making custom shoulder pads

[ a simple shoulder pad improves the line of the left shoulder and sleeve drape. ]

Admittedly, shoulder pads still conjure up images of bad 80s linebacker fashion for most people; self included for a long time. But if you spend any length of time sewing vintage patterns, you probably will start to notice that a large number of patterns from the 1930s through 50s include shoulder pads on their list of supplies needed. This is especially so for the 40s, my favorite era, as the silhouette at that time leaned towards broad shoulders enhanced with padding. While some of it got a bit too wide for my 21st century tastes, many styles from earlier decades do benefit from a bit of help in the shoulder structure. A good illustration is the image above: note that the left shoulder seems a bit more crisp and finished with a shoulder pad underneath, while the right sleeve and shoulder fabric hangs oddly. Even a moderate-sized pad can add just that little bit of "umph" a shoulder line needs, while still keeping within our modern tastes. I'm going to show you how to make your own shoulder pads--which means you can customize them completely--based on vintage methods.

The supplies you need are:

  • cotton or wool quilt batting (I don't recommend polyester for this)
  • muslin/plain cotton
  • paper
  • paper scissors, ruler, pencil
  • fabric scissors, needle, thread, pins
  • sewing machine or serger (opt.)

Begin by drawing a 7"x7" square on the paper. Mark the straight grainline parallel to one edge. Make a dashed, diagonal line from one corner to another.

Cut out two squares of the fabric, and three of the batting (note: I wrote four on the pattern piece, but tends to give a really full pad; three layers is usually sufficient).

Stack the three batting squares atop each other and cut diagonally from corner to corner (following the dashed line made on the paper pattern. I usually just eye this, but you can mark a line if you'd like.). Pin each wedge together to keep the layers from shifting. Trim down each of the shorter sides 1/4". Then grade the topmost two layers on each wedge another 1/4" along the short sides. Repeat another 1/4" on the top layer's short sides. This grades the edges of the batting a bit so there is a gentle build up of padding from the neckline to shoulder edge.

[ the batting inserted into the fabric triangle. ]

[ slipstitching the edges together. ]

There are three ways you can finish the shoulder pad. The first is without the aid of a sewing machine or serger. Press all the edges of each fabric square under 1/8". Fold in half diagonally (mimicking the dashed line on the pattern piece) so the raw edges are inside; lightly press. Place each batting wedge inside the little fabric triangles. Pin together the edges so they conceal the batting. Whipstitch or slipstitch the edges together.

[ pinning the layers before serging. ]

[ the short edges of the wedge have been serged. ]

The second and third methods start the same: Fold one of the fabric squares in half, diagonally from corner to corner (again, mimicking that dashed line on the pattern piece) and lightly press. Place each of the batting wedges inside the fabric triangles. Pin the edges together (if you're using a serger, remember that your pins need to be away from the edges!). If you're using a serger, just sew up one side with the raw edge, cut the thread, and then the other raw edge. You can secure the thread tails with a knot and trim.

[ pinned to sew short edges closed with a conventional machine. ]

[ edges have been straight stitched and then gone over with a zig zag. ]

If you don't have a serger, you can use a regular sewing machine. Straight stitch the raw edges together, pivoting at the point. Switch to a zig zag stitch and stitch so that you catch the edge of the fabric in each stitch. Secure threads.

[ pinning a small dart on the underside of the pad to shape. ]

Usually I find that with a little steam and my tailor's ham, I can start to get the pad to gently curve to the shape of a shoulder. However, you can also take a small dart on the underside of each pad (taking up the fabric only in the dart--see image), to create a downward curve. It's easiest to handstitch this, I've found.

This is how you make a basic shoulder pad. Additionally, you can cover this with a layer of fabric that matches your dress or lining material, which adds to the finish (and keeps the shoulder pad in good shape).

[ pad pinned to shoulder of my dressform. ]

To attach the pads, pin them in place on your garment at the shoulder and try on to ensure that they create a flattering line (adjust if necessary). The long, folded edge should face the sleeve and the point should face the neckline. Hand stitch at the shoulder seam in the seam allowances. Alternatively, if you want the option to remove the pads, add snaps to the pad and shoulder seam allowances.

This is super easy, and as I mentioned, allows for a lot of customization of the shape and amount of padding. But what if you have a sheer dress, or something with puffed sleeves? Up next I hope to discuss how to create a gathered sleeve head to support the fullness of a sleeve--stay tuned for that!


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