Alteration Failures: Better Left in the Store or Returned

Late last year, I launched a series on the topic of alterations.  I began with some thoughts from my private Facebook group on the pros and cons of having our clothes tailored and some of their personal alteration experiences.  In a follow-up post, I shared a selection of my alteration success stories featuring skirts and dresses.

Now it’s time to look at the flip side of the coin, those times when tailoring goes wrong.   Sadly, I can recall many such experiences, so many that this is just my first post on this topic (there will be at least one more).  Some of what I have to say is embarrassing, but my hope is that recounting my alteration faux pas may help save you money and grief.

Alteration mistakes

Prevention is the Best Strategy

The best way to avoid alteration failures is to know which items should either be left in the store or returned for a refund prior to having any tailoring done.  For some of you, this is probably a no-brainer.  Many women don’t have any alterations done to their clothes, while others will only have the most basic jobs done, such as hemming pants or shortening sleeves that are too long.  If you belong to this group, you don’t really need to read this post, although you may still find it interesting in the same way that you stop to gawk at an accident along the road.  Sometimes it’s hard to look away from the misfortune or mishaps of others.

Others may view my alterations disasters as a sort of cautionary tale, a “what not to do” scenario. This is the group of readers to whom this post is addressed.   You see, alterations can be a wonderful thing.  As I shared in my success post, a bit of tailoring can make the difference between an annoying, unflattering garment and one that fits so well that we forget what we’re wearing and get on with our day.   However, the serenity prayer should be taken into consideration when it comes to alterations:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The only modification I would make to this missive would be to change “cannot” to “should not.”  While it’s possible to alter many aspects of our garments, it’s often too costly or risky to do so and the end result may not be what we expected. In such cases, the best thing to do is just say no and leave the item in the store.  In the case of pieces ordered online, a return should be done, even if there’s a shipping fee involved to do so.

Ill-Advised Alterations: Some Common Reasons

When looking at my personal examples of alterations that should never have been done, I noticed that virtually all of these items fall into the following categories:

  • Resale purchases
  • Sale items
  • Gifts
  • Garments purchased online for which a fee would be charged for returns

In the case of resale purchases, there’s usually just one given item available in one size, so if it doesn’t work for you, that style option is out. This can lead to “magical thinking” about what’s possible in the way of tailoring.  I’ve often stood in a fitting room grabbing onto pieces of fabric on an ill-fitting garment and mentally reworking the item.  This is when a red danger sign should come on!   If more than one alteration is required, the risk factor increases and the word no should enter our minds.

The same phenomenon can occur with heavily discounted pieces.  We may rationalize that we’re getting a “deal,” so why not spend some extra money to get the garment to fit us perfectly.   Sure, it works out sometimes, but again it’s chancy to take on too many nips and tucks, not matter how gifted your seamstress may be (even if this person is yourself!).  

If we’re given something as a gift which doesn’t work for our bodies, there are several possible courses of action.  First, we can let the giver know there’s a fit issue so that a return or exchange may be made.  Alternatively, we can pass the item on to someone else or donate it to charity.   Lastly, we may decide to pursue alterations, but this is where we need to be honest with ourselves and not try to work magic on a piece of clothing.   While most garments can be taken down a size, this may not be advisable if too much needs to be done, as is often the case with highly tailored items. Again, the more alterations that need to be made, the greater the cost and risk will be.

These days, I try to only do e-commerce orders when free shipping and free returns are offered.  In the past, however, I frequently purchased clothing online for which both types of fees applied.  If I’d already paid to have the item shipped to my house, I was reluctant to send it back and incur yet another fee.   This frequently led me to pursue alterations to try to make something work when I had no business hanging on to it.  If I’d only been honest with myself about the alteration success potential, I could have saved myself the agony of paying still more money, only to have the garment not work out in the long run.

Personal Examples

It’s helpful to keep all of the above considerations in mind when deciding whether to keep something and try to alter it, return it, or pass it on (in the case of a resale purchase that can’t be returned).   The examples I offer below should help to better drive my points home.

ill-advised alterations

I altered these items when I should have left them in the store or returned them.

