Adventures with sleeves

I recently made the By Hand London Victoria blazer, and I love it very much. It’s deceptively simple, it’s comfy, it’s swanky; I want to make it in every colour of the rainbow.

The only thing that bugged me about it was the sleeves. With my arms down, they’re fine. But as soon as I reach for something or lift my arms more than a few inches, they start to pull against the outside of my upper arm and the rest of the jacket pulls outwards with it. I hasten to say that this isn’t a fatal flaw in the Victoria – it’s something that happens with all manner of sleeved patterns (my tried and tested bodice pattern, Vogue 8772, has the same issue with the short-sleeved version, though not to the same extent).

I originally thought it was because the sleeve was too tight around the bicep. Then, and to my eternal shame I can’t remember where, someone mentioned on a blog thread that if the tightness is specifically triggered by raising one’s arms, then the issue is probably with the height of the sleeve cap, not the width of the bicep.

The sleeve cap is the sine-curve-like section at the top of a sleeve pattern piece (I’m assuming a one-piece sleeve here for ease of reference). The sleeve cap height is the vertical distance from the top of the curve to the bottom, and it is the measurement that governs the angle at which the sleeve goes into the torso.

The lowest possible sleeve cap height is zero, where the armhole seam is a straight line and the sleeve carries straight on outward from the shoulder – as on a traditional kimono (excellent guide that I have used here) or the Viking-style kyrtill I made here. This allows bags of movement but no shoulder definition whatsoever.

By contrast, a high sleeve cap curve produces a sleeve that lies almost flat down your side when you stand with your arms down, and consequently a lovely crisp corner at the shoulder. The technical drawing of the Victoria shows how sharply the sleeves come down:

Victoria technical drawing from the BHL website.

Victoria technical drawing from the BHL website.

The higher the sleeve cap, the more the garment will pull up and outward when you raise your arms. I am all in favour of crisply tailored shoulders – I like my broad shoulders and I like clothes that emphasise them – but I also like being able to move my arms, dammit.

There is an excellent blog post here by Andrea Schewe, who designs historical & fantasy costume patterns for Simplicity, looking at a number of sleeve patterns and cap heights down the ages. Sleeve caps used to be lower – the kind of high cap we see on the Victoria didn’t start showing up until the 1920s.

Schewe attributes this to the decline in corset-wearing: in, say, a modern dress with set-in sleeves, the dress will pull up and across the bust when you raise your arms, but you can raise them, because the dress will move. If you were wearing a corset, it wouldn’t – so sleeve patterns on garments meant to be worn with corsets had to have more movement built in at the shoulder, because hiking up the whole dress wasn’t an option.

Schewe also mentions that, while modern men’s suits tend to be designed to have the sharp shoulder, men’s shirts have much lower sleeve caps to allow movement. Sadly, the distinction between more formal wear that needs to look good and workwear that actually lets you work is not as often observed in women’s clothes, thanks to the persistent over-valuation of looks vs. almost everything else in popular discourse around women’s dress; and this is not confined to ready-to-wear – sewing patterns are also frequently guilty. This is one of the reasons that most of my shop-bought work shirts are from the men’s section. (The other is that it’s surprisingly hard to find blouses that button all the way up and have the right sort of collar to take a tie.)

Comparison of sleeve cap heights

I got a piece of paper and drew round the seam of one of my men’s work shirts, then laid the Victoria over the top to compare. I’ve lined up the shoulder point on the diagram.



Look at those curves!

The cap height on one of my men’s shirts is less than 4 inches. By comparison, the cap on the short-sleeved V8772 (not shown) is 6.5″, and that on the Victoria is a whopping seven-and-three-quarters. Clearly, if I wanted the ease of movement in the Victoria that I’m used to at work, that sleeve cap needed some serious flattening out.

Redrafting the Victoria


I started by tracing a copy of the Victoria sleeve piece, or most of it – I didn’t draw it to full length as all I was really interested in was the sleeve cap. I marked on the notches and drew in the seam allowance along the sleeve cap. Then I slashed and spread it as per this Threads article – slash-and-spread is a technique I’ve used before (adjusting the fit on the Thurlow trousers) and also this way I’d preserve both the length of the sleeve curve and the spacing of the notches.


Next I put the slashed piece on my cutting mat as it’s conveniently marked in squares, and sellotaped it down at the shoulder seam to hold it steady. I wasn’t sure how much shorter I wanted the sleeve cap to be, so I used the square grid to mark out lines for possible heights and experimented with wiggling the curve around.


I settled on a height of 5″ for the new sleeve cap, taped the new curve to the cutting mat to keep it still, then traced off the new curve onto a new piece of paper, transferred the notches, and drew the new sleeve piece out to the full length I wanted it. Here’s the new piece, with the old piece on top for scale:


Next I pulled out some pinstriped fabric of dubious origin that looks lovely but has been relegated to the Toile Drawer owing to its habit of shredding on any seams remotely under stress, and cut out the left half of a Victoria – one front, one back and one copy of the new sleeve. I cut it to the cropped length because I was focusing on the fit of the shoulder.

