Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Science of Sleeves.


There are no shortcuts to making a great fitting sleeve.

When I first started out creating set in sleeves, I began with a very basic, loosely explained method. We'll call this your standard "magical" method. You've come across this method every time the physical act of drawing the correct sleeve head curve is sort of glossed over in the instructions with something along the lines of "until it looks about right".

After drawing out the rest of the sleeve's shape according to the measurements of your arm, and having the armscye measurement in hand, you're supposed to create an S-curve of the armscye length. You're given no real guidelines to work with (except maybe a "don't go higher than this" line), and there's absolutely no information about a sleeve head not actually being symmetrical. So after drawing the totally made up curve, I don't know what. Offer chocolate to the celestial sleeve gods, burn some sandalwood incense, and recite Hamlet's soliloquy backwards, I guess? Hope and pray.

That method is a relatively common starting point for many of us because it doesn't challenge us to understand anything. It's also sometimes touted as a "period method", so we automatically gravitate to it. It produces a sleeve that fits your armscye. Forget the rest.

Until you raise your arm, or try to hug a friend, or just stand there doing nothing, for that matter. The chances that you actually found the right sleeve head curve first try with the worst instructions ever are so slim, they might-as-well not exist. So a sleeve made with this method is not going to be your best attempt at a sleeve.

After getting frustrated with hoping and praying that my sleeves would work, I was really excited to find a method that mostly worked, most of the time. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of believing that that sleeve drafting method, presented in "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant" by Sarah Thursfield, was better because it used math. I figured that a few mostly successful sleeves made from that method (that were much more comfortable than my previous "magical" attempts) meant that Thursfield's drafting system could be relied upon for a great sleeve, every time.

Eventually, however, I began to see that Thursfield presents the formula for drafting a sleeve in such a mathematically precise way that errors in the fit just can't be troubleshot. When half your drafting method requires 5ths and 10ths of your body's measurements, it's pretty dang hard to keep up with exactly which portion of your shoulder joint those relate to.

In essence, applying such mathematical strictures on the process turns the draft into nothing better than an off the rack pattern. Everything is based on proportions that you probably don't really have. Is my arm depth truly 1/5th of my arm length? I'm not a Grecian statue, with perfect proportional relationships between my various body parts. So maybe my arm depth is really 7/32nds the length of my arm. Translate that minor difference across the whole drafting process and the result is an ill-fitting sleeve. And there's no way to correct without a whole other set of adjustments with no relationship to your original draft. [This is not to say that "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant" isn't worth owning- it's a great resource.]

Sleeve drafting is a science, not a shortcut. It can't be made up based on loose or nonexistent limits, nor can it be entirely broken down into formulas and equations. But your crappy fitting sleeve is doing x because of y. Cause and effect. Method and result. SCIENCE!

All good scientific study comes from first understanding the subject on a basic level. When it comes to sleeves, the primary thing to understand before looking further is that just because a measurement is right doesn't mean the shape you create from it is.

The length of a sleeve head and the measurement around the corresponding armscye should be equal, right? In a very technical sense that also means that I could create a flat sleeve head, and it would still fit the armscye as long as the measurements match. That's not to say that a sleeve created and attached in such a manner would be particularly good (or period accurate), just that in a purely mathematical and physical sense, it would work.

So if a flat sleeve head is just as functional as a curved one (for the sake of argument), then that also means that any curve to a sleeve head, as long as the measurements match, is just as technically good as any other curve.

Except that it's not just as good on every other level that matters (aesthetics, comfort, movement, etc.) Even if you can technically make a functioning seam between the armscye and the sleeve head, that doesn't mean that the resulting seam, or the nature of the sleeve beyond that seam, are ideal. If a sleeve head curve of the correct measurement can look however it wants and still fit the armscye, every different version of that curve creates a completely unique sleeve. And, more importantly, only a tiny fraction of those unique versions actually work for your unique body and the fit you are trying to achieve. One might even go as far as saying that, for every single garment armscye, there's only one perfect curve for you, and all the rest are crap. And while that sucks, it also means that if you're still having an issue with your sleeve, something is still not right. Because sleeves are science. You can't just close your eyes, knock your heels together, and stand back as any issues resolve themselves.

