Thursday, December 1, 2011

Alterations - Making Choices

And now we come to the most important part of alterations - 
making the difficult choices.

Suppose you have a shirt that needs its sleeves shortened. Its presenting problem, if you will, is that its sleeves are too long.

Everyone knows that presenting problems are very seldom the real (or full) issue. There is always something else, something more. Suppose the shirt is a proper tailored shirt, with beautiful seam finishing - there is not a single bit of serger stitching anywhere. It has beautifully sewn cuffs

and perfect flat fell seams at the armscye

that look as perfect on the inside (pictured below) as the outside; interfaced, and with chain stitching.

After measuring and fitting the client, you realize that to shorten the sleeves by the needed 3", you will lose almost the entire button placket at the cuff and have to create a brand new one that looks as perfect as the original.

It's a rock-and-a-hard-place scenario, so you call your best sewing friend (the one who's a professional tailor) and ask her. Then you call your mother (the one who sewed her-which-became-your wedding gown) and ask her. Then you fret some more because you don't like what you hear (is there really a choice between rocks and hard places?).

And then, because the shirt has already been sitting under your sewing table for 9 months, you ask the client an important question.
"Incidentally, is this shirt also too loose overall?"


Indeed. And while we're at it, the shoulders are too wide, too. And the sleeves themselves are too loose. 

There is the answer. 

I take a deep breath and unpick the perfect flat fell seams. 
Those around the armscye and those along the side seams.
I also unpick the bottom hem, to accommodate the new side seams.

I take in the side seams. I take in the shoulder. I cut off a chunk of the sleeve cap.

And I shorten the sleeves. Without even going anywhere near the cuffs. 

On the outside, the top-stitching looks as if the shirt was never touched. 

But on the inside........ there is serger stitching, and there are faux fell seams because I was so tired that I couldn't bring myself to re-stabilize the armscye and do real fell seams around a curved edge. When I finished the shirt, I wanted to weep because I had desecrated a beautiful garment. I felt as if I should never, ever be allowed to touch a sewing machine again for my utter disrespect of good workmanship. 

It fits now, though. And that's what alteration is for
But what is alteration about?

And on as sombre a note as we began it, we come to the end of the mini-series on alterations. My aim, if your remember from the somewhat-noir introduction post, was never to pitch you this wonderful, money-saving, new sewing technique to magically turn all your hideous clothes into fits-like-a-glove wonders. Instead, I wanted you to renew your appreciation for the work that tailors do (the good ones, anyway) and be willing to invest in a job well done - whether by yourself, or by a professional that has every right to charge the moon. 

All that said, let's look back at the simple alterations that can be done at home, and which are useful to learn:

Also remember that, in the introduction, we distinguished between alterations (on finished garments) and adjustments (changes made to patterns BEFORE being sewn into garments). Alterations are not something everyone should choose to do, but making adjustments is a skill that every dressmaker should aim to have. So here is link to a useful pictorial summary of the kinds of adjustments you can make to your paper patterns before sewing them into garments, so they fit you better and, hopefully, reduce the need for alterations later.

As a side-aim of this miniseries, I also wanted to share with you the Whys of alteration, rather than the quick-fix Hows. In a modern sewing movement that rides on fast, feel-good, miraculous and fun, alterations are something right out of the dark ages. If you've come away from these posts thinking, "Ooof. I'm demotivated to do anything other than the very simplest take-ins and let-downs." I have succeeded. Forgive my wet-blanketness, but what your mother said was true afterall: we'd much rather sew a brand-new garment from scratch than alter one to fit. Do the simple ones, but leave the others to the professionals - find one whose work you like, and pay them. Pay them well. Without complaining.


  1. Really good tailors are amazing. And definitely underpaid when you consider their skill level!

    How do you find time to do all this with your three little girls?!!

  2. Hurray!

    For that entire last paragraph.

    For altering your husband's shirt cleverly.


  3. Gosh, that shirt would've fit Grandpa perfectly... he has those long arms! ;)

    Nice series that gave understanding to things I never would've thought of. And you have succeeded... most definitely! :)

  4. Wow... thank you so much for sharing what you know to alterations. I feel the same way. I would much rather sew from scratch than to try to alter something that has been well made.

    A quick story: When I would travel to the Philippines, I always go to a specific shop to have suits made. If you see the shop, you would think nothing of it and keep walking, but the tailor... OH MAN, is he good! I can't wait to go back this spring and have some things made. I want to "study" his work and hopefully learn something new.

