Monday, September 23, 2013

Altering for Narrow Chest and Butterick See & Sew 5203 Tunic

I've often mentioned being narrow in the shoulders and upper chest, and some commenters have asked me to elaborate on my method for altering for this issue. 

Big disclaimer: what I am describing today are some strategies I have tried and what seems to be working for me now. Like many of the sewing bloggers I follow and learn from, I don't have any particular training in pattern drafting. I only have the standard-issue level of interest/obsession, plus some insights gained over the course of my sewing career, which included a very helpful stint working in a fabric store.

Please let me know if you have a different method or a critique of mine!

So. I am pretty short at 5'2", and I seem to be fairly evenly proportioned top to bottom. I don't have an especially short or long waist, or short or long legs. The length of my arms is in proportion to my height. But where I deviate is in the shoulders and upper chest. Though I have a fairly full bust (though modest in comparison to what it was in younger days, thank goodness), my upper chest is unusually narrow.

For years I tried to correct for this problem using the advice given for "Narrow Shoulders," which basically boils down to removing width at the edge of the armhole, from midway up the armscye through the shoulder.

Singer Sewing Library The Perfect Fit

Palmer & Pletsch Fit for Real People
The problem with this method for me is that it removes the most width at the top of the shoulder, and very little, if any, at the middle of the chest. It makes my garments fit too tightly at the shoulder and upper arm, but they still gap at the neck. And it gives less coverage at the upper edge of the neckline of the garment than the original width of the shoulder did (because the neckline is pulled to the outside), often exposing my bra straps.

The owner of the fabric store where I worked, Lucille, finally made me see the light. One of the first measurements Lucille takes on a new client is the width of the chest above the bust, from armpit to armpit.

This is very difficult to photograph! But the upshot is, my armpit to armpit measurement is 11 1/2".

Now we compare my measurement to the pattern. This is a Butterick size 8, which I know from experience is too wide for me, even though pattern's circumference measurement corresponds to my high bust measurement. From the seamline (marked with red dots) to the center front fold is 6 1/2", or a total width of 13 inches. Since I am only 11 1/2", the pattern is a whopping 1 1/2" too wide for me from armpit to armpit. Thus, I need to remove 3/4" per side.

Unaltered pattern is 13" wide from seamline to seamline at the armpit. I need to remove 3/4" per side.

I draw a line from the middle of the neckline to a seam that is not the armhole and is not the center front fold. The shorter line you see here didn't actually help this alteration on the front, but it did on the back.

Cut from the neckline to the very edge of the garment on the long line, and then (unnecessarily in this case) from the first cut line to the very edge of the neckline, leaving a tiny hinge at both seamlines.

Overlap front cut edge toward the center until I have the armpit-to-armpit width I need, which in this case is 5 3/4" (half the finished width of 11 1/2").

Move small triangular portion to give the smoothest neck curve. In this case the change to the neckline is too great for the triangular piece to be able to compensate for it entirely. Tape all pieces into place.

Using a french curve (or drawing freehand), reshape neckline. Trim pattern.

Now the back. I also need to reduce its width. I can draw my line from the neckline to the center back because there is a center back seam (not a fold). Moving the excess width away from the center back is good because it makes the center back seam more curved, which fits better over the curve of my upper back.

Cut and overlap. In this case I am simply eyeballing the amount, knowing that I need a similar amount of reduction in the back as in the front.

Slash from the cut line to the edge of the neckline. Angle the resulting triangular piece up until the neckline curve smooths out. Tape in place.

Do you see how this alteration lets me remove the width I need at the center of the chest while retaining all of the coverage at the shoulder? The length of the shoulder seam did not change. The width of the body below the chest did not change. Only the width of the chest and the width of the neckline changed. Obviously any facings, plackets or bindings that involve the neckline will also need to be altered accordingly.

I chose this pattern to demonstrate this alteration for two reasons: first, I wanted to make it anyway! and second, I thought it would be easier to demonstrate on a very simple garment. I have used this method on more complicated shapes, including wrap styles and gathered styles. The principles are the same: draw a line from the neckline through a garment edge which is neither an armhole or a fold. Slash and overlap until the width of the chest corresponds to your armpit-to-armpit measurement, plus seam allowances. Tape in place. Reshape neckline. Finished.

Over the course of the last few years I have learned that I can use a size 6 or size 8 bodice pattern without requiring any length adjustment. Perhaps if there is a smidgen of extra length, it gets taken up by my bust. Generally I taper outward one or more sizes from the bottom of the armhole through the waist, and I don't require any additional FBA. Sometimes I do need to shorten at the center back, though, depending on the style.

