Unless you live in tank tops, sewing sleeves is a skill that you eventually need to get comfortable with.
The right to bare arms is fundamental, of course, but there are lots of fashionable ways to conceal those guns.
Let’s, for a second, consider what are the different types of sleeves to sew:
- Leg of mutton
- And the list continues…
Please don’t let this list overwhelm you, because when you get down to it, there are only three — yes, three! — types of sleeves in this wacky stitching world:
- Set-in sleeves
- Raglan sleeves
- Grown-on sleeves
All the sleeve types listed up there are pattern hacks of set-in, raglan, or grown-on sleeves. Sounds impossible, but it’s true.
In this article, you will discover tips and tricks for sewing the three main types of sleeves. Time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
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The Most Common Sleeve: Set-In (Basic) Sleeve
OK, close your eyes and picture a sleeve.
The sleeve you pictured — with a circular seam that attaches to the armhole in the body of a shirt — is a set-in sleeve.
Set-in sleeves can be one piece or have two pieces; you might see a two-piece set-in sleeve in a suit jacket.
Below is what a set-in sleeve pattern piece generally looks like:
Good Things to Know About a Set-In Sleeve
Take a good look at the sleeve pattern piece. The sleeve cap is notched in three places.
The notch at the top of the sleeve cap is not (necessarily) the center. The notch at the top marks the shoulder seam.
The slope with one notch is the front of the sleeve. This notch will meet up with the front bodice pattern piece.
The slope with two notches is the back of the sleeve. These two notches will meet up with the back bodice pattern piece.
In sewing pattern land, two notches always indicate the back. It took me an unreasonably long time to notice this convention.
(P.S. In a sleeve pattern piece, there probably will be notches on the underarm, too, but they’re not as important as the sleeve cap notches — you’ll see!)
Sleeve Cap Ease
Ease: the extra space baked into a sewing pattern so your body can move in a garment.
Let’s talk about ease as it relates to sleeves.
There’s ease in the sleeve cap because it needs to cover a round, 3-D shoulder.
A sleeve is eased between the front (single) and back (double) notches on the sleeve cap.
You’ll notice with most sleeve pattern pieces that the front slope is more extreme than the back slope.
That’s because the back of your arm doesn’t need as much ease vs. the front of your arm. The range of motion of your arm is much greater in the front.
To save yourself headaches when sewing a set-in sleeve, it’s important to measure the seam of the armscye (fancy talk for armhole — pronounced “arms eye”) and the seam of the sleeve cap.
Draw in the seams on the sleeve and armholes. With a flexible measuring tape, measure the seams.
Do not measure the edge of the pattern piece! You must measure the distance of the seam allowance from the edge and then mark the seam at this distance.
The sleeve cap seam is longer than the armhole seam. The extra length is the ease that needs to be eased into the armhole.
For a tightly woven fabric, the ease should be about 1 inch longer than the armhole. For a loosely woven fabric, the ease should be about 1.5 inches longer.
How to Remove Sleeve Cap Ease
The following knowledge about sleeve caps and ease is adapted from Barbara Emodi’s amazing book, “Stress-Free Sewing Solutions: A No-Fail Guide to Garments for the Modern Sewist.” Run, don’t walk, to get this wonderful reference guide.
If the sleeve cap seam is more than 1 inch (or 1.5 inches, depending on your fabric) longer than the armhole, easing that sucker is going to make you angry. It’s going to be a fight the whole way through (ask me how I know).
(BTW, if the sleeve cap is the same length or shorter than the armscye, measure again! No ease = that sleeve will never, ever work.)
So, what does Emodi tell us to do? Remove length (ease) from the sleeve cap, in a very specific way.
1.) Cut off the sleeve cap from the rest of the sleeve pattern piece.
2.) Slash the sleeve cap in three places:
- Approximately halfway between the front notch and shoulder notch
- Straight down from the shoulder notch
- Approximately halfway between the shoulder notch and back notch
Do not slash through the bottom edge of the sleeve cap. Slash TO but not THROUGH.
3.) Take the excess ease and remove it from the four sleeve cap pieces EQUALLY by overlapping and taping down the three slashes.
For example, if the excess ease were three-quarters of an inch, each of the three slashes would overlap one quarter.
4.) Tape everything back together (slashes and sleeve cap to the rest of the sleeve pattern piece). True the sleeve pattern piece as necessary. (The above pattern piece has not been trued.)
Two things about Emodi’s method:
👉 If you only take one thing away from this article, please let it be how to measure and remove sleeve cap ease. Always, always, always measure the sleeve cap and armhole seams.
👉 You might see on the internet that you can remove sleeve cap ease by flattening the cap. Here’s what Emodi says about that technique:
“I used to do this, but I found that this method tended to really distort the shape, and comfort, of the sleeve. Reducing the length of the sleeve cap seam evenly with slashing and overlapping does a better job of shrinking that cap but keeps the original sleeve design.”
