How To: Insert a Sleeve

Inserting sleeves can be a tricky part of dressmaking to master, so I wanted to launch a blog and YouTube tutorial (How To: Insert a Sleeve) that explained the method I use. Hopefully you will find this useful and learn a few tips and techniques to improve your sewing.

We are going to be working with a one piece sleeve (meaning the sleeve has 1 seam to sew, generally in the underarm area), however if you are working with a 2 piece sleeve you can still follow the tutorial. Remember that you will need to sew 2 seams to create your sleeve, and you may need to sew these prior to completing the easing / gathering stitch around the top of the sleeve cap.

Start by cutting out 2 sleeves in the fabric of your choice. Mark the details from the pattern onto your fabric, use carbon paper / tailors tacks / chalk or a removable pen. Alternatively you can clip into the notches, make sure you don’t cut too far into your seam allowance.

What do the notches mean?
You should have a notch or mark at the top of the sleeve cap (centre or just off centre), this mark matches a shoulder seam (shoulder marking) on the garment.

There may also be a single notch on one side of the sleeve slope and a double notch on the opposite side.

Single notch = front of sleeve.
Double notch = back of sleeve.

If you have an overlocker or serger I recommend you finish the raw edges of the main sleeve seam (both sides of the underarm seam) prior to sewing the seam together. I also finished the hem edge, but this will depend on the hemming technique you plan to work with.  If you are going to use a overcast/zigzag stitch on the sewing machine or pinking shears to finish the edges of your fabric I recommend you complete this after sewing the sleeve seam/seams.

To start you will need to complete an easing/gathering stitch around the top of the sleeve cap. Most sleeves will be drafted larger than the armhole, so you need to ease the sleeve to fit the size of the armhole. Most dressmaking patterns will have 2 small circles either side of the top part of the sleeve cap, and the pattern will ask you to complete an easing/gathering stitch between these two markings. I personally find these markings too close together, especially if the sleeve has a large amount of ease, making the sleeve cap look gathered (even though that isn’t the design)!

Instead I complete the easing/gathering stitch between the single and double notches. Complete 2 or 3 rows of stitching to enable you to create an even gather, stitch length 4mm in the seam allowance. If your seam allowance is 5/8″ (1.5cm) complete the first row 1/2″ (1.2cm) away from the raw edge of the fabric. Complete another row in-between the first row of stitching and the edge of the fabric. Work with a large stitch on the sewing machine 4mm or greater, leave long tails of thread at the start and the end (to pull on later) and do NOT back stitch.

You can also complete a hand running stitch if you would prefer. You will need to tie this off securely at the start and leave a tail at one end. Depending on your fabric and ability of hand sewing you may find this easier or harder than working on the sewing machine. Some of my customers struggle to create an even gather or absorb a large amount of fabric with their hand sewn easing, it is hard to create the same tension you will achieve on the sewing machine.

I personally prefer to complete the easing/gathering stitch whilst the sleeve is flat (no seams are sewn), but you are welcome to do this once the sleeve seam has been sewn together. With some sleeves such as a 2 piece sleeve you may have to sew the sleeve seams prior to completing the easing stitch, as the easing stitch will pass over the sewn seams.

Stitch the sleeve seam together, matching notches and the start and end of the seam. Work from the hem towards the underarm, this forces any discrepancies to the underarm edge, which can be corrected when sewing the sleeve onto the body.

Stitch using the standard 2.5mm stitch length (remember to change your sewing machine back after using 4mm for the easing/gathering). Backstitch at the start and end of the seam. If you are using the overcast/zigzag stitch or pinking shears I would finish the raw edges of the fabric now.

Press the seam open on a sleeve roll.

Complete the hem as your fabric and pattern requires, it is easier to do it at this stage before attaching the sleeve to the garment.

Check your garment is ready for the sleeve to be attached. The armhole must be a complete circle, so you will need to stitch the required seams; these include shoulder seam, underarm/side seam and perhaps a princess seam or other design lines.

Start by gathering/easing the sleeve. I personally prefer to gather/ease my sleeve prior to pinning it onto the garment, I find it easier to work with. Start by pulling on the threads, you will need to pull on 2 threads (it doesn’t matter if these are from the right side or the wrong side of the fabric), but you must pull on the 2 threads from the same side. Slide the fabric away from the thread tails along the stitches. Complete a small amount on both sides (if you have tails on both sides).

If you are working with a slippy fabric and find that the threads are moving loosely through the fabric or you are worried that you might remove the threads from the opposite side, lock the threads with a pin. Position a pin into the fabric (point towards the raw edge of the fabric) and take the 2 threads, wrap the threads around the pin in a figure of eight motion. Why not watch this in the YouTube tutorial: How To: Insert a Sleeve.

