Or: So you want to alter your own clothes?
When it comes to clothes, I try my best to find the best deals and really hunt for what I wear (read: cheapskate). If you’ve read my blog, it’s quite clear that I love to thrift. One thing that does fall by the wayside on here, though, is the fact that I do my own alterations as well. It’s not really something that gets discussed because, well, it’s not that exciting. Finding a pair of Aldens? Thrilling. Slimming down my 30th pair of pants? Zzzzzz.
It’s not exciting, but it’s the single reason I’m able to dress well. I’m a man of meager means (read: broke) and quite frankly, I’d never be able to wear fitted clothes if I had to take it all to the tailors. You just don’t thrift slim clothes. You’ll find blazers that fit in the shoulders, jackets that hit just right in the waist, but you almost never find slim pants or fitted shirts. And while $10-20 dollars a pop to slim a shirt or pants isn’t an awful lot, when you’ve thrifted 40+ shirts, that’s a lot of money. Money better spent on more worthwhile things…like thrifting!
So, I got my grandmother’s old behemoth of a sewing machine, one of the beasts from the 50’s that is made of more metal than my car, and set to work teaching myself how to get fitted clothes. There are some pretty decent tutorials out there for doing stuff like taking in a shirt, taping pants, and things like that, so I won’t bore you with those details. But I figure that there are some things that I wish I knew when I started.
1) Taking in is easier than shortening
The thing I have to do the most to my clothes is slim them. I’ve even had to do it twice for many pieces after losing weight. And the easiest thing to do to clothes? Slim them.
Why? Well, it doesn’t require much thought. You can flip your clothes inside out, pin them to where you want them, and then just sew a straight stitch. If you’re a mad man like me, you can just eyeball the measurements and go to town. It’s one of the reasons I think people should do some of their own tailoring, because it’s jus that easy.
On the other hand, the thing I like doing the least is shortening the length on an item. You might think that hemming a pair of pants is a piece of cake, but really, it’s a more complicated matter than a simple taper. You have to break the original hem, pin it, make sure it’s right, deciding if you want to buy a matching thread color for the pants (taper thread doesn’t show) then slowly put in the new hem (or you’ll sew the leg shut), and being careful to keep a straight line (which isn’t the easiest). Shortening the sleeves of a shirt is worse, because you have to detach the cuff, which is a major pain in the ass, cut the sleeve, then try to sew a straight line, deal with any pleats in the sleeves (most shirts have them), and make sure it doesn’t look like crap. And shortening the sleeves on a blazer? Torture.
The takeaway? You can fix just about anything, but taking in a baggy shirt is way simpler than taking in a long one.
2) Zig-zag stitching saves clothes
When you take in your clothes, you’ll inevitably be left with excess fabric. Sometimes, it’s not that much so you can just leave it alone. But other times, you’ll find yourself with as much as two inches of excess fabric per side. This excess fabric gets in the way of ironing and is just in general a bother. The problem? Cutting fabric leads to fraying. Fraying will quickly destroy your shirt.
There are a few ways around this. First, you should always leave a little excess fabric period. I find that 1/4-1/2” is a good safety net. Now, you could do a flat-fell seam or a french seam. Those are the fancy ones that you have on your ready-made shirts, that are visible from the outside. While these are the best bet, they are also pretty time consuming, and once again, you’ll have to deal with matching thread to fabric. I’ve also heard that pinking shears work, but my one attempt to use them lead to as much fraying as a straight cut despite taking much longer.
The thing I’ve been doing here lately is to do my straight stitch to get the new hem, cut the excess leaving a little bit of an allowance, and then sewing in a zig-zag stitch. While it isn’ fullproof, it should help prevent the fabric from unraveling too much.
That does remind me…
3) No one notices french seams
The seam that professional shirts have? You know, where you can see the stitching that holds the excess fabric to your clothes? Well, no one notices them. Sure, that type of stitching is pretty noticeable on jeans, but even then, I’ve never had anyone call me out for not having it. And on shirts, the only places you’d be losing them would be running under your arm and down the sides of your torso. It’s a bit of a waste of time to try to add them back.
Seriously, no one notices them.
4) Skip the darts
When you take in a shirt, just take it in from the sides. I experimented with darts, and here are my takeaway points.
- You can only do them with solid shirts, or you’ll go insane trying to pattern match
- The extra fabric makes ironing awkward
- Trying to remove the darts will ruin your shirt
The third point is one of the big pros for using darts. While I’m sure a more talented tailor wouldn’t leave holes, I’m not a more talented tailor. And, no offense, you probably won’t be either. It’s just best to skip it altogether.
5) Don’t get too big for your (metaphorical) britches
Building up confidence in your alteration skills takes time. You’ll start off with slimming pants. Then you’ll move onto shirts. Maybe you’ll take in some hems, do a blind hem, take in the waist of your trousers. Then you go to the big ticket items, like slimming the sleeves of a jacket, or taking in the waist of a coat. Hell, you might even do some functional buttonholes. While it takes practice and time, these are all things that are fairly achievable. Ambitious projects are fun.
But like I said, they take practice and time. And there will be occasions where you take on the projects, and because you’ve had some success, you won’t think it out. You won’t plan, you won’t try to find resources, and you’ll end up with ruined clothes.
I’ve tried to alter the rise on pants. I’ve tried to remove pleats. I’ve tried to alter the shoulders of a light jacket. What did I get? Blown out pants, mangled seersucker, and a destroyed Harrington jacket. These are all things that are possible to do. A competent tailor can do them. I can sort of take in the shoulders of a shirt, although it’s still difficult. What I’ve learned is that rushing through things only results in ruined things. Take your time, don’t get in over your head, and you’ll find that you’ll get some pretty great results.
I know that most of my followers aren’t going to do their own alterations, nor have the desire to do so. And that’s cool. I don’t hate cha. But I do hope that if you are contemplating making the leap, you do so. It’s not the most fun, but it is really rewarding. And it’ll help you save money.
Hopefully these tips will help you the way I wish I had them when I first started. And if you need help, send me a message and I’ll see what I can do for you.
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