How to make a bell sleeve top, a pattern transformation made easy

bell sleeve topThe focus of this tutorial is to teach you how to transform an existing pattern to adapt it to the bell sleeve top design.  It's time to use the patterns you already have and learn how to alter them to come up with different outfits.

bell sleeve topThis tutorial works best if you're modifying the sleeves on the popular High-Low T-Shirt free pattern that we recently released.  However, if you're more practiced in pattern alteration, you can do this with almost any top pattern.  You can download the pattern for the High-Low T-Shirt here if you've not done so already.

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I have chosen the bell sleeve style because it is very easy to make and it's going to be trendy this spring.

We're going to look at two options of the bell sleeve design today.  The first is the classic, long bell sleeve which is shown in the blue print fabric and the second is a shorter bell sleeve with gathers which is shown in black with white stripes.

bell sleeve top

(There's another bell sleeve top style with ruffles or flounce which I will show you in a future tutorial.  You can see this style in a pattern we released a while ago called the Faviola Summer Dress.)

bell sleeve top

A bit of history about the bell sleeve top:

The bell sleeve was made famous when it was adopted by the European monarchs for example: (Queen Mary of England Ann of Cleves) in the 1530-40's.  The sleeves were made with extraordinary length and tied back to the upper arm by sashes revealing underneath a false sleeve which was then embroidered with jewels and fine silks.

As with all things in fashion, the trend comes back every 20 to 50 years, as shown here on this 1920's exquisite design.  You can clearly see the sash around the wrists, a lovely interpretation of the fashion of the 1500's. 

Tools for today's tutorial

Option One: making the classic, long bell sleeve

bell sleeve topCut the sleeve pattern the size needed and cut away the seam allowance (3/8″) and the hem (1″).  Divide the sleeve pattern into six parts as indicated by the red dotted lines below.  Mark the position of your elbow.  Do not draw or cut on the grainline. Pin the pattern to a new piece of pattern paper.  Cut to the edge of the cap of the sleeve but not through and spread the pattern.  How much spread?  You might ask, the norm is 1.5″ per gap.  This is where you have to exercise your designer license and decide how wide you want the bell sleeve to be.  Because I don't want my sleeves falling into the soup, I will only spread to double the width of the hem.  Retrace the cap of the sleeve on the new piece of pattern paper and draw a smooth curve at the hem using your French ruler.After you trace the new sleeve on the paper, fold at the middle, and check that the side seams are the same length.

Finally, add back the seam allowance, if using the Hi/Low T-shirt it is 3/8″.  For the hem, I will add the same (3/8″) since I am planning to have a very small hem.

If you want an even more dramatic appearance you may want to taper the side seams of the bell sleeves.  Just sew in about 1/2 inch at the elbow.


Option Two: Making the short bell sleeve with gathers

bell sleeve topAs with option one, we're working with the High-Low T-Shirt pattern.  However, you can follow along with another pattern if you're feeling adventurous.  Just make sure it is a lightly flared or A-line style and that the sleeves are close to your body.

Print the sleeve pattern and trace a copy on the pattern paper.

Using the tape measure, measure from your shoulder to two inches above the elbow (1) as indicated by the red arrow below.

Mark this measurement on the pattern using a ruler and cut.

Measure the circumference of your arm and compare this measurement with the pattern.  If your arm is larger than the size you have chosen, add the difference divided by 2 on both sides of the sleeve plus the ease (3/4″ to 2″ ease).  This is measurement number two (2) below.

Create a new piece B that is the same width as piece A, and 7″ in length.  We will be working only with A and B pieces, so you can discard piece C.  Remember we are shortening these sleeves.

Take piece B, which is the same width as piece A and divided into four equal parts.

Trace the pattern piece on a new sheet of pattern paper and extend the horizontal lines both top and bottom.  Spread and pin the pieces to a new piece of pattern paper to double the size of the original piece using the horizontal extended lines.

Trace the new pattern piece for the ruffle around the pinned pieces.  Add 3/8″ seam allowance on the top and 3/8, at the bottom for a very narrow hem.

You are now ready to make two different tops with only one pattern.  The first is a fantastic High-Low T-Shirt with classic, long bell sleeves which would be perfect for going out to dinner or a movie.  The second is a fun top for the summer days or even wearing to work.

