Wardrobe From Scratch, Part 3b: Alterations and Tailoring 101

Wardrobe From Scratch: Easy Alterations

After one of my posts mentioning tailoring and alterations stirred up a number of questions I decided to dedicate a post to it all!  Consider this like a Section B to the Basic Guide to Proper Fit from the Wardrobe From Scratch Series.

Intro to Tailoring and Alterations
Many people think that it is impossible to find clothes that fit them, and honestly this may be true if you are expecting clothes to fit you right off the rack.  I used to think it was impossible for me to find pants. Since I have disproportionately larger hips and thighs compared to my waist, it seemed that whatever pair I could squeeze my thighs into ended up being too big in the waist.

It was frustrating to shop for pants and I hated the disappointment I often felt, condemning my body for not being “right”–whatever a “right body” is supposed to be like.  Whatever body fits into clothing straight off the racks, I suppose.

Make the Clothes Work for You, Not Against You
Like I said, it might very well be impossible for you to find clothes that fit you straight off the rack, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate a wardrobe that fits you well and flatters you.  One thing Stacy and Clinton always say is that you have power over the clothes.  If things don’t fit, it’s not because there is something wrong with you, rather, something is wrong with the clothes!  And the great news is that we don’t have to take clothes at face value off the racks.  You actually have the power to make the clothes work for you rather than feeling like they’re working against you.

That’s where alterations come in.  Alterations are extremely helpful for those of us who cannot find what we need straight off the rack.  While this is useful for particularly curvy women or petite women, it’s actually true for most of us!  I don’t consider myself particularly curvy or petite and still over half of my pants have been to the tailor.

Even though I mostly only have very simple alterations done on my clothes, I put together a 101 guide to clothing alterations in an attempt to the questions you guys asked.

Keep In Mind
One thing Fran said was, “I’ve never been to the tailor.  I don’t even know how to explain what I want.”  If tailors are totally foreign to you, don’t worry.

Buy garments that are returnable if you are unsure about possible alterations.  You can take the garment to the tailor and they will be able to tell you if what you want to do is possible and how much it would cost.  If they can’t do what you want or it’s more expensive than you’re comfortable with, you don’t have to get the item altered and can always return it to the store.

A Good Tailor Can Help You
A tailor should be able to look at the garment and tell you what’s wrong with it.  Often times I’ll change into the pants I want altered, and without me even saying anything the tailor will look at it and know, “You want to take in the waist?”  “Do you want to hem the pants?”  You can say yes or no, of course.  And whatever you want them to do, they will start pinning stuff.  If it’s too short or too tight or not short/tight enough then let them know and they’ll repin.

That said, I think it’s still important to know what kinds of alterations are possible so that when you’re shopping you can know what your options are.  The following list will be helpful.

What Can Be Altered 
The easiest alterations to make are ones where there’s already a seam.  The more seams a garment has, usually the more possible and flexible it is to alter.

Here’s a quick list to help you know what kinds of things you can tailor.  I broke them up into two categories, the first being easy and common alterations–the cheap and quick ones!


building a wardrobe from scratch

The second category are the ones that are a little more involved.  Garments with lining are not difficult for a tailor, just a bit more expensive for you.  Garments with intricate details may be very involved and much more expensive.  How much more expensive it is depends on how much you want done on the garment and how difficult the seamstress deems it to be.

Note: the rise of the pants cannot be altered, so make sure that fits.  Correction! Someone commented below that it can be possible to alter the rise.  See the comments below for more info.


