Altering The Alder, Part 2: Adding Sleeves

Our guest blogger today is Kelly Walsh, the Director of Engineering at Spoonflower and an avid seamstress who loves a good hack. In the second of two parts, she explains how to alter the very popular Alder Shirtdress from Grainline Studio to add sleeves. If you missed it, part 1 of this post is here.


I don’t know about you, but I’m a sleeves girl. Short, long, three-quarter, poofy, flowy, bell, cap—about the only sleeves I don’t go for are the old historic ‘leg of mutton’ sleeves, I can’t imagine many things less comfortable looking. Sleeves are an extra element to an outfit, they’re another place to add detail, structure, balance, or style. The shape of a sleeve can totally change a garment. When I was looking at the Alder dress after my first round of alterations, I just felt like it was crying out for sleeves!

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Good news! Drafting a simple short sleeve is actually a lot easier than you think it is. There’s a fair number of choices to make along the way, but there are some things you can do to make it easier. The Alder is actually great for this modification because the bodice structure is pretty normal, and the armscye (AKA the armhole) is quite standard. If there’s a blouse or dress you’ve made before that has a similar shape, and sleeves you like, there’s a really good chance you can just lift that pattern piece wholesale and sew it right into the Alder. I wouldn’t recommend trying that without testing it on some scrap fabric first, just in case. But I can tell you that it’s worked for me in the past! There are a whole lot of great tutorials on the internet that go into a lot of detail, but I’ll touch on some of the basics of a simple short sleeve, and then look at how you might modify it for different shapes.

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There’s several important aspects to a basic sleeve shape that I really look at. The circumference of the bicep of the sleeve, the circumference of the armsyce (aka the armhole) of the garment you’re fitting it in, the “height” of the cap, and the length of the sleeve. On my super high tech drawing below, the red line represents the bicep of the sleeve. The purple line is the length of the sleeve from your shoulder until the end.

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The green line is the circumference of the armscye. And the light blue line is the “cap height,” or if you think about it another way, the difference between the length of the sleeve at your inner arm (armpit) and the length of the sleeve from your shoulder. You can also get this measurement by looking at the pattern pieces for your bodice, and measuring in a straight line from the side seam top corner straight up to the outside corner of the shoulder seam.

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Now, one of the most subtlest things about sleeves is how you draw that curve along the armscye. It can absolutely make the difference between a poofy sleeve, and a sleek tight fitting sleeve, and it’s all in what effect you want. I didn’t really want a poof sleeve here, but I’m also too lazy to do some of the intense work that is required for getting a perfectly fitted inset sleeve. And that’s where “ease” comes into play. It’s the fudge factor, the simplifier. It means that, for all intents and purposes I kind of eye-ball it, test it out, and in the end just go with it. Ease is your friend. The curve I draw might not fit perfectly into my armscye, but with some basting stitches and a tiny bit of fidgeting, I make it work.

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After taking my measurements, thinking about how long I wanted my sleeves, and using some tricks I learned before, this is the sleeve shape I came up with. One of those tricks, by the way, is to use Spoonflower to print what is effectively graph paper fabric. It’s a 1-inch grid printed directly on their basic cotton fabric, and it is GREAT for pattern drafting. You could even get a roll of it on gift wrap and use that way!

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Above you see my sleeve shape, with the red line representing the sleeve length. It’s about 9” inches, which I know from past experience works for me, and is similar to most other sleeve shapes I’ve found.

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This green line is the bicep line. Now, if you want sleeves that really hug your arms, you’d make measurement similar to your own bicep circumference. I like a bit of moving room, so I usually just draw the cap lines nearly vertically down. You can also even expand them a touch further out if you want a more flared shape. As long as this measurement is more than your bicep, it’s more about what style you’re looking for.

