Wardrobe From Scratch, Part 3b: Alterations and Tailoring 101

After one of my posts mentioning tailoring and alterations stirred up a number of questions I decided to dedicate a post to it all!  Consider this like a Section B to the Basic Guide to Proper Fit from the Wardrobe From Scratch Series.

Intro to Tailoring and Alterations
Many people think that it is impossible to find clothes that fit them, and honestly this may be true if you are expecting clothes to fit you right off the rack.  I used to think it was impossible for me to find pants. Since I have disproportionately larger hips and thighs compared to my waist, it seemed that whatever pair I could squeeze my thighs into ended up being too big in the waist.

It was frustrating to shop for pants and I hated the disappointment I often felt, condemning my body for not being “right”–whatever a “right body” is supposed to be like.  Whatever body fits into clothing straight off the racks, I suppose.

Make the Clothes Work for You, Not Against You
Like I said, it might very well be impossible for you to find clothes that fit you straight off the rack, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate a wardrobe that fits you well and flatters you.  One thing Stacy and Clinton always say is that you have power over the clothes.  If things don’t fit, it’s not because there is something wrong with you, rather, something is wrong with the clothes!  And the great news is that we don’t have to take clothes at face value off the racks.  You actually have the power to make the clothes work for you rather than feeling like they’re working against you.

That’s where alterations come in.  Alterations are extremely helpful for those of us who cannot find what we need straight off the rack.  While this is useful for particularly curvy women or petite women, it’s actually true for most of us!  I don’t consider myself particularly curvy or petite and still over half of my pants have been to the tailor.

Even though I mostly only have very simple alterations done on my clothes, I put together a 101 guide to clothing alterations in an attempt to the questions you guys asked.

Keep In Mind
One thing Fran said was, “I’ve never been to the tailor.  I don’t even know how to explain what I want.”  If tailors are totally foreign to you, don’t worry.

Buy garments that are returnable if you are unsure about possible alterations.  You can take the garment to the tailor and they will be able to tell you if what you want to do is possible and how much it would cost.  If they can’t do what you want or it’s more expensive than you’re comfortable with, you don’t have to get the item altered and can always return it to the store.

A Good Tailor Can Help You
A tailor should be able to look at the garment and tell you what’s wrong with it.  Often times I’ll change into the pants I want altered, and without me even saying anything the tailor will look at it and know, “You want to take in the waist?”  “Do you want to hem the pants?”  You can say yes or no, of course.  And whatever you want them to do, they will start pinning stuff.  If it’s too short or too tight or not short/tight enough then let them know and they’ll repin.

That said, I think it’s still important to know what kinds of alterations are possible so that when you’re shopping you can know what your options are.  The following list will be helpful.

What Can Be Altered 
The easiest alterations to make are ones where there’s already a seam.  The more seams a garment has, usually the more possible and flexible it is to alter.

Here’s a quick list to help you know what kinds of things you can tailor.  I broke them up into two categories, the first being easy and common alterations–the cheap and quick ones!


building a wardrobe from scratch

The second category are the ones that are a little more involved.  Garments with lining are not difficult for a tailor, just a bit more expensive for you.  Garments with intricate details may be very involved and much more expensive.  How much more expensive it is depends on how much you want done on the garment and how difficult the seamstress deems it to be.

Note: the rise of the pants cannot be altered, so make sure that fits.  Correction! Someone commented below that it can be possible to alter the rise.  See the comments below for more info.


Identifying Garments to Alter
A couple of people asked questions like this:
  • “If you love a pair of pants and know you’re going to have to get them tailored, do you intentionally size up?” (Kate)
  • “Do I buy pants that are in “my size” but fit weirdly in a certain way, or do I buy pants that I like, but are a couple sizes up so the tailor can cut them down?” (Whitney)
The more alterations you do, the more expensive it gets.  Personally, I wouldn’t buy a garment that is a few sizes too big that I’d have to alter in a bunch of different places.  Instead of completely altering a garment I look for one that mostly fits but that I would need at most 1-2 alterations, particularly from the “easy and common” list, aka the cheaper list.  If the garment needs a LOT of work (read: requires a lot of money to alter), for me, it had better be a one-of-a-kind, can’t-live-without thing.  But if you have such a unique shape that a lot of alterations are absolutely necessary, then factor that into your budget when shopping and deciding on pieces.
Fit the Widest Part of You
What to look for, says Stacy and Clinton, is a garment that fits the widest part of you.  This could be “my size,” a size up, a size down, whatever.  Don’t get me started on how the number on the tag is kind of arbitrary and how we don’t need to be bound by it.  Just pick whichever one actually fits the widest part of you!  From there you can alter the rest to fit you.
For me with pants, I look for what fits my thighs and have the seat and waist taken in.  I have had the seat and waist taken in for all of these pants:
original outfit posts:  one / two / three / four / five
As you can see, I wouldn’t be able to find colored denim without the help of alterations!
If your waist is bigger than your hips or your legs, buy pants that fit your waist and have the hips taken in and/or the leg of the pants narrowed.  Big bust and small waist?  Buy a garment that fits the bust and have the waist narrowed.  Small bust and larger waist?  Buy a garment that first the waist and have the bust narrowed.  Getting the hang of it?  🙂
“If only this one thing were different…”
Sometimes I’ll try on a garment and wish I could change just one thing.  Keeping the “easy and common” list in mind, if it’s possible and the cost of the garment plus the cost of the alteration is within my budget, I’ll go for it.
For example, this dress was like $11 (or something like that) at Forever 21.  I wished it also came as a top.  I knew that since it wasn’t lined the cost to hem it into a top would just be a few dollars, costing me under $20 after alterations.  That was more than reasonable to me!  (Now that I have a sewing machine I would have done that alteration myself, though.)
original outfit posts: one  //  two
I also found these very inexpensive skirts at Forever 21, but they were 3/4 length which looked horrible on me.  “If they were just a little shorter!!” I wished.  Well, thank you Mrs. Tailor for fixing my problem!
one  //  two


Use the Basic Guide to Proper Fit to help you figure out how a garment should fit you.  Having a handle on how things could fit better will help you identify and imagine what needs to change about a potential purchase to look better on you.

Making an Investment
An item like a blazer might require a lot of alterations to fit you perfectly, and while I talked about wanting to do the least alterations possible, sometimes certain pieces are worth investing in.  For example, if you often need to wear a suit it would be a worthwhile investment for you to tailor a nice suit jacket to fit you perfectly.  But still, don’t get one a few sizes too big–still fit the widest part of you and go from there.
Finding a Tailor
There are sooooo many tailors out there that I believe word of mouth is best.  Tailors can be very hit or miss.  I’m lucky enough to live in a city where a lot of people use Yelp.com which helped me find a tailor that I was willing to hedge my bets on.
I would be sure to not only compare reviews from Yelp or word of mouth but also to compare prices.  Prices can vary wildly, yes depending on how many alterations you’re asking for, but they can also vary tremendously for the same service.
I go to a cheap Vietnamese place, so hemming costs like $5, taking in the waist $9, etc.  Other places might be $10-20 for a hem and $15 for the waist.  With such huge ranges, I really recommend comparing prices.  Check their websites or call them to ask how much a few different services are to compare across shops (ie. cost to hem jeans and cost to take in bust).


WHEW!  If you made it this far, you are amazing.  I know it was long, but hopefully it answered your questions on tailoring.If you have other tips on tailoring that I left out, please share them in the comments below so we can all learn!

**For all 6 parts of the Wardrobe From Scratch Series, click HERE.

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