Successful Alterations – Skirts and Dresses

Last week, I kicked off a new blog series that will include a number of posts on the topic of alterations.   The first installment included thoughts from my private Facebook group on the pros and cons of having our clothes tailored. The group also shared their experiences with altering their own clothes, as well as some tailoring success and failure stories.

Skirt and Dress Alterations

In the upcoming posts in this series, I will highlight some of my own alteration successes and failures.  Since I like to start things out on a high note, today’s installment will feature some of my successful tailoring efforts.  Please note that I don’t do any of my tailoring myself.  About seven or eight years ago, I found a lovely alterations lady not far from when I live who does a great job and charges reasonable prices.  I’ve been taking all of my tailoring projects to her ever since.  She’s very good at what she does, but occasionally I proceed with alterations against her best advice. But that is a topic for the next post in this series…  We’re sticking with the positive today!

Shortening Skirts

Today I’m going to show you some of the skirts and dresses that I’ve had tailored successfully. Let’s start off with the two black skirts that I recently had shortened.  While I had loved both skirts for years, my style preference has shifted such that I now like my skirts to be somewhat shorter.   Rather than let go of these two skirts that I like, I asked my tailor if they could be shortened.  Both skirts had special features that made the alterations a bit trickier, but my tailor was able to get around those elements fairly easily.

A big part of why I elected to shorten these two skirts is that I’ve had difficulty finding a new black skirt that I loved and which would meet my needs.   I was looking for a knee-length black skirt that wasn’t too corporate, but all I seemed to be able to find were maxis, minis, and pencil skirts.  I did buy one pencil skirt at a consignment store, but I didn’t realize that the baggy waistband could not be taken in due to the way it was constructed. That one goes in my purchase failure category and was passed on last month.  It was just easier for me to tailor the two black skirts I had, as I liked both of them other than their length.

This first skirt is one that has been in my closet for over six years and has been worn countless times.  It has contrast stitching along the hem and on the sides to create interesting and flattering details.   My tailor didn’t have the exact color thread, but what she used was so close, you’d have to get up very close to the skirt to notice the difference.  The skirt was shortened about three inches and I am much happier with it now.   I thought the skirt looked somewhat matronly (I hate that word…) or “churchy” before, whereas it now looks more modern and youthful and shows more of the curve of my legs.  I’m glad I was able to rescue a longtime closet favorite through tailoring.

Shortening Seamed Skirt

This next skirt was a 2013 purchase and was fairly pricey because it was a designer piece.   I loved it at first, but once my preference shifted to shorter skirts, it hung in my closet unworn.   It was also too big for me, especially after my recent weight loss.   Shortening this skirt was tricky because of the asymmetrical hem, but my tailor assured me that it could be done without a problem.  She was also able to take the skirt in enough so that it no longer overwhelmed my frame.   Had the skirt not been as expensive as it was, I probably wouldn’t have elected to do such extensive tailoring, but it worked out for me.  If it hadn’t, I likely would have listed the skirt for sale on eBay and had been able to recoup some of my losses. I took a risk, but it paid off.   I trust my tailor’s judgment and she assured me that the alterations weren’t as tricky as I thought.

The image on the left was from July and the photo on the right was taken two weeks ago.  As with the skirt above, I feel this skirt looks more stylish and current in the “after” view.   When I wore it, I felt a lot more attractive, slim, and comfortable in it than I had previously.

Shortening Eileen Fisher Skirt

Shortening Straps on Maxi-Dresses

Beginning with last summer, I started to really enjoy wearing maxi-dresses, as they are comfortable, casual, and can be worn stylishly with flat sandals.  While it can be challenging for me to find maxis that are long enough for my tall frame, I often encounter another fit problem. The straps on tank style maxi-dresses are almost always too long!   This leads to the dresses being too low-cut and exposing my bra straps.   Fortunately, this is something that my tailor can easily fix (as can anyone who is reasonably handy with a sewing machine – sadly, that’s not me!).

I don’t have “before” images for these dresses, but I can show you how they look after the alterations were done.   All four of these maxi-dresses were favorites of mine this past summer.   The two colorful dresses were just acquired this year, but the others were worn during the summer of 2014 as well.