The only way to find the right sleeve head shape for your garment, your body, and your fit needs is trial and error. I can send you to at least five sleeve drafting tutorials that will get you technically functional sleeves. You can make a sleeve from any one of them that will fit your armscye. While it may be perfectly passable, though, it will likely not be great. The armpit will probably be too sort, or the top curve too high, or the bicep too tight. Or something.

But since science can be learned, it's not impossible to troubleshoot those issues. You may need to do it one issue at a time. You might even need to revisit an issue after fixing others. You will probably get frustrated and a bit tired from the process. The point, however, is that you don't settle for the shortcut.

I'm putting the blog on winter break while I prepare for and celebrate Christmas with my family. I'll return on January 4th. Season's Greetings to you and yours!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In-Progress: Celtic-Inspired Embroidered Tunic

I'll just start this one off by saying that this project is intimidating.

As I've gotten more comfortable with making garb for my husband, and we've both honed in on what he likes, I've been steadily increasing the effort that I put into it. And as that's happened, I've introduced decorative details, in addition to now almost exclusively hand-sewing his tunics.

Last year, when we did a fabric re-stash, we procured an amazing piece of linen. I don't know the exact weight, but I'd have to guess that is close to 4oz, which puts it in the "light-weight" category. It uses blue threads for the warp, and red threads for the weft, and the result is what we've lovingly called "3D". From a distance, it has a purple quality, but the blue and red are visible enough that, as soon as it moves, you have to question what it is you're really seeing. It's beautiful and unique, and perfect for something special.

As we discussed what to do with the linen, and what the final tunic might possibly look like, I suggested that an embroidered collar was probably in order. I've wanted to do fancier embroidery on his items, but I'd been holding back for some unknown reason. Probably fear of screwing it up. But as soon as that idea was on the table, there was no going back.

The tunic itself was fairly straightforward, and nothing different from what I've been doing. It's hand-sewn with black linen thread. It's the neckline, however, that's the kicker, since this is what I decided to embroider onto it:


Yeah. It's a little more than 9 inches across.

From my past embroidery thread experiments, I knew I wanted to use either a wool or a silk thread, but one that was lightweight, since the linen is so delicate. At a local embroidery supply shop, I discussed my project with the owner, and eventually I ended up at a rack of Caron Impressions 50/50 wool and silk blend thread. I'd used that thread in my experiment, so I knew that is was a lovely and airy choice. So I picked up white, pale blue and pink. (After checking several times with my husband that he was okay with pink.)

I also have a plan to include some gold details, but I'm not sure if I'll use metallic thread or find a gold I like in the Impressions line.

In order to get the design on the tunic, I decided (after some trial and error with other methods) to use modern transfer paper. While the pick and pounce method is most commonly thought to be the period method, the complexity of the design and the wobbly nature of the linen made that process ludicrous. I went out to the craft store and found some yellow-line transfer paper to use instead. After some trial and error, I decided to place the tunic on a (gigantic) embroidery hoop inside out so that the area of the design was stretched, but could also be laid flat against the table.

Then I placed my design using the marks I'd already made for centering as a guide. I taped just the two far edges into place.


I slid the transfer paper into place between the design and the tunic (color side down), and when the whole thing was just right, I taped the heck out if it to secure everything down.

Using a ballpoint pen, I traced over the entire design. When done, I removed both sheets, and voila! My design was in place.


Even though the transfer paper is not supposed to rub off, after a few stitches, I realized that my pattern was disappearing. So, very carefully and slowly, I used an ink pen to trace the lines again. They won't rub off, and the embroidery will cover them when all is said and done.


I'm starting off with split stitch. I've got in in my head that I will also use some Beaux stitch, stem stitch and satin stitch on other areas of the design. It'll be a labor of love, that's for sure.


This one has been on my in-progress pile for quite some time (it's kind of overwhelming), but my husband and I agreed that it should be done for him to wear for an event in July this year. Since we've got a month off from events right now, and nothing else really pressing at the moment, I've decided to move this one up on the priority list. Time to chew what I bit off.