protracting a good fit

I’ve noticed widely varying sentiments regarding kimono sleeves — some people adore them, some really really don’t. I get that. For me, the thing I didn’t like about some of my earlier kimono-sleeve makes was the fit of the armscye — sometimes it was too low, sometimes too big, sometimes it just felt wrong or only the sleeve width itself needed adjusting. After a couple of years of finally getting a grasp on adjustments to set-in sleeves, these things threw me quite the curve — all while maintaining the pretense of being simpler…


the dilemma

But I really WANTED to like them. You know that feeling? Something was niggling at me. I saw it working for other sewists, I wanted to believe that I could make it work too, and yet I didn’t know how to get there. One of my TNT patterns has cut-on sleeves that work great, despite being made from woven fabric. But really, that was just lucky, because the truth was I didn’t understand how to tweak their fit to my liking.

What pushed me to figure it out was Cake. When I first sewed Tiramisu, I made zero alterations, and the bodice shape worked really well for me. The sleeves could stand to be widened a tiny bit, but they don’t bind or cause discomfort. Then I made my Cabarita, and I realized the more I wore it that I needed to figure this out. Even though I love that top, I want the armscye and sleeves to work a little better for me. On my body, the sleeves are snug and yet the armscye is roomy. Steph has said a couple of times on her blog that one of the reasons she loves kimono sleeves is because the fabric doesn’t stick under her arms when it’s hot. My preference is actually the opposite — when I’m sweaty, I hate to feel skin-on-skin at my pits. Sorry if this is TMI, but it is what it is. So, is there a way for both preferences to wear kimono sleeves with comfort? As it turns out, yes.

The Cake bodice size that fits me the best in most places is the 45. But straight up, that size is *not* big enough for my arms – Tira was an anomaly because of the bias cut. For my Cabarita, which was chosen by full bust size rather than high-to-full proportion, I made a 50 and my biceps even gave *that one* trouble. But I definitely like the height of the armscye better on the 45, so that’s the size I will choose from now on with this sleeve alteration.


the alteration

First, decide how much to widen the sleeve. Divide this increase by two, and make the same change to the front and back bodice pieces. Make a mark up from the original sleeve cutting line to the increase:

Next, connect the shoulder point to the mark you made. I like to measure the original sleeve line and make the new one the same length, but this is preference — you can lengthen or shorten the sleeve at the same time as you make this alteration:

When I first tried this alteration, I didn’t change my underarm cutting line and I found it was too short — with my arms down at my sides, the hem rose higher under my arm than it did on the outside of my arm. I don’t have a picture of this unfortunately, so let me know if that doesn’t make sense. So now I lengthen this seam about an inch. Draw the underarm line if you’re changing it, and connect the two:

This last thing is optional, but I’ve found it useful. When I first figured out this alteration, I used a protractor to take a look at that shoulder angle, both before and after. Here’s why: depending on the sleeve length the designer has drafted, making the measurement like that first step above can unpredictable. But if you know the angle you like, you’re closer to your preferred fit:

I turned my house inside out looking for a protractor when I first decided to measure this! Remember those little metal ones? I don’t even know if those are still made that way (sharp metal corners and all), but we must have purchased at least half a dozen for my required school supplies over the years. I felt *sure* that I must still have one around somewhere… alas, no dice. But apparently there’s this newfangled world wide web thing where you can find anything you need and more that you don’t… I printed my protractors here. :)


but nothing’s that straightforward…

The peculiar thing about this was that I never brought it to Steph. She didn’t even know I was playing with my sleeve alterations until I told her what I did with my Red Velvet. She would have saved me a lot of time and befuddlement by helping me with it sooner, but I didn’t ask. So as I was writing this post, I examined that. At first I chalked it up to needing time to sort out what I was wanting from the fit. Yes, maybe that was part of it. I like to figure out a puzzle on my own sometimes? Sure, possibly a small factor.

