vintage sewing techniques: shoulder pads

[ a simple shoulder pad improves the line of the left shoulder and sleeve drape. ]

Admittedly, shoulder pads still conjure up images of bad 80s linebacker fashion for most people; self included for a long time. But if you spend any length of time sewing vintage patterns, you probably will start to notice that a large number of patterns from the 1930s through 50s include shoulder pads on their list of supplies needed. This is especially so for the 40s, my favorite era, as the silhouette at that time leaned towards broad shoulders enhanced with padding. While some of it got a bit too wide for my 21st century tastes, many styles from earlier decades do benefit from a bit of help in the shoulder structure. A good illustration is the image above: note that the left shoulder seems a bit more crisp and finished with a shoulder pad underneath, while the right sleeve and shoulder fabric hangs oddly. Even a moderate-sized pad can add just that little bit of “umph” a shoulder line needs, while still keeping within our modern tastes. I’m going to show you how to make your own shoulder pads–which means you can customize them completely–based on vintage methods.

The supplies you need are:

  • cotton or wool quilt batting (I don’t recommend polyester for this)
  • muslin/plain cotton
  • paper
  • paper scissors, ruler, pencil
  • fabric scissors, needle, thread, pins
  • sewing machine or serger (opt.)

Begin by drawing a 7″x7″ square on the paper. Mark the straight grainline parallel to one edge. Make a dashed, diagonal line from one corner to another.

Cut out two squares of the fabric, and three of the batting (note: I wrote four on the pattern piece, but tends to give a really full pad; three layers is usually sufficient).

Stack the three batting squares atop each other and cut diagonally from corner to corner (following the dashed line made on the paper pattern. I usually just eye this, but you can mark a line if you’d like.). Pin each wedge together to keep the layers from shifting. Trim down each of the shorter sides 1/4″. Then grade the topmost two layers on each wedge another 1/4″ along the short sides. Repeat another 1/4″ on the top layer’s short sides. This grades the edges of the batting a bit so there is a gentle build up of padding from the neckline to shoulder edge.

[ the batting inserted into the fabric triangle. ]

[ slipstitching the edges together. ]

There are three ways you can finish the shoulder pad. The first is without the aid of a sewing machine or serger. Press all the edges of each fabric square under 1/8″. Fold in half diagonally (mimicking the dashed line on the pattern piece) so the raw edges are inside; lightly press. Place each batting wedge inside the little fabric triangles. Pin together the edges so they conceal the batting. Whipstitch or slipstitch the edges together.

[ pinning the layers before serging. ]

[ the short edges of the wedge have been serged. ]

The second and third methods start the same: Fold one of the fabric squares in half, diagonally from corner to corner (again, mimicking that dashed line on the pattern piece) and lightly press. Place each of the batting wedges inside the fabric triangles. Pin the edges together (if you’re using a serger, remember that your pins need to be away from the edges!). If you’re using a serger, just sew up one side with the raw edge, cut the thread, and then the other raw edge. You can secure the thread tails with a knot and trim.

[ pinned to sew short edges closed with a conventional machine. ]

[ edges have been straight stitched and then gone over with a zig zag. ]

If you don’t have a serger, you can use a regular sewing machine. Straight stitch the raw edges together, pivoting at the point. Switch to a zig zag stitch and stitch so that you catch the edge of the fabric in each stitch. Secure threads.

[ pinning a small dart on the underside of the pad to shape. ]

Usually I find that with a little steam and my tailor’s ham, I can start to get the pad to gently curve to the shape of a shoulder. However, you can also take a small dart on the underside of each pad (taking up the fabric only in the dart–see image), to create a downward curve. It’s easiest to handstitch this, I’ve found.

This is how you make a basic shoulder pad. Additionally, you can cover this with a layer of fabric that matches your dress or lining material, which adds to the finish (and keeps the shoulder pad in good shape).

[ pad pinned to shoulder of my dressform. ]

To attach the pads, pin them in place on your garment at the shoulder and try on to ensure that they create a flattering line (adjust if necessary). The long, folded edge should face the sleeve and the point should face the neckline. Hand stitch at the shoulder seam in the seam allowances. Alternatively, if you want the option to remove the pads, add snaps to the pad and shoulder seam allowances.

This is super easy, and as I mentioned, allows for a lot of customization of the shape and amount of padding. But what if you have a sheer dress, or something with puffed sleeves? Up next I hope to discuss how to create a gathered sleeve head to support the fullness of a sleeve–stay tuned for that!

July 21, 2010 · 17 lovely thoughts
posted in tutorials · tags: ,

m July 21, 2010 at 10:38

FWIW, I’ve seen contrast shoulder pads on sheer garments….You could even do a fun print for a really great conversation starter….

Tasia July 21, 2010 at 12:57

Great tutorial! So much better (and more authentic!) than the synthetic foamy pads in fabric stores. Bookmarking for future reference :)

Rosie July 21, 2010 at 13:20

Love love love this article! I sort of like shoulder pads, but I don’t want to look wonky, and now I know how to make them just the size I want.

Kathy July 21, 2010 at 14:35

Thanks for posting this tutorial Casey. I still have some resistance to shoulder pads, but it is nice to know I can easily make them myself and not look like I am reliving the 80s!

Catherine July 21, 2010 at 15:15

Great tutorial! I’m terrified of shoulder pads but much like my fear of buttonholes, I suspect it might be a bit irrational! ;) Is that the Sencha blouse at the top there, or a different top?

Also, I’m curious how shoulder pads may (or may not) have changed through the different eras. Or whether they were used at all during some vintage periods?

The Cupcake Goddess July 21, 2010 at 18:30

This is also great for jackets as I personally think that all modern jackets benefit from shoulder padding. They make things look less droopy and add to the professionalism of the look and style of a garment. Great tutorial!

Briana July 21, 2010 at 19:53

Great tips! Unfortunately I am a broader-shouldered female and don’t necessarily look for bulk in the shoulders… But I’m loving the sewing world and the idea of fashioning shoulder pads on my own sounds fabulous! :) Great tips!

bonita July 21, 2010 at 20:28

This is a great tutorial, thank you so much for sharing this Casey!

b. of Depict This!

Ashley July 21, 2010 at 23:57

AHH! Just in time! Thank you for this! I am currently remaking an aweful 80′s prom dress int a 40′s style frock for a play I’m in (the costumer knows I sew (though mostly just basics) and threw it at me saying “have at it!”) and it currently suffers from horrid leg’o'mutton sleeves! This is just what I needed to finish the new sleeves! Thank you!

Renee July 21, 2010 at 23:59

Very good tutorial. Your top shows how the right kind of shoulder pad can make a top look so much nicer.

Mugsy July 22, 2010 at 08:39

Thank you so much for the shoulder pad tute! This should make life a whole lot easier!

Jesslyn July 22, 2010 at 10:29

Great tutorial! Neat and thin pads really can make all the difference in a shoulder line.

Nancy July 24, 2010 at 09:33

Casey – I wish shoulder pads back right away – they make garments fit so much better. Thanks for sharing this vital techique. Look forward to your blog. Thanks for your time

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