Identifying Garments to Alter
A couple of people asked questions like this:
  • “If you love a pair of pants and know you’re going to have to get them tailored, do you intentionally size up?” (Kate)
  • “Do I buy pants that are in “my size” but fit weirdly in a certain way, or do I buy pants that I like, but are a couple sizes up so the tailor can cut them down?” (Whitney)
The more alterations you do, the more expensive it gets.  Personally, I wouldn’t buy a garment that is a few sizes too big that I’d have to alter in a bunch of different places.  Instead of completely altering a garment I look for one that mostly fits but that I would need at most 1-2 alterations, particularly from the “easy and common” list, aka the cheaper list.  If the garment needs a LOT of work (read: requires a lot of money to alter), for me, it had better be a one-of-a-kind, can’t-live-without thing.  But if you have such a unique shape that a lot of alterations are absolutely necessary, then factor that into your budget when shopping and deciding on pieces.
Fit the Widest Part of You
What to look for, says Stacy and Clinton, is a garment that fits the widest part of you.  This could be “my size,” a size up, a size down, whatever.  Don’t get me started on how the number on the tag is kind of arbitrary and how we don’t need to be bound by it.  Just pick whichever one actually fits the widest part of you!  From there you can alter the rest to fit you.
For me with pants, I look for what fits my thighs and have the seat and waist taken in.  I have had the seat and waist taken in for all of these pants:
original outfit posts:  one / two / three / four / five
As you can see, I wouldn’t be able to find colored denim without the help of alterations!
If your waist is bigger than your hips or your legs, buy pants that fit your waist and have the hips taken in and/or the leg of the pants narrowed.  Big bust and small waist?  Buy a garment that fits the bust and have the waist narrowed.  Small bust and larger waist?  Buy a garment that first the waist and have the bust narrowed.  Getting the hang of it?  🙂
“If only this one thing were different…”
Sometimes I’ll try on a garment and wish I could change just one thing.  Keeping the “easy and common” list in mind, if it’s possible and the cost of the garment plus the cost of the alteration is within my budget, I’ll go for it.
For example, this dress was like $11 (or something like that) at Forever 21.  I wished it also came as a top.  I knew that since it wasn’t lined the cost to hem it into a top would just be a few dollars, costing me under $20 after alterations.  That was more than reasonable to me!  (Now that I have a sewing machine I would have done that alteration myself, though.)
original outfit posts: one  //  two
I also found these very inexpensive skirts at Forever 21, but they were 3/4 length which looked horrible on me.  “If they were just a little shorter!!” I wished.  Well, thank you Mrs. Tailor for fixing my problem!
one  //  two


Use the Basic Guide to Proper Fit to help you figure out how a garment should fit you.  Having a handle on how things could fit better will help you identify and imagine what needs to change about a potential purchase to look better on you.

Making an Investment
An item like a blazer might require a lot of alterations to fit you perfectly, and while I talked about wanting to do the least alterations possible, sometimes certain pieces are worth investing in.  For example, if you often need to wear a suit it would be a worthwhile investment for you to tailor a nice suit jacket to fit you perfectly.  But still, don’t get one a few sizes too big–still fit the widest part of you and go from there.
Finding a Tailor
There are sooooo many tailors out there that I believe word of mouth is best.  Tailors can be very hit or miss.  I’m lucky enough to live in a city where a lot of people use Yelp.com which helped me find a tailor that I was willing to hedge my bets on.
I would be sure to not only compare reviews from Yelp or word of mouth but also to compare prices.  Prices can vary wildly, yes depending on how many alterations you’re asking for, but they can also vary tremendously for the same service.
I go to a cheap Vietnamese place, so hemming costs like $5, taking in the waist $9, etc.  Other places might be $10-20 for a hem and $15 for the waist.  With such huge ranges, I really recommend comparing prices.  Check their websites or call them to ask how much a few different services are to compare across shops (ie. cost to hem jeans and cost to take in bust).


WHEW!  If you made it this far, you are amazing.  I know it was long, but hopefully it answered your questions on tailoring.If you have other tips on tailoring that I left out, please share them in the comments below so we can all learn!

**For all 6 parts of the Wardrobe From Scratch Series, click HERE.

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  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Thank you so much. I just purchased a pair of black jeans that I intentionally ordered in a size too long so that I can get them hemmed to the perfect length. My first tailoring experience!!

    If that goes well, I'm taking in my new thrifted Dior blazer for sleeve alterations. $8 for that dang blazer!!

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 4:02 am

    When taking in the seat of pants, does that change the placement of the pockets? I would think that that would make it look quite odd! But none of your pictures are from the back. Thanks!

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 4:08 am

    Something else to mention is zippers. They can be replaced but can cost more than the garment itself. I had bought a cheap dress that needed the sides taken in, but the zipper was located on the side and would have cost more than the dress itself. I decided to leave it as is and just wear a blazer or cardigan over it.

    Great list; I didn't realize you could also have the seat of the pants taken in too! Excellent information as always.

