Baby Got Back

The more time I spend sewing my own clothes, the more I get an idea of the adjustments I need to make to fit my body. Some are easy, like adding length to bodices and skirts, but one particular adjustment is really giving problems and I just cannot make the pattern alterations work for me. It's the broad upper back adjustment.

It's only in the last few weeks I realised that this was the adjustment I needed to make. I used to think I just had wide shoulders but when making patterns that are closely fitting on the bodice I always ended up with the same problems:

  • Tightness across my upper back
  • Difficulty raising my arms up 90 degrees or more to my body
  • Tightness at the front of the sleeve
  • A high armscye that seems too small
This was really evident when I made up this vintage McCalls pattern, which I love:

I had all of these problems and eventually I gave up because I didn't know how to make it work. It didn't help that I was already grading the pattern down from a larger bust size, there was just too much adjustment for me to handle. As much as I wanted to crack this pattern and use it as the basis for loads of tops, it was a MEGA FAIL.

Fast forward a few months an the Sewaholic Alma blouse is released. You will see that it's pretty similar to my beloved McCalls pattern. I decided to treat myself to it and make a fresh start.

You know what? I had EXACTLY the same issues.

I traced the pattern, added usual length and wide shoulder adjustments but my first muslin was too tight. I then realised the type of adjustment I needed, with the help of The Fashionable Stitch's post. This was amazing - it was like it was written exactly for me! Sunni has exactly the same problems with the bodice on her closely fitting garments too.

I used her advice to make adjustments to the armhole on the back and the back of the arm and made a second muslin using the adjustments she shows on her pattern pieces.

But it wasn't much better! Still too tight.

 My front bodice pattern piece, with loads of paper additions.

Then, with the help of Fit for Real People, I did a 'slash and spead' thing that you can see on my muslin here:

You know what, it still doesn't feel like enough adjustment! So while I now have a name for the adjustment I need to make I still haven't cracked how to make it work for me. Though I've spent several hours and made 2 muslins I still feel not much closer to cracking the adjustments I need to make. *Sigh* It does feel like some sort of result that I have refrained from throwing it all out the window, though I did go a bit mad slashing up my muslin to see where I needed more room!

So how do I move forward from here? I have been concentrating on other projects to keep from getting to frustrated with this issue. I know I will crack it eventually, given time. I've thought about paying a private sewing teacher for a couple of hours to enable me to make up a sloper or at least to show me how to adjust for my back.

A broad upper back adjustment doesn't seem to be one of the more common adjustments - Do you have this issue with your patterns?

If this is a familiar issue to you I can recommend two online sources:
'How to Fit my Body' on A Fashionable Stitch
Article from Threads Magazine by Sandra Betzina

I'd love to know if anyone has any other help or information sources they can share.

K x

**EDIT: I have written a tutorial for a Broad Upper Back Adjustment, which can be found here.


  1. When I'm back to the UK I will look at my pattern drafting books and see I'd there something there that can help u ..

  2. Oh man I have EXACTLY the same issue and had no idea what it was! So this is very helpful. Weirdly I also have narrow/sloping shoulders, so not exactly sure where to start with alterations. But I always have the issue with tightness and lack of arm movement in dresses with sleeves....

    I did have a look in Fit For Real People but couldn't find much in there.

  3. Mine is in the boobage area and waist, as if I go for a vintage size 18 to fit my bust, the waist is too big and I can never seem to fit the waist properly to give it a streamlined look.

  4. I found out about my broad shoulders when my 2nd Tova ripped ... and while I find the back relatively easy to fix, I'm a bit scared of doing adjustments to the front, especially if there a inset pieces or princess seams.

  5. Can you go up a size for the upper torso and then taper down to a smaller size?

    1. Yes, but I'm still not sure by how much I need to adjust. A case of trial and error I suppose.

  6. Do you use a larger size for the back vs. the front, for example use a size 6 front and an 8 back? You could make your adjustments and then balance the seams so they fit together. Do you have a blouse that fits well in your wardrobe that you can measure and compare to the pattern you're working on?

