Sunday, January 25, 2015

Creating a Sleeve Pattern - A Prototype Method

Each month I'm presenting a new tutorial on a medieval skill from various types of textile-related crafts. The purpose is two-fold. First, it will allow me to locate, study, and try a variety of new techniques I might otherwise overlook, and second, it's an easy way to get information out there about skills that other people might be looking for or find helpful. This month, I present Creating a Sleeve Pattern.

If you haven't been playing along, I'd recommend starting with my last post before going through this tutorial.

We left off last week with starting to look at the fundamental concepts of a sleeve that's drafted to fit your bicep properly, and to account for the casual nature of your medieval wear. This week, I'm going to walk you through the method that I created to account for those considerations. This method is a combination of the loose simple method and a stricter, plotted modern sloper method.

I'd like to sincerely thank His Excellency, Master Cellach MacChormach, for patiently walking me through the method of sleeve drafting he's been using, and taking each of my challenges in stride. It was his guidance that helped me step back from my doubts to arrive at the method outlined below.

Before we proceed, I want to make it clear that the method presented below is currently prototypical in nature. I have tested it on three adults for good measure, but we are all different, and you may experience something that completely discounts everything I've worked out. There will always be exceptions that I can't account for. My purpose here is to show you a method that I'm comfortable with, that so far is working for me, and makes sense to my mind. I encourage you to put it to the test and tell me what issues you have with it. That's the only way we can all work together!

As I mentioned in my previous post, small armholes are going to be the rule of the day for this. You'll want the hole as small as you can make it without it pulling as you move or hurting to get it into place (such as if your bicep was too large to comfortably fit through.) I start my armscye at the same size as my bicep, then trim what's in the way. Err on the side of a smaller hole.

I want to acknowledge, one more time, that there are period styles that require a large armscye, but when we're looking at the average cotte or kirtle styles, a small armscye appears to be more typically favored. At least in the imagery. So let's all consider the possibility that larger armholes are the exception, rather than the rule.

Detail from Rogier van der Weyden's Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, showing a small armscye. Note the bunching in the underarm particularly, indicating that the armhole sits in her armpit, rather than below it.
You should wear your assembled garment (or a mockup) with your established armscye in order to take your measurements. Anytime the measurement instructions line up with a section of your armscye, use the approximate position of the sleeve attachment seam as your start/end point. It is extremely important that your measurements correspond to the position of the seam, otherwise you will get fit issues.

I want to stress that this pattern will only work for garments that share the size and positioning of the garment you used to measure. If any of the points of connection from the sleeve to the body are in a different location, something may go askew. So you need to do this process for every unique garment pattern you use. Or, you can create a standard "base" pattern for your garb, along with this sleeve pattern, and simply adjust all the other details of the style as needed, leaving the sleeve and armscye intact as-is.

What we're aiming for here is the equivalent of a "body block" style pattern for our arms. We are creating a pattern that is independent of any style, so as you're making it, think "fitted", rather than "early 14th century sleeves would have...." Once you have the pattern, you've got a basis for whatever stylistic changes you want to make. You'll already have in your pattern the shape of your arm to work around.

You'll need the following measurements:
  • Long Arm Length: from your shoulder to your wrist over your elbow with your arm bent at a 90 degree angle
  • Elbow Length: from your shoulder to your elbow
  • Bicep Length: from your shoulder to the widest point on your upper arm (flex 'em if ya got 'em.)
  • Underarm Length: from your wrist to the base of your armpit with your arm held straight up. The base point is the position of the sleeve attachment seam on the center side seam of your garment.
  • Bicep Width: around your upper arm at the widest point
  • Elbow Width: around your elbow bent at 90 degrees
  • Wrist Width: around your wrist. If you want a sleeve without buttons, you can measure around your hand instead. Some people can fit their hands through their wrist sizing, others can't- gauge for yourself.
  • Armscye Length: around the arm hole of your garment, measured where the seam will be.
  • Fleshy Arm Measurement: Take a look at your arm in the mirror. If you've got plump arms, it's possible that you carry that pretty close to your elbow. If you're lean, you might have a noticeable bulge in the middle that shrinks rapidly well above your elbow. We will account for this particular element of your arm by measuring at least one point on the upper arm between the widest point and the elbow. Your elbow should be bent at 90 degrees for this.
NOTE: We are going to draft without seam allowance. You can add that onto your pattern when you're all done. I find that adding the seam allowances during drafting increases the chance for the sleeve to not fit correctly.