  • Asymmetrical dress: I found this dress in a resale store last year.  It was probably two sizes too big, but it ticked several of my key style boxes:  black and white, stripes, and asymmetry.  I had the straps shortened and both the top and bottom parts taken in. After wearing it once, I returned to my tailor to have the waist taken in further.  I still have the dress, but I don’t love the way it looks on me.   It will likely be moved on for donation or consignment soon.  I only wore it twice and spent far too much money on alterations.
  • Black double-breasted coat: Back in early 2013, I really wanted a black coat, but most of the selection online and in the stores had been picked over by that point in the season.  I managed to find a coat I loved online, but it was only available in a size smaller than what I typically wore.  When the coat arrived, it was too snug in the shoulders.  I stupidly opted to have the shoulders let out, but there wasn’t enough fabric available to allow for a comfortable fit. I wore the coat several times – uncomfortably, only to consign it not long afterwards. So much wasted money when I should have returned it and moved on!
  • Leopard print cardigan: This sweater was a gift from a friend about four years ago.  At the time, I was really into leopard print, but this cardigan was both too boxy on me and the wrong base color for my complexion (beige is probably my worst color!).  Ignoring the latter, I had the sweater taken in.  The fit was good after the alteration, but the color never was.   I wore the cardigan once (see the photo below), only to realize that it made me look deathly ill.   In retrospect, I should have graciously thanked my friend for the sweater (it was a “hand-me-down” from her closet) and passed it on to someone else.
  • Striped maxi-dress:   Again, I fell for the siren song of black and white stripes, this time on a clearance rack.   Straps on dresses are often too long for me (and shortening them works out well, as I detailed in this post), but there was more wrong with this dress than a simple strap shortening could fix. My tailor tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen, as I had wanted a striped maxi-dress for a long time but failed to find one long enough for me. After the straps were shortened, the dress still looked “off” (as evident in the outfit picture below).  There was a construction error in the top portion of the dress. I wore it just twice before donating it (perhaps it would fit someone…).  I should have left the dress in the store!  Failing that, I would have been well-served to listen to my wise seamstress.
  • Tribal print open cardigan: This cardigan was a gift from my mom several years ago.  It was too big and boxy on me and should have been returned for a smaller size or exchanged for an alternate garment. But I didn’t want to have to tell my mom that the cardigan was a “miss,” so I opted to try to tailor it instead.  It just didn’t do well with being tapered at the sides, as it was not made to be a fitted garment. After being altered, the cardigan made my hips look larger than they are, so I never wore it.  Both my mom and I wasted money unnecessarily on something that should have never been kept.
  • Cobalt cotton pants:   I love cobalt almost as much as I adore black and white stripes and I’ve long wanted pants in a color other than denim or black (it’s hard to find other colors in the long lengths I need).  So when I saw these pants online back in 2012 – and on sale, I had to snap them up.  But when they arrived, the fit was off in multiple places:  the waist and hips were too big and the pockets bulged out in an unflattering way.  Clearly, the style just wasn’t for me (the pants barely fit in the thighs, so sizing down wasn’t an option), but I stubbornly tried to make them work instead of making a return.  I think I only wore the altered pants once. They didn’t look good and weren’t comfortable, either.  I still don’t have a pair of colored pants in my closet…
  • Long purple open cardigan: I ordered this cardigan from a small U.S. sustainable manufacturer.  I liked how it looked on the model, who was about my size and shape, so I took a risk, knowing that free returns were not part of the deal.  Although I ordered the recommended size per the size chart, the cardigan was way too big for me.  I stubbornly did not want to pay the shipping fee to do a return or exchange, so I tried to have the cardigan tailored instead.  There was just too much fabric and one side was baggier than the other.  Even after two alterations, the cardigan never looked right on me.  Although I’m tall, I still looked like I was drowning in it (photo below, but it looked more voluminous in person, I promise).  The color was beautiful and one of my favorites, but I never felt fab in the sweater, so I passed it on after just a few wears.
ill-advised alterations - outfits

A few outfits featuring items that I should have never altered!

