Fitting broad shoulders: a pattern comparison

Fitting broad shoulders - the problem

Shoulders.  While I’ve grown to accept my genetic makeup and everything that comes along with it, having broad shoulders definitely presents a challenge in my sewing.  Maybe I’m biased, but I feel like adjusting the fit in the shoulder area is one of the trickiest adjustments to make, perhaps second only to the mystical crotch curve.  There’s just so much going on in that area, and a simple change can easily affect nearly every major pattern piece.  The fit issue is really noticeable too – just look at how far away the shoulder seam of my Renfrew is from my actual shoulder point!

There are plenty of sewists out where who are similarly blessed with broad shoulders and a broad upper back, including Morgan, Sunni, Erin, and countless others.  Morgan recently wrote a great post on fitting her broad shoulders, essentially an open letter to the sewing community for suggestions and support.  Go read the comments on that post – they’re full of shoulder fitting wisdom and camaraderie!

Inspired by Morgan’s post, I wanted to add a bit to the conversation.  Specifically, I wanted to illustrate how fundamentally different the drafting has to be to accommodate broad shoulders, at least in my (admittedly limited) experience.  So, I whipped out my bodice sloper and compared it to my adjusted Renfrew pattern, focusing on the back bodice pieces.  Granted, the sloper is drafted for a woven fabric, and the Renfrew is drafted for a stable knit, so they aren’t really directly comparable.  However, I still think the comparison nicely illustrates a few basic points, even if the numerical differences have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Fitting broad shoulders - pattern comparison

Here are the two back bodice pieces, with my sloper laid on top of the Renfrew.  To make the comparison as fair as possible, I lined up the center back and shoulder seams.  (Note that my sloper only has seam allowances along certain seamlines, so I’ve highlighted the seamlines in the photos below so you can directly compare them.)  You can see right away that the armholes are substantially different in size and shape.  Let’s take a closer look…

I see three major differences between the Renfrew, which is drafted for the narrow shoulders of a pear shape, and my sloper, which was drafted specifically for my broader-than-usual measurements.  (Note that the Renfrew was my first and last Sewaholic pattern purchase.  I love Tasia’s designs and business sense, but she’s simply drafting for a different body shape than mine.)

Fitting broad shoulders - back armhole comparison

(A)  The sloper (red line) is over 2 inches wider across the upper back (that’s 4 inches total across the back!) than the Renfrew (blue line).  This results in an armhole that’s much more of a vertical line than the typical concave curve you see on the Renfrew.  The shape of the armhole is fundamentally different to accommodate the extra width across the back.  I don’t know if this is typical, but it’s what I found in my personal fitting journey.

(B) On my sloper, the bottom of the armhole sits lower and wider than the Renfrew.  My broad shoulders are also tall, which means that I need more height between the shoulder seam and the underarm.  The extra width comes from my broad high bust measurement (which is actually the same as my full bust measurement – 36 inches).Fitting broad shoulders - back shoulder comparison(C) The shoulder seam on my sloper is substantially longer than on the Renfrew.  Here, the difference is about 1.75 inches, highlighted in the yellow circle.  I didn’t include the difference in length near the neckline, as this simply represents a difference in design (the Renfrew has a wider neckline than the sloper).

What I find most interesting about this analysis is that a typical broad back adjustment, which simply moves the back armhole horizontally outward by slashing and spreading, doesn’t take into account the different shape that may be needed.  Also, I assume adjusting the armhole shape so severely has implications for the sleeve cap shaping, but how exactly do you adjust the sleeve to match the new armhole?

As a home sewist with no formal training in drafting or fitting, I find the world of shoulder adjustments to be rather perplexing!  I don’t have any answers, but I suspect that the only way I’m going to achieve shoulder fitting perfection is to add sleeves to my sloper and draft my own button-down shirt from scratch.  One day…

Many thanks to Morgan for planting this seed in my brain and getting me thinking about shirt-fitting victory for us broad-shouldered gals.  If you’re interested in this topic, let me encourage you once again to check out the comments on Morgan’s post.  If nothing else, I learned that my lifelong desire to bust out of too-tight woven tops is called “hulking out.”  I find that hilarious.  🙂

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16 thoughts on “Fitting broad shoulders: a pattern comparison

  1. Very interesting! I’m on team broad shoulders too. All of those adjustments you mention are things I’ve noticed too. However, I haven’t really been into fitted woven shirts for a while now – instead opting for wider sleeves and boxier silhouettes – and I’ve found that when I take away the need to fit snugly around the armscye/sleeve cap, then the simple ‘wedge’ broad back adjustment seems to be enough for me. I agree though, there is so much more fussing on shape of everything else when trying to achieve a properly fitted look though! I’d love to know the stats of broad back vs narrow back gals.

    • I’d love to know that too! I do think we’re in the minority, but I bet that can be said for nearly every fitting issue, perhaps with the exception of a swayback and FBA. I’ve been doing much the same as you, opting for tops that don’t require precise fitting in the shoulders, mostly knit tops in my case. However, my desire for a fitted button-down runs deep, and I want to nail it eventually. I did a wedge adjustment for the Archer, and although it worked out well enough for the tops to be wearable and comfortable, there are still fitting issues with the curve of the armscye. My broad shoulders are good for one thing at least: “accidentally” bumping into people who refuse to move over on the sidewalk, LOL. 🙂

  2. Yes this! I have no answers unfortunately – I had been able to ignore this problem
    with sleeveless and knit clothes but I really hit a wall with my Bruyere and Tyler shirts and I am still a long way from resolving it – I just got the Granville shirt pattern so I will come back to it soon enough…
    Louise