Shortening Maxi-Dress Straps

Taking In Skirts and Dresses

This last examples I’m going to show tonight are two skirts and a dress that I have had taken in.   In all honesty, I should have been more careful about buying the two skirts in the first place.  Although I was somewhat heavier when I purchased them during the summer of 2014, they were both too voluminous from the get go.   Too much volume can make us appear larger than we are, plus it can be uncomfortable to have a lot of excess fabric especially in hot weather.

I should have sized down on both skirts, but if I recall correctly, they were sale purchases and perhaps other sizes weren’t available (I don’t remember).  While some women would have opted to just pass the skirts on because they were too large, I decided to narrow both of them and was happy with the result. These were easy alterations, as the skirts were basically straight with very little flare.

The dress is a different story, as it has been in my closet for quite a few years.   It’s very comfortable and can be easily dressed up or down for various occasions.   I used to like the fuller bottom on this dress, but have moved more toward narrower silhouettes as part of my style evolution of the past year.   I like the dress more after the alteration, but I may decide to shorten it a few inches as well.   Yes, that’s kind of a lot of re-making of one item, but I feel that it can be worth it for a garment that we basically love.  And since the dress is a very classic style, I can have it in my closet for many years to come.  I don’t wear it all that often, but it’s good to have a basic black dress for certain occasions. You really can’t go wrong with this type of item, if you like black and it’s flattering on you, of course (others can opt for alterate softer neutrals – it doesn’t have to be the typical “LBD”).

Narrowing Skirts and Dresses

Some Final Words

That’s it for this first installment on my successful alterations.   I know that many of you aren’t proponents of tailoring and may decide either not to purchase a garment or to pass it on if you’re not happy with how it looks “as is” off the rack or hanging in your closet. While this is an individual decision and there is really no right or wrong answer, I just wanted to highlight some instances in which tailoring has made a big difference in my wardrobe.

Yes, I still need to be careful to avoid the dark side of alterations and I continue to make some tailoring mistakes on occasion.   But I also have many examples of when alterations have served me well.  It’s definitely a balancing act and this series is going to help keep me honest.  Stay tuned for the next installment in which I will feature some of my tailoring faux pas.   There have been quite a few over the years, but not so many in 2015, thankfully.   I hope to shift the balance to almost all successes during 2016.

Your Thoughts?

Now it’s time for you to chime in.

  • What types of alterations have you made to your skirts and dresses?
  • Have you done your own nips and tucks or did you use a tailor?
  • What advice do you have for tailoring newbies?

I invite you to share your feedback on these topics and more in the comments section.   If you have specific questions or comments for me, you’re welcome to give your input there as well.   And as always, I am open to topic suggestions for future posts.

20 thoughts on “Successful Alterations – Skirts and Dresses

  1. This is very interesting – I wouldn’t have expected relatively small changes in length to improve the look so much. The altered items all look great on you, Debbie – you’ve inspired me to have a critical look at my own wardrobe again. I have a different problem to you because I’m short and sometimes I just sigh and think oh well, what’s an inch or two more. But now I know!

    ps love the idea of the dark side of alterations – is that good scissors gone bad? Looking forward to the film version!

    • I’m glad this post inspired you, Cathy. Small changes really CAN make a big difference in how we feel about our clothes, even an inch or two in length. Your second paragraph made me chuckle 🙂 Yes, it kind of does sound like a movie title…

  2. Great article! To answer the questions at the end…

    I’ve had skirts shortened, and slimmed through the hips, and inevitably, I’ve been happy with the results. My favorite was a $3, unlined, thin black suede skirt from Goodwill that was four sizes too big, but had two darts on the front and back, plus side seams and a back zip. My seamstress shortened it and took it in, and it’s been a favorite ever since. $45 total for a leather skirt that feels like butter. Try finding that at the mall! I note the ‘unlined’ part, because a lining means more work and more money. I wore the heck out of that skirt this past spring and summer.

