Set-In Sleeves

This article was first seen in Australian Dressmaking with Stitches magazine – Volume 22 No 2.
Permission has been sought and granted for electronic use and the photos and text remain the property of Alison Wheeler – Sewing Lady.

There are many different sleeve styles.   Set in sleeves have a smooth, high cap.  They  may also have gathers, tucks or pleats at the cap.

What all set in sleeves have in common is the incorporation of ease in the cap area to facilitate comfortable movement of the arm when the garment is being worn.  The amount of ease can vary depending on the style of garment and whether it is intended to wear other garments underneath.

The Anatomy of a Sleeve

Anatomy of a sleeve.

Anatomy of a sleeve.

Sleeve Cap – the top section of the sleeve between the underarm and the shoulder

Armscye – the measurement of the armhole

Bicep – the measurement across the whole sleeve level with the underarm

Sleeve Length – the measurement from the shoulder point to the hem

Fitting the Sleeve

There are two important body measurements to check against a sleeve pattern.  These are bicep and cap height.

Where to measure the height of the cap.  Place a tape around the bicep, nesting it against the underarm.  Measure from the top of the tape to the shoulder joint.

Where to measure the height of the cap. Place a tape around the bicep, nesting it against the underarm. Measure from the top of the tape to the shoulder joint.

Draw a line from the shoulder point to the hem, parallel to the grain line.  Then draw a line at right angles to the grain line level with the underarm points.

The measurement from the horizontal line to the shoulder point is the cap height and the length of the horizontal line at underarm level is the bicep measurement.

Draw line joining top of underarm seams and measure from this line to the shoulder point.  This is the cap height.

Draw line joining top of underarm seams and measure from this line to the shoulder point. This is the cap height.

For comfort when wearing the garment the cap height of the sleeve should be approximately 1.5cm longer than the body measurement and the bicep should be at least 5cm more than the body measurement.  These measurements will increase for jackets which are to be worn over other garments and even more for coats.

If the underarm is too low, arm movement is considerably restricted.  Many will remember the large full sleeves of the 1980’s and 1990’s when large shoulder pads and low armholes were the norm.  Fashion today dictates a closer fitting sleeve so the underarm may need to be raised if using an older pattern.

It has been my experience from fitting many jackets and garments with set in sleeves that even if the bicep area has sufficient width, a cap height which is too high will result in a feeling that the sleeve is too tight.  This problem can be easily fixed by raising the armscye in both the sleeve and bodice sections of the garment.

Another important issue is the hang of the sleeve as it leaves the armhole.  It should hang smoothly down the arm without any folds.  An easy way to check  that the sleeve is well positioned is to thread mark a balance line across the cap of the sleeve, at right angles to the grain line.

Pin the sleeve in place matching the shoulder seam with the original match point at the top of the sleeve and try on the garment.  The balance line should be parallel to the floor.  If it is not, there will be folds in the sleeve which can be corrected by rotating the sleeve until the balance line is in the correct position.

Rotate balance line until it sits parallel to the floor.

Rotate balance line until it sits parallel to the floor.

Sleeve Cap Ease

In a sleeve which is to be set smoothly into the garment, the measurement at the seam line of armscye of the sleeve should be 25mm (1”) to 30mm (1 ¼”) longer than the seam line on the bodice.  This excess is the amount of ease.  To check the amount of ease in the sleeve, measure the front and back armscye sections of the garment separately.  Also measure the front and back sleeve caps separately.  These measurements can then be compared to find where the excess ease lies.

Easing the Sleeve Cap

There are many different methods and opinions on how to ease and set a sleeve.  I offer a method which has served me very well in lots of different fabrics over many years.

Select a stitch length of 2.5 to 3.5 (small stitch for fine, thin fabric and longer stitch for thicker, heavier fabrics) and reduce the machine’s thread tension to just below 2.0.  This will make the bobbin thread quite loose and the fabric will draw up very easily without making small pleats which are difficult to remove when the sleeve is sewn in place.

With the sleeve flat, the stitching is done from the right side of the fabric between the notches and across the cap of the sleeve, with the first row right on the seam line.  Stitch a second row parallel to the first and within the seam allowance (place the edge of the presser foot against the first row of stitching to assist in keeping the rows exactly parallel).  (Photo 3)  Be sure to leave thread tails on either end so that the stitching can be pulled up easily.

Stitch ease lines while sleeve is flat.  First row on the 15mm seam line and the second row within the seam allowance approximately 6mm away.  Both rows should be parallel and evenly spaced.

Stitch ease lines while sleeve is flat. First row on the 15mm seam line and the second row within the seam allowance approximately 6mm away. Both rows should be parallel and evenly spaced.

Stitch the underarm seams working from armhole to wrist.  Press seams flat and open over a sleeve board or seam roll.  Finish edges as desired.

Pin or thread  mark the shoulder point.  Before setting the sleeve into the garment, pull up the easing from the wrong side of the sleeve using both threads at the same time.  The easing is pulled up quite tightly but not in the shoulder area for 1cm on either side of the shoulder point.

Pull up easing to within 1cm of top of sleeve.

Pull up easing to within 1cm of top of sleeve.

Using your thumb, work the easing back until the seam area is perfectly smooth.

Carefully smooth easing back along the ease row nearest the seam line.  The outer edge will remain fluted while the seam line area fits the armhole perfectly.

Carefully smooth easing back along the ease row nearest the seam line. The outer edge will remain fluted while the seam line area fits the armhole perfectly.

Carefully press just the seam allowance to remove any fluting or small pleats at the seam line but do not allow the point of the iron to go past the seam line.

To position the sleeve in the armhole, place the bodice and sleeve right sides out and beside each other on a flat surface.  Reach inside the bodice armhole and pinch the top of the sleeve and the shoulder seam together.  Flip the bodice over the sleeve.  This will position the sleeve perfectly.