To draw out your pattern, you'll need:
  • A yard stick
  • A t-square, quilting template, or any tool you have to create perpendicular lines
  • Measuring tape
  • At least one color marker or pen. My preference is to have two colors of Sharpie on hand
  • If you have a sleeve curve tool, grab that too. It's not necessary, though.
  • A large piece of paper. I use a roll of newsprint from IKEA. It needs to be wide enough to fit the top of your sleeve, perhaps about 20" minimum.
Start by drawing the Long Arm Length as a straight vertical line in the center of your paper.

Create long, perpendicular, horizontal guidelines at the top and bottom.

On the bottom line, center your Wrist Width plus .5" of ease.

Measure down from the top to your Bicep Length and mark it. Create a perpendicular line here of your Bicep Width plus 1" of ease.

Measure down from the top to your Elbow Length and mark it. Center a perpendicular line here of your Elbow Width plus .5" of ease.

Now measure up from the wrist to the Underarm Length and mark it. Create a perpendicular line here of your Bicep Width plus 1" ease.

You now have the Sleeve Head Depth marked with the line at the very top and the line at your Underarm Length. Do not be surprised if it looks very shallow. If your measurements are less than 1" apart, that may be an indication that the armhole is too low in your armpit. Consider raising it up 1" at the least.

Measure the Sleeve Head Depth to find the center. Draw a horizontal line (parallel to your other width lines) the length of your Bicep Width plus 1" ease, centered. This will be your Curve Axis guideline. You can use a different color for this to keep from getting the lines confused if you need.

Using a tape measure (or flexible ruler or measured piece of string), arrange the Armscye Length on the Curve Axis guideline. The endpoints should also be on the guideline at the ends. The curve should not cross either of the sleeve head boundary lines (top or bottom), but should touch both. That touching connection shouldn't be less than 1" long.. If you can do that only if your endpoints fall shorter than the Bicep Width, consider opening your armhole 1"-2" more.

We're going to make the curve symmetrical, but keep in mind that this may be something you'll want to troubleshoot at a later date, when you're more comfortable with sleeve drafting. This curve isn't arbitrary-every variation to the line changes the fit of the sleeve. This is more than what I can go into here.

If you can't get the curve to fit in the established depth (and don't worry- I would expect that most people can't), add 1/4" to both ends of the axis guide at a time, slide the ends of the tape measure to the new ends of the guide, and readjust the curve until it fits. If you have to go over 1/2" on both sides, continue stretching the width out on only ONE side. This will create an integrated gusset. Note that you might end up with a weird triangly bit once the sleeve is sewn into the tube, and you will need to fiddle with it in the armhole to avoid creating a "pocket" on the back.

If you have a sleeve curve tool, you can use it now to clean up the curve established with your tape measure.

Before moving on, remeasure the whole curve. It needs to match your Armscye Length.

With all this established, we can now begin to form the bicep using the guides we already have in place. First, connect the Curve Axis guideline endpoints to the respective endpoints on the Underarm line.

These triangles form an integrated gore that allows the sleeve to flare out from your bicep to the armscye. If you ended up moving the endpoint out farther than .5" on both sides, they probably look a bit ridiculous. Don't worry, these are just guides to where, mathematically, the seam wants to go. When we correct the line later on for a more organic seam, we'll ease the gore into the bicep.

Connect the Underarm endpoint to the Bicep Width endpoint. (This is going to be a straight line.)

Continue down to the elbow, and finally to the wrist.