    I'd be tempted to encourage you to draft your own basic blocks. The text we used in fashion college was Helen Joseph Armstrong's "Pattern Making for Fashion Design". The drawback is it's hideously expensive but it is a comprehensive textbook. Maybe you can find a good pattern making class locally, it's a fascinating thing to you need another way that sucks up your time!

    Good luck with the pattern alterations!

    1. Thanks you! I actually had signed up to a pattern drafting class but it was cancelled due to lack of interest :-(
      I agree that drafting basic blocks is probably the way forward.

  7. Oh well done for persevering. Fitting can be such a bear :( I know you'll get there though!! Hope you find what you're looking for and let us know when you do!

  8. I've had good luck with adjusting for my triangular body shape by cutting a larger size through the back shoulders only and blending. I made a 14B in vogue 8747, and it was tight over the back shoulders. Next version of that pattern I cut a size 20 on the back shoulders, arm syce but tapered back to 14 under the arms to the bottom of the blouse, front I cut a standard 14. I inserted the sleeves flat and just adjusted between the two sizes on the fly as I put it in, used some of the seam allowance on the 14 front arm syce to reduce the abruptness of the change. HTH sarah

  9. Exact same problem! Trying to deal with it now, and looking at the same adjustments. I was at a sewing conference recently and in a fitting seminar. I proposed this very problem and the speaker's solution was to go up a size. While I don't think it's that simple (at all!), being I have a small bust, I might try it and do an SBA.
    I've seen Sunni's solution, and the Real Fit for Real People one and surprised they don't work for you :( Personally, I'm thinking I may just make a sloper instead of trying to negotiate patterns!

    1. Sunni's adjustments did help but it wasn't enough - I must have a freakishly large upper back! I'm leaning towards the sloper /block idea too.

  10. I have the opposite problem and have to do a small shoulder adjustment, basically slashing from the middle of the shoulder straight down the pattern and then horzontally across to halfway down the armscye then shifting the whold section in. Could you try the reverse? Happy to PM pics if you need me to explain my alteration better.

    1. Cheers Liz, that sounds like the same adjustment I tried after Sunni's one but it still wasn't enough. I am going to revisit it eventually, when my frustration subsides :-)

  11. I would make a muslin with princess seams running down the back from shoulder to hem. Or one from the armhole, curving to the hem. These seams really allow for adjustment in the upper back. Once you get a fit you are happy with, you can then try for a darted version, if you prefer.
    I suggest looking for a bodice or top pattern that has those seams, like Butterick 5554 (they seem very rare right now, it was the only one I could find!) Use it to cut a muslin/sloper whatever. It really is easier! :)

    1. Thanks MrsC, that's an interesting idea. Have never made princess seams on the back before but I can see how that would help with adjustment.

  12. I also have the same problems when I make things for myself. I find that my back armhole needs to be longer than the front by over an inch! Typically I like to do 1/2" difference for the masses.
    You may want to play around with the angle of the back shoulder seam. It could be too sloped for you (the biggest symptom of this is the back neck goes up at the center back neck instead of straight).
    Sometimes there is also not enough roundness for your broad shouder blades -doing a dart at the back armhole or shoulder seam could help.
    Also, the problem can be sleeve related. If you cap height is too high then it will make it difficult to lift your arms.
    I know these are a little random and vague, but these are just some ideas to attack the problem with.

  13. Are you sure that it's just that you have a broad back? When I was making my coat muslin I discovered that while I needed a BBA, I also needed to scoop out the armscyes in the front. That gave me a lot of mobility in my finished coat. I'd give that a try, you might just be narrow in the front or have forward shoulders.

  14. Hi, sorry this is quite an old post so not sure if relevant anymore, but I came across this post because I had a similar problem and found this: was the answer - the angle between sleeve and bodice is just too small! I didn't change it the way she did but added 1 inch vertically in the sleeve caps (I got this from this course: , its also described in the first comment on the prevs website). I've only tried this today and suddenly I can move my arms around and lift them!! Its amazing. There's now almost too much room, but I'd take that anytime over lifting the whole dress up as soon as I move my arm (it felt like I was Hulk!). Give it a go if you haven't found a solution yet. I hope it helps! Jasmin


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