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.


  1. Do you have a link to the (presumably) second part of this sleeve tutorial?

    1. Yep! It's the next post. You can either past this link into your browser, or hit the "Newer Post" link at the end of the page. Thanks!