demystifying sleeve ease

The idea of a sleeve ease tutorial was so popular in yesterday’s post (thank you all!) that I spent some of my sewing time in the evening putting together a little tutorial. I used the Sense and Sensibility Swing Dress pattern as an example in this post, but this would work for any pattern that has a set-in sleeve and shoulder line that ends at the natural shoulder (in other words, this isn’t for a dropped shoulder or any other sort of style). As you will see, it’s a super easy adjustment to make–and I’m so glad I figured it out this year because no more crying over set-in sleeves that have too much ease and don’t look like the envelope! Hurrah!

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

Firstly, you’ll need a few supplies: your pattern, tape or pins, a tape measure, pencil, paper scissors, some scratch paper, and a few minutes of time.

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

Begin by taping or pinning together the front and back shoulder, overlapping the seam allowances. If your shoulder includes fullness, just ignore it–you want to just establish a smooth line around the armhole.

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

Take your tape measure and measure around the armhole curve. Subtract the front and back underarm seam allowances. Note down this measurement.

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

Take the sleeve pattern piece and measure from underarm seam, over the cap, to the opposite underarm seam. Subtract both the underarm seam allowances. Note this measurement down.

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

Now compare both the armhole and cap measurements. Sleeve caps that are set-in should have about 2″ of ease in addition to the armhole measurement (although I like slightly less if I’m using a synthetic or difficult to ease/shrink fabric) at maximum. Any more and you’ll get gathers rather than barely-there ease. The goal is to have some extra fabric to help give the cap a gently curved shape to fit over the shoulder, but the ease should be hidden in the seam allowance and not show up on the cap once sewn. If your cap has more than 2″, note this difference down.

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

Begin by reshaping the cap with the pencil. I’d suggest tracing the sleeve pattern first if you don’t want to do this on the actual pattern. I freehand this, but you could also use a curved ruler. I always start by taking off excess at the top of the cap and then the sides–the goal is not to take off so much that either the cap is distorted or too tight.

12.08.10 | demystifying sleeve ease

You will want to remeasure the newly drawn cap (don’t cut it out yet!) with the tape measure as you go. Once you get to that armhole + 2″ ease measurement, stop. Look at the sleeve cap and compare it to the original to make sure it hasn’t been distorted. Make sure to transfer all markings (dots, notches, etc.) within the new sleeve cap seam allowance.

Cut along the new cap line and you’re ready to go! I’d recommend doing a muslin if you’re unsure as to your changes. Sometimes a cap is tricky and it takes a couple tries, but this technique really helps eliminate some of those fitting frustrations with sewing sleeves!

December 8, 2010 · 41 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing,tutorials · tags: , ,

Lori December 8, 2010 at 08:18

Thank you! I just received this exact pattern yesterday and plan to tackle the dress this weekend! I will try your method straight away as I always have difficulty with the easing of set in sleeves.

Casey December 8, 2010 at 14:49

So glad this was timely, Lori!!! I knew there was a reason I felt the urge to get this tutorial up sooner rather than later. ;) hehe!

♥ Casey

MrsExeter December 8, 2010 at 08:52

This is so useful – I can now do the measurements before I even cut a muslin, and get a heads-up as to whether or not I’m likely to encounter sleeve head issues. Thank you so much.

Gina December 8, 2010 at 09:04

Thanks, I have learned so much from your web site. Sometimes when looking at a pattern you wonder about these types of special tricks to make it work, somehow these girls from yesteryear were able to sew beautiful garments. They knew the how’s! Sometimes something as simple as inverted pleats, boxed pleats or gathers can be a bit bewildering to a new sewer. It’s these little “know hows” that make a huge difference in a garment you want to wear and one you hide in your closet but won’t wear or throw out because you spend time and money on it. I would love to hear more on anything you have struggled through and found a solution to in your sewing projects. Thanks so much for ALL your help and fantastic ideas!!

Casey December 9, 2010 at 07:44

Thank you so much, Gina! :) You’re so sweet. I’ll definitely keep some more fitting/sewing tips type posts in mind going forward… I know over the years that has been one thing I’ve really made an effort to learn: how to make a garment that I don’t want to hide in the closet! Because there have been a lot of duds over the years… ;)

♥ Casey

Christine Hand December 8, 2010 at 09:16


Thanks so much for the tutorial! As soon as finals are over, I’m definitely trying this.



