Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tutorial: Altering Sleeves That Bug You

This is a tutorial on sleeves.  Specifically, it’s for anyone who sews who has had trouble with your garment feeling tight or binding across the front or back as soon as you lift or move your arms.

I’m not talking so much about the sleeves being too tight around the bicep.  That is fairly easily remedied if you’re willing to widen the sleeve and put in a few tucks or gathers at the top.

I’m talking about a mysterious malady I’ve struggled with for years.  You make a dress and fit it carefully so it seems to have the right amount of “give” around the bust and back.  Then you insert the sleeves and suddenly you feel like you’re in a strait jacket.  You reach forward slightly and the dress pulls tight across the back.  You reach back and it stretches tight across the bust.  Or you lift your arms and the whole dress lifts along with it.

 If this has never troubled you, or if you figured out the solution in 7th grade Home Ec,  you can move along.

Or if you sew and wear only stretchy knits.

If you have a touch of claustrophobia like me, and that tight, binding feeling makes you panic, stick around.

Back in the 1980’s and early 90s I sewed lots of dresses and never had trouble with this sort of thing.

Patterns looked like this:


Now obviously styles were pretty loose and big.  But was that the only reason the dresses didn’t bind?

I don’t think so.  Later in the 90s we had semi-loose-fitting styles, but this was the era when the sleeves started driving me crazy in both homemade and ready-to-wear.

I could never figure it out.  The dresses themselves weren’t tight, and if the sleeve was big enough across the bicep, why did it feel like the underarm seams were going to pop if I gave someone a hug?

I made ridiculous-looking too-wide sleeves with puffs and pleats and gathers at the top and bottom to take in the excess, hoping to fix it.  It might have helped a little, but never enough.

Recently I made two dresses to wear in Thailand, where it will be hot enough that if anything is tight and binding I will panic.

So I measured very carefully to get a good circumference around the chest.  I widened the sleeves, which looked a bit silly but I wanted plenty of room for movement.

And to my great frustration BOTH dresses pulled tight across the chest and bicep as soon as I moved my arms a couple of inches.
Obviously I was missing something, and I was determined to figure out what it was.

There is something inherently daunting about the science of fitting a sleeve into a garment.  I mean, your arm is a moving cylinder attached to a stationary cylinder, and how in the world do you figure out how to fit a piece of cloth around it all?

But I was going to learn if it was the last thing I did.

So I researched online and bought a book and thought too much about it.

Here’s the first thing I discovered: The amount of flex in a garment when you move your arms is NOT primarily due to how wide the sleeve is, but to THE ANGLE OF THE SLEEVE IN RELATION TO THE GARMENT.

For example.

T-shirt sleeves are almost perpendicular to the body of the shirt.  Or, 90 degrees, or sticking straight out.  This gives you the MOST flexibility.

Polo sleeves angle down just a bit more, closer to the body of the shirt.
[Sorry, I'm not the best Paint artist.]

In most blouses, the angle is even narrower.  This is when you start feeling that tug when you reach.
In this dress from the 50s, it looks like the sleeve hangs almost parallel to the dress and the angle from sleeve line to dress line is very small.  This is when you’d truly feel like you’re in a strait jacket.

 Maybe this was the pattern Paul's mom used for her wedding dress.  Here's Jenny modeling her grandma's dress from I think 1956.

Conclusion: if you want flexibility, the sleeve needs to be set in at the largest angle possible, with the most flexibility when the sleeve sticks straight out from the body.

How do you do that?

Here's a typical sleeve pattern.
 The key is in that curve along the top of the pattern.

The sleeve seam is kind of like the sine curves you may have seen in high school math.  If you’ve sewed much, you can sort of see the top of a sleeve pattern in these pictures, like a hill curving into valleys on each side.


Note the difference in the heights of the two "hills" here.

Here’s the formula:  A high curve at the center = a small angle of sleeve to body = a tighter fit and less flexibility

A low curve = a large angle of sleeve to body = a looser fit with more flexibility.

Before we go further, remember there's a trade-off here--with the more comfortable sleeve you'll also have more bunching of extra fabric under the arm.  So you have to find a balance that works for you.
How to:

One thing you can do is make the body of your blouse/dress from a modern pattern and use a sleeve pattern from the 80s.  First check to make sure the sleeve opening is roughly the same size and the old pattern doesn't have a dropped shoulder.