  • Reply
    Kariann Deno
    February 9, 2013 at 4:14 am

    Thanks for the tips. I would love to have the problem of having a too small waist. 🙂

  • Reply
    We Love Sewing in Manila
    February 9, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Great post, I often alter store bought clothes for my husband (huge neck so chest and sleeves are always too big) and daughter. I sew myself, so my clothes (nearly) always fit! One comment though: the rise on pants, can sometimes be adjusted. It can be shortened as long at the waistband will still fit as it will then be sitting lower down on a (wider) part of your hips. It can also sometimes be lengthened a little by deepening it out the crotch curve. However this adjustment would not raise the rise by inches, but would be more to improve fit.

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 5:38 am

    Love this post! Thank you for the sound advice and tips for tailoring. I have been struggling to find colored jeans, or any skinny jeans for that matter, that fit over my legs and bum. And when I've sized up, I end up with 2 and 3 inch gaps in the waist or a poofy crotch area. Argh the pains of fashion! Your post gives me hope that I may be able to dive into the world of colored jeans now! Thank you!

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 5:52 am

    I tried to go to a tailor once and she scared me away forever!…(well until now). My friend gave me a pair of Banana Republic slacks that I loved they just needed hemmed and the legs taken in. The tailor was so rude and told me the pants were a horrible quality and it would be a waste to hem them; That I should invest in better clothes. Even spending $15 would have been worth it to me since the pants were free. Not only did this confuse me about tailors it confused me about what is considered quality clothing!

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 6:20 am

    Hi There! I just found your site through Pinterest and am loving it! I saw that you're in the San Diego area and so am I… was wondering if you can recommend a good tailor?

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    February 9, 2013 at 8:49 am

    In my experience, I haven't noticed anything odd about pocket placements. You can't even tell anything was altered–which is how it should be with a good tailor. If you're worried, they'll pin, and you can see how the pockets look, and if you think it looks awkward you can tell them you've changed your mind.

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    February 9, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Great to know! Thanks for the info on adjusting the rise.

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    February 9, 2013 at 8:51 am

    What a horrible business model–telling someone it would be a waste to offer their services! I'm sorry to hear about that. If you ever decide to try a tailor again I hope your experience is far better!

  • Reply
    Lynette Marie
    February 9, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you SO MUCH for putting all this information together for us! I have a good handful of clothing pieces that I love but just never wear because they've gotten too big or were always ill-fitting. I need to just suck it up and take them to the tailor, and your experience with prices at the end there made me feel a little more assured that maybe it won't be a $30 expense to fix a few of the pieces I have. Thanks again! 🙂

  • Reply
    Kelsey Wilburn
    February 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    this is an awesome post and totally appreciated. thank you for sharing.

    kw ladies in navy

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Great post! I have the skills to do a lot of alternations myself but I haven't figured out how to take in a blazer yet. I need to find a good tailor because that's work the investment to me 🙂

  • Reply
    February 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    This is so so helpful, thanks for sharing. I have such a problem with trousers as they're always too loose on the legs, now though I'd definitely consider getting them and finding a decent tailor. I can't wait to shop differently and not ignore certain clothes if they don't fit perfectly. Oh dear though, my poor bank balance!


  • Reply
    February 10, 2013 at 3:23 am

    Great tip about the tailoring! I'm short and curvy, so often I don't find the right fit in petite sizes (or they're not on sale). I can't resist sales and have gotten quite a few pants that fit well except for being a tad too long. Fortunately, my mother is excellent at sewing and I can get these alterations done for free. I definitely feel your frustrations about not being able to buy pants that fit well right off the rack.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2013 at 5:29 am

    This is an interesting post. I'm an alterationist and do mostly formalwear and bridals, so it's interesting to read about from the other perspective. I would say you are getting a great price for your alterations. I find that it is difficult for me to charge people for what my services are worth, especially for street clothes. My line of work is very specialized (and a dying art!) and it's frustrating when people expect to get quality alterations for so cheap. Just because someone only paid $10 for a shirt doesn't make my work any less valuable. That is why I do more formalwear…..the value of the clothing increases the value of the alterations. All in all, great post, just trying to add some perspective from the other side. I'm trying to make a living and raise a family just like everyone else. If you wouldn't trust your grandma to alter it, then be expected to pay someone what it's worth.

  • Reply
    February 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    What a helpful article! I have the hardest time finding pants that don't bag in the rear end and thought I was destined to wear dresses forever. I had no clue that a tailor could fix that! Thank you!