RELATED: Flat Pattern Measuring for Fit Adjustments
Basic Process of Sewing Sleeves in the Round
Here’s a quick-and-dirty overview of how to sew set-in sleeves in the round. This process is used primarily on woven fabrics.
1.) Sew easing stitches in the sleeve cap between the front and back notches.
- Make the easing stitches long — 4 mm and longer.
- Leave the thread tails long. You will be pulling them to adjust the length of the sleeve cap, so they need to be able to wrap around your fingers.
- Sew at least two lines of easing stitches. I like to make a “runway” for my seam with easing ¼ inch above the seam (in the seam allowance) and ¼ below the seam.
2.) Do some preliminary easing of the sleeve cap with the easing stitches. Pull them until the cap is the same length as the armhole.
- This doesn’t have to be perfect, because you’ll further divide/even out/refine the ease as the cap is pinned to the armhole.
3.) Once the cap is the same length as the armhole, place one pin at the back notch and one pin at the front notch. Wrap the long thread tails around the pins in a figure 8.
- This locks your ease adjustment.
4.) Sew underarm seam.
- Match notches as needed as you sew the sleeve tube, right sides together.
3.) Pin the sleeve to the armhole.
- Pinning sleeves into armholes can get confusing; it’s easy to mix up left, right, right side, wrong side.
- To ensure success, remember that:
✅ Right sides always face each other.
✅ Double notches are for the back, single notches are for the front.
✅ Right side / double notch / sleeve + Right side / double notch / armhole = 💗
✅ Right side / single notch / sleeve + Right side / single notch / armhole = 💗
- Adjust ease evenly by subdividing the fabric while pinning to the armscye.
✅ I like to pin the notches, then pin a spot in the seam “runway” about halfway between each set of notches and evenly divide the ease between the notches.
✅ I keep subdividing with pins until I’m happy with the ease.
4.) Sew the sleeve to the armhole.
- I use the runway between the easing stitches to guide the seam location.
- To make sure I don’t have puckers in the seam, as I’m sewing I pull on opposite sides of the seam runway to take advantage of bias stretchiness.
5.) Remove easing stitches.
RELATED: 10 Advanced Tips for Fitting a Sewing Pattern By Yourself
How Fabric Affects Set-In Sleeves
Fabric impacts how set-in sleeves can be sewn.
For example, with most knits, you can sew a sleeve cap to an armhole flat vs. in the round.
To sew a sleeve flat, you:
1.) Sew the shoulder seam (to complete the top of the armhole).
2.) Sew the sleeve cap to the armhole (with matching notches and easing, natch).
3.) Sew the side seam and underarm seam together, from bottom hem to the sleeve hem.
You can sew knit sleeves flat because the stretch of knits makes them easier to ease vs. wovens. I will say, though, you can sew some woven sleeves flat, too. I think sewing woven sleeves flat works best with lighter weight, more loosely woven fabrics. Try it and see for yourself. You’re the boss, boss.
Now, there are some woven fabrics that just don’t do great as set-in sleeves, period. In “Stress-Free Sewing Solutions,” Emodi calls out silk dupioni specifically as her “nightmare” set-in sleeve fabric. That’s because silk dupioni has a lot of body and resists shaping.
Emodi advises that fabrics with malleability — fabrics that react well to heat and steam — are good choices for set-in sleeves.
In the book, Emodi even encourages sewists to rethink a sewing pattern choice if they’re dead-set on a fabric that’s frustrating for set-in sleeves.
Going back to the silk dupioni example, a pattern with a raglan sleeve (keep reading to learn about raglan sleeves!) or pleats at the sleeve cap would be a better love match vs. a pattern with high and tight set-in sleeves.
“Being smart about fabric and patterns will head off much sleeve-setting angst,” Emodi says.
RELATED: Easy Fabrics to Sew: 8 Forgiving Fabrics
The Sporty Sleeve: Raglan Sleeve
OK, close your eyes again.
Picture a retro baseball shirt.
The sleeve that extends from the neck and covers the shoulder is a raglan sleeve.
Raglan sleeves can be one or two pieces, and a basic raglan sleeve pattern pieces looks like this:
Here’s some trivia for you: Raglan sleeves are named for British Lord Raglan, who lost an arm at the Battle of Waterloo. Lord Raglan wore overcoats with one raglan sleeve, because the larger and looser armhole gave him better overall range of movement vs. a set-in sleeve.
Even today, you tend to see raglan sleeves in sewing patterns for more comfy, casual, sporty clothes — sweaters and sweatshirts, T-shirts, thermal/henley-type tops, activewear, etc.
