Alterations – Pros, Cons, Successes, and Failures

With today’s post, I’m kicking off a new series for the blog.  I have often written about alterations in my various posts, but only once have I dedicated an entire article to that topic.  While that post was fairly comprehensive, it was also published almost two years ago, so it’s high time for me to revisit the subject. In addition, I have received a few questions from readers that I would like to address more fully than I can in the comments section of the blog.

Alterations Tips and Resources

Do you tailor your clothes? Why or why not?

In the coming weeks, I will share some of my personal alterations successes and failures with you (including before and after pictures wherever possible) and I will respond to the reader questions I mentioned above.   But before I delve into those matters, I decided to ask my private Facebook group how they feel about tailoring their clothes and how they approach alterations – or even if they do!

The Questions I Posed to the Group

Here’s what I asked the group:

  • Do you get your clothes tailored (or do you do it yourself)?
  • What types of alterations do you do / have done?
  • Which types would you never do?
  • Have you had alterations failures?

As usual, the group members gave excellent input!   Since what they had to say is so informative and helpful, I’m including all of the group’s responses here.  The group was quite divided in terms of being pro or anti tailoring, so I have separated the responses out accordingly.  I’m also including sections on doing one’s own tailoring, alterations failures, and some additional thoughts and considerations regarding this important topic.

Pro-Alterations  and Alteration Successes

  • I can barely sew on a button, so I often use a tailor. I’ve had multiple pairs of pants hemmed and some more tricky alterations as well. Recently, I had about six dresses shortened and taken in on the sides. I also had her change the shape of two of the dresses from A-line to more of a straight or pencil shape. I’m super happy with all of them! It took a long time to find a good tailor and now I hope she never moves away.
  • I’ve had a few things altered and have always been pleased with the result.
  • I started having clothes altered to fit better a few years ago. I had lost a few pounds and was always pulling my sit-below-the-waist pants up. I had them taken in a bit in the waistband and I loved it! I have had several other pants taken in andone beautiful wool blazer shortened. The $60 that I paid for the blazer alteration was a great investment. It was much better fabric and construction than anything that I could buy for $60 today.
  • For complicated work, I go to a local tailor. She has turned clothes I merely liked into clothes that feel great on me and I wore for years as a result. Never underestimate the gift of a good seamstress.  I should mention that I only invest in alterations for high quality clothes that I know will last a long time. Otherwise, the cost of the alterations isn’t really worth it.
  • I only started having serious alterations done after reading on the Alterations Needed blog about the amazing difference it can make. I’ve had extreme makeovers done (long tailored jacket, vintage winter coat) and regular stuff like skirt/pant hems, removing pockets, slimming pant legs, etc. Recently, I had a beautiful scarf (one-sided) turned into an infinity scarf.
  • I can do simple treatments such as seams and hems. If an item is already fitted (suit dress or has a lining), I then decide if it is worth having tailored. I did have one dress I loved “let out” since I could not find one I liked as well in thestores, but then eventually had to let it go too. I have enjoyed everything I have had altered except for once ahem was not done well (it kept unraveling).  But I do judge based on the value of the item and then the alteration gets added to my cost of the garment for cost-per-wear (CPW).
  • I had to use a tailor for years to alter my bras. Before I had a breast reduction, I was a 34L. That isn’t a typo. I had to buy a 38H or I and then alter the back and straps to get the bra to fit. I had an amazing tailor who did great work. She also altered fitted jackets and dresses to fit my chest. I had to go up several sizes and have them taken back down I areas besides the chest. This tailor went out of business or closed and moved. I’ve not found anyone else remotely as good. I’ve had uneven pant hems and stitching come unraveled since. I keep looking for another good tailor, but moved to wearing mostly knits when my job went casual. Those don’t need the kind of tailoring I needed five years ago when it mattered much more.
  • I do get some of my tops taken in under the arms (not enough “boobage” for the size I wear), but that’s usually on sleeveless blouses and only on occasion. I also get some simple mending done since I can’t just run it to my mother (even though I could probably do it myself). And my tailor is my local dry cleaner.
  • I get my clothes tailored by a fantastic tailor who charges fair prices, does excellent work, and is very honest about what he thinks is worth it and not worth it. I mostly get buttons replaced/resewn on, hemming (sleeves and pant hems), and darts added to pants/shirts. I’ve also had a silk wrap blouse turned into a scarf (using the fabric from the long ties).
  • I do get things altered now, but didn’t for the longest time. I think I have about a dozen items in my closet that have been altered. Oh, and none of them are knits; everything woven. I recently got a waistband taken in on my work jeans (it cost $17) so I don’t have to wear a belt or yank them up all day. I often get pants hemmed or the sleeves or seams on a jacket taken in to fit closer. Oh, and I get straps on dresses or tank tops shortened to fit just that much better. Everything could be worn before, but is so much better after a little nip or tuck. I’m lucky to be very close to off-the-rack fit in clothes, so I have lots of clothes I never alter at all. I have a sewing machine, but can’t figure out how to thread it, so I spend the $15 or so bucks to get it done for me.
  • I can sew, but know that if I need to do anything more than sew on a button, I’ll just keep putting off tackling the alteration. As a result, I take clothes to the tailor to have hems and sleeves taken up, pockets sewn up (and if necessary removed), and other simple alterations. I’ve found companies on Etsy and the like who will custom-make clothes based on my measurements, and am figuring out which designers fit well with my shape, so I’ve managed to avoid most complex tailoring.

