A Man’s Guide to Clothing Alterations

by Antonio on October 1, 2009 · 23 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Style



A modern day gentleman understands he does not need to be a tailor to dress well, but he realizes a basic understanding of maintaining and repairing one of life’s necessities is an asset he can ill afford to neglect.  There are those who would say the maintenance of clothing is better left to others (stereotypically the women in our lives) or that we live in a disposable society and it’s cheaper to buy new than to spend the time and money making repairs.  Why then should a man who loves football, red meat, and beer care about understanding the alteration process?

  1. You are accountable for your appearance. A man is always free to accept help, but in the end he is responsible for how he presents himself to the world.   To rely on your wife or female friends for alteration advice is foolhardy as the rules on fit are different for women.  Likewise, to rely on a “wise” friend is inviting disaster – is he basing his recommendations on a single article or experience?  Listen to others, but take their advice with a grain of salt; the only freedom a man truly has is to make his own decisions.
  2. Alterations can save you money. Knowing what can be done, and what can’t, may end up saving you quite a bit of time and money.  Is the closet full of inherited suits that are too big in the shoulders worth the effort?  Is it worth grabbing that last Zegna blazer on sale that’s just a tad too tight in the torso?  What about the sports jacket that’s two inches too long? And not only can understanding alterations help you make wise purchases, such knowledge can extend the life of your clothing. A tailor can get you back into those pants that have become a bit too snug and save the jacket that’s developed a small tear. You can keep on wearing your best clothes for a fraction of the cost of buying a new wardrobe.
  3. A needle and thread can save the day. It’s two hours before the wedding and your collar button is missing – what are your options?  Can your expensive wool jacket be saved after it is damaged by a cigarette or you find that moths have feasted upon it?

Alterations – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good. Anything in your wardrobe will look better on you when it actually fits.  Sleeve length, excess blousing around the torso, and too much/little room in the seat of the pants can all be adjusted to a certain degree.  It’s very likely that you can salvage many of the ill fitting garments in your wardrobe by simply having them altered to fit.

The Bad. The cost of making all the needed alterations to a garment may very well exceed what you paid for it due in part to the lack of skilled seamstresses and tailors out there.  Also, some parts of a garment can’t be fixed or adjusted past a certain point.  A jacket that’s two inches too short often cannot be lengthened because of either the lack of fabric and/or the structural build of the garment does not allow it.  Now there are always exceptions-I’ve worked with some amazing tailors who have worked miracles – but the average sewing professional is limited in their comfort zone.

The Ugly – No one is going to admit they are a bad threader; instead, you’ll learn the hard way through using their services.  They’ll make promises they can’t keep, miss deadlines trying to figure out how to tackle your problem, not answer your calls for a month, and the garment they just spent 4 weeks learning on (yours) will not be their greatest work.

The 3 Ingredients of a Successful Alteration

There are three things that make any clothing alteration successful: 1) the skill level of the person doing the work, 2) whether or not the garment has the fabric for the alteration, and finally 3) how the alteration will affect the garment’s proportions.

1.  A Skilled Tailor or Seamstress
Choosing a tailor can be tricky – the term is used loosely in the US and experience does not always equate to skill.  Oftentimes I meet someone who can do what I ask, but fails to point out what I asked for will ruin the look of the garment.  Other times I have been promised the world only to receive back a garment unfit to wear.  When you find a tailor that you like, one who understands your needs and does quality work…..build that relationship because it is worth more than gold.  Here are my 7 steps on how to select a tailor:

