Hello, Fall for Cotton sew-alongers! How is everyone’s project coming along?
I just got going on mine. Unfortunately my thoughts of doing a smart outfit consisting of trousers and blouse flew out the window when I started facing the reality of the amount of work I need to put in for a special project I’m working on right now. I’ve had to scale back my goal, so now I’m only going to sew the blouse. It was a difficult decision that disappoints me a bit, but I know I’ll get to those corduroy trousers later this fall. (Plus the special project is pretty awesome too. 😉 ) But speaking of corduroy, have you checked out Rochelle’s most recent Fall for Cotton post on winterizing your wardrobe with corduroy? It’s the perfect fabric for fall!
Anyway, today I wanted to talk about setting in sleeves! In vintage sewing patterns, it can be a bit of a pain in the patoot. So I thought we could chat about it for awhile. And if you have some tips to share, you know I want to hear ’em!
Sleeve cap ease
Vintage sewing patterns often have a lot of built-in ease in the sleeve cap. This can feel really frustrating when you go to set in a sleeve if you’re expecting it to ease in like you might see pictured on a nice, smooth sleeve on a pattern envelope, but what you end up with is a gathered or puckered cap that you weren’t expecting! For the example, the pattern artwork for my 1942 blouse pattern shows smoothly set-in sleeves.
Normally, about 2″ of ease in a sleeve cap in woven fabric is good for a well-fitting, smooth set-in sleeve. That means the perimeter of the sleeve cap is 2″ bigger than the perimeter of the armhole (or armscye). This is something you can easily measure yourself to check.
A few years ago, Casey did an excellent post on demystifying sleeve ease. I won’t reinvent the wheel here—go read Casey’s post. Seriously. Since she posted that, I always measure both the sleeve cap and armhole in every vintage pattern I sew, so I know exactly what amount of ease I’m dealing with.
Basically, you measure along the perimeter (overlapping any yoke seams like my pattern had), and compare the results. Easy, right?
For my pattern, I discovered there was a 3″ difference between my sleeve cap and the armhole, meaning about 1″ more than I could expect to ease in and get a smooth sleeve. So my pattern artwork lied!
Now fortunately for me, I actually wanted gathered sleeves, so this worked out in my favor. If you didn’t want that, however (and usually I do not), you can do a bit of trimming along the top of your sleeve cap, as Casey explains in her post. Essentially you’re just whittling away that extra ease as evenly as you can, until you’re close to a 2″ difference. I do it with pencil on my pattern tracing and measure a bunch of times until I get it right, then cut off the excess (transferring any markings of course).
Having done this many times, let me just tell you that it takes more than you think to get rid of even an inch of ease! That little bit I marked in the above photo would definitely not be an inch. But keep marking with pencil and re-measuring, and eventually you’ll get there. Make sure to read Casey’s post to get all the details. It really is one of my favorite sewing resource posts.
Mark the new sleeve cap on a tracing of your pattern, and you’ll always have the right amount of ease for future versions!
Setting in sleeves
Now how about the next step, setting in those sleeves? There are two different ways that I do it: by using two rows of ease stitching in the seam allowance of the sleeve cap, or by easing with pins only.
Two rows of ease stitching is probably the most common method to help ease in a sleeve. I like to put them 1/4″ apart, and use the biggest stitch length and loosest tension that I can. So if my seam allowance is 1/2″, I put them at 1/4″ and 3/8″ within the seam allowance (um, more or less… they’re kind of wobbly, ha ha).
One tip: I always use contrasting thread from my project so I can see it to remove it after sewing, and I also use a different color bobbin thread so I know which ones to pull on when easing!
Here’s how I personally do it: I pin the underarm seam, the top of the sleeve, and where the notches are on each side. Then I pull on the bobbin threads more than needed.
You’ll see below that the sleeve cap is bunched really tightly, more tight than it needs to be to set it in. I like to work this way because then I can pull out the excess ease more easily, rather than a continuing juggling game of pulling on the bobbin thread, spreading out the ease, etc. Just a method that works for me.
Now there’s also pin basting (or pin easing). I first read about it in this post on Gorgeous Fabrics (note: that blog is no longer active but the blog post is still up). You don’t run any ease stitching, you just use pins. A lot of pins. Like, a lot a lot of pins. You go crazy with the pins. In the areas where you’re easing (between the notches), it’s going to look something like this… but over the entire sleeve cap.
The key is really to work the fabric back and forth with your fingers, so you work in the ease as you go. You take a little bit at a time between your fingers and go slowly and pin. As you pin (and pin and pin and pin), you’re distributing the ease. I usually start at the notches on one side and work my way up to the shoulder, then do the same on the other side. If I end up at the top of the shoulder with too much ease leftover, I start working my way back down, moving pins around until I get it right. And I’ll admit, it can take a few passes to get it right.
But if you have problems setting in sleeves with other methods, I’d recommend you try it sometime. The results are worth it!
I haven’t used this method in awhile and couldn’t fully try it out since I was doing gathered sleeves, but now I’m thinking I may give it a shot again the next time I have sleeves to set in!
How about you? What tricks do you have up your sleeves (har har) to get a nice result when setting them in? Please do share!
And keep sharing your projects in our Flickr group. We have over 230 members at this point! It’s been fantastic seeing all of the Fall for Cotton love out there and watching the wonderful projects roll in. Your momentum is amazing!