    Thanks Lier for sharing!!!

  5. poor hubby would have just worn it long :-)
    Well-stated post! So, do you have a favorite reference on how things *should* fit? I have lots of pattern-fitting references, but they don't explain exactly *how* things should fit the body (like the article you linked about pants hem length).

  6. @Melissa
    Melissa - as did mine, for many, many months.

    About fit: I don't think there is a SHOULD fit rule. Different people like different fits -some like roomier, some like more body-skimming. For sure, everyone knows when something is too tight, but beyond that, it's preference. If you wear enough good and bad clothes, you'll eventually know which ones fit you better (they're the ones that look best on you!).

    1. You talking ease here, not fit. Different animal...

  7. @Venus
    Venus, I'd love to meet this tailor, too! I know so many people who have their wedding and business suits custom-tailor-made in Asia, and they live in the Western hemisphere! They make stops at their favorite tailors there on their trips around the world or deliberately fly to those countries to get them done. We have a tailor close to where my mum lives in Singapore. I've walked past his shop countless times, growing up. I bet he's pretty good, too.

  8. What a wonderfully informative series. I've only recently started following your blog and I am super impressed. You explain these fairly complicated concepts clearly and have left me with the sense that I could tackle these alterations too, should I need to. Thanks.

  9. Hi LiEr, I've been reading your blog for a while - I'm in Singapore. And I feel compelled to post a comment this time because my husband always asks me to shorten his shirt sleeves - and I always beg him to just take it to a tailor! His shirts fit well apart from the sleeves so it would mean redoing the cuff and I would sooner sew a shirt from scratch! Thank you for your alterations mini-series! So informative! Fiona.

  10. Thank you thank you for this series. You are really very good at what you do. And also very good at explaining what you do. I LOVE your blog...and all the help you have given me in my sewing endeavors.

  11. I really appreciate your comments about being willing to pay a good tailor for quality work. I have worked as a tailor for quite some time now and I try to encourage others who who sew for $ to charge appropriately. So many seriously undercharge. Just my 2 cents worth.

  12. @Mindy
    Thanks, Mindy! I sometimes wonder if I like teaching sewing more than doing sewing! I think both!

  13. @eye_on_sparrow
    Hear ye! Hear ye! A relative who does paid alterations told me what she charges and I was flabbergasted - it was FAR too little! Another relative had a wool coat that needed its lining replaced - a professional tailor quoted him US$100. Now that's more like it, even though $100 is a hefty sum per se.

  14. Thank you for the last paragraph about being willing to pay for good, professional work. I think that most people are of the mindset that they should not have to pay for alterations, and that the person doing the work should not be charging for it. It is a very hard business to choose if you want to earn a living wage.

  15. I am short. All sewing for me is altering.

    It is good to remember why we want alterations made: for me, it's loved clothing that just doesn't quite work. Right now I'm in the midst of a tshirt redo, which seems silly in terms of what a t shirt costs to buy. I would much rather spend the time and get quality goods out of the efforts; as a sewist I know the value of clothes that fit in fabrics that I love. It's just as hard to make a new one as to alter an old one.

    Another issue is: finding good fabrics. I buy and alter old clothes because I can't find the equivalent. I find the learning experience in taking old things apart the best sewing lessons. In taking apart the shirt in question, really examining the construction probably taught you (and I) more about sewing than reading a book on the topic.

    At the end of the day, all sewing is unpicking seams.

  16. Wow, that much! thanks for the explanation!

  17. Thanks for this very informative article about clothing alterations!

    If anyone needs to make alterations to clothes in Singapore, you can contact my mum, Mdm Chan, at 64416812, or HP at 84293817.

    She provides alteration services freelance from home, and this has always been her passion and was her previous profession. Her location is at Blk 23 Chai Chee Road, Bedok area, especially convenient for those who stay in the East Side. All my related family have their clothes altered by her.

    Many Thanks :)

  18. thank you! I can't get past the fact that sewers/sewistss (myself included) who know how much skill, effort, time goes in to a garment are reluctant and/or horrified at the cost of a good tailor. I am certainly of the I'd rather make it from scratch school of thought. Hems, maybe...

  19. I am not horrified at paying price for good craftmanship. It is just that I cannot afford it. I like sewing, it is fitting that is time consuming effort, and so rarely successful. Here in France tailors are almost an extinct species, and none around
    makes clothes for women, or a personnal sloper for man or woman.


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