Hello, everyone! More drafting today, but not garment deconstruction this time. Instead, we're simply going to meander through some of the subtleties in drafting.
Drafting is simultaneously an exact science and a nebulous art. On one hand, it is systematic and linear: there are rules, standard sequences, tables, guidelines and even formulae to enable a person to go from body measurements to custom-fit garments. You can read books that teach you all about these. You can buy computer programs that digitize these, implying that it is possible to create algorithms from these formulae and sequences. You can send your vital statistics to a human pattern-maker who would plot these into a personal sloper, in spite of never actually having laid eyes on you. There are even standard fixes for patterns (with code names like FBA, SBA, Rounded Shoulders and Sway Back) to make them better fit your body. With these come the promise that because it can be objectively quantized, anyone and everyone- provided they have the patience to absorb the information and act on it - can draft.
On the other hand, drafting is also completely subjective. Years after I first learned to draft and forgot and wanted to re-learn it again, I asked Mum to teach me. She responded, "We'd better ask Auntie Laura. She's much better." And when Auntie Laura turned up for my lesson and all three of us were hunched over our drafting table, arguing and scribbling lines all over our brown kraft paper, she mused, "If only your Grandma were still alive. She was very good, you know. The best. Only ever needed one fitting. One fitting and it was perfect! Imagine that."
I couldn't. How was this possible, I wondered, when both Mum and Auntie Laura were taught by the same teacher - Grandma - and all of them experienced by the same number of years, using exactly the same methods and techniques? Did Grandma draw straighter lines or swooshier curves than everyone else? Was she privy to secret mnemonics that allowed her to supercalculate the width of a bust dart based on a person's bra size? Did she have a magic wand?
Much later, when I was finally back on the road to semi-successful drafting and preparing that Sewing From Scratch tutorial series for you guys, I started to understand. There is a feel to drafting that cannot be quantized. It's similar to how some people know which colors go well with other colors in a room, or how other people can taste a pot of soup and know how to tweak it to get it to taste just right. Certainly there are principles that govern their decisions - concepts like coordinating vs. contrasting colors and warm colors vs. cool colors, and standards like stocks and roux(es) and base flavors and all the other things that a person can learn in art class, interior design courses or culinary school. But when all the theory has been assimilated, and we begin to apply ourselves, we finally realize how short a distance that theory actually takes us. If we are sufficiently analytical, we might transcend our frustration enough to ask the right questions that allow us to break through an impasse. Sometimes, just the questions are enough to redirect us to a new book, a different experiment, a second muslin. Maybe we will be lucky and someone will come along who can answer those questions and save us the time of shooting in the dark.
I am lucky that Mum and Auntie Laura were available and interested in answering my early questions when I was learning to draft as a teenager. They had so much to teach and often it was too much, because I was still learning the basics (how and where to plot a dart, how and where to draw the shoulder slope). Everything was rules-of-thumb, black and white, yes and no. Fast forward to now, when drafting blocks is as normal as writing a grocery list, and I'm beginning to see nuances. Greys. Shades. Alternatives. Better-thans. Appropriate-fors. Choices. It is empowering, surely. But it also feels completely subconscious, natural, congruent. I know this because I don't think about how I draft until I need to talk about it in a tutorial. Then, what makes perfect sense to me and could therefore be trivially explained in a single sentence ends up requiring three posts, usually with numerous diagrams, because each time I peel back a layer, there is some other principle underlying it, which needs to be first unpacked to something else even more fundamental.
My reaction is usually, "Wow. That took too long to say for something that everyone should know." And then I have a headache and have to eat chocolate to get rid of it.
I think of those Somethings That Everyone Should Know as the subtleties of drafting. These are things that drafting books may not cover because they are either "obvious" (to which we roll our eyes, mouthing, "As if,") or something the authors hope you'll figure out for yourself after, say, 10 years of drafting experience. Or maybe they are troublesome to write about because there is no easy formula for them. Or they don't have a specific name. Or because they are incidental to the main focus of drafting, which is to produce a pattern for a garment, period.
Here are some examples off the top of my head right at this moment as I type this:
- What shape of sleeve cap to choose for a particular fabric.
- What length of sleeve to choose for a particular figure type.
- Where to position the seam on a sleeve, a skirt, a shirt.
- Where and what kind of dart to use for which part of the garment for which kind of fabric for which body type.
- Does the method of shaping (seams vs. darts vs. combination) matter for the kind of garment or muscle tone or body shape of a person?
- How tight is too tight?
No formulae, code names or standard treatments for those, huh?
The most frustrating thing for a drafting student (at any level) is not so much what we don't know, but what we didn't realize we don't know. Until someone comes along and offers a counter-suggestion, plus its theoretical principle, and something clicks and we get one of those lovely eureka moments.
