Knitting a sweater is one thing, and a pretty easy thing at that. Fitting a sweater is something else, again. Taking proper measurements is essential, but so is choosing the style. Waist and bust shaping play a part, but sleeve line is a detail most often overlooked and misunderstood. Let’s explore the different kinds of sleeve lines and how they effect the over all look and fit of your sweater.
First, let’s get our vocabulary straight. Here is the anatomy of a sleeve:
Second, let’s look at what sleeves do for the style and fit of a sweater. If you look at human bodies, you’ll notice that our arms are only attached to our torsos at the top. And a good thing, too. The length, circumference, visual width, muscle definition and general curves of our arms, and the proportion to the length, circumference, visual width, etc. of our torsos, particularly across the shoulder and bust, is what gives our upper bodies their natural integrated grace and beauty. Yes, I mean you. All of you. I know, I know. I can hear you all moaning, “Oh, I hate my skinny wrists…fat upper arms…ropey forearms…flab…” Whatever. No matter what you think about your own body, I promise you there is beauty and grace in the integrated proportions of your arms to your torso. And choosing the right sleeve line can enhance that natural grace. Choosing the wrong sleeve line can make the proportions look awkward, and can accentuate the things you don’t like about your arms and your over all look.
Now, let’s look at sleeve types and what they can do for you.
Set In Sleeve
If any of you sew, you’ll be familiar with the Set In sleeve shape. When most sweaters were knit in flat pieces, Set In sleeves were dominant. Set In sleeves can be adjusted for length from wrist to upper arm and in width to the upper arm as well. But they are also the easiest to adjust for fit above the upper arm. By changing the height, width or edge curve of the Sleeve Cap, you can subtly change the fit. The seam line at the point of the shoulder clearly delineates the arm from the torso, and shows off both the length of the arm and the width of the shoulder. The closer fitting the sleeve cap, the more tailored and formal the look. A looser, more relaxed sleeve cap gives a more comfortable, casual look.
Set In Sleeve Sweater
Set In sleeves can work well for every body type, every proportion, every style. They are easy to make when knit flat. Though not exactly difficult to work top down, they are a bit more fiddly. Top down construction will also slightly obscure the seam line that helps to visually separate the upper arm from the torso.
With the popularity of top down, seamless construction, raglan lines have become much more prominent. The Sleeve Cap is a straight line that slants diagonally from the arm pit to some point on the torso, near the neck, and obscures to line where the upper arm becomes the shoulder. Raglan sleeves emphasize the upper arm, making it look bigger and rounder in proportion to the bust, and de-emphasize the shoulder line making it look narrower and more sloping. They make the upper chest look narrower while making the bust look lower and broader.
Raglan Sleeve Sweater
Now, all of those things may be disastrous if you are an amply curvy woman with a large bust and upper arms and average or narrow, sloping shoulders…*sigh* like me. But, if you are slender and broad shouldered with a small bust and skinny upper arms, Raglan sleeves are sent from the Great Wool Goddess to ease your fit issues. If you are somewhere in between, you’ll have varying degrees of success with all the variable involved.
Saddle Shoulder Sleeve
The Saddle Shoulder sleeve is usually a variant of a Set In sleeve, but can also be a variant of a Raglan sleeve. Either way, the Sleeve Cap has a tab that extends from the top of the sleeve, along the top of the shoulder and ends at the neck edge. A Saddle Shoulder sleeve provides sturdy structure for heavy sweaters. The way the stitches of the saddle lay perpendicular to the stitches of the body keep the shoulders from stretching and distorting. In addition, Saddle Shoulder sleeves emphasize the width and squareness of the shoulder while de-emphasizing the upper arm. When applied to the top of a Set In sleeve, the Saddle Shoulder also makes the bust look more compact and proportional. When applied to the top of a Raglan sleeve, the Saddle Shoulder changes the angle of the raglan line and can dramatically reduce the Raglan line’s tendency to distort the upper arm.
