The Savvy Sage of Sewing Stimulation

The Shoulder

I get this lots of times in my class and it’s one of those things that students don’t even know to ask – where’s the shoulder?!  I guess it shows how fashion has so moved the goalposts that basic things like the shoulder placement aren’t really considered.  Part of this is due to the fact that for so many decades if you aren’t model/runway thin you have to to buy the size to fit your largest part – hips, bust, tummy or whatever, and that means your shoulder almost never fits.  It either drops off your real shoulder or the garment is so tight that the rest of the garment doesn’t fit.

Here’s what happens – on the left the jacket shoulder line is off the shoulder, and even at this, she can’t close the jacket, so it’s a trade-off –  more off-the-shoulder and maybe close the jacket, or less off the shoulder and can’t even get the jacket on.  What sort of sitting is this anyway?….it’s RTW fitting!  Then on the right, she has got the shoulder in the right place, but she’s paid a horrible price.  The bicep is mercilessly tight and there is no hope of ever closing this jacket in front.

A Repeated Problem

And here’s the worst part – this doesn’t have to happen – this is all that is available to consumers and that’s why this happens all the time, and like anything repeated enough times, it becomes a habit, and after a habit it becomes natural and after it’s natural then it’s the only way things are done!  And that works both ways – that means if you repeat a technique enough times it becomes a habit and more it becomes natural – remember that when you see a new technique that you think you can’t do.  But for us here, this is the wrong habit and the wrong natural!

I love using this photo of Octavia Spenser at the Golden Globes, cause this jacket is so beautifully tailored to her.  Loved seeing her that night in this beautiful garment because watching her move in the garment, I could notice that she was at ease and not crammed into a style.  The picture to the right is her out on the town, and although the jacket doesn’t close, it at least comes close, and most importantly her shoulders are on her shoulders where they should be.  Below are some other important women leaders and no one would even think of QEII being out in something that is not immaculately tailored for her, nor would Angela Merkel think of being out in something that doesn’t look really nice on her cause her creds would go down the drain otherwise.

Taking it Apart (OK don’t laugh!)
Let me show you just how absurd this look is.  We would never think of seeing the Queen of England in a getup like this on the left.  It’s totally frumpy and makes her look even older than she is.  But let’s take it apart, cause there’s some interesting aspect here that you can compare to the real Queen on the right.  Starting with what’s closest to the face and you see the shoulders – they are off the shoulder and they are sloping which really exaggerates her bust and makes her look way fuller busted than she is, and she’s got a pretty full bust naturally, so we don’t need to accentuate it.  Then we have the open jacket/coat.  And if you notice the Queen never wears a coat or jacket hanging open.  For one thing, her close actually fit her (they are all made for her) and for another, it’s sloppy and unkept looking and that’s not how a professional looks.



So it’s not like this can’t be done, but most importantly, the shoulders are really the closest feature next to the face, and the face is the first part of the body to see.  You don’t look at someone’s feet or knees to identify them – you look at their face.  And the shoulders are in the closest vicinity to the face, not the bust, waist, hips, back, silhouette, legs or any other part of the body – it’s the shoulders.

Learning From What Tailors Do

The other really important feature of the shoulders is that basically, this is what every garment hangs on.  OK, maybe not your skirt and pants, but whatever goes with the skirt or pants, hangs from the shoulders.  A dress, jacket, coat, tunic, shell, blouse, shirt, bolero, tee-shirt – everything but the skirt and pant, hangs from the shoulders.  And in men’s tailoring, one of the most important features in a custom-tailored suit is the drape and most importantly the drape of the skirt.  The drape in tailoring parlance means hang and drape of the skirt means how the jacket hangs around a gentleman’s middle and below.  If the hang is sloppy it’s not acceptable; if the hang is hung up at the waist, that’s not acceptable either.

Here’s my point.  On both of these men, the hang of the skirt is meticulous, but it’s not really what’s happening with the skirt – it all starts with the shoulders, and this is what any good tailor will tell you.  Gov. Christie has a very wide girth in the middle, but because his shoulders have good strong construction, definition and hold up well, they are in proportion to his middle with makes him look very well dressed even though he’s got a huge girth.  Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson looks excellent in his suit even though his shoulders area hugely wide and his torso is very small in comparison.  As well he had enormous biceps but because the shoulder has been constructed well, leaving enough room for the large biceps, the jacket hangs well and looks very smart on his difficult to fit body.    We sewists can learn from tailors and this is one thing that we can take to the bank – that if the shoulder is in the wrong place or if it’s not constructed well, nothing else with the garment will get any better.  That means that if the shoulder is bad, the bust, waist, hips, tummy, fanny, legs, back, silhouette – nothing else will be anything better than bad, and most likely worse than bad.  That’s how important the shoulder is.

