Friday, June 21, 2013

Tutorial: Setting in sleeves

So as per Fabees request, I have prepared a post on setting in sleeves!

There are two typical sets of sleeves that you will see on most garments.
A set sleeve and a puffed or gathered sleeve. There are other kinds but we will leave them for now.

While both were fashionable in the 60s the one we are going to focus on today is the clean tailored finish of a set in sleeve.

When you look at a sleeve pattern and try to piece it together, you will notice that there is always excess fabric. This is great for puffy sleeves, but for set sleeves we need to use a technique called easing.

Ease (as a verb) means to move or shift with great care. And so this is the principle of set in sleeves. Going slowly, taking you time and being careful will result in a well sewn shoulder seam.

With practice you may get quicker but for now be careful and take your time.

1. Starting with the sleeve open, mark onto the pattern the easing points which are shown on the pattern. Also mark the top of the sleeve

Vintage pattern

Printed pattern

2. using your longest stitch, sew between these 2 points (1.5cm in)

Make sure you leave the threads free and don't back stitch or lock stitch.

3. Sew the underarm closed

4. Pull the threads and gather the fabric in between. The head of the sleeve will be end up being smaller than the shoulder.

5. Insert your sleeve into the bodice so the right sides are facing and it looks like this.

6. Anchor your arm to the bodice with a pin. Match the underarm and side seams

7. Then find the top of the sleeve and pin that to the shoulder seam. It doesn't have to be exact and you may move this point around but it is good to line it up somewhat to get started.

8. Starting from the top, slide* squeeze*, pinch* and move the fabric around a little bit so that it smooths out a little bit but not a lot. It still needs to be slightly loose. If you have long nails*, this is good to be able to move the fabric around.

*sliding, squeezing, pinching and moving the fabric with my nails are all words here that describe what I do with my fingers. Sorry if they sound weird!

Be patient to get the sleeve to ease in. Don't get frustrated if it doesn't fit. Just keep moving the pins around till your happy. Make a cup of tea and come back to it if you feel your blood rising. If you need to gather beyond the gathering points, then that's ok. I do that sometimes too!

When pinning, face the pins into the arm hole. That way when you’re stitching, you can pull the pins out easily with your right hand.

When you've fit the sleeve it should look like this.

See how it's still wavy looking? That’s because the edge is curved and it will never be flat. The most important part is that the small amount of fabric that you are going to sew is flat to the shoulder.

I like to think of it like a ball - there is only one very narrow plane of a ball that will ever be in contact with a flat surface - that is the part you want to sew.

Here is a poor sketch of my explanation..

 photo m_zps575a0882.jpg

Gosh I hope all that makes sense?

9. Anyway. Take your garment and pop it in the machine like so. It might be tempting to slide it over the motor/bobbin but we want to be able to see the gathers so we will sew the inside.

Start somewhere near the underarm so that you have a chance to start somewhere flat.

10. Very carefully sew a few stitches at a time stopping to remove pins and evening out any bumps. If you come across a particularly bumpy part, stop, spread the fabric with your fingers and push or pull the bump away. You might need to lift the foot and needle for this. Just try to get it out of the way so that there is no tiny fold which will look obvious from the outside.

It will require some persistence so don't give up!

As you go around, remember to sew just a bit at a time, slowly and patiently.

11. Close your stitches and remove the garment from the machine. Examine your work and check out any parts that might not be perfect.

 12. If it looks particularly bumpy, drape the shoulder over a tailors ham, or tightly folded towel, spray with a little water and press out the bumps along the seam. The steam from the iron should shrink the bumps a little.


If you've decided to mix two patterns together, you might find the sleeve is smaller (eek!), the same size (yay!) or bigger (boo!) than the armscye. Consider the patterns you are using when doing this. I.e. batwings might not be a good idea or two different sized patterns could be problematic.

If you are still left with fabric even after lots of gathering, consider narrowing the sleeve slightly by bringing in the underarm seam. Not too much as you still need to move!

You can also use a couture technique to solve this...
Back at the gathering stage (step 4) before pinning; drape the gathered sleeve cap over a ham/towel or a shoulder stand (if you have one lucky you!) and turn on your iron on.
Using a damp sponge or spray bottle, wet the sleeve cap and then apply heat to shrink the fabric. Be careful not to press any creases - we just want the fabric to shrink. Even if you have pre-shrunk the fabric, it should still be able to go a little more. You may have to shape the cap with the steam a few times before it is right. Hopefully you'll be able to bring it down a few millimetres.
This will also help mould the fabric into the round shape it will eventually form.

You can also hand baste the sleeve to the bodice before sewing with the machine if you are not confident with just pins.

If the sleeve is smaller than the shoulder - you may need to recut the pattern and add some width to the underarm

Usually pattern sleeves are cut on the grain which means most of the sleeve cap is on the bias - making it a little stretchy. Be careful not to stretch your arm piece - especially when over locking as the machine can stretch the fabric out and warp it when stitching the edges.

But remember to go slow, be patient and diligent and hopefully it will work!

Please post any problems you might still be having in the comments

Do you have any have tips for easing sleeves that always work for you?

Good luck! xo


  1. It sounds like a lot of effort, but you make it seem so easy!

    I'm holding a giveaway at my blog, I hope you would check it out!

  2. Great tute! This was how I was taught to set in sleeves and your pictures and explanations were excellent!
    I'm glad I've stumbled upon your blog, love it!

    1. Thank you! It's very reaffirming to know another seamstress agrees!

  3. Thanks a lot for this tute Cat , You make it so clear , i will try for my next autumn dress !


Thanks for your comment! Please do not comment anonymously - feel free to use the Name/URL option instead as I’d still love to hear from you xo

*Spam comments will be swiftly deleted, so please do not bother

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.