Now, I'm not made of boxes, and I'm pretty sure you aren't either. So while these lines get us mostly to the shape we want, it isn't quite right. That's what the Lower Forearm measurement is for.

Take your Fleshy Arm Measurement and add .5" of ease. You'll use that as a width guide. You can measure down from your shoulder to get exact placement, or just eyeball it. You may discover that your line falls really close to the funnel-like guideline. If that's the case, it's up to you if you want to make any adjustments. Even if your measurements fall inside the guides you've already drawn, you should make this forearm adjustment. If it falls more than 1.5" inside, however, you may want to remeasure (or remeasure your bent Elbow Width). We're creating a fitted sleeve, so if it's possible to remove bulk, we should.
Reconnect the lines as needed.

Lastly, smooth out your lines to remove any angles and create a more natural shape. (If you've got another color pen or marker on hand, now's a good time to switch.) Up by the gores, ease the line into the Bicep Width marked at the Bicep Length point, favoring a concave curve.

You now have a sleeve pattern that isn't completely arbitrary, but also didn't require an advanced math degree to create!

Now, I'm leaving the forearm alone. This is something you'll want to adjust on your body when you do a sleeve mockup. Since the bottom of your sleeve pattern is based somewhat on the measurement you took with your arm bent, it's possible that the forearm is too long. Once you've got it on, focus particularly on how the sleeve fits between your straight and bent arm. If there's still a lot of extra fabric below the elbow after you bend your arm, you'll want to take some of that away. In addition, you will probably want to adjust the seam placement if you're adding buttons, but that's a tutorial for a different day.


I performed this method on three different arms, mine, my husband's, and my mother's. Here are the three patterns:

From left to right: my mom's, my husband's, and mine.
I discovered on my mothers that she required a larger armscye than we originally thought due to the nature of the connection between her arm and back. While I was able to stick with something closer to 3.5" larger than my bicep for my pattern, she has to go closer to 4.75". My husband's armscye sits squarely at 6.5" larger than his bicep. So while I had hoped to see some standardization here, it looks like individual physiology is the real determining factor. If I did another pattern for my mom, I think I would start the flaring for the gores a little lower than her Bicep Length line to account for her physical shape. As it is, though, the first draft pattern works, even if there's room for some finessing.

We also found that my mother's secondary upper arm measurement was smaller than her bent elbow. We adjusted the pattern, so you can see there's a bit of a jog from her bicep to the elbow. In the fitting, she didn't feel that, and visually, it wasn't noticeable. In fact, she had a very nicely fitted elbow pocket, and I wonder if that was in part because of that adjustment.

The length was very good on mine and my mother's- just a little too long. On my husband's, however, the fit below the elbow was pretty large and longer. If I had to take a guess as to the specific reason that happened (again, already knowing that it may be too long due to the nature of the measuring), I would say it was because he was subconsciously flexing his bent arm since it was under scrutiny. He did say, however, that the fit was comfortable, and I'd venture to guess that he would actually hate to have it too much tighter.

I've wanted to add sleeves to my linen short cote (which I've never shown because it's hideous, but it's a supportive cote in a single linen layer), so I sewed my sleeve mockup into that to test the fit. I would call it a success. Note that I did not adjust the pattern at all- this is the mockup produced directly from my pattern draft.

At first, I was worried that the bicep was too loose, but as I moved, I saw that it was a great fit, conforming to my upper arm shape very well regardless of the position I held it. I experienced no uncomfortable pulling or bunching as I moved, and I had no limitations. I see in these photos the same type of bunching shown in the period image at the top, and while I know that's indicative in the modern world of the armscye being a bit too small in my armpit, I'm jazzed to see that I can recreate the look as I expect to.

What I'm most excited to see so far with this method is that establishing the boundaries of the sleeve head depth makes it actually easier to see the need for the flaring gores. I was interested in particular to see the radical difference between the nearly non-existent gores on the smaller bicep-to-armscye ratio as compared to the larger one on my husband's sleeve. These were all created within the perimeters of the method, and additionally, can just as easily be adjusted without breaking the rules should a larger or smaller armscye be needed.