Once you are happy that you have gathered the sleeve enough (this will depend on the pattern you are working with), use your fingers to move the gathering/easing around the sleeve cap. Make sure that the gathering/easing is even around the sleeve cap.

What is the difference between gathering and easing?
Gathering = is noticeable, for example a gathered skirt.
Easing = I refer to easing as mini gathering, gathering is taking place but it isn’t visible once you have sewn it into the garment. The majority of sleeves will use this method.

Once the sleeve is ready, turn both the garment and sleeve RIGHT side facing out. I always have my garment and sleeve in front of me, so that I can check I am putting the sleeve into the correct armhole (we have all done it)! Remember a single notch is for the FRONT of the sleeve, a double notch is for the BACK of the sleeve; these notches should match notches/markings on the garment.

Position the sleeve against the garment, RIGHT sides of the fabric together and start by matching the underarm seams. In this example I have an underarm seam in the garment and sleeve, but you might have a pattern without a side seam in either the sleeve (such as a 2 piece sleeve) or the garment. In this case you would need to match the markings together, these are normally shown as squares or large circles.

Holding the matched seams together put your hand inside the garment so that you are working with the armhole facing you.  Check out the corresponding YouTube tutorial (How To: Insert a Sleeve) for a detailed how to!

Start by pinning the underarm, this is the stable part of the seam because there is no easing/gathering. Work your way either side of the underarm seam until you get to the easing stitches on the sleeve. Match the edges of the fabric from the armhole and the sleeve together, pin with the body of the garment facing up.

Next match the notch at the top of the sleeve cap with the shoulder seam (marking), pin in position.

Now it is time to work with the easing. Start by making the sleeve and armhole the same size. As I mentioned previously I normally gather too much fabric on the sleeve in advance because it is easier to let it out than take it in at this point. Let out the gathering stitches using your thumb and forefinger, to make the sleeve the same size as the armhole. Make sure the gathering is evenly distributed.

Next take the middle of the sleeve and the middle of the armhole (you can complete this by eye, you don’t need to measure) and match them together, complete continuously until one side of the sleeve is pinned to the garment. Complete again for the opposite side.

If you are working with a slippy or difficult fabric and/or matching plaids and prints I would recommend that you baste/tack the sleeve into the garment before sewing on the machine. Work with a running stitch 1/4″ (6mm) in length and stitch on or close to the stitching line.

To enable you to have perfectly matched seams I recommend using Clover Fork Pins. You can position these pins on any seam where you would like to have a match. In my example I need to match the underarm seam of the garment to the underarm seam of the sleeve. Match the seams together manually first. Position the Clover Fork Pin into the fabric, placing the pointed edge of the pin towards the raw edge of the fabric and the legs either side of the seam you are trying to match. The pin must be sitting on TOP of the fabric, so that the curved section of the pin is on top when you sew over it.

One thing to note here, if your garment has princess seams and a 2 piece sleeve the seams will not necessarily match. It will depend on the pattern and how it has been designed, but do NOT force a match. Work with the same technique as above, if they are designed to match they will match easily.

At the sewing machine you may need to remove the front part of the machine to help make room for the sleeve (this depends on the make/model of your machine). Start sewing at the underarm (past the underarm seam), so that you sew the whole of the underarm before stitching over the top of the sleeve cap. Work with the seam allowance for your pattern (standard is 5/8″ (1.5cm)) and use a 2.5mm stitch length. Backstitch at the start and end of the seam.

Ideally sew the sleeve from the body side of the garment. This is because the sleeve is generally larger than the armhole and the feed dogs on the sewing machine will move the underneath side slightly quicker than the top side, helping to move the sleeve quicker than the body will ease it into the garment. This is when you must not use a walking foot, as it will prohibit this technique.

Run the fabric through the sewing machine and use both hands to continually check for pleats and puckers. If you find you have caught a pleat or pucker you may be able to use your nails to tweak this out. If it won’t come out, unpick the area around the pleat or pucker and re-stitch, back stitch at the start and end to secure.

Trim threads and finish the seam with the method of your choice; overlocker/serger or overcast/zigzag stitch on the sewing machine.

The general rule is that the seam allowances should sit together and be pushed towards the sleeve. Don’t worry about pressing the seam allowances, they should sit in position naturally. If you are having trouble you can lightly press the seam allowances towards the sleeve, but be careful you don’t flatten the sleeve cap.

Why not watch the YouTube tutorial to see how I insert sleeves: How To: Insert a Sleeve.