32. Dear Gabby: The Great Shoulder Digest Part 3: Raglans, Shoulder Girth, Et Cetera

And so, we enter the twilight of the Great Shoulder Digest: here are Parts One and Two. In Part Three, I discuss narrow shoulders, broad backs, why sleeve cap widths shouldn’t be ignored, the Dread Pirate Raglan, grown on sleeves, and a few last bits & bobs.

Narrow Shoulders and Broad Backs

Hello, I see you! I’ve gotten plenty of questions on how to make these adjustments, and here are some resources for going either way (as always, the ones I found to be clearest and easiest to follow):

How do you know if you need an adjustment? In other words, I’ve told you what to do, but…WHY?!? 

If you’re not referring to my ShoulderChoice guide from the previous digest, you may find yourself in a situation where the shoulders on your garment are sitting much too far out, or much too far in. This is very easy to see if you fit your muslin without the sleeve first, to make sure your seamline is sitting in the correct spot. How do you know the correct spot? A good traditional set-in sleeve armhole will neatly encircle your arm at the body join, and the top of the armhole seam will sit roughly over the acromion, or shoulder joint, as discussed last time. If it doesn’t, it should be pretty clear to see if you need to move the shoulder in or out.

I know, I know, muslins are such a pain, right? But checking them before cutting your real fabric is so valuable, and especially checking them without the sleeve, if you’re not worried about stretching anything out, before popping the sleeve on.

In terms of how a muslin or garment feels, with a sleeve on: if you have narrow shoulders, your shoulder seams will tend to fall off your shoulder, and your sleeves will droop. If you have broad shoulders/back, you’ll have horizontal pull lines on your garment between your shoulder blades, your armhole seams will pull in towards your body, and your sleeves may feel tight.

Now, the tricky part. If you are fitting a muslin with the sleeve on, here are some situations that might FEEL like you need to make a broad back adjustment, when in fact you might not:

  • The sleeve cap is too tight.
  • The armhole is too low.

You can tell when these situations are happening, by checking a few things:

  • The muslin without the sleeve, to check armhole placement on your body.
  • The sleeve cap width approximately 2″ down from the top of the seamline, horizontally. It’s good to have an idea of this measurement, as you keep sewing different styles, you can track and compare to see what’s working for you using different fabrics on similar styles. On body, if the sleeve cap is tight, you’ll see it straining at the armhole seams, with the point of the draglines at the seam and the coning releasing at the overarm/shoulder. It’s a similar visual when the bicep is too tight: point of draglines at the seam, cone release at the overarm.
  • The armhole is too low. When this happens, the bifurcation point of the armhole sits below your arm/body join, and will prohibit you from being able to raise your arms. Obviously, there are styles with drop shoulders and low armholes on purpose, but this is something to watch out for on wovens and outerwear. I’m a fan of a higher armhole myself.

Of course, if your sleeve is not too tight, the armhole is not too low, and your problem truly lies in the bodice of your garment, adjust away, dear friends!

Diagram shows where to measure across the sleeve cap. The diagram is a sleeve pattern piece with a horizontal dashed line near the top of the rounded sleeve cap. Text reads "2 inches down from cap" and "measure across cap to get cap width. This is a great measurement to track as you sew, to find out what works for you."
Diagram shows where to measure across the sleeve cap. This measurement is great to track across projects to find out what works and what kind of different visuals you get using difference sleeves and armholes.

Total Shoulder Girth (sometimes referred to as total shoulder circumference)

Why on earth would you want to know this measurement? I’ll refer you to the above—this is a handy shortcut to being able to tell in advance whether you’ll need to make some adjustments before even cutting a muslin.

You shouldn’t need a fitting buddy to take this measurement; just make sure the tape is relatively level and isn’t too low. You’ll want to loop the tape around your shoulders, around 2″ down, and horizontally around your back and front chest. The photos below are just an example of the tape placement on a mannequin (obviously, I can’t use this particular measurement, because I haven’t made arms for her yet, but I will use my on-body measurement when I do, to make sure the arms aren’t too big/small.)

Two photos of a mannequin being measured for a shoulder girth measurement. The measuring tape is looped horizontally around the upper torso, over the (imagined) arm. The first photo has text over it that says "I placed the tape roughly 5 1/2-6" below the highest point of the shoulder" with two red arrows pointing to measuring tape at front and arm of mannequin. It also says "make sure the tape sits roughly 2" below where you want your shoulder seamline to be". The 2nd photo is a back view that states "loop the tape all the way around the upper torso, and try to keep it horizontally even".
Image shows a mannequin being measured for a shoulder girth measurement- the measuring tape is looped horizontally around the upper torso, over the (imagined) arm.

