If you find that some patterns are too snug in the sleeves, don’t blame your arms — they’re just fine! The problem is the pattern. Commercial patterns are designed to fit average proportions. And not everyone is average or wants to be. Fortunately, reworking the upper arm to fit your dimensions is a quick and easy fix.
How to Adjust a Pattern’s Upper Arm
What You Need
- Pattern pieces
- Measuring tape
- Marker or pen in two colors
- Sewing pins
If possible, recruit a helper for this. With your arm relaxed at your side, measure around your bicep at its fullest point, usually right at your underarm. Add 1½”–2″ for ease of movement if you’re working with a woven fabric; about 1″ is fine for a knit. If you’re making a winter coat or jacket, you may want to add a bit more ease so you can wear it over a sweater.
Now take a look at your sleeve-cap pattern. Some patterns have the finished bicep circumference measurement printed on the pattern. If yours doesn’t, no problem. Just measure horizontally from seam allowance to seam allowance at the underarm.
2. Trace the Original Sleeve Cap
You’ll need to alter your pattern piece to make the sleeve adjustment. If you’d rather not cut the original, trace it and make the adjustments on the copy.
Draw two lines on your pattern piece: one (line A above) going horizontally from seam allowance to seam allowance at the underarm, another (line B above) perpendicular to the first that goes right down the middle of the pattern from the center shoulder to the bottom. Then pin your sleeve to a piece of paper and trace the entire sleeve cap.
3. Spread the Sleeve
To adjust the sleeve width at the bicep, cut through the vertical and horizontal lines you just made up to — but not over! — the seam allowance. Now spread the sleeve pattern apart the amount you want to add (if you need an extra inch around the bicep, for example, you’ll want to expand it a ½” on each side). To make the pattern easier to pivot, you may also want to cut a little snip into the seam allowance on each side — just don’t cut all the way through.
Good to Know: The sleeve cap gets pulled down when you spread the pattern apart. Don’t worry about this! Since you traced the original sleeve cap in Step 2, that shape remains intact, and the sleeve will still match the original armhole on the pattern.
4. Adjust the Bodice Front and Back
By spreading the sleeve apart to make more room, you also add to the seamline on each side of the sleeve cap. If the increase totals more than 1″, you’ll need to add some width to the front and back bodice to fit the new sleeve into the armhole.
There are two ways to do this. One is to add at the underarm and gradually taper to nothing at the waist (as above).
The other option is to deepen your armhole slightly at the underarm (as above); this will make the armhole seam line a bit longer to match the new sleeve-cap seam line.
A final tweak: Since you’ve added some width to the upper portion of your sleeve, you may want to taper the sleeve seam so it blends with the width on the lower part of the arm.
And that’s it! Now sew up your garment and show off those gorgeous arms!
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