sdsa: not-so-scary sleeves!

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

For most of my teenage years I had disaster after disaster with sleeves, particularly the set-in sort. I used to joke that I’d rather move to a tropical island and never have to sew another sleeve than wrangle with them. Well, fast forward a number of years and I think I hit the lightbulb moment when I finally figured out how to adjust sleeve patterns to actually fit an armhole. Many set-in sleeve patterns curiously have far too much ease, meaning them don’t ease smoothly and pucker-free. But after adjusting patterns and learning how to sew a set-in sleeve properly, it’s made a world of difference! So I hope perhaps this little section of the sew-along will help a few of you who also struggle with set-in sleeves as well (assuming there are others out there who were in the same predicament as I!).

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

We’ll need to do a little prep work before we get to actually sewing the sleeves to the armholes. Firstly, make sure you have some shoulder pads made up (I’m planning on covering mine with underlining fabric, but just had them in the intial, muslin-covered stage for this). You’ll also want to have one of the pressing aids* pictured above on hand; the large one is a pressing ham and the other is a sleeve roll. I prefer to use the sleeve roll for this, because my sleeve cap area is small and didn’t fit easily over the ham. But other will work.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Begin by running two lines of gathering stitches between the dots marked on the sleeve cap on either side above the notches. If you’re using a 1/2″ seam, run the first line of (basting-size; I use about a 4 on my machine) just shy of 1/2″ and the next about 1/4″ from the cut edge. Then follow the directions for sewing elbow darts (3/4 sleeve version only), the side seam and finishing the bottom edge as instructed in the directions for the Swing Dress.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Turn your dress right-side out, and pinning the sleeve to the armhole right sides together. (With the way the dress is positioned, this means that the sleeve is inside the dress.) I always start at the underarm seams, matching those and then working up to the beginning of the ease stitches that run along the cap of the sleeve.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Match the shoulder points on the sleeve and dress back/yoke; pin. You should notice that the front cap section that is unpinned has a bit less excess fabric than the back. This is because the back of the sleeve cap typically has a tiny bit more.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Gently pull up either end of the ease stitches to fit the cap to the armhole. Evenly spread out the ease so there are no folds or visible gathers. Pin about every 1/2″ apart to keep things secure.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Baste the sleeves by machine or hand, using long stitches along the seamline. Do not press the sleeves after basting! Check to make sure that there are no puckers on the outside of the sleeve cap (beyond the stitching line) or gathers that have been caught. If there are, take out a short section of basting, redistribute the fullness and re-baste.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Try on the dress to check the fit and hang of the sleeve (this is when you’ll want to slip those shoulder pads in if you opted for them). If anything isn’t draping right, undo the basting and redistribute the fullness or rotate the sleeve a bit until you’re satisfied.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Tie off the gathering stitches to secure them. The next step may seem a bit like extra work–and it is–but it really helps to give the set-in sleeve a bit more polish. (Note: this really only makes a difference if you are using a natural fiber that can shrink with steam. It’s pretty useless with polyester and other synthetics, so proceed with that in mind.) Carefully unpick all the basting stitches around the armhole, and remove the sleeve.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

With your iron set to a steam setting (you will not be pressing or touching the iron to the fabric, so a higher setting to produce a stream of steam is fine), place the sleeve cap on the ham/sleeve roll, so it gently curves over the ease stitching. Holding the iron above the cap, steam the ease stitches. As I mentioned above, this really only works on natural fiber materials (wool, silk, cotton, etc.), and will help shrink out some of the excess fullness at the cap both in the seam allowance and outside it. This, however, is not a remedy for getting rid of large gathers or sloppy easing–it only helps set the curve of the sleeve cap and erase a bit of the even easing that you did earlier.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Once you have steamed the ease out of both sleeve caps, re-pin the sleeves to the armholes, matching notches and shoulder points as before.

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Stitch the armhole seam, starting and ending at the underarm seam. For extra security, you can stitch a second row of stitches at the underarm about 1/16″ away from the first line of stitching (in the seam allowance).

02.22.11 | sdsa: not so scary sleeves!

Now steam your sewn-in sleeve using the sleeve roll in the cap to help give it some form and not crush it. I like to start by steaming the cap and seam, and then pressing (lightly!) it so the seam allowances are pressed toward the sleeve.

Whew–that was a bit of a challenge to type and explain! Hopefully it isn’t too intimidating; setting sleeves correctly is something that I have found really helps with the overall finished look of a garment. It’s a bit of time and effort, but will be worth it! You can tack in those shoulder pads now if you wish as the directions state, or wait until you do all the finishing work (I tend to wait… but there is no particular reason!).

