Sleeve cap ease is bogus

I have no illusions; I know that today’s post will upset quite a few people. Why, might you ask? Well, it’s because there has been a long standing myth –myth– in construction that the pattern of a well-formed sleeve cap must be larger than the armhole into which it is sewn to result in a “couture” finish. I can certainly understand how people could be upset to learn sleeve cap ease is a fallacy because this would mean that all of the money and time they’ve spent on books and classes was wasted. Similarly, no one is happy to learn that the countless hours they’ve expended actually basting these suckers in was a wash either. Still worse, if the “experts” were wrong about this, how much of what else they’ve said is also bogus? Therein lies the problem with entrenched beliefs. Tear away one belief, others are quick to follow and then what are you left standing on? Maybe it’s time to think for yourselves.

Would it make any of you feel any better to know that I also once believed in the whole sleeve cap ease myth? Well, I did. In school and from books, I learned that my sleeves would never be perfect unless I did the whole basting, pinning and praying thing too. But when I started working in factories, I learned differently and very quickly that all the time, worry and study I’d done was not the best expenditure of my time. Like you, I felt lied to, I was very disillusioned and not at all happy about it. As supporting evidence of my claim, I offer the following as evidence:

I found the above photo in the Sam’s Club circular from last Wednesday’s paper. As an avowed non-shopper, this was the only thing in the sales flyers that excited me. Unfortunately, Sam’s isn’t selling the coat, only the Kate Spade bag that’s been cropped from the photo so I have no idea who made this coat. So on the face of it, what does this photograph tell you -other than that the model is right-handed? What you’re supposed to notice is that the horizontal stripes across the jacket back and sleeve match perfectly. Not only that but the vertical stripes match as well! I have no idea which pattern maker cut this coat but this is an amazing piece of work -horizontal and vertical stripe matching! I can only hope this pattern maker is well compensated for their mastery.

Obviously, the total length of the sleeve cap must be equal to the total length in the armhole, otherwise these stripes would not be matching. Below is my sketch of the horizontal match striping:

And the vertical match stripe is below:

So you can see that the photo of the coat is evidence representing a real piece of work resulting in a dual match stripe. On a related note, if you’re one of those people that have always thought that individual seamstresses (or you) were accountable for whether something is matched up or not, this evidence should dispel that belief as well. No seamstress had the control over these stripes that the pattern maker did. It was the pattern maker who did this, not any individual seamstress no matter how talented or dedicated. The pattern was cut to facilitate this. Consider the contrary, if the armhole and sleeve are the exact same size, setting the seams to match are beyond the seamstress if either of the two were off-set.

Now, normally a match stripe isn’t much of a trick although it seems that way -unless of course, your sleeve and/or armhole are not cut correctly (more on that below). If you have my book, look in the section on production pattern making and you’ll see a match stripe running across a front and back bodice with sleeve on page 180. In production pattern making, you have to have that line drawn in -usually in green or purple ink- to indicate the match stripe. When the marker is made, all of the affected pieces will be aligned commensurately.

The real trick to matching stripes across the sleeve is no trick at all. Rather, it’s a tremendous amount of work. As someone who’s specialized in making suits, I can say that. Now, the reason why sleeve patterns often have ease is because either the armhole or the sleeve -but usually both- are cut incorrectly. Cutting those two correctly is very difficult and time consuming. For example, most sleeves look something like the left sketch below.

Most people are used to looking at sleeves like the one on the left but this is not anatomically correct. Rather, the sketch of the sleeve on the right is more accurate so I’m not surprised if it looks wrong to you. To make the sketch on the right, I traced the one on the left; the black portion represents the area that has been cut away from the front of the sleeve and the red area represents area that’s been added to the back of the sleeve. The end result is that sleeve cap ease is a band-aid; it’s a quick fix to compensate for a poorly made pattern.

Now, the reason that the front of the sleeve is scooped out is because -whether you realize it or not- your arms are not hanging on the sides of your body; your arms are hanging towards the front of your body, so it only stands to reason the front of the sleeve is scooped out. Now, if you doubt your arms are on the front of your body, stand in front of a mirror and raise your arms -in their most comfortable position over your head-…where are your armpits? If you’re like every other human on the planet, your armpits are facing you, dead center. If your arms really were on the sides of your body (the way sleeves and armholes are cut) you’d have to turn sideways to see your armpits. There is a much greater discussion of this issue in my book, see “Fundamentals of fitting” pp 163-169 (with all the fitting books out there you’d think somebody would have made a point of this simple anatomical fact already but they haven’t). Use that section as a guide correcting the front and back portions of your chest drafts. And yeah, it’ll take a lot of iteration to get it right which is yet another reason why you should be using blocks so you don’t have to start from zero each time.

Below is another sketch you can use as a point of comparison. These are sketches of the sleeve once it’s been sewn up but not yet set. On the left is your typical sleeve (the underarm seam is facing you). On the right, you’ll see a sleeve with a rotated armhole. Your sleeves should look more like the ones on the right.

After reading all of this and considering the survey of existing books on the subject, maybe you’ll understand how I feel about many of the self-proclaimed “experts” out there. Like you, I was taken in at one point but no more. Nobody told me any of this stuff, I had to figure it out on my own. That’s why I now say that the only experts more irritating than those who co-opt “couture” to describe their skills, are those co-opting “industrial sewing”. Let’s hang the ones who do both :)

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  1. AA says:

    Of course, it’s possible that the lengths of the sleeve cap and the arm scye are *NOT* the same – any couture textbook will show you how to shrink and stretch woollen fabric to increase or reduce ease so that stripes and plaids can be matched up. A very interesting article, but the first premise is flawed.

