How to draft a gathered sleeve for a strapless bodice

Looking to make a quick pattern for a vintage-style gathered sleeve? This is the tutorial for you!

If you're here to add a gathered sleeve to your Sweetheart Dress bodice, welcome! You're in the right place. :)

What you'll need:

  • A big piece of paper for your pattern
  • Something to write with
  • A measuring tape and a ruler (I like this clear dressmaker's ruler)
  • A muslin of your strapless Sweetheart Dress bodice*
  • At least a yard of muslin to test your sleeves

*You'll be fitting the straps to the bodice of the Sweetheart Dress, which means you'll need to measure both the bodice and yourself in it. Hence a muslin. :)

Making the strap pattern

Initially, I figured I would just drape a strap onto a Sweetheart Dress bodice, turn that drape into a pattern, and that would be that.

But this yielded a very inconveniently-shaped pattern piece:

The long straight side on the right is the side of the sleeve that goes along the neck. The weird U-shaped side would be the armhole. In addition to being a royal pain to sew (trust me - I tried) that shape just seemed too... complicated. Most fifties day dress patterns are based on very simple, easy-to-sew shapes: squares, rectangles, triangles. Why would this sleeve be any different?

For my next attempt, I decided to try some flat paper drafting instead. This worked much better! Here's how you can make a quick sleeve pattern for your dress.  

Measuring for the sleeve

First, measure the bodice to figure out how wide the finished strap should be. If you're not working with a dress form, you'll want to pin a zipper into your muslin and put it on for this part.

To find the width of the sleeve in the front, measure the top edge of the bodice from the princess seam toward your armpit. For me, 3" seemed to be as far as I could go, so that's the measurement I used.

In the back, measure the top edge of the bodice from center back toward your armpit. The furthest I could go was 6", so that's my back width measurement. If you're measuring yourself, I feel you - why is no one ever around when I need help measuring?!? Try marking the muslin toward your armpit where you'd like the strap to end, and then taking the bodice off and measuring the distance between the mark and center back.

This next part is a bit difficult if you don't have a dress form or a friend who's willing to measure you, but basically you want to measure the inside of the strap from the top of the front princess seam, over the shoulder...

... and down to center back. If you're measuring yourself, you can totally still do this: just pin or tape the end of the measuring tape to center back and bring it around to the front princess seam. Try to hold your shoulders straight. I ended up with 17".

The last measurement you need is an arm measurement for the outside of your sleeve.

As you can see, I measured around the armhole and put the ends of the measuring tape about where the edges of the sleeve would be. If you're measuring yourself, the tape trick applies here, too: attach the measuring tape to the back, wrap it over your arm, and hold it about where the edge of the sleeve would be in the front. I ended up with 12.5".

Making the pattern

At this point, you have almost all of the measurements you need. The only thing left is to account for the gathers in the width of the strap. Since you'll be gathering the strap, you need to add a little extra volume. I like a gathering ratio of 3 to 1, so I multiplied the front and back widths by 3 to get 9" and 18" respectively.

Now you're ready to make your pattern! See that little diagram above? That's what you want to end up with.

Start by drawing the front width. Then draw the inner strap length at a right angle to the front width. So far so good, right?

This next part is a little tricky, but basically you want to draw in the back width and the outer sleeve length to create a closed shape. I got a long ruler and a short ruler and moved them around on the paper until they connected. (If you're a geometry whiz and know a better way to do this, go for it!)

Round that back width a bit. Seriously, just draw in a bit of a curve.

Use your ruler to add in some 5/8" seam allowances.

This is what I ended up with. 

Now that is one classy sleeve! It's much less weird looking than my original drape, too. :)

Test your sleeve pattern

This is the most important part: testing your pattern. Cut out two sleeves, gather the front and back widths, and pin the sleeves to your bodice muslin with as close to a 5/8" seam allowance as you can muster. Put the bodice on. Go find a mirror. Move your arms in the weirdest ways you can think of. You want to see if this thing is wearable!

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you like how it looks? If not, what do you think you should change?
  • Should the sleeve be longer? Shorter? By about how much?
  • Is the inside length ok? What about the outside length?
  • Do you like the volume of the gathers? Should there be more volume? Less?

Adjust whatever you need to adjust on your pattern, make new sleeves, pin them in place, and try the bodice on again. Repeat as necessary. My sleeves came out WAY too short the first time around, so I had to make three sleeve muslins to get this thing right. Don't feel bad!

When you're satisfied with your sleeve, take that sexy pattern piece and head on back to the main tutorial


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