    I have a sewing machine – I’ve had it for about six years, never used it. It’s on my bucket list for sure! It took me almost an hour to figure out how to thread it, and another two hours of frustration before I figured out that the needles it came with are ‘starter’ needles that aren’t going to even sew Kleenex together. If/when I have time, I plan to get some proper needles (that don’t look like they’re made of pine), and take the machine and the instructions to a sewing class – I’m told JoAnn’s fabrics offers classes.

    I do my own darning and mending. It took me a few years to understand that a spool of thread will deteriorate just like anything else, and you should test the integrity of the thread, BEFORE you sew 20 new buttons on a vintage coat.

    Advice? There is no place like a thrift store, to pick up a $5 (or even half off of that!) clothing project to experiment with, for home-dying and for practice sewing and trying out your own alterations.

    • Thanks so much for answering my questions, Mary Beth. What a great success story about the suede skirt! It helped that you really knew what to look for and what alterations can and can’t be done. Good for you for doing your own darning and mending. I don’t even do that… Best wishes with learning to use your sewing machine. Maybe in 2016…

  3. I’m a keen hobby dressmaker and do simple alterations on my own clothes and things for my boyfriend. I keep the card of a local alterations specialist handy to give to other people who ask me as I don’t enjoy alterations at all and dislaike being asked by other people who want it cheap/free. Just because I enjoy sewing clothing for myself from yardage does NOT mean I enjoy your alterations!!!

    The things I do most often are shorten or restitch hems on trousers or jeans, add elastic into the back waistband of skirts, shorten skirt hemlines, sew buttons back on, turn long sleeved shirts into short sleeved ones.

    • Sounds like you are very good with doing your own alterations, Ruthie, and good for you for setting boundaries with your friends and family members. What a great idea to keep the cards of an alterations specialist with you. You don’t want to turn your fun hobby into a low-paying job!

  4. These were really beautifully planned alterations that had gorgeous results. I don’t know why I never thought of taking up the straps on tanks! I love that you’re hanging on to old favorites and making them work. Your ability to stay focused on your best style silhouette and colors is inspiring.

    I have not made many alterations to skirts and dresses other than to take in a side seam (when I was much younger and thinner!) Most of my alterations have been to lengthen pants – yes, it can be done, but only if a) there is enough fabric to drop to the necessary length, and b) there isn’t already a permanent crease that will show when the existing hem is opened up. The other alteration I’ve done on almost every pair of pants and jeans is to take one or two wedge-shaped darts out of the back waist.

    A beginning seamstress can do most lengthening/shortening alterations but will probably need a heavy-duty machine if stitching denim – it is really tough. I agree with MaryBeth that the best place to start is with simple clothing styles from the thrift store that are almost perfect: a top that just needs a few buttons replaced or a seam sewn up, and a straight skirt that fits perfectly but needs to be taken up a couple of inches. Get confident with the easy stuff before you try to replace a zipper or shorten a pleated maxi skirt. 🙂

    And whether you will be doing it yourself or taking it to a tailor, the *general* rule is that the fewer style lines (seams), the easier (less expensive) it will be to alter. Do buy straight-leg pants that need hemming, but probably don’t buy a ruched, pieced, embroidered, strapless evening gown that needs to be taken in around the bust.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Katrina. I feel like I am making a lot of progress with my style, so it’s nice when others notice. Your most common alterations are mine, too. I love when it’s possible to lengthen pants! And I have to take in the waist almost every time. I appreciate your tailoring tips. It helps to know what is and isn’t doable, as well as what is worth the price we might have to pay.

  5. I’ve followed your posts off and on w/out commenting, but I did want to say that the first outfit, the bright fitted top and unshortened skirt (I agree that the shorter length is more versatile) with your pulled back hair is very graceful, very flattering. If you’d do a simple bun, it would be a very flattering ballet inspired look.
    Re. alterations, I regularly have my coat and jacket sleeves shortened by a tailor, which makes all the difference between looking finished and not-quite-done. I like to do simple things such as changing buttons or easy hemming. But a word of warning, both I and tailors have ruined garments. Sometimes one wishes one had just left well enough alone!

    • Thanks for your compliment about my outfit, Renee. I like it, too, and will wear it again with the shorter skirt and I think I will like it more. It’s good that you can do some of your own alterations. I agree with your word of warning. There are definitely times when I wish I would have left things alone. I will be sharing some of those in my upcoming posts in this series.

