- Altering and repairing clothes instead of just getting rid of them is definitely key to a sustainable lifestyle.
- Additionally, it can save you money and is generally a more responsible choice than throwing out clothes and buying new and cheap from department stores. Often clothes will come back into style after a few years, and you can wear them again with some repairs or adjustments and still feel trendy.
- Really, if you want to look your best in your clothes, you should have a professional alter them for you. You’ll look and feel better in something that was customized to fit you perfectly.
If you’ve already followed our guidance for closet organization and wardrobe evaluation, then you likely have a pile of fixable clothes needing repair. You may also have some iffy items that you love but can’t yet part with, holding out hope for a change in weight or trends.
And surely you’ll have to purchase some new clothing in the future (though less so after you’ve worked with one of our RidMe stylists to learn how to make the most of what you’ve got).
So we spoke with a tailoring and alterations expert--Sarah Knochel, owner of Something Wonderful in Indianapolis--to demystify the process of making your clothes work for you, rather than the other way around. Clothing manufacturers have to churn out piles of styles in a limited number of sizes; but the variety in bodies is infinitely greater. It only makes sense that you should need a nip here and a hem there. Sarah has gamely explained how all that happens.
But most important to remember in considering altering or tailoring your clothes is this: You are worth it. You deserve to feel great in clothes that fit well and flatter. And you can have clothes that fit well and flatter!
Sarah is a magician who can make this happen. She’s worked in alterations for sixteen years, and she’s been a small business owner for fifteen. Sarah got her undergraduate degree at Ball State University in fashion design and began working for Joyce Hittesdorf, the former owner of Something Wonderful, after she graduated. She’s found a real fulfillment in work that is good for the self-esteem of her clients and benefits the planet at the same time.
“Working for Joyce, I absolutely fell in love with being able to sew all day,” says Sarah. “I got so much invaluable real-world experience at Something Wonderful that I really grew my skills as a seamstress in those years. When Joyce decided to retire, I was excited to combine our businesses and really grow on another level.”
Sarah generously shared her insights with us about the world of tailoring and alterations, helping remove the intimidation factor. When you understand the myriad of benefits to this service, we think you’ll be ready to load up your back seat and get everything in your closet custom-fitted to glorious you!
Tailoring and Alterations: The Nitty Gritty
RM: When should a person look into tailoring an item of clothing? Are there some criteria that should prompt a person to think, I should keep this and get it repaired or altered?
SK: I do want to clarify that the term “tailoring” refers to the work done to completely customize a garment so that it fits as if someone made it for you (which we can also do!). “Alterations” are single adjustments made to a garment, like shortening a hem or taking in the side seams. A tailor may do multiple alterations to perfectly fit a garment for you, but your garment may not need to be fully tailored. It may only need a pant hem or reshaping in one of the seams. When we’re adjusting most of the seams on the garment so that it fits correctly is when the work becomes tailoring. It is much more involved and requires strategic problem-solving. We do both alterations and tailoring, but it’s important to find out the extent of the work an alterations shop will do before leaving your garment with them.
That being said, anything you purchase off the rack should be altered, if not tailored, if you want it to look like it should! The mass production of clothing creates pieces that are identical in shape and proportion, and that’s just not how human bodies work. Everyone has different proportions, so those cookie-cutter clothes just don’t have the capacity to look as good. A lot of clothes today also contain spandex, which allows the manufacturer to spend less time creating a garment that will fit people well. These clothes may be able to stretch and fit several different sizes, but that may not be comfortable or flattering for a lot of people. It’s up to you how you’d like your clothes to fit; but especially for more expensive clothes, business wear, or formalwear, we recommend bringing them to an alterationist to find out how they could fit you better.
In terms of when you should keep a garment and have it altered instead of donating it, there are a few different factors to consider:
- First, was the piece well made? A steep price doesn’t always mean you’re getting a higher quality garment. Check inside and see if seams are unraveling (not necessarily ripping) on a newer purchase; if the fabric is pilling (often, though not always, a result of low-quality fabric); or if the fabric doesn’t lay on your body properly. Clothes like this are probably not worth getting worked on unless you just can’t bear to get rid of them. It’s very possible you may pay more for alterations than you did for the piece of clothing itself.
