Meatball Tailoring: Taking in a Shirt

In the previous tutorial, I showed you how to take in a pair of pants.  If you’ve never done any sewing at all, I would think the job was a little bit hard, but overall, it was a simple procedure.  You made one long seam down the leg.

With a shirt, we’re adding another axis.

Here is one of the shirts I found recently while thrifting.  There is a lot of excess material in the body:

and in the arms:

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afistfulofstyle said: Question. Do you think taking in the sides of a vest can be done by just sewing in the side seams, or would I need to take off the lining, tighten and reattach? There is a "belt" along the back, does that need to be taken into consideration? or will I probably just be able to sew over it? And if you've never altered a vest, that's alright too, I'd still take your best guess.

Whenever I’ve taken in vests, I’ve always gone straight up the back.  It might look a little weird at the very top, where there’s the front fabric instead of the viscose/silk.  If it fits fine up there, I’d just start a little below there, and sew down the back seam at an angle.  

Meatball Tailoring: Slimming Pants

Well, I said later in the week, but I just couldn’t wait.  Mainly because I want to wear these pants soon, so I had to get it all done.  So we are going to go straight into tapering pants.

Tapering pants is actually the first thing I learned how to do.  It’s one of the most simple operations you can do, because you are just making one long straight line.  You don’t have to deal with any intersections of different pieces, just the front and back of the leg.

For this (wool, thin/medium dense cotton pants), you are going to need the follow items:

Sewing Machine, thread, 70/10 needle, straight pins, scissors, seam ripper

Optional: Tailor’s chalk

Here we have some wool pants from a suit I thrifted this weekend.  I made sure to pick a pair of pants that already fit in the waist and that fit mostly in length (I might take them up a little, I’m not sure yet).  These aren’t as bad as some pants I’ve tried on, but there is still an excess amount of fabric.  I do prefer a skinnier taper to my clothes, which you may not.  That’s cool.  Keep in mind that since you are doing this, you can alter them in any way you want.

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Meatball Tailoring: The Equipment

Thrifting is one of my favorite activities. Anyone who becomes an avid thrifter enjoys the hunt just as much as the scores. And if you’re persistent enough, you can find some really nice items, if not at least fill out your wardrobe. The downside, however, is that most of the clothes you will find will be baggy. While it should fit well in the shoulders or waist, you’ll probably find very few items that will qualify as fashionable, or even serviceable, in terms of fit.

So, you can take your finds to the tailor. Even with that extra cost, you’re still saving quite a lot over even the cheapest retail. The other choice is to learn how to alter your own clothes. Not only do you save that extra money, but I find that I’ve started to appreciate the construction of clothes a lot more. At this point, I feel pretty comfortable tackling basic jobs and I’m even going to try my hand at shirt-making. It’s a nice skill to have, and with people showing an interest, I’ve decided to write up some how-tos.

Now, I’m going to go ahead and say this now: I’m not a tailor. I’m not an alterationist either. While I’ve read a few articles here and there, and talked to a friend who does theatre wardrobe, I have no formal training. If you look at the inner workings of my clothes, it’s not as pretty as professional work, but it holds up and does its job. That’s why I’m calling this series Meatball Tailoring.  I’ll show you how to do some basic jobs the way I do them.  Of course, it goes without saying that you should probably save your nicer clothes until you have a better grasp on altering stuff.  Please don’t blame me if you ruin your Incotex pants.

Before we get to the actual altering, let’s go over some of the basic equipment.

This is my sewing machine.  It actually belonged to my grandmother, and I’ve now inherited it.  Now, I don’t know much about picking and choosing sewing machines.  If you’re buying a new one, I’d strongly suggest talking to someone at a Jo-Ann Fabric or a store like that.  If you’re buying a thrifted one…I’m not sure.  I do know that older models have seemed to stand the test of time.  This one is from the 60’s, and it still works great.  It’s also heavy.  From what I hear, you want a heavier machine to deal with heavier fabrics/hardcore work.  Take that with a grain of salt.

If you buy a functional model that doesn’t seem to work quite right, there are a lot of places you can take them to get tuned up.  That will run you around 60 dollars.

You should, if you can, read your instruction manual.  It will provide you with plenty of information to make sure you know how to use your machine.  It will also teach you how to do stuff like load the thread and load the bobbin.  (The bobbin is a spool of thread you put inside the machine.  It forms the bottom stitch).

I will go over a few settings.  The blue arrow is pointing to my thread length control.  By turning the knob, I can control how many stitches there are per inch.  The higher the number, the more stitches.  I usually leave this at 12.  The button in the middle of the knob will reverse the feed dogs (what moves the fabric).  I do this at the beginning and end of a line, to prevent the stitches from coming loose.