  6. At 5’2″ I have been hemming pants for decades. Petite sizing is great – if it hasn’t sold out.
    I’ve hemmed, taken in sides, shortened straps and sleeves, narrowed shoulders, taken in (and let out) waistbands, changed flares/boot legs to straight/skinny pant legs and when there is enough fabric I can change the armscythe.

    I do sew which is a great advantage in not only being able to do alterations but being able to see which alterations are possible. As for sewing classes take a look at Craftsy.

    • You seem very handy with tailoring, Diane! I think it’s great that you can do your own alterations. I would save a lot of money if I could do so. I have paid to do most of the alterations you mentioned. Good point about being able to understand which alterations are possible. I am still learning that myself… Thanks for the tip about Craftsy!

  7. I’ve done a few alterations myself. Jean hems, invisible hems, side seams, back pant seams (to alter hips when pants have pockets), waists (taken in and let out), shoulder straps, sleeve length, a zip in a dress. Thanks to my mum and some trial and error on my part, I have saved a lot in alterations I’m sure. It is so helpful when buying clothes to know what can be done easily. I find pants so hard to buy, but if I can tweak them a little it gives me more options. Occasionally I would do an alteration and ruin the item. I rarely do now since, like you, I only do easier changes. I always check the garment before I buy it to see how if the change can be done easily. Garments can be constructed in a variety of ways.

    • How great that you can do all of those things yourself, Ruth! I’m sure you have saved thousands of dollars that way. It’s good to know what to look for in terms of whether something will be an easy alteration or not. I still struggle with that but have learned a lot over the years. I remain a big fan of alterations, but you will see some of my mistakes soon…

  8. Debbie, I really love the look of the maxi dresses. They all look like they fit like a glove. I also like the shorter, narrower silhouette that you’ve adopted. I can really see the difference in fit on you.

    1. What types of alterations have you made to your skirts and dresses?
    I don’t wear them. That said, there’s this blog that does nothing but alter (mostly) dresses. She typically does some sewing but sometimes she just adds a sash to what looked like a shapeless sack and gets a whole new look out of it! She also plays with dyeing clothes. Her style is very different from mine, but I love that blog.

    ◾Have you done your own nips and tucks or did you use a tailor?
    I can’t afford a tailor so I do all mine, but my brother gets all his pants hemmed at a tailor and it only costs him $5-10.

    ◾What advice do you have for tailoring newbies?
    Start by fixing really tiny flaws and then going from there. I started by hemming some pants (did a terrible job on the first couple which I later redid), fixed some ripped seams, took off superfluous buttons from a coat, changed out ugly buttons on another coat and put nice ones on, shaved the fuzz off a cashmere sweater to make it like new.

    • Thanks for your compliments about my outfits, Jane, and I appreciate your answering my questions. I have seen the blog Refashionista and have been fascinated by what she does. She really transforms things in a big way! Your advice for tailoring newbies is very helpful. It’s good to start with the easier jobs before diving into the bigger projects. Those simple modifications you referenced can make a big difference.

  9. Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, hosts of What Not to Wear, repeatedly stated that MOST items need to be altered to fit a person well! I took that to heart and, as a result, have saved money in the long run by following their advice. Plus, as you well stated Debbie, trends change and hemlines go up and down. I also found a tailor here in Houston – not cheap – but well worth the price. I receive compliments all the time on my clothing and taste, and I think much of it is because my clothes fit well.

    • Clinton and Stacy are why I started tailoring my clothes, too, DuncMom! I went a bit overboard with it all, but I have also positively transformed a lot of my clothes through alterations. It’s very important that our clothes fit us well. I agree that compliments are a lot more likely when things fit us to a T.

  10. I have had awful luck with alterations and even worse luck with dry cleaners. I try to stay away from items that require a tailor or professional cleaning.

    • Yes, there are lot of bad tailors and dry cleaners out there, Lisa. If you can find clothes that fit you great off the rack, more power to you! I struggle a lot with this, but when I do find things that work well as is, I am elated.

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