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.
If you are doing more than just raising or lowering a hem, first, draw a sketch of what you'd like your final garment to look like. I decided to add princess seams to the bodice, lower the waistline, dart the skirt, and add a waist seam. Adding seams = adding opportunities to take in excess fabric. Conversely, taking seams away — for instance by letting out darts and side seams or reducing their depth — is how you create more ease in a garment.
The tools you're going to need: 1. A pair of scissors. 2. Thread in a color that matches your dress. 3. A pin cushion, straight pins, and sewing needles. 4. 5. and 6., not pictured: An iron and ironing board, tailor's chalk, and a sewing machine. Recommended, but not strictly speaking necessary: A seam-ripper.
First, separate the lining from the fashion fabric. I always start by opening the seam that attaches the lining to the zipper. Then I cut the thread chains that attach the lining to the hem facing and open the seams that attach the lining to the arm and neck holes. I love ripping seams: every line of stitching has a point of rapture, it's all about finding the exact angle of approach that will allow you to just press gently and rrrrrrrip through that thread, leaving your fabric untouched.
Next, open the seams in the garment that attach the zipper to the fashion fabric.
Now, if the first thing you do upon freeing your zipper from the dress's clutches is run the slider all the way up the teeth, and right off its tracks because, oh fuck, this zipper has no stoppers on top, like, um, someone I know — well, fear not. There's an easy fix. Don't try to jam the slider back down onto the top of the zipper from whence it so recently came; that's a losing battle. Take the closed zipper, take the orphaned slider, and lay them out on a flat surface. Now take your pinking shears or sewing scissors, take a deep breath, and snip off the bottom inch of the zipper, right above the stopper.
Next — and again, breathe deeply, but know that this is Going To Be Okay — pull the two sides of the zipper apart. Just tug gently. They'll separate with no trouble. Position your orphaned slider at the bottom of the zipper tape.
Again, working upwards from the bottom of the zipper tape, slowly ease the two sides of the tape into the feed tracks of the slider. Try your best to keep the two sides of the tape even.
As soon as the zipper slider "catches" onto the tape, you're golden. Ease the slider up the tape. (Not all the way to the top. Not that again.)
Using a needle and thread, sew a new stopper onto the bottom of the tape. Wrapping the thread around the teeth a few times will suffice.
Do the same at the top. Now you have restored a zipper to functionality! Congratulations. You deserve a drink!
Next, open the hem of the dress.
Rip open the stitching that defined the darts in the front and back of the dress, and press those former darts open. You're going to re-set these darts to suit your body. You can make shallower alterations without opening every seam and dart, true, but for alterations this profound, you essentially want to reduce a dress to a tube of fabric before starting in earnest.
First, I tried on the dress and marked where my waist actually hit on the side seam.
Extrapolate from that mark until you have a horizontal waist line all the way around. Your true waist is probably higher or lower than the original garment's.
Now, you could just use your marked waist line as a guide for your alterations — especially if you are, say, letting a dress out. If you are taking it in, and you want to create a horizontal seam at the waist, now's the time to cut all around the dress right on that line.
If you're lucky enough to be working on a dress form, use a piece of styling tape to mark your waist line on the form. Don't worry, you can still do perfectly professional-looking alterations without a form, by trying the garment on.
Now is when the alterations start in earnest. It's simple: put the dress on the form, and just start pinning it until it starts to fit. Add or take away ease as you see fit. Keep your alterations symmetrical. Open the shoulder seams, too, and pin them into better position. (The fit in the shoulders is key, since most clothing isn't skin tight, and in fact hangs from the shoulders.) If you're working on your body, it's pretty easy to make alterations: just put the garment on inside out, and pinch out the excess fabric until the dress starts to fit you well. Pinch and pin, people. Pinch and pin.
When you're satisfied, try the dress on. Move any pins as necessary. Then, using a contrasting thread color, hand-baste in your new darts, side seams, and shoulder seams. Try the dress on again and make any final tweaks.
Mark your basting lines with the tailor's chalk. Fold the pattern pieces in half to double-check that your new dart lines are going to be symmetrical; even up the lines if necessary (splitting the difference works). If you, like me, are creating a princess seam where there was none before, snip the top open before you attempt to machine-stitch the seam (otherwise the seam may bunch up).
And sew! Then clip open your new darts and press.
Follow the same process — chalk, pin, sew, clip, press — for the back.
Try on the dress or put it on the dress form, and check the fit once again. Re-sew and re-press your darts as necessary. When satisfied, sew your side seams.
Next, using a contrasting thread, baste a line of stitching where you want your new arm and neck holes to go.
Now, if you, like me, have been treating the skirt and the bodice of your dress as separate pattern pieces, is the time to rejoin them. Pin the skirt back onto your dress form (or put it on your body) and mark your center-front. Align the center-front of the skirt with the center-front of the bodice.