  1. Educate yourself. Understand what you want, learn the basics so that you can ask thoughtful questions, and don’t be afraid to ask the detailed questions and raise objections when you think someone is blowing smoke.
  2. Seek recommendations. Like I mentioned above, take the recommendations of friends and family with a grain of salt.  However, they are a great place to start and may alert you to information otherwise not available.
  3. Test their communication skills. When you call for information, how are you treated and can they communicate well?  When you visit, do they make time to answer your questions even if they have to set up an appointment later (a busy tailor will often do this)?  Does he or she really understand what you are asking and do they make you feel comfortable?
  4. Ask the tailor: “When are they satisfied?” A tailor should be satisfied only when the client is happy; if the client isn’t satisfied with the garment, the tailor should either work to meet expectations or make the client whole by refunding his money.  I’ve seen many men pushed into styles and fits they weren’t happy with; a tailor should offer guidance, but how a man looks is his decision alone.
  5. Does the tailor or seamstress understand style? This isn’t a show-stopper, but without it you’ll have to be very explicit as to what you want and cannot assume the person working on the clothing can make the “leap” between points not specified.  A trained tailor should point out errors/problems with your requests if they break common style or pattern aesthetics.
  6. Examine their handiwork. Look not only at the outside, but at the inside stitching and seam work.  Check out detailed pictures of men’s clothing stitch work as it should be done to know what you’re looking for.  Details! Details! Details!
  7. Availability. You want a professional that is accessible; when you find out a week before your wedding you’re a little too large for your once well fitting suit, you want someone who can help you in a pinch.

2.  Does the Garment have enough Fabric?
If the fabric isn’t there, then there is little even a skilled tailor can do to help you.  Whether it involves extending a sleeve or opening up a pair of trousers after Thanksgiving, if there isn’t excess fabric then the hands of even the most creative tailor are effectively tied.  Make sure when you buy a garment and expect to have it enlarged, there is at least ¾ to 1/1/4 inches of excess fabric along the seams.  This is standard on most new clothing, but when buying from thrift stores or receiving something custom be very careful.  For my body building clients I normally give them as much extra fabric as I can without it “bulking up” the seams – this enables them to open up their jacket’s chest 3 inches without having to buy a new coat.

3.  The Limits of Proportion
Even if you have points 1 and 2 covered, you may still be limited in what you can do depending on proportion.  A gentleman south of five foot five will find although his tailor can shorten his jacket by 2 inches, he cannot reposition the pockets, thus creating a garment that looks comical.  The same for the thin gentleman – bringing in the trousers or jacket by more than two inches often moves the pockets to a point where the clothing just looks wrong.

Common Alterations and the Level of Skill They Require

Basic Skill Alterations – Cost is low – you could do it yourself with a little guidance from a friend who can sew or a reputable manual.

  • Button & zipper replacement
  • Trouser leg length
  • Jacket sleeve length (non-working buttons & unlined)

Medium Skill Alterations – Cost is a little more expensive than the above, but always worth the price if this is what you need to make your garment fit.

  • Jacket sleeve length (non-working buttons & lined)
  • Fixing neck roll
  • Bring in or opening up the torso on a jacket
  • Bringing in or opening up a pair of trousers
  • Taper trouser legs
  • Shortening a shirt sleeve
  • Replacing a shirt collar
  • Adding darts
  • Tapering the shirt

High Skill Alterations – Expensive – make sure your tailor is good and knows what they are doing.

  • Jacket sleeve length (working buttons & lined)
  • Jacket length
  • Rotating the jacket sleeve (correcting for arm pitch)
  • Relining the jacket
  • Reducing shirt shoulders
  • Re-weaving – fixes small holes by using fabric found elsewhere on the suit to create an invisible patch.  Limited to small holes though.
The magic of invisible weaving - thank you Jeeves of Belgravia for the image!

The magic of invisible weaving - thank you Jeeves of Belgravia for the image!

Expert Alterations – Very expensive, you may want to look at a new suit. Unless you live in a large city, you will have to ship your garment to a trained tailor.

  • Anything adjusting the shoulders – this is very touchy as the tailor is changing the whole “look” of the garment.  It’s very possible that he’ll get it to fit better, but it may no longer look right.
  • Changing the posture of a jacket – this involves adjusting the way the front and back of the jacket are connected, oftentimes needed if a man stands overly erect or slouched over.

Unfixable – Time to purchase a new suit or shirt.

