The Magical Art Of Fabric Manipulation

Easing in

I love this photograph. It sums up one my most favourite aspects of sewing – the magical art of fabric manipulation. Sometimes it really does feel like magic!

Ever heard the saying about a large object meeting an immovable force? In sewing, the confrontation between two apparently inflexible surfaces does not need to be the end of the story. It can be the beginning. Or the middle. Part of the journey. I’m over reaching again, aren’t I?!

shoulder seams

Look at these two pieces of fabric. That’s a back sleeve piece about to be attached to the back bodice at the armhole seam. The seam on the sleeve is 3cm – 3cm! – longer than the seam on the back bodice. It needs to be eased in. This is to accommodate the roundness of your shoulder. Breaking news – the human body is made up of curves and orbs, not straight lines! Artists know this.

The ease also gives your arm the room to comfortably move when you want to reach for another piece of chocolate. So, really, the moral of the lesson is: all sewing patterns are drafted around the human being’s need for chocolate. (Ah, that it was so.)

How does one ease a wider piece of fabric into a smaller piece of fabric? Pins. Lots of pins. Lots and lots and lots of pins and tiny little hillocks of fabric, as in the first photo. Looks like it shouldn’t work, doesn’t it? But if you’re careful enough and slow enough, it does. You don’t need a magic wand at all!

Eaten any good chocolate, lately?

shoulder seam Collage

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49 Responses to The Magical Art Of Fabric Manipulation

  1. Wow, this is a different approach on how to ease the sleeve. I have to give this a try! I never thought of easing in a sleeve that way before. I love these posts!

  2. Jackie says:

    Mm – never think chocolate & sewing go together for me. Obviously you are are more refined eater than moi! But this is once again such a useful post. Thanks.

  3. Emma Jayne says:

    Of course the magic works best when the hillocks are face down so the feed dogs can help them through. And since you ask I have a weakness for the Cadburys chocolate popping candy and jelly bar at the moment.

  4. Hanne says:

    I learned to put in a line of basting at the seam line of the sleeve head and slightly pull it. The moment where the sleeve can hang from your fingertips is magical.
    Than you simply sew both bodice and sleeve together and remove the basting thread.
    All those pins look dangerous 😉

  5. It’s like magic! X

  6. Jo says:

    What I really love is how sometimes when it’s just not quite working, if you pick it up instead of holding it flat it suddenly all magically fits together. And I’m going to be lurking the comments for chocolate recommendations…

  7. TamsinW-P says:

    I had similar thoughts last night whilst easing a skirt on to a bodice. It is amazing how things fit together sometimes. My chocolate of choice at the moment is dark/milk/white choc covered coffee beans from the Algerian Coffee Shop in Old Compton Street. Or dark choc with salted caramel in it – rather messy for eating when sewing!

  8. Jane says:

    great post, really made me smile

  9. Caroline says:

    Hello – I recently took a pattern fitting course (inseam studios – really great if anyone’s interested!) and Aine, the teacher, used this method of easing too. The key appears to be more pins than you ever thought necessary and patience to do lots of little adjustments. I am a novice sewer and I really enjoy and appreciate your blog – thank you. Best wishes, Caroline

  10. Caroline says:

    PS cheap branded milk chocolate for me! I know all that expensive high cocoa chocolate is meant to be good for you, but I much prefer a snickers (or marathon – showing my age now!) – chocolate & salt, yum yum.

  11. Anne Frances says:

    Splendid post. But 3cm ease ….while I am not a total believer in the Kathleen Fasanella “Sleeve cap ease is bogus” doctrine, I think that is quite a lot. Pinning in sleeves like that is the way the great Ann Ladbury taught in her 1970s TV programmes. She had you sew in the uneased underarm (approximately the bottom 1/2 to 1/3 on each side) first on both sleeves, and then pin in the eased section. Then you hand tack with small stitches if you don’t want to sew over the pins (though I mostly do, just as you show!). Although for most easing you would run the longer piece on the bottom over the feed dogs, for sleeves I think you want it on the top so you can pull the sleeve fabric a bit on both sides of the seam line at right angles to the stitching so it is taut. Because on the curve it’s somewhat on the bias it narrows and that helps to prevent puckers too. But as you say making fabric go where you want is a lot of the fun of sewing.

  12. Did you read my comment about what I was gappling with? This gives me the confidence that I CAN get that vintage sleeve into that shell top with the help of more pins and more little hillocks – I don’t want gathered puff sleeves that make me look huge! Right back to that muslin that I keep stuffing under the bed! Jo x

  13. cristina says:

    These two, your post and the chocolate, are food for my brain. I will put all advices into practice with the burda wrap blouse I am about to sew. Thanks!! 🙂

  14. When i was at Tafe, we were not allowed to use pins at all – I will admit to cheating and using one or two though! For easing, we’d sew a row of stitches just inside the seam line, but hold the material down behind the feed dogs, causing it to bunch up. – making it easier to sew the 2 pattern pieces together. Pre Tafe, i would sew 2 rows of basting stitches and pull up the stitches and ease in, using a few pins, and sewing carefully for a smooth line.

  15. J says:

    I am in the middle of doing a toile. (I just started sewing again after a long hiatus.) I think I read on someone’s blog recently that it’s okay to sew sleeves into women’s clothing before sewing up the side seam, even though all the patterns I’ve sewn in the past direct you to sew side seams first and then insert sleeves. What do modern sewists do?

  16. Karen says:

    Using lots of pins was the very technique I was taught nearly 50 years ago! Over the years I’ve added a row of machine stitched gathering thread which I gently pull then pin, pin, pin before final stitching. It always produces a smooth finished seam.