If you give this method a try, please comment below and let me know how it worked for you. Is there an issue that came up for you that I didn't account for? Did it work perfectly? Please let me know so I can make these instructions better! 

[Addendum 2/15/2015: It is crucially important that your armhole fits before you proceed. That might mean that the hole is several inches larger than your bicep. While you want it to be small, there is such a thing as too small. Look for areas where it pulls and pools as you move your arm around. The biggest culprits are going to be the front (where you would put a dart if you were creating a modern garment) and the armpit. I also want to point out again that a pattern created with this method will only work for armholes that match the one you patterned it for. When it doubt, re-pattern just to be sure.)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sleeves Aren't Evil

Over the past 2 months, I've given sleeve patterning an inordinate amount of thought. I've swung between the extremes on both ends- first believing that it's okay to just wing it with an old pattern I had on hand, then believing that every inch of the pattern had to be carefully plotted and accounted for. I had, in actuality, gotten too close to the problem.

"Sleeves are the worst," is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'd convinced myself that sleeves were evil because I'd recognized that they were difficult. I knew they were difficult before I even started sewing my own garb. The sleeves on my early cotehardies never fit right, so when I made my first dress, I already had it in my mind that the sleeves would suck. And they did. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sleeves aren't the devil, but I'm not going to lie- they aren't easy. There's a middle road between winging them and strictly plotting them out, but once you find it, sleeves make so much more sense. I'm happy to report that I have found it, and I'd like to help you get here too.

I mentioned that I'd gotten too close to the problem. I was so convinced that perfect sleeves were impossible that I doubted every method presented to me. Which meant a lot of questions starting with, "But why...?" I can see now that those questions weren't in vain, since they helped me see that middle road, but  I got so caught up in questioning every method, I started discounting things I shouldn't have.

If you read my last post, you may have noticed my disrespect for what I called the "magical method" of sleeve drafting. The reality is that the typical way this method is presented is open for errors. In some ways, it over-simplifies the drafting process to the point that it ignores some key considerations. The two major ones are the resulting width given for the bicep, and the length of the sleeve in the underarm. (These two things, by the way, are actually connected in the drafting method.)

In most modern sleeve drafting techniques (which I refer to as the "sloper method"), your pattern is created by using all the same measurements that the magical method uses, PLUS the an additional measurement that is either the "underarm" (length from wrist to armpit) or "arm depth" (length from shoulder to armpit). These are a 6 of one, half-dozen of the other set- together they account for the entire length of your arm with your armpit as the mid-point. I prefer the underarm measurement, since it's the easier of the two to measure.

In the sloper method, the length of your arm (top of the shoulder to the wrist) and the underarm measurement are lined up together at the wrist. The difference between them is known as the sleeve head, and is the area in which the sleeve's S-curve occurs.

In the magical method (which I really should start calling the "simple method" instead), there is no distinguished sleeve head area- there's no markers for boundaries. It was noticing this lack of delineation that first got me doubting that the method was any good. "It's too arbitrary!" I claimed. And given that I'd come to understand that sleeves are, indeed, science (see my last post), I wasn't willing to accept that anything in the method could be arbitrary and still be good.

Now, before I go any further, I feel I need to stare that I still believe everything I said in my last post. I still believe that the only way to get the absolute perfect, best fitting sleeve you can is to tweak it based in the issues you are seeing. I still believe that there is no way you will ever get a sleeve "right" on the very first try, regardless of the method you use. But since writing that, I also now understand that "good enough" is an acceptable alternative, as long as it genuinely is good, and not what you're settling for out of laziness or because sleeves totally confound you and you can't take the time to troubleshoot. I'd define the "good enough" line based on how the sleeves feel. They shouldn't hurt you, as a start.

So back to those two problem areas in the simple method- underarm length and bicep width.

