Shirt & Blouse Fitting Series Part 2 - Proper Shoulder Shape

Your Best First Impression

Step 1A: Properly Fitting Shoulders

Part 1 - Shoulder Shape

The majority of men will opine that the most important aspect of a shirt is the collar. Women cite proper fit of the bustline & neckline. Neither could be further from correct. The overarchingly critical component of any top garment is the design of the shoulder.

In blouses and shirts the shoulder piece is called the yoke, atop which sits the collar and from which drape the front, back, and sleeves. Unless the shape of this "hanger" is correctly designed in relation to the shape of the wearer's shoulders, no degree of fussing with the other parts will serve to provide a proper and attractive fit.

Why is that? Akin to DNA or fingerprints, virtually no two persons have the same shoulder shape. Consider for a moment all of the possible differences using the following criteria:

  • Shoulder Slope: Explained in great depth in This Article, this is the downward angle of the shoulders from their center to the arms.

  • Shoulder Curve: Shoulders are rarely straight. I can't recall seeing one in 50 years of tailoring. Shoulders can curve forward or rearward - or neither to any great degree - and can also curve differently on the left and right sides.

  • Neck Placement: Necks have a myriad of variations and can be a tailor's nightmare. A hole is provided in the yoke for attaching the collar.
    1. The first and most important variation is where the neck is placed on the front-to-back axis. Some are forward of center (called 'head-forward'); others rear of center (called 'head-back'). And at times the neck may actually be in the center!
    2. The second aspect of the neck, in some cases extremely important, is whether it is in the center from left to right.

  • Neck Shape: The neck is usually thought of as being round. I've yet to see one of those. They are actually oval in shape. Though it would be quite convenient to temporarily remove the head and document the neck's exact shape, I have received considerable resistance to this technique over the years.
Properly Fitting Shoulders - An Animation
The animation demonstrates the major differences in shoulder shaping. The transparent blue shapes are the shoulder piece. The red outline overlays show the "normal" shoulder shape to offer comparison with the shape variations. The best way to view is to watch solely the woman a couple of times and then the man. The woman is demonstating the normal, forward, and backward curvature of shoulders. The man is showing the normal, forward, and backward neck positions and the special adaptation for large shoulder blades. Having difficulty with the animation? Scroll down for large still shots ... or click here to open a SuperSize Animation in a new window.

In this basic overview of the importance of the shoulder piece, I'll explain - mostly visually - the primary criteria of shape. Suffice it to say that designing for the secondary criteria mentioned above is self-evident as follows:

  • If the neck is left or right of center, move the collar hole to the left or right a corresponding amount.
  • If the neck can be discerned to be not the usual oval shape, reshape the hole as necessary.
  • If the shape of the left and right shoulders are different, shape the left and right yokes differently!

As for the primary design criteria ... If the shoulders curve forward, the yoke must be designed to curve forward. Rearward curve? Rearward yoke. Different curves? Different yoke curves on each side. Large shoulder blades require a different method. Here, the rear side of the yoke must be curved (enlarged) outward to allow extra room for the blades.

OK ... CONFUSING! I get it. It would take thousands more words to try to convey this verbally so let's get to the visuals. Here's what you need to know:

  • For context, the Master Pattern Image shows the placement of the Shoulder Pieces.
  • The transparent Blue Shape is the yoke in each circumstance. It is outlined with a black border for visual clarity.
  • The superimposed Red Outline represents the shape of a "Normal" yoke and is provided so that you can see each shape's differences.

Master Pattern Showing Shoulder Piece in Blue

Master Pattern

For those who would prefer to see each frame in still mode, click any of the thumbnails below and a large view will open.


The first iteration illustrates Average Shoulders and Average Neck Placement on both the woman and the man which, solely for purposes of explanation, I shall term "Normal". Note how the yoke line fairly matches the line of the shoulders.


The second illustration shows the woman with forward curving shoulders and the man with his head/neck forward of center. Note by comparison to the red "normal" yoke outline that the woman's yoke has been curved toward the front. The change in the man's yoke is harder to spot. Look carefully at the hole to which the collar will be attached. It has been moved forward of where the average hole shows on the red "normal" yoke outline.


The third photos show the woman with rearward curving shoulders and the man with his head/neck farther toward the back. Note that the woman's yoke has been curved toward the rear. The change in the man's yoke is again hard to spot. Again, look carefully at the hole to which the collar will be attached. It has been moved rearward of where the average hole shows on the red "normal" yoke outline.


In the final frame, the woman's shoulders and yoke have returned to normal. The man is shown to have large shoulder blades. Here the change is easy to spot. The rear side of the yoke has been curved outward mirroring the outward curve of the shoulder blades ... and the neck hole is normal.

Properly Designing Shoulders - Image One Properly Designing Shoulders - Image Two Properly Designing Shoulders - Image Three Properly Designing Shoulders - Image Four
Click Any Image To Enlarge Then Click the Four-Arrow Icon To Supersize
That's pretty much the whole of it as far as a general overview. When it gets to the specifics of each person's body shape, combining the various elements can become a bit more complex. And to add an important caveat, the old "more than one way to skin a cat" applies here. Suffice it to say that when it comes to creating attractive bespoke shirts, each tailor will have a different manner of accomplishing their goals. As this is a difficult concept, I would be happy to answer any questions you might have. Just contact me here.

A bit of Q&A to answer the most frequent questions on this subject:

Q: Which is a better design - the One Piece Yoke or the Split Yoke?
A: The Split Yoke is traditionally seen as being of higher quality than a One Piece. There are a number of reasons for that which will be evident in some of the following answers. The two-piece yoke also allows "chevronning" - creating an attractive "V" or "arrow" shape in the center where the two sides join - which cannot be accomplished with the one piece construction.

Q: How are all of the above shape alterations affected by whether a one-piece or split yoke construction is used?
A: Picture this: One shoulder curves forward 1" and the other curves forward 2". When the asymmetrically designed one-piece yoke is placed upon the fabric for cutting, one side will curve forward off more stripes than the other. Though the shirt will fit well, the asymmetry of the stripes will show, often glaring at the beholder as a mistake. With the split yoke, the same effect can be achieved by cutting the yoke's center seam at an angle. This will effectively curve one yoke forward more than the other while allowing them to be placed similarly on the stripes.

Q: Can the various yoke designs in the photographs completely handle all of the shoulder shape variations?
A: No. If the variations are greater in degree than a redesigned yoke can accomodate, other pattern parts may need to be altered. Take, for example, the illustration of large shoulder blades. If they are only a bit larger than usual, the yoke change is sufficient. If they are very large, a similar additional curve must be added to the top of the back. Although the entire addition could be added to the yoke it would become quite obvious. Splitting the addition between the two pattern parts will serve to conceal the alteration.

Q: I don't see a yoke on my jacket or coat. What's up with that?
A: In many jackets and almost all coats, the yoke is split into two parts. Half is added to the top of the front pattern and the other half to the top of the back pattern. Although this construction works for these heavier outer garments, it offers nowhere near the number of possible shoulder shape accommodations as can be had using a yoke.

Q: What is the root of the difference between shirt/blouse tailors and outerwear tailors?
A: There is a basic difference in philosophy and approach in play here:

  • The goal of a shirt/blouse tailor is to conform to the shape of the wearer's body while using various techniques to conceal unwanted characteristics and enhance desired ones.
  • The goal of an outerwear tailor is to change the shape of the body to the one desired by the wearer using chest padding, shoulder pads, and other techniques.

As always, thank you for reading. Questions gladly answered here.

Copyright © 2019 Alexander S. Kabbaz - All rights reserved.