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By Fiona Ellis

A sleeve is more than simply a covering for the arm. It is a complex part of a garment that adds style and interest and can also dramatically change its overall silhouette. A sleeve has several different components each of which can be modified. Combining variations of these components with each other has led to a seemingly endless number of styles. 


In order to consider how a sleeve is made let us first think about how the arm is positioned. If you look at the body from the side, the arm is set very slightly towards the front of the body and hangs from the shoulder line with a fleshy ball shape where it meets the shoulder. In drafting a pattern for a sleeve you need to keep this anatomy in mind. 


Following the natural contours of the body, a basic sleeve is one that fits close to the arm from the wrist to the underarm, and is then joined to the bodice by being set into a snug-fitting armhole. Variations on this have been developed where sections of the bodice block are “extracted” from the bodice then incorporated into the sleeve block. This changes the shape of the garment and, in some cases, the emphasis of the silhouette. These variations result in the seams or shaping taking place at a different point while still achieving full coverage of the upper body.



Bodice and sleeve blocks. 

Let’s take a look at the components of a basic sleeve, all of which can be modified to create sleeve variations:

Shoulder: In the basic version the sleeve fits close to the natural shoulder line. If this position is moved further down the arm or up into the bodice a drop-shoulder or raglan sleeve is created, respectively.

Upper arm: Adding fullness to the sleeve around the bicep without changing the armhole shape will cause extra fabric to pool at the shoulder and create gathers. This fullness can then be contracted below the bicep or continue for a much fuller sleeve all the way to the cuff.

Elbow: The elbow needs to be able to move, so close fitting sleeves will have a dart to maintain the slim line but give a little extra fabric around the joint to facilitate the movement. Fuller sleeves already have extra room in this area so little consideration of this is necessary.

Cuff: The sleeve can be narrow or wide at the wrist. This is the perfect place to add a flourish, which can be either practical (shirt cuff) or whimsical (points, ruffles, etc.)

Armscye: Changes in the fullness at the underarm can create sleeves that become more bodice than sleeve or will require a gusset to allow for movement if a tight fit is desired.

But wait there is more—and this is where the real fun comes in! Layering on top of the each of the basic components of a sleeve we can also add these elements:

Fullness: The basic sleeve shape without any fullness produces a slim line. Adding fullness to the upper arm creates a puffed sleeve; added to the lower edge it makes a bishop or lantern sleeve. Added to the underarm gives a dolman; adding fullness in specific sections along the length of the arm produces a leg-of-mutton or Juliet sleeve.

Length: Shortening sleeve length to cover just the upper arm produces a cap sleeve; make it slightly longer for a short sleeve. Ending sleeves just below the elbow produces a three-quarter-length sleeve; stopping just above the wrist gives us a bracelet length. Sleeves can also extend below the wrist to cover the back of the hand, a detail that can be shaped or have a thumb slit.

Layers: Multiple layers of fabric can be used to create petal sleeves, tiered effects, mock cuffs or even origami-like shapes.



Basic sleeve block. 


Upper-sleeve modifications to the basic block. 

Lower-sleeve modifications to the basic block. 


Sleeves for knitted garments

The sleeves for knitted garments tend not to be as complex as some of the variations I have mentioned. This is mostly because some of the variations require a weight or stiffness of fabric to support the shape or sufficient drape to allow for cascades or gentle ripples. Sometimes either of these options can be less desirable or not easily achieved in a knitted fabric. Also the elasticity of knitted fabric naturally lends itself to allowing for ease of movement so extra fullness is not often necessary. 

Something to note: Cut-and-sewn woven-fabric sleeves are drafted to be slightly fuller at the back of the sleeve cap to allow for the way the arm fits into the joint. In knitted fabrics the shaping is almost always the same for both the back and front of the sleeve cap. So when setting a cap into the armhole in a knit garment, don’t match the centerline of the sleeve to the shoulder seam. Instead I suggest you move it back about half an inch to an inch to give a little bit more fabric around the fleshy part of the upper back of the arm.

All these variations can be overwhelming so let’s look at how we might categorize these variations into three
main groups. 

Set in Sleeves

A set-in sleeve fits on the natural shoulder line and has a cap that covers the rounded fleshy part at the top of the arm. The drafting of a pattern piece for this kind of construction takes measurements from the bicep at its widest point and the length from the shoulder seam down over the bicep to a point level with the underarm. These measurements are then combined with the distance around the armscye to draft the upper section. 

Generally speaking the cap of the sleeve is eased slightly into the armhole opening to prevent it from being tight when the arm is moving. The basic set-in sleeve block tapers quite dramatically towards the cuff where in snugly encircles the wrist. Set-in sleeves probably have the most variations because each component (mentioned earlier) can be changed dramatically.



 Set-in sleeve styles. 

Among the many variations of set-in sleeves are angel, bell, butterfly, bishop, cap, cold shoulder, gigot/leg-o-mutton, Juliet, puffed, lantern, virago, and wizard. Below are a few examples of sweaters with set-in sleeves. 









Raglan Sleeves

A raglan sleeve incorporates a large swath of the bodice block into the sleeve pattern piece. Rather than finishing at the shoulder line, the top-most point of a raglan generally ends close to the neck. The shaping tapers from the widest point of the upper arm in a diagonal or sometimes slightly curved line towards the neck.

