The Savvy Sage of Sewing Stimulation

The Shoulder

This may not sound that important, but it is.  It’s said that the first thing a person sees in another person is the face, then you start down, and so next is the shoulder.  For me as a designer, that’s where my stuff starts, so it had better be right from the beginning or else the ship is sinking right off the bat.

This is my favorite example of a properly placed shoulder line.   This is from the film, The Fifth Element, and the costumes were designed by Jean Paul Gaultier (I mistakenly mislabeled this in the reply in a former post, but it is Gaultier).  The first thing to notice is there is NO bulk under the arm or to the side of the bust, and this is a perfectly clean fit.  This was designed like this for the character (she was supposed to be efficient and non-yielding), but what else this shows is that for people with figures like this or close to it – they can be fit – inn case you might have thought otherwise, and shopping in RTW with this shape, can really make you think it’s an impossibility to be fit with this shape.

Here’s a close up with my markings to make my point.  Her sleeve is set in beautifully, and the green and pink lines dart well so that her front bust dart is well fitted.  Her shoulder is slightly extended, meaning that it comes out a little to balance her waist line.  Most importantly notice the line from her shoulder head (at the top of the sleeve where it meets the shoulder line), to the point at which the waist meets the side seam.

It’s a straight line – that’s what we’re after.

 Here’s another example.  In this case the costumer wanted to make the character looked like she was in an ill-fitting dress.  Did you notice how many of the help, even though they had good figures, were in ill-fitting clothes?….this was to show their meager and poor circumstances in contrast to the gals who were hiring “The Help” who all had perfectly fitting dresses.  Whether this was true in real life, isn’t important.  What is important is how to make the help looked meager and the employers looked wealthy.

Here Milly wears a dress that the shoulder line is way off the shoulder.  That causes all that fullness right under the arm, and there isn’t anything close to a straight line in the clothing under the arm along the side seam to the waist (as a matter of fact there’s a bulk there that is dying to be pinched in and made into an FBA!)


Here’s another example (I was perusing through picks of Ms. Spenser and found this typical example of shoulder slope).  Often for folks who have large chest areas, to get RTW garments to fit, have to wear shoulders that are way off the shoulder line, and although her arm covers most of the folding in fabric under the arm, you can certainly see there’s no straight line from the shoulder line down the side seam to the waist.


One more example – here Adele is wearing a gorgeous dress, with the shoulder ON her shoulder – not hanging down off her shoulder, and even though she has a large chest, this fits.  Also please notice that the line from her should to her waist, bows out slightly as it passes through her bust.  It’s not a perfect straight line, however there is no buckling, folding or gaping of fabric which is what makes this dress work.  I probably would have liked to have seen the shoulder extended a little further out, but I’m OK with this dress because there is no extra fabric under the arm or around the bust/armscye area.

This next dress line was so perfect I couldn’t resist:  The neckline (that straight, also known as bateau or boat neckline) does everything to elongate the shoulders – to make them look broader.  Then the shoulder is placed correctly here – it’s just before the bra-strap drop off point.

This is what I mean by bra-drop-off point.  You know the point of no return….once your bra strap hits this point it drops – there’s nothing more to hang onto.  This is the place where gravity takes over and there’s nothing you can do to keep your bra strap up at that point on your shoulder.  A little higher and it will stay .

This is the point I’m looking for – on this drawing below, on the model right are three places the bra strap can be, and the point at which you loose the bra strap, mark it – that’s your shoulder point.  On the left I’ve drawn the straight line I like.

 Here are two good examples of this line in action.  The models on the left have the line angled in to the waist/side seam point, and the models are wearing a dress with this design used.  The model on the left has a slightly higher, shallower shoulder line, while the model on the right has a slighted extended shoulder line – can you see how just extending your shoulder seam and sleeve head just 1/2″ or so can really make a difference.


So why in the world do I want this to nip in at the waist, or at the least be straight.

Because it gives the illusion of a more shapely figure.  And no matter what anyone says, and more shapely figure looks better and more natural.  And although you may feel you have no waist or very little one, you can make this work for you.

Here I’ve taken that same shoulder to waist/side seam line and copied it to the other side, then I’ve copied it below the waist.  The waist nips in a bit and the shoulder and hip spread out a bit.  This silhouette causes the eye to move from the wide shoulder to the thinner waist back to the wider hip….this is the figure we’re after.

There are two parts to this fitting technique to work – the second is that you must fit around your bust.
One:  the line from your shoulder to your waist/side seam point should nip in,
Two: you must fit your bust and under arm area.

Back to Major Iceborg (yep, that’s her real name in the movie).  Notice how her bust is fit really well.  But she also has a fabulous undergarment.  So if you don’t have one and are looking to get this technique to work for you, you should have a good bra.  After that, it’s a matter of using an FBA or you can use two, to fit this area, mark your shoulder line (if you have to, extend it a little to get that nip line to the waist/side seam point) and you’ve got the start of a great look.


Now – don’t let all this information overload you – I have a tendency to do that.  Take this one step at a time and you can do this.

  • Start with your pattern being your desired shoulder length (either from CB to shoulder point, or shoulder point to shoulder point).  Why?  Because this is the hardest part to alter.
  • After you have that pattern, most likely your bust won’t fit.  Do your FBA(s) and
  • check your fit;  you can do a tissue fit on your mannequin (provided it matches your body) or on your own body to check for any major problems
  • You shouldn’t need any difficult alterations in back, but if you do make them and tissue fit again.  This is where a mannequin is absolutely invaluable.

Once you do this a couple of times, it gets much easier, and you will be addicted to it because it creates such a clean fitted look, yet is so natural you’ll wonder why you even tried to make RTW work.

One caveat on this.  It’s really hard to take RTW and alter it to fit you.  Basically this involves dealing with redrawing and replacing your armscye – that’s like an instant neurosis that none of us need.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, it’s just very difficult, so the easiest and most efficient way to really make this area fit is to work through a pattern and start with the cut.

Once you have a pattern worked for you, you can vary it and make it up over and over.  It’s amazing what a change in fabric and a line or two on the pattern will do…..oh well, that’s another post.


  1. Brilliant post, Claire.

  2. So informative, Claire! I’m sure that I am not the first one to suggest that you collect all of your fitting advice into a book. It would be easier to have it all in one place–and I’m sure it would become a must have in sewing libraries.

  3. Really good post Claire. I have really narrow shoulders so that straight line is hard for me to get if I have the shoulder exactly at my shoulder point. Any tips?

  4. Fabulous information, Claire. Thank you.

  5. I’m the opposite of above…I have broad shoulders. Even with a relatively large bust, there is no straight line to my waist that doesnt have air in it.

    • Nancy – this is a lot easier. No extension whatsoever…until and unless we get to the “half-back” look of the 80’s! Because you probably have a line already going in, what you want to do is keep that line “going in”, but not at such a dramatic angle. This is hard for me without pictures….so I want to do a blog on this.

      I can’t thank you all enough for the comments, because sometimes I forget what I know cause I’ve done it for so long. Probably first of the week. Thanks again for the comment.

  6. Thanks for clarifying why you liked Major Iceborg’s bodice. I saw the slightly extended shoulder point and wondered why you thought it was so marvellous. Now I know! I love how you demonstrate ways to make figures look shapely instead of lumpy.

Leave a Reply