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In insects, size and age at adult emergence depend on larval growth that occurs in discrete steps or instars. Understanding the mechanisms controlling stepwise larval growth and the onset of metamorphosis is essential to the study of insect life history. We examined the patterns of growth of forest tent caterpillars Malacosoma disstria to quantify variation in the number of instars that larvae undergo before pupation, to identify the mechanisms underlying variation in larval development, and to evaluate the life history consequences of this variation. All caterpillars were reared under the same conditions; at each molt, the date, the head capsule width and the mass of the freshly molted insect were recorded. Logistic regression analysis showed that a threshold size (measured either as mass or head capsule width) must be reached at the beginning of a stadium for pupation to occur at the next molt. This threshold size was higher for females than for males, and as a result, females attained a higher pupal mass than males. To achieve this larger size, females often required more instars than males, despite a higher growth ratio (size increase within an instar). Within each sex, slow growing individuals exhibited more larval instars and longer larval development time, but attained the same pupal mass as faster growing individuals. The combination of a threshold size for pupation, discrete growth steps and variation in the number of these steps can thus complicate relationships between growth rate, pupal mass and larval development time. In our study, growth ratio and number of instars were correlated with development time but not with pupal mass, and no relationship was observed between development time and pupal mass. These findings imply that, in species with variable instar number, one cannot extrapolate overall larval growth from growth during a single instar. Given the constraints of discrete larval growth, variation in instar number provides greater flexibility for insects to compensate for poor growing conditions. In this case, inferior larval growth conditions don't necessarily lead to smaller adult size.