Working inside the sleeve, pin the shoulder and underarm points.  I usually pin the underarm area in place first and then the cap area.  Be sure to keep the outer edges of the fabric together and pin at right angles to the seam line with just a small bite of the pin at the seam line.

Pinned right on seam line from inside the sleeve.

Pinned right on seam line from inside the sleeve.

Starting  about 5cm ahead of the underarm seam, stitch along the seam line.  Follow your machine’s measuring guide and not the original stitching line used for the easing.  When the easing is pulled up, the bias sections of the sleeve cap stretch and the original easing line will no longer be 1.5cm from the cut edges.

Black rows are ease stitching - red row is permanent seam line.  Easing causes the bias sections of the cap to stretch so seam line moves.

Black rows are ease stitching – red row is permanent seam line. Easing causes the bias sections of the cap to stretch so seam line moves.

When reaching the original starting point, simply overlap the stitching for about 1cm – there is no need to backstitch.  Stitch a second row approximately 6mm from the original line in the underarm area only and trim the seam allowance back to this stitching line.

I do not trim the remainder of the seam allowance which is pressed flat and sits inside the sleeve to act as a small sleeve head to support the cap line.

The seam allowance can then be finished as desired and appropriate to the fabric of the garment.

Press the seam allowance only and allow it to sit inside the sleeve.  The result is a smooth sleeve which rolls nicely into the armhole with ease evenly distributed and no puckers.

Sleeve should roll nicely out of the armhole.

Sleeve should roll nicely out of the armhole.

Sleeve Heads

Sleeve heads are strips of thick fabric or batting that lift and support the sleeve cap and enhance the sleeve’s drape.  They are usually inserted in jackets and coats.

They are rarely used in dresses with today’s fashion but were quite prevalent in the era of the big gathered sleeve.  This type of support was usually provided by a gathered tulle or silk organza sleeve head.  Since the many past fashion elements often influence current fashion, we can probably expect to see these sleeves again at some future time.

Pre-made sleeve heads are available for purchase but often they do not fit the shape of a ladies’ sleeve.

It is quite easy to make sleeve heads to exactly fit your garment.   Use the top of your sleeve pattern and mark a bias grain line in the cap area.    The bias grain makes the sleeve heads mould to the shape of the upper arm.

Mark cutting lines for sleeve head on sleeve pattern; trace off and cut from thin wadding/batting.  Bias grain helps the sleeve head mould to the upper arm area.

Mark cutting lines for sleeve head on sleeve pattern; trace off and cut from thin wadding/batting. Bias grain helps the sleeve head mould to the upper arm area.

Cut two pieces of thin batting in the shape of the sleeve cap, between dots.  I prefer to use cotton or wool quilt batting for this purpose.

Custom fitting sleeve head with shoulder position marked with a snip and corners rounded.

Custom fitting sleeve head with shoulder position marked with a snip and corners rounded.

Clearly mark front and back on each sleeve head.

Find centre of the sleeve head and align it with shoulder seam – wider section of header should be against sleeve, narrower section on top.  Either machine or hand stitch the heads just inside seam line.  IMG_3236If machine stitching, loosen the thread tension and use a long stitch so that the sleeve head is not too tightly in place.

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Taming Inset Corners

Inset corners are used in garments withcut on collars, forexample stand up or shawl collars, as well as those with panel insertions, godets and gussets.

Vogue 8931

Vogue 8931

Style Arc Issy Top with back collar stand and inset corner where shoulder seam joins the neck.

Style Arc Issy Top with back collar stand and inset corner where shoulder seam joins the neck. Designed for thin and very stretchy knits.

Style Arc Issy Top with back collar stand and inset corner where shoulder seam joins the neck.

Style Arc Issy Top with back collar stand and inset corner where shoulder seam joins the neck.

Vogue 9039 Jacket with lots of inset panels and inset collar.

Vogue 9039 Jacket with lots of inset panels and inset collar.

Vogue 9039 Jacket with lots of inset panels and inset collar.

Vogue 9039 Jacket with lots of inset panels and inset collar.

V9039

This Marfy pattern has godet inserts.

This Marfy pattern has godet inserts.

This Marfy pattern has godet inserts.

This Marfy pattern has godet inserts.

Typically this feature is used with stable, medium weight woven fabrics.  However, these garment features are also included in patterns for knit garments and often in blouses made in softer fabrics.  The pattern guide sheet method requires stay stitching and clipping the inset corner before joining the pieces right sides together which, when stretchy or loose weave fabrics are used, makes it almost impossible to achieve a clean, sharp corner.

The key to achieving a sharp corner is stabilising the corner.

In this method fusible interfacing will stop the seam stretching and a silk organza patch placed at right angles to the pivot point will help achieve and maintain a sharp pivot point.  The addition of the fusible interfacing strips will depend on the garment fabric.  It is particularly useful when using knits and unstable fabrics.

When using stable woven fabrics:

  • Cut an on grain 5cm/2” square of silk organza
  • Pin the organza in place (again centred over the exact pivot point) against the right side of the fabric

    Place silk organza centred over pivot point keeping the straight grain of theorganza at a 90 degree angle to the pivot point.

    Place silk organza centred over pivot point keeping the straight grain of theorganza at a 90 degree angle to the pivot point.

  • Stay stitch using a stitch length of 1.0-1.5 on the seam line of the corner

    Staystitch corner from point out on each side

    Staystitch corner from point out on each side

  • Using very sharp scissors, clip through the organza and fabric right to the pivot point

    Use small very sharp scissors to clip through both fabric layers to the pivot point.

    Use small very sharp scissors to clip through both fabric layers to the pivot point.

