a Cheater’s Guide to Setting in a Sleeve

It’s a brand new week! Yay! Friends, I’m sorry I missed Stitching Spotlights last week. I missed a lot of things really, including sleep. I had serious insomnia – something I’ve not had quite like that before. I somehow managed 6 hours of sleep between 3 nights and finally I broke down last Thursday and just tried to sleep for a day. It was awful! Gah! But, now I’m sleeping, so who knew? Crazy.

For my Sweetheart Blouse, I set the sleeves in differently than any pattern directions have ever told me. Awhile back, I took apart a RTW shirt for Mr. S and refit it for him and found that it had been constructed differently. In fact it had been constructed more brilliantly believe it or not, with a lot more maneuverability.

So, the next time you try your hand at setting in a sleeve, have a go at this method. First leave the side seams on the bodice and the underarm seams of the sleeve un-stitched. You’ll need to have your bodice front and back stitched together at the shoulders. Also have your easing or gathering stitches on the sleeve ready.

Now, pin your sleeve to the armscye. Stitch. Press. Finish the seam allowances. Do your thing. Now you can stitch the side seams and underarm sleeve seamΒ in one fell swoop.

Now, hit the “that was soooooo much easier” button in metaphysical space and give yourself a pat on the back. None of this ridiculous sewing a hole into another hole which is so crazy hard to maneuver – at least for me. Plus I get way less puckers doing it this way (if any at all) and it’s way easier to press. Take that sleeve. Take. That.

your sewing partner in crime,


68 thoughts on “a Cheater’s Guide to Setting in a Sleeve

  1. I’ve tried this recently on a cardigan that I’m making for myself and a sweater I’m currently sewing up and I agree it’s far easier and get much better results. Looking forward to seeing the finished blouse. It’s really pretty fabric.

  2. Next time I do a sleeve, I will try this. I do have a question, when would attempting to use this technique be less adviseable? Is there a type of sleeve or fabric that might have you reverting back to the traditional insetting process?

    1. See other comments below for when to best use this sew-on-the-flat technique. If you are using a French seam method to finish the armsceye seam allowances, you’ll have to set in the sleeve. Set it in wrong sides together, with a narrow seam. Trim the seam and turn the sleeve so that right sides are together, and sew the seam again, to enclose the raw edges. (With the two seams, you’ll need to end up only sewing your original seam allowance’s worth.) This sounded impossible the first time I read about it, but it is easy easy easy. Yes, it is a seam around a circle, but each increment of the seam is straight enough to treat this as a normal French seam.

      1. I’ve also used french seams in the way I’ve described above too! I still find it easier to do french seams in the flat than in the circle and it makes the french seam in the underarm and side seam easier to manuever too, but I definitely see the argument for both. Awesome input LinB!

    2. For a tailored jacket with a sleeve head it might be more advisable to do it the traditional way – though I haven’t tried it so I’m not exactly sure. You also can’t use this method that has a bodice with no side seam or a sleeve that doesn’t have an underarm seam.

  3. I tried this the other week on my Joan dress, and it was a revelation. I really have to try more new techniques, I always think “it will be hard”, “it’s for proper sewers”, “my way is fine”. and then I try something and it’s brilliant and far easier…

  4. I sewed t-shirts for my partner from a Kwik Sew pattern that uses this method – I was determined to give it a try and see if it works for wovens as it makes so much more sense than gathering to me. I haven’t actually sewn anything with sleeves since I did those t-shirts so I couldn’t give it a try yet.

    However, I’m glad you posted this up, it’s great to know it can work in case I screw up – I will know the screw up is my fault rather that anything else.

  5. I love to do this if I am worried about sizing, widthwise, especially on knit dresses. That way I can take in or let out the whole darn thing from arm to hem as I wish!

  6. The only time this doesn’t work is when there *isn’t* a side seam. I’ve used this method for years. One stipulation–you will still have to ease stitch most straight sleeves to make them fit. I learned to do this with doll clothes years ago, and just translated it to people clothes when I started sewing for real!

    1. Yes! You do still have to ease or gather the sleeve – whichever the pattern calls for. And yes, won’t work when there isn’t a side seam, but LinB had a very good idea about how to do that while still trying to sew the sleeve in the flat.

  7. I almost always set sleeves like this now- it’s something my mum taught me a couple of years ago, and yes it is SO much easier. I think the only time I don’t do this is if the pattern means you obviously can’t (no side seams, two-part sleeves where the seam lines don’t match up to the side seams) or if I know I’ll have fitting tweaks to do in the bodice first that don’t necessitate a full muslin. It’s especially good for children’s clothes where the armscye is small and fiddly under the machine with a normal sleeve setting method.

    1. I couldn’t agree more about the children’s clothes. When I made a little set of clothes for my niece this past fall, there was no other way to set in the sleeve. Would have been impossible to do it with the traditional method.