Anti-Alterations (or “Alterations Light”)

  • I’ve only ever had trousers taken up. I’m a fairly average height and weight, so if something doesn’t fit right, it’s easier to look for an alternative than pay for tailoring, which is expensive where I live.
  • I get basic tailoring, such as pants shortened and skirts shortened and taken in. That’s about it now. I’m lucky in that I can find lots of things that fit me off the rack. I know a lot of women are not that lucky.
  • I will bring clothes to hem pants or sleeves on occasion. That’s about it.
  • I’ve never had alterations on clothes done before. I know that on “What Not to Wear,” they used to tell people that it’s a good option if you’re having difficulty finding things that fit. But for me, I think it’s too much added effort.
  • I have attempted simple alterations on my own clothes, but it’s never been a result I’ve liked. I would never pay to get something tailored to fit. I’d just get rid of it.
  • If it doesn’t fit, I don’t buy it. I have never liked anything enough to buy it and take it home and spend extra on alterations. I feel very strongly about this, I wouldn’t even take up a hem. I’d move on and find something that did fit. I think I’m in the minority! Since I’m not that excited by clothes, I won’t go to the added expense. It’s probably a chicken and egg situation; if it were made to fit me perfectly, I might love it!
  • I’ve never been one to pay for tailoring. I can fix a button or small tear and I’ve had one pair of jeans hemmed since I’m short and they were too long. I just can’t justify paying a lot for tailoring when there are plenty of other options out there that fit me correctly right out of the store.
  • I’ve actually never paid someone to alter my clothing, although I’ve been considering trying to find someone to replicate some of my favorite shirts that are getting old. I have paid for shoes to be stretched before I bought my own flat and high heel shoe stretchers.
  • I won’t buy anything that needs alterations unless it’s so easy I can do it myself in less than an hour.
  • I don’t really do alterations. I’d be happy taking up a hem, but since I’m tall, I’m always looking for clothes long enough in arms and legs, so I don’t need to. I can sew on buttons! I have one pair of jeans that are actually too long, but I just wear them as turn-ups. I asked a friend if I should hem them and she said, “No, they look good as turn-ups.”
  • I’ve only used a tailor twice: once for my wedding dress and once for jeans, which shrunk a lot after I had them hemmed (I did wash them first). They were then a weird length, so I stopped wearing them. I would do it more often (I’m short with a small waist/big hips), but the tailors I know of keep regular office-type hours and I just can’t go during the day. I would like to learn to do sew myself, but there is no way that would ever happen (too many hobbies already).

