The Vagaries of Fit: Shoulders

This week, the sewing interwebs have exploded over a recently-released pattern. I won’t name names, but it’s easy enough to find. Said pattern is giving people fits (pardon the pun) over the fit of the bodice. I don’t own the pattern so I can’t comment on it, but the brouhaha did get me thinking (uh oh, she’s thinking again).

Let’s talk about fit. This can be a very long subject, with lots of subtopics, and I’m certainly not going to cover all of them here. But there’s one area that I’ve found is critical to the success of almost any garment: the shoulder. When I was actively singing, a voice teacher said to me in reference to how to hold the body, “Everything hangs from the shoulders.” Boy oh boy, that resonates for sewing enthusiasts, doesn’t it? You can play with ease and adjust things on other parts of the body to make your garment tighter or looser, but the shoulders  are the area that need to fit properly for the rest of the garment to work.

In my years of sewing I’ve noticed that the shoulders on many patterns are simply too wide. Even if you pick the “correct” size by your high-bust measurement, the shoulder line on the pattern is too long and extends beyond the shoulder point. Often far beyond. Let me show you an example of a jacket. In this case it’s one of my favorites: Vogue Basic Design V7975. I’ve made this jacket twice, and I will undoubtedly make it again. The first time I made it, I made a size 14, based on my measurements. It turned out… fine.

Here's the front of the original

Here’s the front of the original

And here's the back

And here’s the back

But like many sewing patterns, especially those from the “Big 4”, it always seemed to hang off my shoulders, even though it fit my bust quite well. Now, looking at these pictures, you can see that the shoulders are significantly wider than Shelley’s. The jacket hung off my shoulders in the same way, and while I like it a lot and it’s comfortable to wear around the office, it just doesn’t have a designer shoulder line. Enter Susan Khalje. I took a class with her and I brought a muslin of a longer version of this same pattern, in this same size. She immediately set about fitting it to me, and the first thing she did was pin out a whole lot of width at the shoulder. This pattern is great for that kind of adjustment because it has a shoulder princess line. In addition to the shoulder, she pinned out excess ease at the top of the chest and a slight amount at the shoulder blade area to give a sleeker fit through the upper chest area.

Refined front shoulder

Refined front shoulder

Refined back

Refined back


Before and after

All in all, we took about 1 1/2 inches from the length of the shoulder seam, tapering back out to the original seam at the bust apex. The result is a fit that looks far more professional, IMO.

I’ve illustrated this with a jacket made from woven fabrics, but the same holds true for knits. You’ll get much better fit and look if you adjust your shoulder seam to match your anatomy. So next time you pull out a pattern, check the shoulder against yours, and if you need to make adjustments, start there and then work your way down. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy sewing!

30 thoughts on “The Vagaries of Fit: Shoulders”

  1. Angela says:

    I must have been living in a cave, I have no idea which pattern is giving people fits but I am quite curious now… and loved the examples of the jacket shoulder widths. Huge difference!

  2. K.S. says:

    With respect to that pattern…as if the overall issues weren’t enough, people were told to chose the pattern size based on their waist. Oy!

    I was just on a thread on PR where someone asked if they should choose sizing for a top based on waist and hip – NO! Adding waist/hip room is a piece of cake! (mmmmmm…cake…) Getting good shoulder fit is tough.

    I feel like I get *decent* fit overall now and am ready to really start honing in on specifics like shoulder fit and omg, sleeve fit.

    I really love the 2nd jacket <3

  3. Emma Gibney says:

    So common, that’s why I sew! That’s what I consider a narrow upper bust adjustment detailed by A Sewing Life. I thought with RTW clothes that I was too short. This seems to be a commonly adjusted in petite clothing. I usually take a 1.5 inch wedge tapering to nothing out of a pattern on the fold. I recently made the Morris jacket and achieved the great joy you have – a jacket that fits! It’s so much more flattering!

  4. Lesley Scott says:

    Well there you go, I’ve not heard of the offending pattern either. But just to say – I have the opposite problem! I almost always have to extend the shoulder line and need to lengthen the sleeve cap to bicep line – I’m not even that tall at 171cm. I think we should see patterns as just a starting point and the sooner the sewing community comes to terms with that, the sooner they will enjoy the making!
    Love your ‘gorgeous’ jackets, Retro fitting the first one isn’t too huge a task, is something else stopping you perhaps?

    1. Gorgeous Fabrics says:

      Exactly! Patterns are a starting point. And if the basic drafting is sound, then once you get some experience you can adjust them based on your body. It helps immensely if you can work with someone, either a teacher or a fitting buddy who can help out.