  • Fold the organza towards the seam allowance and press in place

    Press the silk organza away from the seam lines.

    Press the silk organza away from the seam lines.

When using loose weave woven fabrics, stretch woven fabrics or knits:

  • Cut an on grain 5cm/2” square of silk organza
  • Cut an on grain 1cm/ ½” strip of fusible interfacing
  • On the wrong side of the fabric, position the strip of interfacing centred over the seam lines on either side of the pivot point (usually marked with a small dot)
  • Cover with organza press cloth and carefully press to fuse interfacing in place

    Strips of fusible interfacing will protect the pivot point when it is clipped and prevent the stretching of seams.

    Strips of fusible interfacing will protect the pivot point when it is clipped and prevent the stretching of seams.

  • Pin the organza in place (again centred over the exact pivot point) against the right side of the fabric
  • Stay stitch using a stitch length of 1.0-1.5 on the seam line of the corner
  • If the fabric frays easily, use a toothpick to place a tiny drop of FrayCheck© on the wrong side of the fabric exactly over the pivot point – allow to dry thoroughly
  • Continue as above

Attaching the inset fabric:

The key to success is to stitch the seams on either side of the pivot point, one at a time.

  • Mark the sewing line on the piece to be inserted

    Mark sewing lines on piece to be inserted.

    Mark sewing lines on piece to be inserted.

  • Matching the pivot points on both sections, pin with right sides together and organza inside the seam allowance, with the stay stitched side of the fabric upwards

    Position fabric pieces with right sides together and the pivot point and seam lines aligned.

    Position fabric pieces with right sides together and the pivot point and seam lines aligned.

  • Stitch through the point on one side - keeping the stay stitching in view.

    Stitch through the point on one side – keeping the stay stitching in view.

    Start stitching approximately 6mm/ ¼” before the pivot point and continue just on the garment side of the stay stitching

  • Flip the fabric and repeat on the other side – the stitching will be in the opposite direction but it is more important to see the stay stitching line in both steps
  • The finished seam can be pressed towards away from the inset corner or seam allowances can be pressed open for a smoother finish on both sides of the seam line.Face side with seam allowances pressed away from corner.
    Seam allowances pressed away from corner.

    Face side with seam allowances pressed away from corner.

    Face side with seams pressed open - surface is smoother.

    Face side with seams pressed open – surface is smoother.

    A very common feature in vintage patterns from the 1950’s is an extended sleeve with an inbuilt gusset to allow the maximum range of arm movement.  I made this dress a year ago. The original pattern has the gusset section on the front bodice but not the back.  When I made my initial toile, I discovered that this was not very comfortable and I added the same feature on the back bodice.   It has been extremely comfortable to wear.

    Vintage Vogue 2401

    Vintage Vogue 2401

    Vintage Vogue 2401

    Vintage Vogue 2401

    Vintage Vogue 2401

    Vintage Vogue 2401

    Seam allowances pressed open at side seams and away from armhole seam in underarm area.

    Seam allowances pressed open at side seams and away from armhole seam in underarm area.

Before You Start Sewing

When we are about to start a new project it is so easy to be swept up in thoughts of how beautiful the fabric feels; the beautiful lines of our chosen style  and how we will look and feel when we wear our beautiful new creation.

Taking a step back to think about preparing the pattern and fabric and the techniques we will need to use is such a good idea on many levels.

Pattern Preparation

If you need to make a number of alterations, it is a good idea to trace the pattern pieces in your chosen size on to greaseproof paper.  The benefits of doing this are:

  • your original pattern is preserved (with all sizes in tact)
  • confusion between different markings for multi sizes can be minimised
  • seam lines can be marked and grainlines extended
  • seam allowance widths can be varied if desired
  • the pattern can be pinned together (along the sewing lines) with the writing side out and tried on to check the placement of details like necklines, pockets, etc.
  • alterations for fit can be made
  • additional pieces can be cut to make pattern matching with a single layer layout easier

Creased patterns affect accuracy so, if your pattern is creased, place it writing side down on your ironing surface and iron it flat with a warm, dry iron.

Fabric Preparation

Even though I love the feel of wearing a creation I have made using the as new fabric without pre-treating it, I have had a couple of disappointing experiences caused by not taking the time to either wash or steam my fabric before cutting out my garments.

One garment shrunk a whole size when fusible interfacing was applied.  Steaming the fabric beforehand would have avoided this problem.  The other experience was the garment shrinking during its first wash; again had I washed the fabric first this would not have happened.

In recent times, many natural fibre fabrics contain 3-5% Elastene© or Lycra© threads for comfort and to make them less prone to creasing.  These elastic threads are most commonly found in cotton but can also be found in silk, linen and woollen fabrics.  It is very important to pre-treat these fabrics to avoid lengthwise shrinkage during washing and/or steaming.  As a general rule, fabrics with polyester as the major fibre do not need to be pre-treated.

Remember when selecting fabric, it is always wise to take note of the care instructions.  Fabric retailers are required to have these attached to the bolt so if you can’t find them, ask the assistant.  Taking a quick photo of the tag can provide a helpful reminder for future fabric care too.

If the fabric has been stored for a while and you are not sure if it has been pre-treated, it is worth washing or steaming it before use.  Always make sure that the fabric has been ironed smooth and creases from storage removed before layout out for cutting.

Tear or pull a thread and cut on the crosswise grain.  If the selvages will not lie flat, carefully clip into them along the length of the fabric so the fabric is not distorted.

Fabric Layout

The key to success with any garment is accuracy in laying out the pattern and cutting the fabric.  Mistakes at this stage will affect how the garment goes together.

Pattern layouts are computer generated to minimise fabric wastage so following the layout as detailed in the guide sheet for different sizes and fabric widths is usually the best way to go with plain fabric.  However, there are other considerations as well.