Those Who Do Their Own Alterations

  • I buy a lot of secondhand items and I like doing little alterations. I sew on buttons, hem jeans/trousers, take in sides, shorten sleeves, and/or repair little holes in cashmere. If it’s too difficult for me (like hemming a faux fur vest, it was just too much fabric for my sewing machine), I ask my mother to do it for me.
  • I have a sewing machine and can do basic alterations like hemming pants, taking in clothes at the waist, etc.
  • I hem trousers and have also hemmed skirts/dresses. In the past, I have also bought reduced price items and mended seams.
  • I do minor repairs like sewing on a button or other closure, or mending sweaters and even socks that I really like. As for alterations, I’ve shortened hems, dropped hems, taken in the waist on shirts, taken in the underarm area of shirts, removed exterior pockets on shirts, narrowed the leg on pants, cinched up the back of gaping pants, sewn up or removed pants pockets, removed collars on button up shirts (I hate them!), added elastic to shoes, and dyed clothes.
  • I can take up hems and shift buttons, but nothing more complex. I’d love to find a good online sewing course.
  • I shop almost entirely second hand. I’m also part of a years-long clothing swap, so a number of things are free. I’ve very experimental in the thrift store and even more so with the clothing swap. I’m also five feet tall, so most pants legs and sleeve lengths and skirt lengths need shortening. Quite often, I will want a jacket hem to hit higher, too. If I had to pay for alterations, I wouldn’t. I purposely keep a very small hobbyist budget for clothing. I taught myself to sew in 7th grade. Patterns then, though mostly single-sized unlike now, had full instructions. I rarely sew from a pattern now because of all the myriad choices involved from the get go. My mother couldn’t understand sewing from a pattern, but she draped and made a lot of my more special clothes or could copy a dress a friend would lend me because I liked the style so much. I guess my alterations/restyling are more draping-based these days. I also, because I am doing it myself, can re-do alterations, experiment with various hem lengths (or depths, which affects how things hang) if I wish. I alter sweaters/knit things as well, though I don’t have nor want a serger. I often take a top and make it into a cardigan jacket or vice versa. I often like garments quite a bit more after I’ve restyled them. In some ways, because I know “too much” about garment construction, I can’t imagine how something will fit after resizing. I need to see the actuality of how something fits and moves and hangs. So I can’t make a final decision on some items until after I accomplish the alteration. I have even altered shoes where I needed to undo a strap and make it shorter. I do this by hand with a thimble.

Alteration Failures

  • When I lost weight, I tried to salvage some clothing by altering down – not always very successfully. I now realize you shouldn’t try to reduce by more than one dress size, as proportions just go off.
  • My one epic fail was a jacket I had shortened. It just never sat right. Also, one tailor I went to shortened my pants too much.  Not too much could be done to fix that except get a new tailor.
  • My biggest failures have been trying to dye a leather purse (big mess) and dying polyester clothes. I will only ever dye natural fabrics for now on. The smell from the polyester dye was horrible and wouldn’t wash out of the clothes and on top of that, the dye didn’t really take.
  • I’ve only had one alteration “failure,” when I got a dress hemmed into a tunic at the wrong length (too short). This was my fault, though, because I was impatient and did not try on the garment for the tailor. I’m never doing that again.
  • My funniest failure happened recently. I have a couple of thick sweaters but have otherwise sworn off them. I nevertheless felt attracted to a heavy knit grey cardigan with a baroque sort of design on each front in cream. It was a disaster. I took off the sleeves and made a vest and I took that in to curve the waist a bit more. The end result was really good but not for me. The arabesque pattern was just too large for me and worn open made me look quite wide. It’s in the pass along pile now.
  • One tip I have regarding a near-impossible alteration has to do with a too large and low armscye in a top or jacket. About the only way to get this right is to remake the whole thing by lifting at the shoulders and re-cutting. And who wants to do that?Otherwise, the problem is that the armhole extends too far into the front side chest areas and if you tried to make it and its sleeve narrower/smaller, there’s an actual area that is missing when you take the sleeve back to where you would normally want it. There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland.

