There’s nothing so frustrating as having a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. Maybe you’ve lost a few pounds, and pants that once fit you like a glove now fit more like a saggy diaper. Or maybe you have a whole stack of shirts that you bought because they were such great bargains, but every time you try them on you remember that the sleeves are too long or they gape open between the buttons. Perhaps you even have a few garments lurking in your closet that were the height of fashion when you bought them, but now they make you look like you’re stuck in the past.
This situation isn’t as hopeless as it sounds. With the help of a good tailor, you can turn all these near misses into perfect fits. Those too-big pants can be taken in, the shirt sleeves can be shortened, and even those oversized jackets can be updated to a slimmer, modern silhouette.
Of course, all this doesn’t come free of charge. Yes, alterations cost money, but usually far less than it would cost to replace the clothes completely. Not every garment is worth altering, but for pricey items – or anything that you really love and can’t bear to lose – alterations can be a great investment.
Benefits of Clothing Alterations
Getting clothes altered is a bit more work than buying new ones off the rack. First you have to find a reliable tailor. Then, for each garment being altered, you have to make two trips to the shop – one to drop off the clothes, and one to pick them up – and try them on each time.
However, alterations can be worth the extra effort. There are several reasons why having your old clothes altered is often a better bet than buying new:
- The Perfect Fit. The clothes you buy off the rack are made to fit a generic body, with measurements that fall close to the average. However, real bodies aren’t one-size-fits-all. Each person’s measurements are slightly different, so when you buy off the rack, the best you can usually hope for is a fit that’s “good enough.” But by having your off-the-rack purchases altered, you can make them fit like they were made for you – and for a fraction of the cost of real custom tailoring.
- Shifting Size. Not only is your body different from everyone else’s, it doesn’t always stay the same from one year to the next. So if you’ve lost 10 pounds in the past year, the pants that fit you fine last winter are likely to look a bit baggy this winter. You could just give them away, or keep them in the closet in case you gain the weight back – but with just a little adjustment, you can keep on wearing them and save yourself the trouble of buying new ones.
- Changing Styles. Fashions change from year to year, and clothes that still have plenty of life left in them sometimes end up stuck in the back of the closet just because they look dated. However, bringing them up to date is sometimes as simple as raising a hemline or removing a pair of oversized shoulder pads. Even just replacing the buttons with a more modern style can give a garment a fresh new look.
- Keeping Yourself Decent. Minor alterations can keep your clothes from slipping, sliding, and gaping in ways that expose a bit more than you’d like. For instance, busty ladies can add tiny snaps between the front buttons on a shirt to keep it neatly closed at all times. Women with narrow shoulders can keep their blouses from slipping down over them by adding small loops on the insides of the shoulders to snap over their bra straps and hold the blouse in place.
- Save Old Favorites. Clothes that wear out don’t always have to go in the rag bag. Sometimes it’s possible to extend their life by replacing a lining or turning a worn collar. But even when that’s impossible, a skilled tailor can sometimes keep your old favorites alive by making an exact copy of the garment. This is a pricey service, but for a garment you truly love and can’t replace, it can be worth it.
- Take Advantage of Deals. Sometimes, you find a truly exquisite bargain on a sale rack or in a thrift shop, but it just doesn’t quite fit. Rather than passing up the deal, you can take it to a tailor and have the garment altered to fit. If the price is low enough, the total cost – even after alterations – is often less than paying retail.
How Much Alterations Cost
The cost of alterations varies quite a lot. Some jobs involve much more complex sewing than others, and therefore cost more. However, even for the same job, the price depends on where you live and what kind of tailor shop you use.
Prices for common alterations typically fall into these broad ranges:
- Hemming Pants, Skirts, or Dresses: $10 to $25 – Skirts with a lining cost more to hem than unlined ones.
- Shortening Sleeves: $15 to $40 – Jacket sleeves cost more than shirt sleeves, and jackets with buttons and linings cost more than plain ones.
- Adjusting a Waistband: $15 to $25 – Pants or skirts with linings cost more than unlined ones.
- Taking In a Dress Shirt: $15 to $30
- Taking In a Jacket or Vest: $20 to $50 – Jackets with three seams cost more than those with two. Taking in the sleeves costs an additional $20 or so, and adjusting the shoulders costs around $40.
- Taking In a Sheath Dress: $30 to $50 – Raising the waist on a dress costs around $60.
