Sleeve adjustment: How to make room for Full Upper Arms

Today we are going to take a look at a sleeve adjustment. That’s because Anja wrote to me on Facebook saying:

I could really use directions for how to add width to a sleeve pattern. I want to sew a dress for my daughter but the pattern sleeves are very narrow. How do I adjust this corrrectly?


Oh, do I know about sleeves that are too small! (my arms are just the right size, thankyouverymuch ;-))

One of the reasons I make my own clothes is precisely that – that sleeves on RTW jackets etc. are just wrong for me. You see, I’ve got bingo wings. Or I’ve got arms that are kind of full in the upper area. And that causes the sleeves to be too tight and I get really annoying folds in the sleeves because the fabric gets stuck on my “muscles” (Yes, let’s call it that!) And that actually emphasizes the fullness.


full upper arms


How to adjust the sleeve pattern for full upper arms:


First you need to figure out how much width you need to add to your pattern. You have three options:

  1. Make a muslin /toile and cut along the centre of the sleeve, then measure how much it spreads a part to figure out how much you need to add to the pattern.
  2. Measure your arm and then measure the pattern in the upper arm line (that’s the horizontal line right beneath the sleeve cap on the next drawing). Remember to subtract seam allowances if your pattern includes them. Then compare those measurements to figure out how much you need to add. If you are sewing with jersey the pattern measurements should be the same as your arm measurement if you want to conceal the fullness on your arm. Or maybe just 1 – 2 cm more (1/4″ – 3/4″). If you are working in wovens you need between 2 and 5 cm (3/4″ – 2″) extra ease in the overarm line, depending on what you are sewing (you’ll need more width for a jacket than for a dress). Try folding your measuring tape to the measurement you think you want and try it on your upper arm for fit.
  3. You can guess (I don’t recommend this ;-))

Once you know how much width you want to add, you are ready to start the actual adjustment. You’ll need your sleeve pattern on top of fresh pattern paper. The pattern in the illustrations is without seam allowances (so the outline is the seam line).

sleeve adjustment pattern

Step 1 of the sleeve adjustment:

First you need to make the pattern ready for the adjustment.

Draw a vertical line, parallel to the grain line from the top most point on the sleeve head and to the hem.

Also draw a horizontal line (the upper arm line) perpendicular on the grain line just at the bottom of the sleeve cap.

sleeve adjustment draw lines

Step 2 of the sleeve adjustment:

Now cut the lines. But. DO NOT cut through the seam lines! You need to cut from the centre of the pattern and out along the lines you made before without cutting through the black dots in the drawing. Leave a small (max 2 mm – 1/8″) paper hinge.

If your pattern has seam allowances, also cut from the outline of the seam allowance to the dot, so that you only have that small hinge of paper.

sleeve adjustment cut the pattern

Step 3 of sleeve adjustment:

Now you can spread the lower, vertical parts of the sleeve pattern the amount you wish to add to the pattern. For instance, if you want to add 2 cm (or 1 “) you’ll spread each lower piece 1 cm (or 1/2”) towards the side.

When you spread the lower part of the sleeve out, the top sleeve head pieces will follow along and overlap the bottom pieces. This will make the sleeve cap shorter. But that’s perfectly ok, as the seam line of the sleeve will be exactly the same.

Tape the pattern parts to the tracing paper to keep it in place and trace or cut your new sleeve.

sleeve adjustment spread the pattern

And now you’ve adjusted your sleeve pattern!

On the right you can see the difference between the original and the adjusted sleeve pattern.

sleeve adjustment done

NB! When adjusting a short sleeve

When you are working this adjustment magic on a short sleeve, you must cut the vertical line all the way through at the hem. Otherwise you won’t be able to add the amount you need.

short sleeve adjustment

29 replies
  1. Julie says:

    Thanks Maria!
    That is absolutely brilliant! I have been looking for this for ages, as just adding extra width to the sleeve head only makes setting the sleeve into the bodice even more impossible than usual. I am forever in your debt….

  2. Barbara says:

    Do you think there is a maximum amount you should add using this method? Could you decrease the height of the sleeve cap too much?
    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge!

  3. Julia says:

    I also want to know how to add at least 2″ to the sleeve width. We will blame it on genetics since I have needed this since I was at least 12-13 & much thinner than I am now.

    • Sondra says:

      I’ve found that you really can’t add that much with this method. About 1″ is the maximum. Since I often need to add 3″ or more, I use other methods in addition to this one, such as adding to the side seams, which adds to the amount that needs to be eased into the armscye.

      • Marina says:

        I needed to add 2 inches to a sleeve upper arm. I read in #2 of the top section that wovens need 3/4 – 2 inches. I just made my pattern adjustment. Now I read above that 1″ is the maximum, and that the extra width should be added to the side seams. My fabric is a stable knit (ponte) with a slight amount of stretch. I’m confused, should I change the pattern to 1″ and add extra width to the sides?

  4. Chris says:

    Thank you so much for posting these clear instructions. I finally understand how to widen the sleeves, which are ALWAYS too narrow for me in patterns.

    • Ms.Carmen says:

      Just what I needed! Had this arm problem since in my 20s, it’s gotten worst because my right arm is very noticeable larger than the left one is now.

  5. C says:

    Thank you thank you thank you! This is so clearly explained, I will be able to quickly and simply do the sleeves after several weeks of trying to visualise how to adjust without messing up the sleeve cap and armhole.


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