Some Other Thoughts and Considerations

  • I would not consider buying pieces if the following alterations were needed: resizing the whole garment (not one specific area of the garment such as taking in the waist, etc.), taking in the shoulder, hemming the coat/jacket length (will likely throw off the balance of the coat/jacket if there are pockets), and changing the shape of the garment.
  • While I’ve had success with basic alterations (adjusting hem, taking in suit jacket), my number one problem with alterations has been using them as an excuse not to purge something entirely. Sometimes I really like the print and/or fabric of a piece that’s a little too big (I shop almost exclusively second-hand), but regardless of size, the print doesn’t work on me or the entire style/cut of the garment is wrong for me. Instead of admitting that to myself, I tell myself that if only I had it altered, it would somehow work for me. I think the worst of my mistakes was with a bulky vintage wool coat. After upwards of $50 in alterations, I finally just admitted to myself that no matter how many alterations I had done, it looked dated, period.
  • I think I erred on the side of trying too hard with alterations for some period of time, but now have honed my observation skills to understand better where alterations will be effective – and when it’s simply not worth it. But even small changes, like hemming slacks to the right length or taking in a waist, have made me much, much happier with my existing wardrobe – my ultimate goal. I have an alterations professional in my life, and she is always honest with me and is willing to say, “You shouldn’t bother!”
  • I’m curious if age is a factor in terms of when you start to do alterations. I know that when I was younger, I didn’t alter anything and would never have dreamed of it. I either sat with something that wasn’t quite right when it could have been or just never reached for it. Now that I’m older (don’t know about wiser), I see what a difference a little alteration can make from clothing being just okay to making a big difference in how I feel in a particular piece.

Your Thoughts?

As you can see, the group had a lot of thoughts on this matter! I hope you got some value out of the above and perhaps gained some new perspectives about alterations that can help you moving forward.  Now I’d like to get your input on the topic of tailoring clothing.   You can use my questions at the top of this post as a guide or just share whatever thoughts you have.

Happy Thanksgiving

I will be back later this week with my “Grab Bag of Useful Links” for November (see earlier editions here).  For those in the United States, I’d like to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!  To all of you, please know that I am grateful for your readership and support.   It’s now been almost three years since I started this blog and I have learned and grown a great deal during that time.  I’m happy to have been able to share with all of you and inspire many of you, but please know that I’ve also been inspired by those who have commented on my various posts and emailed me.   You are a great group of people and I’m grateful to have connected with you!

17 thoughts on “Alterations – Pros, Cons, Successes, and Failures

  1. I’m terribly impatient and never learned to sew from my mom, who is very talented in that area. Over the years, I’ve shamelessly requested her help for hems, buttons, linings, tears and the like. That said, I recently purchased a pair of Lucky slim boyfriend jeans that will go nicely with booties. Since I have several jeans of that brand, including a similar style, I did not expect any problems. However, after wearing for a short time the waist becomes very loose. I think I’m going to find a local tailor to take in the waist. Is that a relatively easy, low risk alteration? Should I bring them in after I’ve worn them for a bit to make sure they are adjusted enough?

    Thanks for your blog, and a Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    • How lucky you were to have had a mom who sews and helped you with alterations, Angela! I don’t know if I would have the patience to learn to sew, either. I have to get the waist taken in on almost all pants and jeans that I buy. The Lucky jeans have been one exception in that they usually fit me well right out of the store. Taking the waist in on pants and jeans is an easy and low-risk alteration. I have never had any problems with it myself. The general recommendation is to wash the pants first before tailoring. I don’t always do that, but I do wear them at least once to let them stretch out a bit. I’m glad you like my blog and I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving!

  2. I do a fair bit of mending/repair/alteration by hand for myself and my husband. Being petite I’ve done quite a few pant hems over the years, but now I usually prefer to have them done by a tailor on a machine. I’ve also tried a variety of diy or “just-to-see” projects on clothes. Sometimes they work out great, sometime not, but the experimentation has been a good way to learn. I would probably do more if chronic pain/fatigue was less of an issue in my life, but enjoy the burst of creativity or satisfaction of fixing something when I do manage to do it. If a repair will take more than about 20 minutes, I usually break it up into smaller parts. I have my mom and grandma to thank for exposing me to this practical skill early in life.

    • That’s great that you are able to do a lot of your own mending and alterations, Claire, and it’s cool that you have done some DIY projects, too. You seem to have a good attitude about them, as well about your repair jobs. You are lucky to have learned to sew from your mom and grandma. I wish I had learned. Of course, I still can, but I have been spoiled by my tailor. It sounds like you have a good outlet for your creativity that you can still do despite your health challenges.