What Designers Wear


This is a very interesting group of ladies – They are all designers – from left to right Mary Katrantzou, Anna Sui, Maria Grazia Chiuri (Christian Dior) and Sarah Burton (Alexander McQueen).  Notice a couple of things – none of them are waifs or even close to model thin, and all of them have broad shoulders, and even they have problems with the shoulder seam being on the shoulder.  For me, this shows how normalized and pervasive the ill-fitting shoulder epidemic is.   Both Katrantzou and Chiuri have waistbands on which helps a lot, and Katrantzou has on a knit top that takes away a lot of the bulk that the dropping shoulder line causes.  The belt at the hipline is getting old while the belt on the waist is very new looking – see how much more modern the belt at the waist or just above the waist looks?  That’s the newer trend that’s taking over.

Clothes Aren’t Just For Skinny People – No Matter What You’re Told (Or See In The Stores)

This puts this problem in focus now and shows how even professional designers (who know better) either have no choice or can’t/won’t do anything to make this correct.  If professional designers do this, what does this say to the rest of us?  It must be okay – or normal!  Well, the truth is that for designers who do custom or couture design, must be able to fit every figure type, and don’t kid yourself, if a wealthy doyenne comes to a couture show and wants to buy the latest style on the thin model, the designer will make it up and it will fit the more plump shape of the doyenne and he/she knows that means fitting the shoulder correctly and flatteringly.  And if the designer can’t do that, then he/she is out of business.

So it’s a real conundrum when Tim Gunn asks designers why they won’t design for plumper, fuller shapes and they say it doesn’t interest them….like fitting their own bodies doesn’t interest them.  There’s a huge disconnect there and it’s no wonder that the consumer is left in the lurches and worse, left with minimal choices when it comes to fitting the fuller figure. After all, if the designer won’t make an effort why should the rest of us.

But then along comes women in professional and leadership positions and they do want to look nice, they want to look responsible, they want to look modern and they don’t want to look kooky or trendy or fashion victim and who do they go to?  They go to designers who will make garments specifically for them;  garments that are specifically tailored to fit their exact size, shape, and style.  This is the only place left to get garments like this…..unless you sew. And if you do then you are ahead of the curve and you can make garments that not only look good on you but they also are flattering and comfortable to wear.



I carry most of my weight below my waist and in my hips, so if my shoulders aren’t in proportion, then the whole silhouette is off.  As well when the shoulders hit correctly then everything else looks good – even my big hips!  But it all starts at the shoulders.  Once you know this, it isn’t hard.  Yeah, yeah – I hear you….”Well, Claire, you’re hips aren’t that big!”  No, they aren’t because I have them in balance with my shoulders and my waist.  THAT’S why I look like I don’t have big hips even though I do!

But There’s A Catch

I hear you now, “Uh-oh, Claire – I knew it was coming!”  Yes, it’s coming, but it’s not incurable or so hard you can’t solve it…’s the catch:  the shoulder is THE HARDEST PART OF THE GARMENT TO ALTER.  It’s fraught with all sorts of rules like part of it creates more room when you take in the seam and less room when you let out the seam (and no, I didn’t get that backward – I promise).  While the other part does have less room when you take in the seam, and more room when you let out the seam.  But where does the one start and the other take over?….how do you know where that is?….how do you make the alteration so that it works?  Those are all very good questions.  But the truth is that you don’t really need to answer those questions because you are going to start with the shoulder fitting.  That’s why you always pick your pattern to your shoulder size because it’s the hardest part of the garment to alter.  Makes sense doesn’t it.

Not only that but the other alterations that you make below the shoulder are a lot easier to make – swayback, full bust alteration, large bicep, higher/lower waist, large waist/small hips, small waist/large hips, one hip higher than the other, one bust higher than the other – anything else you can think of is a much easier alteration than having to alter that dang shoulder.  And with the shoulder being so close to the face – it’s not like a hem or hip problem, it will really show and there’s not much you can do about it.  

Let’s go back to the girl in the black jacket.  With the help of a few alterations, this girl can have a very attractive jacket that flatters here and she wears the jacket, not the other way around.  Obviously, the one on the right is the better look.  So let’s start at the top.

  1. First of all, we can actually see her shoulder (look at the one on the left and not really sure where her right shoulder is – it’s probably squished down.  But we have a nice structured shoulder in place.
  2. Next, the bicep is fitted and therefore her whole shoulder and upper arm doesn’t look nearly as large, and she has a much more flattering proportion.
  3. Then onto fixing the lapel and the front of the jacket so that it actually might close and the line of her left side is much more pleasing as…..
  4. The skirt of the jacket drapes very well.  The girl on the right looks normal whereas the girl on the left looks like she’s trying to fit into a jacket that she outgrew when she was in the 3rd grade.

