Monday, September 2, 2013

Shoulder Talk

Thanks so much for all of your feedback on my jacket!

Recently, I have received questions (some via email) about narrowing a shoulder, similar to this comment from MaryMary68 on my last post:

The jacket looks great!

Please, please, please do a tutorial on narrowing shoulders. Or link us up. Or refer the book you used to learn this technique.

I'm seriously struggling! I see this topic frequently on PR and know I'm not the only one.

I sometimes hesitate to share my particular alterations, as I am not a fit expert. I am pretty good at fitting me, but I do not see myself as a fit expert in general. A lot of my particular alterations are things that I just figured out, so they most likely do not represent what a professional pattern drafter (or other alterations expert) would suggest.

Given this disclaimer, let me tell you how I deal with this situation. My shoulders are, apparently, narrow. I took a proportions class once with Sandra Ericson, where we traced our shape onto a giant piece of paper (by standing against a wall in bare feet and working with a partner). Once we did this, we overlaid proportion lines on our silhouette to determine how we varied from "classic" body proportions. You can read more about the workshop here.

What I learned from this exercise that surprised me is that my shoulders are not particularly narrow. They are quite in proportion to the rest of my body.

Another interesting note is that when I sew a Style Arc pattern, I only have to remove maybe 1/2" from the shoulder. When I sew a Vogue (or one of the Big 4) I have to remove 1-2". Before I lost weight, and was sewing larger sizes, I typically had to remove closer to 2". Now that I've lost weight and am sewing smaller sizes, I typically remove closer to 1". If you sew from these patterns, you already know that the pattern companies think that, if you weigh more, that you are taller, have longer arms, wider shoulders, and so on, resulting in more alterations unless you are taller with longer arms and wider shoulders. ;)

But, as far as the pattern companies are concerned, I do have a narrow shoulder. So, how do I narrow a shoulder?

There is a pivot and slide technique. I am aware of it, but have not learned it.

The "technique" I use (if you can call it that) is a direct result of taking a tailoring class at Cañada College back in the 80s. I remember well when I got to that point in my jacket and learned, much to my chagrin, that the shoulder of the jacket was too wide. I was making a Claude Montana jacket with triangular suede appliques on the shoulder. I had gotten to the point where I had carefully attached the triangular appliques. Ronda Chaney, teacher extraordinaire, was about to hang the sleeves onto the jacket while I was wearing it.

Ronda told me that I would have to narrow the shoulder, meaning that I would have to chop off the tips of my carefully applied triangles. I was mortified and worried that the aesthetic design of the jacket was compromised.

Ronda marked where the sleeve should go. I cut it down and attached the sleeves.

Pshaw. Such drama! It was fine.

Here are the steps I follow:

  • I get to the point where the shoulder seam is sewn and I need to attach the sleeves.
  • Try the garment on and mark the desired shoulder placement with a pin.
  • Take the garment off and lay it flat. I cut off the excess fabric, tapering to nothing approximately where the notches are - where the armhole seam goes under the arm. I do this for the front and back, so what is removed looks like a sliver of new moon.
  • The sliver that I removed from the Anne Klein jacket - the back is on top and the front is on bottom. Note that I remove more width from the front of the garment than the back.
    Actually, this looks more like a Eucalyptus leaf!
  • I save the bits I cut off. I keep them in the plastic gallon bag with the pattern and samples of the fabric. If I make a pattern multiple times, I cut those slivers off the pattern, too.

The next question is, what about the top of the sleeve?

First, I always cut my sleeves at the very end of the process of making a garment. I have short arms, so I never cut the sleeves until the shoulders have been adjusted.

I pin the sleeve hem up on the pattern tissue and pin the underarm seam so that it's shaped like a tube. (For a 2-piece sleeve, I pin all the seams together.) I put the garment back on and pin the paper sleeve to the top of the shoulder with a single pin to check the sleeve length. (Note that I am not checking the fit of the armhole sleeve on the body, I do that while the garment is flat on the table.) I shorten the sleeve pattern, if needed.

