To alter or not to alter: a guide to getting items tailored.

Regardless of your body type or size, proper alterations can help transform mediocre-fitting items into garments that flatter your figure and boost your self-confidence. For women who wear special sizes, alterations can be critical. However, if you (like myself) don’t have the good fortune of being related to a skilled seamstress, and are too lazy/clumsy to sew yourself, alterations can really add up and become quite costly. 

I’m sure many of us have tried on a garment that is “ok,” but would be much better if it fit perfectly. To alter or not to alter? When faced with such a decision, I try follow this 3-step thought process:

Step 1. This is the most common mistake that I used to make. Spending $ on altering something that I felt lukewarm about to begin with. Return or sell “meh” items before it’s too late. Also, be realistic about what can be altered (ie. don’t convince yourself you love something by imagining wildly different “results”).

Step 2. When assessing worth, look at garment quality, and again at how much you love it. If you will love a Forever21 dress to pieces after it’s taken in, and would’ve paid XYZ for something like that to begin with, then go for it.

Alteration costs vary a lot from tailor to tailor, but here are some prices that I’ve paid, for reference:
Hem: $10 no lining – $25 w/ lining
Shorten sleeves: $15 no lining – $25+ w/ lining
Take-in waist: 15+ no lining – $25+ w/ lining
Take-in shoulders: $40+
Take-in sides: $15 for shirts – $40+ lined items

Step 3. Risk level is a function of both the complexity of alterations and your tailor’s experience. I have had so many (even basic) alterations come out messed up.

Higher-risk (even w/ a good tailor): fancy dresses, suiting, taking-in shoulders, changing the design of a garment, or changing a garment more than 2 numerical sizes.

Example: Last month I found myself at the Ann Taylor outlet, clutching onto a suit in a beautiful lavender and cream tweed. Unfortunately, the smallest size it came in was regular 0, and I was swimming in it. The length of both pieces fit me fine though (must’ve been a shorter style), which was key, because blazer length probably can’t be altered. 
Step 1. I was instantly drawn to the color and texture, and needed a Spring suit. I saw vast potential in the suit as a set, and also as versatile separates. Nothing similar is available in smaller sizing.

Step 2. Alterations would be very costly (guesses, anyone?) but the suit was 75% off. I probably would’ve paid the total cost for a tweed suit that fit great right off the rack.

Step 3. Alterations needed: Sides slimmed, sleeves slimmed/shortened, skirt taken-in, and shoulders narrowed (pretty risky) + tailors who do a good job 90% of the time = somewhat risky.

But I really loved the material and overall Chanel-inspired look, so I went for it. Stay tuned for the results.

Readers – what criteria do you consider before dropping $ on alterations, or buying something that requires alterations?

For tips on how to identify or find a good tailor, visit my vintage post, Signs of a Good Tailor, and Kelly’s post – 10 Tips for Finding Your Perfect Tailor.

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  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Who's your tailor in Boston?

    Posted 11.21.14 Reply
  2. OSeñorita wrote:

    The only criteria I'll consider altering is when I really, really, really like the dress and there is no other sizes available but bigger than my size.

    Posted 5.24.11 Reply
  3. Rinny wrote:

    Thanks for the great post Jean. Your little flowchart is very helpful as well 🙂

    Posted 5.22.11 Reply
  4. @doxyloo I would love to see some of your suits! What size are you typically if you have to get sz 0 suits taken down significantly?

    @ShortBlonde You can do it! Hemming is very simple, and if I had my sewing machine with me it would take 10 minutes (too bad I sent mine home for storage).

    @Jackie Both your points are important. Jackie. I do have things that were altered to fit right yet I still don't wear them…

    @fifi Definitely agree about the item being returnable if the tailor's quote is unreasonable. Although sometimes I like to scrounge thrift stores for bargain skirts, then have them cleaned and taken in by my tailors : )

    @Petite in the City Agree with your points! I also wish I had this mentality years ago before so much money was wasted on going alterations-crazy!

