How to Set-in a Sleeve

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Hey, you!

Like me, have you wondered what the easiest way to set in a sleeve without fugly puckers or tucks?

Well, I think I’ve found it! First, sew the shoulder seam. Next, align the sleeve with the armhole and sew from notch to notch, leaving the underarm section unsewn. Next, sew the sleeve underarm seam and then the side seam (SS) of the garment. Finally,  finish the underarm section. 

That’s it! Sort of…

Are you ready?!

Then, let’s do this and begin with the…

NOTE: If you’re ready to begin this journey and would like to buy my recommended tools and supplies, please click HERE!

Anatomy of a Sleeve Pattern

Here’s the anatomy of a commercial sleeve pattern

sleeves-anatomy-sewing-pattern

The image above is a short sleeve pattern. A long sleeve pattern will also have an elbow line and a wrist line.

Sew easy tip: Depending on the design of the garment, the SP may not be in the dead center of the sleeve cap. It can be slightly off to one side.

And then, here’s the…

Anatomy of a Sleeve

The anatomy of a sleeve is simple. It consists of four parts: (1) the cap line; (2) the sleeve cap, (3)  the cap SEAM line; and (4) the cap height…

anatomy-sleeve

The cap (bicep) line is the measurement horizontally from one underarm to the other underarm. Seam allowances (SAs) at the SS are not included.

The sleeve cap or head is the area of the sleeve above the cap line.

The cap SEAM line is represented by the red dashed line in the image above.

And the cap height is the vertical line from the cap SEAM line at the SP down to the midpoint of the  cap line.

There is a close relationship between the cap line, the sleeve cap, and the cap height. That means, if you change one, you could very well affect one of the others!

Now, let’s learn some…

Bonus Tips

  • When we sew a set-in sleeve, we’re joining the convex curve of the sleeve cap to the concave curve of the armhole.

sleeves-comparing-concave-and-convex-curves

  • When setting in a sleeve, it is the cap SEAM line that must fit the SEAM line of the armhole. In the image below, I kept the SA on the BACK bodice armhole but I removed it from the sleeve to illustrate this point!

sleeve-and-armhole-comparing-SEAM-lines

  • Reduce the SA to 3/8 inch on both the armhole and the sleeve cap to make attaching the convex curve of a sleeve to the concave curve of the armhole easier!
  • Because they yield easily to our manipulations, natural fibers are easier to ease than synthetic, tightly woven, and/or heavier fabrics.

Alright. Get your life jacket. It’s time to wade into the deep, deep lake of how to…

Fit a Sleeve

Fitting an armhole is way beyond the scope of this article and, honestly, my current understanding!

BUT I believe we need to know the following to begin our approach to this process intelligently…

FIRST, it is critical that we make sure the armhole of the bodice fits us perfectly BEFORE we cut out our sleeves!

SECOND, there are four areas of a bodice that affect the fit of the armhole. These four areas on the pattern must match our body measurements:

  1. shoulder slope
  2. across back width (major factor in ease of movement)
  3. across front width
  4. armhole depth (related to cap height)

Keep this in mind always: If you make changes to the fit of the armhole, you’ll also have to adjust the sleeve! And if you make changes to the sleeve, you’ll have to adjust the armhole!

THREE, the two body measurements that must be considered when fitting a sleeve are:

  1. the cap height (related to armhole depth); and
  2. the cap (bicep) line (the location of this will vary from one body to the next!)

sleeve-fitting-two-body-measurements-required

FOUR, a sleeve that is set-in well has at least these three characteristics:

  • Our arm must move comfortably in both the sleeve AND the armhole when we lift our arm overhead or reach for something!
  • Ideally, the sleeve must hang from the SP so that the lengthwise grain is perpendicular to the floor and the cap line is parallel to the floor, or as close to this ideal as possible! Check out the beautifully well-set sleeve in the image below…

sleeve-well-set-butterick-fitting-pattern-envelope

  • Once the sleeve is set in, there should be no puckers or tucks along the sleeve cap.

And, FIVE, we may have to settle on close to perfect if we value comfort, mobility, and our sanity!

