Adjusting a pattern for high shoulders

High shoulder adjustment

Let’s talk about shoulders today.  If you are like me and have “Amazon woman” shoulders, you know how tricky it can be to achieve a good fit in this area.  My shoulders are both wide and high.  Adjusting a pattern for wide shoulders and/or a wide upper back can be done rather easily with a broad back adjustment, but I propose that adjusting for high shoulders can be a bit more difficult, especially on a garment with sleeves.  While fiddling with my Carolyn Pajama top a few weeks ago, I think I gained some new-to-me insight on how to accomplish this.  Hence, the high shoulder adjustment was born.

Before we begin, a caveat: I just made this up as I went along.  Personally I’ve never seen this adjustment presented anywhere else, although it may very well be out there somewhere.  If you have expertise in this area, I want to hear from you!  Please let me know what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong, etc.

Why you might want to perform a high shoulder adjustment:

  • The distance between your shoulder and armpit is longer than usual (see schematic above).
  • Armholes tend to ride up into your armpits and the bust apex on patterns is too high.
  • You want to adjust a petite pattern for an average or tall frame.

A high shoulder adjustment is different from simply letting out the shoulder seams because it does not lower the neckline, an advantage in my book.  It lengthens the armscye and lowers the bust apex (and waistline, etc.) without messing with a fancy neckline or collar.

Adding length on front and back pattern pieces is fairly straightforward — just slash and spread — but how do you adjust the sleeve cap to match??  After reading (and re-reading) this very comprehensive post on ikatbag, I think (?) I figured it out.  Well, I figured something out anyway!

High shoulder adjustment: sleeve adjustment options

High shoulder adjustment - possible sleeve adjustments

Schematic 1: The original pattern, before adjusting.  We have a front bodice pattern, a circle representing the sleeve circumference (with diameter D), and a sleeve pattern.  The height of the sleeve cap is H, the width of the sleeve cap is W, and the length from the sleeve side seam to the notches is Nf (front notch) and Nb (back notch).  Got it?

Schematic 2: One way to carry the high shoulder adjustment over to the sleeve is to widen the sleeve cap.  This is my preferred method (I’ll explain why later).  You can see on the bodice piece that I added in some length (the shaded area).  This increases the circumference of the sleeve, illustrated by the bigger circle.  Because the circle is now bigger, the length of the sleeve cap needs to increase so it will fit into the bigger armscye.  You can do this by making the sleeve cap wider or higher.  Here I’ve made it wider.

Notice that everything is happening between the sleeve notches.  On the bodice, I added length:

  • Between the shoulder and armpit
  • Above the sleeve notch
  • Below the neckline

Because I adjusted the bodice between the sleeve notches, I have to adjust the sleeve cap between the notches as well.  Notice how Nf and Nb haven’t changed between Schematic 1 (the original pattern) and Schematic 2 (the adjusted pattern).

To widen the sleeve, I added width on either side of the sleeve center, between the notches.  Notice how you have to add width to the sleeve in two different places – on the front of the sleeve to match the adjusted front bodice, and on the back of the sleeve to match the adjusted back bodice.

The width of the sleeve cap has how increased, but the height of the sleeve cap has not.

Schematic 3: An alternate way to carry the high shoulder adjustment over to the sleeve is to make the sleeve cap higher.  Here we have the same adjusted bodice and the same (larger) sleeve circumference as in Schematic 2.  Again, since the armscye circumference has increased, we need to increase the length of the sleeve cap so it will fit into the bigger circle.

To make the sleeve cap higher, I simply added length in a horizontal strip, just like I did for the bodice.  Note that this single strip takes care of both the front and back of the sleeve, so unlike in Schematic 2 where we had to make two sleeve adjustments, here we only need to make one.

Notice how the width of the sleeve cap has remained the same as the original (in Schematic 1), but the height of the sleeve cap has increased.

Now, how do you know whether you want make the sleeve cap wider (Schematic 2) or higher (Schematic 3)?

High shoulder adjustment: sleeve angles

High shoulder adjustment - sleeve angle

Adjusting the sleeve cap affects how it will fit into the armscye.  Either option will work; it’s up to you which you prefer!

Schematic 1: The original pattern.  Notice how the width of the sleeve (once you sew it into a tube) is half of our original sleeve cap width, W.  Also note the angle of the sleeve, theta (the circle with the line through it; my engineering background is showing here!).