But that wasn’t all there was to it. As much as I want to think that I’ve moved past this issue, the culprit was… body shame. Again. Even when I didn’t realize it. Sneaky, stealthy, silent snake, that body shame. Here was a pattern that fit me in almost all places, so the place where it didn’t must mean that my body was just wrong there, so just try to ignore it and maybe it will go away or magically get better. Or even worse, what if I said something that inadvertently revealed that Cake Patterns won’t work for me after all?? The designs I loved, the job I adored, even the friendship I’d developed with Steph were all at risk from the shame’s standpoint. WHAT THE HELL. It seems so ludicrous now in retrospect, but until I coaxed it to the surface I wasn’t able to resolve it.

Someone very important to me likes to say that one of the key traits of shame is isolation. I find that so incredibly true that even forcing myself to un-isolate it makes it go away. Shame can’t survive when it’s shared with other people, especially kind and empathetic ones. And the ironic thing is that we all have shame about something. And yet when we’re feeling it, we’re sure we’re the only ones.

So now I’m kind of on a mission…. to address some questions that sewists have regarding altering kimono sleeves. It will be cathartic for me, and I hope the result will be helpful for some others. I’ve started with the fitting issue that *I* was struggling with, but will you share with me if there’s a topic about kimono sleeves/bodices that you would like to see? It doesn’t have to be a Cake Pattern-related experience, and if you want to email me about your question rather than commenting about it here, that’s absolutely fine. Demystification, coming right up… :)



Comments 42

  • Very interesting post, glad to hear you are conquering shame x

  • Highly interesting. I am currently also completely obsessed about working out this whole kimono sleeve fitting issue. I’ve got a post planned for Friday about my fitting issues for Red Velvet which for me is the shoulder area. This is fascinating though … I loved seeing how you did your adjustment it really is very useful to see it like this and actually I feel reassured that my way is ok. Like you I probably could have saved myself a lot of angst by just emailing Steph but I am paranoid about not being a bother to anyone so I fumble my way through on my own, too embarrassed to ask for help. I hope more people will post about this issue. There is a real gap of knowledge online about fitting for this type of sleeve.

    And wow very insightful comments on shame and its impact on us all. Self awareness is a beautiful thing.

    And that is longest comment I’ve ever left. Sorry for my longwindedness but I really liked this post.

    • Thank you Janelle, and please don’t apologize for the thoughtful and heartfelt comment. :) I’ve loved seeing your approach to kimono sleeve alterations — you have been no small inspiration to me finally realizing that perhaps they truly CAN be tailored in most of the ways that other bodice types can. I will be waiting with baited breath to see your other posts about this too!

      • Janelle and Susan – my exact thoughts too! Despite Steph’s wonderful opportunities to help out via flickr I still feel a tinge of shame that I couldn’t work out the shoulder fit for RV. I am now on a mission to perfect the fit of my RV bodice thankfully using Susan’s and Steph’s wonderful tips.

  • printable protractors!!! haha i love that.

    finding the preferred angle of sleeve makes complete sense, much like i have had to figure out what amount of dart intake i require on a fitted bodice. once i figured that out, i could alter pattern pieces off the bat instead of waiting to get frustrated by another pattern that looked ridiculous on me.

    i do have mixed feelings on the kimono sleeve, and almost every time i’ve made one, i later wish i hadn’t. if i’m making one i prefer it to be a cap sleeve instead of a regular length sleeve (unless it’s a dolman top). i just think it looks better. also i find the kimono sleeve uncomfortable (for anything longer than a cap sleeve) because i have a forward shoulder and that seam doesn’t sit where it needs to and feels like it’s pulling back. i haven’t tried to move that seam yet, suppose that’s something i should do, but i’m more inclined to hack off the kimono sleeve and replace it with a regular set-in. and they make my shoulders look super wide. in short (or not…) i guess i’m not a huge fan. on the pros side… they’re super fast to sew!