It's a frightfully overambitious goal but that's what I am going to attempt in the next couple of posts. Rather than share how to draft a woman's sloper from scratch (really, just buy a drafting book, friends, if you are serious about learning), I'm going to try to talk about the whys. Completely bonkers, I know.
So, before I chicken out, let's do sleeves today.
Let's pretend that you came over to my house and sat at my kitchen table and we have a pot of hot water and my entire tea collection spread out before us, plus waistline-unfriendly scones and jam and cream and I have a pad of paper and my favorite pen and the children are miraculously entertaining themselves and someone (elves, probably) are taking care of dinner prep, and you are allowed to ask any question you like about sleeves and I have given you my word that I will not laugh at you, and you take a deep breath and say,
"My sleeves stink."
I raise my eyebrow but otherwise make no movement or sound.
You continue, "Regardless of whether I use a commercial pattern or draft them myself, they are never comfortable and they never fit properly and I. Just. Don't. Know. What. Or. Where. The. Problem. Is. And the worst thing is that up till recently, I wasn't even aware that they were bad. But one day I woke up and realized I had Stinky Sleeves. How, I don't know."
And, as a visual aid to your frustration, you smash your fist into one of the scones.
(And I don't hold it against you.)
Hm. I notice immediately that, in spite of you not having actually asked anything, there is, in the middle of all your Stinky Sleeve Ventilating, a question. An image dances before my eyes, a specter from my shameful past:
It is a good self-disclosure story with some how-tos for your quick-fix pleasure, and I am tempted to share it with you to make you feel better. But we must delve much deeper than that, and peel back several more layers to where things are more fundamental so that we have something solid on which to build something good.
"Did I ever show you the armscye and the Kleenex box?" I say finally.
You stare at me as if I am either sadistically inattentive or utterly insane.
I ignore your stunned expression. It is, after all, not the first time people have given me that look. Besides, yours was a good question (even if you may not have been sufficiently aware of it to yet give it words. I rub my hands together in glee. Let's start peeling back the layers!
1 The Armhole
One of the very first things you must understand is that the armhole is more important than the sleeve. It does not matter if your garment is sleeveless or sleeved - you must aim to make a marvelous armhole. A marvelous armhole is
- as small as possible while still allowing free movement of the arm. If you can make it smaller while your arm still moves freely, do it.
- as closely-fitted to your body as possible. Use darts if necessary to wrap it more snugly against your body. The principle is this: a snug armhole stays more stationary against the body while its sleeve (where present and attached) is moving. A loose armhole moves along with the sleeve while it is moving. This results in pulls, shifts and tugs. Which feel uncomfortable. Which makes it seem as if something is fitting poorly but is too vague to be immediately obvious.
When you draft an armscye, and you are yet not confident in dart placement, do the best armscye you can and then sew a muslin and make corrections on it. Or unpick the offending sleeve of an existing garment - it is almost guaranteed that the armscye will be too large - and make corrections on it.
The first part of the armscye on which to improve is the shoulder seam. Many RTW garments and patterns are made to fit shoulders that are differently-sloped than yours.
The next part - which is the part that produces the most significant results - is immediately to the side of the bust. This is where the armhole is most likely to gape, because the bust pushes the fabric forwards and away from the body. You know this because in children (who have no bust) the armhole never gapes in that way.
To correct the gape, make a dart. The more well-endowed you are, the deeper the dart you need to make. When you make a dart, the bottom of the armscye gets raised a bit. This could be a fortuitous side-effect if your armhole is also too large.
The next part of the armhole to fit is the back. If your shoulders roll forward, so that your back is mounded (like a large, flat bust), the armhole might also gape in the back the way it did in the front, albeit to a lesser extent. Find out where it gapes and make a dart there. It will be a very small, skinny dart, if at all. Most people do not need this.
The last part of the armhole to correct is the bottom (i.e. at the garment's side seam). If, after adding darts and perfecting the shoulder slope, the armhole still hangs too low, you will need to raise its bottom curve. Just make it higher in your draft. Period.
Obviously if this is an existing garment rather than a draft, a too-low armhole cannot be altered because there isn't fabric to add to its bottom. However, sometimes, the side seams are too far out (i.e. the whole garment is overall too large) and when taken in, they naturally raise the armhole's bottom as well. If so, yay. If not, it is tragic but, as is, that garment cannot be saved. My mother always advised that if we are not sure how large the armhole should be, we should always draft and cut it smaller at first, because we can always enlarge it later if need be, not the other way around.
How small? You ask.
But not as small as this - unless you are planning to make a mannequin.
2 The Sleeve Angle
Just so we're all on the same page, let's first look at the anatomy of a sleeve and define some terms.
- The shaded blue portion is the sleeve cap.
- h = height of sleeve cap
- L+h = length of sleeve
- W = width of sleeve cap. Anatomically, W is also a measurement of the bicep.