T-shirts tend to have a very small angle to allow for maximum freedom of movement, whereas blazers tend to have a very high angle since you typically aren’t swinging your arms around while wearing one.  Angle affects comfort and how constricted you feel in the garment.

Schematic 2: High shoulder adjustment with wider sleeve cap.  Here the sleeve is wider, but the angle has remained the same.  (The angle hasn’t changed because the sleeve cap height hasn’t changed.  Sleeve cap height determines sleeve angle.)

Choosing to make the sleeve cap wider means that you maintain the original design’s freedom of movement (sleeve angle) at the expense of a looser fit through the upper arm.  This is why I prefer to widen the sleeve cap – to maintain a shallower sleeve angle.

Schematic 3: High shoulder adjustment with higher sleeve cap.  Here the sleeve width is the same as in the original pattern, but the angle has increased because we increased the sleeve cap height.  The extra height in the upper sleeve “pushes” the entire sleeve downward.

Choosing to make the sleeve cap higher means that you maintain a sleek fit in the upper arm at the expense of loosing some freedom of movement.  This is why I’m not crazy about this method – I’d rather have a wider sleeve than feel restricted!

Note: As far as I can tell, you can’t maintain the original sleeve width AND the original sleeve angle – you have to pick one or the other.  Since we made the armscye bigger on the front and back bodice, the sleeve cap length must also increase so that the sleeve will fit into the bigger armscye.  Choose your poison!

High shoulder adjustment: how to widen the sleeve cap

High shoulder adjustment - how to widen sleeve

Here’s how to actually adjust your sleeve pattern for Schematic 2, the wider sleeve cap (my preferred method).  Draw a horizontal line connecting the front and back armpit, essentially marking the bottom of the sleeve cap.  Draw two vertical lines from the top of the sleeve cap to the horizontal line, one on each side of the sleeve center.  Be sure to draw your vertical lines between the sleeve notches, not outside of them.

Now simply slide the top left and top right corners of your sleeve outward until the width of each gap equals the amount of length you added on your front (and back) bodice.  Since the armpits of the sleeve will now extend beyond the sleeve side seams, you’ll have to add additional width here, tapering from the armpit to the side seam several inches below.  I like to extend these lines to approximately the elbow of the sleeve.

Here’s what my Carolyn Pajamas sleeve looked like after the high shoulder adjustment:

High shoulder adjustment - altered sleeve

Again, notice how I added width to the sleeve cap between the notches for my size.

Combining high shoulder and broad back adjustments

High shoulder adjustment - altered front

The extreme Amazon women among us may need both a high shoulder and broad back adjustment to make room for some seriously huge shoulders.  Instead of cursing your massive upper body, embrace it!  Now you know how to adjust patterns to fit your wonderful and unique body.  🙂

High shoulder adjustment - altered back

You can see the length I added to the front and back for the high shoulder adjustment, in addition to the width added (both above and below the armpit) for the broad back adjustment.

High shoulder adjustment - altered pattern piecesAnd here’s how all three pieces fit together.  You can see how the high shoulder adjustment transitions smoothly from the front and back bodice pieces right into the sleeve.

Now, in all fairness, my high shoulder adjustment on the very loose-fitting Carolyn Pajama shirt was total overkill, and I wound up completely reversing it after making my shirt muslin.  I also made it way too big – 1 inch.  Based on my experience making this adjustment to more fitted, sleeveless patterns, I’d say 1/2 inch is a better starting point for me.  Even 1/4 inch may work for you, depending on how much glorious shoulder you have.  I’ve successfully added 1/2 inch to almost every sleeveless dress I’ve sewn, and it makes a big and immediate improvement in the fit of the entire dress, lowering everything from the neck down, without screwing up the neckline.

