Sleeve Serendipity and Bad Sleeve Patterns

This dress was posted on Gomi a couple of days ago.

sleeveIt set me off trying to figure out the sleeve. By a happy chance I found my old pattern for a strap sleeve and tried a bit of slash and spread on it.

This is the result – is it close or not? Ignore the seam down the middle in my test piece, I used an old skirt.

pinned on dolores

pinned on dolores


Right side

Right side

How it's stitched

How it’s stitched

Not completely sure I’ve got it yet.

Checking out the strap sleeve, which fits precisely into its armscye, brought the question of  Bad Sleeve Patterns to mind.

Have you come across any unsettable sleeve patterns lately? I seem to have spent some resentful hours redrafting a few. Chief problems are ease in the sleeve, how much and where, and the shape of the curves at the top of the sleeve.

Sleeve Head Ease

I think you usually need some ease, something like 2-3 cms. Its usually better with more placed slightly forward of the centre line at the top. The best diagram I’ve found that explains how this should work in a sleeve is from Natalie Bray “Dress Pattern Designing”. The underarm point in this diagram is forward of the bodice side seam, which is not essential. (The draft I use now has these ponts matching.)

Natalie Bray's diagram

Natalie Bray’s diagram

The ease helps to shape the sleeve round the shoulder if the sleeve is a fairly close fit, high on the shoulder, and the fabric is woven. The strap sleeve I made in 2012 actually illustrates the question of getting three dimensions into the top arm quite well, though a strap sleeve converts ease into seamed sections to get that shape round the shoulder.


The higher on the shoulder a sleeve is set, the more ease is needed. If the shoulder drops lower across the shoulder bone, like in a shirt for example, you need less or no ease.

Sleeve Head Shape

Increasingly I’m finding patterns  with symmetrical, or near symmetrical sleeve heads. Occasionally, this is ok. If its a pattern for a young child, or its for a cardigan in a soft and stretchy knit, or if for some style reason the armscye is lowered and has very similar curves front and back. Otherwise its just lousy drafting.

Folding the pattern along the centre line of the sleeve, it should be obvious which is the back and which is the front of the sleeve. The back sleeve needs flatter with more gradual curves, the front is scooped out more below the balance mark and rounds out more near the top. Of the drafting books I have Helen Joseph Armstrong stands out as having the closest to symmetrical sleeve. Rohr, Hillhouse and Mansfield, Natalie Bray, Shoben and Ward, Cooklin, Ann Haggar, Winnie Aldrich all show sleeve drafts which produce easily differentiated front and back curves on the sleeve head.  The curves need to be different because the shapes they have to fit round aren’t the same, so why are we getting patterns which overturn sixty years of drafting experience? Have I missed something?

OK that’s enough of a rant. Next post – how to fix a duff pattern to give yourself a fighting chance.

Isn’t nature wonderful – these growing in the weeds in my garden.


Just about the same colour as that lovely 40s dress.












About jay

I design and draft patterns
This entry was posted in Pattern Making, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sleeve Serendipity and Bad Sleeve Patterns

  1. mrsmole says:

    I’m with you on the sleeves getting crappier and crappier. Are they dressing robots or real women?
    Just the fact that real people reach forward 90% of the time they wear the clothes makes sense to have the back length longer and wider…that is where the stress is and extra fabric should be. It is almost like making a pair of pants with all fronts…we know there is more fabric needed in the butt area but hey we (pattern companies) decided to just simplify things and make 4 front sections…happy sewing, pattern buyers! It is enough to you scream! Love your in-depth photos and reasoning! Your strap sleeve is a delight!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Zoe says:

    Oh yes! The last PDF pattern I got had a symmetrical sleeve head. It was for a t-shirt, so I thought, am I missing something? Is the difference negligible in stretch? So I tried it, and it was as bad as you’d expect. It’s so disheartening. I can fix it, but if I had just been starting out I would have thought I messed it up. Why would anyone want to sew if the stuff is even worse than off the rack?


    • jay says:

      I worked for a short while for a rtw company which used any spare factory capacity between orders to churn out basic sweatshirts. The sleeves on these were symmetrical, but basic is the operative word here. Stretch fabric is more forgiving, but I think you still get a better fit with a ‘normal’ sleeve, with less or no ease.


  3. fabrickated says:

    Thank you for your interesting post Jay. I just made a Christening robe (1970s pattern) where the sleeve head was symmetrical – first time I have encountered that, but as you say on a baby, no problem. My own sleeve block and older vintage patterns have lovely sleeves with an obvious front and back so you didn’t even really need notches to tell you how to put it in. But modern patterns seem to have smoothed things out and I think it is to give an “easier” fit. However to get the best fit you need to get right up into the arm joint and it takes some alteration, has a slow insertion and careful easing/shrinking and I don’t think most home “sewists” have the patience or skill to do it. So the patterns are essentially “dummed down”.


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