Bell Sleeve Top

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Bell sleeves are one of the largest fashion trends of the year. This tutorial will walk you through sewing your own lightweight, jersey knit top that's perfect for summer or fall. The process is deceptively easy! This project is a great way for beginners to sew their first pair of sleeves or work with a new material, as knit is very stretchy and forgiving. Even better, you can knock this out in a weekend -- I worked for about 6 hours spread out over two afternoons.

Step 1: Gather Supplies

You will need:

  • ~2 yards jersey knit
  • Fabric scissors
  • Measuring tape
  • Fabric marker or chalk
  • Sewing machine
  • Newspaper or pattern paper, if you prefer making a paper pattern before cutting

Wash and thoroughly dry your fabric before beginning to cut or sew.

Step 2: Cut and Sew Sleeve Base

The sleeve consists of two parts: a standard sleeve from shoulder to elbow, and a half circle bell from elbow to wrist. To construct one sleeve base, cut a rectangle parallel to the selvage edge. The long edge should be on the fold.

The rectangle width is the distance between the top of your shoulder and your elbow plus two 5/8" seam allowances; the rectangle length is the circumference of where your arm attaches to your shoulder, plus two 5/8" seam allowances.

Knit is a very tricky fabric to cut. Try using weights to keep everything in place, and don't worry about cutting perfectly, as this flowy shirt is very forgiving.

Next, we need to angle the top of the sleeve to compensate for the extra fabric needed to cover the shoulder. Measure about 4" from the sleeve shoulder end and cut a diagonal line between the shoulder top and the armpit as shown in the second picture.

When all cutting is complete, pin your sleeve right side to right side and sew along the underarm. Repeat to form a second sleeve base.

Step 3: Cut and Sew Bell

The iconic bell shape comes from either a quarter circle, half circle, or full circle piece of fabric. I used a half circle for each sleeve, but you can alter this as you wish to be fuller/less full. The radius of your half circle should be roughly the distance from your elbow to wrist plus a few extra inches to be adjusted at the end. To form circles without a pattern, I like to stick a pin through my tape measure and anchor it into the carpet, then rotate the tape measure and mark the fabric as I go. Cut out two of these half circles.

Next, cut out a smaller half circle for the sleeve inset. Pi times the radius of this circle must equal the circumference of the elbow end of your sleeve. Find the radius with the equation:

radius = elbow circumference / 3.14

Cut out this half circle just as you did the outer edge.

Finally, sew the straight edges of the half circle together, right side to right side, to form the bell.

Step 4: Assemble Sleeve

You almost have a full sleeve! Attach the bell to the upper sleeve by inserting the (right side out) sleeve inside the (wrong side out) bell as shown in the first picture. If your pieces aren't exactly the same circumference, it's okay to gather the larger piece until they fit together perfectly. Sew the pieces together.

Step 5: Assemble Body

Now that you have two complete sleeves, it's time to create a body. The body is essentially one giant rectangle with arm holes. First cut a rectangle with width equal to your shoulder-to-shoulder measurement times three, and length equal to your top-of-shoulder to hipbone measurement. The short side of the rectangle should be parallel to the selvage edge so that the fabric stretches correctly.

With the right side of the fabric facing up, fold the two edges inward so that the fabric is divided into even thirds. The two top panels will overlap, but do not sew them together. Pin the two uppermost corners and make 4" seams to attach the front piece to the back piece. These will be the top of the shoulder seams.

Next, cut sleeve holes by aligning your upper sleeve with the top of your body rectangle. Simply make a thin cut (starting underneath the shoulder top seam) that is the same height as the sleeve. Repeat on the other side.

Finally, attach the (right side out) sleeve to the (inside out) body by inserting the sleeve through the arm hole as shown in the last photo. Sew along this armpit edge.

Step 6: Finish Edges

You're almost done! Prevent your inner edges from fraying by trimming them down to 1/2" or less, then serge or zig-zag stitch along every raw seam.

Step 7: Press

Don't underestimate the value of ironing your garment. Iron your shirt thoroughly on low for a much more professional final product. Make sure the knit is laying flat with no rolls before ironing.

Step 8: Wrap and Secure

If you prefer a shawl look, you're done! To complete the wrap shirt look, wear the blouse and hold the two loose front rectangles in each hand (image 1). Wrap one side around your waist, tucking the upper edge of the rectangle inside the shirt to form a triangle as you go. Then wrap the other piece over the front (image 2). Have a helper safety pin both ends to the back of the garment once the top feels as tight as you want (image 3). Remove the shirt and sew the edges down where they are pinned.

Alternatively, you can sew a few extra inches of fabric to these loose ends and tie them in a bow, if you prefer to wrap your shirt every time. You could also use velcro or snaps. If I were to redo this shirt, I would use the bow method, as the sewn edges get confusing when putting on/hanging up the garment.

You're all done! I left the sleeves and bottom edge raw, because knit fabric is my hemming nemesis. Feel free to leave the edges raw, hem them, or finish them with bias tape or pom-pom trim.

Hand wash if possible, or machine wash on delicate to preserve the lifetime of your new shirt.

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