What does it really cost to include plus sizes?

ethical sustainable plus size clothing

Today on the blog, I’m breaking down a question that I get a LOT from our community: 

“Every time I ask a brand if/ when they will roll out plus sizes I’m met with a similar answer: it’s expensive and we can’t afford it right now. Or something of that sort. Is expanding your size range to include plus sizes really that expensive/ unaffordable for ethical and sustainable apparel brands?”

As a small, ethical and sustainable clothing brand that started with plus sizes I have a unique perspective. In fact, before we were even profitable I made an intentional choice to expand our size range the other way by including straight sizes. You can read all about why I made the decision to expand our size range in a blog post found here.

Before I dig into this reader's question, first, let’s briefly look at how a garment goes from idea to production ready. 

The Product Development Process in Apparel

The apparel designer designs a product (this is usually a sketch or technical drawing) and then sends it out to a patternmaker who creates a pattern using the brands “sample size” based on the details provided by the apparel designer. 

The sample size is the middle of the size range. For a typical brand this would be a size 6 (middle of 0-12) for a plus size brand this may be a size 20 or 22 for sizes 14-28. Due to the nature of pattern grading (that’s making a pattern larger or smaller) your size range can only be about 7-8 sizes wide. Once it get’s beyond that the process of grading starts to warp the pattern causing all sorts of fit issues.  

If a brand elects to have an expansive size range (beyond the typical 0-12 or 14-28) the pattern maker will actually split the size range and create two sometimes three sample patterns and then work from there. If a brand decided to extend into the 30-40 range they'd likely have to add in a third sample pattern. Adding plus sizes isn’t as simple as just making the pattern wider (in fact that’s a recipe for a horrific fit). 

The added sample patterns (from one pattern to two, sometimes three), which are the building blocks for an apparel brand, are the “increased costs” that most companies are referring to when they reference affordability and size expansion. When a brand that’s served straight sizes ventures into plus, from a pattern making perspective, they’re starting from scratch.

Recent developments in patternmaking technology, particularly the use of CLO 3-D pattern making software are one way in which brands can decrease their patternmaking costs. You can use 3D patternmaking software to create three dimensional renderings of bodies in each of your new sample sizes. Of course, a brand would need to collect data on measurements beyond the typical bust, waist, hip such as bicep and thigh circumferences and front and back rises (these areas are terribly overlooked in plus size design). 

After the first pattern or patterns are made, samples are sewn. Samples are fit on fit models. Patterns are tweaked. Samples are sewn again. Samples are fit on fit models again.The use of 3D patternmaking software can cut down this process quite a bit, again saving a bit on costs. 

Now the patterns are ready for grading. Grading is making the patterns bigger and smaller using something called a grade rule, or the distance between each size at each point of measure. The grade rules and original patterns are sent to a digitizer who then digitizes the pattern in each of your brand's sizes. This is charged per size at a rate of about $15-30 per size, so its another added cost to extending the size range. 

Once all sizes are graded a style is now production ready. The last step is to create a tech pack which is essentially the blue print for how a garment comes together. And if your smaller sizes and your larger sizes are identical garments (some brands notoriously change style lines for larger sizes, setting them up for added technical costs) there is no additional cost here. A size 4X in one of our styles is sewn the exact same way as an XS in the same style so there is no added costs in creating tech packs. 

So know that we understand the technical process a little better let’s take a peek at some hard numbers. To get a style ready for production including patternmaking, sample making and creating a tech pack expect to pay $1,000-$3,000 per style. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. It could be far less expensive by taking an existing pattern for a dress and turning it into a blouse, or pants and turning them into shorts. Or it could be far more expensive such as designing a fully lined, tailored suit. 

OK, so getting back to the readers question: Yes, it does cost more to have a more inclusive size range and the costs are actualized in the product development/ pre-production stage.  BUT it costs about the same as launching a new collection with all new designs. It’s not that plus sizes specifically cost more, it’s that adding new designs costs more (whether these are new styles or new sizes).

To be clear, the increased costs associated with plus size line expansion are NOT associated with fabric or sewing time costs—these differences are nominal. Using an actual example from our store, the difference between a size small Cass Dress and a size 3X Cass Dress is barely a yard of fabric (and that’s an extremely voluminous design) plus an added 10-15 minutes or so of sewing (for the added lengths and widths). The scant additional fabric and sewing time costs are certainly not prohibitive if the garments are priced appropriately. 

Once the design goes to production, then the brand will need to make choices about which sizes and how many of each size to make. For example, if the brand was originally making sizes XS-XL, and making 50 of each size for a total of 250 units, they would either have to make less of each size to include a larger swath of sizes OR make more units. With additional colors and fabrications, the math can get complicated, but hey, that's what google sheets are for. It may feel "harder" but it is 1000% entirely possible. 

Without a doubt, electing to create a more inclusive size range is an INVESTMENT in time, money and resources that a brand must CHOOSE to make—it’s a matter of priorities. But to be sure, brands shouldn’t expand their size range because it's the “right thing to do” (even because it is) they should do it because it makes mathematical sense: 68% of American women wear plus sizes, with the average American woman wearing a size 16/18. The global plus size apparel market is valued at 178 BILLION dollars with an annual growth rate of nearly 5%. Surely you’re missing a HUGE part of the market by excluding such a large swath of individuals. 

The sustainable and ethical apparel market is known for innovation and for doing hard (but right) things. I’ve seen brands make clothing out of fermented sugar and banana skins; I’ve ogled biodegradable glitter and sustainable sequins; I’ve witnessed a brand hawking wool shoes reach a billion dollar valuation—all of which are not easy feats. Somehow sustainable and ethical apparel brands find the resources to achieve these seemingly insurmountable objectives-- but dressing plus size women, that’s where it gets “too hard”. I'm sorry, I just don’t buy it.

I'll end with this. If you're a sustainable/ ethical apparel brand who has no interest in expanding your size range- own it. Stop promising plus size folks a size expansion is coming if you truly have no interest in serving larger bodies. Stop co-opting the body positive movement by promoting "curvy" models, while refusing to serve anyone over a size 12. 

If you're a sustainable/ ethical apparel brand who desperately wants to expand your sizing but needs help, ask for it! It's in the best interest of my brand and this entire movement for MORE brands to be offering inclusive sizes--a rising tide lifts all boats. 

If you're a plus size person hanging around for your favorite brand to release their plus size line (but they haven't given you a shred of evidence that said plus size line is actually coming?) Drop them. There are brands doing plus size ethical clothing well (arguably not nearly enough brands) and they need your support. 

If you like what you've read here, you'll like our clothes even more. Be sure to sign up for our email list to be the first to know when our next collection drops. 

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