If the pattern has been altered resulting in increased width and/or length, this will need to be factored into the layout as these changes often require additional fabric.

When using patterned fabrics (especially large graphic prints or florals or plaids), consideration also needs to be given to whether you will have enough additional fabric to place large florals attractively or match plaids or one-way prints.

If you fall in love with such a fabric, be sure to measure the pattern repeat and allow an additional repeat for each major pattern piece when you are purchasing.

Using a gridded cutting board is a great help with laying out the fabric on grain, especially when using loose weave or slippery fabrics.

When folding fabric for a double layout, right sides should be together.  This makes marking the fabric easier.  With a single layout, the fabric is placed with right side up.  Single layout is usually required for asymmetrical pieces and pattern pieces are usually placed with the writing side up.

There are many different options for holding the fabric in place for cutting.  When making my choice, I consider the number of pattern pieces, the fabric thickness and properties:

  • How many pattern pieces are there?
  • Will the whole layout fit on my cutting surface?
  • How thick is the fabric?
  • Is it stable?
  • Is it very slippery and difficult to keep in place?

When working with a pattern with lots of pieces, I like to use pins placed within the seam allowances (to minimise the chance of marking my fabric) and parallel to the cutting edge as I feel this gives me the best control of the fabric when I am cutting.  Pinning in the corners and the centre of curves makes my cutting much more accurate.

I prefer to pin within the seam allowance and parallel with the seam line. Make sure corners and the mid point of curves are pinned so they will not move when fabric is being cut.

I prefer to pin within the seam allowance and parallel with the seam line. Make sure corners and the mid point of curves are pinned so they will not move when fabric is being cut.

However, for garments with less pattern pieces and when using very stable fabrics and some knits, I use pattern weights.  Unless you have extra long pins, weights are also useful when the fabric is very thick and being cut with a double layout.

Align the selvages and crosswise grain of the fabric.  To avoid distortion during the cutting process, roll the fabric that would extend beyond the cutting surface so it will remain on the table and not fall off the edge.  The fabric can then be rolled at the pinned edge as you work your way along the yardage.

When laying out the pattern pieces, I always use a ruler to measure from grain lines to the selvage or fold.  It is difficult to be sure that a tape measure is actually at a perfect right angle to the edge and this can result in pieces being cut slightly off grain.  The weight of the ruler also helps by holding the fabric in place for pinning.

For very long pieces, for example a full length skirt or dress and pants, I extend the pattern grainline from top to bottom.  I measure from the grainline to the selvage/fold in the centre of the piece and anchor it with a pattern weight before repeating the process up and down along the whole length of the garment to check the grainline with my ruler.  The reason I do not pin within the body of the garment is that I do not like to risk pulling a thread or marking my fabric with a damaged pin.  Once the grainline is held in place it is easier to smooth from the centre and pin around the edges of the pattern.

Use ruler to align grainline and weights to keep the grain line in place while pinning.

Use ruler to align grainline and weights to keep the grain line in place while pinning.

To place pattern pieces on the fold, I pin the top and bottom edges along the fold first.  While holding the centre of the pattern piece in place, I smooth across to the other side and pin.  So that I cannot pull a thread down the centre of a piece, I do not pin the pattern edge down the folded fabric.

Once all the pattern pieces are in place, cut roughly around each piece.  This preliminary step makes it possible to move the pieces so that you can cut at right angles to your body for greater accuracy.  If the scissors are parallel to your body, the bottom layer will be slightly wider than the upper layer and this will impact the ease with which the pieces go together during construction and the fit of the garment.

If for some reason you do not wish to cut all garment pieces at the one time, it is important to check that all the pieces fit your fabric yardage so that you do not run out of fabric when coming back to cut additional pieces.

Mark the wrong side of the fabric so that you do not inadvertently cut remaining pieces from the opposite side to your original pieces.

Use a piece of Washi tape or a hand stitch to indicate the wrong side of the fabric.

Use a piece of Washi tape or a hand stitch to indicate the wrong side of the fabric.

It is never a good idea to leave pattern pieces pinned to fabric for any length of time, especially if you live in a humid climate.  If you find a bent, burred or blunt pin, dispose of it immediately.

Cutting Out

I prefer to use dressmaking shears to accurately cut my pattern pieces.   The exception is when I am cutting straight pieces (waistbands, tab fronts, belt loops, etc) which I cut using a rotary cutter, mat and ruler.

Dressmaking shears with rotary cutter, mat and ruler.

Dressmaking shears with rotary cutter, mat and ruler.

When cutting bias strips for binding, I also prefer to use a rotary cutter to achieve perfectly straight edges.  I simply measure the length and width of the pattern pieces and cut the bias pieces separately.

Either way, I always cut away from myself while carefully moving the pieces so that I can mostly cut at right angles to my body.  As I am right handed, I keep my left hand flat on the piece so that the fabric remains on the cutting surface as it is being cut.  Left handed sewers would simply reverse this.

If possible, I try to cut directionally with the grain of the fabric (similar to the direction of stay stitching – see blog post 26th April, 2015 covering Stay Stitching and Edge Stitching).

I have to admit that cutting out is not my favourite part of a project because I find it quite hard on my back, even though I have a table at the correct height.  A discussion with a physio resulted in some very good advice.  When you are standing at the cutting table, very slightly bend your knees and keep your feet a shoulder width apart.  I have tried this and it does make a difference.  I hope it works for anyone else with a similar problem.

Marking the Fabric

To help with accurate piecing of the garment pieces, there are various notches, dots, triangles and lines on the pattern pieces.  These need to be carefully transferred to the wrong side of the fabric.  Never risk using a marking implement on the face side of the garment.