  • Long Fabric tears – not along the seam
  • Holes larger than 1.5 inches in circumference
  • Heavy abrasion damage
  • Severe weakening of the fibers caused by alkaline or acid exposure
  • Burned fabric – be careful with irons
  • The outfits below:
Hall of Shame
From the Black Tie Guide’s Hall of Shame

Be Prepared

Emergency Sewing Kit

You or someone in your company is going to need a needle and thread at the worst time possible – be prepared.   Stores sell prepackaged kits, but I avoid these as they are bulky and overpriced – they often contain a pair of worthless scissors and more thread than you need.  Instead pack your own – a few needles of various sizes, two feet of both black and white thread, and a few buttons of various sizes.   Place this kit in a location you’ll remember (I pack them in a tiny ziplock and place one in each of my first aid kits (home & truck).  If you ever have your manhood questioned on this remember John J. Rambo carried a needle & thread in his survival knife and used it to stitch his severely wounded arm in First Blood – which enabled him to survive and then later defeat the Soviet Union.

Learn to Sew Yourself

Want to do alterations yourself?  Interested in learning how to make your own clothing?  Want a skill whose demand is only set to increase as the great tailors of yesteryear retire and few are set to fill their shoes?   For further reading, I highly recommend visiting the website and reading the books of Mr. David Coffin; he does an excellent job teaching the basics of sewing and advanced topics such as making your own shirts and trousers.  Also check out the crew over at Threadbanger.

Written by
Antonio Centeno
President, A Tailored Suit
Free Men’s Style & Custom Clothing Advice
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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dan October 1, 2009 at 11:57 pm

As a sailor, I was taught years ago to keep a standard-issue sewing kit with me in my rack. I don’t think they do that anymore because none of my junior sailors know how to sew very much at all. Anyway, I can sew patches on, hem my dress blues, and put buttons back on a sleeve. It’s not much, granted, but it saves money by not taking it to the Navy Exchange, and it can be done in a snap, like your wedding example above.

Sailors have, by and large, lost this ability, and it’s a shame.

2 Robert October 2, 2009 at 12:15 am

Please tell me that Realtree Tux was just a joke!

3 James Clark October 2, 2009 at 1:02 am

I was actually just about to buy a sewing machine, so I can start making my own vests, and fitting the midsections of my shirts (I’m quite thin), and this seemed to me like a less than manly endeavorer… I’m excited to see this article, and especially thinking now about the tailors of yesteryears – Old men who wear well made and well fitting suits every day. There is *nothing* less than manly about that.

Hopefully I’ll be more successful with that than changing drum brake shoes ;-)

4 Laura October 2, 2009 at 1:06 am

Great article for a man who doesn’t follow the hard to understand world of bespoke suits! The breakdown of alterations by price range is a helpful addition. ALWAYS wear suits that are fitted to your body type!!! I’ll be passing this along to friends and clients! Thanks.

5 Michael October 2, 2009 at 2:16 am

Awesome article, Antonio! How’d you get the photo of my LED dollar-sign suit? (Heh.)

I’ve got a tailor I hang on to like grim death – and it helps that I know exactly what I want done, because that helps me communicate better than “I need this more fitted.” She should be giving me a bulk discount for all the shirts I bring in for darts.

6 Jonny | thelifething.com October 2, 2009 at 2:27 am

Great advice. I live out in Bangkok currently where tailoring is excellent and cheap. Had never thought of tailoring my current wardrobe but following this post I think I will.

Many thanks.

7 Yavor October 2, 2009 at 5:06 am

Clothes make the fist impression – and if you want to succeed in life, I say use everything available to your advantage. So looking your best is a must.

Fit is king! Great that you are pointing that out. I personally use two tailors to adjust my suits/shirts and can’t recommend this high enough

8 ThomsonsPier October 2, 2009 at 6:30 am

A good article, though I misread the title as “A Man’s Guide to Clothing Altercations” and was expecting a pithy piece about how to react when another takes exception to the colour of one’s shirt.

I can make functional repairs, in general, but they don’t tend to be pretty; sewing is the same as engineering, in my estimation, but with different materials. I’m lucky in that I’ve changed overall shape very little in years and have never had to have any major alterations made to clothing. A suit I acquired at seventeen still fits at twenty-nine.