    • Thanks for your response Lisa — it’s so interesting to discuss the various difficulties we all have! I’ve never seen you in anything that I thought made your shoulders look wide, regardless of sleeve type… But that’s why it’s called self-image right? :)
      Have you seen Sew Hopeful’s post about her forward shoulder alteration on the Hummingbird top? She addresses several fit issues in it and one of them is forward shoulders. She’s able to get kimono sleeves to fit better than most set-in sleeves that I’ve ever seen. Maybe doing a forward-shoulders-only adjustment will be one of the topics I address — truth be told I need that one too, but have gotten away with not making it so far.

      • oh thanks, i’ll check out that post! for a long time i read ppl talking about the forward shoulder thing and i chalked it up to obsessive fitting… until i realized i needed that adjustment and what a difference it really does make! and yes, so many of us have a distorted self-image; i try to keep mine in check!

        • I literally just tried on my next version of Red Velvet, and now that I’ve really got the bodice sizing perfected with the sleeves and the CF length, it’s even more clear to me how badly I need the fwd shoulder adjustment too. HA! When the right size means that the fabric isn’t being pulled snugly in several directions, other fitting opportunities become clearer! It never ends… ;)

  • this is so interesting, i pegged you as a woman utterly confident in her body and personality, it literally just poured out of you! quite literally, as it was like 100 degrees that day.

    you’re gorgeous, and i would have said as much yesterday when i read about your blue dress, had wordpress allowed me :))

    • You are the *sweetest*. My self-confidence is present some days more than others (just like everyone, I’d imagine), and I was having so much fun that day — who has time to deal with body shame shit when you’re surrounded by such lovely peeps to play with?? And thanks, that dress is so comfy, and I need to go do laundry so I can wear it again, stat…

  • Interesting post…you are so very lovely, but self image can be such a demon. As to kimono sleeves – I like them most of the time, but a really good one can be hard to find! I’m like you…I get out a pattern with my fave and redraft if I have to. Nothing wrong with cut and paste – these are our garments after all!

    • Yes exactly! Just like having a skirt block or pants block, a good kimono sleeve block will sort you out of many a jam! Thanks for your kind words, Coco. :)

  • What a brilliant post; informative and so so honest.
    I’ve never tried a longer than cap sleeve kimono so can’t really add to the debate on that particular subject but I do always have to add to sleeves so they fit my upper arms.
    My biggest fitting challenge is actually the FBA on a darted bodice. Princess seams I’ve got sorted but a darted bodice always involves massive side bust darts, which because of their size never seem quite right. I’m guessing the simple answer would be to rotate some of the dart into the waist or split it into two or more smaller darts?

    • I SO know what you mean! On certain styles, it seems that I can never get the bust dart right… I don’t know if it’s the depth of them, or the angle, or what, but I am faaaar from an expert on that topic. I do know that you really have many choices about where you can rotate them (or part of them), but sometimes those options would actually change the style too, you know what I mean? I’ve spoken with several women who’ve had success splitting them into 2 or 3 smaller ones, absolutely. Sometimes I just rotate some of it out to the hip, because I always need extra room there anyway, but I haven’t made super-tailored garments so I know that wouldn’t always work. Agree to share tips we find on the subject?? :)

  • Susan, thanks for much for sharing this! and for sharing your thoughts on sewing/body shame. I do feel they are very connected, and I, for one, feel much less shame now that I am sewing more and don’t have to spend hours in dressing rooms feeling badly about myself. Of course, you are right, there is still some shame when things we make don’t fit right! The problem I am having with kimono sleeves is kinda the opposite of yours (I think, though perhaps they are related??). At least with the Tiramisu, I was having a TON of gaping with the front bodice. I think my bust is smaller than it “should” be (body shame, again!) for my size. On my second tira, i cut a smaller bust size, but then the sleeves were too tight. Perhaps I should cut a smaller bust size and then use this method to make the sleeves bigger? I’m not sure, but its worth a try. I’m sure there are also a million other solutions I could try, I’m just not sure where to start. I do love the Cake Patterns designs, but this kimono sleeve thing has really thrown me for a loop! I like the style of them, and I just made myself a top from a sort of self drafted pattern that has kimono sleeves that fit great, so I’m sure I can figure this out. Woah… sorry for that long ramble!