There is a wide range of marking methods and tools.  The choice of marking method I use is always dependant on the fabric, style elements and where the marks need to be placed.

A selection of marking implements - dressmaker's carbon and tracing wheel; tailor's chalk and chalk wheel; Frixion pen and Sewline mechanical ceramic marking pencil

A selection of marking implements – dressmaker’s carbon and tracing wheel; tailor’s chalk and chalk wheel; Frixion pen and Sewline mechanical ceramic marking pencil

I believe all pens and pencil markers are best kept for markings in the seam allowances so that there is no chance that a permanent mark will show on the final garment.

For stable, non slippery fabric, pin marking works very well and is very accurate.  It is necessary to place the pins right before sewing the garment piece as they may leave marks if left in the fabric for any length of time.

Small snips (no more than 6mm in a 15mm seam allowance) are also a quick and accurate method for marks at the cut edges.  Simply remove the notches when cutting out the fabric and place the tip of sharp scissors in the middle of each notch and at centre front and centre back edges and make a small snip.  The only drawback with this method is that if the fabric edges are finished before the pieces are joined together, the clips will disappear.

Chalk markers can be used in both within the seam allowance and in the body of the garment (for example when marking grain lines, pocket placements, centre front line, etc.).

If the garment has complex elements (unusually shaped pieces, sharp corners or curves) the best and most accurate marking method is to use dressmaker’s carbon paper and a tracing wheel.  Just be sure to use the palest colour that can be seen on the fabric (I usually stick to white) so that the coloured lines will not be seen through to the face of the fabric.  If you are using an underlining, the marks should be transferred to this layer which is attached to the main fabric and sewn together – thus avoiding any possibility of the marks showing on the right side of the garment.

Slide the tracing carbon between the pattern and upper layer of fabric.  With a piece of cardboard or the underside of a rotary cutting mat under the piece, use the tracing wheel to run along all grain, seam and placement lines and through notches, dots, triangles etc.

Once the first piece of fabric has been marked, carefully remove the pattern and pin the fabric pieces together.  With the carbon paper face up against the bottom layer, trace over the previous marks to transfer them accurately to the second piece.

In areas where it is necessary for specific construction techniques to see the marks on the right side of the fabric, thread trace the marks with embroidery floss (one strand is usually sufficient).  This is particularly useful to mark the centre front and grainlines through to the right side which greatly assists when checking the fit of the garment.  The other benefit of hand stitching marks is that they will not come out of the fabric until you remove them – how many times have we had to get the pattern out to see a mark that has faded?

Tailor’s tacks using the same embroidery floss are great for placement marks for pleats and tucks.

Marking by hand : L to R - crossed running stitches to mark dots; running stitch parallel to seam to mark notches; thread tracing to mark dart legs; tailor's tack to mark exact point

Marking by hand : L to R – crossed running stitches to mark dots; running stitch parallel to seam to mark notches; thread tracing to mark dart legs; tailor’s tack to mark exact point

Marks seen on the right side of the fabric as well.

Marks seen on the right side of the fabric as well.

Whichever method is chosen, it is extremely important to test on a scrap of the fabric to be sure it will achieve the desired result and not cause unexpected problems.

Working With Bias Cut Garments

Most texts covering the use of bias cut recommend soft, fluid fabrics – including georgette, crepe de chine, silk satin (charmeuse), challis and crepe-back satin –  which drape beautifully when cut on the bias.  I have also used linen and cotton with pleasing results.

Bias refers to any diagonal intersection of lengthwise and crosswise threads.  True bias is when the fabric is folded diagonally so the crosswise threads are exactly 90° to the lengthwise ones.

Woven fabrics have the greatest amount of stretch along the true bias grain which accounts for the drape, comfort and body moulding properties of a bias-cut garment.

There is little difference in the drape of knit fabric cut on the bias to that cut on the lengthwise or crosswise grain.  This does not mean they do not work in these styles.  They are actually great for achieving dramatic effects with striped knits, especially Missoni fabric.

In addition to the beautiful drape of bias-cut garments,

Bias garments mould the figure and flow into a beautiful heavy drape towards the hemline.

Bias garments mould the figure and flow into a beautiful heavy drape towards the hemline.

There are two very practical benefits to sewing with bias.  First, since bias edges won’t ravel, seam finishes are completely unnecessary.  Secondly, bias-cut garments wrinkle far less than their straight-grain counterparts.

Pattern Selection:

Bias cut is best suited to styles which will mould close to the body.   Cowl draping and skirts with fullness at the hem (frequently using godets) are common styles using bias cut.  This will be mentioned in the description of the garment on the back of the pattern envelope.

Pattern description mentions "bias".

Pattern description mentions “bias”.

Grainlines for the specific pattern pieces will be marked with the grain line on the bias.

However, you can adapt any pattern by redrawing grainlines at 45° to the original grainline.

To draw a bias grain line, make a small 1"/2cm square box on the side of the existing grain line. Place ruler on opposite diagonal corners and draw a bias grain line.

To draw a bias grain line, make a small 1″/2cm square box on the side of the existing grain line. Place ruler on opposite diagonal corners and draw a bias grain line.

Cutting and Marking:

Fabric must be perfectly on grain.

To avoid distorting the fabric, work on a large, flat cutting surface and cover it with tissue paper.  Either tape the tissue to the surface or use a gridded dressmakers’ cutting board – an excellent tool to keep the fabric perfectly in place.  Once the fabric is correctly postioned, it can be pinned into the board or to the taped down tissue paper.  Do not allow any fabric to fall off the edge of the cutting surface.

For better control of the bias direction with individual pieces, cut your garment using a single layer layout.  If the pattern does not provide individual pattern pieces for each section to be seamed and for pieces to be cut on the fold, trace additional pattern pieces on greaseproof paper – paying particular attention to the grain lines.