Or alter your pattern.

Lay your pattern down and put a pin at the top of the hill.  Pivot the pattern to the right and mark the top edge, then pivot to the left and do the same.

Then taper in so you're back to your normal sleeve width. It makes for some funny wings on the pattern but makes a lot less bulk than if you went straight down to the wrist.

Like this:
 I got this picture from a website about altering your dress patterns so you can wear them for flamenco dancing, and I didn't have the Paint skills to remove the label. 

Just so you know.

Since you used the original pattern and didn't change the length of the armhole seam, the sleeve should fit into the armhole just fine.

Et voila!

A dress you can move in.  And hug, and tie an apron, and reach to the top shelf, and maybe even play volleyball.

Have fun.  Let me know how it goes if you try this.  I'm still perfecting the process.

P.S. Lots of further insights and great ideas in the comments, and a recommended book, and how to order it if you're internet-shy.  Thanks, everyone!

 Quotes of the Day:

"Oh dear, Mom.  It looks like an old lady dress.  And yes, it minimizes your stomach, but only by making your hips look huge."
--Emily, affirming two more reasons why the above yellow flowered dress was a "fail."

"Ach, ich hass nehe fuh mich-selvet.  Es fit nee-net kscheit!!"*
--My mom, who was happy to sew for the rest of the world but hated to sew for herself.  I understand.

*"I hate sewing for myself.  It never fits right."


  1. I appreciate your research. It had been a problem I dealt with also. I dicovered by cutting the sleeve pattern straight up the center to near the top and spreading the pattern I got a better fit. Now I understand why!!!!! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I have always adjusted my sleeves as Theda did. Have you noticed that by your method you have lengthened the underside of the sleeve while keeping the sleeve the same length from shoulder to wrist. This may be why ti bunthes up under the arm for you. Perhaps the best way is to alter the sleeve using a combination of both methods.

  3. Thank you! This is going on pinterest. :)

  4. Thank You! As someone who is beginning to sew clothes again, I also want to pin this.... @Laura... how can I find this on Pinterest?? (Because forgive me, but I probably won't be able to find it here again!)

  5. I wish I could come over to your house and have you help me with my sleeves! :) This is something I've struggled with for a while. I discovered a long time ago that I couldn't always just use a sleeve pattern with a bodice pattern that wasn't meant to go with it. I once fixed a sleeve pattern by matching its curve to the curve of the sleevehole, and got an extra inch of "give" across the back that way! The sleeve was curved in way too much at the back. That was when I put gathers in the top of my sleeves. Now, I use "fitted" sleeves, with no gathers at all, and I have tried someone else's pattern that angles out more, instead of my pattern which is tight across the arms when I reach. The interesting thing is that their pattern simply angled the sleevehole out on the bottom, as far as I can tell. However, I have the whole bunchy-under-the-arm problem, and I cannot bear it. I thought I had to choose between the two problems. I was pretty excited when I saw the title of your post! The different curve affecting the angle of the sleeve is a new thought to me. Thank you so much for posting this! I have wished more than once for a Mennonite Help for Your Sewing Problems forum or blog. :)

    Please excuse my long-windedness.

  6. Back when I wanted to go from fully gathered sleeves to fitted and comfortable, I borrowed a pattern from my sister. But it looked too confining, like a 60's sleeve, so I made a new pattern between the two, and it works great! I've passed on my pattern to lots of others as well.

  7. Something to try for removing that bunching fabric under the armhole: Try pinning out a bit of fabric at the shoulder seam where it meets the armhole. Taper it to nothing at the neckline. Does that help? If not, try enlarging the bust dart. The gaping you see is usually caused by your shoulders being more sloped than the pattern or your bust being a bit larger. Keep sewing!

  8. Thanks so much I got tired of big full sleeves, but I really hate the straite jacket feel...gotta act so ...lady-like..think I'll switch to t-shirts they make modest ones JK

  9. This principle I learned just recently when I ran into a problem exactly like you described - drove me crazy! Actually, I had wasted fabric where I did not have enough to cut out another sleeve, so, I pieced the sleeve - both of them, running the seams lengthwise - and was able to salvage the garment. Anyhow, I recut a pattern that I can now use with other other patterns.

