In which I obsess some more over Square Shoulders

JJ Blouse Shoulder

Emily of Calico Stretch expressed some curiosity about the square-shoulder alteration in this post. A quick google search turned up plenty of tutorials, but none that actually square the shoulder the way I do.

Which may very well mean that I’m doing it wrong, but I figured I’d throw it out there, anyway.

If you look at the photo above, the need for a square-shoulder alteration doesn’t really jump out at you. I certainly never noticed. But see how high the collar sits at the back of my neck? The fabric is firm enough that it just pushes the collar up, but as soon as I move around it starts bunching and folding back there. I don’t always need it, which is confusing, but when I do, it’s a big (if subtle) improvement.

I tend to square the shoulder by dropping the mid-line—shortening the centre. This is much easier to show than describe, so here’s a quick diagram. The dashed lines represent where I would slash and overlap a pattern, although frequently I just try to incorporate it while I’m tracing off a pattern.

Square Shoulder Adjustment

Most of the other methods I’ve run across have you raise the outer edge of the shoulder, rather than dropping the inner edge (eg. Debbie Cook’s excellent little diagram).

So how did I start doing it backwards?

Well, it all goes back to Sherry’s fascinating sway-back analysis. Because while I managed to ignore my square shoulders for years,  the annoying lower-back puddling of *every* piece of clothing I have ever owned had always irked me. Anyway, Sherry does an excellent job exploring the ramifications of the sway-back adjustment (not to mention other fit issues that can lead to “sway back” puddling, of which I have at least two), and ends up, in the case of patterns lacking a waist or centre-back seam, basically adjusting the shoulder to shorten the centre back.

My very firstest Lydia, showing the weird tuck it developed above my shoulder. Some of this was armscye issues, but a lot was the slope of the pattern's shoulder seam. Note how the oogliness extends behind the neck. This shirt was one of my few instant wadders*. I gave it to the kids, who promptly "refashioned" it into shreds small enough that I could trash them without too much guilt.

I started out trying this alteration on my knit sloper, and was startled to find that, while it did reduce the swayback puddling a bit, the single biggest effect was to remove the little bulge of extra fabric I always tend to get behind my neck. I had always thought that the solution to this would be to drop the rear neckline (which is what this alteration does), but I had never related that to squaring the shoulders.

I think part of the reason this method works so well for me is I have a short upper body to begin with.  The last thing I want to do is increase the distance between armpit and waist, which is what the other method—raising the armscye on the side—would do. Obviously you could then compensate by shortening, but that would be two operations rather than just one. (Frankly, I usually shorten on top of the square shoulder, so I’m not actually saving myself time).

Of course, now that I’ve re-read Emily’s actual question, she was asking more about the armscye differences.

Knit sloper (black); Renfrew (red dashed line)

So here’s another diagram, showing (some of) the differences between the two patterns; I ignored the differences in armscye height and waist position/shaping. You can see that, for the same shape of sleeve-cap (which was almost identical between the two patterns), the Renfrew (red dashes) requires less height but more width towards the lower part of the sleeve cap. It would also produce a sleeve that angles down a bit more.

Please note that I am not criticizing Renfrew here—I have no idea which is “better”, if either. I’m just mentioning differences, which may or may not affect things like fit, range of movement, and wrinkling. For example, the downward-sloping sleeve has a somewhat more restricted range of motion than a more outward-pointing sleeve (not a big deal in a knit), but tends to have fewer wrinkles under the arm when the arm is lowered. I’m not even sure how or why the armscye curve on my knit sloper wound up being so shallow.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts about shoulder alterations and sleeve cap/armscye shaping. I’m no kind of expert—just noting my observations. :)

*It often takes me a while—weeks to months—to figure out if an article of clothing is a success or not. Many things I am initially thrilled with end up not being worn, or being worn but not liked, due to some minor quirk of sewing, fit, or styling that I just don’t appreciate right off the bat. I had no such issue with this one: it was awful from the get-go. It (and the four other versions it took me to get the pattern wearable) are the reason I went so hog-wild doing knit pattern comparisons.

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28 Comments

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28 responses to “In which I obsess some more over Square Shoulders

  1. Very interesting. We all have such different shapes to our bodies, subtle differences like this between patterns can have a big impact. Much like each body is different and not bad, each pattern is different and not bad (in a general sense, I’m not forgiving big drafting errors where pieces don’t fit). I’ve said it before, it was a brain shattering a-ha when I found out about FBAs. Solved a lot of my previous “shoulder” issues.

    And I am also a bit like you that it’s like the reverse magic closet. I love most things when first made and sometimes 3-4 wearings in I realize that something doesn’t work. It doesn’t wash up right or there is tugging that I could ignore or is okay if I stand just so.

    • My mom has the same shoulder/FBA issues. When I made her up a Lydia for Christmas, I didn’t have measurements so I just winged it—a few sizes larger than mine, my same petite-alterations. But I went with the shoulder-width for the bust size I was using—it was way too wide. Lesson learnt ;).

