Posted on January 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Oh the poor over-maligned set-in sleeve. I so often see knitters on Ravelry dismiss a sweater as a possible project for themselves because of the set-in sleeves. I am sympathetic to the seaming averse, but they are missing out on the most universally flattering sleeve construction for human bodies, and it is really not difficult at all to seam up. Skeptical? Let me talk you into giving it a try with some photos (of varying quality) that I took while putting my Van Doesburg Pullover together last summer:

As you can see, the geometry of a sleeve’s cap and a sweater arms-eye don’t immediately look like they belong together, but with years of home sewing behind me, this looks very familiar.



You have two curves, one on the body and one on the sleeve, that appear to contradict each other, but once you sew those together, the flat lines make a beautiful three dimensional shape that hugs your underarm, and eliminates all the extra fabric that often plague the fit of just about all the other forms of body-meets-sleeve encounter. Meanwhile up top, you have the straight line of the shoulder versus the half-circle of the sleeve cap.



What to do? Lash those together, and you create a beautiful curve that defines your shoulders, and again, with a minimum waste of fabric: slimming and pretty.

In the approach that I always sew the set-in sleeve, I start with the sleeve itself. If you knit the sleeve as a flat piece, sew up the seam, and lay it flat like you see here. If you knit it in the round, you’re good to go. Place markers in two places: one at the center line at the top of the cap, and the second at the fold line of the underarm. These are your mid points to match up with the shoulder and underarm seams on the body.


Match the markers to the body, so that the right sides are together. I like to put the sleeve inside the body, with the body turned inside out. With the Van Doesburg Pullover, you also have the stranded pattern in place to provide additional visual markers for where things match up. On any sweater without such built-in help, you’ll need to ease the edges between the markers together in such a way that all is even. But you’ll find that a gauge-on sweater from a good pattern will go together with the click of a well-made box.


As you can see from my photos, I like to use Goody mini clips to hold my seams together. You can pick them up in the hair notions aisle at your local family pharmacy-like superstore. I also have a lot of orchid clips in my notions box for over the years. They work just as well. Failing that, I believe Susan Bates makes a similar thing for which they charge a “It’s Pink!” premium.


So everything is ready. Now here’s my big eureka: Start at the shoulder. Why? Most critical point in the sleeve since it’s on display at all times, and everything flows from there. I often have a long tail left over from my three needle bind off, so I use that to start down the front.


Use a mattress stitch to sew the seam, and while you don’t have to be scrupulous about passing your needle twice through every stitch (I only do it about 70% of the time), you do want to keep your seam line along the vertical stitch line. It’s a very good idea to check the right side every few passes, especially on visible areas, to make sure you’re making a pretty seam:



Here you can see the seaming thread as it passes from one side to the other . . .



and here you can see what it looks like snugged up, in the finished seam.

Keep vigilant about the prettiness of your stitching all the way around, move the clips as you need to, and before the end of your Downton Abbey episode, la dee da, you have yourself a beautifully set-in sleeve: