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How to Set in Sleeves

Feb 13, 2012

Finishing is a crucial part of knitting a sweater, and most of us have had to learn on our own how to accomplish neat looking, buttonholes, picked-up stitches, and so forth. We can take loads of classes about how to knit, but finishing skills classes are few and far between.

So I thought I'd have a little finishing class here on Knitting Daily! I'm going to talk about setting in sleeves, which is one of the most challenging parts of finishing a sweater, and one that I end up having to redo more than any other.

    
An armhole opening and its buddy, the sleeve cap

There is a certain amount of easing involved in setting a sleeve into an armhole because the sleeve cap is not exactly identical in shape to the armhole. Traditionally, a sleeve cap is 1½-2" shorter than the armhole depth, and the curve is more dramatic than the armhole curve.

This difference is really an optical illusion; if you measure each piece you'll find that they are roughly the same length, it's just that one is straight and one is curved. The straight armhole opening curves around the sleeve cap.

The problem comes when the sleeve cap and armhole opening don't match up, i.e. one is longer than the other. For some reason, this happens to me about 90 percent of the time, and I can't figure out why. It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm knitting cardigans or pullovers, either. I follow the pattern directions and it still happens. So what do I do? I ease the sleeve cap into the armhole opening, and at this I have become an expert.

What do I mean by ease? I mean that I use mattress stitch to seam one stitch from the shorter piece to one and a half stitches of the longer piece. I don't do this for every stitch, though, or else I'd reverse the problem and use up too many stitches on the longer piece; I ease the stitches about every fourth or fifth stitch.

It's a simple thing to do, too. You just work mattress stitch as usual but you pick up three bars from the piece that's too long and two bars from the other piece. To make the process more precise I start seaming from the shoulder and work down to the armpit and then do the same on the other side. This makes a couple more ends to work in but it's easier on a small stretch to tell how much you need to ease in.

This trick also enables you to spread the eased stitches evenly so that you don't end up with a bunch of easing at one end or the other. It's important to spread out your eased stitches because putting them all together will cause the sleeve to pull oddly or even to pucker, which is never attractive.

One thing to note: if you find that you need to ease more than a quarter of the stitches, something is wrong. Either your sleeve cap is too short or your armhole opening is too long. Remember, the best case scenario is when you can set in a sleeve without easing at all, or by just easing a few stitches near each armpit.

I hope this method works as well for you as it does for me! For more neat-o tricks and some easy knitting patterns, check out Knitscene Easy, which is where I got the drawing and mattress stitch directions for this lesson. Knitscene Easy is part of The Knitscene 2010 Collection CD!

Do you have a tip for setting in sleeves? Share it with us below in the comments!

Cheers,


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Comments

on Mar 27, 2012 7:15 PM

Great tip IrmaS to crochet the sleeve in instead of sew.  I, too, pin, pin, pin start at the center, etc.  However, I think Elizabeth Zimmerman had the best idea - pick up stitches at the shoulder and knit in the round.  NO SEWING necessary.

IrmaS@2 wrote
on Feb 19, 2012 7:41 AM

I agree with oxid8 that we often don't pay enough attention to row gauge. In any case, I have always had difficulty and poor results with mattress stitch seaming. When I became a professional knitter making prototypes for Vogue Knitting and several other knitting publications, I began using a crochet slip stitch when finishing the garments. It works like a charm, gives a beautiful finished seam and if you need to make any alterations it is removed quickly and easily without damaging yarn or garment.

When it comes to setting in the sleeves, I do as several others mentioned, sew shoulders first, with right sides facing,  line up  and pin center sleeve cap with shoulder seam, do the same at each side of underarm and then pin evenly spaced around. It's important to work with the sleeve side facing you. Begin at underarm and working one stitch from the edge with a crochet hook comparible in size to the needles used, slip stitch all around. Once sleeve is in, the side seam and sleeve seam can be worked as one long seam.

TIP:  when pinning, set pins back from edge about 1/2". It will be easier to check that patterns are in line on right side.

jdeak wrote
on Feb 18, 2012 9:26 PM

I usually use a back stitch for seams, much easier than the mattress stitch, but a little bulkier seam. The trick is to do it so that that you go thru between stitches, keeping one stitch at the edge as the seam allowance.  I work from the  inside, but check the outside frequently to make sure the seam line looks good. That way no matter  how that last stitch was done or how it looks, it's inside, out of view.   And the seam line on the outside becomes invisible, except where there are increases or decreases.  In doing the back stitch be careful not to do it too tight - it should still have a little give - I usually pull each stitch fairly snug, then pull it out to loosen a little so I can feel how much give it has.

Re: whether to sew the side seams first - I've done sleeves both ways. I was a sewer before being a knitter, so I learned to set in sleeves with the side seam closed.  But I just finished my latest knitting project sewing the sleeves in first and it worked fine.  In either case, the most important thing is to line it up right and do any easing around the top, not the underarm.  I pin /clip the the top center, then the underarm edge up to where it straightens out, then the top curve from center to each side and then down the straight edges.

