Drafting Sleeves

I’ve been showing people how I draft sleeves a lot recently, so I figured I’d put my technique up here. It doesn’t really use any technical modern tailoring tricks, just some geometry and guesswork. It’s worked pretty well for me so far, but there’s always improvements to be made.

Okay, so sleeves are this funny shape with curvy bits at the top, but why are they like that? Let’s take a look. (This part may look familiar to you if you remember my LJ post from way back in 2006)

So here we have an abstraction of the human body, showing the torso with an arm held out straight. We want to make a sleeve for that arm, so let’s wrap some fabric around it:

Just to keep things simple, we’ll put the seam at the bottom of the arm. When we unwrap the fabric, we have our sleeve pattern:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have a rectangle. For a T-tunic type sleeve, this is all we need. Since this sleeve was made with the arm raised up, however, the fabric bunches up in the armpit when the arm is lowered. Since we spend most of our time with our arms at a lower angle, let’s try to make our sleeve accommodate that.

Okay, now our arm is at a more natural angle. Hm, it doesn’t look like it fits quite right, but we’ll worry about that later. Again, we cover it with fabric, this time with the seam at the back of the arm, just for kicks:

We’ve also marked where we’ll have to cut the arm-abstraction off so that it will fit flush against the side of the torso:

So what do we get when we unwrap the fabric now?

What an interesting shape! When we cut the cylinder of fabric and unwrap it, we get a sinusoidal curve. In fact, if the cylinder is cut at 45°, we would get a perfect sine wave. If the seam is at the bottom of the arm rather than the back, we would get a cosine wave. The angle of the intersection determines the height of the wave: when the arm was held out at 90° the wave was flat, and the lower the angle of the arm, the greater the height of the wave. This gives you a way to adjust the fit of your sleeve by changing the curve at the top.

Assuming we want to have a nice tight-fitting sleeve, we’ll need to take some measurements and adjust the pattern:

The “arm” measurement is taken from the point of the shoulder (or the top edge of the armscye if you already know where that is), around the point of the elbow to the wrist, with the arm bent. The height of the curve at the top is up to you, but I usually have no more than about 4 inches of difference between the highest and lowest points.

This looks like a good starting place for a tapered sleeve.  If you look at your arm, however, you’ll notice that it isn’t shaped like a cone. It’s meaty up at the top, and stays pretty much the same through the elbow, and then does most of its tapering between the elbow and the wrist. You also have to leave some room for when you bend your elbow. Taking that into account, let’s adjust our pattern a bit:

Okay, that looks more comfortable. If you want to have a very close-fitting sleeve, you can cut it on the bias to give some extra stretch. Now let’s see about getting it installed:

Here we have the sleeve and the armscye in which it wants to live. At this point I assume that the edges of the sleeve piece and the armscye have all been finished, so that they can be put together with a simple whip stitch (for a good explanation of what I mean, look here). Let’s sew up the back of the sleeve and sew it into the armscye, with the highest point of the curve on the sleeve head meeting up with the shoulder seam of the body:

Uh oh, that doesn’t look right. I didn’t check to make sure that the length of the curve on the sleeve head matched the circumference of the armscye! I suppose I could use a measuring tape, or some string, or… You know what, I’ve got some scraps left over. Let’s just fix up that little hole:

Whew! That little gusset allowed me to be super lazy while patterning this sleeve. It also makes the sleeve flare just the right amount where it meets the body. If I allow for this gusset when I make my sleeve, then I don’t have to worry about easing the sleeve head into an armscye that’s just a touch too big or too small. Let’s take a look at our pattern now: It looks kind of like a bluebird. It also looks remarkably like a couple of period examples. In later centuries, the armscye gets deeper and more gores are used to create the grande assiette. In some 16th century examples the flare at the top of the sleeve is drafted as part of the main sleeve pattern.

Hopefully this will give you a place to start when trying to work out a pattern for your next pair of sleeves. Good luck!

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