So if we should run into problems with how our sleeves fit, we now have a bit of information to intelligently begin our research and find a solution!

RELATED: Click HERE for an article on Bluprint for tips on fitting the bodice armhole! And HERE for a most excellent playlist on YouTube by Alexandra Morgan on fitting the sleeve!

Alright. Before we learn how to set-in a sleeve, we must get a handle on…

What Is Sleeve Cap Ease?

Here’s the least we need to know about sleeve cap ease…

In commercial patterns, the cap SEAM line of the sleeve cap is often longer than the armhole seam line it is to be wedded to!

Why?

Well, it is arguably thought that this extra ease is needed to provide us with ease of arm mobility and ease of comfort.

Generally, the amount of sleeve cap ease varies depending on…

  1. the fabric type (for example, knits require less or no ease than woven fabrics); and
  2. the garment type (for example, a blouse or dress will have less ease than a jacket)

The Big 4 pattern companies (Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity, and Vogue), typically, include as much as 1½ to 2 inches of extra sleeve cap ease!

But the truth is…

We can probably get away with just ¼ to ½ inch of extra ease in the sleeve cap!

Sew easy tip: Generally, we might want to limit extra sleeve cap ease to no more than 1 inch!

How to Determine Sleeve Cap Ease

To measure our armhole length and the cap SEAM line, we’ll need a flexible, 2 x 18 grid ruler or thick, cotton thread or string without any stretch!

In the image below, check out that flexible, grid ruler. When you place it on its edge, it is just perfect for measuring curves

sleeve-flexible-grid-ruler

When measuring the armhole SEAM lines of the FRONT bodice and the BACK bodice, measure from the SP to the notch or notches. And when measuring the cap SEAM line of the sleeve, measure from the BACK double notches to the FRONT single notch like this….

sleeve-flexible-grid-ruler

Exclude the SAs. Also exclude the underarm sections on the BACK bodice, the FRONT bodice and the sleeve. Because there is no extra ease in the underarm. In other words, the underarm section of the sleeve should match the underarm section of the bodice in both length and shape!

All of the extra ease in a sleeve cap is located between the BACK double notches and the FRONT single notch.

Once we have our measurements, add the FRONT bodice and the BACK bodice armhole measurements together. Then, compare their sum to the length of the cap SEAM line on the sleeve.

The difference is the extra ease included in the cap SEAM line. See this calculated in the image below…

sleeve-calculating-ease-difference

Sew easy tip: Do NOT stress about differences ⅛ inch or less!

How to Reduce Sleeve Cap Ease

There are many ways to reduce sleeve cap ease. Google “reduce sleeve cap ease” and have “fun!”

Honestly, I have no idea which is best. So sorry. My gut tells me that it will depend on the garment style, the fabric, personal preference, and our body. (Yeah! I know.)

BUT it is important that we keep this fact in mind…

There is a close relationship between the sleeve cap ease and the cap height.

In other words, reducing sleeve cap ease may result in a reduction of the cap height.

RELATED: Click HERE to learn which method I used for this tutorial!  I recommend you start by extending the grainline, and then using the extended line as a guide to slide the “severed” sleeve cap down!

Finally, let’s…

Sew a Set-In (Inset) Sleeve | Step-by-Step

There are three possible approaches to setting in a set-in sleeve…

  1. In the Round ~ A round sleeve is eased into and then sewn into a round armhole. This is the classic method. I tried this and all that ease stitching and staystitch plus nonsense stressed me out and pissed me off!
  2. Flat ~ BEFORE the SS is sewn, the sleeve is sewn to the armhole, from underarm to underarm, and then the SS is sewn in one go. This approach is most commonly used with knits and casual garments. I tried this and it made for an ill-fitting mess in the underarm area!
  3. Hybrid ~ This is a combination of the above two methods. The sleeve cap is sewn to the armhole flat, and the underarm section is sewn in the round.

The hybrid method is my preferred method — because it is so much easier on the few good nerves I have left.