Conclusion

It’s sad to recount so much foolishness and so much waste, but I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten smarter about alterations as time has gone on. Yes, I still make some mistakes.  After all, the dress on the left was purchased less than a year ago and I’ve even erred in terms of tailoring this year.  But I have improved and I do leave things in the store far more often these days.   Writing this post will likely help me to do even better and I hope it will help some of you as well.

Alterations are like many other things in life.  A little can be great, but there is such a thing as too many alterations, much like we can consume too many sweets or spend too much time on Facebook.  None of those things are bad in and of themselves and social media and alterations can be useful tools.  But taken to the extreme, they can be counterproductive to our lives.

I don’t want to discourage any of you from tailoring your clothes.  I just want to help prevent you from going overboard like I did.  If you’d like some additional tips on smart alterations, I invite you to check out these earlier posts on the topic:

Your Thoughts?

Now I’d love to hear from you!

  • Have you ever done the types of ill-advised alterations I wrote about above?
  • Have you purchased items and tried to virtually re-make them rather than leaving them in the store?
  • Have you pursued alterations against the wise advice of a tailor or your own better judgment?

I invite you to share your alteration failure stories and what you learned from those experiences.  Not only can you help save others from such errors, you’ll also help me to feel less alone.  In addition, I welcome any tips you have on how to determine what should and shouldn’t be tailored.  If I receive enough useful feedback on this topic, I may opt to publish it in a future post.  I know there is a lot of wisdom in this community, so please share away!


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Comments

  1. I’ve certainly had my share of alteration mistakes in the past. It went along with the peak of my compulsive shopping (2011-2013). I stopped getting clothes altered since 2014 and since 2016, the only things I’ve been altering are t-shirts and I’ve been wearing all of them. It helps that alterations where I live are expensive so I can’t justify buying something cheap and have the alterations cost twice as much as the garment unless I am certain that I will wear the said garment often. This aspect certainly helps me to decide if something that doesn’t fit me perfectly in the store fitting room to put it back on the rack instead of purchasing it. This realization only came into practice after making 2 years of expensive mistakes with multiple garments. I always have to remind myself out loud in the dressing room that there will always be something else that fits better when I am contemplating buying a garment I love but doesn’t fit perfectly.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      I just had an epiphany when I read your comment, Wendy! I need to start tracking how much I spend on alterations! While my tailor is not as pricey as yours seems to be, I know the amount I spend really adds up. I have some idea of the overall amount I spend per year (although I pay for some of it with cash and that amount gets lost), I can see the value of tracking how much the garment cost and how much I spent on alterations. A potential spoiler is that I often get alterations done down the line in the lifespan of a garment (mostly because I’m a perfectionist) and don’t think too much about those expenditures. I plan to do a future post on “throwing good money after bad” and it would be stronger if I knew just how much money I have spent in that arena.

      I spent the most money on alterations during my peak overshopping years, too, but I feel I still spend too much on this now. Good for you for learning from your mistakes and for only pursuing wise alterations now. I need to remind myself out loud in the dressing room, too, that there WILL be something else that will fit better and I need to let some things go!

  2. I have trouble finding pants I always have that weird gap in the back from the waist. If I go down a size to fit the waist they are too tight in my thighs. I have a great tailor that takes in the waist and usually have great success even with jeans. There have been only a couple of times when I can’t wear them because it has left a pinched look in the rear, so I have learned not to choose pants with a gap too large and I always factor in the amount my tailor charges me to the cost of the pants when I buy them

    • Debbie Roes says:

      Sounds like we have the same issue with pants, Linda. My experience has been similar to yours in that the waist alteration usually works out. But like you, I have learned that if too much is taken in, that pinched look can occur. I factor in the alterations fee for pants, too, but it’s usually totally worth it for me because pants are do difficult for me to find. In case you’re in need of jeans, I have found that Lucky Brand tends to fit me well in the waist with little or no tailoring required. Now if I can just find pants that work as well, that would be wonderful!