The style was developed in the early 19th century by the tailor to Lord Raglan to accommodate his sword-bearing needs after loosing an arm in battle. Today the shape is most often used for outerwear such as coats and jackets when a roomy fit is desired. Because it is more relaxed than a set-in sleeve it produces a less formal silhouette that is suitable for sporty looks. It works well for children’s wear and also gives the opportunity to combine colors or fabrics either side of the seam line. The shape or line created by the raglan seam can be varied—the saddle shouldersleeve is very close relative.



 Raglan sleeves. 


Here are some examples of sweaters with raglan sleeves.








Dolman, Kimono and Drop-Shoulder Sleeves

As with the raglan, in this group of sleeves part of the bodice is transferred to the sleeve piece. In these variations the armscye drop is adjusted, sometimes dramatically. The armhole is made very roomy and can extend as low as the waistline. The top of the sleeve either becomes very wide or is cut entirely in one piece with the bodice. A dolman sleeve tapers to a close fit at the wrist whereas a kimono sleeve remains wide throughout its whole length. 

Traditional kimonos are constructed with a separate sleeve, more like a drop shoulder, but this style now refers to a sleeve that is cut as part of the bodice. 

Drop shoulders are quite shapeless and roomy and are often used when the integrity of the fabric needs to be maintained or for ease of construction. Styles that fit into this category are batwing, dolman, magyar, kimono, pagoda, and poet.


Dolman, kimono, and drop sleeves. 



Here are some examples of drop-shoulder sleeves.







Of course for every good rule there are the exceptions. The sleeve styles described below don’t quite fit into the those three basic categories: 


Two-piece sleeves

For a very close fit, sleeves can be made in two pieces. This is a technique used for tailored garments such as jackets and coats. The basic block is cut into two lengthwise and the dart at the elbow point is removed and replaced in the shaping of the back sleeve.

sleeveTwo-piece sleeve.


Hanging Sleeve and Maunch

During the 14th to 17th centuries it was popular to have a sleeve that had a slit in the front at or below the elbow. This allowed the arm to slide through but leave decorative fabric behind the arm, a little like the smaller opening we see in some capes. In the 13th and 14th centuries ladies wore a maunch, a garment that was just sleeves, a little like our modern day shrug. A lady sometimes offered her maunch to a knight as a favor before a tournament.  

Hanging sleeve. 



Paper dressmaking patterns often give the maker an option to lengthen or shorten a sleeve for a better fit. Knit patterns require you to calculate your own adjustments. Here’s how:  

Measurements you will need:

Width at cuff

Width at upper arm/bicep/widest point of sleeve

Length from cuff to underarm

Stitch gauge

Row gauge



The following calculations use a gauge of 5.5 stitches and 7.5 rows = 1 inch / 2.5 cm


Step 1 Calculate the number of stitches to cast on by multiplying the width at cuff in inches by the stitch gauge or number of stitches per inch. (see diagram, above)

Example: 9 inches x 5.5 stitches = 49.5; round up to whole number = 50 stitches.

Step 2 Calculate the number of stitches to have at widest point by multiplying the width at the bicep by the number of stitches per inch. (see diagram, above)

Example: 13 inches x 5.5 = 71.5; round up to whole number = 72 stitches.

Step 3 Calculate the number of increases required by subtracting the result obtained in Step 1 from result of Step 2. Divide this number by two, as you will be working the increases at the beginning and end of each increase row producing an increase of two stitches on each increase row.

Example: 72 -50 = 22, divide by 2 = 11 increases. 

Step 4 Calculate the number of rows to work for the sleeve by multiplying the length from cuff to underarm by the row gauge or number of rows per inch. (see diagram, above)

Example: 17.5 inches x 7.5 = 131, round up to whole even number = 132 rows.  

Step 5 Calculate the rate of increase. We usually aim to have this evenly spaced throughout sleeve, but we also need to avoid an increase immediately after casting on and right before shaping the top of the sleeve. Therefore the number of “spaces” between the increases will be the result of Step 3 plus 1. To visualize this, look at your left hand and imagine that your five fingers are the increase rows, with a space before your pinky and after the thumb. These spaces plus the spaces between each finger = 6, or number of increases plus 1.

Example: 11 increases (result from Step 3) +1 = 12.

Step 6 Divide the result of Step 4 (number of rows you will work) by the result from Step 5 (number of spaces between increases). This rarely turns out to be an even number. If you wish to work all the increases on right-side rows (as we most often do), then you need to have an even number and will have to do a little bit of adjustment to this number.

Example: 132 rows divided by 12 = 11, an odd number. 

If you wish to work all increase rows on right-side rows, divide the increases between two different row counts: in this case select the ones either side, so 10 and 12 rows.

Work 6 increases every 10 rows to give 60 rows worked. Then work 5 increases every 12 rows, a further 60 rows giving a total of 120 rows. Then work 12 after the last increase to reach a total of 132 rows worked.


And there you go! 

You can now use this plan to adjust any sleeve to the correct length.

Of course if you want to get fancy, you can also modify the rate at which the increases take place, to maybe create a slim lower section with more fullness in the upper part of vise versa or any combination that you wish to dream up.



Fiona Ellis is the author of Inspired Cable Knits, Knitspiration Journal, and Inspired Fair Isle Knits. She is an online instructor at Craftsy; you can find out what she is currently working on at