The red arrow points to the stitch width.  If you are doing a straight stitch (most of what we do), you will leave it on ‘S’.  If you are doing zig-zag stitching (for finishing work), you can set it on any number.  The higher the number, the wider the stitch.  The middle knob controls specialty stitches (blind hems, mending) so we won’t worry about it.

Finally, the green arrow points to the wheel.  When you press down on the pedal, you’ll see this turn.  It’s important because you’ll use it in reverse to pull out the bobbin thread before sewing, use it to raise the needle to get the fabric out, or just to have some manual control.  There is also a wheel inside of it that, when twisted, will stop the needle from going up and down.  This is so you can load a bobbin with thread.


The blue arrow here is pointing to the foot pressure.  Essentially, you want as much pressure pressing down on the fabric as possible.  However, when you have thicker fabric, leaving it on the hardest pressure can make work harder, if not cause you to break needles.  Also, turning it off will allow you to lift the foot with ease.

The red arrow points to the top tension control.  This will be one of the most important things to learn.  If you don’t have it set right, you will end up with clothes that will tear apart at the seams easily.

Here we have a graphic to demonstrate the settings.  Essentially, if you see a straight line of thread, your settings are off.

That’s the basics of the machine.  While there’s a lot to digest, I can assure you that after you learn how to set things, it’s really just “Press pedal/machine works”.  You will need some more hardware:

Scissors- nothing fancy.  I use 3 dollar Wal-Mart ones.  You WILL wear through them after a while, so be prepared to buy more.
Thread- I use white thread for light clothes, and black thread for dark clothes.  Ideally, you won’t see the threads at all.  But, as a novice, something will not set quite right and you’ll probably see hints of thread.  Better safe than sorry.  Polyester is fine.
Needles- I use 70/10.  The higher the first number, the thicker the needle.  I find the 70 handles fabric up to a fairly thick cotton twill.  When you mess up and have to cut the threads, you’ll see that the 70 leaves a small enough hole that ironing/washing will get rid of it.  Bigger needles can leave permanent holes.  You will need bigger needles for denser fabrics like denim, or for lots of material like waistbands.
Straight Pins- I’ll be honest: I eyeball my measurements.  You probably shouldn’t until you’re comfortable with that.
Seam ripper- It’s a little piece of metal in a crescent that has a plastic handle.  It helps rip apart threads when you screw up.  Invaluable.

You’ll need all those things.  Optional tools would be tailor’s chalk if you want to get precise lines and tailor’s measuring tape if you want to be exacting.

A quick note about hand tailoring:  I hate it.  It’s really tedious and for the most part, I don’t do it.  The only times you will need to do hand tailoring is sewing on lining.  I do find that hand tailoring hems is easier than learning blind hems (when you can’t see the thread on the outside).  But I even use the machine for buttons.  That’s how much I hate hand sewing.

Okay.  That was a long post and I know most of you were bored to death.  However, if you’re really brand new to this, you’ll need to know some of this basic stuff.  If you have any questions I haven’t covered here, send me a message and I’ll do my best to help you out.

The next installment we’ll get into the actual sewing when we taper some pants.  Look for it towards the end of the week.

sonyc-its-cool said: Hey nice blog, and clearly a return to foundations is appropriate at times, especially in the b-sphere (ref: 11/29). Question: you mention turning a 2 button or 3 button suit into a 3-roll-2 (adding button, creasing lapels, respectively). I've tried looking into doing this and haven't gotten much guidance short of getting one MTM as such. I have some 3 button suits I'd like to roll (stance is way too high) but not sure the method or outcome I can expect. Advice? Thanks, and blog hard.

Thanks for the compliment!

I haven’t actually converted any suits like that.  I feel I’ve seen someone who has (acutestyle I want to say?), but like you, I’ve only heard rumblings.  However, I do get the gist of how to do it.  You’ll need a steam iron, a towel and some pins.  

Put the suit jacket on, and button it on the second button.  With your left hand, grab the bottom of the left lapel and move it so that the bottom of it is where the second button is.  You’ll want to pin the lapel down so you don’t lose the spot.  Then, do the same thing with the right lapel.  Make sure that the lapels look even.

Go ahead and take the jacket off.  Spray down the old crease with some water, and then hit it with some steam, and press it down for a few seconds.  You should be able to get rid of the crease in one or two tries.

The hard part will be getting that nice, soft roll.  This is a bit of guess work on my behalf.  I would first spray where the lapel folds down with some water, and give it a quick, light press.  You want to give it a little bit of shape, but not put a crease in.  Then, I would put a damp towel over it and press it a little harder for a second or two.  Take off the towel and see what the roll is like.

Obviously, you should do this on a jacket you don’t mind messing up, although since it’s just ironing a crease, I really can’t see there being any permanent damage.

If anyone out there has actually done this operation, give me a shout.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

5 Tips for crazy people

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.