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How to Sew Sleeves

How to sew sleeves

The how to sew sleeves guide below is an excerpt from Elementary Sewing Skills by Merchant & Mills published by Pavilion.  The book is a great reference guide to the most common techniques needed for garment sewing.  Photography by Roderick Field.

While we tend to pay most attention to the open end of a sleeve, in sewing the real action lies at the shoulder end. We will tackle three main types of sleeve. Each of these has a different look and fit and each employs a very different method of construction.

Set-in sleeves are the most traditional and common type of sleeve. Most set-in sleeves are cut to sit right on the shoulder. They give a flattering and tailored, fitted look.

Raglan sleeves have the seam cut across the body. They can be fitted or very loose. They give a comfortable look and indeed are comfortable to wear, allowing good freedom of movement.

Shirt sleeves have a casual look. They are often cut to have a dropped shoulder with the sleeve seam sitting slightly onto the arm. These sleeves are loose in fit.

Set-in sleeve

Set-in sleeves

A set-in sleeve will have ‘ease’ at the sleeve head. It is called ‘set in’ because the shoulder and side seams of the garment are already sewn together and all seams pressed open and finished. This will give a lovely rounded line to the garment. Take care not to make any tucks in the sleeve when sewing in the sleeve. Ease is easiest to handle with loose-weave fabrics, such as woollens and linens, as it is easy to draw the fibres together; tightly woven fabrics such as denim are trickier.

Set-in sleeves

1. Join the sleeve seam, and ensure that you are making a pair.

Stitching set-in sleeves

2. Using the largest stitch on the sewing machine, run a line of stitching between the front and back armhole notches, just inside the seam allowance. Secure one end with a back stitch and leave the other end with a long thread. Sewing in the other direction, sew another line of stitching parallel to the first, again securing one end with a back stitch and leaving the other end with a long thread. Turn the sleeve to the right side out. With the body of the garment inside out, drop the sleeve into the armhole.

Sew sleeves on a shirt or jacket

3. Match up the back and front notches. Pin the underarm into position and then gently pull the long threads to draw up the ease.

Techniques on adding sleeves when sewing

4. Even out the ease between the notches according to your pattern instructions. Pin into place, or tack if you prefer. 

Easing in a sleeve

5. Sew the sleeve into place starting at the underarm seam and taking the pins out as you sew. Sew all the way around, making sure that the shoulder, sleeve and side seams are open and flat.

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Set-in sleeve tutorial

6. With the seam towards the sleeve (away from the body), zigzag the seams together.

Raglan sleeve

Raglan sleeves

A raglan sleeve can be created as a two-piece sleeve, back and front, or with a dart to create a shoulder seam. The sleeve is ‘set in’; that is, it is sewn into the body of the garment with the sleeve and the garment side seams sewn.

Raglan sleeves
Sewing tips and techniques
Raglan sleeve with dart; Two piece raglan sleeve

1. Either pin and create the dart or pin and sew the two-piece sleeve together. Make sure that you are creating a pair of sleeves, and press the seams open.

Instructions for raglan sleeves

2. Sew together the underarm seam on both the sleeve and the garment body. With right sides together, pin the sleeve to the body of the garment, matching the underarm seams and matching the notches.

Show me how to sew sleeves

3. With the sleeve side up, carefully sew into place.

Finishing adding a raglan sleeve

4. Press the seam open from both sides of the fabric. Clip seams at front and back notches to allow seams at the neck to lie open. Zigzag underarm seams together. Zigzag other seams individually.

Pattern piece for sleeves

Shirt Sleeves

This style of sleeve offers a more casual look, as it is a looser fit and can be dropped away from the natural shoulder. There is normally no ease allowance in a shirt sleeve. It is put in on the flat before the side and sleeve seams are sewn.

Shirt sleeves
Sewing shirt sleeves

1. With right sides together, pin the sleeve into the armholes, matching the notches as you go. Sew together with sleeve side up.


Insetting sleeves into a shirt

2. Press the seam open, then press the seam towards the sleeve (away from the body). Zigzag the sleeve and armhole seams together to finish the seam.

Dressmaking tips

3. Matching up the underarm seams, pin and sew the side seams and the sleeve seams together. Start sewing from the side seam, then sew down the sleeve seam.

Shirtmaking techniques

Elementary Sewing Skills by Merchant & Mills can be purchased online here.