ElaineD@11 wrote
on Feb 17, 2012 8:27 AM

I was a seamstress first..so I sew the side seam and sleeve seam first.  I use tiny children's hair clips to position my work and then attempt the mattress stitch...I would prefer to use a different stitch (don't really like the result of the mattress stitch)..have even considered sewing the sleeve on with a conventional sewing machine method..is that blasphamous?/

RobinH wrote
on Feb 14, 2012 11:00 AM

Add me to the 'pin before sewing' contingent.  

I find the center of the sleeve and pin it to the shoulder seam, then pin the armhole edge, then find the midpoint between the shoulder and sleeve edge on each piece and pin it there, then take half the distance between the pins and keep halving distances and pinning until I have the whole edge tacked down and any differences between the two are very evenly distributed.  

And note that if your garment has reverse stockinette on the edges, mattress stitch <i>looks awful!</i>.  You have to use the reverse stockinette seaming method if you want an invisible seam.    I just found that out on my latest sweater- had to google 'how seam reverse stockinette'- I found the links at the Vogue knitting site and the TKGA site most helpful.    Fortunately I stopped seaming almost immediately when I spotted the problem, and so I didn't need to rip much when I figured out how I should have done it.  MUCH happier with the second effort.  

morijay wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 10:23 PM

I agree with judyofks1. Because of the shape of the shoulder, all ease should be worked in the upper area, not the underarm. You need the room to curve over where your arm meets your shoulder to lay nicely and not pull. The underarm needs to be flat when worn so don't ease it there. This is normal garment construction whether knit or woven.

jfjohnson5 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 8:37 PM

Check out the Mattress stitch on Youtube.  

sdhobbs wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 3:56 PM

Do we block before setting in the sleeeves?

Thank you,

Shannon

sdhobbs wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 3:38 PM

Hi Kathleen, I am new to knitting garments and have avoided sleeves for fear of this problem. But reading your tips gives me courage to try! As I was reading this, I had an idea: why not sew up the inside seam following the length of the arm first, then turn the bodice inside out and put the arm inside the arm hole and loosly pin to determine easing and matching seams before finishing it up? That is what we would do with a woven fabric garment. Would that work for a knitted garment as well?

Thank you,

Shannon

on Feb 13, 2012 2:58 PM

I use KNIT KLIPS to hold sections together.  They are easitly moveable and work for all kinds of seams.

oxid8 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 1:15 PM

I have had the problem of the armhole and the sleeve cap not being the same even though I followed the pattern too.  I read somewhere once that it could be row gauge.  Even though we get the stitch gauge we don't always get the row gauge of the designer and that could be changing the sleeve cap measurement.  Now I use the Pythagorean Theorem to figure the sleeve cap using the gauges I get..  I like Debbie Stoller's book Stitch and *** Superstar for how it teaches sleeve cap calculations.

GerdaP wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 1:09 PM

Thank you Kathleen, I set in sleeves in this way as well, I refer to the ease process as taking a bigger bite on one side of the project than the other, not as technical but similar!

Happy knitting,

Gerda

on Feb 13, 2012 1:03 PM

When knitting sleeves, I knit both of them at the same time, on the same needle.  I use 2 skeins of yarn and a stitch marker, if I need to put it down.

By doing both, even if you make a mistake, they will turn out the same length.

I pin before sewing, easing extra stitches at the shoulder seam.

Jill in Florida

KarenD@20 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 12:08 PM

The very best way to help yourself set in a sleeve is to NOT sew the side seams of the sweater first.  Join the shoulders only. Now you have the entire sleeve cap edge free to manipulate.  Match the center of the sleeve cap with the shoulder seam and pin.  Pin the underarm edges of sleeve and sweater together.  Pin the remainder of the cap edge to the sweater edge in even intervals.  I use about 3 more pins per side. Then use the matress stitch as indicated to ease in fullness.

Finally, sew the sweater side seams FROM the wrist to the armhole and down to the waist.  Starting at the wrist makes it much easier to sew the tighter area together.  Start by picking up only one bar at the wrist, and then alternate with two bars, side to side to end up evenly at the armhole.

PS -  Always make your increases for the sleeve ONE STITCH IN FROM THE EDGE OF YOUR PIECE. This will make the sleeve much easier to sew together as you will have an even track to stitch in with no annoying increase bumps to accommodate! Karen

SharonL@3 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 11:31 AM

I also start at the shoulder for the seam but I don't use a separate piece of yarn for each sleeve half. I just estimate how much I need for the entire sleeve seam, and use half the yarn for the first half and then go back and pick up that long tail to work the second half. I pick up a whole stitch (center of stitch to center of next stitch) on the sleeve and then pick up a bar from the body. Usually after every 3rd bar I pick up 2 bars to keep the two pieces aligned. When you get to the underarm the shaping matches so no adjustments should be needed there.

on Feb 13, 2012 11:19 AM

Kathleen,

Thank you so much for this post. I just finished a sweater for my son that I am sewing up. Although I have successfully completed sweaters in the past, I recently ruined one project in the finishing. I really appreciate all of the reader comments, too!