Guidesheet description of fabric layout - note No Fold option - cut and turn fabric before placing right sides together.

Guidesheet description of fabric layout – note No Fold option – cut and turn fabric before placing right sides together.

To minimize the problem of one side stretching more than the other, place the right and left pattern pieces at right angles to each other.

Extra care taken in the layout stage will make sewing easier.

Bias layout - grainlines parallel to selvage.

Bias layout – grainlines parallel to selvage.

Increase all vertical seam allowances to 1 ½” (8cm) to allow for any fitting adjustments caused the stretching of the bias.  When fabric is cut along the bias, the intersecting threads fan out, elongating the cut edge.  Moving the stitching line father away from this “expansion” will help eliminate rippled seams later on.

Pin the fabric with right side facing up to tissue paper (again checking that the grain lines are perfect – selvage and cross grain edges are at right angles and the fabric is anchored to the cutting surface either with tape or pins).

Cut the fabric and tissue paper as one, leaving tissue attached until stay stitching is completed.  Do not worry about ruining your scissors by cutting the tissue.  Polyester and silk fabric will blunt your shears anyway.

Using shears with one serrated blade is a great help as the serration stops the fabric moving and sliding as it does across the smooth blade when the shears are closed. IMG_3157

Serrated blade.

Serrated blade.

Mark all stitching lines before removing the pattern from the fabric.  Thread tracing, chalk or tracing paper and a tracing wheel are all good choices – test different methods on a scrap of fabric first to see which will best suit your project.

Stitching:

The key to successful bias sewing is to work with the stretch, not against it.

Begin by stay stitching any seam that will not land vertically on the finished garment – includes necklines, armholes, waistlines and asymmetrical seams – do this before removing the stabiliser.

Stay stitch in direction of greatest stretch - the opposite direction to what is used for on grain fabrics.

Stay stitch in direction of greatest stretch – the opposite direction to what is used for on grain fabrics.

Garments cut on the bias fit differently than garments cut on the straight grain.  It is wise to baste the garment together, allow it to hang for 24 hours, and try it on before doing any permanent stitching.

To baste two bias seams together:

  • Working on a large flat surface, pin the two garment sections right sides together with stitching lines matching
  • Leaving a 3” (7.5cm) unknotted tail, hand baste the stitching lines together for about 6-8” (10-15cm), leave a small loop to allow the fabric to stretch and repeat, until the whole seam is basted together
  • When joining a bias edge to one with a straight grain, use this method to eliminate puckers:
    • Before joining the bias edge to the straight grain edge, pin the bias section to a padded hanger and let it hang for at least two hours so the bias has time to “grow”
    • Remove the bias section and repin it to the pattern piece – remark all of the symbols from the pattern piece
    • Hand baste the two sections together along the stitching line.

Permanent stitching also requires some special handling:

  • At the start of a seam, insert the needle approximately 3mm/ 1/8” from the edge of the fabric and lower the presser foot to secure the fabric
  • Because the bias seam allowances tend to narrow during stitching, do not use the cut edge of the fabric as a stitching guide. Instead, stitch along the basted stitching line.
  • Gently stretch the fabric, putting one hand in front and the other hand behind the presser foot as you sew.
  • Stitch about 8-10” (20.5-25.5cm) then stop with the needle in the fabric. Raise the presser foot, let the fabric relax, lower the foot and stitch again.  Repeat until the entire seam is stitched.
  • When stitching vertical seams, follow the pull of gravity, stitching from neckline to hemline. For necklines and horizontal seams, stitch from the centre out.
  • To avoid ripples, press each seam in the same direction it was stitched.
  • Once the seam is stitched and pressed, trim the seam allowances to 5/8” (1.5cm).

When stitching and pressing, it is important to support the fabric so that its weight doesn’t distort the shape of the garment.

Hemming:

Bias-cut garments should hang for at least twenty-four hours before hemming.  This same rule applies to bias-cut sleeves – let them hang before hemming or applying cuffs.

Either a hand rolled or machine stitched narrow hem are the best choices, particularly when working with lightweight fabrics.  (See “And So To The Hem” posted 5th April, 2015).

Design Ideas:

Bias cut can be used to great effect when using stripes.  Before purchasing the fabric, trace off additional pattern pieces and use a gridded board to estimate the amount of fabric needed.  It can normally be expected that bias cut garments utilise more fabric than the same garment cut on the straight grain.

Consider when making a shirt cutting the yoke, pockets, collar, cuffs, or tab front on the bias so the stripes form chevrons.

A bias cut facing can be used on the yoke of a skirt or pants as well.

A similar effect can be achieved on a panelled skirt or dress or in the centre back  or front panels of a princess style jacket.

Bias cut yoke - line with on grain facing

Bias cut yoke – line with on grain facing

Mark centre of yoke. Cut apart and add seam allowance. Add bias grain line. Use on grain facing for stability.

Mark centre of yoke. Cut apart and add seam allowance. Add bias grain line.
Use on grain facing for stability.

Centre front panels cut on bias grain. Cut facings on grain for stability.

Centre front panels cut on bias grain. Cut facings on grain for stability.

If you have never sewn a bias cut garment before, my suggestion would be to start, as I did, by making a four piece linen skirt.  Because the fabric is not slippery, you can focus learning the techniques before tackling that super slinky silk satin.

Finishing the Outer Edges

Portions of this article were first seen in Dressmaking with Australian Stitches magazine Volume 21, Issue 4 (Facings) and  Volume 20, Issue 12 (Applying Bias Binding to Curved Edges).   Permission has been sought and granted for electronic use and the photos and text remain the property of Alison Wheeler – Sewing Lady.

