How to Use Sleeve Heads and Chest Shields

The other day I had a lovely conversation with a customer about making a jacket. Jackets and coats are my favorite garments to make. She asked me where I had gotten the sleeve heads for my Lori Jacket, and mentioned that she wanted to balance out some hollowness in her upper chest. She said, “So I want a sleeve head to put in between my shoulder and the top of my bust.”

I replied, “Well, actually that’s what a chest shield is for.” There was silence on the other end of the line, then she asked, “What’s a chest shield?”

Well, let’s talk about the differences and uses of chest shields and sleeve heads, shall we? This is a long one, so grab a cuppa and settle in.

Q: Ann, what is a chest shield?
A: I’m so glad you asked! A chest shield is a layer (or sometimes layers) of interfacing that gives body to the upper chest area of a garment. A chest shield is generally cut in the same shape as the upper chest part of the pattern. It can be a single layer of interfacing, or, if there is a pronounced hollow above the breast area, you can pad it with batting or several layers of interfacing. Chest shields are quite common in men’s jackets, and they are de rigeur in bespoke tailoring and couture tailleur garments. You rarely see them in women’s ready to wear.

Q: What’s the difference between that and a sleeve head?
A: Another excellent question! A sleeve head is a rectangular strip of batting, usually backed with a bias strip of interfacing. It gives support to the sleeve at the shoulder. You do see sleeve heads in better ready to wear.

Both sleeve heads and chest shields are useful in tailored garments. They help support the weight of the fabric and give it good fall along the body. I mocked up half of a jacket (OOP Simplicity 4698, if you were wondering). Here’s the jacket (sans sleeve) on a dress form:

Nothing supporting theΒ fabric, so it collapses

The arrows point to hollows where the fabric collapses from its weight. If you want something that looks more structured, then adding a chest shield will give you the support you need. You can buy pre-cut (men’s) chest shields from tailoring supply companies, but they are simple to make. Just trace the upper chest part of your pattern, eliminating the seam allowances.

Traced off the pattern

In this case I used fusible hair canvas, though you can also use sew-in canvas, or layers of interfacing and/or batting if you need to build up the front.

Applied to the upper front garment piece

Adding that interfacing eliminates much of the fabric collapse in the upper chest.

Much nicer!

Okay, so now let’s talk about sleeve heads. But first, let me go back to the conversation that started this blog post. Here’s a pair of sleeve heads in their natural state:

Batting on one side, bias cloth or interfacing on the other

One long edge of the sleeve head is finished, the other is left raw.

In the spirit of There are No Hard and Fast Rules in Sewing, sure, you can use those to fill out hollow areas in the upper chest. But… look what happens when you do:

It only covers about half the width of the chest.

And, sleeve heads are a lot more expensive than two small pieces of interfacing. So I stick with the chest shield.

Now, let’s talk about how I use sleeve heads. Sleeve heads are inserted into the sleeve at the shoulder seam to control the fall of the fabric down the arm. Here’s the jacket mock-up with sleeve attached, but no supporting understructure:

Note the deep hollow

The arrows show how the fabric collapses down the sleeve. Adding a sleeve head will eliminate that. To insert the sleeve head, sew the finished long edge just inside the seam allowance, with the raw edge facing out into the sleeve. You don’t need to worry about finishing that raw edge. It will be covered and protected by the lining of your garment. I generally attach the sleeve head starting at the front sleeve notch and ending at the back sleeve notch.

In a real garment I use shorter stitches, but I don’t use much tension.

Trim the excess length from your sleeve head (I’m not doing that here because this is just an example and I’ll use those sleeve heads in a real jacket or coat at some point). Here you can see how the chest shield and the sleeve head relate to each other.

Finally, from the outside, here’s how they work together:

Yeah, that’s the ticket!

And for a final before/during/after shot:

That was a bit of tome, but hopefully it’s helpful. Now go and make yourself a Gorgeous jacket!

Happy sewing!

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Gorgeous Fabrics

I own an online fabric store, www.GorgeousFabrics.com. The name says it all!

30 thoughts on “How to Use Sleeve Heads and Chest Shields”

  1. Ann, as usual, very good and necessary information. Thank you for posting this. Even jackets that are not tailored can sometimes be helped with sleeve heads and chest shield.

  2. Thank you for posting this! I have a series of jackets planned and its info like this that makes all the difference. When making toiles, do you add the chest shield and sleeve heads just to double check?

    1. You can, but I generally use toiles for fit, and add the understructure as I construct the garment and see what it needs.

  3. Great post! So very informational. When you said to cut away the excess on the sleeve head, how do I know how much to cut off?

    1. The sleeve heads that I show in the example measure 15 inches long by roughly 2 inches. The distance between the front notch and the back notch is about 10 inches, so I would lop off the extra 5 inches of length. Does that make sense?

      1. Yea, it does. I also use tie interfacing, which is bias cut and about the same width. It’s available for purchase or you can be cheap like me and buy silk ties for $1 at the thrift store and open them up, salvage the interfacing for sleeve heads and use the silk for under collars, pocket linings, etc.

    2. Oh, I did not read slowly enough the first time. I thought when you said to cut away the excess, you were referring to the unfinished part that extends into the sleeve thus reducing the width of the sleeve head. When I went back and re-read it is clear now. LOL! Thanks for your explanation.

  4. This is very interesting and useful information. I think it also highlights, that selling fabric is more than just an exchange of goods and money. You really know your stuff.

  5. I’m glad I found you ! Thank you for this great information. I’m inspired to make a coat in mind.. Haven’t made a garment in a long while…It’s has been a long time, since school days. Thank you

  6. This is one of the most useful blogs I have seen. Many thanks for this excellent description of the purpose and application of sleeve heads and chest shields. Tailoring jackets is an (as yet unrealised) ambition of mine.

  7. I’ve just found your blog, and what a great post to have discovered!!
    This may be a really stupid question, (and if it is, sorry for wasting your time!) but can raglan sleeves also benefit from the application of some form of “sleevehead”?
    Thanks,
    Sally x
    sarsaparillasal.blogspot.com

    1. Welcome Sally! There’s no such thing as a stupid question, just stupid answers πŸ™‚
      I haven’t done sleeve heads in raglan sleeves, and I’ve never seen one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t. My semi-educated guess is you don’t see them because raglan sleeves are meant to be softer against the body. If I were to do one, I would probably fashion it along the same lines as the chest shield, using the upper part of the sleeve as the pattern, and ending an inch or so below the shoulder point. If anyone with more knowledge of tailoring techniques than I would like to chime in, I welcome it!

  8. Omg… My brain is recalling from the awesomeness of this post. But, you never mentioned whether you will be supplying pre made sleeve heads. If not, it appears that it is a 1/4 inch thick piece of batting and then sew in horsehair?

    1. I haven’t found a supplier that I really like yet, Rita, so yes – batting and horsehair, cut on the bias. πŸ™‚

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