    • My greatest success has been with taking in the waist on pants and skirts — and I really study the construction to ensure that this is a possibility BEFORE I buy the garment. I used to sew my own clothes many, many years ago, and thus learned what can be easily altered and what is tricky (shoulders, necklines, sleeves, pant rise, etc.). I used to have a fabulous person who did alterations — but no longer, so I am am now especially finicky about alterations. I’ve had suit jackets altered with various degrees of success (nipping in at the waist, taking in the back, etc.). Men’s clothes (upper end) are designed to be altered; women’s generally aren’t. Rats!

      • Debbie Roes says:

        Having the sewing experience probably helps you a lot, Dottie. If you have some tips as to what to look for, I’d love to know what they are (and I’m sure others would, too). That’s unfortunate that men’s clothes are designed to be altered and women’s aren’t. I’ve learned alot of hard lessons along the way in terms of alterations. I’m trying to just stick with the more straight-forward alterations these days!

  3. Have you ever done the types of ill-advised alterations I wrote about above?

    For some unfortunate ladies like myself and that gal from the “Alterations Needed” blog, alterations are a way of life. I think I’ve made all the mistakes mentioned and far more. I learned how to sew in order to alter my clothes myself because I could no longer afford to have someone do it for me. I ruined so many items in the beginning, I don’t want to even think about how much money I basically threw away on my home alterations. Let’s see, I know I’ve ruined at least 7 pairs of pants, definitely one dress, definitely a skirt, a coat (that hurt), and I forget what else, but there are many more examples. To be honest though, my tailor didn’t have a great batting average either.

    Have you purchased items and tried to virtually re-make them rather than leaving them in the store?

    Definitely. Many times. I now demand more out of my clothes (gotta be a 9 or 10 fit-wise) but when I was first starting to build a wardrobe, I basically flailed around for a couple of years, collecting a massive wardrobe of ill-fitting, uncoordinated items. Now that I have defined my style through obsessive Pinterest pinning and capsule wardrobing and the like, I now can tell much better what I can alter to fit well versus what I should just leave behind. But I had a ton of casualties, so you’re definitely not alone.

    Have you pursued alterations against the wise advice of a tailor or your own better judgment?

    I remember a pair of $200 pants that I thought were so great for some reason, even though I realize now they didn’t fit me at all. My tailor was not as honest as yours and was happy to take my money. I think I wasted probably $250 on those pants and they never fit, LOL.

    Fast forward to present day though and I have a great little wardrobe where everything fits well. Every single item is secondhand, so perhaps the risk was a little lower for me to experiment with alterations, but in my case, the story has a happy, well-coordinated ending.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      Jane, thank you so much for answering my questions and sharing your experience! How wonderful that you have learned how to do your own alterations. I’m sure it’s totally natural to have some failures in the beginning stages of learning to do tailoring. I don’t want to think about how much money I’ve wasted on failed alterations, either!

      I like your guideline that clothes need to be a 9 or 10 fit-wise for you to buy them. What types of alterations do you do these days? Only simple things like hemming and sleeve length? My most common alterations are letting hems out and taking in waists on pants and the sides of tops and jackets (I have broad shoulders and a narrow torso). Those alterations are usually successful unless I’m trying to have TOO much taken in. I’m sure I have had at least a few experiences like your expensive pants 🙁 We live and learn (hopefully!).

      I’m so glad your story has a happy ending and that you now have a wardrobe you love. I’m getting there, but continue to make mistakes that annoy me. Writing these types of posts helps to drive the lessons home, though, and I hope helps others to avoid walking down the path I’ve tread with “the dark side of alterations.”

      • Here’s the most successful alterations I’ve done. It was a long road figuring out what worked so hopefully this will help someone.

        Hemming of pants (I only wear pants and jeans, no skirts) and slimming of the legs. Secondhand market is full of wide leg trousers, which I hate. I also have to take in the waist on a lot of pants. As long as the pants fit well in the crotch area (fit has to be a 9-10), the waist and hemming will work out.

