Seaming A Sleeve Cap Tutorial: Part 2

If you want to know how to stitch a sleeve into its armhole, this is the tutorial for you.

Well, actually, this is Part 2 of the tutorial for you. Part 1 is here.

I'm using the sleeves of my Farmer's Market Cardigan as an example. (That's a photo of Bertha, my studio mannequin, wearing the partially finished cardigan at right.)


Last week, I showed you my methods for preparing the seam so it is easier to wrangle.

This week, I'll show you the actual stitching, step-by-step. As promised, this week features my Zone Theory for sleeve cap stitching which, once you see it, will hopefully make your seaming life easier.


Seaming a Sleeve Cap: Part Two
Stitching the Seam So You Can Be Proud to Show It Off

What you will need:

  1. Sleeve
  2. Armhole part of garment
  3. Locking-type stitch markers OR largish safety pins
  4. Matching yarn for stitching
  5. Yarn needle
  6. Scissors





FLASHBACK! When last we left our intrepid sleeve-stitch tutorial, we were hanging by a thread, with the needle just inserted into the first stitch as follows (this is a repeat of the final step from last time):

Step 11: To begin seaming, insert needle in center of shoulder seam, from inside to outside.

NOTE: Bring up the needle in the middle of the column of stitches you wish to use as the seamline for the top of the sleeve cap. As you can see from the photo, I generally stitch at least one full column in from the edge of the armhole.


BUT WAIT…We interrupt this tutorial for an explanation of:

Sandi's Zone Theory For Sleeve Seaming

The entire sleeve cap area is sewn using the mattress stitch.

However, each zone uses a different variant of the mattress stitch as follows:

Zone 1: Horizontal to Vertical – along top bind-off area.

Zone 2: Vertical to Vertical – along main slope.

Zone 3: Horizontal to Horizontal – along underarm bind-off area.

In case you need a refresher or two:

Tutorial for working vertical-to-vertical seams

Tutorial for working horizontal-to-horizontal seams


Here are the corresponding areas for each Zone shown along the armhole.

I find that breaking the sleeve seam up into manageable, organized chunks in this manner helps me to sew a neater, more professional-looking seam.


Let's take this zone by zone…


Step 12: Zone 1 – Horizontal-to-Vertical Stitching

Begin stitching at the top of the sleeve cap, from the shoulder seam outwards, by catching the first set of "legs" on one side of the middle marker in the very top column of stitches.


Step 13: Catch the next "bar" one column of stitches in from the edge on the armhole.

Repeat Steps 12 and 13 for the width of Zone 1, stopping at the end of the bind-off "ledge" on the top of the sleeve.


Step 14: Leave your stitches loose until you have several completed.

This helps you see the placement of the next stitch more easily.


Step 15: Gently tug on both ends of the yarn to tighten up the stitches.

Don't pull too tightly. Adjust the tension so that the stitches and seam look like something you'd be proud to wave in your knitting group's collective face next week. (You will be able to give the whole shebang some final touches by steaming the seam later.)


Important Note: You may wish to do some adjustment of stitch placement to ease in fullness along the sleeve cap.


Q: How do I ease in the fullness, Sandi?

A: The amount of easing you may have to do depends on the style of the garment and the shape of the sleeve cap, so it varies from sweater to sweater. This means that I cannot give you a neat and tidy answer to the question. (Bummer.)

However…Shirley Paden has one answer to this question. Well, actually, I had the honour of working with Ms. Paden, and she has the answers to a LOT of knitting questions! Her detailed math formula for exact easing of sleeve fullness is in her book Knitwear Design Workshop: The Comprehensive Guide to Handknits. If you're the sort of knitter who likes the precise technical approach, go for it! (See page 268.)

Not everyone likes the formula approach. If the very idea of a formula for sleeve caps makes you want to stab someone with a DPN, then try this advice from my junior high school sewing teacher: When in doubt, pin it out. Pin. Pin. Pin again till you are satisfied. Then stitch carefully from pin to pin (or in the case of my knitting, from one locking marker to the next).

Sleeve caps are, like so much else in knitting, both art and science. (Yes, I waited until now to tell you this.)


Step 16: You are now at the area marked by the center two markers shown in the photo at left.

This is the steep area at the top of the sleeve cap. We're still in Zone 1, so you will still be stitching using horizontal-to-vertical mattress stitch as in Steps 12 and 13 above. 

However, this section merits a bit of special treatment, so it's time for another of my swell diagrams.


Transition Zones

In Sandi's Zone Theory, there are two Transition Zones, one Upper and one Lower. Each of these Transition Zones is a steep slope marking the change from one type of stitching to another.


