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Back/shoulder ease – organist/conductor

RobertBishop | Posted in General Discussion on

I am constructing an 18th century gentleman’s suit for an organist / harpsichordist / conductor to wear while performing and conducting Baroque concerts.  I am using Butterick pattern B3896 for the coat.  My client is concerned that the muslin back is too tight for him to reach the organ keys comfortably, and when he lifts his arms to conduct the coat rides way up.

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Does anyone know techniques to give enough ease to let him play and conduct comfortably, while leaving the back appearing to be flat and smooth when his arms are down?  The back of an organist/conductor needs to be at least as attractive as the front!

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Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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  1. Teaf5 | | #1

    Many of the Threads back issues address fitting the back and shoulders, as do most fitting books available nowadays. An interesting phenomenon is that the movement of the arms is far more dependent on the height of the armscye than on the amount of ease across the back. That is, historical and European fit patterns have a very high, tight armhole, which counter-intuitively, actually allows more movement of the arms!

    As a teacher, I share the organist/conductor's problem; I spend a lot of my time reaching up and out to write on the board. American patterns (including Butterick) tend to have fairly low armscyes, so inner part of the sleeve attaches to the body down at the ribcage, and raising my arm even a litttle pulls up the body of the coat. I couldn't believe that a tighter fit would allow more movement, but it does!

    One fitting expert recommends using a flexible ruler to create the smallest circle that will fit around the top of the arm at the shoulder, snug against the armpit, not below it. That will be the size of the new armscye; it may be two inches smaller and higher than printed on the pattern. Of course, this will require changing the head of the sleeve as well--and a slightly flatter head will allow more movement than a more arched one will; definitely make a muslin!

    If the organist has an old coat that fits and works, you can always use that as a template, too. Good luck!

  2. suesew | | #2

    I once saved a coat for someone with that problem by creating a pleat on either side of the jacket back right at the back sleeve seams. When the person was standing with arms down the pleat was nearly invisible but gave plenty of room when reaching. To do this you would cut the pattern in a straight line from the shoulder to the waist at the stitching line of the back armscye. Spread this about 4 inches creating a two inch pleat. You would fold this in before sewing the shoulder seam. then attach the sleeve without catching any of the pleat in. The bottom of the pleat gets caught in a horizontal dart like seam at the waist. It was amazing how well this worked and I have often wondered why more clothing doesn't have this kind of ease built in.

    1. User avater
      Thimblefingers | | #3

      I used to work in professional live theatre making costumes.  One thing that we did to nearly all our garments was to add an oval shaped gusset in the underarm.  Even purchased garments were given a gusset.  This is not visible while performing and would not be visible close up either unless he was lifting his arms way up.  This won't give extra room across the shoulders but will definitely help to prevent the jacket from riding up while conducting.  The smaller armhole thing is very true.

  3. mem | | #4

    I agree with all the suggestion given also use a stretch woven fabric . Perhaps a wool  which will give that bit of give on movement. Chanel often made very high armscyes and added in the gussets as well This allowed for the close fit and the freedom of movenet also it reduced the stress across the back in the fabrics which she used which were loosely woven tweeds You will also need to perhaps put a pleat in the center back lining.

  4. mainestitcher | | #5

    I would agree with Teaf5's assessment. It sounds odd to think of the tighter armscye as creating more room to move, until you consider the leotard. (And that was invented long before spandex).

    Adding the gusset performs a very similar function: In essence, it decreases the difference between the highest and lowest parts of the sleeve cap.

  5. jandheurle | | #6

    With respect to the benefits of an underarm gusset, read Threads article, "A Ball Gowm Built for Comfort," by Karen Seaton in issue 51, March, 1994, on Hilary Clinton's inauguration dress. For instructions on a built-in gusset see Threads issue 9, Feb./Mar., 1987. The gusset, high armscye, etc. will certainly help your problem, but I think you need to add more material to the back of the garment as well. You may also need a dart to shape the back a little. Good luck, this is a tricky problem that can involve many aspects of fit. Be sure to check the placement of your shoulder seams too. Jan

    1. RobertBishop | | #7

      Thanks for all of your suggestions!  I will attempt to attach some pictures of the pattern pieces and the muslin - hope it works!


      I have studied the muslin in light of your comments, and the bottom of the armscye does seem quite low.  I will definitely bring it closer to the armpit.  Would it also help to add some fabric to the “sides” of the armscye (in effect make the coat back and front wider, and the armscye smaller)?  The instructions do not call for shoulder pads – probably not historically correct – but thin pads might help lift the whole shoulder/armscye closer to the armpit.

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      There seems to be a lot of excess sleeve fabric “eased" into the present armscye.  I am obviously going to have to alter the sleeve when I make the armscye smaller;  any thoughts on reducing the amount of ease to an absolute minimum?