      Not sure what you mean by what’s stopping me? Nothing is stopping me recently other than last night – funny story – when I was working on a confirmation gift for my godson, who will be confirmed this weekend. His mom asked if I would make him a vest. I don’t have his measurements and his mom just said to me (typical non-sewer), “He tried on a men’s small and it fit him just fine.” Yeah – by whose definition? Well, he’s my godson, so I’m not going to say no, but I cut into some silk faille for a vest with some trepidation. Be that as it may, I was making good progress, and last night I was sewing away and sewing too late and too tired. And guess what happened? I was getting sleepy as I trimmed a seam and… Sliced right through one of the front pieces. DOH!!!!

      He’s getting an Amazon gift card for his confirmation gift. Sigh…

  5. Lara says:

    You have illustrated this so well with your jackets. I think that I often select patterns where needing correct shoulder width is “hidden” by the style choices – dropped shoulders, dolman sleeves, cut on sleeves etc. The issues aren’t as apparent in those cases. But as soon as you need to add a sleeve, that shoulder width becomes even more important!
    Also important to consider the upper chest adjustments – I need to do that more often I think.
    Thanks for yet another informative blog post.

  6. Sheryll says:

    That is a tremendous amount to remove from the shoulder length – it sounds like the pattern was developed from an eighties block! I much prefer a fitted shoulder on jackets too, a beautiful armhole speaks class!

  7. BaMa says:

    Your pictures illustrate so well how something that doesn’t seem like a big deal can elevate a garment out of the “loving hands at home” look.

    I looked into the pattern that is generating all the comments and it deserves the bad press. I know the company has a loyal following, so I am not dropping any names, either. The pattern in question had sloppy drafting and unflattering style lines. For the most part those who made the pattern had to make MAJOR modifications to get it to “sorta kinda” fit. And it definitely was not a style for all figure types.

    Telling people to pick a dress size by their waist???? And this is a company of professionals? The company has actually pulled the pattern due to the uproar to make corrections that should have been done in the first place.

    The vest story was funny! I once made a top for one of the granddaughters that had me successfully sewing the sleeve to the neckline. She also received “Plan B”. 🙂

    1. Angela says:

      BaMa – thank you! After thinking a bit I thought I knew what pattern was the cause of the uproar… when you mentioned that it has been pulled I went right to the website and found that my guess was correct. I used to get some of their patterns, but after some bad experiences I’ve stayed away.

      1. BaMa says:

        You’re welcome! 🙂 It will be interesting to see if the company learns from this and finally pays for the drafting talent. For the $$ they charge, the customers deserve better. At least now you know you weren’t imagining the problems with the patterns!

  8. Carol says:

    I have been thinking about this discussion since reading it last night. IT IS SO TRUE! I see lots of info, classes, etc on bust adjustments in books, msgazines and online. Not allot of people venture into shoulder issues and it is so crucial for fit. Would love to find information, classes, videos, basically anything that would discuss methods for adjustments for shoulders and the effects on the sleeve fit. Also, what to do with raglan, kimono sleeves and shoulder fit. If I am totally ignorant of available information, someone please enlighten me! Thankd for reading and love to read this blog.

    1. katie says:

      There is some info on several shoulder adjustments in a Craftsy class. I think it’s called something like “Fitting Solo”. I don’t remember if it also applied those changes to sleeve fit, but I found ikatbag’s post on the subtleties of drafting sleeves to be enlightening.

  9. Irene says:

    How right you are! And yet … in fitting myself, I tend to forget to start with the shoulders. I’m in too great a hurry to make more obvious parts “fit right”. Thank-you for the reminder to slow down and start from the top.

  10. Tina Spear says:

    Thanks, Ann, for this post! It gives us all some great information to remember when making our next bodice piece.

  11. suzanne says:

    And I thought it was just me… that shoulders never fit right. I keep going back and forth with sizes trying to get the right fit, but I’m some where in between. I finally realized that I need to muslin everything until I get that shoulder (and upper bust) fitting just right.

    I do wish I had a fitting buddy. I did sign up for one of Susan Khalje’s online sewing classes last week (she never comes to North Florida).

  12. Karen says:

    In all my years of sewing for women of all sizes, pattern shoulder lengths are too long 90% of the time. Excess shoulder width is especially true in plus sizes. Pattern graders nearly always lengthen shoulders not taking into consideration that just because a plus body needs extra inches in the garment body, does not mean that a person’s frame (bone structure) has changed – it’s ridiculous! Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  13. TC Ferrito says:

    I know the dress and pattern company you are referring to. Our ASG chapter was asked to help some new sewers with fit. They were all making the same dress together. It was another pattern from this unnamed company and they all had terrible trouble getting it to fit. Lots of problems with this pattern line. They have many devoted customers who don’t seem to know what good fit means. Sad to say but we learn good fit from looking at all the bad fit examples we see online. Read the wrinkles!