Up next we’ll address the zipper and then it’s finishing work and downhill from there! How is your dress coming along?

*Don’t have a pressing ham? It’s one of those tools I can’t recommend highly enough to have in your sewing room; and really comes in handy for a wide array of pressing jobs while sewing. They can be pricey, but there are also a ton of great tutorials online! (This is just one of many, many tutorials out there–do a Google search for “how to make a tailor’s ham” for loads more!)

February 22, 2011 · 32 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing · tags: ,

Gina February 22, 2011 at 16:13

Thank you Casey, one question about hemming the sleeve, I noticed the tape you used, I have a bunch of this stuff, I know you sew it on the edge of fabric, fold up and iron into place, then what? Is that a blind hem done by machine or a whip-stitch? It looks really nice. Great job!

Casey February 22, 2011 at 16:39

I usually just hand-hem it using a whip stitch. I find it makes a really pretty, easy finish for the hem! :)

♥ Casey

Heather February 22, 2011 at 17:12

Wow casey, this is just amazing! I am no where near good enough at sewing to even attempt this, but I love watching your creation take form. Yesterday I made my first skirt for my daughter (so proud I totally blogged it!) and I’m pretty proud of myself. I hope to practice enough to some day be able to make some beautiful clothes, just like you do here!~

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:51

Aw, thank you so much Heather!!! :) The skirt you made your daughter is darling–I just love the prints (and the bunnies too!!! hehe!).

♥ Casey

Lisa February 22, 2011 at 17:33

Thank you SO MUCH for this… even though I have been sewing for a while this STILL challenges me – possibly my trying to force it by ironing instead of steaming is counter-productive. I also love how you tied the gathering stitches off on the pin – I never thought to do that!! I can’t wait to try it!!

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:52

Steaming is really the key with a lot of sewing–it’s only been in the past few years I’ve come to realize how useful steaming rather than pressing can be in certain situations. Now to eventually add one of those super-duper irons with a continuous steam feed to my workspace… lol.

♥ Casey

Faye Lewis February 22, 2011 at 17:56

The picture of the perfect sleeve.

elena gold February 22, 2011 at 18:17

this is a really wonderful tutorial, thank you very much! I am always looking for more detailed advice on how to set in sleeves, so this is really helpful. i sew reallly slowly, but i like to go slow and love to take that extra step to make it look great. (usually saves more time in the end anyway!) I really enjoy your blog too. :)

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:53

So glad you enjoyed this, Elena! Yeah, sometimes taking that little bit of extra time really does pay off. I tend to be a bit of an impatient sewer myself, but have started to make myself slow down a bit, and it really does pay off in the end! ;)

♥ Casey

Olivia Burton February 22, 2011 at 19:17

How do make it so you can’t see the hem on the sleeves? I am 14 years old and have been sewing for about 1-1/2 years (around the time I found your blog) You completely inspired me to do vintage sewing! And now I am completely hooked. Thank you! P.S. love the peplum pattern from the antique fair!

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:56

I’m so delighted that you’ve been inspired to take up some vintage sewing projects!!! :D The sleeve hem didn’t show through on this particular sleeve because I underlined the sleeves (you can read more about that here). After I attached the hem lace tape to the edge of the sleeve and folded under the sleeve allowance, I just whip stitched it to the underlining only–not catching the fashion fabric. It’s a bit harder to keep the hemming stitches from showing when I don’t have a layer of underlining, but even then if you take teeny, tiny nips of the outer fabric (just 2-3 threads should do!), it becomes a bit less visible. And pressing/steaming after hemming really helps too!

♥ Casey

Tammy February 22, 2011 at 19:24

Even though I’m not participating in this sew along, I’m enjoying reading along, and gathering tips.

My grandma, who was a professional seamstress, taught me a little trick for getting set-in sleeves sewn without puckers. If you have a 5/8″ seam (as most modern patterns call for), run your basting stitches at 1/2″ and 6/8″. Pull the basting thread to adjust, pin the sleeve in place, and as you’re sewing use the tip of your seamripper to adjust the gathers to either side of the seam. I almst never have to take out puckers from my sleeves when I use this method.

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:57

Great tip, Tammy! Thank you so much for sharing that–I am going to have to give that a try next time I sew a sleeve. ;)

♥ Casey

Paolla Wanglon February 22, 2011 at 19:49

You’re an angel! I just couldn’t make it look ok, I’ll try that right away!

Rebekah February 22, 2011 at 20:02

Hi Casey,

Set-in sleeves used to cause me so much trouble so you are absolutely not alone! There is one tip I wanted to share with you and your readers: try doing three rows of small machine basting stitches for the gathering stitches. I use a 2.5mm stitch (yes, that small!) and make the three rows 1/4″, 1/2″, and 3/4″ away from the fabric edge. I find that I have more control when distributing the sleeve cap fullness when done this way. The 3/4″ stitching will appear on the public side but it can be easily removed with a seam ripper.