Another interesting note. When I weighed more and was sewing larger sized patterns, I almost always had to shorten the sleeves by 1-2". Now that I am sewing smaller sizes, I sometimes don't have to shorten the sleeves at all, or I shorten them 1/2-1".

I guess the bottom line, is that if you are sewing Big 4 patterns, and the shoulders are too wide and the sleeves are too long, and you hate pattern alterations, just lose weight. ;)

But to be serious, another reason to cut out the sleeves later, is that once the shoulder is modified, you can then check to make sure that the sleeve will fit into the armscye. In a set-in sleeve, the top of the sleeve is drafted to be larger than the armscye, usually about 1-1/2" larger, though it can vary. This is why, of course, setting in a sleeve can be a bit of a pain - because you are squeezing a larger amount of fabric into a smaller area. (If you want to see a very compelling, opposing view to this accepted bit of drafting wisdom, see Kathleen Fasanella's post on Sleeve Cap Ease is Bogus.)

I compare the top of the sleeve to the armhole. Usually it is fine - in fact, it is pretty much always just fine. If there is still a question as to whether this will work, I cut a sleeve out of a muslin (or test) fabric, sew it up and baste to the garment, to be triply sure of the fit.

Once I am confident of the armhole fit and the sleeve length, I cut the sleeves out of the fashion fabric, and proceed.

You can see why I sew half dressed. I do lots of trying on and tweaking. For me, this is key to achieving a good fit, especially when using new patterns, but I even tweak the fit of TnT (Tried 'n True) patterns.

This is another reason I love Style Arc patterns. I find that they fit better through the upper chest and shoulder area. I still need to tweak the fit, but much less than for the Big 4 patterns.

But YMMV (your mileage may vary).

I am interested in hearing from other folks who narrow shoulders. What have you tried? What works? What doesn't work? Please share!


  1. I use your method - and I generally always have to shorten the shoulders on the patterns. I sew larger size patterns and my shoulders are a smaller size than the rest of me, I guess. Possibly I could eliminate fitting annoyances by losing weight. I'll give it some serious thought!

  2. That alteration sounds so reasonable to me. I think many times sewers (and instructors) try to make alterations harder (or more mystical) than they really need to be.

  3. Thank you for this discussion. Your way of working on fit is so reasonable and sensible. Well written post too. Back when you were sewing in the larger size range, it occurred to me that you were starting with a size or two too large. I prefer to start with a size that fits me better in my neck and shoulder area and then just add extra tissue until it fits all the bigger bits..

  4. I do roughly the same thing ...but when I get to cutting my sleeve, I place the "moon" piece from the bodice at the top of the sleeve, matching the Shoulder seam to the dot/notch of the sleeve, and then I cut, using the sliver to add to the sleeve cap height and width. I usually take out 2" of shoulder width, so I need to add it back to the sleeve. Hope that is clear as mud!

  5. I agree about sharing alterations/fit advice. I, too, can 'fit' me but I am often perplexed on how to fit someone else who has a different shape than I do. I struggle with 'how-to' advice when asked because I always think I shouldn't be passing along my bad habits to new sewists. However, I probably developed those 'bad habits' because I wouldn't take the time to learn the correct or acceptable method that my Home Ec teacher so valiantly tried to teach me.

  6. My alteration is embarrassingly simple. As an A cup, my bust measures to a 34, size 12. But, my upper chest is as wide as a big 4 size 14 while my back width is more like a size 10.

    I cut a 12, but place the CB of the pattern a bit inside the fabric fold to trim off 1/2". If the upper chest is too tight, I do a 1/2" pivot and slide between the shoulder point and the armhole.

    Sleeve caps don't need adjustment because I make no changes to the curve or length of the armhole. The only time I change sleeves is for extra arm girth. I have muscular legs and arms (and a normal amount of overlying fat) so I do that often.

  7. Thank you! I have just started a project to learn to fit myself better and this was just the info I needed! Now to learn how to fit jeans like yours. The new Vogue pattern magazine has really got me thinking about denim. Will you be making new jeans for the new figure?

  8. I do exactly what you do except I just whack the sleeve in anyway. I make it up to the ready to put the sleeve in bit, try it on, chop a bit of the shoulder line so it sits closer to the edge of my shoulder, then sew the sleeve in. I have never had a problem fitting in the sleeve with the 1 or 2cm I chop off the edge. I probably don't go down as far as you either. Not quite to the notches.

  9. I would tissue fit the shoulder width first and if too wide, cut the whole armhole area out and move inwards the 1" or whatever is needed. Then would have to taper out the side seam. Or add to the side seam and add the same to the sleeve underarm. I like your method.

  10. I do a pivot and slide. Mark how much you need to shorten the shoulder seam at the seam line. Using a copy of the armscye and some of the shoulder seam line it up at the underarm and pivot and slide the top of the armscye copy to the new shorter shoulder seam. Trace the new line and mark notches.

  11. I like this method very much and will try it for sure. I have both narrow and sloped shoulders. I find Vogue in particular are very wide in the shoulders.
    Shams, thank you very much for checking out my jacket and leaving a comment. I'm very flattered that you liked it. Happy sewing!

  12. I like this method very much and will try it for sure. I have both narrow and sloped shoulders. I find Vogue in particular are very wide in the shoulders.
    Shams, thank you very much for checking out my jacket and leaving a comment. I'm very flattered that you liked it. Happy sewing!

  13. Your alteration makes perfect sense! I wondered about it, too, so thanks for posting this. I do an extra step, similar to what andib described, to re-shape my sleeve. I need to add back to the sleeve what I took away from the shoulder, plus a forward shoulder adjustment. By the time I have done all that, I walk the seams one more time to make sure the sleeve seam is about an inch longer than in the armscye seam.

  14. Thank you Shams. I'm happy to know that whacking a half moon shape out of my armhole is an accepted and workable method since I always feel like I am committing some kind of sewing sacrilege whenever I've done it. BTW, I didn't get to comment but your jacket is wonderful and I know you'll wear it with great style and panache!

  15. I was taught this same technique for narrow shoulder adjustments. It works quite well!

  16. Thanks for sharing this-I had no idea. I need to make narrow shoulder adjustments for Carl (he is tall with narrower shoulder than regular pattern companies envisage). I either cut out an L from the shoulder centre to below the underarm and shift that piece inward, or use a rotary to cut out the shirt front/back from the hem to the underarm then place my finger on the underarm point and rotate the pattern anti-clockwise till the shoulder point is where his natural shoulder point should be and then cut.

  17. I use your alteration for myself, my small-boned daughter and many clients. It works and is so simple and logical. My personal adjustment is 1/2 to 1 inch for big 4 patterns and none in StyleArk patterns. Wish someone in the US would carry these wonderful patterns to cut the heavy shipping costs. I just love their current styles and fit!


  18. Wow, you are so generous with your instructions. This is so valuable. Having never had any formal sewing education I truly need this kind of thing so a huge thank you for such detailed and easily understood instructions!

    And, you are the zipper queen!

  19. squeeeeeeeeee!!!

    And thanks for making me feel normal. I always have to chop shoulders down only then sometimes the sleeve fits too tightly. I love your idea of waiting to cut the sleeve until you get to this part in the sewing. I also like the idea of how you fit the shoulders using the actual garment. I think it would be less intimidating to cut the actual fabric then to try to draw the correct pattern lines.

    I'm going to try this!

    A big, big heartfelt thank you!

  20. WOW! Such wonderful advice. Thanks for all the tips.

  21. WOW! Such wonderful advice. Thanks for all the tips.

  22. My shoulders really are narrow - even at the smaller sizes I chop off 1-2" from Vogue sleeves. But I nearly always do it at the pattern level. But then, since I also nearly always need an adjustment for sloping shoulders and one for forward shoulders, I think it's easier to do everything at once at the pattern level. Otherwise, your method sounds like a wonderfully easy one!

    I also have taken to nearly always cutting the sleeves after the bodice is sewn together. I almost never add to the sleeve cap to take care of the space that was removed from the shoulder, but that's because of the sloping shoulder adjustments, combined with the fact that I hate (yes hate) puckers on the sleeve.

    Awesome tutorial, as always!