Facings are used to finish and support the outer edges of a garment.  They are most commonly seen at necklines and armholes but can also be used to finish detailed hem edges on dresses, jackets and tops, sleeves; as well as waist and hem edges on skirts and pants.

However, they are by no means the only way to finish necklines and armholes.  When working with sheers, slinky or shiny fabrics, facings can give the edges too much weight and will be visible from the right side of the garment.  A better option to finish these edges on these types of fabrics is to use a narrow binding.

Facings:

Most patterns include facings which are cut from the garment fabric.  There are times when these instructions need to be modified.

Where a fabric is thick (for example a heavy weight wool or silk woven from thick threads), using the garment fabric for facings would result in very thick and bulky edges when facings are trimmed and turned to the wrong side.  This situation also occurs at the hem edges when thicker fabrics are folded back to form the hem.

In these cases, cutting a facing from a lighter weight fabric (interfaced before being applied to the garment) would give the desired stability at the outer edge while resulting in a smoother outer edge.  The weight of the lighter fabric would need to compliment the fashion fabric.  Good choices to consider are cotton homespun for thick and heavy fabrics or cotton lawn for medium weight.

Consideration also needs to be given to the type of stabiliser (interfacing) to be used.  Fusible interfacings seem to be the most commonly mentioned in pattern guide sheets today.  However, they are not the only choice.  The use of a sew-in interfacing can also give good support.  Silk organza gives great body to facings and works particularly well with linen and loose weave fabrics.

Where more stiffness is needed, for example with a stand-away neckline, light to medium weight Shapewell  (the sew-in variety) also works very well in keeping the neckline in shape during the life of the garment. (See blog posted  18th April – Vogue 1303 Kay Unger Dress)

Regardless of the type of fabric and interfacing used for facing pieces, the following application method works well:

Stay stitch the neckline edges – use a small stitch (2.0) just inside the seam line (see blog posted 26th April – Staystitching and Understitching).

Taping the waist line edges on skirts and pants will prevent the garment from stretching during wear:

  1. Use 6mm cotton tape or grosgrain ribbon
Use waist seam line on the pattern to measure the tape exactly.

Use waist seam line on the pattern to measure the tape exactly.

  • Measure the waist length from the pattern
  • Stitch the appropriate seams, leaving the zipper opening, and press them open
  • Mark the centre point of the tape and the garment
  • Matching these reference points, pin the tape in place centred over the waist seam line – tape will cross the open seam allowances
Stitch with tape uppermost. The feed teeth will ease the skirt in place.

Stitch with tape uppermost. The feed teeth will ease the skirt in place.

  • Stitch in place just within the seam allowance.

Interface the facing with chosen method.

Construct the facing and clean finish the outer edge by overlocking or another method appropriate to the fabric being used.

Pin the facing to the garment edge with right sides together and keeping the cut edges even :

Pin through facing seam allowance and then through garment seam allowance to ensure seam lines are aligned.

  • Place a pin in the seam allowance of the facing 15mm from the cut edge and take it through the garment in the same position – this is a great method to make sure that the seam allowances are perfectly aligned at the seam line
Pin facing to garment. To prevent slippage and make it easier to avoid puckers, pin at right angles to the seam and take a small bite with the pin right around where the seam line lies.

Pin facing to garment. To prevent slippage and make it easier to avoid puckers, pin at right angles to the seam and take a small bite with the pin right around where the seam line lies.

  • Placing pins at right angles to the seam line and with just a tiny bite of fabric will assist greatly in making sure the fabric does not move and eliminate puckers. Be sure to remove the pins as you come to them.

Stitch the facing in place.

Press the seam to meld the stitches into the fabric.

Trim the seam allowances to between 3 and 6mm (depending on the thickness of your fabric) –

  • To assess where your seam allowance needs to be clipped so that it will lie flat when the facing is turned in, fold the trimmed seam allowance towards your garment and you will see where it needs to be flattened against the fabric. Clipping will allow this to happen.
Clip seam allowances on an angle towards centre front and centre back.

Clip seam allowances on an angle towards centre front and centre back.

  • To avoid the possibility of weakening the seam, clip seam allowances diagonally to the seam line. Use very sharp, smaller scissors to do this.  Simply place the tip of your scissors exactly against the stay stitching and clip.
  • If your fabric is light in colour, stagger the clips on the garment edge against the facing edge so that the clips will not be visible through the face of the garment.
  • When using thicker facings, facing seam allowance needs to be graded slightly narrower than seam allowance of the face fabric.  This makes for a smoother, less bulky seam.

Press the seam allowance open – using a point presser makes this task much easier – and then towards the facing.

Place open seam along either a point presser or seam stick.

Place open seam along either a point presser or seam stick.

Facing turned to inside of garment with smooth seam allowance.

Facing turned to inside of garment with smooth seam allowance.

Understitch – This is done from the right side of the facing with all seam allowances under the facing and causes the garment edge to roll slightly towards the facing.  Outer edge of facing is then caught by hand to the seam allowances of the garment.  (see blog posted 26th April – Staystitching and Understitching)

Secure – Handstitch to seam allowances and around zipper openings.

Other Options:

Facings can be brought to the right side of the garment  as a design feature in lieu of a separate band:

  • Face the facing piece (as detailed above) with a lightweight fabric, eg silk organza or lightweight cotton by piecing the outer edges to give a smooth edge
  • Tip: Fusible interfacing can be used to clean finish the edge of the facing but care is needed to fuse the sewn edge only  before carefully fusing the remainder of the facing towards the cut edge.
Stitch area which will sit under the facing with wrong sides together; clip and stitch remainder of seam with right sides together.

Stitch area which will sit under the facing with wrong sides together; clip and stitch remainder of seam with right sides together.