- If there’s a rip in the fabric of your garment, not just stitches that have come undone, it may be impossible to completely disguise. It may never look exactly the same, but that depends heavily on the nature of the fabric. There are definitely ways of disguising tears and rips to make them less noticeable.
- It is usually much easier to make a piece of clothing smaller as opposed to bigger. If you have lost weight, it’s very possible that a lot of your clothes could be adjusted to fit you at your current size. The other way around is trickier, but not out of the question. Again, this depends on the specific garment.
- Finally, as a general rule, if you wear the piece of clothing a lot, or if it was an expensive purchase and has served you well over the years, it’s worth altering. When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to bring it to your local alterationist and see what can be done.
RM: What kinds of clothing can be altered? And what can't?
SK: If your alterationist is skilled enough, virtually everything can be altered. Often, it’s a matter of having the right tools or machines. Some fabrics make clothing more difficult or expensive to alter. For example, materials like leather and fur require special knowledge to handle correctly. Garments like raincoats and anything plastic or latex-based may require special tools and experience, so ask your alterationist if they take on those kinds of jobs.
Additionally, it may not be possible to alter a garment if it is exceedingly old or worn out. The fabric may not stand up to the altering process or rip with day-to-day wear, so things like this probably shouldn’t be altered.
RM: Is any clothing just not worth tailoring? Is there a price or quality threshold?
SK: The value of any garment is subjective. If you care enough about a piece of clothing to have it altered and made wearable again, it’s worth it. It’s better overall to purchase clothes that will last and continue to look nice over time, having them altered as needed. In the end, the amount of money you put into the fit of your clothes is really up to you and has nothing to do with what you paid for the garment. A $20 pair of jeans and a $200 pair of jeans will take the same time and equipment to alter. Remember though: If the garment is too worn out and old, it may be impossible to alter and wear again.
RM: Is tailoring expensive? And how long does it typically take--what are some averages?
SK: Alterations are like any other specialist service. More experienced sewers will often charge more for their work, but rates definitely vary. You could get the same work done from three different shops in the same city, and you would probably be charged three different prices. If you were to call an electrician or plumber to do work on your house, the price would probably change from company to company. The same is true for alterations.
The length of time required to complete alterations definitely varies. Fabrics such as lace or those with heavy decoration, like beading, may require handwork, which can take longer. If your alterations are very involved, your alterationist will probably need more time to complete them. Turnaround time also depends on the shop and their workload. It’s best to bring your garment to your alterationist several weeks before you will need to wear it, if not more. Something like a pant hem might be ready in several days, or it could take more than a week. Ask if you’re unsure; but the busier the shop and the more complicated the work, the more time it will take.
RM: What happens when a person wants to have something altered or tailored? Should I make an appointment? Will I need to try on the clothing with you?
SK: Every shop is different, but we are by appointment, so clients will need to call and set up a time to come in. We always need to see the garment on your body so we can determine how to give you the perfect fit.
Bonus Back Story
RM: What do you love about your work? Have you had some particularly memorable experiences?
SK: The majority of our clients are brides, mothers of brides, and members of the bridal party. We also have some clients who have been with us for many years, starting when Joyce was in charge, and we love seeing them come back year after year. We don’t work on menswear, but we can give you several recommendations if you need them!
There are so many things I love about the work. We definitely don’t have time to talk about everything...but one thing that keeps me excited to start the day is the prospect of something brand new and unique stepping through the door. I love a good challenge, so when a bride brings in a dress we’ve never seen before, it’s so fun to discover what makes it different and special, and then come up with new ways to perform the adjustments it needs. The bridal world is always throwing new things at us: all-over beading, layers and layers of skirts, horsehair everywhere, and (the newest trend) tons of glitter, so we have to stay on our toes and keep thinking about how to give our brides the perfect fit in the midst of all the elements we have to juggle. Getting a gown to fit correctly is definitely a puzzle, and I love puzzles!
I think some of the wildest things that have ever happened around the shop mostly involve the kinds of people we get to work with. We’re honored to have done alterations for some pretty high-profile government officials; but when they arrive for their appointments, they of course bring along a whole caravan of bodyguards and Secret Service agents in black SUVs for protection. Our block was crawling with men in suits and sunglasses! That definitely makes the gravity of the work you’re doing more palpable. Those fittings were crazy for sure, but also a very cool experience.
OUR THANKS TO