  • Reply
    February 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    That's it! I am taking all my pants and dresses to the tailor, STAT!

  • Reply
    February 10, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Wow, thank you so much for putting this series together, Audrey! This is a major help! Also, I secretly like the fact that the pants you pictured have all been tailored– it really drives home the fact that good fitting pants are hard to find, but it doesn't mean that you can't have pants that fit you well.

    Kate @ A Journey in Style

  • Reply
    February 11, 2013 at 3:59 am

    This is such a great post! I have a difficult time finding pants that fit perfectly, and shirts that are long enough without being too baggy; being tall can be a pain. I've never had alterations done on "normal" clothes before, because I didn't know enough about what to ask for, prices, etc. Thanks for filling me in, this is definitely something I'll consider doing!

  • Reply
    Mrs.M in MI
    February 11, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    If you have one near you, a good place to start looking for a tailor is a Nordstrom Rack (or a Nordstrom, but I don't know if their prices might be more expensive). I've moved around a bit and found that the work was good and the prices reasonable across a few different stores, though they do charge you more to alter clothes you did not buy at their store.

    Also, we have a Nordstrom credit card, which means my husband and I get $100 of free alterations each year. This past year, we ended up paying a dollar for simpler alterations on a jacket, 2 shirts, and 2 skirts.

    I swear this isn't a Nordstrom ad (though my husband worked for them several years ago), I just really like my tailor there!

  • Reply
    February 11, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    I have had the seat of pants taken in and also had the rise adjusted on several pairs. It DID change the placement of the pockets a little bit. In my particular case, the pockets are now closer together. I don't think it looks bad though and I doubt anyone but me notices. I think its worth at least trying out. A good tailor should be able to tell you what could potentially happen to the pocket placement after the alterations.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2013 at 2:14 am

    Just to add my two cents: trying to fix a poor fit in the shoulder or neck of a garment is quite a difficult, and expensive undertaking. Taking in the shoulders of an item will require removing the sleeves, recutting the garment, and often not having fabric in places that you would need it. It is much easier to just make sure the garment fits your top half in the first place, or give it a pass!

  • Reply
    Autumn Rosenbaum
    February 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Question, skinnies, hem or just roll??

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    February 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    It depends how much longer the pants are than you need them to be and if you're going to wear them with flats or heels. If they are extremely long, hem.

  • Reply
    February 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    I think I read in one of your previous entries that you're in San Diego- Would you mind sharing which tailor you use? I tend to do most of my hemming and bootcut-to-skinnies alterations myself, but I have a pair of pants that would be perfect if the seat fit better, and I have no idea how to fix that myself.

  • Reply
    Mary Christine
    February 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    A bit late to the party here, but I had to say THANK YOU Audrey for introducing some of your readers to the satisfaction a bit of tailoring can bring! You look so put-together 100% of the time, so you are a natural candidate to demonstrate its benefits.

    I have a small alterations shop in Chicago (first anniversary party coming up in 2 weeks!), and have not lacked for business since opening. I have found that for many people, altering every item of clothing one buys is not feasible, but for a certain category of clothing (like work pants, waists on jeans, dress hems), many people find it reasonable to spend a bit extra in order to get the perfect fit.

    I do recommend to everyone: go through your closet, gather up the clothes that don't fit well or have been bugging you, make an appointment with a tailor of good repute, and spend an hour going through them with him/her. I love helping people sort through their closets, ascertaining what's worth the work, what you don't care about, and maybe something you'd like to try, on a garment that hasn't been in the rotation for over a year. After some wardrobe try-ons, I've even had a few clients come to the decision that they just need to buy a different size than they'd been used to!

    If nothing else, you will have extra space in your drawers that had up til now been taken up by clothes that you weren't even wearing!

    I must say also, Audrey, that you are getting an insane deal on five-dollar pant hems, especially from a tailor you trust! I hope your tailor never retires 🙂

  • Reply
    February 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Over the past year, I've been experimenting with tailoring my clothes, and some have turned out well ($18 Ann Taylor blazer now fits like it was made for me) and others have not ($40 BR skirt now has a new owner). I've learned that with hourglass shape, I will always need to have the waist of pencil skirts taken in.