  10. Thank you so much! I've adjusted my sleeve pattern and it half worked but I really didn't know what I was doing. Now I'm eager to try your tips for my next dress!

    Thanks for using your "problem" to help others!

  11. Thanks for the lesson. I have two books that I use sometimes when I get stumped with a sewing project. One of them is Sewing Made Easy Dorothy Sara and Irene Gora. Lots of good stuff in it.

  12. This comment is especially to say thank you to the previous comment by "Life of a plainlady". I began sewing at age eight and have been sewing for multiple decades. But I've never had the benefit of any kind of sewing guide such as the one Plainlady mentioned! (As a child I did take 4-H sewing, but much of my learning was through much ripping-and-resewing, through many tears, and just in general, learning by practice the hard way.)

    So I was intrigued and curious to learn a little bit more about this book referenced in the previous comment. I went to Amazon to read the descriptions, recommendations, comments, and prices for this book--even though by now I have a lifetime of experience. Amazon lists for sale several different editions with different covers over the years.

    I checked them all out. Many, many used copies of this book are available for sale for as low as $.01 (yes, one cent!) or if you want to buy a new book for just a few dollars. Keep in mind that you have to pay postage of $3.99, but you could order a used copy of this book for as little as $4.00. Based on the impressive description and the comments section, I ordered two used copies, one myself and one for my daughter.

    Finally, thanks Dorcas, for addressing this sewing topic and giving us the forum to discuss it. Yes, I've had issues with sleeves, too! And thanks again, Plainlady, for telling us about the book, "Sewing Made Easy" by Dorothy Sara and Irene Gora. It sounds wonderful and I'm watching the mail every day for my first copy to arrive. If others would like to get a bargain copy (even the older editions sound good), here's how:

    Just go to and type into the Amazon search engine the following, exactly: Sewing made easy by Dorothy Sara. Then click "Go". A whole list of these books will pop up. Pay attention to the dates of issue...the different editions, read the descriptions and comments; then click on whether you want new or used and scroll down to select the price you want to pay, and click the "buy" button. If you are not a member of Amazon, you will need to register, but that is just a matter of following directions.

    My apologies if I seem to be "talking down" to you. I don't mean to. I'm writing this especially for those who might like to have the book but didn't know that it was inexpensively and easily available, or who may be intimidated or hesitant about ordering things online. It's not that hard, so go for it, and then look forward to getting something interesting in the mail!

  13. I had wondered what made the sleeve feel tight when it and the dress was the right size everywhere else. I am trying your pattern modification on a dress today so I am eager to see how it turns out. Thanks for your research and very clear instructions.

  14. Hi thank you so much for this tutorial! I am an active member of the SCA (society for creative anachronism) and I keep making beautiful bliaut's in which I can hardly move, even though I want to use these dresses for archery. It sucks when you can't draw a bow in a gorgeous medieval dress. But now I know how to fix the patterns! Thank you so very much!! ^_^

  15. Just discovered your blog and I love it!! Thank you for the tips on the sleeves!!

  16. Thanks for this fab tutorial and to the commenters for their tips! I'm pondering altering the sleeve on a favourite dress sewing pattern to give me more room to move. Feel armed with useful information now (apologies for the pun).

  17. Thanks for this fab tutorial and to your commenters for their tips! I'm pondering altering a favourite dress sewing pattern to give more room for movement and am now armed with useful information (sorry for the pun).

  18. Talk about synchronicity... There's some good images of historical sleeve caps from a costumier who was pondering this exact problem here:

    1. Could not open, should be able to open, highlighted?

    2. On my ready made shirt would I have to take out the whole sleeve, cut some top down to take away some height, then add some (exact material colored fabric) to the underarm part of the sleeve cap? Will it show when I have arm down, of course it will when raising my arm - understandable because of added fabric. My question is the height, does that need to be less of a arch? Thank you for all help.