I enjoy Knitting Daily daily!

Handmadebysue

Sillywilliam wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 10:48 AM

When setting in sleeves and starting from the  shoulder, leave  a long tail of  yarn to complete the  other side - no extra tails.

Steakknife wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 10:05 AM

I too start at the shoulder seam, but being a sewer, I like to pin the sleeve to the body.  When the pieces are too bulky for regular straight pins, I use other crochet hooks as pins.

judyofks1 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 9:56 AM

As a seamstress all easing is done in the cap of the sleeve never in the underarm area.  The curves match underarm.  It is the cap and sides of the sleeve that do not match.  You are trying to curve the fabric around the top of the arm and shoulder.  If you don't ease the top 2/3 to 3/4 of the sleeve then the garment pulls across the chest, back and top of sleeves.  It will also bunch under the arms.  

Give it a try the next sweater and see if  your sweater isn't more comfortable to wear.  As the others have pointed out pin, pin, pin or in my case I use split ring markers to hold the two pieces together, then easing and sewing between the markers.

BRobinett wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 8:29 AM

Instead of using two different lengths of yarn for setting in the two halves of the sleeve, I use one long length, thread it, insert the yarn at the shoulder seam, and leave half of the yarn to be used for the other half of the sleeve seam, while I work with half of it to sew the first half.  When I finish the first half-seam, I simply re-thread my needle with the yarn I left up at the top, on the shoulder seam.

I also pin my sleeve seam in several places, to make sure that at even intervals my edges are matching up.

JainsM wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 7:59 AM

I use stitch markers and mark both the shoulder and the sleeve cap at the half and quarter marks. Use spare yarn, track along both the concave and convex shapes to get the length and fold the yarn in half. A ruler does not work on curves! Then I move the cap quarter marker down a bit so there's a bit more of the cap for the top of the sleeve at the shoulder. I too start at the top of the shoulder and go downwards. I leave a really good length of yarn there so that  when I have done one side I can then go back to the shoulder and the yarn is there waiting for me to stitch the other side.

Pats_Mail1 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 7:35 AM

I'm a sewer at heart, so I always treated sweater sleeves just like I would for a blouse or dress if I was sewing.  I use pins.  I pin each end and the middle and then with the shorter side up I put more pins in easing as I go, then I just sew the sleeves in, pull the pins out and I don't have any surprises.

Pat in Hampton, Virginia

jsoltd wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 7:14 AM

Either my eyes are failing...or you did not include directions for Mattress Stitch. Do I have to buy the CD for that?

jsoltd

SusanC@105 wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 6:41 AM

When you are easing pieces together, you can potentially cause puckering when taking 3 bars from the side that is too long.  Rather, take 1 bar from the side that is too short, and 2 bars from the longer side.  Do this occasionally as needed to ease.

on Feb 13, 2012 6:25 AM

Dear Kathleen, My name is Nana. i am from Tbilisi, Georgia (Europe). What is the easiest way of making fit in sleeves? When I have to make armholes, first  I remove 5 stitches, the next  time - 3 stitches, then 2 times 2 stitches and 3 times 1 stitch. The same is true with the back, with the front sides and the sleeves as well.  Best wishes, Nana

AndreaMurley wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 5:50 AM

When I set a sleeve I too always start from the shoulder and work my way down either side. My tip is to use a piece of yarn long enough to sew both sides and tie a slip knot in the center. After sewing up the first side with half the yarn I simply release the slip knot and sew up the second half with a few less ends to sew in as well :)

asheai wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 5:40 AM

Thank you for the tip. Finishing is a HUGE concern for me.  Setting in sleeves is ALWAYS a challenge.  I thought I was just not experienced enough to get the sleeve and the opening to match perfectly! Thanks for sharing :)

One thing that has worked for me is to find the center top of the armhole and the sleeve.  I mark them both with safety pins.  I use the pins and count so many stitches around the sleeve and the opening.  This usually helps me to get an even look.  Never thought to start from the top and work my way around.  I will definitely try your suggestions the next time around :)

cyndeebee wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 4:54 AM

I found a little plastic bucket, at a Dollar Store, filled with smaller-than-normal plastic clothespins.  They've become one of my favorite knitting tools.  Especially when setting in sleeves, they're ideal for holding pieces together.  I rarely have a problem with sleeves now.  I place a pin at the beginning and end of the armhole sleeve seam and clip them to the garment, place one in the middle at the shoulder seam, and then the halfway points between.  It's so much easier to adjust, and ease, the stitches, as I sew my seam.

lanhill wrote
on Feb 13, 2012 3:35 AM

I prefer to work the very centre of the sleeve head and the join on the shoulder with a tacking stitch( Holding them both together)  first.  I

I then start at the bottom use pins first them oversew  quite boldly with a   contrast  tacking thread.  You can then judge any ease from the sleeve head before actually working your mattress stitch.  

Hope that makes sense!  It works everytime for me.  

Work from the top of the sleeve does not work for me.