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How to hack any basic sleeve into a romantic billowy bishop sleeve (& some chat about how to make the perfect darted bodice block for YOU)

Soft and floaty, romantic and comfortable, I can't get enough of bishop sleeves. From the Vampire's Wife to the Spring 2019 couture runways at Valentino and Dior, bishop sleeves are delighting every corner of my peripheral fashion vision. I want in! Luckily, bishop sleeves are very easy to draft, providing you have a basic sleeve pattern as a starting point. Here's how it's done...

You will need:

  • A bodice pattern that comes with a basic sleeve. I've used our Holly Jumpsuit pattern as my starting point, and I'll also explain the modifications I made to the bodice to result in this dress! Other patterns of ours that would work are Eloise, Elisalex, and Sarah
  • Spare pattern drafting paper - I use dot & cross, but regular paper, baking parchment or Swedish tracing paper are all good alternatives
  • Paper scissors
  • Pens and a pencil
  • A ruler and French curves / Patternmaster (the latter being not completely necessary)
  • Tape
  • Lightweight fusible interfacing - I infinitely prefer the woven kind to the papery kind!

Inspiration courtesy of Valentino and Dior's Spring 2019 couture collections

Step 1 - tracing and marking the pattern

Take your sleeve pattern piece and start by tracing it off onto your spare pattern paper. We don't want to alter the existing sleeve pattern piece in case you want to use it again in the future! Make sure that you transfer the notches at the sleeve head.

Mark out the seam line at the sleeve head. For the pattern I'm working with, that's 5/8" in from the raw edge of the sleeve head, but this can vary from pattern to pattern, so it's essential that you check the seam allowance of the pattern you're working with.

The sleeve I'm working with is also a short sleeve, and I want full, long billowy bishop sleeves, so I'm going to go ahead and add that extra length simply by extending the sleeve's underarm seam. 

Next, draw three vertical lines evenly across the width of your sleeve, from the seam line at the sleeve head and down to the cuff. Where these vertical lines intersect with the seam line will be a hinge point, which will allow you to spread open the sleeve thereby increasing the volume, without changing the length of the seam line at the sleeve head.

Step 2 - slashing

Cut up the vertical lines, stopping when you get to the seam line at the sleeve head. 

Snip into the seam allowance up to, but not all the way through the vertical slash lines.

You'll now see that you can open out the width of the sleeve without changing the length of the seam line at the sleeve head, and the little hinges allow you to do this smoothly without the seam allowance buckling and rippling.

Step 3 - spreading

Slip another piece of pattern paper underneath the slashed sleeve piece. Open the sleeve out until you have as much extra volume as you want. To give you an idea, the amount I spread my sleeve out by has given me a medium, but decent amount of billowy-ness to my new sleeve - you could definitely go more extreme than I have!

When you're happy, tape all the sections securely down, and re-draw the cuff's hemline with a smooth curve.

If you want to maintain your sleeve head as it is - with no extra puff or gathers, you can stop now! Skip to the sewing it all bit at the bottom ;)

Step 4 - adding height and gathers to the sleeve head

For me, a good bishop sleeve not only has a billowy, swishy volume through the arm, but it also has a nice 'n pouffy sleeve head... To achieve that, we just need to add some extra height to the top of the sleeve head.

Start by drawing a horizontal line across the top of the sleeve head, above the notches that indicate the front and back of the sleeve head.

Cut this line and slip some scrap paper underneath.

How much you height you add is up to you, but about 2" is a good place to start your experiments.

Make sure that you keep the extra added space even all the way across, and tape it down.

True out the curve of the sleeve head (true out simply means to re-draw the line smoothly) and the seam line.

Now you can cut your new bishop sleeve pattern piece out and you're ready to start cutting and sewing your fabric!

A WORD ABOUT HOW I ALTERED MY HOLLY BODICE PATTERN PIECES TO MAKE THIS DRESS

A basic darted bodice pattern that fits you like a glove is potentially the most useful pattern to have at your disposal. It is the foundation for infinite dresses, tops and jumpsuits, and if you choose to advance your pattern cutting skills, a darted bodice can be tweaked, hacked and developed into almost anything your mind can conjure. 

If you look at the fundamentals of the bodice that comes with the Holly Jumpsuit pattern (the darted bodice with sleeves, as opposed to the strappy cowl-neck alternative), you'll see that it has the potential for basic darted bodice bliss - you'll just need to make a couple of quick changes...

First, on the bodice front, fold back the paper along the centre front line. The Holly bodice has a button down placket at centre front, so if you want a standard bodice that is cut on the centre front fold, you just need to discard this placket. 