    @Jean Hello, fellow Jean! Thank you for your kind words and I'm so glad you found all my favorite bloggers too.

    @Vanessa Welcome! I'm sorry to hear about previous failed alterations (I definitely have my fair share before switching), but it's fantastic that you now have a tailor that you can trust. Makes a world of a difference for us petites!

    @Anonymous I agree, a hem job can be very basic and can save $10-$20 each time. I kept my sewing machine here for a while, did a few hems, but then it took up too much space so I sent it to my parents house. Sigh!

    Posted 5.21.11 Reply
  5. Thank you everyone for your comments! I got this back last month and hope to share photos with you guys soon. I'm impressed by women like yourself who have the skill, patience, and creativity to design items for yourself from scratch! I did it sparingly when I was younger (for prom, etc) and it was hard.

    @Stacey Lol! They do work some magic, but not all results are perfect. That's the risk, I suppose…

    @Michelle Lucky you! Almost everything I've seen on PFR fits you nicely off the rack though, so no real need for you to get much tailoring : )

    @Melanie Hopefully it won't be too much and it turns out just the way you want : ) It sounds just beautiful with the pleats and silk, but both of those characteristics also equate to $$$ alterations.

    @Ashley I don't recommend getting things that are really big for alterations because it's very risky and costly. I guess I am setting a bad example with this, but it's only because I trust my tailors. I've definitely had things come out poorly in the past when i tried to take it down too much!

    @Nelah Nelah, sleeves taken up should be a fairly simple alteration if there are no button holes. Good luck!

    @Joyce Too bad about the nude pumps! Ah, for your blazer I would call a few places to get a rough quote of taking a blazer in where the chest is too big. That will save you some time as some places will sound very inexperienced, and some places will just charge a ton. Make sure to leave a little room there as I've seen blazers that were taken in too much at the chest and it pulls. Good luck!

    @Stylishly Short How fun! Gosh I'd love to have tailor parents. On the note of price, I have to slightly disagree. I've called a few places that charge 3 times more than what my current tailors do, which I don't judge, but I also don't take that as a sure sign that they do a good job. And because my tailors charge 3x less than some places, I certainly do not think their work is any lower quality than the aforementioned places. That being said, I do avoid tailors in dry cleaning shops offering cheap alterations, unless it's for a simple hem, because it's just not their specialty.

    @Anonymous I feel your pain and I recently learned a similar lesson. I need a dress hemmed quickly (no lining, super duper simple tee shirt dress). Normally my tailor charges $10 and I can also do it by hand, but I was short on time and went to a tailor by my workplace. The Yelp reviews were stellar saying he was very reasonably priced, so I didn't even bother asking how much. After I tried it on, he pinned it and rung me up for THIRTY dollars…like you, I had no lining, simple cotton. I was mortified but declined the service, and he was offended at my surprise in response to the price. Sigh…I will say other tailors I've been to don't charge a set price though, and base it more on complexity of the garment.

    Posted 5.21.11 Reply
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    Petite people should learn how to hem. I've saved a bundle by being able to do that — three pairs of pants (two of them lined) and a dress in the last month.

    Posted 5.20.11 Reply
  7. Vanessa wrote:

    Wow, what a great site (this is my first visit here, and since I'm under 5' tall, I'm very excited to hear and see others' experiences)!
    I recently switched tailors when I noticed that my previous tailors messed several of my clothes up (I had what you would call "higher risk" things like taking a dress in more than 2 sizes, etc.) But the tailors I found through a family connection are wonderful and having clothes that fit perfectly really makes a difference.

    Anyway, now I usually think about how much I need the item/how useful it will be, plus the cost of tailoring and purchase versus how much I would have paid off the rack. I did take a cheap quality summer tank in to get the straps shortened because I can never find tops like that! So to me, having one was worth it. Your estimates sound about what I've paid my new tailors. Maybe a little pricey, but worth it because you get what you pay for in tailoring.