Yes, I added some shoulder pads in the garment, but the truth is that with her broad chest and biceps, she needed that balance.  Look at Octavia above, and you can see that she has the same structure in her shoulders.  I’m not talking about 1980s shoulder-pad-mania here, I’m talking well-structured and well-made which requires some structure sometimes.

So there are lots of issues here, but they are all curable:

  1. Where’s the proper placement of the shoulder line
  2. How do you alter everything else if you cut to the shoulder
  3. How to make the alterations needed to have a properly-place shoulder line

And that’s a mouthful right there.  I could do a whole course on that subject alone, but instead, I wrote up some wonderful resources to use for this.  They are all included in the Sleeve Resources (In order of how you should view them):

  1. Basic Insertion of the Sleeve Head – the shoulder and sleeve areas are not only essential for fit but are a show-off for your technical ability.  A poor sleeve head will label your garment instantly as an amateur, while a great sleeve head will mark you as a pro and make your garment look professional.  What’s even worse is that the only time you notice a really smart sleeve head is when it’s messed up.   So when it’s done right, it’s like “Okay, what’s new – ho-hum!”  When it’s wrong it’s like “Holy Mama – what happened to that sleeve?!!!”
  2. Sleeve Shoulder Placement – Sounds really simple, but here’s one of the big points I make when fitting students and clients – if it’s in the wrong place it’s as bad as a poorly executed sleeve insertion.  You have to know where to put it, and this tells you where it needs to go.
  3. What’s So Great About The FBA? (aka What Does An FBA Have To Do With A Good Sleeve Insertion).  Well, the sleeve, shoulder, and bust are all in there together.  It’s like you can’t do one without affecting the other and it can get confusing.  Do you remember when you learned to drive and the driving instructor was saying, “Watch the road…now how fast are you going….watch for warning signs….can  you see who’s behind you?….watch the road while you’re watching behind you and the speedometer all at the same time!!!!”  It was like information overload.  This is a bit the same, and it may seem overwhelming, but this lays out why these parts are so key AND how to work with each of them to get a good clean fit.  Remember a fit is not skin tight to you – it shapes to you – to your body, not clinging to you.
  4. Sleeve Block – I think this was one of the most empowering things I learned.  So picture this – you have the perfect pattern, but no sleeve – no worries, here’s the information on how to draft a sleeve head from the armhole of the bodice.  How about this one — you have a perfectly fitting bodice muslin, but no sleeve.  No problemo – take the muslin and by using the measurements of the armhole from the bodice you can draft up your own sleeve.  This is a step-by-step process so make sure you follow the steps to get to your sleeve.  It’s worked every time for me and I love it.
  5. Sleeve Variations – this is more of an idea factory than anything else.  Sometimes it’s nice to know the names of these sleeves and frankly, most of them are period or historical, but that might be a look you want for a certain top or bodice.  This also includes information on how to make up the various sleeve types.
  6. Sleeve Details – how about adding some kickin’ details to your sleeve that will really make it look professional.  Again, this is step-by-step so it’s not that hard to do, simply follow the steps.  This also includes a pattern for the different sleeve details and one of them, the housetop placket, you can use if you want a placket in your shirt front instead of a shirt with a full placket.
  7. Sleeve Package – this includes all of the above with two bonuses.
    1. One is a very basic one that I see so much online – someone standing like Tony Manero in “Staying Alive” and wonder why they have wrinkles all up and down their bodice.  Well, no wonder they have wrinkles all over the place, this is not a normal stance – so what is the normal stance?….this shows the correct stance for fitting and why.
    2. The second is an incredibly valuable resource that would normally be included on its own, however, you must have the knowledge of the first 6 resources in order to understand many of the concepts in this resource.  This is about altering the location, width, size and dimensions of the sleeve head and the armhole and how to figure those so that they can match and still have a successful sleeve insertion with a professional-looking sleeve head.  This is for fine-tuning the sleeve head placement into the bodice.  If the adjustments are more than the size pattern you are using, then you will need to make adjustments in the bodice first and then block out your own sleeve.  But reading through this and working the steps involved will give you a huge head start for making those bigger and more intricate sleeve and shoulder placement adjustments.

