Reducing shoulder-cap ease without crying

May 3, 2010

Following the April discussions about Simplicity, I began to reflect on an issue that has arisen with every pattern I’ve encountered, and which Susannah wrote so hilariously about: shoulder cap ease. It really IS bogus, you know (see here). I’m not going to devolve into philosophical ramblings about WHY so much sleeve cap ease exists, why it isn’t represented in pattern drawings/photos, etc. Instead, I’m going to present a tutorial for one incredibly easy method for reducing sleeve cap ease called the Pivot Method.  This method will turn these monstrosities:


into these lovely, smooth-looking sleeves in no time!


focus on the seam, not the wrinkles, please

Step 1: Determine amount of sleeve cap ease to be reduced

There are many ways to accomplish this; Esther’s “walking” method is a great one. I just cut it out and sew as directed, letting the fabric pleat up in the original sleeve as I sew. Then, I measure (roughly) the amount of fabric caught in the pleats. I am not instructing you to use this unscientific method because even though it has yielded good results for me, there are better and more precise ways to do it.  But if you want to, go ahead. It gives me a good idea of just how much ease is in there to begin with, but it is a bit more time-consuming than others because you cut, sew, and then measure, as opposed to just measuring.

Keep in mind that I always make a muslin of the bodice, and so I am not sewing/ ripping out in my good fabric when I do this.

Step 2: Gather your materials

You need the following:

– Measurement gleaned from step 1

– Ruler

– Pattern paper

– Fabric (muslin or shell fabric, if you must)

– The usual suspects: pins, scissors, and your favorite crime drama playing softly in the background

Step 3: Prepare your pattern

Take it out and iron it (even though I didn’t).

Even if you don't like this floral tablecloth, trust me, it makes things much easier to see.

Step 5

Pin this pattern to the pattern paper and cut it out normally.

Step 6

After you cut it out, place a pin (or two) at three points on the pattern paper: the center line and the two existing notches on either side of the shoulder cap.

Step 7

Now the important stuff begins: to reduce the ease on the RIGHT side, bring the RIGHT line to meet the center pin/s. Do not bring the LEFT line to meet the center, even if that is intuitive for you (I mention this because it made more sense to me the first time to do it that way).

This is what it should look like at the shoulder:

This is what it should look like at the notch:

Pin into place:

Special note: you do not need to redraw the notches. They are useless as a sewing tool, but useful as an aid for this process. If you read the articles above, you will learn that most notches are there to represent the point at which you should begin gathering (not always where the sleeve meets the shoulder), and you will not need to gather very much (if at all), so don’t think about them overmuch right now.

Step 8

Cut off the exposed part and return the center shoulder line to starting position.

You have now reduced the ease on one side!

Here is what it will look like from the back when finished.

Step 9: Repeat on other side

Bring the LEFT line to meet the center pin/s this time.

Here is what it will look like from the back when both sides are complete (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on how much you reduced):

Step 10

Use the new pattern to cut out your new sleeve on your shell fabric. Sew as instructed, gathering a bit if necessary.


You will notice that it is, obviously, possible and easy to do this on your shell fabric as well, but I strongly encourage you to make a muslin first. You don’t want to make a cutting error and not have enough fabric for another sleeve, since many patterns (vintage patterns in particular) have very “tight” layouts.  Having to make a sleeveless dress is one thing, but a sleeveless coat is another story.

I hope this helps some of you on the road to freedom from shoulder cap ease conventions. I love this method and think it is great for beginning sewers in particular. If any of this is unclear, please e-mail me at!


2 Responses to “Reducing shoulder-cap ease without crying”

  1. Mrs. Grackle Says:

    Please excuse my dimness, but what do you mean by the RIGHT LINE? I see you’ve drawn some blue lines at the top of the sleeve. Is that what you mean? How did you know where to place those lines?

    • Monet Says:

      It’s not dim…I was confused until I did it and I actually still did it wrong the first time! You calculate the total amount to be reduced and then divide that number by half. Draw a line equal to the amount of your calculation on either side of the center line (so if you’re reducing by 2″, you draw a line 1″ away from the center line on both sides. Then, to reduce the right side, you bring the line on the right side of the center line toward you, and it becomes your new center line…and you do the opposite on the left side.

      Does that make more sense?

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