  2. Uta

    When I realized I needed a square shoulder adjustment, I took into account that I have a rather slim neck. Thus I don’t pivot or anything, I just leave the armscye as is and square the line (down) towards the neck. The result is that both shoulders and neck fit better. Now onwards to the sway back adjustment…

    • I think I did some like that at one point, but it doesn’t remove the bunching at the back of the neck that is my biggest issue—so I prefer to move the entire neckline down. Also saves me having to remember to adjust the collar as well ;). My neck is pretty average, I think—at least something on my body is ;).

  3. I remember my mom telling me that anyone who thought women didn’t have a good sense of space had never tried to sew. It seems that the complexities of making flat pieces of fabric fit our bodies is a never ending challenge that requires a lot of empirical data and parallel brain processing. In other words, we make that garment, think it looks great and then start (subconsciously?) collecting data to support our suspicion that something is still a bit off. I think I have worn badly fitting RTW for so long that at first I don’t even notice something is off with clothes I make. Once I understand that something is off, the ways that a pattern can be altered seem infinite. And, as you point out, one adjustment throws off another.
    Right now I am obsessing about the area below my butt cheeks (which I think might be impossible to fit perfectly without making pants that I can walk/sit in). Someday I will try to figure out how to fit my shoulder/back/bust and then I will come back to this.

    • I think your mom has a very good point!

      Good luck with the back-of-leg saggies! Other than perhaps narrowing the thigh, I have no suggestions. :(

    • Hi there! I have the book ‘Pants for Real People’, and they address the baggy under the butt cheeks problem. If you haven’t seem this book and are interested, I can send you an exert from the book and some pictures. It seems pretty helpful, actually.

  4. I square the shoulder the same way Uta does, though I’ve never thought of myself as having a slim neck. I just straighten the shoulder seam toward the neck and leave the armscye alone. Of course I’ve had some armscye issues, too. I’ll have to try out your way. I the most issue with my upper back/shoulder fit when I make dresses.

    • It’s funny, the Simplicity dresses I’ve made, the shoulders are fine. If it’s a wide, open neckline I don’t seem to have a problem—just with things that are fairly close-fitting. And have collars. Hmm, now I want to compare the shoulder slope from a basic Simplicity draft to, say, a Burda or a Vogue… hmm…

      I haven’t had too many issues, just this one and the length/petite one. It’s such an individual thing, isn’t it? ;)

  5. Interesting….maybe I have square shoulders too. I never really thought about it before, but they might be a bit more square than “ideal” or “average” or whatever you are supposed to call it. And I know exactly what you mean by taking a while to notice that something’s fit is a bit “off”. I’ve got a sweater (me made) that l love, but the way it makes a little “dart” over each boob just really bugs me….of course, it took me several wearings to notice that. But now I can’t hardly ignore it.

  6. I have square shoulders — why, they are almost as sharp as my pointy elbows — so I think I will come back to this post next time I make a top or dress.

    • Good luck—although depending on your figure, you may be better off with the “conventional” square shoulder alteration ;)

      However you do it, it makes such a big—yet subtle—difference.

  7. I love your graphics…

    Takes me a while to know if something is a “win” or not, too. I had a long period where it seemed like almost everything I made disgusted me after 3-4 wearings… Then I started keeping track of *why* I hated it, and I think my ratio of “ughs” to “ooohs” is improving..

  8. I guess I’ve been doing it wrong, too, as I do it like you do it, but I do it because I have an extremely short torso 5’4″ and I still have to buy tall jeans. Instead of reshaping the armscythe, I sometimes will just shorten the armholes, and have never had issues making this choice, but I think that is because of the shortened torso, too.

    • Well, at least we get long legs for our height, right? I often shorten through the armscye a bit as well—I don’t think I’ve every intentionally changed the overall armscye shape, though, at least yet.

      The piece de grace was when I had to raise the armpit on a Junior Petite pattern. The length was perfect, though!

  9. robindenning

    That is interesting and reassuring to see more mysteries & solutions. I made a sleeveless knit top last weekend by draping it on the the dressform, then fine-tuning on myself. After wearing it once, I came up with another adjustment. Then today I altered a super simple top pattern, and again, there were multiple twists and turns along the way. It is such a journey to really understand one’s own body. Thanks for posting this. We are many, varied and unique.

    • It is quite a process, and I’m not very systematic about it. I wish I had the patience to make one change, make up the pattern, see the result, and then make another change—I usually lump at least three changes into one go, and then I wonder where I went off ;)…

  10. katherine

    I have been comparing cap sleeve t-shirts pattern this week (will post on this later). I cut up a designer tshirt that came with a magazine to compare. Its armscye is more like yours. I sewed it up. I prefer it. The shorter shoulder seam curves around the shoulder bone a little more giving a softer line, rather than a boxy shirt meets sleeve seam.

