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.
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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- Alterations – Pros, Cons, Successes, and Failures (November 2015)
- The Dark Side of Alterations (December 2013)
- Useful Links on Tailoring Your Clothes (September 2013)
- The Power of Alterations (August 2012)
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!