  8. My old Stretch & Sew pattern has the sleeves done this way. For short sleeves I think it’s fine, but for long sleeves I have trouble hemming the cuff as it’s usually quite narrow. I have to hem the cuff first before sewing up the side and underarm – but then you get a little unfinished edge in the cuff. It’s a toss up.

    1. I have the same problem with long sleeves that are narrow too – though if you’re working on a knit, you can always add a banded cuff instead of hemming it in the traditional way. Much easier to sew with a much more professional result.

    2. Industry does it like that, most of the time. First, they stitch shoulder seams. Second, they hem the sleeves. Third, they set in the sleeves – flat method, as Sunni described. Then they topstitch the sleeves (this step is optional, depends on design). After that they stitch underarm and side seams, and lastly, they hem the top. Just check some of your RTW tops, most of them will have this “unfinished edge” (actually finished with an overlock). It’s all easier and quicker! πŸ™‚

  9. This is the way the Renfrew top is constructed, and I must say there’s much less heartache and far fewer puckers this way! I’ve since used it on a few makes and it works like magic every time, hooray! x

    1. Tasia is such a brilliant little minx! I’ve yet to try the Renfrew – its coming up soon – but judging from everyone’s comments and wonderful creations the pattern I’m sure is simply marvelous! I’ve always found her patterns to be amazingly simple and filled with ingenious little hints and easier to construct methods.

    2. This is what I was going to say, Renfrew is like that. So handy and it feels like you go from no where near done to try-on-able in a blink. Lekala 5432 did it that way too if I remember right.

      (And glad to hear you are sleeping better.)

  10. You can also sew in the sleeve about 3/4 of the way on the flat — leave a couple of inches unsewn at each end of the armsceye. Then complete your bodice and sleeve seams as usual, and you’ll only have to set in the bit of the sleeve that is right at the underarm. I rarely use this technique, as the one you suggest is marvelous; but sometimes the fit at the underarm is better when the sleeve is set in. And sometimes there isn’t a sleeve seam-side-seam match up, as when there is a side panel in a bodice or a two- or three-piece sleeve.

    1. Definitely going to give this a try too! I agree that sometimes the fit at the underarm is better when the sleeve is set-in as opposed to the method above too, but I find that if I trim the seams in the sleeve and clip the corners it makes the mobility just like a set-in sleeve for me.

  11. Simplicity 3623 (a costume) used this method and it was so fast and easy. Of course, the sleeves aren’t fitted at all. My problem with the “standard” method is that I always end up catching something else while sewing the seam! or it doesn’t quite line up correctly. I’m going to try this method on the next top that I sew.

  12. Huh – well I have always wondered about this. I’m not the most experienced sewer but times I have set sleeves I’ve wondered why the instructions always have you sew two hard to maneuver circles to each other instead of the method you just described. I have a project I’m working on now where I can try this “cheaters” method. πŸ™‚

  13. I feel for you. I’ve recently been dealing with insomnia–I’ve never had it before. And it’s terribly awful. 😦

    I usually set in my sleeves like this, especially when I’m using knit fabric. So much easier! I wonder why the pattern companies don’t use this method in their instructions? Sometimes, I feel like their instructions are silly. Often, the pattern will have you finish parts by hand sewing that could easily be done by machine, if you do them in a different order. That always drives me crazy.

  14. This may be completely wrong but I think it used to be fairly common to set sleeves in using the way you describe. Older sewing machines only have a flat bed and no arm to sew around so its more difficult to sew the sleeve in after the side & underarm seams have been sewn. I have a Jones family CS which is I think around 100 years old. It is still in good working order and when I have used it to sew blouses with sleeves I’ve sewn them in flat with a little pleat at the top to take out any excess fabric.

  15. Shirt-makers and tailors (like me) have used this technique for setting sleeves for at least 100 years. Not that *I* am that old…I’ve only been a Tailor and Shirt-maker for about 30 years πŸ˜‰ Glad you have discovered it…it will save you so much time. There is yet even another sleeve-setting technique that combines the Flat-Method you show and the “in-the-round” method into one terrific technique that offers greater range-of-motion when moving the arm πŸ˜‰

  16. Lots of knitters use this idea for setting in sleeves into a knit sweater, too! I’m definitely going to give this a go the next time I sew something with sleeves. I’m with you, it’s so awkward trying to get one hole shaped thing into another hole shaped thing! It would also eliminate the fret I always have that I’ve turned one or other other item (sleeve or bodice) wrong and will set in the sleeve inside-out. πŸ˜›

  17. I am so grateful for this idea ! I just hate sleeves when I have to sew them but I can’t wear only sleeve-less blouse, so I will try this next time. Thank you !

  18. Hello Sunni

    How wonderful. Was always afraid of setting in sleeves. I used your method, as well as just stitching half the sleeve head at a time from the top down to the underarm seam. How easy – no more stressing over “another UFO because of those darn hard set in sleeves” – LOL. Thank you soooooo much.

    Kindest regards

  19. I, um, thought that was just how they were done *blush*

    The only thing I’ve ever put a sleeve into was the Renfrew (and after hearing how hard sleeves were I was suprised at how easy it was!), but my husband makes his own shirts and that’s also how he does it, so I just assumed that was the standard way. So how else do you do it? Side seam then the armscye? That sounds like a world of pain and trouble.

