Sleeve designs can be a little bit intimidating. Drafting them is kind of a science on its own, and it's hard to imagine what shape you need to start with if you have no prior experience with patterning them yourself; trial and error is usually inevitable, and if you don't have the time to commit to it, it'll probably never get done. That's why we're bringing this All About Sleeves post to you!
Whether you're looking for a shirt sleeve pattern but can't seem to find the right one, or you want to make custom sleeve patterns for yourself, we think the information here could at least help you get started. We've drawn up a chart and images of a bunch of different types of sleeves used in fashion and costume sewing for you to use as a reference, as well as descriptions, notes, and tips for drafting them on your own! Knowing the shape is half the battle, and combined together with a little math and measurement, the task should be a lot more manageable for you!
Below, we have each sleeve type highlighted as well as a magnified image of the comparison between what the sleeve will look like as its pattern piece versus what it will generally look like finished on a person. Take a look and see what sleeve types you might want to try drafting patterns for!
Ahh, the t-shirt sleeve! One of the three "basic designs" of sleeve patterns. It’s good to have a t-shirt sleeve pattern handy at all times (making it out of something sturdy like cardboard or poster paper is a good option) so you can use it as a base for other sleeve designs.
This type of sleeve is short by design and can be finished at the end in a number of ways, though t-shirts usually just have the hem folded under and sewn down for the cuff.
CUFFED SHIRT SLEEVE
The CUFFED SHIRT SLEEVE is another staple of sleeve patterns that you should familiarize yourself with. It’s basically just a long version of the T-SHIRT SLEEVE, but the shape is a little less squared (though you could certainly make the shape of the sleeve straight, if you wanted to!) and the sleeve tapers just a little towards the cuff. The sleeve should be gathered a bit when the cuff is added, too.
This sleeve is one of my favorites, since it plays with shape and weight on arms!
If you look between the images for the BISHOP SLEEVE and the T-SHIRT SLEEVE, you’ll notice that the BISHOP SLEEVE’s shoulder has a narrower shape. This adjustment is intentional; it helps the shape of the sleeve fit closer to your shoulder.
The sleeve also flares out smoothly down the length, and the design has a much wider cuff than a T-SHIRT or CUFFED SHIRT SLEEVE. BISHOP SLEEVE designs are gathered at the wrist, which is the reason for the flare. The wider, bottom hem is gathered like in the photo and is attached to a cuff piece. The BISHOP SLEEVE cuff.
The BELL SLEEVE design is pretty similar to the BISHOP SLEEVE; it has the same narrower shape to the shoulder, and the cuff hem is also flared, but the difference is that the sleeve shape itself is squared. See in the picture how the lines are parallel to each other until the flare starts? That’s the “square” shape. The flare is also a little more exaggerated in this design, too. This is what gives the BELL SLEEVE its "bell" shape!
BELL SLEEVES do not gather at the wrist either. The cuff is loose and flows at the wrist. It’s a very elegant design.
The BATWING SLEEVE is the only one of its kind in this guide; this type of sleeve is not separate from the bodice of the garment. See in the picture how the bodice pattern piece flows as one into the shape of the sleeve? That’s intentional. Instead of a single seam lining the underside of the arm, there are two seams, one above and below the arm, in the final product. The seam lines of the bodice will line up with that of the sleeves.
The design also has a curved shape for under the arm and is intended to be worn loose. The hanging fabric here gives the design’s “batwing” look.
These types of sleeves are flexible in terms of length so long as this batwing shape is maintained. In our example, there is a long, fitted cuff, but you could make a shorter or longer cuff or sleeve. The choice is yours!
In comparison to the T-SHIRT SLEEVE, the PUFF SLEEVE is wider at the shoulder and even wider at the cuff hem. With this design, the cuff must be gathered to fit nicely around your arm so you will the puffed shape.
PUFF SLEEVES are incredibly cute and look best on a fitted bodice!
¾ SLEEVE/BRACELET SLEEVE
A ¾ SLEEVE design should look familiar, because it’s the same as the T-SHIRT and CUFFED SHIRT SLEEVES, the only difference is the length of the sleeve itself. ¾ SLEEVES usually stop halfway down the forearm and can be either the squared or tapered shape (our images show the tapered design).
Fun fact—this type of sleeve is also called a BRACELET SLEEVE, because it’s short enough so that you can show off bracelets that you’re wearing!