9 David October 2, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Yes, finding good tailor is right up there with finding a good doctor, attorney, financial advisor, auto mechanic & butcher. You’ll pay a bit more, but you’ll feel fantastic every time you put a tailored piece of clothing on. When you first walk in the tailor shop – look around. Are the suits, shirts, ties and fabrics of top quality, are the styles conservative (not the latest hot fashion), do you get plenty of time and personal service? If not, pass him / her on by and keep looking.

10 Mohamed October 2, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Bravo! A very well done site, and excellent posts. Being on the large side, I’ve always found it difficult to wear the latest styles since they are not really made for the big guy – but that’s no excuse to dumb yourself down when it comes to clothes. There are more options available today than there were say 10 years ago and guys have no excuse not to dress well when they go out or even to work! I see too many big guys wear nothing but shorts and t-shirts (that are too small) or sweat pants… or guys that do nothing to take care of themselves (personal hygiene, grooming).

Look good and you will feel good and people around you will like to look at you differently.

11 Joshua October 4, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Excellent post, I purchased a poorly proportioned suit but made from a wonderful wool over 10 years ago and took it to a highly regarded tailor in Saratoga Springs, NY. A little Italian gentleman with a heavy accent. The quality of the fabric was such that he did not need a deposit for his work. Within a week he had it fitted to me perfectly. Amazingly that suit is still with me. A quality tailor is definitely worth the cost.

I agree with Dan, sailors have lost the skill of repairing their own uniforms. Though I suspect it has more to do with Admirals in the late 1990s being worried about looks and issuing uniforms that could not hold up to the rigors of a submarine engineroom. My late 1990s dungarees usually failed beyond any tailors ability to repair. Early 1990 dungarees were rugged (ugly but rugged), they would only submit to minor tears that could be quickly stitched after watch.

I thought nothing was worse than the current Army velcro uniform until I saw the Realtree tux.

12 Derek October 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

It is truly amazing how just displaying a little bit of pride in your appearance can make all the difference in how others percieve us.

13 James February 20, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Wow this is helpful. Great post!

14 SDakNavy December 19, 2012 at 4:06 am

Dan said.
“Sailors have, by and large, lost this ability, and it’s a shame.”

Dan, while I agree with you that the modern day U.S. Navy may not have the same ability to self-alter garments as maybe once they could, they do indeed have sewing kits available (all of them ideally) as a required part of their sea bag gear.

Part of this was because of a style decision, another part of this is due to money/politics (isn’t it always). On the style decision, it was largely agreed upon by the upper bourgeoisie, that having garments and dress uniforms that are all tailored by the same (usually NEX) or at least a professional seamstress, would provide a more uniform and similar look among the ranks. As you are no doubt aware, uniformity is always desirable to the military.

On the political/money side of the issue, it was also decided that too much time in boot camp was being used to train personnel in ironing, sewing, folding, darning, stamping, pressing, patching, pleating, and generally turning them into sweat shop workers, rather than focusing on seamanship, marksmanship, and general militarization, which in today’s “after 9/11″ landscape is largely headed towards all the services having more and more similarity, often to the Marine and Army style of basic training and making for a less divergent overall military with a more service-interchangeable enlisted member.

However, one thing that remains the same is the Navy’s standard of excellence when it comes to uniform appearance in dress and service uniforms. Since making the changes to the RTC itinerary for the booters, emphasis in hammering the newly graduated with uniform inspections at their training commands has more than doubled, whereas the total number of different uniforms and sea-bag clutter has almost been cut in half.

You could choose to view the changes perhaps not as a deduction in overall skill, but more as a re-shaping into a more streamlining of military rank and file.

15 rue vogiatz January 15, 2013 at 3:14 am

Good article, enjoyed reading:)

16 Sharon Twentier September 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Some of the best knit patterns were designed by sailors. Some of the best needlework patterns were drafted by men. Tailors are expert at fitting, designing and constructing clothing. They also command a lot of money for what they do. Kudos to our forefathers.

17 M. Kenny March 10, 2014 at 1:27 am

A suit makes the man. Suit is the uniform of men, meaning that it should be your personal uniform and express unity in your individual style. Thanks for this article.

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