    • That’s really interesting. I tend to prefer a bit of a narrower shoulder (mine are plenty wide enough already), but I don’t find the Renfrew one excessively wide—nor do I find my sloper-made tops excessively narrow, now that I’m scrutinizing them all again. Of course, for these knits, then you make it up in a different fabric and the whole fit is changed… ;)

  11. Amy

    Oh, thank you for posting these visuals and observations. I’m very fascinated by sleeves and armscye shape/fit, and this is a very clever adjustment! This is just a theory but I wonder if the deeper, or curvier, armscye reduced the width across your upper bust, and forced the extra length upward to your neck? But I went looking through my Fit and Pattern Alteration book (so many good ideas!) and they had an adjustment for “Low Neck Base” that looks almost exactly like what you’ve done here. Based on their description of what a “low neck base” is, I don’t think you have one, but they also say that this adjustment is often used in place of a square shoulder adjustment. Seems cool how it solves two problems in one.

    I finally, finally wore my Lady Grey out after a year and a half. Took me that long and distance to love it. Even then half the time I was thinking about my armpits. I raised the armscye on it a lot, and took out a lot of the cap ease. This is the hardest thing about sewing more and more! That acute awareness of how things fit. Blessing and a curse ;)

    • I didn’t have the neck issue with the Renfrew, because I already did my square shoulder alteration when I first made it—but I do think the curvier armscye contributed to the feeling of tightness along the shoulders. And having too much length through the armscye (in my earlier Lydias) definitely contributed to some nasty bunching-above-the-bust stuff. Which nicely confused the shoulder-slope issue, I’ll add.

      That’s interesting about the Lady Grey (yours is lovely, so I do hope you come to terms with it). I not only didn’t petite that pattern, I think I had to actually lower the armscye a bit, and it’s still quite high. I didn’t find the sleeve ease problematic, either. I do, in hindsight, wish I’d known about the square-shoulder alteration—it doesn’t show with the collar, but the high-in-the-back-of-the-neck feel is definitely going on. I think the only real alteration I made was the big tuck in the gaping lapel, which I think was a “cheater” SBA in practice.

  12. Getting the fit of any garment really spot on is always a challenge.
    I know why your method to adjust for square shoulders is not a common one: most pattern making and alteration theory works using a few ‘standard’ measurements to pick a size: bust circumference for tops and dresses, hip circumference for bottoms. Waist length is another such standard and it is usually assumed that if your waist length deviates from the patterns’, you will adjust this at the ‘lengthen or shorten here’ line before doing any other alterations. A lot of people don’t know or do this, which leads to the high number of ‘mis-diagnosed’ sway-backs you come across on sewing blogs (I’m not accusing you ;).
    Quite simply, any method for alteration will try to stick to its standards, even if that makes the solutions it offers counter-intuitive for the individual seamstress.

    And by the way, there is a whole tradition surrounding armscye and sleevehead shapes. On one end of the spectrum, are tailored jackets: the arms should not wrinkle when hanging down. So they need clearly shaped armscyes and high sleeveheads (which is where sleevehead ease comes in and why one doesn’t always get away with shortening the sleevehead to make setting the sleeve easier). At the other end, the traditional T-shirt was given that name for its shape: the body with the sleeves at right angles forming the letter T. Generally, that sleeve angle is used for sportswear and other easy fitting garments. It’s a sleeve shape which allows for a good range of movement but it won’t look neat and tidy when at rest unless there’s quite a bit of loose fabric at the shoulder.

    • I love your input! You’ve got a good point there, I know there is (or at least, can be) a certain “system” to getting a good fit. I rarely use the provided lengthen or shorten here lines, because it usually doesn’t seem to be right where i need to adjust the length. But then, my approach to “fit” is pretty far from systematic. Which works on an individual scale, but if you were doing it for lots of people I definitely see the advantages of a system.

      You’re absolutely right about the sleeve-cap continuum. I was really intrigued by Pepin’s discussion (in Modern Pattern Design) of the differences in sleeve-cap between different garments—I feel like she goes into more detail than most of the more recent drafting texts I’ve looked over, perhaps because it was more of an issue pre-spandex. Or perhaps I was just reading more thoroughly ;)…

  13. Thank you so much for posting this following my question, which I asked almost flippantly, truth be told. I too am often rather overwhelmed by the number of alterations I should make to get a good fit on simple thing. Which contributes to the “meh” reaction I have often. Anyway, I have read this post twice and bookmarked it for later too. Yes, obsessiveness…

    Your comment about armscye curvature contributing to shoulder fit, and bunching above the bust vs. armscye length, is very interesting too. In fact the T I am wearing as I type (a hack by me) is a little tight across my deltoids….

  14. Joy

    I’ve been realizing more and more how the “square shoulder” is just part of the larger picture of one’s shape and how you do the square shoulder alteration depends on those other issues. If I understand your diagram correctly, I end up doing the opposite: I raise the entire shoulder seam – that adds space at the underarm (if you don’t raise the underarm to compensate) and at the inside neck, which leaves space for a more ‘athletic’ build around the neck. After so many tweaks, I’m happy with my knits with set-in sleeves, but the raglans and wovens need a little more work. At least they’re wearable now.

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