- The dotted vertical line divides the sleeve into the parts that are set into the front armscye and the back armscye, respectively. The widths of these two parts, Wf and Wb, may or may not be the same, depending on the shape of one's shoulder/bicep.
- S = the shoulder point, where the sleeve intersects the shoulder seam.
I first saw this next box-and-tube visual aid as sketches on a website some time ago. I now cannot remember where that was so if anyone recognizes it, and can send me the link, I will be happy to acknowledge it.
This is a box that represents the bodice of a garment. That oval hole is an armhole.
We are going to make three different sleeves and set them into that armhole. We will use different colored paper.
Sleeve #1 is a horizontal sleeve. The paper is rolled into a tube whose circumference fits the armhole.
Garments whose sleeves are set in at this angle include kimonos, kaftans, dolman-sleeved garments and some relaxed-fit Tshirts (especially men's).
A line is drawn to indicate where the top of the sleeve (ostensibly its midline) meets the shoulder seam.
Sleeve #2 is set in at a slight angle. Garments that have sleeves like these include most natural-fit garments like Tshirts, blouses and shirts, particularly short-sleeved garments. The paper is rolled to the diameter that allows it to exactly match the armhole at this angle. Again, the midline is marked.
Another line is drawn around the tube/sleeve where it touches the box/armhole.
Sleeve #3 is set into the armhole at a much steeper downward angle. Garments with sleeves like these include jackets and coats, and some other long-sleeved garments, in which the arms of the wearer are expected to more often hang down at his/her sides than animatedly move about. Again, the paper is rolled to the diameter that allows it to match the armhole and the midline, as well as the intersection of the sleeve and the armhole, is marked.
Here are those three sleeves, with their various angles of set. Note that it is the same armhole into which they are all set.
In order for the sleeve to match that same armhole at different angles, the circumference had to change to compensate for that obliqueness.
Next, we cut them open along their bottom "seam". The circumference has now become the "width of the sleeve cap". And all three sleeve caps therefore have different widths.
Again, when superimposed, you can see the differences in the widths of the sleeve caps.
Also, you can see the differences in the shape of the sleeve cap.
- Depending on what kind of garment you are making, the sleeve may hang at a different angle of set. Often, the more casual the garment, the more movement is expected by the arms when wearing it, and therefore the closer-to-horizontally will the sleeves be set.
- The more slanty the sleeve, the narrower the sleeve cap gets. Therefore a more slanty sleeve is also less comfortable.
- This means you can choose, for the same armhole, the angle of set for your sleeve according to the function of your garment. If you are making a button-down shirt but you know you're going to move your arms around a lot (e.g. if you are a teacher or presenter and have to write on whiteboards etc.), you might want to deliberately draft a wider, flatter sleeve cap.
- It also means you can choose, for the same armhole, the angle of set for your sleeve according to your body shape. If you have chunkier upper arms and shoulders, you can deliberately draft a wider, flatter sleeve cap because it translates to simultaneously having a wider circumference, which therefore will be more roomy.
3 Relationship Between The Sleeve And the Armscye
Let us first state the obvious fact that the sleeve gets sewn into an armhole. This is something on which everyone agrees, no matter what their expertise (or lack thereof) is in the area of sleeve sewing. Beyond that superficial association, there is a far more intimate relationship between the mountain-shaped sleeve cap and the armscye into which it fits. Here are two secrets:
The length of the sleeve cap (the curved distance) = the circumference of the armscye.
But you'd be surprised by how many people don't seem to believe this, based on how they try to cram into an armhole a sleeve cap that is too wide or too narrow, resulting in hideous gathers on the shoulder or sleeve itself.
But what about "sleeve cap ease"? You ask.
I will offer my personal opinion on this very controversial concept. I think that when people discuss "sleeve cap ease", they often are talking about completely different things without realizing it. My thoughts:
Everyone wants their sleeve caps not to be tight and constricting. The cure, they decide, is to add ease, whatever that means. Some people do it by deliberately drafting a longer sleeve cap curve (e.g. 16.5") than can fit into the armhole (e.g. 15.75" circumference). Then they gather the top of the sleeve cap into a slight puff in order to cram that extra 0.75" into the armhole. Now, unless they were honestly originally planning to draft a puff sleeve, this is cheating. The more effective (and less duplicitous) way to introduce sleeve cap ease is to change the shape of the sleeve cap in order to accommodate your particular arm and movement. We will cover that below, after Secret #2.
The curves in the sleeve cap and in the armscye are actually meaningful and related!
Pretend for a moment that you are comfortable drafting a sleeve free-hand and without a formula. By way of guidelines, let me say two things:
1 The shape of the sleeve cap corresponds to the shape of the armscye. Specifically, the inflection points (those blue and red dots) on either side of the sleeve's center line match up with those on the armscyes. If you are drafting free-hand, it is as simple as how far from the shoulder point those red and blue dots occur on the armscye, and curving your sleeve cap at the equivalent locations.