How to Sew Raglan Sleeves
Compared with set-in sleeves, there’s not a lot to write about how to sew raglan sleeves. That’s because raglan sleeves are sewn flat, and there’s (basically) no easing.
The basic steps to sew a raglan sleeve are:
1.) Match notches and sew the front of the sleeve to the front bodice, right sides together.
2.) Match notches and sew the back of the sleeve to the back bodice, right sides together.
3.) Right sides together, match notches and sew the bodice side seam and underarm sleeve from bottom hem to sleeve hem.
Notes About Sewing Raglan Sleeves
👉 Because the long diagonal seams of the raglan sleeve are on the bias, be careful as to not stretch the fabric.
👉 Be accurate when matching the top of the sleeve with the rest of the neck opening.
👉 There *could* be some minor easing of the underarm seam. According to “Patternmaking for Fashion Design,” you may need to ease the back underarm from the bottom of the armhole to elbow level. This wee bit of easing will help “bend” the elbow.
Beyond that, though, sewing raglan sleeves is extremely straightforward.
The Easy Sleeve: Grown-On Sleeves
For the final time, close your eyes.
Picture the T-shirt emoji:
It looks like the letter “T.”
Notice how you don’t see seams on the front of this shirt. That means it can’t have set-in sleeves or raglan sleeves — which means it has grown-on sleeves.
Grown-on sleeves are sleeves that stretch out of the front and back bodice; they “grow” out of the bodice. Here are some technical drawings of bodices with grown-on sleeves:
You’ll sometimes hear this type of sleeve called extending or dolman. Probably the most common thing to which they are referred is kimono sleeves.
But, because kimonos are an important cultural emblem to the Japanese (and cultural sensitivity is kind and respectful!), grown-on sleeves is the best term to use.
How to Sew Grown-On Sleeves
Grown-on sleeves are the easiest to sew, because you don’t have a separate sleeve piece to stitch to the bodice.
The basic process for sewing grown-on sleeves is:
1.) Sew shoulder seams.
2.) Sew side seam and underarm seam.
Sie Macht’s Cass T-shirt (see below) has grown-on sleeves because I wanted to design a top that was easy and fast to sew. And now you can see how fast it is to stitch a bodice with this style of sleeve.
One complicating factor in sewing grown-on sleeves is that sometimes you’ll see an underarm gusset in a grown-on bodice. Triangular gussets increase the range of movement for close-fitting grown-on sleeves.
What About Drop Sleeves?
Drop sleeves are a combo of grown-on and set-in sleeves.
In a drop-sleeve pattern, part of the sleeve cap is moved to the bodice to make room for your shoulder. So, in this way, a drop sleeve is like a grown-on sleeve.
But, then what’s left of the sleeve cap (and sleeve) is sewn flat to the armhole of the bodice in a seam that’s more like a set-in sleeve.
Finally, the side seam and underarm are sewn in one pass (like a grown-on sleeve).
Final Thoughts About Sewing Sleeves
I think sewing sleeves is easier after you have a bit more background on the “why” of this pattern piece, especially in the case of set-in sleeves.
Breaking down what are the different types of sleeves to three primary players — set-in, raglan, and grown-on — helps sewists to look at sleeved garments in a more knowledgeable way. After my deep dive into sleeves, I’m more excited than ever to experiment with different hacks, and I hope you are, too.
Over to you: What is YOUR best sleeve-sewing hack? Do you have a favorite type of sleeve? Do you avoid set-in sleeves because you find them too fussy to insert? Please sound off in the comments. Thanks for reading.
Wow! Another comprehensive and perfectly logical explanation. I’m loving these new in-depth articles. I’m mostly self-taught from 7th grade over 40 years ago and am only recently starting up again.
I appreciate the railroad placement advice; it never occurred to me to place the lower “rail” below the stitch line. I always followed pattern instructions to place the rails about an eighth of an inch apart, inside the seam allowance and on the stitch line, and they weren’t removed after the sleeve was finished, resulting in a lot of work and frustration to get an acceptable result. It also explains why I avoided most set-in sleeves for years. Your technique clearly would give so much more control during stitching to avoid puckers, etc.
Thanks for a great article and Happy Thanksgiving.
Hi, Barbara! Thanks for reading.
I’m sorry you’ve avoided set-in sleeves so many years! I hope you give my method a try. Pls LMK how it goes.
Thank you for this very detailed and helpful post. Although I have sewn for many years I really needed this in depth post. The cut and slash of the shoulder adjustment will change my sleeve fit. My preference is always a fitted shoulder.
Hi, Pat. Thanks for reading. I’m glad this post helped.
I never thought about taking ease out of a sleeve cap until I read Barbara Emodi’s book. I figured I was bad at set-in sleeves. NOPE.