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.)


  1. I assume that this would be what you do when you do not have a dressmaker to fit the cloth to you, the way all the medieval folks probably did. So, for my Granddaughter, to make her dress that fit like a dream and twirled like a professional dancer, she just spent a couple of boring half hours on a stool while we fitted.

    1. Yes, this method uses measurements so that you can create a sleeve pattern for yourself, without assistance. It is certainly possible to fit a sleeve, just as any other part of a garment, directly on the body if you've got somebody to help.

  2. I have tried it today as a test for my new burgundian dress and it fits marvellous!
    For many Years I searched for such an easy and good working method.
    Many Thanks for developing, testing and writing about it!

  3. This method worked perfectly! I was really curious about the super-tight sleeves in the Morgan Bible, and now they make a lot more sense. Thank you!

  4. This is a fantastic tutorial, thank you! I've been working on a series based on The Morgan Bible, and I had thought the super-tight sleeves were just the drawing style. It's great to know how the sleeve was actually constructed to have a really tight armscye and tightly fitted to the wrist. Thank you!