Friday, September 26, 2008

Sleeve Bicep Alterations

If you've noticed, I don't write many posts on pattern alterations and there are several reasons for this:

1. I honestly believe that sewists especially beginners should be taught the proper way of constructing garments! I know that I'm shortcutting and changing things. But that's because I already KNOW and HAVE a well built I know when I can and can't push the boundaries of construction techniques.

2. I don't think I'm a great teacher...before you start to complain...let me explain! I believe that a great teacher can share a technique in such a way that someone can understand it at a very basic level. That ain't me...I wish, but it ain't. Now can I inspire? Yes! Can I encourage? Yes! And can I enable? Yes, with the best of them! *LOL* But teaching takes a special gift that I don't believe I possess...

So it is with much reluctance, hesitancy and many, many disclaimers that I am posting how I make alterations to sleeve patterns to fit my bodacious biceps...shew, that was a long winded introduction! *LOL*

First - measurements:

I measure my bodacious biceps at their fullest skimp on this measurement or be untruthful if you want but you risk having very ill-fitting sleeves if you don't take correct measurements. Personally, I don't care what the number is on the tape measure, what I care most about is the fact that a well-fitted garment actually makes you appear thinner and better looking than something you are stuffing yourself into.

Second - Ease:

The Perfect Fit in the Singer Sewing Series defines ease as, "extra room designed into a pattern or garment for comfort and style. The amount of ease varies from one fashion style to another and is often the key to how the fashion fits. Ease can be adjusted, but avoid over-fitting by removing too much ease."

To me the most important point of making a sleeve alteration is determining adequate ease before cutting up your pattern. For this you need to try on a sleeve that works for you...that is attractive to your figure type and flatters your arms. From the sleeve you tried on, determine how much ease you need/like. Then take the measurement of your biceps, add the amount of ease you want plus seam allowances...this is the final figure you need for determining how many inches to add to the pattern.

Now I use two totally different alterations for long and short I will deal with short sleeves first.

This picture illustrates the fact that I slice the pattern from 1/2" from the top of the sleeve cap through to the hem. I then add the additional inches determined by my formula above. The last step is to true up the hem, because the sides of the sleeve will be higher than the bottom.

By slashing and spreading you do not change the width of the sleeve cap - so it should fit into the armscye without any problems...well that is if the original sleeve cap and armsyce are drafted well...but we're not going there today! *smile* To me this is the easier of the two alterations and it allows me to add enough space to the bicep area and to lengthen my short sleeve to a flattering length for my arms.

Now for long sleeves...

To get my biceps to fit into a long sleeve I have gone through a few gyrations. I have tried the method used by Palmer and Pletsch. I have tried Cynthia Guffeys' method...all with varied measures of success. I finally settled on adding a seam to the top of the sleeve because it allows me to add at the biceps in the simpliest method possible. It also gives me quite a few opportunities for embellishments - i.e., topstitching or inserting piping...and it's become a kind of trademark of my garments.

How do I make this alteration?

**First I mark the increase at the bicep area (again taken from the formula mentioned above but divided in half).

**Then I add a 5/8" seam allowance mark to the sleeve cap and another mark at the sleeve hem.

**Two more marks are added - one between the sleeve cap and the bicep easing from the 5/8" seam allowance to the bicep allowance. And the second mark is made after the bicep mark and the sleeve hem, easing from the bicep into the sleeve hem. I use a ruler to make this line.

**I then cut out and sew together the 4 sleeve pieces making two separate sleeves.

Okay, do you have any questions? The blog is now open to questions, comments, clarifications, and other methods and/or techniques for enlarging bicep measurements.

Please feel free to ask questions, if I haven't been clear on anything in this post. Or feel free to correct something that I am advocating if you truly think it's wrong...but I do add the codacil that it's working for me so I'm not about to change...but it if will help someone else, let's add it to the conversation.


  1. Thank you. I have the hardest time altering sleves. And now I see why. I've been trying what my mom said to do. Adding to the side seams. Guess mom didn't always know best. And I'm way old enough to know better.

  2. I think that is a great technique if it works for you. It solves the problem and as you said, adds opportunity for embellishment. Knowing the basics and the rules is only a starting off point. You still have to make the garment work.