    All that said, I'm wondering if I should step into some new territory: taking in the legs of pants. I got some nice work pants during the Thanksgiving sales, but since this was after all the eating, I had put on some turkey weight. For better or worse, I quickly returned to my normal size, and these pants are now quite baggy- some don't seem to fit properly even with a belt. My friends and mother insist they look fine, but I wonder if I should go see a tailor? How baggy should pants be before you take them in? Should I just think of these as my "wideleg" or "fat" pants?

  • Reply
    Liz Dulacki
    March 3, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Like you, I often have to have the waist taken in on my pants if they fit correctly on my thighs. But the pants look so much better when they fit correctly than if the waist is paper-bagged with a belt or sagging down, or alternately, the thighs are too tight. I've also often had to have straps of dresses shortened and the side seams taken in – relatively easy alterations as well.

  • Reply
    March 8, 2013 at 3:59 am

    how did you learn to do your own alterations?

  • Reply
    Katie Harris
    March 18, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Can I just say this post is life changing? I cannot find a pair of jeans to fit me to save my life! Im the opposite of you, the thighs/hips are loose and waistband is too tight (cue vomit inducing muffin top). I'm just due for a new pair of jeans and all of a sudden the dread of jeans shopping is gone! I might be asking for the name of your tailor in a few weeks 🙂

  • Reply
    March 26, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Oh you might think so, but it leads to a lot of panty exposure (without tailoring, that is). No one wants plummer's behind. 😉

  • Reply
    March 28, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    I can't even begin to tell you how much I love your blog, and how much it has helped me even in just 4 days!!! I had to comment here though because I am so glad that I read this page, instead of skipping it. I was thinking, "My clothes fit, why should I read this?" but luckily I read it anyway. I have been through my closet and not only was I able to find most of my pieces to build my wardrobe from scratch (from my closet to start with), I was able to figure out what to toss SO much easier than my usual, "but I love it" or, "one day I'll wear it again". While scouring my closet I tried a lot on and found that, NO they did not fit!! Shirts too long, skirts to long, blazer sleeves too long (yeah, I'm short). I do a lot of sewing and I've spent the last 2 days altering a bunch of my clothes. It doesn't look like they were altered. It looks like I lost 12lbs. Skirts I loved but could never seem to make them look good- now look great with so many tops. I feel like I just got a whole new wardrobe! Ok, now off to study the rest of you pages!! Oh, one little thing- I read somewhere else that the ideal skirt length for people over 30/40 is right at the back of the knee where the leg is thinnest (for anyone here that might be in that age group).

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    March 31, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    I love it, Christina! That's amazing that you look like you lost 12 lbs! Thanks for writing!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Audrey would you consider having sewing tutorials on here as well? I bought a sheer black top online but it's way too small 🙁 I want to add lace panel detail in the back for width but I have no idea how to sew and returning it is a hassle. Thanks!

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    May 3, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Haha! I'm pretty sure you don't want me doing sewing tutorials. But the blog you *should* go to for that is http://www.merricksart.com/ One of my faves!

  • Reply
    Adrienne Strong
    May 4, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    thanks! I ended up giving it away to a friend, but I'm so short that even petite pants are long on me 🙁 I'll take any help I can get! Thanks

  • Reply
    July 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    This post is very eye opening! Me too like many others didn't realize that alteration is the key!! I have never had any alterations done. Now to find a good tailor with reasonable charges 🙂

  • Reply
    Michelle Arnold
    September 25, 2013 at 6:39 am

    I am new to your blog and I think it's phenomenal! I use to be a skinny woman that could wear anything. After three children I feel like I've forgotten everything and nothing fits right! I had no idea you could have the seat of your jeans taken in!

  • Reply
    Cody Doll
    March 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Girl this is so what I needed to read and I wish I read it first before I got rid of so many clothes. Now I know I can find pants that will fit my thighs, butts AND waist. Or get shirts that will fit my bust and waist. I will be totally looking at clothes so differently now.

  • Reply
    Audrey @ Putting Me Together
    March 25, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Yes! It makes such a huge difference!  Good luck 🙂

  • Reply
    Sigrún Erna Geirsdóttir
    April 6, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Hi! My husband is travelling to Shanghai and I was thinking about having some clothes tailored. What measurements would they need? Would I need to send more than one picture of the garment I wish to have made if I don't have the sewing pattern? Thanks for a very good post.

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