And, before you ask I will take you step by step on how to alter the neckline of the Hi-Low T-Shirt to turn it into a fun summer top as shown in the image below.  Please stay tuned!

bell sleeve top

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28 Responses to How to make a bell sleeve top, a pattern transformation made easy

  1. Leena says:

    Thank you, Mayra. Your explanation is so clear and easy to follow. May I ask if there is a pattern for the black and white striped version blouse?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      I Leena I have made the blouse from one of my master patterns, I have not shared it because I need to grade it and was not sure people would be interested. You are the first to ask.

  2. Joan says:

    I am really happy to see these sleeve transformations. I am almost finished with my first high-low tee shirt. I need to figure out the hems for the sleeves and bottom, as I don’t have a serger and can’t get a double needle to work. But I love, love, love the pattern!

  3. Margaret says:

    How ca I print a pattern i’m Interested in?

  4. Ali Niazi says:

    Thanks for this great tutorial nice tips.

  5. Anna says:

    Hi there, I love your hack of the original high-low top. Wondering if it would be suitable to make the black and white striped version in a woven rather than knit fabric? If so would you need to make allowances in the pattern?
    Also, on the black and white version have you changed the hemline?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      HI Anna, the best thing to do is to print the pattern the size you are and one size bigger. Then compare it with your measurements. I would pay attention to shoulder width, sleeve width, and bust measurements. I muslin would be able to tell you whether it will work or not. The black and white one I shorten the length of the top and rounded it up.

  6. M B Pazdernik says:

    Thanks for verifying 2:1 ratio for ruffle.

  7. whitehorse says:

    wow, am really enjoying the tutorials, and i pray to catch up quickly. cos i am just a beginner

    • So Sew Easy says:

      Keep practicing. I’m sure you’ll progress quickly. Regards and happy sewing, Mayra

      • Katherine Fox says:

        Mayra, I’m a beginner too and I love this site. You give great step by step instructions, with images, so we don’t have to guess. I have a question. How long does it usually take a beginner to sew a shirt like this to completion? I know everyone is different, but I’d love to hear a “rough estimate” from a pro like yourself. Thx, Kathy

        • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

          Hi, Katherine, it should take you as long as possible to do a good job. I know perhaps is not what you wanted to read, but if you are a beginner you should aim for accuracy not speed. Having said that this is easy and should take you between 1.5 to 2 hours, assuming you know your machine and have all the right material ready including the pattern transformation.

  8. Mem says:

    Thank you for your tutorial. I try to make the black and white .

  9. Val Clements says:

    Hi Mayra, love the add on ruffle and the bell for the High Low T-Shirt. I am definitely trying the ruffles first then I will do the bell. Thank you so much for sharing. Happy Sewing Val ??

  10. Sue Heap says:

    Oh thank you! I have just printed out the hi-low top pattern. I’ve not tried this kind of top before so your instructions are very welcome and then I followed the links to the bell sleeve adaptation! I have muscles on my arms and often tops fit tight at the bicep. Now I have a way to change that. I will try one of each, at least. Thank you!

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  12. Donna G. says:

    Thanks so much for the wonderful tutorials! You always do such a nice job. And your daughter is gorgeous!

  13. susan says:

    Thank you very much for your through insturctions on these two projects. This is exatly what I was needing for a friends wedding brides maid dresses. Thank you! Love your blogs.

  14. Mary W says:

    Thank you. I love this trick. Is that your daughter? She’s a beauty!

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Yes Mary, thank you. I force her to wear my cloths, not always happy but I give her “allowance” when I can take a picture for the site. Otherwise no allowance :}

  15. Lisa says:

    FANTASTIC tutorial! I have done the first alteration before but your explaination is much better that how I was taught! (Same process just a much better description. ) thank you for this and your cute high-low pattern!

  16. Deb M. (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) says:

    Mayra, you are such a great lady. Learning a lot about pattern drafting and alterations. I’m starting to try different styles and saving money – not buying as many patterns. Thank you 🙂

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Deb, I think your money is better spent on nice fabrics. Keep in touch, I like to hear about your sewing journey.

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