Sleeves can change the look of a garment more than almost any other part. You can make a sleeve virtually any length from shoulder to wrist and beyond. You can also leave it off completely. The options for sleeves are astounding.
Sleeve patterns look really strange. The big curve is called the sleeve cap. Sleeves have a distinct top (overarm) and a bottom (underarm). The Overarm length is from the Shoulder Point to the Wrist. The Underarm is from the armpit to the wrist. There’s a substantial difference between these two numbers.
You can create a tube of fabric that covers most of the arm and meets the bodice in the armpit, but there’s no way to reach up over the arm on the shoulder with a tube. That’s where the sleeve cap comes in. It is necessary to make the sleeve fit the body and provides room for arm rotation.
Sleeve patterns are difficult to draft. There are different methods to do so, but none of them is ever a perfect fit to the armhole of the bodice. The sleeve cap edge length on a finished draft may not match the length of the front and back armhole. You never want a sleeve cap measurement to be smaller than the armhole.
Patternmaker Pro patterns show the measurements of the armholes and sleeves, so you can see the difference in measurements. It may be necessary to make adjustements to the patterns before sewing.
The difference between the sleeve cap length and the armhole is called Sleeve Cap Ease. Patternmakers often add between 1" to 2" (2.5 cm to 5 cm) to the length of the sleeve cap, so it is larger than the armhole. Then this added ease is spread across the top of the cap between the ease points when it is sewn in place. The real pattern image below shows the ease points circled in red and the notches outlined in blue. (Note: This is a multi-size pattern and that is why you can see multiples of things).
This topic is a hot one in the sewing community, because not everyone agrees that the ease is necessary. It can be a lot of work to ease in a sleeve cap while sewing because you can not have any gathers or puckering.
Although you don’t need to worry about ease, you will probably want to make sleeves that look puffy, which means they are gathered. If you are sewing in a sleeve that is larger than the armhole, you don't want all the excess all the way around the armhole.
Sleeves must have flat seams without gathering under the arm. All the gathering must take place up high, in the sleeve cap area.
If you look at the real sleeve pattern shown previously, you can see notches. There are double notches on the left down low (attaches to back armhole) and single notches on the right (attaches to front armhole). In the real world, excess fabric is gathered above these notches, leaving the area below sewn flat and not gathered.
To determine how far from the armpit to place these points, multiply your front armhole length by 0.375. This will be your point distance.
Using the same procedure, create matching points on the sleeve. Make sure to put the front distance on the front of the sleeve and the back distance on the back of the sleeve.
This distance is not set in stone. Feel free to vary this amount, depending on the look you want for your sleeve. Just remember to keep the area under the arm smooth and free of gathers.
When you make a shirt, you can decide how fitted it is, whether it hangs loosely or hugs the body contour. You have this same option with sleeves.
A fitted sleeve will have a dart at the elbow and a curved wrist line. It will be very close to the arm and mimic the shape of a relaxed arm, which is slightly bent.
The next type is a two-piece sleeve. These are somewhat rare today, but they were very popular at one time. The two-piece sleeve is fitted, but it doesn’t have an elbow dart. It is shaped at a slight angle to match the arm and is used primarily for coats and suit jackets.
A slightly fitted straight sleeve will taper down a bit as it reaches the wrist. A full straight sleeve has no tapering and is the same width all the way down to the wrist. You can curve the line at the wrist for better fit or leave it straight across.
There are a lot of unfitted sleeves to choose from. They can be very full with pleats or gathers. They can be loose at the wrist or pulled in to a cuff.
A cuff finishes off your sleeve design. There are a variety of widths and styles for sleeve cuffs. Cuffs are drafted using the circumference measurement on the arm where the sleeve will end. For a standard long sleeve, this will be the wrist.
Regardless of how wide your sleeve is at the bottom, the cuff serves to bring it all together and transition to the wrist measurement.
Simple cuffs are just bands that overlap themselves with a button closure. If your sleeve end is a lot wider than the cuff, you may choose to gather the excess all around the cuff or create pleats. Pleats are very common on men’s shirt sleeves.
Cuffs usually have one or two buttons, but you can add more. Some shirt cuffs are called adjustable because they have two rows of buttons. This allows the cuff to accommodate different sized wrists.
The style of a simple shirt cuff is changed by how the lower edge of the cuff is shaped.
Double cuffs are cuffs that are created twice as tall and folded back on themselves. A classic French cuff is an example of this style. French cuffs are unique because you don’t overlap them. The ends are placed wrong sides together and closed with cuff links.
You can create cuffs that are in excess of 4" (10 cm) tall. These are referred to as the Gauntlet style. To make these cuffs, you must measure the circumference of the arm where the cuff will attach to the sleeve. Then you draft the cuff starting with the wrist measurement and tapering out to the arm measurement. The cuff will contour to the shape of the arm as it rises.
The last type of cuff is called a Rolled Cuff. You incorporate the distance of the cuff in the sleeve itself. Then you simply roll the sleeve back on a fold line to make a cuff. These are commonly used to finish a short sleeve.
Other Sleeve Finishes
There are other ways to finish the edge of a sleeve. You can create a casing with a drawstring and gather it up. Many sleeves are just hemmed.
The easiest sleeve is no sleeve at all! Create a sleeveless design by simply omitting the sleeves.
Most sleeveless garments are bound at the armholes. Make sure that the edges of the trim meet in the armpit (not the top of the arm).