  19. Wow, this is EXACTLY the problem I have! Thanks for posting a solution!

  20. You are literally a lifesaver for this post. Thank you so much!!!

  21. Crafty Phoebe3/19/2015 6:05 AM

    Oh, gosh, what a find this has been. I'm fairly new to sewing but just came across this problem in a dress I'm working on where I just set the sleeves into a perfectly fitting bodice and stood in (tight armed) amazement after I'd sewn in the sleeves. I assumed I'd messed up, didn't know where the problem was, and finally today pretty much decided I'd have to re-cut the whole bodice & sleeves - basically start again. I hand't got that far and thankfully, and found this. So, now I have the much smaller job of altering the sleeve pattern - which feels so much more do-able ... I've been in doom & gloom for days over what I thought was my mysterious mess up! Happy days again, thanks sooooo much, Crafty Phoebe

  22. Another thing that can cause your dress to pull up when you raise your arms is a low arm hole. An arm hole that is cut higher under your armpit (combined with a lower sleeve cap, like you describe) will allow more mobility.

    1. I've sort of discovered that recently as well. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Thank you for this. My comment exactly.

  23. This is how the sleeve cap alters when you use the slip and slide method for enlarging sleeves in Nancy Ziemans book sewing with confidence. The height of the cap needs to be low to prevent that restriction.

    1. Interesting. I'll have to look up her book.

  24. Just curious can you tell me what is the cap height in the sleeve where you lowered the cap height for movement

  25. Hi does this work for woven fabrics. If we make a surge with so less cap height will it work ? Also what cap height you targeted in the new draft ? Please share

  26. A sincere thank you for taking the time and trouble to share this excellent piece of advice. I was just about to give up. Your quotes of the day made me chuckle

  27. Thanks for the effort of writing this! It's so frustrating to spent time and money to sew something and then have this happen. I am not at all large busted, so I knew that couldn't be the problem. I have considered the armhole being too low, but I think the sleeve would be less problematic to fiddle with as a starter. BTW, I love your blog name. Life in the shoe is my live every day homeschooling 8 kids!

  28. wow this came right on time!
    yesterday i was measuring a dress for my niece and couldn't figure out how to fix that annoying thing that happens when she puts her arm up and the whole bodice goes up... couldn't decide if the bodice needed a change or the sleeve? or both????
    now bumped into this article and cant wait to try it!!!
    i'm really hopping this will do the trick!
    now a practical question - when i pivot the sleeve right and left, how many cm should i "move" to each side?

    thank you so much!!!

    1. I usually move it about an inch (2.5 cm). I hope this works!

  29. Awesome. I'm very broad across the back (Mom says from all the years I swam competitively) and I think combining this with another technique for widening the back of a bodice will really help me. Just wish I could find out a way to alter ready made clothes to make them more comfortable in the same area. Sincerely, Shannon Combs

  30. Thank you see much. I've only made 2 dresses and the woven one with sleeves didn't fit my arms. The sewing school ladies weren't very much help. I'll try this because that is EXACTLY my problem.

  31. When I initially commented I clicked the "Notify me when new comments are added" checkbox and now each time a comment
    is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.

    Is there any way you can remove people from that
    service? Bless you!

  32. Thank you for this article! I was trying to figure out how to alter some ready to wear dresses so I could move my arms in them. This was very helpful.

  33. Genius! It really is a mathematical problem, can't wait to try it on the prototype of my daughter's wedding dress which is looking beautiful on her but has this sleeve problem. I agree that there never used to be this problem with patterns, they're just not as good as they used to be, I think they have become too simplistic. So glad I found your blog, thank you for your hard work it's saved me a lot of messing!

  34. Interesting solution. What you’ve done is add a gusset to the underarm. A lot of those vintage patterns use diamond gussets in the underarm to give freedom of movement. Gussets may give you another option.

  35. Thank you so much!! I’m currently trying to retrofit McCalls 7026 (perhaps the polar fleece was not stretchy enough) without enough fabric to recut both sleeves. However redrafting the sleeve as per your illustration gives me the shape for a gusset that I can cut from scraps. Here’s hoping!

  36. So helpful! I finally understand what's wrong with my sleeve and how to fix it. Yaaaay! Thank you for keeping this post up. I've read others that I think conveyed the same idea but I could not follow them at all. The way you described the problem, and the images you included are perfect. Thank you!