Step 17: Here's what the Upper Transition Zone looks like.

We are still working horizontal-to-vertical mattress stitch here.

Note how the columns of stitches on the sleeve (top of photo) are stair-stepped as the shaping progresses from top of sleeve (left side of photo) to side of sleeve (right side of photo).




Step 18: More about easing in fullness

The stair-stepping means that you have to carefully choose which pair of "legs" in each column (on the sleeve side of the seam) to catch with your needle as you stitch.

Normally, you would catch the legs right next to the bound-off edge; however, to ease in fullness, or to adjust the curve of the seam, you might wish to choose a set of legs one or two stitches away from the edge.



Step 19: Here is the Upper Transition Zone after stitching is completed.

Whenever possible, when easing in fullness, keep your stitches on the armhole side of the sleeve (bottom of photo) all in the same column of "bars."

You'll be amazed at how tidy the seam looks if you do all the adjustments on the sleeve side.


Step 20: Zone 2 – Vertical-to-Vertical Mattress Stitch

Once you have completed the top stair-stepped section of the sleeve seam, you are in the long, gentle curve of Zone 2, along the side of the armhole.

Change to using vertical-to-vertical mattress stitch by working in the "bars" on each side of the seam.

That sounds waaaayyy more interesting than I meant it to.

Ahem. We shall politely continue as though nothing odd has been said.

A step-by-step photo tutorial for stitching bar-to-bar is here.

Again, keep your stitches in the same column of bars on either side of the seam as much as possible, unless you need to add further easing according to the style and fit of your pattern.

This is a photo of a finished Zone 2 in my own sweater.


Step 21: Lower Transition Zone

Remember that orange marker I placed in the long, stretched stitch at the end of the lower bind-off ledge in Step 7 (Part 1)? That long stitch marks the Lower Transition Zone.

In general, before this long stitch you will be working vertical-to-vertical mattress stitch; after the long stitch, you will work horizontal-to-horizontal mattress stitch (see next few steps).

This Transition Zone is not as long as the upper one is; here, it is only a few stitches, depending on the pattern. Again, choose the placement of your stitches here according to where fullness needs to be taken in.


Step 22: Zone 3 – Horizontal-to-Horizontal Mattress Stitch

On one side of the lower bind-off section, catch the legs of the edge stitch in the first column nearest to the long marked stitch.


Step 23: Do the same on the other side of the seam–catch the legs of the edge stitch in the column nearest to the long marked stitch.

Continue to work "legs to legs" in horizontal-to-horizontal mattress stitch to the end of the sleeve bind-off ledge.

You should end up at the column of stitches matching the one nearest to the side seam.


Step 24: Leave the stitches loose until you have all the stitches on this side of the side seam completed.

This allows you to see more clearly which stitch to sew next. It also allows you to check for easing in fullness.

It also makes it easier to rip out stitches if you need to make an adjustment, but I was trying to stay positive here!


Step 25: Pull the final stitches snug so that the seam is tidy and makes you happy.

Finish off the seam by weaving your needle in and out of the seam allowance on the inside of the seam. Break yarn.


Step 26: Rinse and repeat!

Return to the top of the armhole.

Thread your needle with the other half of the length of yarn on the inside of the garment.

Bring your needle up one column away from the edge of the armhole, and catch the bar immediately to the other, un-stitched, side of the shoulder seam.

Sew the other half of the sleeve seam as you did the first.


Here's what the inside of the seam looks like.

I knew you'd be curious.

And, you're done! Congratulations. Now, try on the sweater and check the sleeve seams in a mirror to make sure that they make you happy and proud. 

I think it's important to note that it is completely normal to have to rip out a sleeve seam and have a little do-over now and then–saaaayyyy…every other sleeve or so. (I'm only sort of kidding.) Don't be discouraged if you find that a sleeve seam didn't come out perfectly the first time. As I said above, stitching a sleeve seam is both an art and a science: I can tell you which stitches to use where, and show you step-by-step photos, but…every pattern is different.

The method above, however, has helped me to kick some serious sleeve. I hope it helps you to do likewise.

I love to hear from you, so leave a comment and let me know if you have questions or comments.

I'm working on the shawl collar. I keep thinking I'm done…and yet, I'm not. It's a fun collar to work, but I'm getting impatient to have this cardi done! Check in next Thursday to see if I've conquered it by then.

Knit in the sunshine for a while if you can.

– Sandi

Sandi Wiseheart is the founding editor of Knitting Daily. You can find her blogging here on Knitting Daily every Thursday. Want more? Visit Sandi's personal blog, wiseheart knits. Or, if you're on Twitter, follow her tweets: alpacasandi.