Following your typical simple method, at one point you end up with something that looks like this:

Your arm length makes up your vertical guide. Then your wrist measurement and your bicep measurement make up the top and bottom lines (all centered). You will probably also have an elbow width marked halfway or so down. Finally, your armhole (armscye) measurement from your garment provides the length of the sleeve head curve, arranged as an S to account for the finished circle shape.

Since you've got no guidelines for that curve, the instinct is to place it just under your bicep line, and to match up your end points to the bicep width. Then the length of the curve is arranged in a symmetrically (same length of curve on either side of the center line).

Just at this point, there's already two potential problems. First, there's a high likelihood your sleeve head is the wrong depth (either too tall or, less likely, too short). Second, you've just removed a portion of your bicep width.

Your bicep isn't a funnel. It doesn't start out at it's greatest width right at the top, then taper evenly to your elbow width. Most people, muscular or flabby, have a wider bicep measurement anywhere between 3" to 7" down from their shoulder than they do right at the top. In fact, when you measured your bicep, that widest point is probably where you placed the tape measure. For me, it's about 5" down. It certainly wasn't right against my armpit. So when you use your bicep measurement in this simplified method, note that you've just claimed that width at the top of the sleeve.

When you connect the dots, from the bicep to the elbow, you're not creating a rounded, elongated tube that resembles your upper arm. You're creating a funnel.

If you've been over-compensating your measurements by adding 2" or more of ease, you're probably lucky here. That additional width will probably save this funnel from being too small. But just because you got lucky doesn't mean you got it right. You may find that your sleeve is too loose for the style you were aiming for, or perhaps there are issues in other ways the sleeve fits (what happens when you raise your arm over your head?) Don't be tempted to take those issues for granted, simply because the sleeve "fits". Ask yourself if it really is good enough?

If you weren't lucky, you'll know it- the bicep will be too tight. Either your arm won't fit, or you'll get pulling across the bicep when you start moving your arm around. This is the problem I always had from this method. My aim is always a tight sleeve in keeping with the 15th century dress styles I do. So I tend to add little to no ease. (This is also a mistake, as I've learned.)

So the simple method may prove to be a little too simple. (What's that saying- it's too good to be true?) But what if we can make up for those issues lacking direction in the simple method by adding in some of the directions found in the sloper method? What if we can tame the arbitrary nature of the simple method, even if we can't eliminate it?

At which point we end up back at the underarm measurement. If we can establish the boundaries of the sleeve head first, then mark the bicep width below that (rather than within it, which is what's currently happening), we're setting the correct stage. Then from there, we can tackle the sleeve head curve and the bicep length, before moving on the elbow and forearm.

I want to take a side trip to the armscye, and talk briefly about the dynamics of the sleeve head curve. To see a great illustration of how the two are related, I recommend checking out, and reviewing the tissue box demonstration halfway down the post. In short, the angle at which a sleeve is set into an armscye directly effects both the fit of that sleeve and the shape of the sleeve head. The most important take-away from this, for our purposes today, is to take note that a casual, but not loose sleeve should be the aim for us in creating medieval garments- we're not making formal uniforms but rather everyday wear. We'll also want to note, as stated in Mathilde Bourrette's sleeve documentation that a shallow sleeve head curve allows more/better ease of movement.

Taken together, this tells us that the armscye measurement should not be greatly larger than the bicep. (There are major, period exceptions to this, including the grande assiette sleeve, but we're talking about basic sleeves here.) When you're creating your armscye, therefore, it's best to keep it as small as you can up to the point you create and insert your sleeves. This will give you a leg up (or is that 'arm up'?) on achieving a good, comfortable curve. I try to keep it close to my bicep measurement, but that might be too small for you.

I'm going to end this post here, and leave you all in suspense. I worked through an entire drafting method this afternoon, but I'm not happy with the photos I took and I need time to develop better visuals. So I'm going to leave that for next week and 2015's first Medieval Crafting Skill of the Month. I hope I've piqued your interest, though, because I really believe that the method I've arrived as is worth a look.