- Shortening a Suit Jacket: $30 to $40
- Replacing a Zipper: $20
- Replacing the Lining on a Garment: $50 to $150
The Value of Alterations
Alterations aren’t exactly cheap. For instance, suppose that you buy a suit on sale for $200, and then you have the jacket and jacket sleeves taken in, the waistband on the pants altered, and the sleeves shortened. By the time you’ve finished altering your $200 suit, it could end up costing you as much as $335.
However, by spending that $335, you’re essentially getting a custom fit for far less than the cost of a custom-made suit. A Chicago tailor interviewed by CNBC says he charges anywhere from $800 to $1,800 for a “made to measure” suit – one constructed to fit the buyer’s exact measurements – and that’s with the sewing done overseas, where labor is much cheaper. A “bespoke” suit – one that’s custom fitted and sewn in the tailor’s Chicago shop – costs between $2,800 and $4,800.
Even compared to buying off the rack, alterations can save you money. That’s because you can use them to take advantage of even bigger bargains from thrift shops and clearance racks. For instance, on a recent thrift-shopping trip, my husband found a suit for $59. The jacket fit him perfectly, but the pants were too big, so we had them taken in and hemmed for $35. Altogether, we paid less than $100 for a suit that I later discovered would have cost $650 retail.
Getting the Most for Your Money
Alterations are only worth the money if you actually like the result. If the tailor doesn’t do a good job – or if you didn’t really like the garment that much to begin with – then all you’ll have at the end is a lighter wallet and a garment you still don’t want to wear. So to get the best value for alterations, you need to start with two things: a good tailor, and an outfit that’s worth the trouble of altering.
Finding a Good Tailor
The most difficult part of getting alterations done is finding the right tailor. Many department stores and dry cleaners offer tailoring services, but most style experts usually say it’s not worth bothering with them. According to style blog Alterations Needed, dry cleaner tailors usually can’t handle anything beyond a simple hem, while department store tailors are usually rushed, overworked, and not that interested in your particular needs as a client.
Dappered, a website devoted to affordable men’s style, agrees, stating, “You need a tailor that is your tailor. Someone who knows what you like and what you can’t stand, and can replicate that same look after they perfect it on (hopefully) the first garment you bring to them.” However, department store tailors are worth a try, since they usually have decent skills and low prices – and are sometimes even free for simple fixes, such as hemming.
Unless you’re very lucky, you’re not going to find the right tailor for you by picking a listing at random from the Yellow Pages. Here’s what style experts suggest:
- Ask Around. Many sources say the best way to find a good tailor is to ask people you know. Alterations Needed recommends talking to “impeccably dressed men” or “perfectly tailored and well dressed women” to find out who alters their clothes. Dappered says that even for men, women are usually the best people to ask, noting that he found his superb tailor through one of his wife’s former coworkers. According to Alterations Needed, you can also ask high-end clothing stores where they send their clients for tailoring, since they’re likely to recommend only the best. Online style forums are another place to look for recommendations of tailors in your area.
- Check Reviews. If you don’t have anyone to ask, try searching local review sites such as Yelp and CitySearch for phrases such as “tailors” or “alterations.” Look at the tailors who earn the highest overall reviews and see what people like and don’t like about them. Pay extra attention to reviews from other people with your particular body type, such as petite or busty.
- Look for Experience. In particular, if you’re seeking alterations on an expensive designer garment, look for an experienced tailor who works with this kind of clothing on a regular basis. Kendall Farr, author of “The Pocket Stylist,” recommends looking for tailors who advertise themselves as specialists in custom menswear – even if you’re female. A tailor who can make a custom men’s suit from scratch, she says, can easily handle even the trickiest alterations. If you’re altering a garment made with a material that’s particularly hard to work with, such as leather or fur, look for a tailor who specializes in these fabrics.
- Examine Their Work. Before hiring a tailor, ask to look at the clothes they have hanging on the racks waiting to be picked up. Examine each piece carefully to make sure the work looks good. Stitches should be neat and even, with no pulling or puckering; hems and sleeves should be even. It shouldn’t be possible to tell, from the outside, that the garment has been altered at all. Extra Petite, a style blog for petite women, offers a detailed guide to discerning good alterations from shoddy ones.
- Start Out Small. Don’t entrust a complicated job, such as taking in a winter coat, to a tailor you’ve never used before. Instead, start out with something small and simple, like hemming a pair of pants or taking in a waistline. Once you’ve seen that the tailor does competent work with these smaller jobs, you can feel more confident about handing over a difficult or expensive one.
