V192: What I’ve Learned About Sleeves (in the past 24 hours)

…besides that sleeves are evil and the bane of every seamstress’ existence…

The boneyard of fabric scraps…and sleeves.  At least they can become trim for the gown, and not go totally to waste.

I’ve been obsessive about this new Robe a l’Anglaise, getting the fit just right, and settling, once and for all, the issue of armscyes and sleeves.

Sleeves of one cut or another have gone on and off this bodice countless times in the last three days.  Finally last night I decided to crack the nut and figure out what the hell is up with sleeves…and how to beat them at their evil games.

So here are some things I have learned about sleeves in the past 24 hours…

  • 17 inches seems to be the magic number for the circumference of the armscyes. (PLEASE tell me if I’ve got this wrong, master pattern drafters!)  I measured the armscyes of a handful of my ready-made patterns, and they all ended up to be 17 inches.
  • The length of the seam line of the sleeve head should match that 17 inches, if the sleeve cap is to be set in smoothly, a la 18th century.
  • If the armscye binds, drop the underarm seam – picked up from The Perfect Fit: The Classic Guide to Altering Patterns.
  • It’s better (for me) to have a high and narrow sleeve head rather than a long and shallow one. (though I am not totally sure of the benefits and drawbacks of both, at this point)
  • Always add ease at the side seams. Always.  Do it.
  • Mark the grain lines of the sleeve (vertical line from shoulder point, horizontal line at bicep) before basting the mock-up to the bodice, and trying on – the vertical line should hang nice and straight from the shoulder.  If it doesn’t, rotate the sleeve cap fore or aft until the line is straight.  For me, I have shoulders that roll forward, so I needed to rotate my sleeve cap forward in the armscye.

“The Perfect Fit” on the left, and a marked-up sleeve toile on the right.

I’ve gone through four versions of this Anglaise sleeve – two of them in final fabric – and I think I *finally* have a working sleeve, but I have to be honest – sleeves are evil, horrible things and I still don’t fully understand them.  If anybody out there has any tips, tricks, and insights for drafting perfect sleeves, please share them in the comments!


  • Katie Lovely

    July 10, 2012 at 9:51 PM

    In my experience, there's not a magic number for armscye/sleeve head measurement. It depends entirely on the person who will be wearing the garment. My basic body block for 1812 style clothes has a 22" armscye…and for me, 17" would barely go around my upper arm, much less the point of my shoulder. If you want a smoothly set sleeve, the sleeve head needs to match the armscye measurement, but there's no magic number that they both have to be.

    Also, you often see 18th century sleeves that are fit to the armscye with pleats, rather than a smooth fit. There is an excellent article (free!) on Your Wardrobe Unlock'd about how to set a sleeve in the 18th century manner by Katherine C-G, who's made some flawless (honestly!) 18c garments.


    • Lauren Stowell

      July 10, 2012 at 9:57 PM

      Katie, that is a really good point, that all the "magic numbers" are different for each person. Mine seems to be 17, but that of course would not work for someone smaller or larger than me.

      Thanks for the link to the YWU article. Very helpful! I have set sleeves in this way before, and find it very useful, though run into problems with the shoulder strap is not a separate piece from the bodice front. The Janet Arnold pattern I'm working with has the strap cut all in one with the bodice…I suppose the solution would be to leave the top/fashion fabric piece free of the lining until the sleeve head is set. I also ran into issues with tucking/pleating the fabric I'm using, which is evil and thick and stupid and doesn't lay nicely. More lesson learned!

    • Katie Lovely

      July 10, 2012 at 10:28 PM

      I think it'd still work if you just clipped your seam allowance where the shoulder strap/bodice seam would normally fall and treated it like a separate shoulder strap, then leave the fashion fabric free of the lining like you said. If your fabric is giving you grief, though, a smooth set would be easier!

      I saw someone had commented on your last entry about having a basic body block, and I wanted to just chime in–that's my favorite way of doing historical sewing! I've got one for each period and it's so stress-free being able to pull out a basic pattern that I *know* will work and then make style changes from there. If you can get a friend to help you drape a basic shape on your body, that's the best way to ensure a custom fit. Trying to drape solely on a form always leads to trouble, in my experience.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      July 10, 2012 at 10:33 PM

      I second the mention of pleats — in the Kyoto Museum book "Fashion" there are some great photos of the back of some 18th-c. gowns where you can see where the sleeves attach with big ol' honking puffy pleats.

    • Lauren Stowell

      July 11, 2012 at 4:09 AM

      I think for future Anglaise bodices, having that separate strap will be the way to go – not only for ease in fitting the sleeves (I do like the method KCG shows much better than a full set in), but also because I *always* have to drop the dang shoulders! Might as well accommodate for it at the beginning rather than piecing in a little wedge later!

  • Maggie

    July 10, 2012 at 9:59 PM

    Also, I just recently (on a locked LJ post, so I can't point you to it) heard Kendra from Demode Couture say that Janea Whitacre (mantua maker at Colonial Williamsburg) told her "that the majority of sleeves she's seen were set in the modern way (ie sewn all the way around from the inside)." So, good to know!

  • Tansy Holm

    July 10, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    I finally found a successful method for setting 18th c sleeves: a bottle of wine and a friend….stand there drinking wine while friend sews the sleeves in. Cuss when you realize sleeve has been stitched to shift. Open another bottle of wine and repeat.

    Seriously after drafting and frankensteining several patterns from various sources- having a friend baste the sleeves in while I wore the gown was the fastest and easiest way to do it. And a documentable method too….

  • Thread-Head

    July 10, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    I have been struggling with the gown pattern that immediately follows the one you're using in Arnold. Why? (aside from a total lack of knowledge or experience) The bloody sleeves! I've had 4 or 5 attempts now, once in the fashion fabric but the rest in various scrap. I still haven't figured it out. Good luck, ye shining light of inspiration!

  • Anonymous

    July 11, 2012 at 12:58 AM

    Yes this is true…sleeves are HORRIBLE EVIL THINGS….

    When I was setting them on the 'Grape' my roommate left the room she knew the screaming and the throwing across the room was going to happen.

  • Scene in the Past

    July 11, 2012 at 2:50 AM

    I'm so impressed by how you've jumped in there, determined to make it work! Sleeves are so hard to fit on yourself. Hang in there! You're going to end up with something you're really proud of.

  • Anonymous

    July 11, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    Sleeves are monsters, they my be even more evil than satin. Don't give up! You will beat the sleeve monster.

    Now I understand the appeal of 1890's sleeves.

  • BeckyK

    July 12, 2012 at 1:35 AM

    Sleeves are my enemy as well. I usually just set them in the modern manner, baste, add a pleat or two because the dress armscye/sleeve head NEVER, EVER MATCH, try-on, cuss a few times,walk away for the night, un-baste, turn slightly to the front and baste again. This usually does the trick for me. That and some asprin for the migraine brought on by trying to do this all by my lonesome.

    • Anonymous

      July 21, 2012 at 8:35 AM

      Hmm.. it sounds like the pattern you're working from has sleeve ease which means the sleeve cap is longer than the armscye. I don't think the sewing should be that hard once you eliminate sleeve ease and match the lengths then all you're left with is fitting it to yourself.

      The way I think about it is industrial sewing processes don't use sleeve ease so why should we?

      Fashion incubator has great info on the many wrongs of home sewing and commercial patterns; it may be of some help as I found it recently and it's a great resource for home sewers just as much as pattern drafters and entrepreneurs.


  • Anonymous

    July 16, 2012 at 5:31 PM

    Sorry to be so late to the party. Sleeves are really not evil, nor are they especially difficult if you remember some tricks. Look at patterns–the armseyes are not symmetrical front to back. The back is deeper than the front to account for the human being broader across the back than the front above the bust. I always mark center top on both my sleeve (straight of grain) and the strap of the bodice, especially if I've got a downward slanting shoulder seam, to make sure they line up properly. Cut the sleeve a little longer than the measurement of the armseye (in your case, 18 inches) and sew an easing stitch on the sleeve to assist in easing it into the armseye. It's like a gathering stitch, but don't gather it, just tug gently to round the fabric over. This forces the sleeve to round over your natural shoulder. If it doesn't seem to want to press nicely, add a narrow strip of felt to give it shape. I could write a dissertation, but I hope these tricks help. Karen

    • Lauren Stowell

      July 17, 2012 at 9:49 AM

      Anon, you have saved me! I put in a little wedge gusset under the arm to add about 1.5" to the sleeve overall, then eased it in as you suggested, with the little gathering stitch. It appears to have worked! THANK YOU!!!

  • Unknown

    July 19, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    I realise I'm a bit late to the game here but I found this link the other day. It's from a pattern maker explaining the use of a French curve but she talks a lot about fitting sleeves and under arms. Apparently it's standard for a blouse to have 17" under the arm but 17.5" for the sleeve to give you ease and allow for extra movement. She also talks about how adjusting the cap diameter of the sleeve gives extra movement too. I haven't put the advice into practice yet but it seems to make sense!



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