  3. Thank you for sharing all of your readers’ experiences! I have almost everything tailored and have for years. I buy almost all of my clothes at designer consignment sites like The Real Real. I get very good quality fabrics for less money than a new dress at Nordstrom. I know my measurements and from experience I know what can be tailored and what can’t. I would never buy a blazer/suit jacket or coat that didn’t fit perfectly from the beginning because the tailoring is difficult to get perfect. But skirts, dresses, tops, etc… look best when fitted to a person. The cost for tailoring is not high when you consider what you are getting with a really good tailor.
    It allows me to afford very high quality clothes (the fabric difference of designer clothes is amazing) for less than new – even counting the cost of tailoring. The only fail was a cheaper fabric dress not fitting after tailoring.


    • I appreciate your sharing your experiences, Leah. I have never bought any clothes on designer consignment sites, but you have me quite intrigued… It sounds like you really know what you’re doing. I would think it would take some research and trial and error to make good choices when buying secondhand designer clothing online. I’d love to know your secrets! I agree with you about the value of good tailoring and I feel it is worth it, too.

  4. I am a petite gal who has to frequently budget for alterations. A well-fitted outfit makes for a much more polished look.

    I sew on and frequently swap buttons. In fact, many times, I’ll get a jacket from the thrift store that doesn’t fit me just for the buttons, replace the buttons and re-donate it. I love unique buttons made of bone, wood, mother-of-pearl and metal. I hate plastic buttons and almost always replace them with something from my stash. I have one set of shell buttons that have now been on six or seven different pieces of clothing over the years.

    I don’t own a machine and while I can do simple hand-stitching like hemming a trouser, I cannot do much else. Iron-on hem tape is very useful for shortening pants and sleeves. I then add a few stitches for reinforcement. The only other alteration I will do is to take in the sides of a garment that’s too wide. I will run a simple stitch and wear it to see how it fits. If I like the result, I’ll take it to a tailor. If not, no.

    Before taking anything for alteration, pin or handstitch it roughly, wear it and walk around for a bit. See if it works.

    I like cropped jackets and so if I buy a blazer or jacket, I will assess if it can be cropped without pockets etc. coming in the way. I know a men’s tailor who does a fantastic and very reasonable job ($16 to shorten my suit jacket).

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with alterations, nutrivore. I love your idea to swap out buttons. I have done that a few times, but not recently. I never thought to buy thrift store jackets just for the buttons, but that’s a brilliant idea. I also haven’t used the iron-on hem tape, but am interested in potentially trying it (of course, with my height, I don’t have to hem much…). I like the idea of trying out alterations by pinning or handstitching. How great that you have been able to successfully shorten suit jackets and the price sounds quite reasonable.

  5. Wow, I read a lot of my own stories in the FB group comments! This was really helpful, and it made me think about how my purchasing habits might have changed if I had had to include tailoring in my budget.

    I also read your previous post on alterations – thanks for the link – and that was incredibly interesting. It also confirms much of what I’ve discovered in my own experience.

    I learned to sew when I was 11, partly for fun and partly because I was so incredibly tall and tired of pants always being 5 – 6 inches too short. I mean I was getting a real complex about it. So I have been sewing for 40+ years now, and I can do most alterations for myself. I often experiment with inexpensive thrift-store purchases, and have had some great successes. Every so often I will get in over my head, however, like with a gorgeous cobalt blue wool coat I got for $12 and then completely messed up by trying to take out the gigantic shoulder pads and reshape the upper sleeves. A good lesson on knowing my limitations.

    • I’m glad you liked both this post and the one from two years ago on alterations, Katrina. How great that you learned to sew at such a young age! I always had the problem of pants being too short, too, and it’s still an issue for me. It must be so great to be able to do all of your own alterations. Too bad about the cobalt blue coat. You were certainly trying to be ambitious there! I have taken such projects to my tailor with mixed results. I will be sharing some of those in my future posts in this series.

  6. Due to a small clothing budget and corporate job needs, I need to look nice on a shoestring. Nothing seems to fit me off the rack and it doesn’t help that I’m one size on top and a different size on bottom. My yearly budget is about $500. so Ii feel I have no choice but to tailor my own clothes. I am in the secondhand camp, and I go to the Goodwill outlet for clothes at $2 a pound. I bought almost everything but my suits at the Goodwill outlet and then cleaned and fixed them at home. I really feel much happier about my wardrobe now. Everything fits perfectly. The only downside is it takes me a long time to tailor anything because I’m a perfectionist. This results in me having a very small wardrobe (since I really don’t have that much time to tailor anything but the absolute essentials) but I’m okay with that.

