16 February 2013

How to Insert a Sleeve

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

I’m going to show you how to insert a sleeve into an armhole using a classic method which adds fullness at the shoulder. I'm going to demonstrate on the Mathilde blouse sewing pattern - you can use the same method on many other sewing projects.

The theory

The reason we’re adding fullness at the shoulder is to help the fabric curve over your shoulder where it sticks out from your body. A sleeve head is often at least 2cm (3/4in) bigger than the armhole - on the Mathilde blouse it's even bigger to create more visible gathering as a design detail. This excess fabric is gathered in so the circumference of the sleeve head and armhole match when sewn together, creating volume in the fabric to accommodate your shoulder.

In case you’re interested, not all sleeves are inserted this way. Some sleeve heads don’t have any ease at all. An alternative method - often used in shirt-making and on jersey t-shirts - is to insert sleeves “on the flat”, in other words, stitched flat against the armhole before the bodice side seam and sleeve underarm sleeve are joined.

Anyway, that’s the theory over – let’s get on with the sewing!

The practical

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

While the sleeves are still flat, we're going to start by adding gather stitchers (or "ease stitches" if the sleeve is less gathered) on the head. Thread up your machine in a contrasting colour so it’ll be easy to identify and rip out the gather stitching later (it’s only temporary), and set the stitch length to 4mm.

Stitch three rows parallel to each other on the top of each sleeve. Your pattern will have either gather markings or notches showing you where to start and finish the stitching. I usually sew my first row 5mm (1/4in) from the raw edge, and then each subsequent row 7mm (1/4in) from the previous one. That way they don't overlap the seam line 15mm (5/8in) from the edge, so they're easier to unpick later. Don't back tack, and leave a few inches of thread at each end so you have something to pull on when it comes to gathering.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

If you’re making the Mathilde blouse, it also has gathering where the sleeves meet the cuffs, so stitch three rows of gather stitches at the sleeve hem too, beginning and ending about 25mm (1in) from each side seam.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

Stitch the sleeve underarm seams, finish and press. On the Mathilde blouse you can use French seams here if you like.

Now we’re going to align the sleeve and armhole. The way to check you’re putting the correct sleeve into its corresponding armhole is to look at the little notches you cut from your pattern (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check the pattern again). The front of the sleeve and armhole will have single notches; the back will have double notches.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

Align the sleeve and armhole, with the fabric right sides together. This can be a little confusing the first time you do it, but really all you need to do is hold the sleeve right sides out and turn the garment wrong side out on top of it so the right sides are matching. Then line up the two raw edges of the sleeve and armhole seams.

Pin the sleeve and armhole together - with the pins at right angles from the raw edge and the heads sticking out - at the following points:

- Where the sleeve underarm seam meets the bodice side seam
- Shoulder seam and central point on sleeve
- Sleeve and armhole notches (those single and double snips we were talking about earlier)
- Below the gather stitches (don't pin on top of the gather stitches just yet)

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

Pull on the gather stitches – gently tug on a trio of threads to bunch up the fabric. Keep doing this until the sleeve fits into the armhole, smoothing out the gathering as you go to spread it nice and evenly.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

Now stick as many pins in as you think you’ll need to help keep the gathers even. (Lots is good.)

If you’re super confident you can go right ahead and stitch. It’s a reeeeally good idea to tack (baste) first though to check you’re happy with your gathering. Tacking basically means sewing a practice run with long stitches (4mm) which are easy to rip out if you want to try again. Thread up your machine in a contrast colour so you can see the stitching easily and thus whip them out quickly. Tack just within the seam allowance - about 12mm (1/2in) from the edge - so your real stitches don’t end up directly on top.

When stitching, start at the underarm seam. Sew nice and slowly over the gathers so you can keep them evenly in place as you go. Come full circle to meet your starting point, making a couple of overlapping stitches to secure. The aim is to end up with even easing or gathering, with no pleats or puckers. If you need more help with sewing in sleeves, you can watch a detailed video on our online workshop, Sew Your Own Shirt or Shirt Dress.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

Once you’re happy with your tacking, rethread your machine in matching thread to your fabric, reset the stitch length to normal (2.2 - 2.4mm) and sew your real stitches. Now you can unpick your tacking and gathering stitches with a seam ripper.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

All that’s left to do now is finish your seam with zigzag stitch or an overlocker, and press it. When pressing the armhole, turn the garment inside out and press along the seam. If you want to you can press the seam in towards the sleeve, but try not to press the shoulder area, otherwise you’ll lose the fullness you’ve created with your gathers.

How to insert a sleeve - Tilly and the Buttons

Admire your hard work. Hooray! You set in a sleeve!

PS. If you'd like to get more tips and watch an up-close-and-personal video of a sleeve being sewn in, sign up to our online workshop, Sew Your Own Shirt or Shirt Dress.