        I actually do not like to change sleeve length, mostly because it’s too obvious when I screw up. I would leave that to a professional. I have done it a couple of times where I know I’m going to roll up the sleeves anyway. I am pear shaped so I do slimming the waist and I like slimming very wide sleeves because my arms are very scrawny (wish my thighs would follow suit) and the slimming is not detectable on the outside. The length of the top and fit at the shoulder has to be a perfect 10.

        I’ve altered all of my coats. Since I’m smaller on top than bottom, I typically add a dart to the chest area or take in an underarm seam a bit so it’s not “deflated” looking. I have also changed out buttons and picked off excess decorations. I’ve also hacked a foot and a half off the bottom of an ankle length coat to make it knee length. The editing is typically invisible on the outside (except that time I strangely decided to cut off the collar). Fit at the shoulder has to be perfect 10 or else it’s not worth it.

        I’ve altered almost all of my suits. I am one size on top and another on the bottom. I do the same alterations as I do for other types of clothing: slim the jacket either with darts or taking in side or back seam and also take in the waist, slim the legs and hem the pants. I only have shorted the sleeves once, will probably not do that again. Again fit at the shoulder has to be perfect 10 and fit at the crotch has to be 9-10, sleeve fit should be 9-10.

        Bear in mind that I am OCD perfectionist. My sewing projects often take months of fitting and refitting and sometimes I still get the fit wrong and have to do it over. And I will pick apart and redo a seam if the thread color looks slightly off. I bought a cheap but reliable serger to get my seams looking as professional as possible. I feel thankful that I don’t have to do major alterations at the shoulder, like that gal from Alterations Needed. If I had the money and/or didn’t enjoy the mental challenge of sewing something to fit perfectly, I would just use a tailor.

        • Shoot, that was a long post to basically say that I do most of the same alterations that you do, I just do them at home and not with a tailor. Oh well.

        • Debbie Roes says:

          Thanks for sharing about the types of alterations you do, Jane, and some of your tips on what will and won’t work. I don’t mind long comments here, especially if they are informative. I like when people have a lot of thoughts they want to share.

          Have you ever had problems with slimming the legs on pants? I have had that done a number of times, but it hasn’t always worked well. I am debating about whether to do that on a pair of pants now, in fact. I like everything about them except how wide-legged they are…

          It seems you’ve done some pretty complicated tailoring. It’s great that you’re able to do that, but also good that you have some rules for yourself about shoulder and crotch fit. I’m also an OCD perfectionist, but since I don’t know how to sew, all of the nipping and tucking of my clothes can get expensive. The best solution there would be to buy fewer clothes, which of course is something I continue to work on…

  4. Fortunately my mom is a good seamstress and when we went shopping together, she would advise me about what alterations were possible or not on a given type of garment or fabric, so I was able to dodge this particular bullet. I made tons of other mistakes in shopping though. LOL.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      How great that your mom was able to teach you these types of lessons while you were growing up, Tara. If you are able to share some of her tips on what is and isn’t possible, that would be great, as I do plan to do a follow-up post featuring some of the comments here and in the Facebook group. It’s good you were able to dodge this particular shopping bullet! As you know, I’ve made many other mistakes, too, but fortunately we are both learning and improving now.

  5. Hi Debbie,
    Haven’t commented in a while but still following your blog faithfully–It’s So helpful!

    A few things ran through my mind as I was reading:

    1) “If some are good, more are better.” A logical fallacy.

    2) Misguided alterations are a waste of time, as well as money. I know this well, alas.

    3) To avoid making “bargain” buys that don’t work out, try this mental exercise. Take the bargain prices of the also-rans and add them up as you put them back on the rack. E.g. A luxury brand sweater in your size for $25 in a color that makes you look sick; a dress that “ticks all the boxes,” for $50, in fact you like the style so much you already have three similar items at home; a pair of shoes for just $15 that are perfect with your capsule wardrobe, and surely a cobbler can stretch them a mere one-half size ($10)?? Add it up and you have $100 to spend on a different styled dress or the right color sweater or a pair of better shoes that fit. I often keep a running total of the almost perfect items in my head so that when the right one comes along, and it’s a little more expensive than I’m used to paying, I remember all I’ve “saved” simply by not spending.

