repeat to the other side. Do this a time or two. When you’re done, you’ll notice two things: the elastic has resettled itself on your body at the narrowest part of your torso (probably where you bend during this exercise), which we will now refer to as your waist. Secondly, your probably feel really good because this is a really great stretch for the sides and the underneath of the shoulder. ;) I do this (rechecking my waist level, not the stretch I do that part all the time) whenever I’ve gained or lost enough weight to affect my jean size. You might find that the exact location of your waist fluctuates with your weight. For some of us, it rises and falls during the normal course of our menstrual cycles, which lends further credence to my belief that I do not merely retain water: I have tides.
Now, if you have a prominent tum and not a lot of inward curve to your torso, or you’re heavily pregnant, the elastic may have settled somewhere up on your ribs. Don’t despair. The reason you’re here, trying to custom draft a pattern, is so that you can make your costumes fit your body. I’m willing to be that whatever you’re doing also involves an Armscye->Waist measurement, which is going to guarantee that you’re drafting patterns that reflect what fashionistas refer to as a “short waist”. So it’s going to be all good.
If your elastic didn’t move at all, you might have tied it too tight and you should try again with a looser elastic. There are very few, if any, women whose waists are in line with their navel. Generally speaking, the waist is slightly higher on the body.
Wherever that elastic is, take your waist measurement there. You should stand normally, with your weight evenly distributed on your feet if possible. (Incidentally, if you’re unable to stand, you can still find your waist and take the measurement – just, you know, sit with your weight evenly distributed on your hiney, which means your legs shouldn’t be crossed.) Don’t bother sucking in your tummy until you can’t breathe – you’ll just find yourself making uncomfortable clothing that’s unflattering when you, say, eat. Or inhale. It’s not worth it. Oh, right, and take the elastic off your waist.
There are a lot of times, when making patterns, where it’s very helpful to know how much of the waist measurement is in back and how much is in front. This is double true if your figure includes a tummy or pronounced lower back muscles, and you’re trying to make a corset that won’t hurt you. (Trust me, here. From my peasant ancestry, I’ve inherited the back of an ox. It’s really strong, but the long muscles up the spine protest violently if I don’t make sure my corsets accommodate them at the waist.) To do this, you need to know your Front Waist and Back Waist measurements. The side line of the human body, for patterning purposes, is directly below the center of the armpit. Measure the waist, starting at the side line, going around the back, and across the front until the tape meets. Record the number at the side line opposite of where you started. This is the Back Waist. Subtract the back waist from the full waist measurement. This is the Front Waist.