Sewing: sleeve

I met a woman this summer who works as a professional seamstress at David’s Bridal or Men’s Wearhouse or some place like that.  She told me that the three most terrifying words in the sewist’s jargon were “ease the sleeve”.

They don’t sound terrifying, do they? They don’t sound like they should strike fear into the hearts of people who regularly risk amputation of chunks of flesh from their fingers with their own scissors, or the constant pricking of long steel pins which may be infected with gods-only-know-what-germs. Yet those words are more frightening than a hot iron close to sensitive fingers, more gruesome than the typical risks we associate with sewing.

What do they mean, those terms, “Ease the sleeve”?

It’s difficult to explain, but once the body of a coat or a shirt is assembled (which is often two or three different pieces of cloth coming together at the shoulder), and the body of the sleeve (which is often two or more pieces of cloth coming together at the shoulder), are both made… they then have to be matched to one another, with … not quite the precision of two orbiting space craft coming together in a docking maneuver, but pretty close. There are usually two — more often three — points on the sleeve that have to more-or-less match other points on the body of the coat or shirt (in this case it’s a coat, so I’ll say “coat” from here on out).  This usually leaves quite a lot of wiggle room for fabric in the spaces between those three spots, which must be alternately ruffled and smoothed out in order to create a smooth transition between body and sleeve. This is usually done by Ease-stitching around the opening of the sleeve, and sometimes the opening of the body.  Ease-stitches are one or two lines of long-length stitches with minimal width, without backstitches to bind them in place, and long strings of thread still attached on either end.  When the long threads are pulled, faint and small ruffles called gathers appear in the fabric which can be smoothed or teased into position — trying to create a smooth-looking, even surface all the way around the armscye, which is a fancy name for the hole which the arm passes through on its way to the sleeve, or from which the arm is withdrawn when you’re taking off the coat.  All of this has to be pinned in place to the DEATH, do you hear me…? No, to the PAIN! TO THE PAIN you have to pin this thing, so it doesn’t dare move so much as a millimeter.  You can then baste the armscye all the way around, unfold the coat to the right side, try it on, look at it, and stitch it more fully in place.

Sounds easy, right? Ease-y there, fella.

The Ease-stitches can break. They did, in this case.  You might lose the position of the key points on the sleeve, or the body of the coat, or both.  I did lose some of them, in this case.  I didn’t get the gathers right.  The armscye sort of partially collapsed during the sewing.  I pricked myself on about a dozen of those pins. And then, when I unfolded the coat and tried it on, it was clear that I was going to have to undo the sleeve, go back to a separated sleeve and body, and try again.

It is a fearful process.  At least it’s slightly reversible.  Once it’s stitched, though, an armscye is pretty much impenetrable.  If you want to alter a garment, check the armscye first — if it doesn’t lie right to your eye now, it will likely never lie right.  My sewist friend from the summer told me that you should never cut seams closer than index-and-middle-finger together, anywhere near the armscye.  


The other process I find frightening is clipping. When curved pieces of fabric meet one another, one of those pieces has to be curved inward, and the other has to be curved outward (I won’t use concave or convex, because these aren’t three-dimensional objects with divots in them, but two-dimensional flat materials cut to form curved surfaces).

When you sew these two curves together, the natural warp-and-weft of the fabric creates weird bunches and lumps along the seam.

Chunks have to be taken out of the seam, either in single clips or in triangular clips.  You just have to be careful not to clip the line of stitching itself.  If you do that,  you’re going to have taken a chunk out of the fabric on the side that shows toward the people around the garment-wearer.

Clipping seems to be an irreversible process, too, rather like Easing the Sleeve. Once it’s done, the garment’s curved lines will lie properly on the wearer.  Without doing it, the garment will always look lumpy and weird.  But once it’s done, you can’t disassemble the seam and try again.  Like an armscye, it seems to leave a seam that’s irreversibly changed and established — to take it apart means that you’ll never get those two pieces to line up again without chunks of the seam’s insides showing through to the outside of the garment.

So there are the two tasks that I tend to fear the most in sewing — Easing and Clipping.  Both of them are unfixable and irreversible, once done.  In both cases, you can’t really tell how the garment will lie on the wearer until you’ve done them.   And in both cases, they’re a bit of destruction and disassembly and damage that is necessary for the completion of the whole.


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