  • To avoid exposing the garment’s seam allowance at the edge of the opening, stitch the seam allowance with wrong sides together in the area to be covered by the facing. Clip the seam allowance, turn the seam allowances so that right sides are together and stitch the remainder of the seam
  • Apply the right side of the facing to the wrong side of the garment and stitch, trim and clip. Press before bringing the facing to the right side of the garment
Facing is turned to right side and edge stitched in place. This is an alternative to a separate band. Seam allowance is invisible from underside of neck edge.

Facing is turned to right side and edge stitched in place. This is an alternative to a separate band. Seam allowance is invisible from underside of neck edge.

  • Edgestitch in place from the right side of the garment

This option of facing the facing can also be used on the inside of a garment where a neat finish is required, especially when using a light coloured or sheer garment.

Facing the facing with lightweight fusible interfacing results in a neat, smooth finish on the inside of the garment - no shadow of overlocking can be seen from the right side of a light coloured garment.

Facing the facing with lightweight fusible interfacing results in a neat, smooth finish on the inside of the garment – no shadow of overlocking can be seen from the right side of a light coloured garment.

When working with a thicker fabric, a shoulder seam allowance can be eliminated from neck and armhole facings to achieve a smoother, flatter result:

Mark seam allowances on pattern pieces.

Mark seam allowances on pattern pieces.

  • Mark the seam allowances on the facing pattern pieces
  • Overlap the seam lines in the shoulder area and, using either a front or back fold depending on the pattern style, cut a one piece facing
Overlap seam lines to make new facing pattern piece.

Overlap seam lines to make new facing pattern piece.

  • Part of the facing will be on the bias which results in a facing which moulds to the body and is less likely to roll towards the neckline
Back section of facing will be on bias grain which moulds well to the upper curve of the back.

Back section of facing will be on bias grain which moulds well to the upper curve of the back.

  • To eliminate the bulk of seams at armhole edges where separate front and back pieces are provided, use the same method and redraw a grain line at right angles to the new shoulder position.

Applying Bias Binding to Curved Edges:

There are a number of things to consider when using a bias binding finish to curved edges.

The first consideration is the thickness of the neckline edge.  If the garment has pleats or gathers, the edge will be thicker and this will take up some of the bias trim width.  It would be wise to cut the bias strip wider to accommodate this extra thickness.

Secondly, the thickness of the garment fabric needs to be considered.  If using a heavier fabric the thickness at the edge to be bound needs to be considered.   In these situations, it would be better to use a double binding technique.  The bias strip is cut four times the desired finished width plus two seam allowances.  If the fabric is lighter or firmer, a single binding may well suffice – cut the strips twice the finished width plus two seam allowances.  A small allowance in width to allow for the turn of the cloth may also be needed.

Tip: Whichever method is chosen, making a sample first is important to ensure a good final result.

The seam allowance should be removed from the area to be bound to maintain the original position of the outer edge.  If this is not done, the neckline or armhole will be too narrow.

So that I can achieve strips with an even width and evenly cut edge, I usually cut bias strips using a rotary cutter, mat and ruler.  If you have a pattern piece for the trim, measure its width and length and cut your strips by the exact width but allow extra length to enable you to use a bias join which is much flatter and less bulky.

If you do not have enough length in one strip, it is quite easy to join strips.  Simply cut several strips in the correct width.  Place one strip right side up vertically on a grid; take another piece and place it with right sides together at right angles and to the right of the first piece.

Place bias strips at right angles and stitch across the angle.

Place bias strips at right angles and stitch across the angle.

Pieces are then stitched across the diagonal (which is on the straight of grain and will not stretch) – use small stitches and hold threads – do not back stitch.  Seams are trimmed to 6mm and pressed flat and then open.

Steam stretch the length of the bias to remove as much stretch as possible.

Steam stretch the strip before it is shaped so that it will be less likely to twist once applied. Pull strip away from the iron and steam press.

Steam stretch the strip before it is shaped so that it will be less likely to twist once applied. Pull strip away from the iron and steam press.

Using a bias maker, turn under the edges of the bias strip.

Feed fabric strip into bias maker. Press folded edges as you slowly slide the bias maker along the strip.

Feed fabric strip into bias maker. Press folded edges as you slowly slide the bias maker along the strip.

Once your strips are ready to be applied, take a look at the shape of the curve they will need to match.

Use pattern edge to measure curve.

Use pattern edge to measure curve.

Using an iron and steam, press the bias strips into the shape of the curve of the pattern piece.  When applying the bias to a neckline the inside curve is applied to the neckline.

Press curve before attaching binding.

Press curve before attaching binding.

If you are using satin or other tricky fabrics or applying a binding to a neckline edge with pleats or gathers, tacking the binding in place before machine stitching will really help in achieving accuracy.

When machine stitching, start away from the thickness of a seam line.  Fold edge at right angles and commence stitching the binding in place.

Fold binding at right angle and commence stitching over the fold.

Fold binding at right angle and commence stitching over the fold.

Leave approximately 10cm on either end of the binding unstitched.  Lay this remaining edge over the previously stitched fold and continue stitching over this section for approximately 2-3cm.

Trim seam allowance to slightly narrower than the desired binding width and gently roll folded edge of binding to the stitching line.  Place pins at right angles to the seam when holding the fold in place.  Tack in place.

Turn binding at right angles to the seam line. Tack in place so it does not move or ripple.

Turn binding at right angles to the seam line. Tack in place so it does not move or ripple.

Invisibly hand stitch by placing hand needle under a machine stitch and taking a stitch through the underside of the folded edge of the bias.

Roll folded edge back slightly. Hand stitch catching the bias just under the folded edge.

Roll folded edge back slightly. Hand stitch catching the bias just under the folded edge.

Make several stitches and then pull the thread to make the binding roll into place.  Do not press the rolled outer edge flat.