28 comments:

  1. Well done on a great tutorial Tilly - as with the rest of this series, it's beautifully illustrated and explained in clear easy yo follow language.
    (P.S. I bought some grey Chambray yesterday to make my own blouse too ;)!)

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    1. Thanks Claire :) Ooh, grey chambray sounds lovely - really looking forward to seeing your blouse! x

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  2. This is an EXCELLENT explanation of the sleeve process on the Mathilde. It's so hard to write clear instructions and this is fabulous. How did you learn to write with such clarity?!

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    1. Thanks Karen. Writing, rewriting, pretending I was a sewing novice again to work out what I'd want to know, rewriting... ;)

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  3. Excellent tutorial, Tilly. I have to admit that I'm a lazy sewist, thus if I can possibly avoid it, I don't insert sleeves this way because flat is easier and faster!

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    1. I've only tried inserting on the flat once - I'd be curious to try it again.

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  4. Thanks Tilly! I needed this tutorial right about now. I had just declared that I was going to wear sleeveless garments for the rest of my life out of frustration! Cheers!

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    1. Hahaha! You can cover your arms - hooray!

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  5. I haven't tried this before - your tutorial is great! I'm thinking I'll have to fit in some gathered sleeves sometime time soon :)

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  6. Great tutorial. I just saw the blouse made up (and tweaked) on 'Did you make that?'. Lovely both ways.

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  7. Just joined this, I'm a (retired) Needlework teacher, and your instructions are nice and clear. Haven't seen the whole thing being made but have you said to iron after each stage to help prepare it for the next stage-it's much easier if the fabric lies flat for you to handle.
    Just one tip-when your'e starting out, it's easier to use a fabric which has a definite right and wrong side,intil your'e familiar with the shapes you are using. It's very easy with a fabric which looks the same both sides to get the pieces joined the wrong way round, unless you pin a label to each piece.

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  8. Thanks so much, this tutorial is so helpful! I've challenged myself to sew a blazer and the sleeves are one of things I'm not too sure on.

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  9. Thank you so much for this post, I have been tearing my hair out trying to fit sleeves to a shirt dress!

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  10. This sleeve has a great look, but it looks different than the set in sleeves I make.

    By no means is there one right way to do something, but I was taught to start the gather stitches at the armhole crossmarks, and then ease the sleeve all the way around the cap. This way you ease the sleeve cap for fit over the curve of the shoulder, but without visible gathers at the cap. This allows for better fit without having to change the design.

    Maybe this is just the way you like to do it? Or maybe particular to this garment?

    Just curious.

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    1. Yes, that's one way to do it. This sleeve has visible gathers as a design feature - I love this shape.

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  11. Dear Tilly,
    Thank you so much for this. I am making my daughter's First Communion dress--the first dress I've ever sewn--and I followed your directions and have one beautiful gathered sleeve set, and one to go! I am proud I was able to do it, but I am certain it is because of such great direction.
    Gratefully,
    A new dress maker (hopefully!)

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  12. I have a question-I have just a regular Singer machine-nothing fancy. I'm starting to sew (learned basics as a teen and sewed a few dresses for daughters when young) and refashion for myself. I know a serger does a nice finish of the edges, but does is sew a regular seam and finish at the same time? Don't know if this is something I need to invest in?

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  13. That's so cool! I just learned how to sew in my home ec class, but this is so cool!

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  14. I've just finished the Megan dress with the gathered sleeve which I made 3/4 length. The dress fits perfectly but I don't like the fullness of the sleeve. Is there a way to decrease the bulk in the gathers?

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  15. Hi. I've just finished the Megan dress too with the gathered sleeve and found one sleeve to be too puffy... just wondering what I could do to reduce it? I don't want to start again, but I will if that's the only solution. And a quick question - whilst I found the instructions very clear, I wasn't sure if all the gathering stitches had to be within the seam allowance - the main photo at the top on this blog suggests they can go past the seam allowance (as I suppose it doesn't matter as they are going to be removed anyway?)...
    But thanks for the clear instructions! I love how my Megan dress is turning out (still got to hem etc).
    Anneli

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    1. Hi Anneli! So it's just the one sleeve that you found too puffy? If you really don't like it, you could unpick that one and try again, smoothing out the gathers a bit more.

      The gather stitches can go over the seam allowance, yes, as you're going to remove them once the sleeve is set in.

      I hope this helps!

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    2. It does help, yes. Thank you! I will unpick and try again - and this time allow the gathers to go outside the seam allowance... And yes, just one sleeve was too puffy but as this was my first attempt at sleeves, I wasn't sure how they might turn out.
      Cheers
      Anneli

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  16. I know you said basting is a really good idea but is absolutely essential?! (I'm such a lazy sewer!)

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    1. Not at all! It's a good idea if you want to check the sleeve goes in with even easing and no puckers, but you certainly don't have to do it :) I did a course once on professional sewing techniques and we inserted sleeves with no basting, not even pinning!

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