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A New Way to Fit Sleeves

Draft for the arm, then drape the shoulder
Threads #205, Oct./Nov. 2019
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I long for an haute couture sleeve. That is, I crave a sleeve that is custom-fitted to my arm and shoulder and that works within the garment’s armscye. After years—or a lifetime—of wearing clothes made to fit a standardized consumer, many of us have forgotten what a correct fit is. There are so many different bodies, arms, sizes, and shapes, we shouldn’t be critical of a pattern or a ready-to-wear garment that doesn’t fit. After all, commercial patterns depend on average dimensions, and nobody is average. We need to learn how to get a pattern to fit well, and then use the results to improve and simplify our sewing.

A good fit is a comfortable arm covering that fits beautifully into a bodice that conforms to the body. Extra wrinkles and baggy or tight areas are all symptoms of an improper fit. Comfort is a must. It doesn’t come from making a sleeve bigger—it comes from the right fit. As my friend Kenneth D. King says of fitting, “It’s either too big, too small, or the wrong shape.” Most of us need to make some changes to a standard pattern to get the shape right.

Multi-size patterns are helpful for some aspects of fitting, but blending between sizes isn’t the best solution for sleeves. Instead, I’ll show you where a sleeve’s fit can go wrong, how to measure the body and draft a sleeve, and, finally, how to drape the sleeve cap when attaching it to the bodice on the body. This ensures a truly custom sleeve with an attractive and comfortable fit. Once you’ve established this sleeve, use it as a template for future garments.

Anatomy and the pattern

The design and cut of garments and patterns…

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Previous: Concepts in Sleeve Fitting: How to Increase Mobility Next: On Fitting Sleeves


  1. User avater
    GmaCma | | #1

    love this article but I noticed there was no "ease" allowance in the cap. Always seems to be too much in commercial patterns. Can't wait to try this! Thanks

  2. TigerB | | #2

    It's a beautiful method, but... pretty much impossible to do the sleeve cap part on yourself. Any tips if you sew alone?

  3. jclegg | | #3

    Author Judith Neukam shares her response to GmaCma:
    The beauty of this method is that, by custom-pinning the sleeve cap along the corded armscye seamline, you can build in as much or as little ease as you prefer. When you pin the sleeve to the cord, start with the first pin at the shoulder point. I prefer to pin perpendicular to the cord. Then continue to place pins 2 inches to either side of the first pin until you reach the area where the sleeve as been stitched along the underarm curve. The fabric will ripple between pins along the armscye seamline. That is the ease, and you can control how much to add by smoothing the cap close to the upper arm, or leaving a bit of space there. Continue to pin to conform the sleeve cap to the armscye seam shape. Once you’ve pinned the sleeve cap, mark the “seamline” onto it by following the cord. After you’ve copied the seam shape, added the seam allowance, and trimmed the excess fabric, you can add easing stitches to the sleeve. Note: The middle half of the sleeve cap is on the bias. If you align the armhole and sleeve cap edges and stretch the sleeve cap edge perpendicular to the seam, it shrinks while you sew it. You can use this method to avoid ease stitches and get any little tucks in the stitching.
    Thanks, Judith. --Jeannine Clegg, managing editor, production

  4. jclegg | | #4

    Thank you for your comment, Tiger B. Judith Neukam has several suggestions for you:
    I sew alone, too, and that is a hidden benefit of fitting a sleeve in this way, because once you have established the armhole and sleeve cap shapes, you can use those to adjust any pattern without needing a helper. I’ve also realized, over the years, that I’m not satisfied with the way many people pin. Here are my tips for fitting the sleeve cap alone: You have a bodice with an armhole that fits, and you have a sleeve that fits. As described on p. 48, set the sleeve into the armhole under the arm. Sew the bottom third to half of the sleeve into the armhole. Then set the first pin into the cord at the shoulder point. Make sure the grainline stays straight on the arm. You can then add the second pin to the front. Pin across the cord just catching a small bite of the sleeve. The next part is tricky because you don’t want to twist or curve any part of your body. Reach over your shoulder and pin the third pin behind the shoulder pin. That’s only 2 inches over your shoulder—you can do it. Then finish pinning the front part of the sleeve cap every 2 inches. Take off the muslin and study the sleeve. Make sure the grain is right. Pin between all of the front pins and then pin the back. The back will have more fabric than the front and the seam is longer. Start in the middle and add pins to either side and then in between to establish the ease. Then try on the garment again. If it is too tight shift the pins to be looser. If it is too big adjust as needed. This is only a distance of 7 inches or less and even though putting on and taking off the garment is a hassle, it doesn’t take five minutes and once it’s done you can use the same fitted pattern repeatedly.

  5. user-5702184 | | #5

    I sew alone too. This is such a helpful article and I plan to do this immediately. Thank you, Judith. I love Threads!

  6. user-7225691 | | #6

    Interesting method that I will try the first chance I get. I have a comment/question though: When you mark the circumference at the guide points A, C and D to determine underarm seams, it is entirely possible that the points don't align. Would you connect A and C and hope that C falls in line or more logically use C and D levels and extend to intersect at elbow level? Or fit a curve?

  7. PaulaJ | | #7

    An article on how to use the armhole template described in the article would be helpful. In the example, would you just trace along the template and then add seam allowance?

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