  20. Diabolical! I actually did this by accident on one of my first shirts. Ever since then I’ve been hopping in between doing it this way and the suggested way on the pattern, and always feeling a bit guilty when I do it the ‘easy’ way as if I’m skipping corners. But NOW you’ve said it so I will have no shame. Bring on the sleeve!

  21. This is how I do men’s shirts and knits. According to my Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing, it’s good for sleeves that don’t have too much ease in the cap, but not as good for puff-sleeves and things with a lot of gathering in the sleeve-cap.

    The downsides, I think, are a) getting gathers even, and b) fitting as you go is trickier. πŸ™‚

  22. I will have to try this again. I find that it’s easier to set the sleeves in in the round if I’m sewing something for my daughter; I can hem the sleeve first, sew the sleeve together, then set it in. (it’s often impossible to get the bottom of the sleeve to fit around my arm’s machine). I do find that with some patterns I have to gather the top of the sleeve or trim off a little piece, especially at the top, to get it to lay flat.

  23. Oh, cool! This looks so much simpler than wrestling the sleeve into the armhole and sweating and cursing (my usual sleeve setting-in procedure). Thanks for sharing!

  24. I call the method you used above “SEWING THE SLEEVE IN FLAT”, it’s my most used sleeve insertion method. I love it, but I have often thought about it as cheating – so I was surprised to see that you referred to it in that manner. Although I sleeve cheat, I’m like you in that the results are great, so I get over that cheating feeling real quick.

  25. I’ve run across this technique before, but always just assumed that since it was easier it was wrong. Lol. I’ll keep this in mind next time. Thanks to all of the commenters who mentioned when this may not be the best method.

  26. I do this all the time for knit tops, but I find it doesn’t work that well with anything that has ease that has to be worked into the sleeve cap, like some blouses or tailored jackets.

  27. i used to work for a small clothing company that made high dollar fashions. This is the only way we would set in sleeves. Saves time and effort. There are so many short cuts in sewing when working for the industry. Just grab a RTW, turn it inside out and you can usually see how it was done.

  28. Oh… my… goodness… I’m smacking my forehead, why on earth didn’t I ever think of that. I _hate_ sewing fitted in sleeves, it’s a pain in the rear to do that “match two rings in a tight space” tango, and it always ends up as “well… ok… will have to do, because I’m not going to rip it up and do it again”… oh, unless I manage (and I do) to get some of the fabric caught up in the seam. I might actually start sewing more shirts/dresses as that definitely is one of the reasons I don’t do it.

  29. I’ve been using the same method on a few last garments I’ve made, and I totally agree with you – it’s waaay much easier and no more puckers! How didn’t we realized that sooner? Love your blog πŸ™‚

  30. I’m an apparel design major, and this year my class had to make practice samples of different types of sleeves. While a sleeve set in the flat is a lot easier to create than one set in the round, it doesn’t always yield the same results. One set in the round will stand away from the shoulder more and just have a, well, more “rounded” look to it. Sleeves set in the flat will-predicatbly- lie flatter. They’re typically used on t-shirts, sweatshirts, and looser-fitting garments with less structure. Although adding gathers (like you did here) will combat this to an extent, I don’t believe they’re meant to be used interchangeably.

  31. If you’ve ever taken a class from Peggy Sagers, she also recommends putting the sleeve side down, the body up, and let the feed dogs help even out the gathers/easing on the sleeve portion. The first time you do it, it feels wrong, but it works.

    1. Oh, yes, let the feed dogs help you ease in extra fabric! You have to hold the unsewn portion up away from the bed of the machine, to encourage the dogs to take the bottom layer at a faster rate than the top layer. The higher you curl your hand, the more fabric you can ease. Margaret Islander also used to advise doing this. (I saw her demonstrate it on a Sandra Betzina sewing show in the early 2000s.) There is surely a video demo somewhere online that shows how to manipulate the fabric for those who want to try this technique.

  32. This is standard technique for knits, but I don’t think it translates for all woven garments. I find that for a heavier fabric, nothing beats traditional sleeve setting.

  33. The first shirt I ever made was a Burda kids and it instructed me to sew it in like that. I haven’t seen instructions like that in a pattern since.

  34. I really like the idea! i will definitely gonna try this and i will follow all the techniques that you’ve shared with us here. Thanks for the post and for the tips.

  35. Love this ,cheater’. I started doing this when sewing for my first baby back in 1969 (such tiny sleeves!) and continue to this day whenever the fabric is light enough.

  36. This discussion is really very interesting. I always struggle with inserting sleeves. One sleeve goes in fine but the next one….. Anyway in the 80s I made a series of dresses and jackets in Vogue patterns that used this flat method of construction and it’s a breeze. I’ve always felt that I am cheating a bit when I use this method but if the garment looks good on, does it matter what order is used to assemble it. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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