Let’s Talk Pattern Drafting – Sleeves (Part 2)

I have a good excuse for missing last week’s post! I had surgery on Monday! While I could’ve probably pushed myself to get something out on Tuesday, I prioritized my health (for once!) and rested up instead. Now it’s… the following Thursday. Happy Tutorial Thursday, y’all!

So, I trust that everyone went out and made their basic blocks last week, because we’ll actually be needing them this week for our sleeve drafting! If you haven’t, mosey on over to part 1 in this series and get that pattern ready!

Now, sleeves are the bane of most people’s existence when it comes to sewing, much less drafting a pattern. Being able to make a good sleeve is a skill that you will never regret honing, so we’ll start with a basic sleeve block, talk about how to adjust some weirdness in the fit that may arise when you attempt to put it on the basic block and discuss a few neat adjustments you can make to get different shapes in your sleeves.

But first!

Let’s Make A Basic Sleeve

While you can use your trust measuring tape for this one, if you’re fancy and own a flexible ruler or French curve, have those handy as well!

The first measurement you’ll need to take is the length of your sleeve, in this case it will be the total length of your arm from the pit of your shoulder to your wrist. You’ll want to add an inch or two to this measurement, since your sleeve will likely sit a little shorter on your arm than the flat measurement. You can always tweak it in the future!

To find the pit of your shoulder, first T-pose, then feel around near the center to find where it dips inward. This is the same point that your shoulder-to-neck measurement referenced back in part 1, so by starting your measurement here, you ensure that everything will meet up properly between your pieces.

Wow, so exciting!

The next step is one of the few times we’ll follow a proper formula, mainly because it just works. You will want to take your bust measurement and divide it by 12 and add ½” to it. This measurement should be marked measuring from the top of your fold line on said fold line.

The next measurement uses your basic block. You will measure straight down from the tip of the sleeve to where the armhole ends vertically. This measurement should be the length that you extend the previous mark outward from the fold line. Add another ½” mark beyond it for later.

From the end of that last line (ignoring the added ½”), draw a straight line between it and the top of your fold line. Whatever that measurement is, divide it in half and mark that on this new line.

(Anyone who is geometry-savvy, feel free to do real math. I got a 77 in geometry, which was passing, and I will NOT be going back now!)

There are ‘correct’ ways to do this part, like using a French curve, but for the most basic first sleeve, we don’t really need to worry too much about it. There is a shape that the sleeve needs to have that curves over and under these last few marks. As long as it matches that general shape, we’ll be good to go!

First, from the mark we just made to the top of the fold line, we will make a gentle, rounded curve above the straight line. Then, from the same mark, we will make a gentle, rounded curve below the straight line.

This weird parabolic shape ensures that once your sleeve is sewn into a cylinder, it matches up to the circular armhole in your sewn basic block. Changing the intensity and angle of this curve can make a huge difference in the way your sleeves attaches and the overall appearance, so keep it relatively balanced for your block. We’ll have some fun later, promise!

We’ve got two lines left to put down now! The last proper measurement will be for the wrist. I generally make a loop with the measuring tape and adjust it until I can easily, but snugly, put my hand through the loop and pull it back out. You need to account for the thickness of your hand for a pull-on sleeve and this is a fairly fool-proof way of ensuring you’ll be in the clear.

Once you’ve found your loop size, divide the measurement by two (since it’s going on the fold line) and draw it out, adding ½” .

Connect these two pieces and you’re done!


This is your basic sleeve block. This should give you a functional, if perhaps not perfect, base for a sleeved shirt. There are a lot of tweaks that you can and perhaps need to make, but this is your foundation and we can build up from here.

Let’s Talk About Sleeve Fitting

Celebration time is over. If you haven’t cut, sewed and tried on your body block, now is the time to do that. Once that’s done, you need to cut your sleeve, make a tube out of it by sewing down the sides and turn it inside out.

When you go to set your sleeve, one of two things will happen. Either your sleeve can be pinned perfectly or it can’t.

When identifying issues with the fit of the sleeve, it’s important to figure out what side of the sleeve has the issue. When I set sleeves, I pin the side seam to the sleeve seam and the center fold line to the shoulder seam. By pinning like this first, it makes it much easier to see if there is an issue with the front, the back, or both.

Too Much Fabric – Body

So, you go to pin your sleeve in. There’s just too much fabric on the body piece. You’ve tried notching your sleeve and spreading it to fit but there’s just too much fabric on the armhole.

This often happens because the curve of the armhole is too drastic. This happens a lot (happened to me recently making a new block for someone!) but it is thankfully really easy to fix.

Wait, what? We didn’t alter the sleeve?!

Believe it or not, I have found that this issue arises more when the armhole on the body block is too extreme versus when the sleeve is incorrectly drafted. If you tried on your body block before attempting to attach the sleeve, you might’ve noticed that your armhole was a little too wide/forward. Try it on now and see!

There’s no science to fixing this other than to remeasure and/or wear your block and estimate the amount to pull it back. In my experience, an inch or so is generally more than enough to fix this issue!