    • Oh Megan you are such a kindred spirit — thank you so much for this response. I completely agree, sewing has done me a world of good when it comes to looking at my body objectively rather than judgmentally. But apparently a lifetime of issues didn’t go away for me that easily ;) — but I’m getting there…

      I SO hope you try the Tira bodice again, using the size bodice that fit you right then widening the sleeves like this — I am DYING to know if it works for someone else as well as it did for me! And if you learn anything in the process that would make this better, I’d love to know. And then with our sleeve widths sorted, we can move on to the next tweak… :D

      • Yes! I’m planning to settle in for a nice “fall of sewing” here shortly. Especially if I get that government shutdown vacation I’ve always been dreaming of (can you see me rolling my eyes?)

        • Oh NOOOO, I didn’t realize you were being affected by that garbage. I’m sorry. :( But a “sewcation” does sound awfully lovely…? Something about the fall weather makes my sewing mojo come screaming back to me — my hands can’t move fast enough…

  • Thank you for this post Susan; I’m just about to tape my pattern but I had a look at sleeves and based on the measurements I’d probably need a sleeve alteration. I made a 45 bodice for my first and only Tira and the sleeves were ok but probably because it was cut on the bias and because I misread the instructions and choose the bodice based on my full bust measurement and it was a bit looser than I wanted it to be.
    For my RV I’m going to make a 40 bodice but that means that I will need to change the sleeves to fit my biceps and I’m grateful that you addressed this because I wasn’t completely sure how to do it (I was close enough though :))
    Just a few months ago I would have felt horrible at the idea of having to adjust the pattern, because I don’t like my biceps but this time it didn’t happen, no body shame just for once (well… of course I always wonder if I will look good on something but I’m learning to address this, if I feel good I’m good, it’s nobody’s business what I look like, as long as I feel ok)
    Thank you!

    • Solange, your comment made my day, no exaggeration! It made me happy that I dropped just about everything else in my life to get this written and posted last night. I just *needed* to, but I’m thrilled that it was such great timing for you too. :) Please let me know how the alteration works for you? Congrats on healing your own body shame as well… so empowering and rejuvenating to have that load lightened, yes? :)

      • Sorry for not coming back to you, so happy to read I made your day :) I’m finally starting to trace my pattern and altering both the sleeve widht and the bodice lenght by 1 inch each! I will let you know how it goes :)

        • Yay! I added some length to the bodice front on the RV that I just finished, using the DBA tutorial that Steph posted here. It looks really funny on the flat pattern but it totally works… :)

  • What a great post. I love reading what you have to say about your sewing experiences. The tip for adding room to the arms is great and I think it will come in handy. Sewing requires so many alterations that it is time consuming and often frustrating. I keep being encouraged by seeing what you do.
    Aargh body image issues are hard to deal with and I too have found Steph’s words encouraging… remembering to keep on applying them and changing our old ideas is also easier to say than to do. Keep doing what you do, it’s top stuff.

    • Thank you so much for this lovely sentiment, Dee! And I agree about Steph’s perspective — I found her writings about body advocacy, sizism, etc. incredibly inspiring long before Cake Patterns was even a thing. I think there’s really something to just *talking about it* you know? For most of my life I would have avoided this topic like the plague, waaaaay too close to home. But that tact didn’t make the body shame go away, in fact it festered. I find I feel the best when I allow it to breathe… and dissipate. :)

  • What an interesting post and a great tip on altering sleeves. I love kimono sleeves, but have only used mccalls 5579 (out of print) to make a kimono dress. I don’t have the problem of akin touching skin in that dress. I have on my list to try the tiramisu. I am just not a sewer of knits, so haven’t decided what fabric I’d like to use.

    • Ah, that’s the one you used for that beautiful dress you wore for your rehearsal dinner? The one with the surplice bodice, right? I googled the line art and it’s a *very* cute design. Though of course, their envelope styling has nothing at all on your make!
      I really hope you do try the Tiramisu… it is such a desert island pattern for me. :) I would definitely recommend using something medium-weight with excellent recovery, at least for the bodice and midriff parts. You’re light years ahead of me in terms of sewing knowledge, but please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions about it. :)

      • Yes, I made that one for my rehearsal dinner dress. I also made it in a poly/cotton which I should take photos of sometime. I was thinking that a med weight knit would work well for the tiramisu. I don’t like clingy fabrics anyway!