    I did take sewing classes in high school, but that was a long time ago. So I started out hemming my own pants, but after a year, I bought myself a serger for Christmas and my dad gave me a cheapo sewing machine. Through trial and error, I learned how to slim pant legs, hem jeans, shorten sleeves, narrow and reshape tops and knits. I’m tackling some of my coats and suits now, just narrowing sleeves, and putting in a dart here and there to narrow the bust (I have a small bust).

    Overall, I would say that tailoring your own clothes is a good option if you’re handy with a thread and needle, and better yet, have a sewing machine and a serger and pressing tools. My Brother serger was $200 at Walmart and is the best thing I’ve ever bought for my wardrobe. Now that I’m all set up, I will probably never stop fiddling with my clothes. Sometimes, a little fixing is all it takes to make something last another year.

    As for shoes, I found this instant shoe shine cream on Amazon called Tarrago Self Shine Cream Kit. It really revived the color of my shoes and it dries, unlike the greasy polishes that come off on my pants. For me that was $6 well spent as I can buy shoes that are slightly off color and make them all a uniform dark brown (I only wear dark brown shoes to work). I have weirdly shaped feet and finding shoes is a nightmare, so I love that i can take a slightly goofy colored option and turn it into the rich brown that I need for work.

    • I wanted to add that my budget was $500 but that included my serger. So I guess I’m down to $300. These days, I don’t think I use all that. I typically buy a bag or two every year when it’s worn out and a briefcase. Also, I always need new shoes every year when the bottoms wear out on the last pair. This year, I’ve bought very few clothes, because I went crazy last year when I started buying things secondhand.

    • I really appreciate you sharing your alterations experiences, Jane. I think it’s great that you taught yourself to sew and are doing more and more advanced tailoring on your own. It sounds like you have a wardrobe that is really working for you and just needs minimal additions and tweaking here and there. Good for you! Thanks for sharing about the shoe shine cream. That’s a useful thing to know about. I always just use the “instant shine” brushes, but they only work so well. I think it could be good to use the cream you mentioned sometimes as well.

      • Hi Debbie,

        I’ve used those “instant shine” brushes too! I’ve tried a number of shoe polish products because i have a need to keep my shoes looking as nice as possible, but I just can’t spend money and time going to the cobbler and plus he doesn’t like my cheap shoe purchases anyway.

        Oh and if you can’t find Tarrago (Spanish brand that seems hard to find) I found another brand that is cheap and works just as well. Moneysworth Instant Shoe Shine Cream Kit comes with the little sponge on top and plenty of shoe cream to last years (at least for me with 2 pairs of dark brown shoes) This stuff even works on synthetics; I just tried it on my new weird colored (not anymore) Naturalizer size 8W comfort shoes. I did have to put a couple coats as the shoes were medium brown when I bought them, but I need dark brown.

        Hope this helps someone, as I struggled with keeping my shoes presentable until I found these types of products.

  7. This was a really interesting post, Debbie. Luckily, I rarely need to tailor clothes. On the rare occasion when I need to shorten pants or skirts, I usually just do it by hand; I am of that age cohort that was taught to sew by one’s mother and Home Ec teachers, who graded the straightness and neatness of one’s stitching. I have found one item that has made a huge difference in how pants (especially jeans) fit at the waist: a stretchy belt with a completely flat metal closure that is called “Truth” by Seva, I think (from the expression, “stretching the truth,” I guess), that I found on Amazon. It is not cheap and I only wear it with non-tuck-in-tops but it eliminates that annoying feeling that one’s pants are slipping and the metal clasp is designed so that it smoothes out the unsightly bump from the button that is just above the zipper on jeans. I have had three of these belts for over a year and, with almost daily wear, they are all like new. I have been reading your blog for awhile though have never commented, but thank you for your thoughtful and helpful posts.

    • How wonderful that you learned to sew in school, Dianne. I wish I had… Thanks for sharing about the “Truth” belt. Sounds like a very useful product! I’m glad you like my blog and I thank you for commenting.

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