PETAL SLEEVES are unique in that their shape is created by overlapping a two cut sleeve pieces. These can be short or longer, but they often have a tulip-like look to them.
The shape of the shoulder is a gentle slope and the two pieces basically mirror each other when overlapped.
Big and flowing, CAPE SLEEVES are given their name because it actually looks like you’re wearing a cape! The pattern shape for sleeves like these are huge and very wide. Think of a 45-degree angle coming down from your shoulder. They’re great for exaggerating weight and volume, or for wrapping yourself up in your favorite fabric.
DROP-SHOULDER SLEEVES are a fairly subtle alteration. They’re usually just an extension of the shoulder line on the bodice pattern piece—not from the sleeve itself. If you look carefully at the picture, you can notice this distinction!
This type of sleeve is great for pajamas and sweaters, because the cut is usually loose and unrestricted, making for a comfortable lounge shirt!
BUTTERFLY SLEEVES are a larger sleeve and look like butterfly wings when you lift your arms! They’re great when made with fabrics like knits that are loose, and they give your look a very elegant and petite touch.
Similar to the BUTTERFLY SLEEVE, FLUTTER SLEEVES are like a shorter version. They have a similar shape to the top of their pattern design, but they aren’t as long and are usually cut a little wider. This is another elegant and petite style you could go with for warmer weather!
These types of sleeves are cut like long rectangles and are usually gathered in multiple segments. The shoulder line is set very wide and shallow, too, which will give your sleeve a big and billowing shape from the shoulder all the way down.
Elastic can be used to help maintain the shape of these segments, or if kept looser, something stiffer like trims or ribbons.
You’ve probably seen a shirt with RAGLAN SLEEVES somewhere, right? These are incredibly comfortable for lounge shirts since the cut of the sleeve is loose on the shoulder. The shoulder's hemline of the sleeve is different from others, because it reaches all the way to the neckline. It’s often a similar length to the ¾ SLEEVE.
FLOUNCE SLEEVES are a combination of a ¾ SLEEVE and a circular pattern piece that has a similar shape to a circle skirt. Think of it like a mini circle skirt, but for your arm! The actual sleeve can range in length, and so can the “skirt,” so this design can go a lot of ways!
Wide at the shoulder and tapered down to the wrist, LEG-OF-MUTTON SLEEVES get their name from looking like a sheep’s leg. The final look of it has a large puff around the shoulder and narrows down most of the arm and to the wrist. The puff is mostly at the shoulder and does not continue down.
The pattern shape for POET SLEEVES isn’t as wide as a CAPE SLEEVE, but it does have a bit of an angle, so it’s kind of in the middle between a CAPE SLEEVE and a MARIE SLEEVE. And similar to the MARIE SLEEVE, it is gathered just above the wrist, but only once, to give a bell-ish shape to the top of the sleeve.
POET SLEEVES also sometimes have an uneven shape at the wrist, kind of like a wave, to give it a flowing shape when finished!
SLIT SLEEVES are exactly what they sound like—sleeves with a slit down the center. These are an open-type sleeve that are a lovely option for revealing shoulder designs. This design flows very nicely, too.
Take the pattern shape for a MARIE SLEEVE, draw in a narrower shape for around the shoulder, and cut it down the center to get your two pieces!
TIERED SLEEVES require a little bit of work, because—like the PETAL SLEEVE—you need to work multiple, overlapped pattern pieces. Four pieces, to be precise.
In the picture for the TIERED SLEEVE, you can see the four different pieces, all longer than the last. You can sew them all together as one big piece along the sides for a more stable shape or sew them together at the shoulder for a looser flow for the tiers.
Perhaps the tiniest sleeve of all in this compilation, the CAP SLEEVE! Obviously, this sleeve is very short, just a little lip coming out from the shoulder hemline. The pattern shape is very wide and has the slightest, gentle slope to it.
It’s size usually doesn’t range, and its pattern shape is pretty unique as well. It’s a design often use for t-shirt-cut designs.
And there you have it! Some of the most common types of sleeves used in fashion broken down. There are other sleeve types available, but hopefully this is enough to help get you started and have an easier time planning how to draft out your sleeves! Have you made any of these yourself before reading this article? What other sleeve types do you think would be useful to know about? Leave some comments and share your knowledge and projects!