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The sleeve cap curves I usually draw with my french curve ruler. Its useful that way. But finding that “inflection point” where the concave curve becomes a convex curve is pretty important. Its easiest to do it with your bodice pattern pieces in mind. Think of it as the same point where the curve changes in the shoulder of those pattern pieces. This is where the fabric is curving around your arm, and finally folds into your armpit.

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There’s a blog post by ikatbag that goes into a whole lot more detail in this area that I really like. Check out her cardboard box demonstration if you really want a good understanding of how this curve and the cap height of your sleeve can really change its shape. If you’re curious I definitely recommend if.

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If you just want some sleeves and you want them now, then forge on ahead, trust yourself, and trust pattern makers who have gone before you. And when you’re drafting it all up, don’t forget your seam allowance! Trust me. It’ll go downhill fast if you forget that. Not that I ever do that of course (yeah right!)  If you want a basic short sleeve, you’re done, it’s really that easy. But there’s also a lot of things you can do to get interesting sleeve shapes.

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If you like cap sleeves, it’s as simple as shortening the length so that your entire sleeve is basically the cap height, and if you want the edge higher, just give that line a curve upwards.  There are so many sleeve options, but one of my favorites are called “tulip sleeves” or “petal sleeves.” They’re really only one extra step beyond a basic sleeve shape, but they add such a lovely detail that it instantly becomes the start of any garment.

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Tulip sleeves are made by visually layering the fabric in the sleeve with a curved edge, so that it looks like two flower petals over top each other. Seamwork Magazine has done a great tutorial on transforming a simple inset sleeve into a tulip sleeve, and I definitely recommend reading it as well, you can find it here.

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First you take your basic sleeve shape, and draw a curved line from one of the shoulder notches to the opposite corner. Yep, here comes that handy french curve ruler again!

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Then you do the exact same thing going in the other direction. Your one sleeve piece has now become two separate pattern pieces. Your two sleeves will actually require four smaller pattern pieces  (or 8, if you choose to line them.) See how their shoulder points line up, and overlap in the middle, and the bottom edge creates a flower like shape?

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Actually, this is the other reason I chose tulip sleeves for this Sprout Patterns project. When you’re working with scrap material, it’s frequently easier to find lots of small pieces than a few large pieces. I found it easier to fit four of these smaller curved pieces within the margins of fabric. But, if I’d wanted more expansive sleeves, I could have just bought a fat quarter of the same design from Spoonflower and that would have been more than enough extra fabric. It’s part of what makes the whole Sprout Patterns concept amazing!

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In the end, my sleeves looked like this, and in my mind they are just right for this dress. I love the playful effect the tulip shape gives them, which I think matches the gathered skirt and adds an overall balance to the garment.

Don’t be afraid of drafting your own sleeves, and experimenting with other shapes. It’s part of why so many people enjoy sewing, because they get to have some creative expression with what they make, and what they wear! There are a lot of great resources out there if you’ve seen a sleeve you like but have no idea how you’d go about making it.

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And don’t think that just because the lines are printed on the fabric, you’re trapped into that shape. Sprout Patterns is about helping you express your creativity in sewing, and it’s about giving you a starting place. Add onto what you’re given and change it up. See how many different ways you can use the scrap fabric to add unique details. A pocket, or a ruffle, or some sleeves. It’s all in what you can imagine.


kellybiopic.jpgKelly Walsh attended the NC School of Science and Mathematics and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Philosophy. She spends most of her free time reading, sewing the most elaborate Halloween costumes she can envision (and the occasional everyday outfit), and learning to weave on her 1900s Leclerc floor loom. Her favorite Sprout Pattern of the moment is the Archer Button Up. She joined the Spoonflower team in 2011 as a printer operator, and is currently the Director of Site Engineering.

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2 thoughts on “Altering The Alder, Part 2: Adding Sleeves

  1. Pingback: Altering The Alder, Part 1: Adding Darts | Sprout Patterns Blog

  2. Pingback: Altering the Alder: Sprout hacks – Dress Insouciantly

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