I also found it better to keep most of the gathers between the shoulder “dot” (the mark that was transferred from the pattern tissue), and the two other dots on that are located between the shoulder seam and the armhole notches. Makes for a better fit and a lot of sleeve styles look better without gathers right near the shoulder seam.

Thanks for sharing this tutorial!

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:58

Great tips, Rebekah! I really appreciate you adding those here–I’m going to have to keep that small-stitch tip in mind. ;)

♥ Casey

Victoria / Justice Pirate February 22, 2011 at 20:52

wow that looks really hard. I guess with all that practice of failing and trying over and over you became a pro. this looks so beautiful. I really love it!!!

Casey February 23, 2011 at 08:58

It’s actually not as hard as it looks–just time consuming! ;) hehe!

♥ Casey

Tisha February 22, 2011 at 23:39


Those sleeves look marvelous! I had to grimace at your “teenage years of sleeve troubles” because I am having “20′s years of button hole trouble.” lol – My swing dress is nearly complete, but something happened today that I’m sure will take a few more days to iron out. My first attempt today at trying to sew button holes turned out awful. So for this dress, there’ll be no button holes — I am going to revise and put in a side zipper. I hope it’ll work. I blogged my entire fiasco today if anyone is interested in reading. :(

Casey February 23, 2011 at 09:02

Aw… I know that buttonholes can be a real pain sometimes! Nine times out of ten it’s the machine’s problem, imho. Did you interface the area that the buttonholes were going to go? That sometimes helps as well. I love those buttons you picked out though–they are so fun! At least you can just tack them to the shoulders and no one will ever be the wiser about the side button opening being converted to a zipper. ;)

♥ Casey

Elizabeth VP February 22, 2011 at 23:52

Wow, I wandered off on my own little tangent with the sleeves…all that fullness, for some reason I thought they were supposed to be gathered, so mine have little baby gathers all along the top. It probably came from the fact that I’ve been wearing a vintage blouse a lot lately that I think is late 30s-40s and it has gathered, puffed sleeves.
Then again, this is one of the few times I’ve actually closely followed a pattern. Usually I have an idea of what I want, find the closest pattern I can, and then just wing it, lol! I’m an incredibly cautious person, but when it comes to sewing, I seem to have daredevil tendencies…

Casey February 23, 2011 at 09:03

hehe! Sometimes it’s more fun to strike off on your own with sewing! ;) The sleeves may be gathered because one of the modifications I suggested for this pattern is adjusting the sleeve cap ease. Without the adjustment, the final sleeve cap does have gathers/fullness and is not the set-in style as illustrated. But either way (I’ve done sewn this with the gathers) it looks perfectly suitable for the era! ;)

♥ Casey

Renee February 23, 2011 at 01:59

Your dress fabric is so pretty and what a different look from the others like it.
Love the tutorial. I am going to make this dress eventually.

Kir February 23, 2011 at 02:01

Hi Casey, I was browsing Etsy tonight, and this immediately made me think of you. Isn’t it just gorgeous?

How I wish my waist was 3 inches smaller and my wallet a hundred dollars heavier!

Casey February 23, 2011 at 09:04

ACK! So beautiful! But why do so many of those dresses have to have 22″ waists?! lol. Always a few inches too small. lol. So close, yet even in a corset I can’t get my waist that small. haha!

♥ Casey

Anna Depew February 23, 2011 at 05:27

Casey, your seam edges are finished so nicely! Do you have a serger?

Casey February 23, 2011 at 09:05

Thank you! Yes, I serged all my seams previous to starting construction. I just have a Brother 1034D; a basic, inexpensive one, but it does the job!

♥ Casey

Trudy Callan February 23, 2011 at 09:28

Wow! That was such a great tutorial. I had never heard of taking out the basting stitches and steaming it, then putting the sleeve back. I am so glad to know how to do this. Thank you for taking the time.

Shalyn McFaul February 23, 2011 at 19:11

I *DO* struggle with set-in sleeves! Thank you much for this helper.

Jojo February 27, 2011 at 12:49

I’m so excited to see the result of this sew-along, hopefully all the participants will show their results, too, it would be so much fun to see how different a pattern can be interpreted.

Megan March 4, 2011 at 10:27

Hi Casey,
Thanks so much for posting this tutorial. I just finished putting my sleeves in! It was my first time, so it took a while. However, I’m really pleased with the results! It’s great to have such detailed directions-a great supplement to the pattern directions.

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