    As I understand it, Ralph Rucci started making his garments with many curved and shaped pieces because he wanted to figure out a way to make the garments without using darts, and using seams as both shaping and decorative elements to enhance the female form. I think you are in very good company.

    And you are very clear.

  3. Yes, you are definitely an enabler( I have some fabric to prove it) and one who shares their creativity to inspire. But I think this was a good post on altering biceps. There are a few others that I have seen. The nice thing whether you think you can teach or not, is that you do share what you do!

  4. thank you so much...Since it's sewing saturday, I am returning to a jacket pattern that two muslins ago still did not fit in the biceps are spot on for helping me and I think I understand your very clear instructions, which I am printing to take with me to my sewing lair....thanks, ML

  5. You did a great job with the instructions! I think they are clear enough so that if someone has the same fit issues you do, they can now see that fitting those bodacious arms isn't that hard and will open up more pattern styles to them.

  6. Carolyn

    Very interesting. I have been trying to avoid the 2-piece sleeve change but sometimes I have to add nearly an inch to the bicep circumference. That makes easing the sleeve cap darned difficult.

    What do you do to a 2-piece jacket cleeve? Do you make it a 3-piece sleeve?


  7. It's very nice of you to offer this information to help others! I don't have anything to add, but I do enjoy seeing your techniques and finished projects!

  8. Don't you just hate altering. I know its a part of the game but the big four should offer an online system for their patters where we could plug in our exact measurements and have the pattern drafted just for us. LOL! Dream world. Anyway, thanks so much for your kind words. Everyone seems to love the shoes, who knew. LOL

  9. Unrelated to your tutorial - but I absolutely love the trim on that sleeve! I recognize the fabric from one of your other dresses, I think.

  10. I like the idea of an added seam as "embellishment opportunity"

  11. Thank you for this information, Carolyn. I have printed this off to use in my next sleeved garment. This was quite generous for you to make this available for all of us.


  12. O.K., well just to let you know... I have 3 daughters and myself that I sometimes sew for. Not one of us are the same size! So, needless to say I've been doing my sleeve alterations for all of us the same way that you have.... ahem.... for years! Your doing just fine! Call yourself whatever you want... if someone has learned anything at all from you! Then sweetie... your a teacher! That is a compliment! Because teachers are pretty special people! As far as I'm concerned you fit into that group!
    Hang in there!

  13. I have to say, I used the Cynthia Guffey technique I learned on this blog for my shirts, and I am so happy! I couldn't get a blouse sleeve to fit for love or money since I needed so much extra just for the bicep, and your method/pictures helped greatly. Thanks for being willing to share your techniques.

  14. Thanks so much for the tutorial. You must have been reading my mind. I just did a test garment and the sleeves did not fit at all. I ordered a video but it did not have any alterations It had construction instructions so thanks for the information. I can use this along with the books I have to read.

  15. Timely post! I am currently fighting it out with a McCall pattern that should be easy but is giving me endless fits, including very tight sleeves. I either have to stop working out or start altering sleeves to accommodate my shoulders and biceps. I'm thinking the latter will be better for me in the long run!

  16. Thank you for these instructions. You are inspiring and encouraging to say the least. But for me you are a great teacher as well. You invite us to think outside the box while using fundamental techniques to produce our own little works of art.

  17. why not just pivot the pattern piece form the top seam line?
    i need an extra .5 inches in my sleeve for instance, and so i would extend the bottom line of the pattern out .25 inch on each side and then from the top seam line pivot the pattern and redraw the top curvey line and then connect the two side points on each side. does that make sense? is there a reason for not doing it that way?
    I'm so stressing about my sleeves on this new pattern i am working on...

  18. Thanks for sharing this on your blog. This will help me with an independent pattern company's tight sleeves.

  19. Great tutorial. I have the same problem and have had this method recommended. I've often wondered, why not create a two-piece sleeve with the seam at the back the way a jacket sleeve is constructed? That way, you wouldn't have a seam running down the top of your sleeve. I'm sure there's some reason for this since it's never recommended, but I don't understand why and thought you might know.


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