Saturday, September 24, 2011

Alterations - Tucks and Folds

Many of the simpler kinds of alterations involve the reducing of fullness. Simply, it means the taking in of unwanted ease or extra bagginess/looseness in a garment. This roominess occurs in any part of a garment, except its length (we'll deal with that in a later post). Here are some of its common manifestations:
  • a waistband that is too big
  • bust darts that were meant for a bigger cup size
  • a skirt with balloony hips
  • a sagging crotch seam
  • gaping or oversize armscyes
  • pointy sleeve caps that look like someone stole your shoulder pads
  • a sheath dress that looks more like a banana suit
  • camisole straps that hang the garment soooooooooo low that it defeats the purpose of wearing it in the first place.

If you've sewn garments, you might easily recognize what's wrong with the fit in each of these cases and instinctively know what to do to correct them. These are straightforward alterations in concept because, for instance, if the waistband is 32" wide when your waist is 28", you'll know that you need to take it in by 4". Even without a measuring tape, a simple pinch of the waistband will show you how much needs to disappear.

Now let's look at that very important word in the last sentence: "pinch". It's very revealing, because it's exactly what we will do to make the alteration - turn the excess ease into a fold or tuck. Think of them as permanent pinches, if you will.

We'll start with the simplest of all examples: a tank top whose armscyes are far too big and low.

To correct this, we shorten the shoulder straps.

Because there are no sleeves, all we need to do is turn the garment inside out (as I've done), pinch the shoulder straps at the shoulder, and sew them in by the appropriate amount. This is a tuck. We can make this happen at any point along the shoulder strap, but we usually do it at the natural shoulder seam, because that's where there is already a stitching line. 

Leaving that tuck sticking out would be uncomfortable on your shoulder, not to mention untidy, so we fold it to one side and stitch it down with a zig-zag stitch along its folded edge.

I did my stitches in coordinating thread, of course, but I went over that with a coarse zigzag in white thread just for visibility in the photos. It looks a lot better in real life! See how the tuck lies flat now:

It's still bulky, but it's the simplest way to take in a strap that's already bound on both edges, which is typical of casual knit tanks like this one and you don't want to unpick the binding and do hidden tucks in that as well. Obviously you would use this quick-fix method for only the most informal of garments. Were this a faced or lined strap (like in a tailored tank dress), I'd unpick the facing/lining, make a tuck in the outer fabric layer and a corresponding tuck in the facing layer, trim off the excess seam allowance, press, and re-sew the facing to the outer layer, probably with a ladder-stitch by hand. It would look as good as new, but it would have been a lot of work. If I were doing this commercially, I'd charge $6 for the unfaced job and $25 for the faced one; more if there were also top-stitching to unpick and re-sew.

At the risk of stating the obvious, tucks cannot be used to lengthen straps because by definition, they tuck away excess ease. If, however, the seam allowance at the shoulder were very wide, one could possibly change the seam position to make a bigger armscye and lengthen the strap, provided there was no continuous binding along its edges. But that is a different technique which appears in a later post. 

Other applications of this strap tuck: shortening bra straps, swimsuit straps, camisole straps..... you get the idea. The nice thing about this method is that it's easily reversed. For instance, I shortened the straps of Kate's 3T swimsuit this way when she was 2 years old so they would stay on her shoulders, and returned them to their full length the next year.

Before we go, let's return to the alteration itself - please notice two things:
  1. A side effect of this tuck is that the neckline is also raised slightly. This might be a good thing if the neckline was also too low initially, in which case it'd be a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone situation. It may not always be that happy a solution. However, the point is that sometimes, an alteration in one part of a garment affects the fit in another part. 
  2. By simply making a tuck, we took in the front and back of the garment by the same amount, because of the symmetry of the tuck. Let's introduce some actual numbers to illustrate. Suppose the tuck we made in the tank top in the photos were 1/2" deep, the front neckline AND the back neckline were then both raised by 1/2" each, in addition to the armscye circumference shrinking by 1". This equal-front-and-back reduction is an important thing to consider as we discuss more types of alterations in later posts. Because it is the easiest and fastest way to reduce fullness, many people do it. In some cases, however, the back and front of a garment need to be altered by different amounts, to fit bodies whose backs and fronts are quite different in contours and dimensions. 


  1. oh I do this all the time to my tanktops to raise neckline as I am petite and most tanktop necklines are too deep for me.

    1. Me too! I'm regular sized on the bottom but petite on top and necklines are always gaping! I'm taking all my tanks/camisoles today and doing this. (And shopping in the Petite section in big department stores from now on for shirts!)
      E in Montreal, QC


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