So please tell me:

  • Does what I did make any sense?
  • Do you agree/disagree with what I’ve done?
  • Any suggestions for alternate/better ways to adjust a pattern for high shoulders?
  • Is there an official name for this adjustment?
  • Are you banging your head against your desk trying to wrap your head around sleeve cap adjustments like I am??  🙂

As I have no formal training and am just figuring things out by myself in my home, I would really love to hear your advice.  While I hope this was helpful and/or enlightening, it may be total garbage!  I’m all ears, fire away in the comments.  🙂

18 thoughts on “Adjusting a pattern for high shoulders

  1. I’m going to have to try this, but only in small increments. Since I’m short, increasing distances from my neck to my waist is not optimal. However, the distances between my apex, waist and hips are small compared to the height of my armpit. Normally I raise the waist and lower the apex, which emphasizes my short waist 😦 Maybe I should be splitting the bust apex change into the arm and bust, so my dresses are less confined!!
    The good news is the whole concept makes sense to me. Especially adding width instead of altering the angle. Now I’m wondering if the same concept could be used to adjust the angle of a jacket sleeve head. Widening between the notches and armpit while moving the armpit down should increase the angle….
    Something to think about…

    • Hi Chris, based on what you’re describing, you might be want to try a square shoulder adjustment. It would look very similar to this adjustment, but the height would only be added at the armhole, tapering to nothing at center front. I have extremely square (as well as forward) shoulders, and 1/2″ added to the back only makes a world of difference. The sleeve adjustment would look the same as what Carolyn outlined above (although I only add to the back of the sleeve, since that’s where I need more room.) Woohoo, shoulder fitting!

        • Shoulder fitting is so complicated, ugh!! I think the hardest part is actually identifying how your body differs from the pattern and where you need to adjust. Once you figure that out, adding or subtracting length here and there is a matter of trial and error, and perhaps a bit of head-scratching. I agree with Morgan that a square shoulder adjustment might work for you – worth a try!

        • It would be great if pattern makers published the more subtle body measurements they used initially. Like across the back vs. across front and distance from armpit to shoulder and shoulder to neck. Then you’d know *before* buying and getting into so many levels of adjustments 🙂

  2. I kind of have the complete opposite problem. I wonder if I was to fold patterns in these places it would have the desired effect? Currently i just cut my fabric then spend ages pinning it in the mirror.

    • Yes, I think you could definitely fold out length instead of adding! Lisa says in the comment below that she does exactly that. It’s the same concept, just going in the opposite direction.

  3. I think you’re on the right track here, as this is the exact opposite to the alterations I do for my petite upper body. Good fit in the shoulders is so hard to accomplish!

  4. Wow. You really put a lot of thought into this. Thanks for sharing. My shoulders are uneven – one’s a good inch higher than the other – so I usually grade down my short side.

    • Haha, yes, I’ve been thinking about shoulder fitting since I started learning how to sew. It’s such a challenging area to fit! If you have one shoulder that slopes downward more than the other, you could try the square shoulder adjustment that Morgan mentions above, only remove height instead of adding. I have a similar issue and haven’t corrected for it yet – it’s on my never-ending sewing to-do list. 🙂

  5. My mind is spinning, but only because I’m just beginning to learn fitting. I think this makes sense, though, and I’m thankful that you figured it out so that if and when I need it, I won’t have to. 🙂 I’m definitely pinning this.

    • Lisa, this took forever for me to figure out! My mind isn’t great at thinking in 3 dimensions, especially around curves. I’m sure there is much more to learn here.

  6. I am hoping that this is a solution to a repeated problem I have encountered with trying to fit my college-age daughter: the armpits are too high. She does have broad shoulders. I’ve seen tons of tutorials for narrowing and petiting things, but this is the first helpful thing I’ve read for those of us with Amazonian tendencies;) Thanks so much!

    • Angela, you’re very welcome! I hope you try playing around with armhole height and sleeve cap shape to try to get a better fit for your daughter. I suspect this is a pretty uncommon issue because, like you, I’ve never seen anyone else talking about it. Good luck and happy sewing!

  7. This is an old post, but I just wanted to say thank you! This seems like just the adjustment I’ve been looking for to make room in patterns for my weightlifter’s shoulders. Shoulder fitting is so hard, and this is such a help!

    • You’re welcome, Jessica! I hope this makes sense and that the adjustment works for you. If you try it out and have suggestions for improvement, I’d love to hear them!

  8. I love the way you have drawn diagrams and explained..I draft a lot and it makes total sense, your post. I have a question.. all tutorials teaching drafting of source for bodice say that cap height must be equal to armscye depth.. well this will result in a high cap for some drafts.. So arm movements are restricted.. so can you tell me if you came across any relation between tetha(sleeve angle as you call it) and cap height ?

    You did intensive research so I thought you may answer my question.

    Thanks for the long and innovative post..

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