  17. J says:

    I forgot something. Emma Jayne said “of course the magic works when the hillocks are face down.” I can’t tell for sure by your photos. Is that how you do sleeves, with the hillocks face down? I always felt like I needed to see that side as I sewed. I am definitely open to the best ways to sew everything. Thanks.

    • Kathy Lynch says:

      Me too. I always feel I need to see the hillocks but I guess letting the feed dogs help the whole process makes sense! ALL IN THE NAME OF CHOCOLATE! 🙂

      • LinB says:

        Feed dogs pull the bottom layer of fabric through incrementally faster than the top layer. It is “the nature of the beast,” or mechanics, or physics, or something like that. You can use this to your advantage to help ease in fabric. If you simultaneously lift the fabric that is being fed into the machine, you can cause the feed dogs to pull even harder at the bottom layer. Lifting higher makes the bottom layer go through faster/at a greater rate … it can be tricky to maintain an even seam, but well worth the trouble to learn this excellent technique. There may be some Margaret Islander videos still around that illustrate how to do this.

  18. Alice says:

    Before I replaced my current lenses, the right lens had a “pin prick” crack from when I accidentally sewed onto a pin and the broken needle tip went flying toward my right eye. Imagine the damage I would have done to my eye had I not been wearing glasses. It is foolhardy to sew onto pins no matter how thin or delicate they are or how experienced you are as a sewist. But some of us must learn lessons the hard way. When in doubt, don’t!

  19. Jen (NY) says:

    Chocolate covered pretzels.

  20. Ali says:

    I’ve just been easing in a sleeve today and had to rip it out and do it again. The second time I eased round my knee – sounds weird but it really helped. I put the top of the armhole and sleeve insert around my knee and pinned! Salted caramel chocolate mmmmm…..

  21. Nathalie says:

    Great blog post, I would like to learn a drafting class and learn more. Do you sew over the pins? Don’t you break your needle? Do you have any tips?

  22. symondezyn says:

    I love the manipulation of flat fabric into a curvy shape – it is one of my favourite aspects of sewing and never ceases to be magical to me 🙂 Recently I sewed a pattern with a hip yoke/pockets and the curve where the yoke meets the pocket matches perfectly and lays flat once sewn but to sew it you have to put two opposing curves together (much like sewing a princess seam at the bust) and it really stretches your brains making sure you get it right! ^_^

  23. BMGM says:

    Have you ever eased in a sleeve w/o pins? You lay the longer piece down against the feed dogs and hold the shorter piece up with a little (or a lot) of tension.

    Pin the pieces together up to the underarm notches, then make dots on both pieces where you want them to match up. After you sew past the notch, lift the top/shorter layer. The bigger the length differential, the tighter you grip the top layer. Let the feed dogs ease the bottom/longer layer to fit. When you get to the last notch, lay down the top layer and stitch as normal.

  24. ellegeemakes says:

    There is something so magical about the process, isn’t there? No matter how it’s accomplished, I do love the thrill of the finish, figuring out a way to put a round peg into a square hole. And it’s always so interesting to see which fabrics rise to the challenge better than others..

  25. I am ever so intrigued by the concept of sewing a sleeve in without pins! I can’t imagine it!. I sew two rows of basting, and use quite a few pins. I also sew with the hillocks on the bottom….but as someone commented above, it’s a little tricky with sleeves. I like her mention of stretching the fabric at right angles while stitching. I’ll have to try that.

  26. Sleeves bring me out in a cold sweat! But the thrill and exhilaration when they are in is fabulous. Great post Karen.

  27. I too am a Pins lady, More is more and makes for a perfect finish too!
    Daisy xxx

  28. Montezuma dark chocolate buttons. Amazing!!! Also, I’ve just started sewing over pins after your recent post, and I am a convert. So much quicker and easier!

  29. Bunny says:

    I used to be a heavy pinner, for years, actually. Now I’m a double baster and I won’t go back. For me the difference is the little pleats and tucks that have some strange way of sneaking into the seamline despite perfect pinning. I detest ripping those out and re doing a sleeve. Now I baste on each side of the seam line, leaving the half inch either side of the shoulder seam flat. For me it gives a higher success rate and a smooth installation.

  30. Jane M says:

    I notice the joys of easing (I use the feed dogs with the seam to be eased on the bottom, few pins) mostly in my adjusted princess seams along a garment front. For woven sleeves I hand baste with silk thread after using one line of initial basting to put the ease where I want it. So many ways to get the same good result.

  31. I love this artful explanation of sewing its so beautiful!

  32. Great job on easing that sleeve in. I hadn’t thought to pin it so often. I often sew with knits so I don’t have to pin as often, but It’ll keep this in mind for the next time I work with wovens.

  33. Beth says:

    I’m confused. Why not gather the sleeve head very slightly first then sew sleeve to bodice when you’ve got the edges matching in length?

  34. Jo says:

    I’m loving all the sleeve insertion tips you’ve generated in the comments section! Never thought to have the hillocks face down. I’m a multiple pins lady. The last sleeve I inserted used the double basting technique and it worked a charm. Ease-y. (LOL, sorry.)

  35. I’m curious to know what kind of sewing machine that is. In the picture it looks as if the head of the machine faces you, rather than being side on to the sewer.

  36. Sarah says:

    I love putting in sleeves. Tis indeed magic!

  37. Bella says:

    Yip I’m a serious pinner and pin-runner-over too! Although I like to have all the bases covered and do gathering stitches as well as pins. Overkill, maybe, or more likely me feeling the need to be in control!

  38. Gail says:

    I always tack in my sleeve – then sew. I also ease with gathering stitches. Just call me grandma but my grandma would never let me run over a pin!

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