Secondly, you'll need to add seam allowance to the centre back. Holly is designed to have a side seam zipper, so the bodice back is cut on the fold. For the sake of creating a custom block from this pattern, I highly recommend moving that zipper to the centre back. Having a seam at the centre back makes it easier to fit your bodice around any issues such as a rounded upper back. Note that by moving the zipper to the centre back, all you need to do is add 5/8" or 15mm to the centre back of the bodice back piece. You do not need to do anything to the side seam.

Finally, you'll need to make a toile of this darted bodice block and make any necessary alterations to get the right fit for your body. This could be anything from a full bust adjustment, to forward shoulders, to lengthening the bodice. These alterations will be personal to you, and there are some brilliant resources out there to help you - we have lots of alteration tutorials here on the blog, and we also teach in person pattern fitting masterclasses (check the link in our Instagram profile for the latest class listings). My favourite pattern fitting handbook is The Palmer Pletsch Complete Guide to Fitting.

For this pattern, you'll notice above that I had to lower the bust dart and shorten the waist dart by 3/4". I also marked out three different neckline options that I like - bateau, scoop and a lower square scoop - and I added an ever so slightly higher waistline option because sometimes I like my waistlines to sit a little higher - great with midi or maxi skirts as it really elongates the look of the leg!

BACK TO SEWING THE SLEEVES

In order to prep that lovely gathered pouff at the sleeve head, I tried something new (to me) that I've not actually seen done anywhere else before, but it worked a treat so here it is:

Before gathering the sleeve head, I ironed on a scrap of lightweight woven fusible interfacing...

Then you run your two parallel rows of basting stitches around the sleeve head as you normally would if you were needing to ease your sleeve head into the armhole...

...and gently pull on those basting threads in order to gather the sleeve head ready to be set into your bodice's armhole.

The interfacing at the sleeve head added a touch of much needed stability and staying power to accentuate the lift and height in the gathered sleeve cap. It worked so well that I actually felt like I'd stumbled upon some sort of sewing discovery! (But I haven't googled it to check because it'll probably just burst my bubble to find out that it's a common technique that everyone knew about except for me... hahah!)

Once your sleeve is set, the finishing touch is in the cuff. A bishop sleeve billows out and then gathers back in at the wrist, creating that soft and delicate, feminine shape. You could finish the cuff in many ways, but the quickest and easiest is with elastic.

Finish the raw edge of the sleeve's cuff, either on an overlocker or with a regular zigzag stitch. Fold and press the cuff in and stitch all the way around, leaving a gap of about an inch through which to feed your elastic through.

Cut a length of elastic that comfortably encircles your wrist and attach one end to a safety pin. Push the safety pin through the channel, allowing the cuff to gather as you go. 

Tie or stitch the elastic together, and then sew up the opening in the cuff's hem. All done!

Comments on this post (9)

  • Sep 25, 2020

    Thank you so much further detailed explanation of altering an existing cuff pattern! Very useful

    — Nicole

  • Jun 09, 2020

    Thanks so much….I like the way you teach your tutorial is the best so easy…thanks once again😊

    — Racchi

  • May 11, 2020

    Thanks again for sharing all this

    — StevenJex

  • Mar 10, 2020

    Brilliant tutorial — so nice to have found this written tutorial on some of the nifty “extras and options” that you were showing in the (highly recommended) Bodice Fitting Masterclass today.

    Maybe next time I’ll remember to shift the zip / opening around to the back when I make up my toile to test it out. :-)

    — Brenda ( KnitsByCampfires on Instagram )

  • Mar 10, 2020

    Thank you thank you thank you!!! This tutorial was extremely easy to follow and helpful and it worked! A friend asked me to make her a very specific dress with bishop sleeves and I was totally worried about drafting these babies. Your tutorial put my mind at ease and actually made the process easy! Looks like I’m going to be making more bishop sleeves in the future!

    — Shaina

  • Jun 07, 2019

    Thank you for the hack on widening sleeves. I want to try that on a blouse pattern but I would also like to add a gauntlet style cuff. can you give me any idea on how to do that. I’m new at altering patterns.
    thank you

    — Irene Gilchrist

  • Jun 07, 2019

    Thank you for the hack on widening sleeves. I want to try that on a blouse pattern but I would also like to add a gauntlet style cuff. can you give me any idea on how to do that. I’m new at altering patterns.
    thank you

    — Irene Gilchrist

  • Jun 07, 2019

    Thank you for the blog post on this alteration !
    What a beautifuk dress !

    — Le fila la gratte

  • Jun 07, 2019

    Ta lots for this….its an amazzzzing tutorial…with infinate possibilities….might even help me enjoy make up toiles! X

    — Alexa Mackinnon-Little

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