  14. Katie says:

    I’m not sure of the pattern you’re referring to, but for me personally I have to reduce shoulder length constantly! I find that, despite going against convention, if I reduce circumference from the centre front/centre back, it actually solves most problems for me. Not sure why that is, but it lets me keep the original armsyce and sleeve which is a LOT easier for me.
    If another person had to reduce shoulder length, and there wasn’t a shoulder princess seam, how should they take the length out?

  15. Ritas says:

    I’ve been thinking a bit about this too. I’ve noticed nearly all of the blogs note that the person makes a forward shoulder rotation adjustment to their pattern. This is especially true of the knit dresses, but also for woven shirts. The common comment is that they must have bad posture, or some other such thing.

    So, I got to looking at real people in ready to wear clothing. Nearly everyone needs a forward shoulder rotation to keep the seamline following their natural shoulder. I’m assuming that’s because the manufacturers (and our lovely sewing pattern companies) are making stuff that will fold well on the shelf. However, humans are not created to fold flat nicely. Expensive jackets (like Armani) naturally have some rotation of the shoulder forward, and it’s reflected in their nice curved hangers in the store. The sad news is that the pattern makers are not accounting for the fact that we sewists are more picky, and like our stuff to fit BETTER than RTW.

    How anyone could have a nicely fitting shoulder when the main measurement is the waist (which in and of itself is not clearly defined in the sewing literature) is totally beyond me.

    I also second Suzanne’s comment that I wish I also had a sewing buddy. It’s never as good with a dress form, even if it was made from a cast of yourself. If anyone is in Massachusetts Metrowest and wants to get together – LMK.

    1. Jessica A says:

      I live in GA. If it wasn’t such a commute I would volunteer in a heartbeat!

  16. JustGail says:

    Yay! for once I know which bad example you are talking about.

    I wonder, which is harder to get right – pants or sleeves. I mean they both have similar issues of 2 cylinders joining at angles, and need a range of motion. Yet, it seems like there’s many more tales of woe with fitting pants.

  17. Audrey says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and instructions on the shoulder width in sewing patterns. I have this pattern too and have made it several times. I have been hesitant in narrowing the shoulders by the same amount as you did, because I thought it was too much and would interfere with the style of the jacket. But making the third one in a wonderful Harrison tweed I decided to do it and it was like a big aha moment. It is now one of my favorite jackets.

  18. Jessica A says:

    I have been sewing for a few years now. Well, three to be precise which is one more than a couple so it qualifies as a few. The entire reason i started sewing was to make a Chanel style jacket. I’ve even worked through a couple of muslins but never actually started the *real* jacket. When I saw your post all I could think of was “Damnit Ann”. No wonder the shoulder/arm/upper bust area was doing what it has been doing. I kept trying an FBA before I did anything else. I’m a 34G so my FBA makes stupid darts and I’ve been fist fighting with fit but now that I’m getting better I feel that it’s been upgraded to an argument. This is why I have so many awesome skirts and wrap tops/dresses but no jackets/shirts/blouses. Thanks for the kick in the keister!

  19. Judy says:

    All right; Ann is too diplomatic to name names, but I feel like I’m sitting in a room watching winks and nods of others in the know. Don’t we all want to avoid mistakes that cost irreplaceable sewing time and fabrics? What if I or another reader have this pattern sitting in queue right now and should be hunting for fixes?

    Would somebody else please spill the beans so Ann doesn’t have to?? Thanks ever so much.

    Nice jackets, Ann, by the way, especially the second one. Thank you for the shoulder tour, it’s a great reminder.

    1. Vernetta says:

      The pattern that was chosen for round 3 of the sewing bee.

      1. Judy says:

        Thank you, Vernetta! I see the threads now. Too bad; the design concept itself looks nice.

  20. Cennetta says:

    Thank you, Ann. Whenever I stop by your blog I learn something. I thought it was me and not the pattern. Lately, I’ve adjusted the length to help make the sleeve fit better. Still working on it though.

  21. SC says:

    Shoulders are always my demise — I have narrow AND sloping shoulders. I’ve done a lot of experimenting with adjustments and sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. I definitely find princess seams easier to alter.

  22. Kate E says:

    Thanks Ann! I thought my shoulder measurements had to be wrong because if correct then I would have to remove 1.5″ from the pattern…..and that couldn’t be right…or could it. I too long for a sewing buddy….my husband does not qualify. I asked him to measure my back length and he told me it was 26 “; I’m only 5’5”. Anybody live near Wyckoff NJ?

  23. Wendy says:

    Just curious if you took the seam in from the princess seam on your jacket. I usually have to take in the shoulders and usually take in the princess seam a bit. Wondering if this is the correct way to do it. Your jackets are beautiful.

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