Okay. Using Vogue 9237, let’s set in a sleeve…

sleeve-vogue-9237-closeup-pattern-envelope

After we cut out mirror images of our sleeves, it is important that we transfer notches and the SP to the sleeve AND the armhole of the bodice. These markings will provide critical matching points later!

Step 1. Determine the amount of sleeve cap ease.

Because an excessive amount of sleeve cap ease can drive us insane and make it impossible to set-in a pretty sleeve!

I measured the cap SEAM line of the size S sleeve and the size S armhole seam lines. The cap SEAM line was 1 inch longer than the armhole.

To avoid all that easing nonsense, we are going to reduce the sleeve cap down to ¼ inch — or, in other words, remove ¾ inch.

sleeve-cap-reduction-amount

Sew easy tip: But if we find that we need extra ease in the sleeve cap, having just one inch of extra ease will keep it manageable when we ease stitch the sleeve before proceeding. (Yeah! I know.)

Step 2. Sew the shoulder seam.

sleeve-shoulder-seam-sewn

Step 3. Sew the sleeve cap to the armhole.

We must sew the correct sleeve into the correct armhole by matching the double notches and the single notch on the sleeve to the same on the armhole.

Set our sewing machine to stop with the needle down. This way when we stop to make adjustments, we’ll minimize shifting.

With RST, sew the sleeve cap to the armhole, from the FRONT single notch to the BACK double notches, in the flat. Backstitch at the start and at the end.

As we stitch the sleeve cap to the armhole, we want the sleeve on the bottom next to the feed dogs so that the feed dogs can ease in that extra ¼ inch for us! Our few remaining good nerves just exhaled!

sleeve-cap-sewn-to-armhole

Step 4. Sew the underarm seam.

Sew the underarm seam of the sleeve. And finish the sleeve hem.

Step 5. Sew the SS of the garment.

In the image below, the underarm seam of the sleeve is sewn, the hem on the sleeve is finished, and the SS of the bodice is sewn! The blue arrows point to the sewn underarm seam and the SS.

sleeve-underarm-side-seam-sewn

Okay, let’s finish what we’ve started…

Step 6. Sew the underarm section.

With RST, sew the underarm section, from the BACK double notches to the FRONT single notch; backstitch at the start and at the end.

sleeve-underarm-section-pinned-and-ready-to-be-sewn

The underarm section does NOT need to be eased!

In other words, we’re sewing the underarm section in the round. In the image below, I am sewing inside the circle of the armhole with the sleeve on top and away from the feed dogs.

sleeve-sewing-inside-the-circle

I also like to shorten my stitch length as this is an area that is under a lot of stress as we move and reach!

Step 7. Finishing touches.

Finish the SAs. And using only the nose of our iron, press carefully along the seam line of the sleeve cap.

sleeve-pressing-seam-allowance

And voila!

sleeve-set-in-finished

Behold a set-in sleeve with a smooth sleeve cap! No fugly puckers or tucks! [SIGH]

The End

Here’s the truth about fitting and setting in sleeves…

When it comes to fitting our armhole and our sleeve, we may have to Google and experiment a bit with multiple test garments until we get the fit right. Sorry.

But when we’re ready to set in a sleeve into a well-fitting armhole, with this hybrid method and a bit of skill building practice, we might just get to keep our nerves unfrayed!

This sleeve article is by no means complete! I am just at the beginning of my understanding on the subject of a sleeve!

Anyhoo, I’m off to master fitting my own sleeve! I’ve already created a duplicate pattern of the sleeve and an abbreviated bodice of Vogue 9237 to begin the testing process.

sleeve-and-bodice-duplicated-for-samples

One last thing…

This is the last “official” tutorial on this site!

There are now 80 articles on this site that can take you from a beginner to an intermediate dressmaker without the heartbreak and failures I endured!

With that said, it’s past time for us to get busy dreaming, sewing, and flaunting insanely pretty clothing! Because life is too short for anything else!

Check out my future projects HERE!

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event! Dress for it!

RELATED: Click HERE to learn other basic garment construction sewing skills!

RELATED: Click HERE to begin the 5-Part How to Sew a Basic Dress – Vogue 9237 | A MEGA-Series!

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