    • Louise, I’ll be really interested to see how the Granville works for you. I think Tasia absolutely nailed it on the design of this pattern, as a fitted button-down was really missing from the indie pattern world, but I didn’t buy it specifically because of the narrow drafting in the shoulders. I’m sure you can make it work though – it’s just a matter of playing around with adjustments and maybe making a few muslins. Maybe you’ll be an expert in shoulder fitting by the end and can share what you learned! 🙂

  3. Well, this explains why my Renfrews aren’t comfy unless they’re made of stretchy knits…
    I didn’t buy the Granville for the same reason, so my next to-do is a Grainline Archer. By sucking in the princess darts under my bust and shaping at the side seams, I was able to fit an Archer my Mom made!
    We really need to make master list of “easier to adjust for She-Hulk”!
    🙂

    • Hahaha, yes!! That would be awesome. 🙂 I agree that the Archer is a good place to start – the cut is boxy enough that grading up a size or two at the shoulders might be good enough, and you can always add room to the back pleat (which is what I did). I’m glad you managed to turn yours into a fitted shirt! I haven’t tried this but have always wanted to. As for the Renfrews, YES, stretchy knits are key. The photo at the top of this post is from a fairly stable knit, and it wound up being too tight all over. Live and learn!

  4. Love this post, Carolyn! And oh my gosh, I hear you on the Renfrew – check mine out! https://crabandbee.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/img_2723_72.jpg The shoulders are halfway to the ears and it was lifting off my neck because of my square shape. I’m not sure if you’re looking for a new t-shirt pattern, but I’ve found the Alabama Chanin book patterns fit me with minimal adjustments. I’ve also recently revisited McCall’s 6436 and tried grading between two sizes at the shoulders and bust. I’ll be sharing that soon!

    (PS I went to a dance class with a lot of different shapes and sizes yesterday and was, as always, surprised/amused to see how much broader my shoulders were than almost every woman in the class! Further reinforcement that it makes sense I’d have to make some fit adjustments :))

    • Thanks for the pattern recommendations! And yes, I’ve definitely had that situation with some not-so-stretchy Renfrews where the entire top rides up over my shoulders. Sometimes I find myself wondering why I bother to put stay tape in the shoulder seam because there is NO WAY it’s ever going to stretch out, ha! If I stick with knits with good stretch and recovery, things aren’t too bad.

      Isn’t it funny how we can be so self-conscious about certain things? I’m sure no one else was concerned about your shoulders in the dance class. 🙂 I feel the same way when I hang out with a petite friend – I always feel like an Amazon woman around her!

  5. Wow — thanks for the analysis. I love Sewaholic patterns and always assumed the Renfrew would be a great fit, but it just occurred to me that I’ve never made one of their patterns that has actual sleeves. Forewarned is forearmed…

    • Definitely something to consider ahead of time! For what it’s worth, as long as I stick to knits with good stretch and recovery, my Renfrews fit fairly comfortably. I’ve made about 20 of them and wear them almost everyday. I did some aggressive grading – I think a size 8 in the shoulders and size 0 in the waist/hips – and it all worked out. It’s a great pattern and worth a try if you don’t mind the initial adjustments.

  6. Hulking out! Love it! I have that with my large biceps 🙂 Grrrraaaah!
    I have narrow shoulders and large biceps so that’s fun trying to fit for them.
    Whenever I’m pattern drafting or making adjustments to a pattern I have to keep repeating to myself ‘trust the measurements, trust the measurements’ because sometimes the pattern shapes I end up with can look strange to me, but that is only because I’m accustomed to the ‘standard’ pattern shapes.
    For my own interest I have a couple of friends with very different body shapes who’ve volunteered for me to take their measurements to make them a block/sloper. I’ll be very interested to see how they turn out – when I eventually do them 🙂

    • Oh wow, that sounds like such a fun and challenging project! I’ll be really curious to see how they come out. Are you planning on sewing clothes for them from the blocks, or just making the blocks as an exercise in drafting? I agree that patterns can look strange when you deviate from the standard cut, but as you said, you’ve gotta trust the measurements. Rulers don’t lie. 🙂

  7. So interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about sleeve heads and backs too lately. I’m considering going to my fitting teacher for a private session, to have her diagnose which changes I need and how to do them, because I’m perplexed!

    • Ah, that sounds like a great option! When it comes to sewing questions (especially about fitting), I often find myself really wanting to ask an expert in person, which is easier said than done. Having a conversation with a knowledgeable person can be so much more helpful than reading a book or an online tutorial. Good luck, if you decide to do it!

  8. If you make a fitting sloper/shell using 1/4 inch gingham you will see what adjustments you need for all your patterns. Once you have the shell perfected, copy it onto paper or cardboard and use that to lay over all new patterns. You will also have a sleeve that works well in the armhole too to use in the future. Linda Maynard has a sloper/dress fitting Craftsy class and also a CD on fitting which is superb.

  9. I just found this post- 2 years after it went up, but I have to say- I struggle like you with shoulder and back fit. I also have a similar issue in that my upper bust is the same as my bust- but I do actually have a bust- I just also weight lift and have massive lats. I’ve been trying to fit the Hey June Cheyenne Tunic- and I’m beginning to think it’s a lost cause- I’m having trouble with the armhole sythe shape being completely lost and thne the sleeve doesn’t fit in properly and I get strange puffing on the top!!
    I may start going back to more mccall’s patterns because I feel like they are drafted a bit wider, but also a bit looser with more ease- so it’s more likely to require less adustments.

    thanks for this post!

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