Saddle Shoulder Sweater
Set In type Saddle Shoulder sleeves look especially nice on large, broad shouldered men, but they can also work well on women who want a bit of shoulder emphasis. Raglan type Saddle Shoulders work well for women who want a little shoulder emphasis and would also like to de-emphasize their upper arms.
Drop Shoulder Sleeve
At their simplest, sweaters are just four rectangles sewn together to make a tube with two tubes sticking out sideways at the top. And that’s exactly what a Drop Shoulder sleeve is. You take your largest torso measurement, divide it in half and knit a front and a back to that measurement. Then you stitch it together at the top leaving a hole for your head to go through. Then come the sleeves. Ah, the sleeves. We came here to talk about the sleeves. Well. Drop Shoulder sleeves are just what they sound like. The line of the shoulder drops down the upper arm. The top of the sleeve has no Sleeve Cap, and the square, straight edge attaches right at drooping Drop Shoulder line. Drop Shoulder sleeve construction is quick and easy to accomplish, so it’s popular with first time sweater makers. The difficulty is that the larger the circumference of the body section, the further down the arm the shoulder line drops.
Drop Shoulder Sweater
The Drop Shoulder sleeve lines emphasizes the circumference and visual width of the upper arm. Adding a seam accentuates upper arms even more. I am a large lady with a very large bust. The line of a Drop Shoulder sleeve comes almost to my elbow and makes me look like I have ogre and T-Rex DNA that gives me spectacularly sloping shoulders and little tiny arms. I hesitate to mention how the emphasis on my already beefy biceps, coupled with the extra fabric in my arm pits makes me look like I have four breasts. Altogether a very unappealing look for me. However, if you have broad shoulders, slender arms and are small busted, the Drop Shoulder sleeve line can fall much closer to the actual point of your shoulder and give you a casual, deconstructed look that is quite flattering.
Round Yoke Sweater
Round Yoke sleeves are a type of continuous construction that doesn’t really provide a clear sleeve line. Though, if we were to cut off the sleeve portion of a round Yoke, it would be shaped like a Drop Shoulder. When worked top-down, some of the yoke stitches will actually flow right into the top of the sleeve. When worked bottom-up, the upper sleeve stitches flow right up into the yoke without a break. It may be more useful to talk of Round Yoke sleeve flow rather than line. The flow of Round Yoke sleeves depends on the depth of the yoke in proportion to the circumference of the bust and upper arm. In general the deeper the yoke, the more it obscures the demarkation between the upper arm and the shoulder and bust. A narrower yoke can leave room for some bust shaping in the body and discrete semi-Raglan sleeve shaping before the yoke begins. Both kinds of shaping can help keep a defined upper arm area, which is more attractive for all but the slenderest among us. If you are one of the slender, willowy ones, Round Yoke sleeves won’t bother you at all. In fact, they’ll show off your shoulders.
Dolman Sleeve Sweater
Dolman sleeves are another type of continuous construction. With Dolman sleeves, the sleeves are not really sleeves at all. They are a kind of shaped extension of the side and shoulder of the body. They completely obscure any lines or curves that differentiate the arm from the body. They are usually rendered in light weight fabrics and rely on the most prominent features of the body to gently push through and give hints of the shape beneath. Again, slender and willowy can wear Dolman sleeves with impunity. Their angular line will be softened a bit, but shine through with grace. Those of us with more curves that angles will have to be careful of where the curves of the Dolman sleeve fall in relation to our own. A shallow, narrow curve under the arm along with some negative ease in the front can emphasize the bust, and, perhaps the waist, and, depending on how long, de-emphasize the hips.
I have said it a thousand times before, and I will probably say it a thousand time more. Remember, you are under no obligation to dress in a way that other people will find visually pleasing. If a sweater makes you happy and comfortable, by all means, wear it with joy. If you choose to give some thought to fit and style, remember to think of sleeves and how they can make or break a look.