I feel like this happens to me all the time: I'm browsing the racks at the SalvA, skipping past unfortunate housedresses and schmattas of little significance when I spy something astonishing. Something really gorgeous. And this something only costs a few bucks, and I simply must have it. Only problem is, it doesn't quite fit. The dress is too long, it's too short, it's too big, it's too small, the arm holes are too high or they're too low, the waist gapes or the hips are tight, or maybe it just doesn't generally sit "right" — whatever the problem is, the astonishing dress is just not quite wearable as-is.
While professional tailoring is certainly an option, there's a weird feeling of financial asymmetry to dropping $40 or $50 on improvements to a thrift-store dress, and besides, a lot of tailors take your individual measurements but work off standard sizing blocks, which isn't terribly helpful if you are very long or short-waisted, broad or narrow-shouldered, small or large-chested, or have any other of a myriad totally normal bodily quirks. But fear not: with a few easy tricks, a little bit of knowledge, and a seam ripper, you can make a not-quite-perfect secondhand dress into something that fits like it was made for you. Depending on the alterations you're making — from raising or lowering a hem to a total seam-ripping garment makeover — this is a project that could take anywhere from a half an hour to a day. Luckily, it's cheap: the only upfront costs are the price of the dress and a spool of matching thread. I'm going to show you how to raise an arm hole, take in or let out side seams, create or alter the depth of darts, and sew a hem. And I even threw in a bonus tutorial in how to repair a broken zipper.
The most important part of this process is garment selection. Before buying a dress to alter, check the seams. Are the seam allowances deep and generous? That's a sign that the original garment was well made, and will be easier to open up and alter. Skimpy seam allowances indicate a cheap garment, and one which will be impossible to let out. And frankly, you probably don't want to put this much effort into a cheap dress. Wovens are easier to alter than knits (unless you have a serger, in which case, rock on, but this tutorial deals exclusively with wovens). A dress that is simple in its construction, like a sheath, will be easier to alter than a more complex pattern with lots of major seams that will need individual attention. Generally speaking, solid colored garments are easier to alter than anything with a print or a stripe: matching those patterns as you go about your alterations is kind of crazy-making. Altering things that are cut on the bias is not impossible — but it is a very advanced business. Mostly, be reasonable in your expectations: tailoring is for making changes within about a 1-3 dress size range, for raising and lowering hems, and for tweaking overall fit here and there. Tailoring is not miracle-making.
My mum — a thrift store champ whose flair for rooting out '60s Courrèges and snazzy little '40s suits in the wilds of Minnesota never fails to shock me — found this rather plain but lovely navy blue raw silk sheath at a Goodwill. It was beautifully made, cut perfectly on grain with deep seam allowances and all kinds of details I never even bother with in my home sewing but which I know signify "this is a good dress," like a bias hem facing. (The label said it had been handmade, God knows how many generations ago, by a Mrs. So-and-So at some little store in Chicago. All hail the Mrs. So-and-Sos of this world and their impressive skills for both sewing and entrepreneurship.) The dress cost $6. It was also huge on me, and like most dresses, it had a waist that wanted to sit a good two inches higher than my own, and it hung in a singularly unflattering way over my minuscule, prepubescent-boy chest. (Peep that underarm gaping.) This was going to take some extensive modifications. But it wasn't hard to make it work.
Next week, look out for a DIY on how to make a knitted leather clutch purse — loosely inspired by a Prada bag.