Whether you’re shopping for new clothes or just going through your closet, are you ever frustrated that something almost fits, but doesn’t quite? You might think your only choice is to give up on it, but all isn't lost. Journey with me into the magical world of alterations, where a bit of thread and some basic home economics skills (or, alternatively, the services of a great local tailor) can save and bring new life to clothes. There's just a few simple things to figure out. 

What part of the item are you trying to alter?

Put another way, are we dealing with the edges of a piece of clothing? It's usually pretty easy to shorten a hem or the bottom of a sleeve, but issues in the middle of a garment up the difficulty level significantly; proceed with caution.

Seam placement

The easiest place to take something in (or out) is usually along the seams, so first ask if the seams match up with what you want to do. For example, most dress seams are vertical, so it's tricky to move the waist on a dress horizontally. On the other hand, if you just want to take in the waist on a dress or shirt and there are seams evenly placed on each side, you can just take in the same amount of fabric on each side and go for it! If there’s only one seam on the back or if there’s a side zipper this will be harder—you don’t want to take it in on just one seam because it’s liable to pull things out of place and make it uneven and uncomfortable. 

Amount of fabric

It’s usually easier to take clothing in than it is to let it out, since you’re getting rid of fabric rather than adding it. If you do think you’ll need to let out a waist or let down a hem, check out the seams. Is there a lot of extra fabric in the seam or hem that you can use? Vintage clothes tend to have great seam allowances, and typically the more expensive the brand, the more it's made to allow for tailoring. If there's not much fabric to work with, is it there someplace on the garment that you could add a complimenting fabric and have it look cool?

Type of fabric

Some fabrics are just easier to work with than others. Stretchy fabrics are very difficult to sew, unusually heavy fabrics can be hard on fingers or your sewing machine, you have to be more careful with very light or thin fabrics that can tear easily, and sheer fabrics will show more mistakes in your sewing. Cotton or polyester blends tend to be easiest to work with.


This may be the trickiest one, but it’s worth thinking about, especially as you get more used to making alterations. Simple construction issues include whether the garment has a lining or multiple layers, which tend to be a little trickier. More complicated considerations are how the garment is put together as a whole. Is the way it’s put together noticeable from the outside—for example, having a pattern that lines up at the seams—so that if you can’t match the sewing quality of the original it might be visible?

While this may seem like a lot to think about, if you start trying out your hand at alterations, pretty soon most of it becomes second nature. The thing that will help you out more than any of these tips is just experimenting. There are also lots of resources that can help you, whether it’s a local sewing shop with friendly people who can give you advice or YouTube tutorials and other online resources. Altering clothes isn’t as intimidating as it might seem. Whether you succeed perfectly or not, that’s the best way to learn.  


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