  • I’m glad you were able to fix the sleeve fit. I always have massive issues with sleeves, any type! They either prevent me from lifting my arms above my head or I have to strain to put my arms out in front of me. It’s annoying because everything else fits perfectly in the bodice. I was talking to someone about it and she thought it may have been because I didn’t do a big enough FBA. What do you think?

    • Hi Zoe! Well, I’m not an expert, but I’ll give it a shot…It’s hard to say without seeing exactly what the fabric is saying, but if the rest of the bodice fits perfectly, it sounds like you need to allow more space for your arms. Sometimes a strain to reach out in front comes from not enough width across the back, but it could be the sleeve width, it just depends on where you’re feeling the binding. If you needed more FBA, there would be issues apparent in the bodice, possibly draglines, gaping at the armscye. What pattern are you using?

  • I wish I had read this in time to alter my Red Velvet correctly. Ugh. No worries for me; next time.

    Thanks so much for the visual on widening the sleeve width. I learn a lot better that way.

  • I love your honesty about this process… this last weekend I finally braved finishing off AND wearing my Tiramisu and my Cabarita. I bought Tiramisu before it was released, to help support a new designed. I told everyone how wondrous her ideas were that the patterns were easily adaptable and could fit ANYONE. And then I tried on my Tiramisu. And it looked awful. Really, deplorable. I blamed the fabric, Steph, my sewing, the pattern and my fat body. And then I realised, that NO pattern out of the packet is perfect, and it will always need modifications. So a quick few modifications later, i have what I am calling my wearable muslin and I love it. Next time, I will know that I do have to shorten bodice, and the waistband, and depending on the fabric, I don’t quite need *so* much ease. But I am learning… about sewing and me and body acceptance.

    • can we hug?! This is exactly the point of everything. I’m sorry it didn’t fit you out of the packet, but alterations to one extent or another are a part of the process and don’t at all mean anything about the body, a pattern is just a template. It’s so great that you found the fit that worked best for you! :)

      The amount I tweak in at the side seams really varies depending on the fabric, but it’s such a quick little step to double check it before finishing off those seams, so it works for me. :)

    • Thank you so much for this Cathy. I know just what you mean, I have had that exact same reaction in the past when patterns have failed to fit me straight out of the envelope. I think a lot of people expect that Cake (or any pattern brand) should fit like a glove from try #1, that somehow that is the mark of a great draft/design, but that has never been the claim — actually the brilliance is in how *easy* the fit is to modify and get right. I don’t know how you feel about this, but when I read reviews that say “the fit on this is perfect, you should buy it!” that tells me nothing. Our bodies are shaped so differently, even between two who have the same measurements…

  • Love that mosaic fabric! Interesting to read about your alterations. Thanks for sharing that! Sleeve fit can be tricky. My Red Velvet has been ordered – just waiting for it to arrive. I don’t have casual dresses so I’m looking forward to making it. The only cake pattern I’ve made is the Hummingbird top, which fit me pretty well without alterations. Though after the first one, I rounded the shoulder point. I can’t remember if I mentioned that in my posts about that top.

  • I also would have pegged you as being a confident, lovely woman! You have such a beautiful smile that lights up your whole face, and you look like you’d be a joy to know! Your self-doubt is a good reminder to the rest of us who are also “imperfect” that we need to truly LIVE life no matter our appearance and doubts – confidence and happiness are gorgeous!

    As for the technical stuff, this was extremely helpful to me. Even when I was thin, I had disproportionately large arms and (though I didn’t know the term then) preferred a larger armscye. I’m new to sewing for myself, so I’ll be coming back to refer to this often!

    • You are a DOLL – thank you so much for the sweetest comment ever! And you’re so right, confidence and happiness are the sexiest, most beautiful thangs in the world…

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