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      The shoulder seams are set quite far back from the top of the shoulder – the “top-of-shoulder matching dot” on the front piece is about 3 inches from the seamline.   The side seams are also very far back – dropping straight down from a point above the usual wide “notch” on the back armscye.  It seems to me that it would be relatively easy to incorporate a pleat at the back of the armscye, starting at the shoulder seam and incorporating the bottom into the side seam.

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      I’ve not used gussets; I will certainly try it.  Baroque concerts tend to small affairs – we wouldn’t want it to be too obvious when he lifts his arm to conduct.  Does a gusset create much extra bulk in a high, close armscye?


      <!---->Luckily I am about the same size as the musician, so I can try the muslin myself - and I have some time to play.  It will be fun!  Any additional suggestions would be welcome - in the meantime, thanks again!<!---->




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      1. suesew | | #8

        That is absolutyely tyhe perfect pattern to add a pleat to the back just inside where the sleeve attaches.

      2. Kilroy | | #9

        This is the same problem as you have with riding jackets - which are much more closely related to baroque clothing than modern in some ways - stretching your arms forward while the horse clears a high jump is much the same as throwing your conductor's baton at that darn trombone player who came in one measure too early.... The higher armscye helps a lot, and for authentic detail go to Janet Arnold's "Patterns of History" books - one of them covers the baroque period.

      3. Teaf5 | | #10

        Great photos; they make it very clear that the original armscye is way too long. Obviously, you'll need to lengthen the underam portion of the sleeve to match a new, higher armscye, but I wouldn't add width to the back or front of the armscye as it would likely make the sleeve hang off the shoulder and droop.The ease in period garments was often pleated at the top of the shoulder; the pleats stood out a bit and extended the shoulder line, which often was quite short. After struggling many years to get blouses to fit my "period" body, I found that the small armscye combined with the narrower, tighter shoulder gave me the most freedom of arm movement and the most elegant line.

      4. feismom | | #11

        My friend and former organ teacher's performance tuxedo has pleats set into the arm seam to allow him sufficient movement.  This worked well for him conducting as well and weren't visible from the back.

        1. RobertBishop | | #12

          I had a second muslin fitting today, and the alterations I did as a result of your suggestions worked beautifully! I brought the underarm seam up about two inches (with corresponding lengthening of the sleeve underarm), took an inch-an-a-half of ease out of the sleeve cap (leaving about an inch), and added a 1 inch pleat at either side of the back at the sleeve seam. That in particular worked very well - this pattern has the "shoulder seam" set about three inches back from the top of the shoulder, and the side seams are also very far back. The pleat comes out of the shoulder seam, and is incorportated into the side seam about three inches below the underarm, and funtions perfectly -- opens when he reaches forward, and closes tightly when he puts his arms back down.Thank you all for your excellent suggestions!

          1. RobertBishop | | #13

            Well, the 18th century suit is a great success. I actually finished it in June, but its debut appearance was not until a gala organ/harpsicord concert in mid-November. I’ve attached a few pictures – including one of the back armhole pleat. It works perfectly, except that the seam pulled apart at the bottom of the pleat. I topstitched the entire seam and added a bar tack at the bottom of the pleat, and it is fine now. It was a very satisfying project, but the price I set startled the church music committe - and I still only made about a dollar an hour. Again, thanks for all your suggestions...Robert

          2. meg | | #14

            WOW!  What a magnificent garment.  Very well done!

          3. mygaley | | #15

            Dear Robert: Thank you a lot for showing us your work. Also thank you for charging enough to startle someone; this makes it easier for all of us to get what our skills are worth. That suit is fabulous! Galey

          4. suesew | | #16

            Thank you for posting the pictures. It looks like a great job. It's always fun to see the end result of these discussions.

          5. mem | | #17

            Its fantastic. People who do0nt sew have no idea of the work that goes into it . My boss once asked me to copy a pair of pants she really loved and thought that I would just lay them on the floor and cut around them!!! Needless to sy I informed her that it was just a bit more complicated than that and that I was so sorry but I just didnt have time !! I did put her onto a dress maker who was going to charge her a hundred dollars just for the pattern!!

          6. FitnessNut | | #19

            Incredible job! Well done!And good for you for charging a "startling" amount. Its amazing that people still don't expect to pay a premium for custom work, isn't it? Though it would be nice to actually make a profit..... ;-)

          7. stitchintime | | #20

            WOW! as Meg said. Excellent job. And thanks for your query. Now we all know to raise our armscyes for better fit, even if we're not conducting.

            I'm looking forward to your next project!

  6. user-51823 | | #18

    i guess i missed this thread cause of a few sewing traumas of my own- beautiful job robert! and great advice posted.
    (mem- good for you!)

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