As long as you keep the curved distance of your sleeve cap constant (so that it will still fit into your armhole), you are free to change the shape of that curve. This means you can make it flatter or pointier, curvier at different places than others, and whatever else you think will help that sleeve cap better fit your particular shoulder and upper arm.
Here is an extract from this earlier post, showing two different sleeve cap shapes for the same armhole. The red sleeve cap is higher, pointier and more shapely than the brown one.
(And now we meet that mysterious word, "ease".)
This sleeve cap is too high for my shoulder shape- the fabric peaks in a fold at the shoulder.
The brown sleeve cap, being flatter and less curvy, has a wider bicep area,
which means that while the overall sleeve might not look quite as sleek near the armpit, it is a lot more comfortable when the arm is raised.
Red sleeve Brown sleeve
Therein lie a few useful applications:
(i) When working with stretchy fabric (like knit), choose a sleeve cap that is pointier, like the red one above. The fabric will pool less at the armpit and the sleeve will look more sleek while still maintaining its freedom of movement (because it stretches).
(ii) When working with fabric with less give (like quilting cotton), choose a sleeve cap that is flatter and less shapely, like the brown one. The fabric will pull less at the armpit during arm movement.
(iii) For a garment in which you don't plan to move your arms very much (e.g. a jacket or coat), pick a sleeve with a pointier sleeve cap. It will result in a more vertically-hanging sleeve (remember the Kleenex Box Illustration?), with a more streamlined armpit area.
(iv) For a garment in which you plan to move your arms a lot (e.g. an everyday shirt or Tshirt), pick a sleeve with a flatter sleeve cap. It will allow more freedom of movement.
4 Variations - Sleeve Seam PositionsIn many garments, the seam of the sleeve is at the lowest part of the sleeve cap i.e. in the armpit region, where the sleeve connects to the side seam of the bodice. It is a convenient place for the sleeve seam. Sometimes, that seam is placed elsewhere. There are many reasons for this, including
- the overall seam pattern of the garment. Some shirts and coats have back yokes and the sleeve seam is deliberately situated at the back to form a continuous line with that yoke.
- sleeve shaping. Sometimes, the sleeve is not meant to hang straight down, but with a bend in the elbow. This is not uncommon in costumes in which the sleeves are very fitted and, for comfort, drafted to allow the arms to rest in a more natural, not-totally-straight-all-the-time position in them. In such cases, there may be more than one seam in the sleeve, plus elbow darts.
The important thing to note is that, regardless of the shape of the sleeve draft, it is still the same sleeve- it has a sleeve cap and some rudimentary symmetry about the shoulder point.
Here's an illustration, using our old friend, The Kleenex Box, with a green paper sleeve, set at a random angle.
This is where the seam commonly is in many garments - at the bottom. If we were to cut the sleeve apart here, it would look exactly like a regular sleeve draft.
If, however, we locate the seam at the back of the sleeve instead, and flatten it out,
This is what it would look like (in green). The yellow sleeve is the "regular" sleeve with the seam at the bottom, at the armpit.
Which, if we were to cut apart and re-assemble like a jigsaw puzzle, will easily revert to the more normal-looking draft.
Having successfully fitted the sleeve cap to your armhole, everything that happens below it is frosting on the cake. By changing the slant of the side seams originating from the ends of the sleeve cap, you can make many different styles of sleeves. Here are three examples:
The only rule is that the side seams (S) must be identical in length so that, when sewn together, they will match up.
These variations are a staple in all drafting books. Jen covered that in her post in our previous drafting series, and I will link to that here.
Note that throughout this post, we concentrated on drafting a set-in sleeve without gathers (i.e. we avoided puff sleeves). This is so we could focus on getting the sleeve caps to properly fit armholes and biceps and shoulders without superfluous ease. Many, many ready-to-wear garments have puff sleeves because those are an easy way to introduce more room in the sleeve cap area for a wider range of arm shapes. Many sewing patterns also employ puffed sleeves because they more easily accommodate different arms and compensate for the inability to draft to fit. By that, I don't mean that those pattern designers have inferior drafting skills; I mean that it is near impossible to custom-draft a beautiful sleeve cap for the arbitrary range of bodies that will wear their patterns.
End of sleeve lesson! I hope this has been helpful. Sleeves and armholes are soooooooo important in that they can make or break a garment, and yet, beyond "Personalize Your Garment -Magically Make 100 Different Sleeves From The Same Pattern!" I have seen very little on how to actually look and feel good in those sleeves. Perhaps this return to the fundamentals of sleeve theory will help you make better-looking and more comfortable garments in the future. Good luck!