Red Wool Sweater Top

Pattern: frankenpattern + redrafting
Fabric: 1 1/2 yds red wool ponte
Cost: $18

During my winter holidays I found myself with more time on my hands than usual, which soon led to me turning even the simplest sewing tasks into more involved projects. Making Mr. Made a fourth pair of pants? Redraft them! Making a simple knit t-shirt? Learn all about cap height and armscyes! But learning about fit is time well spent in my book, even if it's causing my basic sewing projects to become increasingly complex.

My latest project is a redrafted t-shirt pattern, which was inspired by this luxurious wool ponte from Crossroads Fabric in Santa Cruz County. The store is in an unassuming building hidden behind a motorcycle repair shop, but you can find the most amazing designer bolt-ends amongst the stacks of fabric. While the owner claimed that material like this can sell for upwards of $50 a yard, she had this one marked at $14 a yard and sold it to me for $12, plus an extra half yard for free as we finished off the bolt. The red wool gave me visions of a classic sweater top, and I wanted to use my Bonnie Sweater pattern with its boat neckline. But first I knew that I had to fix some issues with bunching around the armpits from my first version. My research into the issue led me down an internet rabbit hole to this article on sleeve cap height, which of course then led me to this contradictory article about sleeve cap ease. Who knew t-shirt sewing could get so theoretical and complicated?

According to my reading, many shirt patterns are drafted with the sleeve on the wrong grain, which I have attempted to illustrate below. This is easiest to examine on a shirt with stripes or plaid, where the stripes should run parallel to the garment body (right image) rather than jut off at an angle on the sleeve (left image). The incorrect grain line can cause the sleeves to flare out or create drag lines in the body because the rounded shoulder needs more room in the sleeve cap before the sleeve turns into a tube going down the arm.

I had never heard of this issue before, and a trip to my closet revealed that all my shirts, from self-made to ready-to-wear all had the so-called "incorrect grain." Very interesting! I don't find the problem to be particularly egregious if is isn't causing visible fit issues, but in an effort to improve my drafting I decided to try to fix this problem on one of my patterns in the hopes that it would improve the fit of the shirt. One article suggests you should correct the issue by adding height to the sleeve cap, while the other recommends fancy drafting to recut and reshape the sleeve without any ease at all. Since I don't know much about fancy drafting, I decided to try to lengthen the sleeve cap instead.

One question I had, however, is what happens to the overall look of the shoulder when you lengthen the sleeve cap. The adjustment isn't fully explained in any of the articles, but I imagine that lengthening the sleeve cap creates extra ease at the shoulder, which could result in 80s type sleeve heads. Yikes! But according to the article, not enough ease and you don't have enough room to move your shoulder, so adding in the right amount of ease is important.

For this reason, I ended up choosing to alter Deer and Doe's Plantain shirt, which didn't have much ease in the sleeve cap to begin with, allowing me to start small. In fact, some initial measurements showed that it had negative ease, which is very odd. Normally, the sleeve head is supposed to be eased into the armscye, but in the case of this pattern the sleeve head was actually smaller than the armscye, measuring 14 1/2" compared to the 16" at the armhole opening. I have never encountered that before, and felt it was very strange.

Other initial measurements confirmed that it, too, suffered from a poor sleeve grain issue. Online photos show that the sleeves tend to flare out on some people's versions, as mentioned above. Indeed, the shirt had a particularly short sleeve cap at 4", compared to the recommended height of 5-6".

Lengthening the sleeve cap allowed me to fix both the ease problem and the grain problem at the same time (and, indeed, they are probably one in the same issue). Various sources say the sleeve cap should have 1/2" to 1" more ease than the armhole in a knit t-shirt pattern (more for a jacket), so I would want to increase the sleeve cap circumference from 14 1/2" to 16 1/2" to fit into the 16" armhole. This could be accomplished by lengthening the height of the sleeve cap by 1", thereby adding an additional inch on each side and increasing the overall height:

To lengthen the height of the sleeve cap, I followed Thread Magazine's instructions to slice above the notches and lengthen by one inch. This resulted in a 5" cap height and a 16 1/2" sleeve cap circumference, all fitting in to the unaltered 16" armscye. Perfect!

While I was at it with the pattern tweaks, I performed my first swayback adjustment by pinning out the excess fabric in my existing Plantain shirt, which ended up being 1" at center back. I then slashed the pattern at that same spot and pivoted so the center back was overlapping by that amount. There's a great tutorial for how to do this on the Pattern~Scissors~Cloth blog. It could probably use a touch more, but much improved.

I then cut out and sewed up my new pattern, using my altered Plantain pattern and the boat neckline of the Bonnie. The raw edges were all serged individually and sewn together with a lightning bolt stitch, pressed open, and topstitched down on each side of the seam to create a pretty seam finish. I also incorporated small side slits using instructions from True Bias's Sutton Blouse, which made this garment a true frankenpattern!

The result? Good, I think. The sleeves fit fine, and I imagine I'd have to sew up a short-sleeve version to test whether it corrects the flare-out problem. The grain is better but not perfectly parallel yet. I may have to increase the sleeve cap even more to really improve the grain line, but I am happy with this version for my purposes.

However, I have also realized that I have one more fit issue that is more related to the fit of the front of the shirt than the sleeves. See those puckers or folds of fabric right above the bust? I didn't know it at the time but have since discovered that I need to do a sloping shoulder adjustment, and possibly narrow the shoulders a touch. More on that later, as I have now made those adjustments on a different top and am very happy with the fit of that one.

For now I am loving this shirt - perfect color, good fit, and really great for the weather we are having right now. And I also feel just a tad bit smarter having looked into this particular issue. Slowly but surely!


  1. Thank you for this post! I've been working on a few Scout tees lately and struggling with flaring sleeves. It makes intuitive sense to me that the length of the sleeve cap could cause this issue. I'm going to try out your same fix on my next version.

  2. I would argue that the sleeve grain would vary from one type of garment to the next. A tailored coat would have a "correct" horizontal grain like you show, but a t-shirt isn't usually drafted that way. This post on Ikat Bag explains it all beautifully!

    Your sweater looks really great! Love the side detail.

    1. Thanks for the link! Makes sense! But it is good to know in case you are having issues with the flare of the sleeves.

  3. Very interesting. I am glad that I am aware of this issue now.

  4. Interesting! I love reading up and geeking out about stuff like this. Personally the Plantain sleeves are drafted perfectly for me, but I quite like that flare effect at the cuff. I find if a sleeve cap's too high you get less motion and that weird shoulder dink when you stick your arms out. Joy of sewing, you can go as deep into this stuff as you like and tailor the fit to how you like it.

    1. Yes, and now I feel like I know how to create or eliminate that effect! Definitely geeking out lately.

  5. I have never done those adjustments either, so thank you for all the info! I might have that sloping shoulder problem, and I probably need a sway back adjustment too...

    1. I had always heard of people doing a sloping shoulder adjustment, but had never investigated. It ended up being pretty easy as far as drafting changes go, and it made such a difference! Now I can't help but see the signs everywhere of other people who would benefit from doing it! Just look for that extra fold of fabric like the one above my bust in the last picture to see if you need one. Will post more about it soon, but clearly I'm very excited.


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