    4) Practice saying no. Go to a sale, find an “almost,” and walk out of the store without it. Do it with something small at first. Just practice finding and not buying. It helps.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      Great to see you comment here again, Amy! I’m glad you are continuing to follow my blog and are finding it helpful. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and tips on this post. Yes, that logical fallacy of “if some are good, more are better” has gotten me into heaps of trouble over the years and I still fall prey to it, sadly. I love your mental exercise for avoiding making “bargain” buys. I definitely plan to share it in my foll0w-up post. I also like your last tip about practicing saying no. I think that “no” is just like any other muscle that we need to exercise. The more we do it, the easier it gets. I am saying no to more “almosts” these days, but still have lots of room for improvement!

  6. I once bought some pretty blue shoes, but wound up not liking the too-high heels. I had them lowered, but the cobbler could not lower them enough for me. It was partly that habit of buying for someone we aren’t. So, I paid twice and had nothing!
    Now when I see something not quite right or that needs dry cleaning, I add the extra alteration fee/dry cleanings to the price and walk away.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      I think the heels on shoes can only be lowered about half an inch, Helen. At least that’s what a reputable cobbler told me recently. Sometimes that’s enough and sometimes it’s not. The habit of buying for someone we’re not or a lifestyle we don’t lead is a common one. I have fallen prey to that behavior a number of times! I think you’re smart to tack on the extra costs for tailoring and dry cleaning to garment prices. I don’t see a lot of items that need dry cleaning these days, but the percentage of garments for which hand washing is recommended has gone WAY up (even cotton t-shirts). This is probably a function of poor quality, but I try to give serious thought to how much hand washing I’m willing to do.

  7. I have had some serious cases of “wishful thinking” when shopping second hand. I accumulated too many “DIY project pieces” and then rarely did the alterations or totally ruined them by attempting to alter them myself. Like, no one else could ever wear them again ruined them.

    I have had mixed success with paid tailoring- some things I still love and wear; others were probably not worth the effort.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      You and me both on the “wishful thinking,” cm! I have to force myself to do a reality check nowadays because it’s all too easy to envision a handful of alterations to a single garment. Some people say they wouldn’t pay to alter something they didn’t pay much money for, but I look at it differently. If I am getting something for a low price and factor in the alteration fees, I often think it’s still worth it. So I have to take a step back and reconsider because there’s too much of a margin for error when multiples changes are being made.

  8. GingerR says:

    A sewing machine owner I tackle some alternations myself, often with success. After ruining some things I’ve gotten careful about looking them over ahead of time. I confine myself mostly to shortening pants, shorts or skirts and to taking in the bust of dresses. If a top can’t be altered by taking a tuck at the side under the arm I pass on it.

    I don’t have the best luck working on knits so altering a sweater would be a no-go for me.

    I agree about more items needing hand washing. I live in a house and have a fancy washing machine with a hand wash cycle so I make use of that. Dryers seem to be the biggest foes of delicate items so washing something on a gentle spin cycle and line drying works well for me.

    • Debbie Roes says:

      How great that you can do your own alterations, Ginger, but it’s good that you’ve learned what you can and can’t do successfully. I have had mixed results with altering sweaters. I try to keep it minimal if I do it at all now. That’s nice that your washing machine has a hand wash cycle. Hand washing is annoying and I’m shocked that it’s the recommendation for such a large number of items now. I have been line drying most of my clothes for years, but still prefer using a washing machine whenever possible.

  9. CristiLu says:

    Love the serenity prayer on alterations! (Is it just me or is it really funny? I so laughed out loud. Thank you for that! 🙂 )

    • Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad you thought it was funny, CristiLu! I thought so, too. It just kind of came to me as I was writing, so I threw it in. I hope others laughed at it, too.

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