(You may also notice that this happened on your front fitting and not your back fitting — that’s not uncommon either! Generally, the back armhole curve is less drastic and since the sleeve we made is mirrored, it would make perfect sense here why it would only have an issue on the front. If the back fits perfectly, feel free to just copy that curve to the front and see how that lays!)

Too Much Fabric – Sleeve

We’re setting the sleeve but there’s just so much sleeve to set. Notching and spreading the armhole won’t cut it, it just bunches and puckers and there’s nothing else to do but re-do the sleeve!

There are two main ways this happens. In one case, you have too much of the cap of the sleeve, leading to a puffy, pleated top. This error usually is mirrored on both front and back, and usually the lower half of the sleeve fits perfectly when you start to pin it. In the other case, you’ll usually see the problem solely on the back as the result of a mismatched curve on your sleeve cap. The front will fit just right, though!

To test if the issue is your sleeve cap length, see if you can offset the cap to a place that feels more natural to pin, baste the seam and try it on. If it feels pretty good at the top, perfect under your arm and isn’t riding up too much, you likely just need to shorten the cap!

The easiest way to mark it properly is to trace the edge of the armhole onto the offset sleeve, then to give it a little extra for ease, especially if it felt a little too tight when you tried it on! You’ll want to renegotiate your curve a little to make sure your next setting fits nicely and you don’t get a weird pucker from the sudden truncation.

If you sleeve rides up after trying to offset the sleeve cap and/or it feels tight and terrible beyond reason, you probably just need to re-negotiate that curve to be a bit less drastic. Measure the finished armhole around the edge with your measuring tape and try to adjust your sleeve to match it. The shallower your curves, the less length you’ll be matching against the armhole.

And what if you back is the only part that pulls or has too much sleeve to match the hole? Similar to the problem with the front, it has to do with the natural shallowness of the back armhole curve vs the front. In this case, if the front fits well, looks good and feels comfortable, we don’t really want to mess with that, so we’ll just adjust the back half of the sleeve.

Remember back when we were drawing our curve and we marked the midway point on the angled line as the point we’d cross over? Let’s get back to that point! This time, extend that mark an additional ½” perpendicularly from the angled line.

Next, draw a new angled line that meets this new mark.

Now all we have to do is gently curve a line from that mid-point line up to the top of the fold line. French curve enthusiasts, you know what to do!

This is the new back curve! The front should remain unchanged, since it fit very nicely. If you were doing a very fitted, traditional bodice block, this is the sort of sleeve you would be drafting for it. Having an asymmetrical sleeve adds a little bit of complexity to your pattern if only because your right and left sleeves are no longer interchangeable and can no longer be cut on the fold without going back to revise the front curve.

Here’s what it looks like open!

There are other things that can make a sleeve not fit properly, but hopefully this little bit of troubleshooting can help you get a good start on a great sleeve!

Let’s Talk About Sleeve Shapes

You’ve got a great basic body block, your sleeve is easy to set and feels comfortable… but it’s just… not the right shape. How do you change your pattern to fit but be a totally different shape?

I cannot give you the answer to every different shape, but I can give you a push in the right direction!

Belled Bottom-heavy Sleeve

The easiest modification to a sleeve that I can show you is a belled sleeve pattern like you would see on a pirate shirt or your favourite Fire Emblem.

Straight from Instagram, even in October 2018 I was learning and leveling up on my drafting! Don’t get discouraged!

For these sleeves, the cap is unchanged and should fit totally as drafted. The modifications we’ll be doing are to adjust the fullness at the bottom. First, make a copy of your sleeve pattern, we’re gonna destroy it in the next step!

To maintain proportion with your sleeve, we are going to take the pattern and cut it length-wise into strips. The wider you want the bell, the more separate pieces you will want to consider making (within reason!).

Number these pieces (trust me on this one!) and cut along these lines to make strips. Spread a new piece of paper out for your new-new pattern piece and arrange your numbered strips together at the cap. Carefully spread and rotate the strips, keeping the cap together, until there is considerable extra space between them.

The more space there is between the strips, the fuller your sleeve will end up being. If you know the proportions you’re going for, feel free to mark out the fullest width and spread to match it.

Once you have the fullness you want, trace the sides and cap onto the new paper. Smooth out the cap as needed, since the strips will likely be slightly offset and uneven! The bottom needs a bit of extra to fully poof out, so we’ll need to adjust that curve a bit before we’re done!

The bottom will rely on some gathering to get its proper belled shape, so we need to curve it out a bit similar to the cap. The longer the cap, the more pronounced of an angle you will end up with once gathered. If you just want a little flounciness, just give it a moderate cap.

You’ll want to baste along the entire bottom curve for your gather and then it can be set as normal and cuffed as you see fit!

You can go as big as you want with these bad boys as long as you gather them properly to match the cuff!

Cutting, spreading and gathering will be your best friends when it comes to getting all sorts of different sleeve shapes. Google images produces tons of fun shapes and how to spread to achieve them, so go forth and research!

I’m not sure how fast I’ll be tackling the next part, since I’m still healing from surgery, but look out in the near future for how to better fit and modify your basic bodice block! As always, drop me any questions you have here or on any of our socials and I’ll do my best to guide you to success!

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