How to Sew the Arm Hole of a Dress

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Making sleeve holes and sleeves is fun and easy!
Making sleeve holes and sleeves is fun and easy! (Image: Photos by Marielle Messing)

One of the trickiest parts of constructing an otherwise simple blouse or dress is sewing the arm holes. Even when you are working from a pattern, matching the sleeves correctly to the bodice or shirt can be a challenge. Never ruin your sleeves again by following these simple tips.

Things You'll Need

  • Pattern for a dress, shirt, or other garment requiring arm holes
  • Garment, otherwise complete but for sewing the sleeves
  • Sewing machine
  • Thread
  • Bobbin
  • Thread clippers or scissors
  • Thread ripper (optional)

The easiest way to make a garment with arm holes (not to mention a hole for your head and neck) is to work from a pattern that creates a front and a back and brings them together. Note that when you line up the front and back pieces of your garment, the arm holes should not match up perfectly! This is especially true for women's shirts and dresses, because the front is designed to fit your bust. Instead, with right sides together, match the sleeves up at the notches specified in the pattern and pin the pieces of fabric together at the shoulder seam and at the side seams.

Sew along the pinned areas at 5/8 inches (or the seam allowance indicated in your pattern). When you open it up, you will have raw edges where the sleeves open up.

If your garment is sleeveless, you can create a narrow hem by folding the raw edge over (toward the inside of the garment) and then folding it over again, pinning at the seams and key curves. Carefully sew along the narrow hem and you are done. If your garment has sleeves, read Section 2 to learn how to attach them.

At the point where you are ready to attach sleeves, you should have completed the steps above as well as sewed the sleeves along the hem that will go under your arm. (Before sewing, the sleeve will resemble a snail, with a strip of fabric that has a bump in the middle where the shoulder bends.) The only unfinished part of the sleeve should be the raw edge at the top where the sleeve must be connected to the garment .

With your garment inside-out (right sides together) and your sleeve facing right-side out as it will when you wear it, match the notches of the shoulder seam to the notches on your garment's arm holes. In most cases, it will not matter which sleeve goes on the left or right side, so long as the notches match up.

Pin at the seams and notches, as well as any curves that you feel uncomfortable sewing without a pin. Sew the raw edges together with a 5/8-inch seam allowance and clip the curves. You'll know you did it right when you turn your shirt or dress right-side out and the sleeve is the outside, just like a dress you'd buy at the store.

The arm hole with attached sleeve inside of your garment should look like this.
The arm hole with attached sleeve inside of your garment should look like this.

Take the other sleeve and repeat Steps 2 and 3. Congratulations! You now have a shirt or dress with sleeves.

Tips & Warnings

  • Make sure to put darts in the shirt or bodice as specified before attempting the sleeves. For maximum flexibility, clip the curve of your sleeve holes (only with sleeved garments) by making tiny snips along the bottom under-arm curve. Be careful not to cut the thread! The sleeve holes are an ideal place to use a serger, if you have access to one. Otherwise you will have raw edges at the arm-hole seams of your finished garment.
  • Pay attention when attaching the sleeves. I can't tell you how many times I've sewed sleeves on backwards because I mix-up which pieces should be inside-out. Remember: Garment inside-out, sleeves right-side in. This way, when you bring the sleeve and garment together, the right sides will be together, which is exactly what you want.

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