Focus on Fit: Invasion of the Body Type Snatchers!

I promised to keep things positive in this series, but this time I have to start with a rant.

Commercial sizing schemes for women’s clothing absolutely suck. How can any woman understand her size with a single number that doesn’t indicate measurements? What if my bust is a size 6, my waist a size 10, and my hips a size 8? What do those numbers even mean?* And why do men get to buy ready-made clothing according to inseam length, waist circumference, and chest circumference when they don’t have to worry about size and shape of their breasts? Boobs change everything when it comes to the way clothing fits.

Okay, that made me feel better. While I can’t fix the fashion industry’s sizing problems, I can give you some alternative ways to think about fit. If you’ve accurately measured yourself, as Laura covered here, you’re ready for the next step. Now it’s time to identify your body type—a shape rather than a size.

I first came across this concept years ago through the Figure Flattery icons on Vogue sewing patterns, and then my go-to fashion and fitting books (see Resources below) further refined my thinking. You may know about body type from shows such as What Not to Wear. It’s a simple idea: instead of dressing based on your body’s size, dress to visually enhance or alter your body’s proportions, always aiming for the Holy Grail of long, unbroken vertical lines. That part is standard in every discussion of body types I’ve encountered.

However, even the best fashion advice can get confusing, especially for knitters who want to create flattering sweaters. Terminology or the number of body types can vary a lot, because fashion gurus come up with their own systems. The gurus often don’t consider height as an element of body type: for example, their advice for me as a petite can conflict with their advice for my body type. Gurus also write about ready-to-wear clothing that women buy, not that they make for. Finally, when these writers advise alterations to clothing, they stick to sewn rather than knitted garments. Amy Herzog’s book is the exception, covering only handknitted garments. For all these reasons, I’ve borrowed from my resources for my own system of five body types that can get taller or shorter, wider or thinner, yet still help knitters make smart fitting decisions. Laura and I will refer to this system as we continue talking about fit and pattern modifications that flatter.

So, without further ado, here’s my body type system!

Hourglass: Women with this shape have shoulders and hips of equal width and a clearly visible waist.
Triangle: These women have wider hips than shoulders.
Inverted triangle: Here shoulders are wider than hips.
Rectangle: Shoulders, waist, and hips are all equal in width.
Oval: Waist is wider than shoulders or hips.

What does “wide” mean in these descriptions? It’s not a measurement but a perception of width at key points. When you face another person squarely, with your body perfectly parallel to the viewer, they see the width of your shoulders, waist, and hips. (Notice that it’s shoulder width, not bust size, that is key here; women generally have to stand in profile for their bust sizes to become apparent to viewers.) Viewers don’t see a set of measurements—they see these widths in relation to each other, which create one of the shapes named above. Imagine standing against a white wall with a lamp in front of you, while someone else traces your body’s shadow on the wall. Once you step away from the wall, you can draw lines that identify your shape. Or, easier still, have someone photograph you and draw the lines on a hard copy. That’s what I’ve done here with seven real-life examples, including myself.


Notice how we’re all different sizes—if we were daring enough to publish a chart showing all of our measurements, you’d see this immediately. But the lines added to these pictures tell a different story: some of us have the same body types, even when we differ in circumference measurements. Within the same body type, the vertical space between hipline, waistline, and shoulderline can vary too, which will affect overall proportions.


Megan (left) dressed like an hourglass today, even if she’s not one naturally: her shoulderline and hipline look to be roughly the same width because her drapey shirt widens the shoulderline. She’s mastered the principles of body type already! Rachel (right) has all the attributes of an hourglass—easy-to-see waist, shoulderline and hipline of equal width. On both of them, the waistline is approximately equidistant between shoulderline and hipline.


Lisa (left) and Deb (right) are in or close to the rectangle camp, with all three lines of roughly equal width. (This is not an exact science.) Their sweater-fitting decisions should try to visually define a waist. Height will also factor into fit, and not just because Lisa is 5’6″, while Deb is 5’2″. Deb’s hipline is much closer to the ground than Lisa’s, partly because Lisa is taller and partly because Deb’s got a long torso. Deb’s waistline isn’t equidistant between shoulderline and hipline.


Caption: Sara (left) and Laura (right) are widest at the hipline, making them triangles (or trapezoids, if you prefer). Laura is only 1″ taller than Sara, but the horizontal lines don’t cross their bodies at the same point. Sara has a long torso, so her waistline is closer to her hipline than her shoulderline.

To replicate these photos—and avoid our errors—dress in close-fitting clothing. Go for tee shirts that fit your shoulders well and pants that fit your hips well. We tied a length of yarn snugly around each person’s waist; the yarn will automatically roll to your narrowest point. Then stand against a light-colored background, facing the photographer squarely. Back up against a wall if it will help you stay square. Create some space between your elbows and your waist. It’s okay to put hands on your hipbones unless that’s also your widest point below your waist. (When we didn’t follow these simple guidelines, it was harder for me to draw lines.) On the printed photo, find the spot where shoulder seam joins the top of the sleeve cap, and draw vertical lines downward. Then add horizontal lines at shoulderline and hipline.


When your shirt fits your shoulders well, the top of the armhole seam helps you identify shoulderline. And now you see the importance of posing properly. Hannah was first in line for photographs, before we worked out the kinks. We didn’t tell her where to place her hands or how to position her arms. At least the yarn around her waist did its job.

Hold on to your new body type photo for future reference, because our upcoming posts will explore sweater fit for different body types. Once you’ve determined your measurements and body type, you can more confidently knit sweaters that look great on you.


Amy Herzog, Knit to Flatter (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)
Trinny Woodall and Susanna Constantine, The Body Shape Bible (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007)
Kendall Farr, The Pocket Stylist (Gotham Books, 2004)

*If you’re interested in learning more about how clothing manufacturers first developed their sizing systems and continue to torment us even now, consult the books cited above. For a wider perspective on how measurements and averages came to dominate the western world, I recommend the podcast “On Average” at

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