So now that you have that measurement, you can use it to get a general idea of what your shoulder circumference sweet spot is: take a pattern that fits you well and measure across the front, across the sleeve cap, and across the back. Add it all up, and compare! Then, you can aim for a similar range (if you had a difference between the two), and you will easily be able to tell when something won’t work as drafted.

*Don’t forget—sleeve cap x 2, and if your front/back pieces are cut on the fold, you will double them as well to get the total circumference.
**You can use this for both knits and wovens, as long as you’re keeping track of similar textile qualities (stretchability, etc.).

Diagram that includes three pattern pieces shows where on a pattern to take across front (5-6 inches down from highest point of shoulder), across back (5-6 inches down from highest point of shoulder), and sleeve cap widths (2 inches down from cap) to add together to get a shoulder girth measurement to compare to the one taken on body.
Diagram shows where on a pattern to take across front, across back, and sleeve cap widths to add together to get a shoulder girth measurement to compare to the one taken on body.

Raglans & Grown On Sleeves

First things first. Where, exactly, IS the shoulder point on a raglan? This is where a muslin is extremely helpful! You don’t have to cut a whole muslin—you can do a half mock-up (shortened front/back panels), but you should make sure that the muslin has both sleeves attached so you can really feel any stress points. I *heartily* recommend a muslin for raglans. They aren’t very complicated once you understand the shape, but they’re a much bigger pain in the rear than a regular set-in sleeve because they encompass the shoulder as well as the sleeve.

Put the muslin on and feel for your shoulder joint/acromion. Add pins, or otherwise mark your muslin at that spot, and now you’ll be able to add that placement onto your pattern for adjustment purposes. (Of course, if you’re working on something with no negative ease and you know your across shoulder measurement, you can measure your pattern from the Center Front/Center Back to that shoulder point and mark it that way, as well.)

(Image above uses a photo of a RTW raglan blouse from ELOQII.com).

I think it’s really important to know where your shoulder will sit inside of the pattern, because while pattern companies may tell you the height and cup size of what their block draft is, it’s much less common (if any do, at all) to share information about their block’s shoulder widths. Especially with a raglan sleeve—sometimes it’s extremely hard to tell by the pattern shaping where the shoulder point is.

That all said, here are some resources for fitting raglan sleeves—the key here is to see where you are getting stress/draglines or collapsing and where the pattern needs to be released/reduced. (Again, it’s really helpful to be able to mark and cut on a muslin for transferring your fit adjustments to a pattern.) Personally, I find slashing and spreading raglans to be fussy and frustrating; it can be easier just to work from measurements and reshape, making sure your new seamlines walk and sew together.

So that’s the hard stuff! Grown-on sleeves can be adjusted in much the same way as set-in sleeves, if you need to reduce or increase the shoulder widths. And you can use either method detailed above for raglans, as a way to measure where your shoulder placement would be in a grown-on sleeve.

Last Bits & Bobs

Of course, there are also rounded backs and hollow shoulders, which affect the fit of garments through your shoulders—I didn’t forget about you!

Rounded backs are very common. What happens is more length is needed through the back panel of the garment in order to accommodate for a more curved shape through the upper back/shoulder blades. This is a standard hallmark of agingskeletons tend to hunch forward more and more as time goes on, due to things like osteoporosis or loss of muscle; however, this also can occur with things like scoliosis, or simple poor posture.

Forward shoulders are another extremely common adjustment. I might argue that forward shoulders are a feature of fitting for a) people with breasts, since a hollow is formed between the front shoulder and the start of the breast tissue, and this will cause garments to shift backwards, and b) people these days tend to hunch more forward due to using various technologies. The forward shoulder hollow can get more exaggerated based on the size of the bust, and how high the breasts sit on the body (naturally or with help from undergarments). Patterns and RTW are usually drafted on people around 5’8″ with a B cup—but the average American female is only 5’4″ (and even shorter in some parts of the world) with a DD cup—so you can see why patterns are just a set of instructions, and expecting garments to fit correctly out of the envelope on the first try is…perhaps a bit pie in the sky.

In conclusion, please see the below links for more clear and well-reasoned resources for your viewing pleasure:

Thanks for reading the Great Shoulder Digest! If you have any other interesting resources to share, please post them in the comments. I’d love to see what works for you 🙂

Gabby is a technical designer, fit specialist, and prolific googler. She lives in Denver, raises moderately small people, reads, makes, experiments, fails, learns, and tries again. See her on instagram @ladygrift.