The bust area is integral to the sleeve/shoulder area, as it’s the fitting of the bust that can cause so many problems and bulk in the bust and underarm area.  To help with that are these dart resources. In order from beginner to advanced:

  1. Basic Dart Constrsuction – not only about bust darts but any kind of dart.  There are some very basic techniques that can make your dart couture-worthy.  That means you can hardly tell where the dart begins and ends because the technique of inserting and sewing the dart is so good!
  2. Front Bust Dart – the basic front bust dart/full bust dart/full bust adjustment – all of these apply.  If you need 4″ through the bust because you have chosen the correct shoulder, this shows you how to do that. People – this isn’t hard, it’s a step-by-step process (and not that many steps) and can really free you from being limited to certain baggy underarm styles.
  3. Front Bust Dart Advanced aka FBA on Steroids – what do you do when you take the bust dart to new heights and design ideas – this is what you can do and it’s a ton of fun!
  4. Dart Placement and Design – FBAs don’t necessarily have to be from the side seam to the bust point.  They can be moved all over the bodice, but only in certain methods, and this shows how.  But not only can you move the dart around, but you can also begin to set up clear seaming that can lead to design variations in your TNT (Tried ‘N True) designs.
  5. The Complete Dart Package – This includes all the dart resources for a lot less than the resources alone.  I like to do this so that if you need one, you can get it, but if you want the whole kit and caboodle, you can get that but for a lot less gravy!

Almost always my resources are written to give you not only what to do, but why I do what I do.  This is the way I teach, because 1) I don’t want you to think that sewing is a mystery and that only those who have divined the right karma from the universe can sew (something I used to believe in spades!!!!) and 2.) this allows you the knowledge of how to think through the solutions to your fitting questions.  so that you can determine the direction of how you want to sew your solutions.  Frankly, there are usually 5 or 6 correct answers, and I’m stupid enough to think that I have all of the answers.  I don’t.  Part of what I do when I get a new fitting problem for a client is work through the fitting problems one at a time, starting at the top – which is the shoulder.  Remember if you get the shoulder right, you almost halfway there!

PS – as a side note;  my techs and I try to do the best we can to make sure all the HTML and links are working, but we probably have missed something.  If that’s the case – PLEASE let me know – I REALLY do want to know so that I can fix it.  As well, if there’s something that doesn’t make sense, I want to know that too – I really do.  As I’ve said before, I learned to sew so fast from my wonderful mentor that I’ve forgotten what I didn’t know and really do want to hear what you don’t know so I can teach it to you.  I don’t want you to have the feeling I did when I couldn’t learn to sew and before I found my mentor…that I thought sewing was like some sort of secret society that only certain members can belong to if you get invited and if you don’t get invited, well too bad — that’s NOT what sewing’s about.  It’s a fulfilling and learning activity that’s an outlet for your creative ideas and energy!




  1. I really appreciate all the time you spend posting and sharing and I so love the pictures. My Mother taught me to sew and she was a very gifted seamstress without a lot of financial resources and her clothing always fit beautifully and looked professional. I have fallen away from garment sewing over fitting frustrations but your timely thoughts are inspiring me to get to it again. I have some lovely fabrics and just because I’m not a straight size 10 pattern anymore doesn’t mean I can’t do it. Thank you, thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for your generous sharing of resources. It’s very timely, too, as there has been a lot of discussion on instagram lately on the SewOver50 group about shoulder fitting, particularly forward and rounded shoulder alterations. One brave person finally went public with her frustration with a hot new indie pattern and oh my gosh, the dam burst with a flood of “Me too!” “I thought it was me”. TBH, it’s my hunch that the pattern is poorly drafted in the first place but everyone was too scared to step up and say it. Lotta of fun girling and peer pressure in the IG sewing world.

    Anyway, I digress. Thanks again for the resources. They will keep me busy for hours but when I create a better fitting / looking garment, the time will be well spent.

    • Yeah, Barbara – I’m not sure why this isn’t stressed more – unless it’s because there are so many poor examples of shoulder fitting in the RTW so that consumers (and we sewists, looking for inspiration) can’t see anything that is fitted so how in the world would we know what’s right. You didn’t pop outta your momma’s womb knowing what is the right shoulder proportion, right placement, and right construction technique….but if you’ve never seen it, how are you going to know what you do see is wrong? There’s a Butterick 6287 that’s a kickin’ pattern, but unless you look very carefully, you won’t see the misplaced shoulder. Now it’s a knit, which means it’s a lot more forgiving to alter, but still, if you make it up as is, it will not be a good look, and it will not be like the sketch on the cover of the pattern envelope. There are way more patterns with very bad mistakes on them, which infuriated me because when you are a newbie, you don’t know if it’s you or the patterns. As a pro, I know what a well-drafted pattern should look like and when I see mistakes like this, it’s really hard to fathom. Those mistakes didn’t always happen, because I can remember learning to sew on well-drafted patterns all the time, and if there was a mistake it was usually me. Not so true anymore.

  3. It seems that many patterns, otherwise lovely, have DROPPED SHOULDERS. I so agree with you about shoulder placement and how that makes us just plain look better. I wish you’d develop something on how to alter such patterns to put the shoulder where it belongs, put the underarm where it belongs, and how to redraw the sleeve.

    Thank you, Claire. You help me mucho!

Leave a Reply