  2. Aimee says:

    I just have to leave a comment, after reading this post (referred from a blog post result to a google search).
    I have sewn sporadically since I first owned a Magic Attic doll and my mom wouldn’t buy us those gorgeous outfits and accessories in the magazines. I made a nightgown, a fur coat with leftovers from a wolf puppet project, all kinds of things. I made a couple Halloween costumes.

    When I got a dog, he had such bad nameless allergies that I put him in clothes to protect his skin from his teeth and any low edge he could rub on like bed frames. I made the pattern myself, and each “suit” was better than the last. At one time he went through a phase where he required sleeves (and socks) to protect his legs.

    Even DOG patterns are not properly constructed!!

    And now that I’ve started wanting to sew my own clothes, and begun working with real patterns. I’m learning that it may just be easier for me to use my new duct tape dress form and create what I want from scratch- I have some weird issue with my shoulders that I haven’t figured out yet. I guess they are forward shoulders? Standing upright and relaxed, it might appear that what I made actually fits. But the minute I reach for anything, the armhole and sleeve is digging into the front of my shoulder/chest. If I’m not careful it can actually be painful!

    I’ve done google searches and gotten quite confused, as well as inspired, but maybe I should just go to the library and find some fitting books.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. I’ve done maybe 2 sleeved garments so far, and that mismatched crap REALLY bothered me. I mean, I seriously thought my pattern was defective. WTF??

    Also, I WANT that coat. It’s gorgeous!!

  3. Cynthia says:

    Eight years later, and your post is alive and well! This one post has taught me so much. I make custom outfits for… well unless you show horses, it’s hard to understand! Jackets and shirts for the western horse show-er, they’re usually loaded with bling, and now very detailed laces are being used. Anyway, the pattern I’ve previously used has a sleeve as in the first drawing. However, when riding western, arms are slightly forward of center to hold reins. No wonder the front bunches, and the back pulls at the sleeve! I’m going to try this technique on a muslin. I think it will be a great success. Thank you, Kathleen!

  4. Alex Hart says:

    hi – just found this post, but cannot find your book “Fundamentals of fitting” – is it still in print please? thanks

  5. Pia says:

    There’s another fabulous example of matched stripes across a sleeve in Thomas von Nordheim’s Vintage Couture Tailoring pg 111. He doesn’t explain how he achieved this and the rest of the sleeve chapter demonstrates a sleeve with 3.5″ ease – just to show that it can be done successfully sometimes. So it’s unclear whether the matched stripe sleeve had any cap ease or not.

    I’m struggling a bit with this issue. Does it depend on the fabric, where the shoulder seam ends, and shape of the arm at the top? If my shoulder seam ends at my shoulder point, then the top of my arm curves out a bit. For the sleeve to follow this curve it would seem the armscye would have to be darted or eased to accommodate this mound. But if the shoulder seam extends a bit further out, so the sleeve can drop straight down, then I can imagine that it doesn’t need ease. Could it also be possible that with some fabrics, it’s possible to stretch the area just beyond the armscye to create the necessary bulge? So rather than shrinking the seam line you stretch out the interior, so that the seam line doesn’t need any ease, making it easier to match stripe patterns?

  6. Simeon says:

    Um, you know that there is ease in the sleeve head of that jacket in your example image right?
    You can see that, right?
    Also, you can see that the stripes don’t actually match. The horizontal one near the crown of the sleeve on the left is slightly out of line.
    Also, you know this is a very loose weave fabric, making it easy to make adjustments in the sleeve head fit without disturbing the stripe too much.

    Above all, if there is a shoulder pad in the jacket, then it is simply impossible for a sleeve head to turn the 90 degrees needed to navigate around the edge of the shoulder pad, and then set into the armhole without some ease in it. You can go on, and on, and on about how you have discovered something that no-one else in the history of clothes making had discovered, not the greatest couturiers, neither Balenciaga, a self confessed sleeve madman, nor Chanel, famous for spending half a day fitting one sleeve, nor all the Master tailors of decades, but you are simply and unequivocally incorrect.

    No doubt, that makes me a ‘blind’ ‘sucker’ to the ‘lies’ I’ve been fed, but having a couple of decades of making clothes under my belt also, I think I’d know a thing or two about it as well. I am interested to try out your sleeve shape, to see what it may have going for it, but I know for certain that ease is necessary with certain fabrics, and with a shoulder pad in place.

    Just to be clear, I think your website is very interesting and full of useful stuff.
    I just think you are wrong on this occasion.
    Otherwise, thanks!

  7. JennieRose says:

    I recently purchased Simplicity pattern 5194 dated 1973, and the sleeve for the blazer jacket is shaped very similar to what you are suggesting. At first I was confused as to why the sleeve was shaped in such a way, especially since I’m so used to the “standard” shape. But after reading your blog, it all makes sense to me now.
    Thank you for the insightful bog :)

    link to image:

  8. Erin Orea says:

    Can anyone tell me whether the front or back of the armscye is bigger in a corrected draft. The back of my arm scye drafts keep ending up smaller, however, my pattern books are telling me that the back should be half inch longer. Thanks in advance for any help.

  9. Roger says:

    Why would anyone be putting what is essentially a one-piece shirt sleeve (the left sleeve in the diagram) on a jacket anyway? The reason for having a two piece sleeve for a jacket is to be able to cut it to fit and working just enough ease in as is necessary. This is not a new concept.

    RTW is one thing, but sleeves need to be cut for people with all kinds of requirements. There is no magic average of ease-for-all. On RTW coats one of the major common problems is poor construction of the shoulders. The bigger myth is that fitting problems can be solved in the pattern drafting stage.

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