    Posted 5.20.11 Reply
  8. Mindy♥ wrote:

    Thank you so much! This is exactly what I've been looking for these days. 🙂

    Posted 5.20.11 Reply
  9. Jean wrote:

    hi there! foremost, i love your blog and look forward to your updates. PAG has introduced me to the world of petite blogs that have become my daily guilty pleasures. You have awesome style, and I noticed many others draw their inspirtation from your postings. Way to be a trendsetter!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  10. Usually I also consider "cost of item to be altered" + "potential alteration costs". Then I try to determine whether the total cost still worth it for the item? Or maybe for that price, I might find a similar item of same cost without requiring alterations, usually at a more expensive store? I use similar criteria too, like whether it is worth it, the quality, and level of difficulty. Took years and lots of money to learn all of this, I wished you blogged about this years ago!

    Thanks for posting your alterations costs! I always thought I may have been paying too much, but my costs are pretty similar!

    Can't wait to see the post-altered suit! 🙂


    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  11. fifi wrote:

    I agree with all your tips! Also, one more item on my checklist is if the item is questionable then i want to know if the item is returnable that way my alteration lady is the final verdict otherwise if it is not that is the deal-breaker!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  12. Jackie wrote:

    Rule #1 is a biggy. You have to love an item to even consider getting it altered. I make sure that I really love something (1) and that I'll actually wear it once I get the right fit (2).

    Of course, since the economy crash I've been doing some sewing myself.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  13. Wonderful post, love the flowchart! Very useful. I need to become more comfortable with my sewing machine so I can do my own hemming, it would definitely save a lot of money.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  14. b_ra wrote:

    This was such a useful post Jean! Thank you very much for shedding light on whether an item does need to be tailored. Before reading blogs, I never once considered actually tailoring things. Thank you again!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  15. Another great informative post! Thank you Jean : ) And I can't wait to see the final results of that suit!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  16. doxyloo wrote:

    Nice! I've also bought suits in 0s and had them drastically taken in. My friends all thought I was nuts for buying such an ill-fitting suit, but when it came back from the tailors (and $100 worth of alterations), swarms of compliments came in.

    Can't wait to see the altered suit.

    Oh, and as a side note, most blazers can be shortened (but the details on yours probably makes it difficult.) My short guy friends have done it before. They said you usually can't do more than 2 inches before the whole suit needs to be recut because the pockets will look too obviously low.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  17. Sunshine wrote:

    i am MOST envious of you because you have such great tailors! 😛 even if i find a good one, i doubt they would suggest what i should/should not do with an ill-fitting item. they probably would rely on me to tell them what to alter…which is not good because i'm no expert. i have had too many failed experiences already (100% of the time) so no more alterations for me 🙁

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  18. Anonymous wrote:

    Thanks for this post, esp. about the pricing guide. I recently had a really simple American Eagle strapless unlined tube dress shortened. I was charged a whopping $30 for it. I couldn't believe it. I really don't think it was a complicated job.

    Do most tailors have this one-price-fits-all-jobs pricing guide? He saw that the garment I had was a dress, and that it needed to be hemmed. He entered it into the computer (like the touch screen ones they have at restaurants) and $30 was the final price. No consideration for material, whether it has lining, etc. It ended up costing more than the dress itself. 🙁

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  19. Both of my parents are tailors with their own business and I grew up helping out. So I always keep in mind the alternations before buying something. The prices you listed are very generous, my parents would charge double-triple for those same services. I personally wouldn't have bought the suit but that doesn't mean it wouldn't look great after some alterations.

    I think the cost for service is a good indication of how good a shop is. You don't want someone to rip you off but you also don't want the business with "$7 hem" signs. Same is true with hair stylists, right?