I really lucked out on the striped sleeves and cowl! I wanted something other than the dot fabric to tone down the 101 Dalmations vibe, and I thought my only option was a solid black. When putting away some laundry, I saw a little Ann Taylor waterfall cardigan my mom had bought me last year. Though I liked the stripes and the fabric, somehow the cardigan just wasn't me and I had rarely worn it. The sleeves were cut from either cardigan front, which were already pieced in this chevron.

The cowl is made from the entire back piece of the cardigan. A cowl takes a surprising amount of fabric.

A very quick tunic, and I think it's so cute! I did shorten the length 1", and otherwise used the size 8 throughout. This is so voluminous there was no need to size up through the waist and hips. Wouldn't you agree that the bodice would be much too sloppy if it were 1 1/2" wider from armpit to armpit?!


  1. Thanks for this clear explanation. I use this armhole to armhole measurement to choose my size. I'm 14 inches--a little wider than you;) -- and that happens to be the size I need. I found this out from a Nancy Zieman tip on choosing the right pattern size. It worked for my daughter, too, even though she is narrower than I am. Your tunic is cute and will be great this winter.

    1. Angela, good to know that Nancy Zieman mentions this method for selecting a pattern size! I know I have seen it in print (maybe in her work and maybe also elsewhere), but it doesn't seem to be the most common advice. I envy your 14 inches!

  2. Very clear instructions and most helpful. I like your tunic top and the stripes with the dots look great together.

  3. Thank you for this technique, I have a small bust, narrow chest and broad shoulders! I always do a broad shoulder adjustment but haven't look at this one yet. I will use it in future.

    1. Ingrid, that's an interesting combination of fitting needs! Be glad of those shoulders. It's wonderful to have some bone structure for garments to hang from.

  4. Cute tunic. I'm also 5.2 with narrow shoulders. Your technique is similar but different to the one I use. Lately I've taken to drafting from a standard block rather than patterns - with terrific results.

    1. Great point, myfabrication--working from a personalized block would also make this alteration very clear and quick. Do you use a tuck rather than cutting a slash line?

  5. Thank you for this great tutorial! I usually fix the narrow chest problem the lazy shoulder way, but if I'm ever ambitious I'll try it. Very cute tunic!

    1. Thanks, Trena, but I have to protest! You really are the opposite of lazy and unambitious. This works better for me especially when there isn't much of a shoulder seam to begin with, such as on a wide scoop neck or something with a shaped front yoke. If I reduce at the shoulder edge, I can wind up with an inch long shoulder seam. Very weird!

  6. Your top came out darling! I have that pattern too and the same alteration books.

    This method is by FAR the best I have seen to adjust for a small upper chest and neck. I have Pamela's Pattern tee #104 that I have morphed into a princess seam sleeveless top (the princess line is going into the armhole about midway). The pattern allows for a petite armhole even though I am not petite in height (5' 6"), I am short from shoulder to bust and not that wide across. I cut my pattern based on my upper chest measurement.

    The bust and shoulder line is fitting perfect but the neck and upper chest is too big. The neckline wants to gap and the upper chest is cutting into my arm crease, grrr. It is not terrible and I don't need as big as an adjustment as you, (13" across upper chest and 12.75" across upper back).

    Have you done this adjustment on a princess line? I am concerned about the short distance from the neckline to the bust seam-line. The center front and center back is cut on the fold, so will the straight of grain be effected? How far down should I draw the line from the neck to what...below the bust or waist? The pattern piece is really narrow since the apex to apex is 6".

    If you have done this on princess seam would you be willing to post it? A visual is worth a thousand words.

    Thanks for any help that you can offer, excellent post!

  7. so helpful! i'm struggling with this issue when using princess seams. any advice? thanks so much!

  8. Thank you for your excellent advice and great photos.
    Looks like you have solved my constant dress-making problem with narrow shoulders so I shall give this a try!

  9. How could you achieve this on a v-neck top

  10. These are the best instructions I have found on how to do this. I am trying to make a gown for a Christmas party and this part was driving me up a wall. Thank you gor saving my sanity! Lol

  11. I’m definitely going to try this adjustment, I often find that the neckline gapes but tops fit at th shoulders, tried a fba which didn’t really solve the issue.

  12. I’m definitely going to try this adjustment, I often find that the neckline gapes but tops fit at th shoulders, tried a fba which didn’t really solve the issue.