Friday, September 23, 2011

Alterations- Introduction

Welcome to the first (of a very small number of) parts of the Alterations Miniseries!

Before I show you the Ugly Clothes, we must first plough through the mandatory rambling introduction, so bear with me. To begin, I feel obliged to do a bit of marketing - why do we want to learn about altering clothes at all? Here are some reasons:
  • You don't sew your own clothes; you buy them, and you still haven't found a store that sells clothes cut to fit your body shape or type.
  • You're cursed to forever be between sizes, or you're one size in the waist and another size in the bust. That would put you in about 99% of the general female population - the other 1% are the plaster mannequins.
  • You have an unusual body shape - it could be the result of a disability, or extraordinary posture or natural asymmetry of the body, or any cause, really.
  • You live in a country whose prevailing sizing charts do not include your dimensions. I'm serious - I have so many adult friends from Singapore who shop in the children's department in the US when they visit because the smallest adult clothes here don't fit them. Before I had kids, I used to wear size 14 in kids' clothes, but now, three children later, I happily shop in the grown-up aisles. Which is lovely, because I was beginning to feel very self-conscious wearing giant children's overalls from Old Navy.
  • You own some garments to which you attach sentimental value, or monetary value, that no longer fit, but you still want them to. Or which belonged to someone else that you want to wear. Like your mother's wedding gown, or a prom dress that has a great price tag on it but needs a few tucks in the waist.

and on it goes. 

And now that we've armed ourselves with our seam rippers and dressmaker's shears and are ready to charge through our closets of forgotten clothes, with the battle cry, "Bring Them On!" gurgling in our throats, I'd like to say what this little series is NOT about:
  • I will NOT be trying to take the place of real, practiced, experienced alterations tailors. These folks see hundreds of body shapes and thousands of garments, in all sorts of combinations, on a regular basis. Everything I know about altering clothes I've only learned from sewing clothes myself (the duds as well as the hits).
  • I will NOT be discussing repairs and mending. This means I will not be covering things like replacing buttons, removing and reinstalling zippers that broke, darning holes in fabric, repairing seams that split etc.
  • I will also NOT be discussing how to sew clothes that fit better. The aim of altering a garment to fit is, ostensibly to er... get it to fit better, and in the course of post-morteming some of my more hideous outfits, we will talk about fit. But the main point won't be the sewing. So please don't be disappointed if, while discussing hemming a skirt or trouser leg, I DON'T show you photos of actual hemming processes. There are already many, many tutorials on the internet on how to do this, and we'd like their authors to have the credit for the work they've done there.
  • I will NOT attempt to impress you with the nomenclature of Adjustments - you know, terms like FBA and other 'official' deviations from the industry standards for commercial patterns (all illusions, anyway). I don't know what they are because I read all the wrong books and, if I did recognize them by sight, I probably have different names for them in my strange and old-fashioned sewing world. Again, we are doing alterations, not adjustments. There are clearly similarities, but we're working with completed garments and we're just using the common-sense (and common-sight) approach. 
  • I will NOT be upcycling, refashioning or recycling. The Ugly Clothes we're altering will stay exactly the same garments they were, except hopefully better-fitting and less ugly. 
  • I will NOT be trying to sell you the idea that any garment can have a second life as a better-fitting one. Some of them truly are easy to alter and some of them are really not worth the time or the money you paid for those garments in the first place. I love saving money as much as the next person, but alteration is not about being frugal, or salvaging every piece of clothing in one's closet.
All the nays aside, what IS this miniseries about, then? It is about
  • some of the different kinds of alterations that can be made on different parts of a garment.
  • what makes some of these alterations "simple" while others, not.
  • where on these garments to make the alteration(s).

Now, at the end of this miniseries, you might discover that
  1. it is entirely possible to make any alteration on any garment, depending on how willing you are to do the work. I say that any alteration is possible because that garment was sewn by someone from scratch, and therefore can be, if necessary, taken apart in reverse sequence, down to its individual elements again and reconstructed. This includes letting out a too-small garment that has NO extra seam allowance and has to have more fabric grafted in somewhere to make it bigger. If a person is willing to do this, and to live with the possibly unmatching, patchwork-esque, imperfect look of the new old garment, it can be done.
  2. however, in most, if not all, cases of alterations, the job is more involved, more time-consuming, and more fiddly than it initially appears to be. Something that you estimate should take you no longer than half an hour usually sets you back a day or two after more careful analysis. If you are lucky, you will realize this before actually having decimated the seams with your seam ripper and thus still possess the option to donate the garment, whole, to Goodwill. Many of us, though, will cut open the blind hem, separate the facing from the waistband or peel back the flat fell seam, only to discover more layers (literally and figuratively) of intricate and bloodletting work beneath. It's like opening a can of worms! I've been there, and kicked myself in the backside, and felt the blood drain from my face in those moments, so you're in good company.

So just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be done, see? And part of being a good seamstress/alter-er, is knowing how to tell the difference and perhaps not wasting your time and effort on the duds. Remember, there are other paths to a new life available to your sad garment:
  • It can be donated to a thrift store and be worn by another person whom it might fit like a glove.
  • It can be recycled - cut up and the fabric used for another garment, sewn from scratch.
  • It can be refashioned - turned into another garment that naturally fits and looks better.
  • It can be thrown away. OK, that's not a new life, but maybe - hey! put that seam ripper down now... gently, gently.... we don't one anyone to get hurt - that's what it takes to get you yours back.

And on that ominous note, let's begin! See you here tomorrow for the first chapter- Tucks and Folds (or something like that)!


  1. I can tell already that this is going to be interesting... and perhaps a bit funny. ;) I will surely be here tomorrow!

  2. I'm excited to see what you have to share...especially after tackling my mending pile today. :)

  3. I can't even tell you how excited I am about this series. THANK YOU!

  4. Can't wait. Do you have a trick for lengthening slacks and jeans? Most stores only carry average length and my legs are longer than my 6 ft tall husbands! (Just kidding, sort of. If the material isn't there they aren't gonna get any longer.)

  5. One more thing to add at the end of your post:

    Some old clothes can be made into rags for cleaning or for the garage.

    Looking forward to your posts!

    Signed, "the too tall lady who should be shopping for clothes in the Netherlands, home of the really tall people, instead of North America." Mind you, now that there are a lot more taller teens, I'm finding a slightly better selection of long clothes, just maybe not age appropriate for a 40 year old...

  6. Oh wow! It felt so good to hear that said out loud and so articulately. It has been the bane of my existence that because I am a crafter of several descriptions that people are forever asking me to do "This little fix" (replacing a zipper in a pair of jeans, for example).
    In trying to be accommodating, I have donated untold hours to keep the price at what I estimated it would be. I began mending/alterations at $15/hr, raised it to $30 to cover the uncounted hours (and, to be truthful, to put off most of the requests).

    1. Laurie: I hear you. I've just made a bench seat cushion. It needs alterations and I think it's hideous as is, but the thought of unpicking all the piping and taking in a seam or five makes me want to throw up. But it must be done. But I don't want to be the one to do it. Ugh.


Thank you for talking to me! If you have a question, I might reply to it here in the comments or in an email.