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  20. Joyce wrote:

    PAG, thank you for posting this entry! Your timing just can't be better. First the Target nude pumps you posted after I ordered them online about 2 hours prior (too bad they were misses), now this alteration advice when I just got a Limited suit blazer (for a good price!) and everything fits except the bust. I definitely don’t want to pay the same amount of money just to alter that, plus the risk of choosing the wrong tailor (I know no one in this new town). Decision. Decision. Decision.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  21. Mars wrote:

    good luck ! Hope it turns out well!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  22. Nelah wrote:

    Nice post. I have been looking into getting my recent Zara purchase (blazer's sleeves) taken in. Have no idea where to go yet as far as a good tailor in my area. I probably won't buy anything that requires so many alterations and risk it since I have yet to find a highly skilled tailor.

    Looking forward to seeing a final result.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  23. Ashley wrote:

    I'm really interested to see the final results. I have to admit when I try things on that are really big I can't see past the size and end up passing because it seems to overwhelming. I need to get better about tailoring things rather than just skipping something, as a result I don't own a suit!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  24. wow, that suit has so much potential! i've never fit in a suit off the rack, so hopefully your after pics will convince me to trust a tailor one day!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  25. Love your blog and thanks for the great information on this post. I too can not wait to see the result. Good luck.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  26. Great post Jean! Can't wait to see what the after looks like!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  27. Whoa can't wait to see the after shots of that one! Really great post, I am a few sizes bigger than you so I really haven't had to do many alterations other than hemming, but I like this guideline – it might actually open up more options to me!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  28. Melanie wrote:

    Great article. About 7 years ago I bought a beautiful black silk pleated skirt from a Banana Republic outlet. It's far too long for me and needs to be raised at both the hem and the waist but it has definite potential. However, because it will cost me so much to reach that potential it still hangs in my closet, unaltered. I plan to finally have it altered soon so I can take advantage of the investment. Can't wait to see the results of your suit.

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  29. This is a gorgeous suit, no wonder you went for it! I don't buy things with the aim to alter anymore because I know I'll never get around to doing it – not that I've found a tailor in my new town anyway. The last bit of altering I did was on about 6 coats and that was just sleeve shortening and one hem for a full length style. It took months to decide to do it because I wasn't sure if I would keep all of them (I love coats!).
    Anyway I only have 2 criteria: it's a natural fibre or mostly so as they usually give better results and if it's a wardrobe investment piece I'm going to be keeping.
    Look forward to seeing this suit finished!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  30. Stacey wrote:

    I agree! I seriously can't believe that the suit would turn out nicely, but your keen eye/ tailors always manage to pull it off somehow. Haha like a magician!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  31. Can't wait to see the suit post alterations! Great post Jean;-)

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  32. That suit has some definite potential. I would have been drawn to it as well and if it was 75% off the better. It's been a while since I've actually shopped because of these same problems, and I have a pile of items I could fix up. But…tailoring is so different then designing. I would rather make a new item from scratch than to tailor a dress or blazer. It's so much work. Thanks for a great post!


    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  33. Michelle wrote:

    Lol! I am glad you mentioned the floating ads! I was pretty surprised!

    That is a gorgeous suit!! I hope it turns(ed) out well!

    I have yet to take anything in for alterations. I used to get my jeans hemmed when I bought them from the department stores, which was free…I don't count that. :p I do have a stash of items that I am considering asking my mom to fix, or taking in if the task is too much for her. I will use your handy guide when sorting through the items! 🙂 Which, btw, is super cute! Lmao at "f' it up"! :p

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  34. April wrote:

    Can't wait to see the results! 🙂

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply
  35. Oh boy! That suit needs quite a bit of work! Can't wait to see the magic your tailors do to it. 😉

    My biggest hurdle is figuring out if I really love an item or not. So many times I get blinded by price, or sales, or an item kinda-sorta fitting. Got to be more picky with what I buy, especially if it needs alterations!

    Posted 5.19.11 Reply

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