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14 thoughts on “Seaming A Sleeve Cap Tutorial: Part 2

  1. Sandi, I love you.
    I proudly finished my first real cardigan a year ago (something I could actually wear in public). It sat until I got up the courage to sew in the arms. Botched them so badly the item now sits in a heap on a chair. On spring break this weak I was going to bolster my courage again to rip out the seam and try to fix it. This tutorial is exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.

  2. After a few years of using needle and thread to join sleeves, as per my very experienced knitting teacher…I decided late last year to take up the mattress-stitch challenge on all seams, including set-in sleeves. It really does make a difference. I have had experienced knitters take notice and compliment me!
    Though I approach it from the bottom of sleeve cap up to the top, in 2 steps, so I can adjust tension easier, and measure that front and back are the same length.
    Thank you for encouraging us all, Sandi.

  3. I’m commenting on my own post. I feel a bit odd. 🙂

    Artful Soul & other Fearless Readers:

    Sometimes I do seam from bottom to top–depends on the style of the sweater. I confess I was trying to keep the options simple for the purposes of an already long tutorial! 🙂

    I find that individual body dimensions vary enough so that I didn’t want to make a blanket statement about measuring to ensure that front and back of the armhole were the same length. For example, I personally need more room in the front of the armhole, due to bust size and upper arm measurements (ahem. I have a thin back, shall we say). So I take in more fullness in back and let things out a little in front.

    Writing tutorials is tough sometimes. It’s hard to hit the middle ground between giving enough info to be useful/correct whilst at the same time not writing a book on the subject. It could be that this particular subject was too big for a simple tutorial…

    So, my friends, please do let me know if this tutorial has been useful to you or not. I find everyone’s comments to be immensely helpful in tweaking whatever I write next! Thank you!

  4. Well done, and the photos are particularly good. I guess I’ve been doing it that way for a while, but not thinking it through systematically. That’s a real keeper!

  5. I’ve knitted a few sweaters over the years. By luck (or sheer laziness) I discovered that it sometimes works to pick up the sleeve stitches from the armhole, reverse the way the pattern reads, and knit the sleeve right into the sweater. This works best if the sleeve doesn’t have a one-way pattern. Stockinette sleeves are pretty painless with this method.

  6. Thank you so much. I am pretty much self-taught, and have been knitting consistently for only about a year now. Seaming sleevecaps was something I had not yet run across anywhere in my research and have had some trouble with trying to figure it out alone. This tutorial is clear and very easy to follow. Lots of good tips.

  7. Sandi, this is just wonderful.

    I am skilled with a needle and can repair sweaters when others would toss. Darning is a specialty. I can even sew together a handknit sweater when I need to (though I primarily knit socks).

    I teach mattress stitch, and can easily explain how to sew a shoulder seam. Thanks to great teaching from Sarah Peasley years ago, I can even do a good job sewing my own diagonals.

    But I tend toward more “art” and less “science” though Sarah gave me good numbers to use if I need them. Explaining that diagonal process was hard to get through, depending on how much sewing experience my student might have.

    LOVE this tutorial for explaining in different words than I would use, and different than Sarah and other teachers I’ve had might use. For example, it is obvious to me to stay on the same line in the body section and adjust in the sleeve. I might not have said that out loud, though I always do it.

    Thanks for doing such a great job. Thanks for attempting a difficult-to-explain subject. You rock.

  8. Thank you for useful tips – and with photos, too! it makes it so much easier to understand the things. I’m getting used to checking my own techniques with the tips from your blog 🙂 And I always find something useful even if before it seemed “Oh-i-know-how-to-do-it” kind of thing. Again – thank you. Alena

  9. What a superb seam!

    Sandi you are a great teacher. I have been seaming sweaters for years and I have never heard/read instructions so clear. I picked up a number of tips and confidence that I am on the right track.
    Thanks!!!! Barb

  10. Thank you…Thank you…… I’ve been afraid to start sewing in the sleeves for couple weeks since I finished the sweater for my daughter, and thanks to your easy to follow instructions…..worked like a breeze….. and the swater pattern is an eyelet but using the zones, went together… and I used your verticla and horizonal too for the shoulder and side seams…it lies so much better 🙂

  11. Thank you so much for your excellent tutorial!! I kept putting off seaming the sleeves on my granddaughters sweater because I never really knew how to do them correctly. I decided to check out the internet and there you were!! Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed doing them and was proud of my accomplisment.

    Your instructions with the pictures are so easy to learn from. Thank you again!!

  12. Thanks, Sandi – your tutorial going to be a great help finishing my first adult garment (cardigan for my dad). Excellent photos and very clear explanation.