Knowing What to Alter
Even the best tailor in the world can’t make good clothing out of shoddy fabric. Many fashion mavens say only high-quality clothes are worth the effort of altering, because cheaply made clothes don’t last long enough to justify the investment. The author of Alterations Needed laments that she has had inexpensive tops shortened in the past, only to end up tossing them because a few washes left them so badly pilled or faded that they were unwearable.
However, even an expensive designer jacket is never going to look good on you if it’s in a color or style that just doesn’t flatter you. Style experts say it’s only worth altering clothes that you truly love and will wear often enough to get your money’s worth out of the alterations.
When deciding whether to take a particular garment to the tailor, Extra Petite suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Do You Love It? Don’t alter something you feel “lukewarm” about. Ask yourself how often you’ll really wear this garment if you go to the trouble of altering it. If it doesn’t flatter you, or if it doesn’t fill a genuine wardrobe need, it’s not worth the trouble.
- Is It Worth It? Consider the total cost of the garment plus alterations – ideally, before you even buy it. For instance, if you find a dress on sale for $50 and you know it will need another $50 in alterations to fit you properly, then ask yourself whether you’d be willing to pay $100 for it if it fit perfectly. If the answer is no, pass on the garment. But even if you’ve already bought your “bargain,” don’t invest another $50 in altering it unless you expect the final result to be worth the extra cost.
- Can Your Tailor Handle It? Think about just how much work is needed to get the garment to fit you. Then ask yourself whether you trust your tailor to handle the job. According to Extra Petite, even basic alterations require a competent tailor, and complex ones – taking in shoulders, altering the design of a garment, or shifting a garment more than two sizes up or down – are risky even with a good tailor.
If you’re not sure how to answer the third question, Extra Petite recommends going back to the first question and reconsidering just how much you love the garment. If you truly adore it and you think it’s well worth the cost, then it’s probably worth taking a risk. Just be prepared for the possibility that the results won’t be perfect.
Keep in mind that some alterations are beyond the skill of even the most competent tailor. For example, sweaters are usually knitted on machines, and cutting and resewing them never yields a smooth result. Extremely delicate fabrics, such as chiffon and lamé, are also likely to disintegrate if you tamper with the original seams. Finally, any piece with a very defined silhouette or elaborate details is almost impossible to alter – it’s essentially trying to rebuild the entire garment from the ground up.
Getting the Right Fit
You’ve found a good tailor. You have a high-quality garment to alter. Now all you need is the final ingredient: the right fit.
The ideal fit is neither too tight nor too loose. To some extent, this is a matter of personal preference. Some people like their clothes to fit very close to the body, while others prefer a more relaxed fit. However, a garment is clearly too tight if it feels constricting, and it’s clearly too loose if it sags and bunches in awkward places.
When a tailor is taking in a garment for you, make sure that the altered garment will leave you enough room to breathe. After the tailor has pinned it up on you, try moving around a bit to see how it feels. It shouldn’t pull visibly across any part of your body – chest, stomach, hips, or thighs – whether you’re sitting down or standing up. Sleeves should let you move your arms freely, and pants shouldn’t bind you in either the front or the rear.
On the other hand, the fit shouldn’t be so loose that the garment looks lumpy or misshapen. Pants shouldn’t sag in the buttocks or gap at the waist, and the legs shouldn’t be so long that you risk stepping on them. Shirt and jacket sleeves should reach all the way down your arms when they’re lowered, but shouldn’t expose half of your arms when they’re raised.
Don’t make the mistake of telling your tailor exactly what you want done to a garment, such as, “These shoulder straps need to be one inch shorter.” Your tailor knows more than you do about how to alter a garment, so just explain what you don’t like about it – “This dress feels too baggy in the front” – and let the tailor advise you on how to fix it. If you give exact instructions, you can expect your tailor to follow them to the letter, but you won’t necessarily be happy with the results.
Finding a trustworthy tailor opens up a whole new world of possibilities for clothes shopping. Suddenly, the question to ask yourself in the fitting room is not, “Does this fit me?” but, “Could this be made to fit me?” If you find yourself stuck between two sizes, with a medium being too small and a large being too big, that’s no longer a deal-breaker: You now have the option of buying the large and turning it into a medium-large, the perfect size and fit for you.
Of course, when shopping this way, you always have to remember to factor the cost of the alterations into your calculations. An oversized vest that looks like a great deal at $17 looks a lot less impressive when you tack on an extra $25 to have it taken in. On the other hand, a $15 pair of dress pants that needs only $10 worth of hemming to make it look like a $60 pair is still a steal.
Do you have your clothes altered regularly?