The key to a professional-looking finished product is having darts and other design elements that align across major seams, ie in this case the waist seam. Measuring from the center front out towards the sides, mark where the darts in your skirt should lie. Pinch them out, and pin. Try the dress on, and adjust as necessary.
Work your way all around the skirt, setting the darts and adjusting the side seams.
Mark your new darts and side seams with tailor's chalk. Pin, and sew.
Clip the darts and press open like I did here.
Now, with the right sides of your fashion fabric facing up, match the darts across your waist seam. With pins, mark where your skirt side seams should hit. (Yes, you already marked your side seams before, but this is a way to double-check with greater precision.) Try on, adjust again as necessary, and then stitch. Press the side seams open.
Now we're going to match our bodice to our skirt, right sides together, and sew the waist seam all the way around. The key to getting darts or seams that match up across a lateral seam is simple. First, push a straight pin through the actual stitching of the seam of one of the skirt darts. Get the pin tip into the space between two stitches, if you can. You want the dead center of the seam. The pin will go in from wrong side to right side, since the right sides of the fabric are of course facing one another.
Then, push the tip of that same straight pin through the stitches of the seam on the corresponding bodice dart. The pin tip will go in from right side to wrong side, since the right sides are of course facing one another.
Push the pin back to the front. If you have a waist seam like mine, place pins in this manner at all of your major darts and the side seams. Add additional darts in between as necessary. Sew the seam.
Press your waist seam open.
Try the dress on. If tweaks to the fit are still necessary, open the waist seam and adjust the depth of your darts/side seams, then re-close the waist seam. Pin the center-back seam below the zipper opening.
Stitch the new center-back seam according to your pinned adjustments.
And using a seam ripper or scissors, open the original center-back seam. Press the new seam allowance open.
Try the dress on again, and pin down the center back, this time across the zipper opening. With the zipper opening pinned closed (a friend may be helpful at this point), move around, stretch, raise your arms above your head, etc, to check that the dress isn't going to be too tight. Once you have the opening pinned to the correct depth, let the pins out on one side. These pins are going to be your markers for setting your zipper. Press the two sides of the zipper opening lightly, according to the depth of the pins, and then pin the zipper one one side.
Sew that side of the zipper.
Now, of course you also want your waist seam to match across the center-back zipper. Before stitching the second side of the zipper into position, pull the zipper closed. On the side of the zipper that's not yet stitched to the dress, mark with the tailor's chalk where the waist seam hits on the corresponding side. Then open the zipper again, and line this chalk mark up with the waist seam before stitching in that second side of the zipper.
Turn the dress right side out, close the zipper, and give the whole garment a light pressing. Try the dress on, and check the fit. Open the shoulder seams that you basted earlier, but transfer their markings to your fashion fabric in chalk. Lay the dress flat, right side out.
Now your dress is practically done, it's time to rejoin its lining. With the lining inside out, slide it over the dress. (So that the right side of the lining faces the right side of the dress.) Lining is slippery, so pin it into place. We've made lots of alterations to the dress, but we don't need to make them to the lining; it's okay for a lining to have a less precise fit than a dress. We'll eventually anchor the two together with thread chains, anyway.
Following the lines of basting that you put in at the arm and neck holes, stitch through the fashion fabric and the lining. Stitch up to your marked shoulder seams, backtrack, and stop.
Trim your seam allowances, and clip to your line of stitching. Turn the dress right side out, and press around your new arm and neckholes.
Using your chalk shoulder lines as guides, pin the fashion fabric right sides together at the shoulders. Stitch only through the fashion fabric, not the lining. Trim the seam allowance. Press that seam open. Then, tuck in the lining as shown here — this picture was taken when bottom side had the lining tucked in and the top side was untucked.
Once both sides are tucked in, hand-stitch the lining together across the shoulder seam. Press.
Next, hand-stitch the lining to the zipper tape. Try the dress on. If you notice the lining slipping around under the dress, attach the lining to the dress at the side seams using thread chains.
Lastly, re-set and hand-stitch your hem. Using a yard-stick and measuring up from the floor is the correct way to set a hem. (At this point also, a friend definitely helps.) Stand up straight and mark the same height from the floor all the way around with pins ; press. Closing the hem with a running stitch is sufficient for our purposes. If you have to re-hem the lining, you can do it by machine. Thread-chain the lining to the hem at the side seams. And if you are raising your hem considerably, consider saving the leftover fabric — it can make for pretty trims, pockets, or patches on future projects. Give a final pressing, and your dress is done.
Before: a blah, ill-fitting dress with plenty of raw potential. After: a beautiful, properly tailored sheath in a classic, A-line style.
I'm satisfied! And remember — if you can pinch, pin, sew, and press, you can alter almost anything there is on earth to fit you.