How To Sew In Sleeves
In my first years of sewing garments, sleeves were probably my least favorite part of the process. I still can’t say I’m crazy about that stage in pattern assembly, but at least it’s not as intimidating as it used to be.
Since the internet wasn’t around at the start of my sewing career, I relied on pattern instructions and sometimes a book, as many sewers still do. But when it comes to sleeves, not all patterns or instructions are created equal.
As the years went by, I began to note the similarities and differences and incorporate the more advantageous sleeve methods for my own benefit. It saved me time and maybe a few gray hairs, though the mirror begs to differ on that one.
Hopefully, there will be some advice here that will help set other sewers years ahead of my personal learning curve. Are you ready? Let’s do this–let’s discuss sleeves.
Different Types of Sleeves
I probably should mention that styles and patterns have evolved quite a bit over the last five decades. New, sewer-friendly ways of producing high-quality results are a boon for today’s beginning sewers.
As you shop at a local clothing store or peruse a pattern book, basic sleeve styles can be observed for formal, informal, and sportswear fashions. The most common types of sleeves today are:
Shirt sleeves are sewn into an armhole opening using a set-in or flat-sewn method. Although called shirt sleeves here, the description includes tops, dresses, and suit coat sleeves that are all similarly cut and assembled.
Grown-in sleeves are not separate pattern pieces at all but are cut as part of the whole garment. Simple tops and dresses with grown-in sleeves are popular among simple, beginner patterns.
These patterns naturally drape off the shoulder, often with a wide, cuff-folded edge as an accent. They’re suited for summery, loose-fitting styles ranging from slightly dress-up to informal/sporty.
Raglan sleeves are used for outdoor sportswear and indoor pajamas. The sleeves often begin at a ribbed t-shirt neckline and widen into the shoulder area, creating a diagonal seam from the underarm to the collarbone. Raglan sleeves are used with knit fabrics for greater mobility.
Raglan sleeves offer freedom of movement for demanding physical activity. Raglan-sleeved undershirts are often worn under the official jersey of sports professionals.
The KISS Method for Sleeves
Many of the more complicated sleeves are some variation of a set-in sleeve. For this article, I will cover the basics. Frills, gathers, and pleats can be included as a pattern demands or according to personal preference. I will do my very best to “keep it super simple” for foundational learning.
Set-in shirt sleeves are, indeed, the most foundational of sleeves. They are also the least favorite to deal with. And because there are so many body types to accommodate, they’re not always as comfortable as it seems they should be.
I recommend some research here. There are online tutorials instructing how to create a custom sleeve pattern piece. Once a well-fitting piece has been created, it can be stored away to adapt to any sleeved pattern. Serious sewers should also consider investing in a book on pattern making for easy reference.
Set-in sleeves are put in by first sewing the shoulder and side seams of the garment, creating a sleeve hole or arm scye. This hole can also be modified for some garments to ensure they won’t slip off the shoulders during increased activity, such as dancing.
After the garment is prepared to receive the sleeve, the underarm seam of the sleeve itself is also sewn, creating a tube shape. The top, or sleeve cap, will need to be adjusted to fit into the armhole space. Tabs or dots on the pattern indicate where to start and end baste stitching for a gathered sleeve cap.
Small pleats can be used instead of gathering, or one inverted box pleat at the apex of the sleeve cap. Pinning the sleeve with various options will help you decide which you like best.
Turn the body of the garment wrong-side-out and insert the sleeve into the hole so that right sides are together. Align the underarm seam and pin it in place. Match and pin at other pattern markers and the top of the sleeve cap. Then evenly distribute gathers or pin pleats in place.
Sew around with the sleeve facing upward. Sewing this way makes your machine’s free arm unusable but gives you more control of the garment pieces. Take your time, keeping the garment body flat and the sleeve lined up so no puckers appear. Finish the seam as necessary.
- It may not be possible to ease out all gathers in a set-in sleeve. Trying to do so may result in an uncomfortable fit or an odd pulling of the fabric pattern and grain. Pay close attention when purchasing a pattern if you prefer a sleeve with no gathers. Some are designed to be flat; others are not.
- Be very careful not to mix up the right and left sleeves. They are cut differently to fit the body properly. Clearly mark the pieces as necessary to prevent confusion.
- There are times, especially when working on more formal apparel, when a cheap muslin test garment can save the day. It can be used to determine any changes that need to be made for a proper fit and the wearer’s comfort.
Sew in Flat
My personal favorite way to sew in shirt sleeves is to use the flat method. I like it because there are no round armhole openings to limit accessibility. Sewing two flat pieces together is always easier, right?
Although I have read a few comments that flat sewing should be preserved mainly for stretchy fabrics, I have also purchased patterns that use this method for woven fabric, especially for less-dressy tops using fabric such as lightweight cotton.
It can also be easier to ease out any unwanted gathers when flat sewing a sleeve. It may still be necessary to baste gather threads to align the pattern pieces.
Sew shoulder, but not the side seams of the garment body. Do not sew the sleeve underarm seam. Pin the sleeve in place with the right sides together, lining up pattern markers and the center top of the sleeve as the pattern instructs.
Pull the gather threads just enough to bring the sleeve size down to where it needs to be. Pin evenly. Sew with the sleeve facing up so that it can be adjusted and eased into place.
Once the sleeves are sewn in place, line up the side seams with right sides together, aligning the sleeve-edge seams with seam allowances facing away from the garment body. Sew the sleeve underarm and garment side as one long seam.
Raglan sleeves are straightforward, and following pattern instructions will generally achieve the desired result. Since the Raglan style is used for stretchy fabric, use an appropriate needle and stitch for a smooth, flexible seam. If available, serge these seams.
Raglan sleeves were originally designed to accommodate changes in the shape of the shoulder area resulting from a lost limb. They can be made to fit about any body shape for comfort with less friction. This property has made the style popular for trained athletes with more developed musculature.
The More, the Better
I’ve just touched on the basics of sewing in sleeves. At the very least, there are dozens of style options to choose from. Knowing the basics opens the door to future creativity. Current fashions, vintage styles, cuffs, puffs, and billows are all possible with experience. There are even a number of books specializing in this vital aspect of garment making.
The best advice I can give to other sewers who don’t consider sleeves their friends is—make more of them. The more, the better. Be bold. Measure, measure, and measure some more until you’re familiar with how sleeve patterns fit and can be safely modified.
Before long, you can become a sleeve aficionado. Then you can teach others, probably better than I have, the enjoyment of all things sleeves.