Renee December 8, 2010 at 09:38

Thank you. That was excellent.

I’m thinking about ordering that pattern for my daughter.

nuranar December 8, 2010 at 09:46

Casey, this is so helpful! I’ve struggled a lot myself with set-in sleeves that are flat out too big for the armholes. I know conceptually how to go about redrawing a sleeve head, but I wasn’t sure that just making the curve shallower would work. I was envisioning slashing and overlapping and all sorts of nasty things. This is way easier! :D

I am a little confused about the initial measurements, when you measure along the very edge of both sleeve head and armhole curve. It seems to me that those measurements should be taken along the stitching lines, not along the edge. Since the sleeve head is significantly convex and the armhole is significantly concave, that means that edge measurements for the sleeve head are actually greater than the stitching line, and for the armhole are smaller than the actual stitching line.

Taking your example numbers, the armhole stitching line could be more like 17.5″ than 17″, and the sleeve head more like 20.5″ than 21″. Now the total ease is actually 3″. (I’m totally guessing that it would be a .5″ difference. The point is that the ease would be less than 4″.) In which case the alteration results in a sleeve with only 1″ of ease, not 2″. Which probably explains why your sleeves look so good!

Does that explain why I’m confused, though? Now that I know the method (I love your clear pictures!) it will be much simpler to correct sleeves like this. But it’s still the ideal amount of ease I’m not clear about. And to me, measuring along the edge introduces an element of uncertainty that makes it harder for me to figure it out?

Or am I totally misreading it and you mean for the edge measurements to use up some of the extra ease anyway? Sometimes I over-think things!

Casey December 8, 2010 at 14:47

Hi! Thanks for your comment–I’m so glad this tutorial is potentially helpful! :)

Let me see if I can answer your question… You could take the measurements along the stitching line–rather than the cut edge as I have–but I have found this really doesn’t alter the final outcome at all. Believe me, I’ve tried both ways to see if there is a difference–and this one is just a bit quicker than having to mark off the seam allowance over the curved edges. Does that make sense? I’m not sure I fully understood your question, so if I’ve totally missed the point, please tell me! :)

The ideal amount of ease for a set-in sleeve is 1″ to 2″. I err towards greater on fabrics that I know I can easily steam shrink the excess from prior to setting them. While with fabrics that are tough to shrink I tend more towards 1″ of ease to reduce the possibility of any puckers/gathers.

I’d suggest trying this on some scrap fabric first, if you’re unsure about how it’ll go–I’m always an advocate of muslin first then cut your fashion fabric! ;)

Hope I explained things a bit–if you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!

♥ Casey

nuranar December 8, 2010 at 17:03

That makes total sense! That’s something I couldn’t figure out without a lot of experimenting, which you’ve already done. Yay! It’s exactly what I was wondering. Thank you very much! :)

Casey December 9, 2010 at 07:32

Glad I could explain it a bit more!!! :)

♥ Casey

Debi December 8, 2010 at 10:25

Fabulous Casey! Thanks so much!!!

Little Black Car December 8, 2010 at 10:39

Awesome. I’ve fiddled a bit with this before, with wearable, though less-than-ideal, results. Good to see it from somebody who has a better handle on it than I do!

Judy December 8, 2010 at 11:00

Great tutorial! Sleeves can be tough. It’s great to have it broken down and explained this well!

Joanie December 8, 2010 at 11:23

This dress is so pretty and modern looking.Thank you for the tutorial. It will come in handy as soon as I get the courage to tackle a 40s pattern. Ha. I like that sweater too btw.

Amy December 8, 2010 at 11:27

Also remember when re-drawing the sleeve cap that the front and back of the cap are different! Such a pain in the butt when the pattern companies do this, thanks for posting!

Casey December 8, 2010 at 14:48

Good point! Which is why you really want to pay attention to how the curve of the sleeve edge is on the front and the back; they rarely mirror each other exactly!

♥ Casey

Erin December 8, 2010 at 12:06

Thank you! This is so useful!

Lauren December 8, 2010 at 12:41

This is great! Thanks, Casey!

