Setting a Sleeve Into an Armhole

A hallmark of fine sewing is a smooth, unpuckered seam. One particular part of a garment that is prone to puckering is a set-in sleeve. Part of the reason for this is that more ease is built into the sleeve cap than in the armhole of the garment. What that means is that if you measure the circumference of the armhole of your garment, and compare that measurement to the length of the sleeve cap, you’ll find that the sleeve cap measurement is (often significantly) longer than the armhole measurement. You have to take up that extra length (“ease”) as you sew the sleeve to the body of the garment. Unfortunately, when setting in a sleeve, it’s really easy to get big ol’ pinches and puckers in the sleeve cap. And to put it bluntly, that’s just not a good look. But by taking your time and doing one or two extra steps, you can eliminate those unsightly puckers and make a garment that looks smooth and polished.

Most pattern instructions tell you to run two rows of ease stitching along the edge of the sleeve cap between the notches.

Once you have done the stitching, you are told to match up the markings on the sleeve and armhole, pull the ease-stitch threads to gather the sleeve, and stitch the sleeve and the garment together. As you can see from the picture below, the results can be disappointing. No amount of pressing will remove a pucker once it’s stitched into place.

Why does this happen? Because machine ease stitching limits your control over the distribution of the ease in the sleeve. But fear not! You can easily take back control and get great results. I have two techniques for inserting a smooth, beautifully-set sleeve: pin-easing and hand-basting. Both are worth the extra time they take, and both yield smooth, lovely results.

Pin-Easing

This is sometimes called “pin-basting". Instead of using machine easestitching, simply use a whole lot of pins to ease the sleeve into the armhole.

Start by matching all your markings (notches, dots, etc) and pin. Position your pins perpendicular to the seamline. Then pin between the markings, distributing the ease as you go. To get the best results, I position my pins between 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch apart. You don’t need to space the pins that closely in the un-eased part of the seam. Sew your seam, being careful to remove the pins before your needle reaches them.

Hand Basting

For even more control, I hand baste my sleeve to the garment. I can then sew without pins in my fabric. This step is invaluable when sewing finicky fabrics like taffeta and other stiff fabrics, and it makes handling slippery fabrics so much easier.

Hand baste within the seam allowance, then remove the pins before going to the sewing machine. When you sew the sleeve on your machine, take your time and use your fingers to manipulate the fabric to avoid any tiny puckers. This ensures a smooth set sleeve. The sleeve on the left is the one set using traditional machine-sewn ease stitching ("sad sleeve"). The sleeve on the right is sewn using pin-easing followed by hand basting ("happy sleeve"). All in all, the process takes me between 5 and 10 extra minutes, and the results are totally worth it. 

Try this on your next jacket or woven top. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

Happy sewing!
Ann