Let’s Give ’em Sleeves to Talk About

Image of a woman wearing a black velvet dress with fluttery sleeves smiling at the camera in front of a wall covered in vine.
This sleeve is sassy!

Do you love T-shirts but sometimes wish that they had a bit more design flair? Or do you have a dress pattern that you like, but it lacks a certain something? Sassy sleeves can add a lot of oomph to an otherwise plain top or dress. Playing with the shape of the sleeves is an easy way to add some visual interest to any pattern.

Turning regular sleeves into puff or flutter sleeves is a pretty simple affair. You will need the original sleeve pattern piece, markers, glue or tape, your favorite cutting tool (I LOVE rotary cutters… even if I am terrified of them!), and a big piece of paper. I use medical pattern paper—the stuff used in offices to cover the exam bed. It is cheap and easy to find, and it lasts for a long time.

Image of materials to hack sleeve pattern: pattern piece, ruler, markers, tape/glue, cutter/scissors, and paper—lots of it!
Materials: Pattern piece, ruler, markers, tape/glue, cutter/scissors, and paper—lots of it!

You will need to cut into your sleeve pattern piece, so I recommend that you trace a copy and use it to fashion your new sleeve piece.

Image of a sleeve pattern piece partially covering a copy done with pink marker on a roll of paper on a green background.
Make sure to make a copy of your original pattern piece

1. Start by drawing a line going from the center notch down to the hem. This line should be parallel to the grainline and perpendicular to the hem (yay, Geometry!).

Image of the sleeve pattern with a pink line from the center notch all the way down on a green background.
The First Line

2. Decide how much puff you want to add to your sleeve. The more volume you want, the more slashes you will have to create. NOTE: It is not a good idea to try to cram a lot of volume into just a few slashes. You are much better off making lots of slashes and adding a bit to each.

3. Once you have decided on the number of slashes, go ahead and draw parallel lines to the first one, keeping the interval between them even (every inch, every two inches, etc.).

Image of the sleeve pattern with pink lines parallel to the grain line used as guide to cut into the pattern on a green background.
Preparing to Slash

4. Cut all the way up each line, but be careful not to cut through the pattern piece. You want to be able to manipulate the slashes, not create a puzzle!

Image of the sleeve pattern showing the pink lines parallel to the grain line cut into the pattern.
The Slashed Pattern

5. Place a large piece of paper under the slashed pattern piece. Glue or tape the top of the slashed piece to the paper.

Image of the slashed sleeve pattern taped to a larger piece of pattern under the pattern.
Use tape or glue to keep the slashed piece attached to the paper

6. Start spreading the pattern, leaving the same amount of space between each section. Make sure to tape or glue each section once you get to the desired shape.

Detail image on the bottom of the slashed pattern with a ruler showing the spacing between pieces.
Spreading the Pattern

7. Tape or glue all the pieces to the paper. If you have used tape, trace around the shape, and peel the slashed pattern. If you used glue or—like me—too many pieces of tape, just trace the new shape to another piece of paper.

Image of the sleeve piece slashed and taped to a larger piece of paper.
Tape the slashed piece to a paper piece of paper

8. Bring the side seams together; then, true the pattern (make sure that the side seams are the same length). Add a notch to make sure that the sides will match when sewing.

Image of the traced pattern piece folded in half with side seams matching to true the pattern.
Truing the Pattern

10. Cut your new pattern piece, and you are done!

Image of the new sleeve pattern piece showing the curved bottom of the piece.
The New Pattern Piece

You can use this sleeve pattern to create flutter sleeves like the ones in the Joni dress. All you have to do is hem the sleeves.

Image of woman with ling black hair wearing a burgundy velvet dress with detail of fluttery sleeve standing in front of trees.
Flutter Sleeve on the Joni

For puff sleeves, gather the hem using three rows of basting stitch or cut a piece of elastic to the length of the final hem and sew it to the hem while stretching the elastic. Then, add cuffs cut to your bicep measurement minus an inch or two—depending on how stretchy your fabric is.

Image of woman wearing a black T-shirt with gathered front detail and puff sleeves and a skirt with red and black polka dots against white standing in front of a white background.
Puff Sleeves on the Austin Top

The best part of a hack like this? You can use it with any knit or woven pattern that you already have. This is a simple, easy, and cheap way to expand your wardrobe without having to invest in a bunch of patterns.

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