Jacquie December 8, 2010 at 16:32

OK, I HATE sleeves… haha, but I will be sure to try this method out next time a sleeve comes my way! (book marking =)!!!)
Also, if interested, i always remember that the curvier the seam line, the larger. (this has helps me personally when it comes to making the seam line for the sleeve & when taking the measurements. Good for you for eyeballing it, I don’t know what i would do w/o my french curve…)
Thanks for sharing, your dress looks wonderful as do you!

Casey December 9, 2010 at 07:41

I used to hate sleeves with a passion too! In fact, I do remember declaring to one of my sewing friends I had decided that I needed to move someplace tropical so I could just make sleeveless garments. lol. This has definitely helped put sleeves and I back on speaking terms. ;)

♥ Casey

lap December 8, 2010 at 16:57

My usual method is to just ease off the too big sleeve cap which has almost always worked for me, but it’s nice to see that I’m not too far off in my slapdash alterations as if I did it carefully. (Which is not to say that I’m not extremely lucky in having luck without any science to my method-lol). This is a great tutorial. Thanks for being willing to hand hold Casey!

Casey December 9, 2010 at 07:42

I’ve done that too, and it’s worked as well! :) I just find that this way I tend to avoid any of the classic “Casey mishaps” that tend to plague me… like absent-mindedly easing off too much on one sleeve and not enough on the other… Don’t laugh–it’s happened. ;)

♥ Casey

Miss P December 8, 2010 at 18:46

Fabulous! Am drafting my first full pattern and this has really helped set me at ease ( I was a teeny bit anxious) about tackling the sleeve caps. You are the very definition of fabulousness!!! Thank you!!
Miss P

fangaroni December 8, 2010 at 20:15

Thanks for the picture tutorial… it finally makes sense! I never knew how to go about removing excess sleeve ease, so I will definitely be referring to this post in the future

Elizabeth VP December 8, 2010 at 20:52

Thank you so much for this tutorial! I run into this problem a lot because I’m petite, and a too-full sleeve cap just makes me look shorter and out of proportion.
And muslin is becoming my favorite sewing tool these days–I’m seriously considering just buying a bolt to keep on hand. Along with solving fitting issues, it’s a great way to do a practice run and work out any construction details I can’t visualize.

Casey December 9, 2010 at 07:45

Glad this could be helpful, Elizabeth! :) I definitely have been known to go into the fabric store and just buy a whole, unopened bolt of muslin! It lasts me a few months and that eliminates the excuse of not having muslin and winging it on a project. ;) Totally worth a little investment and taking up space in your sewing stash!

♥ Casey

Julie December 9, 2010 at 13:05

Sometimes Joanns will have muslin on sale for 99 cents/yd. I’m waiting for that again!

lizajane December 8, 2010 at 23:05

This is exactly what I needed to see! Thanks for the pictures. I’m so glad to hear you freehand drawing curves, too.

Casey December 9, 2010 at 07:47

Glad this was helpful, Liza Jane! :) Freehanding the curves is one of my “good-bad habits”… For years I didn’t have a curved ruler, then bought one, lost it and finally bought a new one this year. Eyeballing the curved edge worked pretty well, though not as precisely–but I still do it even though I have the “proper” tools! lol.

♥ Casey

bunny December 9, 2010 at 11:51

I have the same exact pattern…I have to try this from a long time now, but this period I’m so lazy…
I also wanted to invite you to the first giveaway in my blog…if you want to enter you will be more then welcome!!!

Julie December 9, 2010 at 13:10

I am joining the chorus of thank yous! I learn visually and sometimes all the written instructions in the world don’t help. Your post has just the right blend of the two with clear pictures and well written prose. Keep them coming. Your blog is in my Google Reader and I read it faithfully!

Claire (aka Seemane) December 10, 2010 at 18:27

I’m joining this party late, but thank you Casey for this fab tutorial.
I have to say that the very idea of working with sleeves & setting-in / easing in makes me shudder just a little (I’m a novice sewer – can you tell ;) LOL).
I’ve bookmarked this page for future use, along with a mentla note to but a tonne of medium-weight calico (muslin) when I can find some, and somewhere to store it (hehe!).

Pamela December 12, 2010 at 16:52

I love seeing posts like this! I’ve just finished a pattern making class and now things make sense! It’s so exciting! I am taking a class next semester where I get to create a fashion line. Your blog is great inspiration! Thanks!

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