Beginners guide to sewing a sleeve

Part Nine

If you are making your own clothes at home then I’m sure you are going to come across the need to insert a sleeve before too long! In this post I want to help you understand the basic types of sleeve and share my top tips for sewing them into your garments properly. This is a great guide if you are totally new to sleeves or looking for a refresher.

If you prefer seeing things in a video, check out my latest Youtube video!

Types of sleeve

I’m going to break down the types of sleeves into three broad categories.

Raglan sleeves - This is where you see a seam coming from the neckline to under the arm on the front and back of the garment and the sleeve effectively extends right up into the neckline. This is a really simple sleeve to sew in as it’s basically just the same as sewing simple seams like you do to sew the sides of a garment for example. The Grainline Linden sweater is a classic example of this.

Grown on sleeve - This is where is sleeve is basically just an extension of the front and back bodice pieces so there is no separate sleeve piece. This type of sleeve will be looser fitting and will have more excess fabric especially under the arm and that is just part of the design of the garment. The Tilly and the Buttons Stevie top/dress pattern is an example of this type of sleeve.

Set in sleeve - This is the more traditional classic sleeve where you see the seam sitting around the top of your shoulder and going under the arm and you also see a seam going from the neckline along the top of the shoulder to the sleeve.

Within this category you can get lots of different shapes of sleeve. It might be

  • smooth and flat (like the Merchant and Mills camber top- see pics below)
  • puffed or gathered around the top
  • have little pleats of tucks
  • have overlaps of fabric (tulip sleeve)
  • a butterfly sleeve (like the Deer and Doe Magnolia Dress), which is really full and almost bell shaped and will hang very full

Then of course there is lots of variation in length. A sleeve can be capped (which is really short and just sits over the shoulder and no more), short as in bicep sort of length, elbow length, ¾ length, bracelet length or full length.

What does a sleeve look like on a pattern piece?

It can be confusing to visualize a sleeve from a flat piece of pattern paper, especially when you first start dressmaking but there are a few common landmarks that you can look for to help you recognise it.

The top of the sleeve is called the sleeve head or cap and looks a bit like a curved or domed mountain top. It’s more obvious on some sleeves that others and also depends on the style of the garment, but for any sleeve that is more snug and fitted the sleeve will not be symmetrical and the curves will look different as the front and back of your actual shoulder are not symmetrical. The notches are always an indication of what is the front and back of the sleeve - a double notch is typically the back and a single notch is typically the front.

What is ease?

The term ‘ease’ gets used a lot in reference to sleeves and put simply it refers to the difference between the measurement of the sleeve cap/head and the armhole. Usually the sleeve cap/head measures more than the bodice hole for the sleeve so there is extra fabric to ease or fit in. This happens because our shoulders are rounded and it helps to create 3D shape in the garment to accommodate that.

Depending on the way a garment has been drafted there can be varying amounts of ease in the sleeve head/cap. If the sleeve is gathered then there will be lots of ease and excess fabric that is supposed to be gathered and sort of bunched up. Or if the sleeve is designed to sit smooth and flat there will be less ease.

The term ‘setting in the sleeve’ is used to describe the process of attaching the sleeve to the bodice. There are different ways you can do this:

Setting in a sleeve in the flat 

This method is commonly used with stretchy fabric and is when the shoulder seam is sewn but the side seam is not, so the main bodice can still lie flat. The sleeve section of fabric will also still be flat at this stage. Then, matching up the notches first, you ease the sleeve into the bodice, making sure all the raw edges line up. Once the sleeve is sewn in place, you then sew the side seam of the bodice and the sleeve all in one.

How to ease in a sleeve in the round and make it fit an armhole

This method is most commonly used with woven fabrics. In this method the shoulder and side seam of the main bodice is sewn and the under arm seam of the sleeve is also sewn. So in effect, you have two circles or sort of oval shapes or tubes of fabric that you have to fit together. You still use the notches as land marks and match them up first, as well as the side seam and underarm seam of the sleeve and make sure all the raw edges are lining up before sewing in place.

To help ease and fit the sleeve into the arm hole, usually easing stitches are sewn close to the seam allowance around the sleeve head/cap. Set your sewing machine to a long stitch length, around 4.5mm should be fine, and make sure there are long thread tails from the bobbin and top thread. Sometimes pattern instructions will say to sew two or three lines of easing stitches. Usually there are one or two lines within the seam allowance (if the seam allowance is 1.5cm or ⅝”) and one line just slightly bigger than the seam allowance.

Once they are sewn in, you gently pull on the long thread tails of the bobbin threads only (they are usually easier to pull on than the top threads) and the fabric will very gently start to gather and pucker.

You then need to match up the notches and seams and gently make the sleeve head fit into the bodice between those landmarks, gently smoothing out the sleeve head/cap as you go so the raw edges line up and there are no wrinkles. I like putting my pins in at a right angle to the raw edge as this is a more accurate way to pin in this context. If the fabric was very slippy you may want to hand tack it in place before sewing on the machine. 

When you do come to sew it on the machine, I like to have the sleeve facing me as I sew, so that I can check there are no little folds or puckers getting sewn in. At the same time you need to make sure you smooth out the underneath bodice fabric too and remember you are sewing something that is 3D so it won’t sit flat on the machine, you have to hold it and support it in a 3D form.

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