I put it together, put in the sleeve, and tried it on in front of the mirror.

Here followed the wonderfully silly process of trying to pinch out and pin excess fabric from a garment you’re wearing, exacerbated by the fact that it was only half a jacket and I’d pinned the raw CF and CB edges to the top I was wearing, and unexpected pins to the ribcage are always hilarious. There are no photos of this bit because I ran out of hands.

I ended up with two long sections pinned out, which I basted closed (time to repeat the sewing PSA that has saved me more time than any other single piece of advice: if you’re sewing a line of thread that you know will need to come out, use a contrasting thread so you can find the damn thing afterwards) and tried on again. Much better.

Like a lot of home sewers, it seems, I tend to work without much on my top half, to make fitting-in-progress easier; however, it occurred to me while I was standing around with half a jacket that I wasn’t going to be wearing it over bare arms, so I put on a thermal top and a work shirt and made some more tweaks.

Next stage, I took the sleeve out and redrew the paper pattern piece to take account of the reductions:


Then unpicked the basting from the sleeve, flattened the sleeve piece, paused to repair a tear I’d managed to put in it, recut the sleeve from the revised paper pattern, and put it back in. Et voila! Here is a picture of my dress form wearing half a tiny jacket. I may have sellotaped the CB edge to the back of the form to get it to stay put.


It’s hard to see on the form as it has only a vestigial arm, but the fit’s a lot better for what I prefer – there’s a lot more room to move my shoulder, but not too much extra fabric flapping under the arm. The revised sleeve piece is a wee bit off-grain because I was lazy and cut the new pattern piece out of the fabric from the old pattern piece rather than from a new piece of fabric, but that’s easily fixable in the ~real version~.

On the subject of sleeve grain, I found this BurdaStyle article on grain handy, especially the included quote from Claire Shaeffer’s Couture Sewing Techniques:

“The biceps line connects the top of the underarm seam and marks the crossgrain… The capline is located on the crossgrain midway between biceps line and shoulder point.”

I’d been wondering how you determine the grain on a sleeve piece, as it’s hard to judge exactly what angle equates to “down the body” from just looking at the flat piece. (I find sleeves one of the hardest things to visualise from the flat pattern generally – it’s a tube that you have to attach to a hole in another tube at an angle – buh?) Drawing the crossgrain across the underarm seam and finding the straight grain from there makes much more sense.

I’m still nervous about cutting into my fashion fabric with a self-drafted sleeve piece; currently my plan is to make up the shell, then test it with a sleeve in toile material, and tinker some more if necessary. But it’s a start, and it’s amazing how much the process of slashing and spreading and building a toile helped me understand how a sleeve works and how all the edges go together – far more than just reading the tutorials and looking at diagrams. I recommend it, especially if, like me, you have relatively poor spatial imagination and can’t easily translate a flat net into a 3D object in your head.

Stay tuned for more Victoria! In the meantime, anyone else got handy tips or hints on the subject of redrafting sleeves?

About Craft (Alchemy)

I make things and make things up.
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6 Responses to Adventures with sleeves

  1. What an awesome article! Thanks so much for posting, I learned a lot. I, too, have solid shoulders and they’re paired with an impressive “pair” in front, too, so fitted button down shirts are simply not an option, end of story. They don’t move with me the way I like, anyway, and thanks to your descriptions, now I know why.

    This explains perfectly why I have recently become obsessed with making kimono shirts and jackets. Everything fits inside these lovely garments comfortably–shoulders, boobs, neck, arms–and still looks good from every angle due to the nice drape. A woman actually complimented me the other day, telling me that my heavy kimono coat looked great from the back because of the drape. Wow!

    Kimono (actually, the casual style I make is an everyday Yakata) have got to be the most versatile garments on the planet. Make them out of fleece and you have a snuggly house jacket, out of heavier stock with a lining, they become outerwear, make one in embroidered silk and you will wow ’em at formal gatherings, make a couple in sheer florals and suddenly all your old summer T-shirts and tank tops are stylish and sexy…sheer kimono are also handy in the bedroom (wink, wink).

    Best part? They are insanely easy to sew and almost impossible to get wrong.

  2. I’ve only made one kimono – for a wizard costume, as it happens – and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was! Measuring and figuring out the dimensions of the panels from my measurements took longer than putting the actual garment together. Catherine Daze has made a whole bunch of variously styled kimono-shaped things:

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  4. Erika Arens says:

    I have the Victoria pattern in my stash, and I have yet to make it up for this exact reason. I was reading through the instructions and the whole part about setting in the sleeves made me think twice.

    I’ll definitely be using this technique when I eventually end up making this blazer!

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